Introduction to Renewable Energy SystemsNov 10, 2020
Before jumping into this post on renewable energy systems, first read a related post on 35 Ways to Save Electricity . Most importantly this previous post will help you to first learn about saving energy. Because that concept is vital in your quest to produce your own electricity. That post emphasizes a very important concept.
It is far easier to save energy than it is to produce it.
After you read that post, it is time to move on to the topic of renewable energy systems. Realize that this post is simply a very basic introduction. This is a very in depth topic. However, I hope this will get your creative mind moving. There are several ways to produce your own electricity. Hence, if you decide to do so, you will take one more step toward being self reliance. But first, let’s discuss the topic of fossil fuels.
Are Fossil Fuels a Sustainable Source of Energy?
Big business and governments are uneasy about the concept of transitioning away from the use of fossil fuels. This is because big energy is big business. In fact, the energy business is the single largest industry on the planet. Consequently that industry provides employment and even adds stability to our global economy.
But is it sustainable? If not, is it actually feasible to move toward renewable energy systems?
Very simply stated, fossil fuels are concentrated deposits of carbon. These deposits are composed of the fossilized remains of plants and animals which have decayed over millions of years. These deposits are of course stored underneath the Earth. They are extracted in the form of oil, coal, and natural gas. When burned, these fossils fuels produce energy.
The bottom line is that fossil fuels by their very nature are renewable. However, that renewal takes millions of years. Consequently, this form of energy is NOT renewable in our life time.
Why Use Renewable Energy Systems?
(A 1.6 kW array supplies all our needs for living off grid full-time.)
Green house gases, fossil fuel emissions, global warming, climate change, and the future of our planet remains to be a hotly debated topic. That is not the purpose of this discussion. The purpose here is to inform you that there are alternative means of supplying your own energy. But why bother?
Between 2003 and 2007, 85% of the energy needs in the United States were supplied by fossil fuels. This was primarily from the use of petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Keep in mind that the United States is also the single largest energy consumer on the planet. What would happen if the global economy and international relationships were to deteriorate? The implications for our nation are quite obvious.
During that same time period, renewable energy systems only accounted for 7% of the energy production in the United States. Yet according to the Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Laboratory so much more is possible. Their study revealed that it is possible for the United States to provide 80% of our energy needs through renewable sources by the year 2050. Furthermore, this scenario is possible with current technology. In my opinion, it makes no sense whatsoever, that our nation is not aggressively advancing toward that end point. Consequently, does it not become quite obvious that you have to do something for yourself?
Obviously the harvesting of fossil fuels and harnessing that energy source is not possible for the average person. However, using renewable energy to generate your own electricity is very easily within our reach. Why not take advantage of this? What if the power grid goes down? If you have no other alternative in place, you are off the grid whether you like it or not. Consequently, let me remind you of a very important point.
As long as someone else is in control of your resources, someone else is in control of your life.
There is one simple fact you cannot debate. Renewable energy is a great step toward self reliance and personal independence. It is also a great step toward personal security. The added major benefit is that renewable energy is also much more environmentally friendly. It is one small step that each of us can take to reduce our carbon foot print. It also helps to ensure a sustainable future.
Additionally, there is one simple fact you have to accept. In the event of a national crises, the government is not going to rush in and save you. Hence, you have to learn to depend on yourself. Whether or not we are doomed due to climate change may be irrelevant to your day-to-day life. However, it is very relevant if someone else is in control of all of your resources. Therefore, take responsibility for yourself and integrate renewable energy into your everyday life.
Types of Renewable Energy Systems
Despite the disagreements surrounding our dependence on fossil fuels, no one can debate the undesirable effects of using such fuels. The burning of fossil fuels caused environmental pollution. The hazards of nuclear waste by products are quite obvious. Fortunately, there are several ways to take advantage of renewable energy sources. The possibilities are as follows:
Looking at the above alternatives, the three that are most applicable to the average consumer is solar, wind, and hydroelectric. That being said, you still need to thoroughly investigate which source of energy is applicable to your personal situation. Furthermore, the cost of any renewable energy system can greatly be reduced if you first learn how to reduce your energy consumption. That is the purpose of the post on 35 Ways to Save Electricity.
Additionally, how much you spend on your system also depends on several factors. For example, how much energy you want to produce and the underlying purpose of that system. Do you simply want a back up energy system? Do you want to run your entire residence off of renewable energy? Do you simply want to offset a specific percentage of your utility bill? In other words, you have to think about the primary scope of your project.
Whatever your purpose is there are several possible scenarios that can give you a significant amount of personal security.
Options For Renewable Energy Systems
-Tie to the power grid with solar backup
This is what I call off-grid ready.
For me, this is the least desirable option. However, this may be your only option depending on where you live. In some places, primarily in the United States, it is illegal to be completely off the grid. If you have to be grid tied, you can still produce your own electricity and not be dependent on the grid. If you live in an urban area and finances are limited, there are still inexpensive options.
For example, it is possible to set up a small solar array with a battery back up that supplies electricity to specific circuits in your home. This small array could simply be a back up system for refrigeration and a limited number of lights. In such a scenario, you would still have refrigerated food and emergency lighting even with an extended power outage. Again, if finances are limited, start out with a small system and expand as your budget allows. If that is your intention, be sure to size components appropriately. For example, circuit breakers, charge controllers, and inverters need to be sized to accommodate your expansion. If these components will not handle the additional load as you expand your system, that will have to be changed out at a later date. This of course turns into additional expense.
