When I was growing up, my family used an alternative fuel source but we didn’t know it. We heated the house, cooked, and heated water with wood, a very plentiful fuel source in this mountain lumber town. Everyone else in town burned wood also and every so often a live coal would ignite a shingle and a wooden house would burn down. My mother was thrilled when she was able to switch from wooden stove cooking to propane and my parents, tired of hauling, chopping, carrying wood, stoking the fire, and shivering in the morning switched to natural gas heat as soon as it was available. To them, this was the alternative fuel.
Now the trend is in the other direction, pushed by rising fuel costs and a desire to “live off the grid.” Many people would also like their energy use to be more “green.” For these and other reasons people are looking at alternative fuels again. They are looking at various kinds of biomass and at solar, wind, and hydro energy.
Biomass includes vegetation and trees, waste material such as municipal solid waste, sewage, and animal wastes, forestry and agricultural residue and certain types of industrial waste. Biomass is renewable.
An example would be a stove that can burn corn, biomass, or wood pellets. The air is compressed and driven separately into the burn pits, developing higher temperatures and a more efficient burn. The cost of operation is about $6.00 per million Btu. The cost of heating oil is at least $18 per million Btu and rising fast. This stove is a far cry from the old Kalamazoo that I grew up with. In addition to being much more efficient, these stoves must meet strict emission standards. There are also new coal burning stoves that are virtually maintenance free. They don’t create kind of mess and pollution the old soft coal stoves did.
In some areas of the country, especially in the northeast, you can buy biodiesal. Its use is very common in Italy. Here it is usually mixed with number 2 heating oil. It is renewable, cleaner burning, and emits no sulfurs.
All the natural disasters here and abroad have sold a huge number of diesel generators as an alternative when the power goes off. They are also used as a backup system to solar energy. When used, they should always store their excess energy in storage batteries.
Country folks can use windmills and their own little waterfalls to generate power, but most of the rest of us will have to rely on solar energy. The best heating use of solar energy is a water based heating system either as a baseboard or a radiant in-floor system. This will reduce your need for a larger solar system by about 50%.
A solar energy system has four components: solar modules, charge controller, battery banks, and inverter.
A solar module is a glass sheet enclosing crystal solar cells that are sandwiched between the glass and a waterproof backing. When more than one solar module is used, they are interconnected to create a solar photovotaic array. The arrays can be be ground mounted on a tilted rack, mounted on a roof of home or garage, or on a pole. If mounted on a pole the arrays can include a mechanism that rotates so that the array faces the sun all day. If at least 250 square feet of unobstructed south facing space is available 1500 watts of solar energy can be generated.
The charge controller is a voltage regulator to control battery charging by the solar array. It prevents overcharging and discharging the battery bank.
The battery bank stores energy produced by the solar array or by your generator. A popular and low cost battery is the 6-volt golf cart battery but they only last three or four years. Heavier batteries like the “L-16” size have high amp hour storage and this reduces the number of batteries you need.
The inverter allows operation directly from the DC batteries to AC 120-volt lighting, heating, etc. Do not skimp on the cost of inverters, as they are important for safety reasons. The inverter needs to come with fuses and circuit breakers and must be DC rated.
A typical family home uses 1000 kWh per month. If you did nothing to conserve energy you would need a 6 to 7kw array. This size range costs about $25,000. This would take you completely off the grid. However, if you wanted a smaller unit, you could stay on the grid and some months you would get a credit and some months you would owe the power company.