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Published on July 6th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Alternative and Renewable Energies

The average American household produces twice the greenhouse gas emissions of the average car, and half of its energy costs go to heating and cooling systems.  Fortunately, change is in the air.  The rising price of oil, the establishment of tax incentives and standards for "greener homes" and the creation of innovative technologies have sparked interest in energy efficiency and renewable sources of power.

Roof-mounted Solar Panels

The average American household spends about $1,500 on its annual energy bill, but experts say we can save 30 to 40 percent more.   From rooftop gardens that improve air quality and provide natural cooling systems to well-insulated garages that prevent heat leakage, our homes can be part of the energy solution rather than the problem.   Eco-friendly building materials and appliances are more widely available and more affordable than they were a decade ago.   Almost every large hardware store now stocks some appliances and lighting that have earned an ENERGY STAR rating from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

In addition to improving the energy efficiency of existing homes, consumers can make informed choices about new homes with the help of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a third-party certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.  Homes are rated according to water efficiency, energy use and indoor environmental quality.  The green wave is swelling: since its creation in 1994, the voluntary certification program has been applied to thousands of buildings in 28 countries.

Solar Homes

Consumers are warming to the idea of solar homes as energy-efficient alternatives.   A 2007 Roper poll indicated that 90 percent of Americans think solar power should be an option offered on new homes.   There are two basic categories of solar homes, but they have one common foundation: a design that gains more energy than it loses.  Passive solar design uses the orientation of a building and strategic construction materials to trap heat in winter and repel it in summer.  This design tends to be the more popular choice since it doesn’t require expensive mechanical devices.   Active design uses collectors to absorb energy, then circulates the energy to storage or to use with fans or pumps.  This technology may benefit those living in colder climates since energy can be stored in a hot water tank or in a bin of rocks. 

A 2007 Roper poll indicated that 90 percent of Americans think solar power should be an option offered on new homes.

Certain solar power features can cost several thousand dollars to install, but the pay off comes in the form of tax credits, as well as reduced energy costs and zero emissions.  The prospects for saving look even brighter as the U.S.   government is considering increasing the present $2,000 tax credit cap on solar panels.  The applications extend far beyond heating homes.   Sunlight generates 1,000 watts of power per square meter – enough energy to power everything on Earth – from air conditioning and computers to appliances and gardening tools.  It’s just a question of further improving the efficiency of solar cells. 

Small Wind Turbines in a Windfarm

Wind Energy

The winds of change are blowing.  According to the American Wind Energy Association, wind power capacity increased by 27 percent in 2006 and is expected to grow by another 26 percent this year.  Wind power is generated by turbines, available in different sizes to serve different needs – everything from smaller models that provide power onboard a boat or that drive a ski lift, to windfarms that supply a community’s power needs.  The blades on today’s models are less noisy and are longer, more productive and cheaper than models from previous decades.  Even better, wind power costs about the same or less than the average price of conventional electricity.

Nevertheless, there are many variables to consider before throwing caution to the wind: the wind speed in certain regions, the cost of back-up systems for windless days, the availability of larger, open tracts of land and the safety of flying animals will influence the success and popularity of these installations.  But, adaptations are on the way.  The Department for Conservation and Natural Resources is developing guidelines for determining undesirable locations for turbines, such as state lands on bird migratory routes.  As with all new technology, adjustments have to made for an optimal socioeconomic and environmental “fit”. 

Micro Hydro Power

Another source of renewable energy that has commercial and residential applications is micro hydro power.  Micro-hydro power or small-scale hydro can provide power for small communities in areas farther away from the grid.  It can be installed in small rivers or streams and causes little disruption to the environment because it doesn’t depend on dams and water diversion, but on water wheels instead.  A highly efficient system was recently introduced in Connecticut.  The WAM hydro turbine can operate under diverse conditions, is equipped with a “fish friendly” propeller, and doesn’t require oil filled gear boxes, which can generate pollution.

The stage is set for an energy revolution.  Congress is considering implementing laws that would require utilities to buy more electricity from renewable sources, and more generous tax incentives for making the shift may be on the way.  Just as every careless gesture can add up to a crisis, every step we take toward resource conservation can improve the planet’s health and preserve its riches for the next generation. 

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