Generators have been a normal part of my life for many years. I use them primarily for running power tools. They are especially useful when working on more remote portions of my property. I have a 5500 Watt “beast” that I can barely load by myself. But it produces 120/240 Volts. I also have a small 2000 Watt inverter generator that I can easily pick up and move with one hand.
During my time off the grid, generator quality has improved greatly. Generators have become increasingly smaller and more fuel efficient. Additionally, most of them run much quieter than they used to. If you truly want to make sure you have power in an emergency, invest in a good generator. I think it is a great short term solution. It is one solution that I’ve used off and on for various reasons.
There are people that have very large, stand alone generators that will run an entire household. The true disadvantage is that if you run a generator continuously you will regularly pay for gasoline or diesel. Additionally, you have to contend with the noise. The true disadvantage is that in a crisis situation with extended power outage, you may run out of fuel. It that happens it may not be easily available, that is if you can get it at all. This is why I use generators only for short periods of time.
Briggs and Stratton, a well established manufacturer of generators, has a great article on How to Choose a Portable Generator.
Also, the Family Handyman has a good article on Choosing the Best Power Generator.
The price of solar has consistently gone down over the past 10 years. If you want a stand alone off-grid system, batteries are the most expensive part of the project. Your initial cost can vary significantly depending on how much energy you want to produce. This is true for any renewable energy system. That said, you can actually get up and running for a few hundred dollars if you just want to start with something very basic.
Here is a good example:
Two 100 watt solar panels for $125 each = $250
Solar charge controller, not pictured, 30 amp = $40
17 amp hour batteries $45 x 3 = $135
BestTek 300 watt portable inverter = $40
Total cost = $465
This simply system provides emergency back up power in case something goes wrong with my primary system.
If you want to keep things super simple you can purchase what I call a “plug and play” portable solar electric system. These systems have all of the needed components for charging most anything. Depending on the size, they can produce enough electricity to run small appliances, recharge cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices.
If you simply want basic emergency lighting, thenpurchase a 100 watt solar panel, and set up a small battery bank. You can then purchase DC lights that clip directly to the battery terminals. They are usually LED lights and use very little electricity. This small system would be even less expensive than the example I listed above.
If you are considering a larger solar array, keep in mind that not every property is suitable for solar application. If you have too many obstacles that produce constant shading, then solar is not a good choice.
Solar energy was my first choice for my off grid property. It produces clean, efficient energy and best of all it is very quiet. However, just like any other thing, you need to do your homework. Make sure this is the correct choice for your situation. I have several articles on my blog directly related to solar application. Please feel free to read these articles for further information.
There are also many solar electric suppliers that have simple worksheets and software to assist with solar design. For example, Wholesale Solar has a great article on How to Size a Solar System .
I have most commonly seen this used in marine application. The other common application is a hybrid system, which combines solar and wind. However, under the right circumstances, wind energy can be a very reliable renewable energy system.
Wind turbines require a minimum wind speed to start producing electricity. This simply means you consistently need wind to make this a dependable source of energy. Also bear in mind that for maximum productivity, the recommended height for mounting a turbine is usually 50 feet higher than anything that is within 500 feet of the turbine. This minimizes turbulence and extends the life of the turbine.
If you are using this for marine application or you live in a coastal region, this can be a great way to go. If not, wind power is a great addition to a solar array. The advantage of wind energy is that if it is windy at night or during times of heavy clouds, you are still producing electricity.
For a little further information, refer to the following posts:
If you have water flowing through your property, a small hydroelectric power system may be a viable option for alternative energy. This small scale source of power often referred to as “micro-hydro”. Unlike solar and wind where power production can be limited by certain variables, if you have a year round stream on your property with good flow you can produce electricity 24 hours a day.
The basic concept of hydroelectric power is simple. Water flows over the wheel portion of a turbine, which converts the rotational energy into electricity. The amount of electricity produced depends on the volume of the flowing water and the vertical distance the water falls through the system.
However, there are a lot of other dynamics that factor into developing a reliable system and maximizing energy production. The basics of what you need are as follows:
- Proper water flow
- A turbine and alternator in proper housing to protect the equipment from the weather
- Water intake and enough plumbing to run the water over the turbine and return it to the stream
- Electrical lines to transfer the power from the alternator to the point of use
- A battery bank with a proper charge controller
- An inverter to convert the DC power to AC, which is household current.
This may sound like a lot of equipment. However, renewable energy systems have many similar components. Electrical lines, batteries for storage, and an inverter are common to all systems.
For more in-depth information about micro hydro, read this post Micro Hydro Power
The finish up this post I have listed a number of additional resources on renewable energy systems. However, this is an extensive topic. If you are serious about producing your own electricity, there is a lot to learn. I would suggest educating yourself about each one of your alternatives then decide on the best system for your personal situation. Then focus on learning as much as you can about that one source of alternative energy. As I stated before, a lot of factors are common to renewable energy systems. Once you learn the basics of one system, it is much easier to comprehend the functionality of other systems.
There is a lot of information in these resources. Enjoy!!
Additional Resources for Renewable Energy Systems
U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energywww.eere.energy.gov
Solar Electric Power Association: www.solarelectricpower.org
American Solar Energy Society: http://www.ases.org
U.S. Department of Energy: www.energy.gov
American Wind Energy Association: http://www.awea.org
National Renewable Energy Laboratory: http://www.nreal.gov
Interstate Renewable Energy Council:http://www.irecusa.org
Energy Information Administration: http://www.eia.dor.gov
DSIRE, Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency:http://www.dsireusa.org
Wholesale Solar has a very informative article on How to Size a Solar System: A Step by Step Walkthrough
US Department of Energy, Microhydropower Systems
Additional Post of Interest
Go off grid and live well,
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