09.28.12

Residential Power Generation – A “Black Swan” for sustainable energy development

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:50 pm by Administrator

There are a number of proven technologies that individual home-owners can use to generate their own electricity so that they can reduce their dependence on the electrical utility grid (each of these topics is well covered in Wikipedia and elsewhere so I am not providing links or references).

1) Residential solar panels (photo-voltaic):  Even in higher latitude locations (such as Canada and Northern Europe) and cloudy weather conditions there is very considerable potential energy production from this source.  Germany is the world leader and now generates approximately 3% of its energy needs from photo-voltaics.  That may not sound like a lot but is the equivalent of at least 10 nuclear power plants. (update: on May 22, 2012 Germany set a new PV generation record – 22GW – approximately 50% of total German demand for a few hours that day)

2) Geothermal heat pumps: these systems circulate a fluid through pipes drilled into the earth (typically 20-30 meters down) which take advantage of the fact that the temperature at that depth is very constant throughout the year.  The earth acts as a source of heat in the winter and a heat sink in summer so that both heating and cooling functions are supported.

3) Small scale wind generators:  these are available in sizes up to 6 MW (on a windy day that would be enough to supply all the electricity required for a typical household).

So why don’t we as responsible citizens of a fragile planet take advantage of these technologies to generate our own electrical power?  If we did we could shut down our nuclear and coal-fired generating plants and live in a much more sustainable way.

The most important reason is cost.  To install any of these systems costs between $20,000 and $60,000 per household and even a combination of these systems will not guarantee that a homeowner will not have to purchase some power from the grid.  Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and there is little or no sunlight in the late afternoon and none at night.  Very honestly, the average homeowner can only expect to save $1,500-$3,000 per year at best on electricity and heating costs by installing residential power generation.  That means that the payout for any of these systems is on the order of 10-15 years or longer.

I have not been able to find reliable statistics on the length of time the average family stays in the same house.  The figures I have found suggest 6-8 years is the average and that resonates with my own personal experience.  In any case, not many people are willing to make a large discretionary capital investment in their home with a 10+ year return on investment.

The second problem is access to the grid.  The ability to take power from the grid only when needed and to sell power back into the grid when a homeowner is generating surplus power is a matter of public policy that has only been implemented in some jurisdictions.  So even if we decide to take on the large capital costs of generating our own power in many cases it just won’t work given the regulatory environment that we live in.

But guess what.  There are organizations in our society that are guaranteed to make a large profit from residential power generation.  Those are, of course, the electricity and gas utilities that service our homes.  Regardless of how many times a home changes hands it will still require heat and light.  If some of the energy required to service the home comes from the home itself that is a substantial direct benefit to the utility company for decades to come.  Any investment that a utility makes in this type of power generation will be repaid many times over during the lifespan of the home.  And the prospect of not having to build that next nuclear power plant or coal-fired generation station should be pretty attractive to these utilities.

So why don’t they just get on with it?  Well, they are in small ways in some places.  There are many utilities that provide very modest subsidies to homeowners if they install energy efficient furnaces, clothes washers, etc.  But these typically are less than 10% of the cost of the appliance and subsidies for actual residential power generation facilities with guaranteed access to the grid are not in place in most jurisdictions. There are also various government incentives which support Geothermal but these programs are inconsistent and generally inadequate in terms of convincing homeowners to invest in a largely unknown technology.

What is the hesitation to really move forward with this?  A proactive utility could fund geothermal and solar facilities for every new neighbourhood that was being developed.  Renovations and retrofit could also be done on a neighbourhood basis which would dramatically reduce the costs per household.  The end result would be a significant diversion of capital costs from mega-projects to neighbourhood development.

And maybe that is the real problem.  Utilities are probably more comfortable owning a monstrous nuclear plant or pollution-spewing coal-fired plant than they would be getting the benefit of lower energy consumption implemented in a million homes.  They can’t count residential solar panels or neighbourhood geothermal as assets on their balance sheets.  So they continue an energy development path that is illogical and costly in every sense of the word.

Only public policy changes can turn this situation around and point it in the right direction.  Germany has established a very positive regime for residential solar power.  Here in North America we can do the same thing.  We could go further and establish a similar set of incentives for neighbourhood geothermal and even neighbourhood wind.   Small changes in the regulatory environment could lead to thousands of local projects that would ultimately allow us to disconnect from the nuclear and coal-fired power stations that a large majority of citizens want shut down.

And when you think about how much additional electricity we will need when electric automobiles go mainstream the need for this particular “Black Swan” becomes even more obvious.  But that is a topic for another day.

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4 Comments »

  1. Serkan said,

    October 20, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    As renewable eregny home systems become more popular, will DC powered devices make a comeback?AC was introduced to transfer electricity more efficiently over long distances, it wouldn’t really be needed in a home system. Since most home systems produce DC, it gets turned to usable AC with a significant loss of eregny.So, do you think we will start seeing a growing DC power section in the area of electric powered devices in stores?

  2. Administrator said,

    October 21, 2012 at 1:30 am

    Very interesting thought about reverting to DC. I don’t think it would happen for a very long time because of the entrenched AC infrastructure and the need to supplement residentially generated power with grid power. But I like the idea.

  3. Bovy said,

    October 20, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    Whats the cost of 100% renewable engery for an average home?I live in Australia and Im wondering how much would it cost (in australian dollars) to have all my household engery come from a renewable source?

  4. Administrator said,

    October 21, 2012 at 1:35 am

    Many variables would impact the cost and it is very difficult to get off the grid completely. If you live in a relatively sunny area solar panels with significant deep-cycle battery storage would be your best bet probably costing $20,000-$30,000 or more. You’d have to contact a local contractor for accurate quotes.

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