How to Go Green: Alternative Energy

solar panels roof green alternative energy photo

With reporting by Manon Verchot

Alternative energy sources
Powering and heating your home with alternative energy sources sounds like a no-brainer when it comes to going green, but deciding which kind of fuel is right for you isn't as simple. Wind power? Hydropower? Geothermal power?--active or passive? It's overwhelming--and it's enough to stop you before you even get started.

Green energy alternatives
We've taken the guesswork out: the following pages offer comprehensive breakdowns of the different types of energy and notes on what you should consider before investing in one, so it's easy to figure out which best fits your lifestyle. Change the energy source in your home, or--if you're buying or building--learn what to look for during the planning and construction process. Not in a position to green your whole house? You can start with smaller changes, like powering just one room.

Alternative energy in the home
But the first thing you should do before switching to green power sources is simple: cut back on the electricity you use now. In addition to trimming your electric bills and carbon output, needing less energy will make providing your own that much easier. Since most of us are already connected to the traditional power grid, the logical (and easiest) first step is to make the energy we're using go as far as possible. That way, when you start incorporating the use of more alternative energy into your home, you'll need less of it.

Top Green Alternative Energy Tips

  1. Start by switching to green power
    The easiest way to switch to green energy is to call your current provider and see if they offer an alternative. An increasing number of companies do, harnessing renewable sources like wind and solar power to offer electric service in their markets. This costs more for the consumer, since you'll pay a premium to offset the money involved in tapping the alternative source, but the price varies: in Sacramento, you'll pay 5 cents per kilowatt hour or $30 a month for solar, and in Oregon you'll shell out only .8 cents per kilowatt hour for wind, geothermal, or hydropower. Curious about the options in your state? Check this chart of Green Power Networks to see your local providers.

  2. Plug in to solar power
    There are two kinds of solar power you can use in your home: active and passive. Active solar power is captured through solar cells (also known as photovoltaics), and then stored to later provide heat or electricity-or to supplement a traditional heating or electrical system. But before you buy a solar system for your house, keep a few points in mind: many towns have restrictions on the size and type of collectors they'll allow; the annual number of sunny days in your climate will affect how much power you can collect (the Southwest usually has the best luck with solar collection); and the system's cost efficiency varies based on its size, your location, and the amount of power you plan to get from it.

  3. Get passive solar to work for you
    The second kind of solar power, passive solar, doesn't involve the (expensive) photovoltaic cells and mechanical systems of active solar, but still takes advantage of the sun to heat your home in one of three ways: direct gain, which collects light through the windows; indirect gain, which stores thermal energy within the walls; and isolated gain, more commonly put to use in a solarium or sun room setup. By thinking about window placement, insulation, and even landscaping-trees can be the ultimate passive solar helpers, since they soak up solar in the hot summer, and let the sun through in the winter--it's possible to help keep your home warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

  4. Opt for solar hot water
    You can also use solar power to heat the water for your showers, dishwasher, and laundry (though why aren't you using cold water for that?) by installing a solar hot water system. If you live in a place where freezing temps aren't a concern, look for a direct circulation system-this cycles water through the solar heater and into the home; otherwise, go for an indirect circulation system, which runs a freeze-proof fluid through the system to prevent icing. Both those active systems are generally more efficient than passive solar heaters, which don't have the same pumps and controls but can be more dependable. No matter which system you choose, you'll want to consider a (smaller) more traditional hot water heater for backup on days when the sun won't come out or for showering during peak times.

  5. Tap into the earth's natural geo-energy
    The terms "geothermal" and "ground source heat pump" are nearly interchangeable in casual conversation-but they shouldn't be, since they're not the same. Geothermal energy comes right from the ground-think hot springs, geysers, and volcanic areas--while ground source heat pumps use the relatively steady temperature of the Earth (as compared to the air) to heat and cool buildings. These heat pumps use as little as half as much electricity as traditional systems, and generally last between 25 and 50 years; while they are more expensive to install than other systems, you can expect the system to pay for itself in energy savings in less than 10 years.

  6. Replace oil with biofuel
    You can also heat your home using biofuels--nontoxic, biodegradable, and renewable power sources, like those made from animal and vegetable fats and oils or wood. If you're using oil heat, have a technician take a look at your furnace and get the okay to switch to a blend of 20%-99% biodiesel; in most cases, you won't need any additional parts or service to make the switch. Using a woodstove to heat your home is an age-old solution, but the more modern version is the pellet stove: The pellets of compressed sawdust take up less storage space than a wood pile, and burn with so few emissions that they aren't required to get EPA certification. (One tip: if you're going this route, find a local source for inexpensive pellets first.)

  7. Harness the power of the wind
    Wind energy is one of the cleanest forms of alternative energy available, and using it can cut your electricity bill by as much as 90 percent. Once you make sure your area is zoned to allow wind turbines, you'll want to make sure you have enough space--the Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy suggests at least one acre of rural land--and a climate that affords a steady breeze. Run an energy audit on your home to determine what size turbine you'll need; most houses require between 5 and 15 kilowatts to produce an average of 780 kilowatt hours every each month. And wind turbine systems aren't cheap, so run the numbers to figure out if you'll save enough to make the 20-year investment worth it.

