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Your home may not be ready for solar energy

Bill Sepmeier and Matthew Charles
Vail, CO, Colorado

A local resident recently approached us about designing a solar energy system to help with his escalating energy bills. A renewable energy system is a great way to pay less on your monthly bills and do something good for the environment, right? In some cases, this is not always true.

In order to appropriately size the renewable energy system, we reviewed a year’s worth of bills from the customer to try and get his home to a point where the renewable system generates around half or more of the energy the home consumes.

To our dismay, the home was using electricity at a runaway rate ” up to 11,000 kilowatt hours per month in the winter and almost half of that in the summer! (By comparison, the national average for electricity consumption for a home of four is 940 kilowatt hours per month.)

A small two-kilowatt solar system, which easily fits on the roof of most homes in this area, would produce around 300 kilowatt hours of energy per month, barely denting a bill for 10,000-plus kilowatt hours.

So what’s wrong here? Anyone who’s lived in this valley for more than 20 years can remember how a lot of the housing here was built ” in many cases it wasn’t always with an eye on energy efficiency. Thin construction materials, bare-bones insulation, and inefficient heating systems have now left their inherited owners with personal energy crises. What we need to do in this community is invest in the way our homes use energy before we can seriously think about producing it.

There are many ways we can make these home improvements now. For example, replacing the incandescent light bulbs we commonly use for lighting with compact fluorescent bulbs can cut energy consumption for lighting our homes and businesses by 50 to 70 percent. Compact fluorescents use 90 percent of the power they consume to produce light, as opposed to Thomas Edison’s incandescent bulbs which use 90 percent of the power they consume to produce heat and only 10 percent to make light.

So, for example, if you use 10, 100-watt incandescent floodlights in your home per evening, and use them for four hours per night, you’ll consume 4,000 watt/hours of electricity, or 4 kilowatt hours per night for lighting. Over a 30 day month that same nightly usage would be 120 Kw/hours.

Replace those 10 incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents that put out the same amount of light but use only 30 watts per hour, and your consumption over a month is just 36 kilowatt hours, a 70 percent savings in energy plus all of the greenhouse gasses produced in conventionally generating it. Compact fluorescent bulbs still cost more than incandescents, but last for 10 years and pay for themselves many times over in replacement savings alone. For most folks, this would equal a 10 percent cut in their overall household electric bill.

For our friend with runaway electric usage this still might not get his electric bill to where it needs to be, but you have to begin conserving somewhere.

Next on the home improvement list is insulation. Using baseboard electric heating in a home with poor insulation will have you in energy trouble quicker than anyone would like. Retrofitting proper insulation into floors, walls and ceilings should be done immediately if your power bills are high above the local and national average.

Appliances are also a consideration when looking at a home’s energy consumption. An older refrigerator can easily consume over 250 kilowatt hours every month. “Energy Star” rated refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers consume less than a quarter of the energy their non-Energy Star equivalents do.

So for our local friend who wanted a solar energy system? He’s working on improving the way his home uses energy and the way he uses energy. As soon as he’s there, we’ll have a renewable energy system waiting for him.

Many people can benefit from renewable-energy technologies in their homes and businesses, but these folks ” and the rest of society ” benefit twice as much when conservation is practiced along with production.

Bill Sepmeier is an owner, and Matthew Charles works for, Grid Feeders, a local renewable energy company. To contact Grid Feeders, call 688-4347.


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