Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Alternatives to solar can be viable solutions

Though wind power can be used to pump water or to produce electricity, it’s expensive. To convert the average well system with an electric pump to one powered by wind can cost about $15,000.
Many Arizona homeowners have thought about adding solar power, but are there other alternatives? What about windmills, wind turbines and backup generators?
You need big wind to power a windmill.
Residents of central Phoenix probably aren’t planning on setting up a windmill, but maybe you’ve wondered about doing it at your mountain cabin.
Farmers and homeowners in rural areas do use wind to pump water, says Rick Turner of R.W. Turner & Sons Pump in Yavapai County. It’s expensive; he estimates it costs about $15,000 to convert the average well system with an electric pump to a pump powered by wind. What drives up the size and price of the windmill is how deep the well is. For the average 200-foot well, you usually need a 33-foot tower and 8-foot-diameter fan. Homeowners also need pressurized tanks to store water pumped with a windmill.
Another issue is how strong the wind blows. Although using a windmill to pump water is feasible even when wind comes and goes, Katharine Kent of the Solar Store in Tucson tells us that few areas in Arizona have enough strong, consistent winds to spin a wind turbine so it can produce electricity. Among them are Willcox, Benson, Show Low, Page and the Kingman area. You need 7-mph winds just to start up a wind turbine, and 10 mph winds day and night and in every season to create electric power.
To define our terms, windmills or wind pumps can grind grain, pump water or charge batteries. Wind turbines, however, are designed to produce electricity to power a house, farm or business.
If you’re considering windmills, keep in mind that most urban and suburban housing areas will not allow structures more than 18 feet tall, while wind generators need to be 30 to 50 feet tall.
In unincorporated Maricopa County, you need a building permit, the planning department says. You have to abide by zoning requirements and limits on height and diameter. In some places windmills are legal; in some, they are not. Pima County and cities and towns have similar hurdles.
You should also ask yourself: What will the neighbors say? Generally, they don’t object, Turner says. He has seen homeowners switch to wind power for wells even when they had only a 1-acre lot. Most of the time, they have 5 or more acres. Some homeowners even install smaller, 8-foot windmills as yard art, according to Josephine King of Airmills in Paulden, near Prescott.
Windmills are generally quiet, Turner says, but some options are noisy: “I tell people that if they’re having problems with neighbors, they might not want to think about the wind idea.”
You can buy kits to assemble for turbines, but must be more than the average do-it-yourselfer to build one. A full residential setup can cost $10,000 to $80,000 installed, but government tax credits are available. Since turbines supply electricity only when the wind blows, you may need a battery to store energy. And if your wind is erratic, you need a backup like solar panels, a generator or a utility connection.
Backup generators seem like a necessity in hurricane country or regions that get heavy snow, like the Northeast. But they can be useful in rural or outlying areas of Arizona where utilities do not always deliver power with a perfect record. They’re also great for independent types who want to get “off the grid.” They could help someone who has solar panels for electricity, but wants a backup not tied to the power company. They’re also popular with homeowners who want consistent power for an aquarium or medical equipment.
Generators can be very noisy. They need regular maintenance. Manufacturers often recommend that you turn on your generator once a week for a half-hour to ensure it’s working properly. Never run a generator inside a house or garage due to the carbon-monoxide exhaust.
If you like this concept, there are two basic options:
Standby generators outside that are permanently wired to the electrical system so that they provide power to some or all circuits when normal power is disrupted. They run on liquid propane or natural gas and require professional installation and a permit. Standbys can cost up to $15,000.
Portable generators that are fueled by gasoline or propane that include power outlets like those in your home. When the generator runs, you can plug appliances and tools into these outlets. These can cost from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. You can also hook up portables to your home electric system with a transfer switch.
But the latest thing, says Kent, is a portable hybrid generator model that uses a combination of solar photovoltaic power and batteries.
Methane gas
Producing methane gas at your home might not work for you or the neighbors. But for farmers with herds of cows, it can be feasible. To be blunt, farms take all that manure produced by the cows and process it in an anaerobic digestion system. Methane gas is produced; then other equipment generates electricity from the gas. All this is not happening soon in Scottsdale or Glendale. But maybe it’s something that you could do someday with a septic tank.
Other solutions
You can buy propane-powered refrigerators, freezers and stoves. Prices range from $500 to $1,000 or more. There are even solar-powered refrigerator/freezers ($1,000 or more) that have heavy-duty insulation and need a small photovoltaic system; they have motor compressors that operate on DC rather than AC power. There are solar-recharging kits for batteries and cellphones ($15 on up). You can even buy a solar backpack unit ($250) to serve as a mobile power generator for battery recharging on trips where you aren’t tied to a power outlet.
Then there are solar ovens with reflective devices to capture the sun’s rays and focus them on containers of food. Most can reach about 250 degrees; those with better technology can get up to 350. But you can’t broil, sear or fry, and don’t open the oven to stir the pot. You can spend $50 on a basic model to more than $500 for a more complex version. This will be slow cooking in the extreme