  8. Capture small-scale hydropower
    Before you can use hydropower for residential energy, you'll need one very important jumping-off point: running water on your property. If you are lucky enough to have a creek, stream, or river in your backyard, then a micro hydropower system may be a good alternative energy solution. By diverting a portion of the water through a wheel or turbine, you allow a shaft to spin; the spinning allows immediate results, like pumping water, or more indirect usage, like powering a generator. These calculations from the Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy can help you figure out if your water source will provide enough energy to significantly offset your electric bill.

  9. Make a smart start
    If you're in the process of buying a home, it's easier to make alternative energy work for you, by buying a property that comes with running water or room for wind turbines, for example. If you're designing from the ground up, choose a roof that's specially fitted for solar panels; place your house on the lot so it takes advantage of the sun; build with passive solar materials; and use daylighting technology by installing windows and doors in places that allow you to get the most out of natural light sources.

  10. Think smaller
    If you can't make the jump to powering your entire house with alternative energy, start by focusing on one room at a time. A small solar kit can get you started, or follow George Mokray's lead and use solar power in less energy-starved rooms, like a bedroom. Or look even more closely at your life, and get small solar cells to charge your laptop, cell phone, iPod, and other small gadgets--every little bit helps!

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Interesting Facts & Numbers about Alternative Energy

  • 600 percent: The highest average efficiency of a ground source heat pump in the winter, compared to 250 percent for air-source pumps.

  • 15: Percentage of the average household electricity bill that goes toward lighting alone.

  • 9: Lowest wind speed (in miles per hour) from which it's efficient to harness wind power.

  • 750: Number of electricity providers that offer a green alternative.

  • 280,475: Number of photovoltaic cells shipped domestically in 2007.

  • 7: Percent of energy that came from renewable sources in 2007.

  • 53: Percent of that renewable energy that was drawn from biomass fuels, the largest supplier, followed by hydroelectric (36%); solar, geothermal, and wind energy all contributed 5% or less.

Sources: U.S. Department of Energy, American Wind Energy Association, Energy Information Administration.

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Alternative Energy Tech: Net Metering, Biofuels & More

Net metering
Renewable energy sources are often a great alternative to traditional power, but cloudy days, droughts, and still air can all get in the way of even the best-laid plans for solar, water, or wind power. If you're worried about relying entirely on the power you can capture from Mother Nature, there's another option: hook your system into the established energy grid (with the permission of your town's electricity provider) and use it as a backup. Often, they'll put you on a net-metering plan, which means the company keeps track of the energy you make and subtracts it from what they provide, so you only pay the difference. In months where you make more than you use, they'll send you a check for the balance.

Corn ethanol and other biofuels
If you've been reading up on alternative energy, you've probably seen plenty of articles devoted to powering your car with alternative fuels. While this is definitely the way of the future, the current options each offer their own problems: ethanol, made from corn, is a cleaner fuel-but it requires massive amounts of crops and the filling stations are too few and far between to make this a practical solution; hybrids still use conventional gasoline; and biodiesel only works in cars with diesel engines. While the automakers are perfecting the technology, take your own steps to save gas by trading driving for walking whenever possible, staying at the speed limit, and eliminating unnecessary drag on your car by taking off roof racks and cleaning out the trunk.

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Where to Buy Alternative Energy Resources & Supplies

All Alternative Energy Supplies
Alternative Energy Store

ABS Alaskan
Solar Panels
Solar Home

Mr. Solar

Wholesale Solar
Wind Turbines
Bergey Windpower

Aerostar Wind Turbines

Gaia Wind
Canyon Hydro

Utility Free
Ground Source Heat Pumps

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Alternative Energy: From the Archives

Dig deeper into alternative energy in the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.
Alternative energy sources
Study up on alternative energy sources with articles on the world's fastest growing renewable energy technology, using wind turbines, taking advantage of landfill gas, and greening your energy use. Still not convinced? There are health benefits that come from using alternative energy sources, too.

Solar power
For more information on advances in solar power, check out our articles on solar panels made for under $1/watt, how some homeowners are getting their solar power at a discount, and this roundup of 15 solar power innovations.

Use renewable energy in your home
Find out how to get renewable energy in your area with the top green energy utilities, and, if you live in L.A., how to access that energy locally. Find out if it's possible to get 15 percent renewable energy by 2020.

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Further Reading on Alternative Energy

Here are some other worthwhile sources of information on alternative energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy offers comprehensive guides to choosing solar power for heat or electricity, installing wind power, using microhydropower, and more.

HowStuffWorks has the goods on how wind power works, as well as 5 wacky forms of alternative energy and an answer to the question, "Is there a way to get energy for free?"

Alternative Energy News stays on top of the industry with daily news updates and job listings, while keeps you in-the-know with blogs, products, videos, job listings, and news.
The Alternative Energy Institute works mostly with wind energy, while the Solar Energy Industries Association covers photovoltaics and the rest of the solar community. Find more information on ground source heat pumps from the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association and on microhydropower at AltE University.

Tags: Alternative Energy | Buildings | Renewable Energy