Article

Local families invest in alternative energy

GREENHILL - What's noticeable about the Johnsons' new house isn't the pine logs, the wrap-around deck or the red clay driveway - it's the gigantic solar panel array that leans next to the home.

The 30 solar array stretches 70 by 10 feet and dwarfs the house, but also completely powers the log cabin that Ricky and Sherri Johnson moved into before Christmas.

Behind the panel, a wooden shed houses 30 golf cart batteries that take in the electricity that the aqua photovoltaic panels generate from sunlight. A converter transforms the DC power to AC for the home.

One day's run generates enough electricity to heat two days' worth of water with power to spare. In fact, most of the time, the solar panels are shut off.

"Even at no sun, they will make enough - the house runs perfectly," Ricky said.

Alternative energy sources such as solar, wind or geothermal haven't taken off in the region - partly because of the high investment cost, the risk of not generating enough electricity and the plain novelty of homegrown renewable energy.

The Johnsons' is one of a handful of households to install solar panels, but may be one of the first in the... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

GREENHILL - What's noticeable about the Johnsons' new house isn't the pine logs, the wrap-around deck or the red clay driveway - it's the gigantic solar panel array that leans next to the home.

The 30 solar array stretches 70 by 10 feet and dwarfs the house, but also completely powers the log cabin that Ricky and Sherri Johnson moved into before Christmas.

Behind the panel, a wooden shed houses 30 golf cart batteries that take in the electricity that the aqua photovoltaic panels generate from sunlight. A converter transforms the DC power to AC for the home.

One day's run generates enough electricity to heat two days' worth of water with power to spare. In fact, most of the time, the solar panels are shut off.

"Even at no sun, they will make enough - the house runs perfectly," Ricky said.

Alternative energy sources such as solar, wind or geothermal haven't taken off in the region - partly because of the high investment cost, the risk of not generating enough electricity and the plain novelty of homegrown renewable energy.

The Johnsons' is one of a handful of households to install solar panels, but may be one of the first in the region to dabble in wind turbines. It could be a risky venture in the relatively wind-calm Southeast.

Ricky said five wind turbines would supplement his panels - solar for the calm summer and wind for the breezier winter.

He has dabbled with solar for the past two years, but it wasn't until he built his new home in Greenhill that he went all in: engineering, designing and building the solar panel array that can be tilted to capture the most sun.

The panels themselves cost $16,000 and have subsequently decreased about 20 percent in price. The panels remain under the watchful eye of Skip, the Johnsons' guard dog.

Another family, the Weavers, retrofitted solar panels and solar water heaters on the roof of their Florence bungalow during the summer.

The expected utility savings have yet to be realized, said JD Weaver.

"We hadn't had that much sun lately so they're not doing what they (should)," he said.

Still, Weaver said the investment was worth it, an investment that included $6,000 for the solar water heater and $15,652 for the solar panels.

"The way it is right now, we're not getting enough sun," he said, but added that when the season changes, the solar panels will be worth it.

Alternative energy at the individual home level isn't expected to expand any time soon in Alabama.

The state only offers incentives for biomass energy, which includes wood burning, according to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Residents who convert from gas or electricity heating system to wood burning systems can qualify for a tax deduction. Wind or solar are left off the state incentive lists.

In fact, the Johnsons installed a stove that burns wood pellets - a waste product repackaged as fuel by a Collinwood, Tenn., lumber yard.

The Tennessee Valley Authority along with Florence and Sheffield utilities offer the "Green Power Switch" - TVA purchases or generates electricity from solar, wind, hydropower and biomass, and sells the power at a premium.

Households such as the Johnsons' and Weavers' can sell excess electricity back to TVA at 12 cents per kilowatt hour on top of the retail rate - a potential carrot for solar wannabes who have yet to make the investment.

Solar, wind and geothermal installations at the residential level can qualify for 30 percent federal tax credits - a program that expires at the end of 2016 - from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Larry Gunderman, who is retired from the military, installed a geothermal system along with cellulose insulation nine years ago to heat and cool his 3,600-square-foot home.

"I looked at solar; I don't know I want to go to the expense of doing anything more," said Gunderman, whose last utility bill was $155. "I'm not paying a lot for electricity right now."

As to why homeowners aren't investing in renewable energy alternatives, Gunderman said, "People seem to have a lot of money (for utilities) and don't mind paying."

Johnson likens it to purchasing or renting a car - you can either buy or lease your electricity, too, he said.

Johnson expects the solar system to pay back in six years. The wind investment at $500 is less, but so is the expected payback.

The Southeast is the least windy region in the U.S., according to the American Wind Energy Association, a national trade group.

Across the Southeast, wind speeds average less than 5.6 meters per second; whereas the highest wind pockets are found east of the Rocky Mountains where the average wind reaches speeds of more than 8.8 meters per second.

Johnson said that his turbines, each costing approximately $100, would turn at 3 miles per hour, or 1.3 meters per second.

"He's in great shape with solar; sounds like he doesn't need wind," said Lisa Linowes, executive director of Industrial Wind Action Group, analysts of wind energy's real world impacts.

Most residential investments into wind involve towers that stand 75 feet or taller and can cost from $8,000 to $125,000, Linowes said.

One colleague in northern New Hampshire with "pretty good winds" installed a 75-foot turbine. On one particular day, his home meter ran negative, meaning the turbine was making more electricity than household consumption. All it took was his wife to turn on a hair dryer to put the home meter back into the positive, Linowes said.

"Even at a good clip, it's not supplementing a lot," she said.

Linowes said wind turbines fare best in areas with plenty of land and, of course, wind, such as parts of Texas or Nevada.

The Johnsons also bought efficient appliances to reduce their electricity usage. For example, their old cathode ray TV consumed more than three times the electricity of their new flat-screen TV.

On a recent day, Ricky checked the inhouse monitor that showed the solar panels had maxed out on producing electricity.

"I guess I need to do a load of laundry," Sherri joked.

"Do something with it - it's going to waste," Ricky said.

The Johnsons' neighbor, Mike Kirk, said solar was probably a good idea. He said he had concerns that wind might damage the solar panel.

Asked if the Johnsons inspired him to install solar panels on his own property, Kirk said, "I'd want to see other folks experience it to see how it works out. I wouldn't want to be on the cutting edge."


Source: http://www.timesdaily.com/a...

JAN 18 2010
https://www.windaction.org/posts/24206-local-families-invest-in-alternative-energy
back to top