Building Green: Energy Efficiency and Aesthetics From The Same Materials (Part 12)

The photovoltaic panels being installed on the roof.

As my workshop was nearing completion, twelve solar panels arrived for the photovoltaic (PV) system. Six boxes—with two flat PV panels in each box— contained the entire electrical generation system for the house. The whole array would then be mounted on the roof. These panels do not burn any fossil fuels. They have no moving parts, and are therefore totally silent. Electricity is generated simply by sunlight falling on the roof—an elegant, uncomplicated process. Something is amiss in our world when such a system is not widely appreciated and utilized. Solar power makes a coal-fired or gasoline-powered generator—with its noise, fossil fuels, oil, and fumes—seem downright barbaric. I always find it interesting to imagine the chronology of our power-generation technology being reversed. I envision a scenario in which photovoltaic panels were invented before the traditional generator that is powered by fossil fuels. Thin, light, quiet PV panels around the world are generating all the electricity we need, and the excess power is stored in some form of battery for later use. A logical, workable system. Then—for reasons we can only imagine—someone invents a mechanical generator with hundreds of moving parts. This power generator runs on a substance—coal—that must mined from deep with the earth. The coal has to be transported hundreds of miles to the generating stations. The extraction, transporting and burning of all this fossil fuel create a multitude of environmental problems. One wonders, in fact, if the poor, hapless inventor would be exiled from the planet!

Of course this scenario is greatly simplified. What it illustrates, however, is our unquestioning acceptance of using technology simply because of its familiarity and availability to us. We don't stop to think that maybe there is a better alternative.

With the photovolotaic panels on the roof of my workshop, the inverter (which converts the DC power to AC), battery charge controller, and battery inside, I now have my own power-generating station. The sun-generated electricity will be used to not only run all the power tools needed to build my house, but will also supply one hundred percent of the electricity to power the home for decades to come. The standard method of supplying power to a construction site is to have the local utility company install a temporary electrical meter on a polet. If that is not possible, some people rent gasoline-powered generators.

We are all familiar with photovoltaic-powered calculators, gate openers, and lighting fixtures in gardens. We simply need to take this familiarity to the next level. Imagine if you could purchase a PV-powered washing machine, television, lawn mower, hair-dryer, toaster, power saw, or cement mixer. You can. If your home runs off a photovoltaic system. Then all your appliances run off the power of the sun. Even better, you won't be paying a dime to the electrical company.

In case you're wondering if you need to buy special appliances to work in conjunction with your PV system, the answer is no. Regular, everyday toasters, hair-dryers, televisions, etc. that are AC-powered can be purchased from your local store, brought home and plugged in. Simple as that.

It is spring and on Saturday mornings in my neighborhood I can hear the drone of gas-powered lawn mowers, weed-whackers and leaf-blowers. As I turn on my electric weed-cutter, I get a feeling of great satisfaction that I am beating the system. My home and all my tools run off of canned sunlight. The price of utility-generated electricity does not affect my bank balance because I locked in the cost of my power for years to come by investing in a photovoltaic system. The entire system cost me ten thousand dollars. Not cheap, to be sure, but much less expensive than what some people spend on granite countertops for their kitchens. It all comes down to where you want to spend your money. The PV system will pay for itself over time, saving money and saving the planet. The countertops will not. (By the way, I have nothing against granite countertops—this is just an example of what things cost).

Next time, more on photovoltaic electrical systems and some tips on how to design an electrical system in the early stage of construction of your house.

See also: Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9, part 10 and part 11.

[This has been a guest post by Ted Owens, a green designer and filmmaker. More details on green building design and construction can be found on his website and in the Building with Awareness DVD and Guidebook. -Ed.]

Tags: Architecture | Energy Efficiency