Kyoto – A Perspective (Part 38)

Posted on Sun 06/15/2008 by





The average household in the US, and for that fact in nearly every country, is connected to the mains power from the grid. This is a legal requirement. Some households have removed themselves from the grid for one reason or another, but virtually all of them are on that grid.
Why this is so is because even though some families remain in the one house for generations, in the most cases, people move house during their lives, and some more than others. A requirement for that is that the house you move into has ready access to electricity. The Authority turns it off when the previous occupiers move out, and then turn it on when the new people move in, or as happens mostly, the power remains on, and a meter reading is done upon moving in or moving out. For that reason alone, you cannot just arbitrarily remove yourself from the grid just because you want to be self sufficient, or to save the environment, or for any reason. You could live in an isolated area and generate your own electricity, but the vast populace live in suburbia in one form or another, and every household is connected to the mains grid.
To that end, generating your own electricity at home for your own use is not something that is easily accomplished. For those who live in apartments, it’s all but out of the question to self generate your own power. For most households, the only possible options are solar power, wind power, or micro turbines.
Let’s have a look at each of those then.

With respect to solar power, it becomes problematic. It requires bright sunny areas to work at its optimum.
The vast bulk of the US population live in the North East corner of the Country, and for the most part of Winter, there is snow, cold, and not much Sun.
For those in the Southern States it is a viable option, but it still has its drawbacks. The largest of these is that it only supplies power during the daytime, and so far there is no way to store this power effectively to run that household during the night time hours. The system could possibly be used to charge high storage batteries during the day, and these batteries could then be discharged during the night, but the cost of those batteries would be prohibitive, and they would still need to be replaced every few years, similar to the battery in your car.

32 roof mounted solar panels producing 5.12KW of power. Click on image to see in a larger view in a new window. 

Image from Braemac Corp.

The solar power system can only be used in conjunction with the mains grid supplied power.
Here’s how it works. You purchase the panels which are mounted on your roof. Because they only generate DC power, that power then has to be converted to the AC that is wired into your house. This is achieved by the use of an inverter. All this has to be correctly wired into your house. The sun shines on the panels during the day and the power generated from the panels is then converted via the inverter to supply your house. However, as soon as the Sun sets, the mains grid takes over supplying your house. These evening hours are the times of highest use, cooking the evening meals, and if both parents work, then all the household duties are done during this time. So, effectively, you are technically only half self sufficient, if half at all. It can be justified that the excess power that your system generates is fed back into the grid, but you are still using power generated by the mains grid power plants. With the system shown, you can become power neutral, but realistically, this is only revenue neutral because you are still physically using outside mains power. The system shown here costs between $40K and $50K depending upon the supplier. That covers everything from product cost, fitment, labor, compliances and rebates, so that amount is the total.
The average US power utilities bill is around $3200.00 per annum. I got these figures from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) website, calculating the average cost for electricity at 10.2 cents per killowatt hour (KWH) and the average household usage at around 35,000 KWH. Effectively that means at revenue neutral, you would need to remain in that house for 15 years or more before it paid for itself, which is a pretty solid commitment to living in the one house. It’s not something you can pack in boxes and take with you if you move house. All this is dependant upon living in a sunny place too.

With respect to wind, there are small household wind generators, but again they need to be wired into the household mains, and for one to run your whole house, you’re still looking at a large system in the backyard or the front yard. You also need to be living in an area where there is good quality wind, and the nature of the system itself would mean that it would stand out on the skyline where you live, and I feel sure that the neighbourhood would not be too happy to see a large structure like that in their vicinity.

There are small microturbines, and these can be run with varying fuels, from natural gas to biofuels. However, they also need to be wired into the mains, and you are still burning fossil fuels to generate the power. These units are the size of a large refrigerator, so you would need a dedicated ventilated area for the unit to be placed, and they are also not cheap.

Each system has a payback time before it pays for itself, and that means a commitment to that house where you live. It is also a false benefit in my opinion because in nearly every case, you will still be using mains generated power.

So, that means living more frugally and using less electricity, which again is a commitment in itself. You can tinker at the edges by converting all your internal lighting from incandescents to the new compact fluorescent lights, but the savings here would still be only minimal, considering power consumption for lighting is only 8.5% of the total power bill, and the savings generated by this change would only be at best, half of that, and any savings in the production of greenhouse gases would also be only minimal, and this also has to be offset by the cost of those fluoro’s, in most cases up to ten times the cost of the older stlye incandescent light bulbs, considering that they don’t last ten times longer, and who takes their light bulbs with them when they move house. For any significant greenhouse gas reduction from this lighting sector, you would need a vast majority of the populace to convert, problematic because people will always vote with their wallets.

The high end power users are airconditioning, heating, water heating, and refrigeration. Talking about cutting back in those areas and actually doing it is something else again. If the heat is overbearing, it’s just plain uncomfortable without cool air, and the opposite applies for heating, which I might consider an essential in the huge populated areas of the North East. Hot water is also an essential in every household. You can turn down the thermostat, but again, the savings would only be fractional. Refrigeration, well every house has a fridge. The next high users are clothes dryers, freezers and dishwashers, which you could do without at a pinch, saving around 12% of the total for all three of these items. (Around 4% for each item) The electric range oven comes in next at around 3%, and the rest falls away from there. You might go around your house and turn off all standby equipment, the electric clocks in ovens, microwaves and other areas of the house, but again the savings would only be minimal. Those new plasmas and large screen televisions are also large consumers of electricity, so you could do without one of those.
Again, a commitment on this front to actually cut back on the usage of these things around the house is just that, a major lifestyle commitment to cut back on your quality of life.

Also, to have any effect at all, something on a scale like this needs to be done not a piecemeal basis, but by whole slabs of the population, whole cities of people. I don’t want to sound like I’m pouring cold water on the whole thing, because I’m a glass half full kind of guy, but I just cannot see everyone doing something like this. It can be policed just by checking power usage from the meter but what are you going to do. This is not something you can impose upon people. It has to be a hearts and minds type of thing, and to tell people freezing in a blizzard lasting days on end that they cannot have heating is not only unfair, but is downright dangerous.

Remember, if you do go in the direction of using alternative power for your household, it is still basically only a false economy, and surely it would only apply to those actually owning a home. Those people who are renting would not even consider things like this because it’s not their house, and those who actually own the rental house would not install it because it would drive up the price of the rent, making the house harder to rent out when a return is needed to pay for it.

So a solution on an individual basis, although well intentioned is not really a wholesale viable alternative.