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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Looking at energy self reliance

Increasing global energy consumption and the contorversy over petroleum has brought focus to exploration and development of alternative energy sources—and not just for people focused on self reliance. Using alternative energy sources can be both beneficial and difficult. Let us explore various pros and cons of generally available alternative energy sources.

A major advantage of renewable energy is that it’s usually sustainable; what is used is naturally regenerated or can be replaced, and will never run out. More importantly renewable energy produces little or no waste products that may pollute or have harmful effects on the environment. Also, renewable energy sources are generally not trucked all over the country but rather used in the area were they occur.

A couple of long standing disadvantage of using renewable energy are that it is difficult to generate large quantities of electricity as has been done with the use of fossil fuels, and that most alternative electrical generation produces DC (direct current) instead of the AC (alternating current) that most consumer products are designed to use. This is addressed by installing an inverter—another cost, and another component that can break down—or by replacing all AC devices with DC devices…not a cheap prospect. Another common problem among alternative energy sources is the reliability of the energy supply, necessitating some sort of electrical storage system. Since it is naturally generated, renewable energy supply tends to rely upon the weather and climate. Another drawback of alternative energy sources is that it is relatively more expensive to set up the equipment necessary for generating the energy.

Here are the several advantages and disadvantages of alternative energy source by type.

  • Solar energy The sun is a great source of energy, both free and efficient. With the advances in solar panel efficiency over the last couple of decades, It is possible to maximize the energy given by the sun to replace traditional electricity. But there are limitations, both by region and by specific site; areas at high latitude and places with frequent rains are usually not capable of producing efficient solar energy, nor are heavily wooded homes.
  • Wind energy Wind is also an efficient electricity source. It is also a very environmentally friendly source of energy since there are no harmful byproducts produced in the process of converting the energy. Location is a very important factor in using wind energy; open areas, high latitudes and coast lines are good places to set up windmills…urban and suburban areas, not so much. Buildings and trees create turbulence that has a very negative affect on the efficiency of wind turbines. There are also concerns about birds flying into them.
  • Hydroelectric and tidal energy Both of these energy come from water. Hydroelectric energy can be sourced from dams, but there are also small scale Pelton wheels for domestic use. Tidal energy, on the other hand, uses the natural tides of the ocean. There are several disadvantages. Putting in dams on any stream or river is not only very expensive, there are scads of reasons that damming is a bad idea, specifically for fish. It’s been determined that there are only 9 places worldwide that are suitable for siting tidal energy plants. And tidal energy power plants are also said to provide negative effects on the migratory birds and the fishes.
  • Biomass Biomass consists of fermented animal waste, agricultural crops, grains and other natural products. It can be used to produce fuel alcohol to replace gasoline, and methane to replace natural gas. It maximizes waste materials as an alternative energy source. One drawback is that it that it still produces greenhouse gas; another is the quantities required—and the size of the system to deal with such quantities—to produce sufficient energy products to make it a viable alternative on a small scale.

Choosing an alternative energy source to meet your energy usage needs and thereby getting free of the commercial power grid is a focus that is usually about neck-and-neck with developing food self reliance for people who are interested in becoming more self reliant. Just about anyone can make some use of solar power, and some of us can go completely solar. Most of us, if we chose to, could use some form of biomass to augment our energy consumption. Some of us can utilize wind power, at least to some degree or another. A few of us are lucky enough to have a year-round creek on our property with enough flow and head that we can put in a small hydroelectic plant—Pelton wheels, while not cheap, are very efficient.

Do you have any alternative energy sources in place now? Are you looking to install one? Which one, and why? What did you take into consideration when you chose the alternative energy source that you did…or will?


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