Cutting Edge Insights
with Dr. Lee

Why Renewable Energy?

In my previous article (“What is Renewable Energy?” – read it here), I defined a term that I feel tends to be used without command of its real meaning.

Today, we’ll explore why it deserves our attention.

Renewable energy, as we’ve demonstrated repeatedly, is tantamount to affordable living.

Not “affordable housing” in the sense of “government subsidized.”  I’m not against that; I’m simply not an expert in that area.

I am qualified to pontificate about “affordable living.”  (That’s my term).

Q: What does “affordable living” mean?

A: Lower utilities bills. Less dependence on the utility provider. Safer, healthier indoor environments (air quality, humidity, etc.). Having all of your living expenses (mortgage payment – principal, interest, taxes, and insurance; utilities; maintenance; capital expenditures) stay well below what you have the means to pay. Being able to construct a home that meets these criteria for less than the prevailing “used” home price in your area. Read any of my previous articles on these topics.

Some may argue that it costs more to build a home that is more energy efficient and that harnesses renewable energy than one that doesn’t: One can make a case for this assertion. However, even when this is true, the pendulum quickly shifts due to lower legacy energy costs over time compared to the cheaper home with a poor thermal envelope.

Some may argue that it can be extremely difficult to retrofit an existing structure for high energy efficiency and renewable energy sources:  I’d go along with this; however, I’d add the stipulation that an energy hog consuming renewable sources still beats an energy hog consuming fossil fuel. With respect to both cost and environmental impact.

Some may argue that wind isn’t a very practical way to add renewable energy to your life:  I’d agree with this, too. The height required for meaningful wind interaction, as well as the prevailing zoning ordinances in many communities, all but rule it out in practicality for individual, small-scale applications.

So that leaves us with solar energy- how practical is it really?

Argument #1:  “Even though the sun rises and sets every day, you can’t control the cloud cover or the angle of solar exposure.”

Response:  Partially true. However, solar energy is collectable through (read in spite of) varying degrees of cloud cover. And you can control the angle of solar exposure – by placing your solar collectors as close as possible to perpendicular to south (a measure called azimuth).

Argument #2:  “On an overcast day, I won’t be able to generate enough energy to account for my consumption. On a sunny day, I may generate well beyond what I actually consume.”

Response:  Good points. But consider net metering, when the excesses flow back into the electric grid. Some months you may have a bill, and other months you may have a credit. You’ll square up with the electric utility once per year and your monthly bill will remain constant otherwise throughout the year. Also, you can store any excess electricity generated in a battery bank – take a moment and look up “Tesla Powerwall.”

Argument #3:  “Here come Jimmy and Johnny to install my solar panels. I’m nervous about their experience, the mounting hardware, and maintaining a perfect water barrier on my roof.”

Response:  It’s no joke that mounting things to a roof is serious business and shouldn’t be done by amateurs. There are structural concerns (what are you mounting to, through, and with?), bulk water concerns, condition of roof concerns, and other construction and building science concerns. And there may be some aesthetic concerns as well. Recommendation: check references and examine your contract.

Argument #4:  “Installing a solar array on my roof, even with tax credits, is so expensive that the net effect of it all is that I’m pre-paying for 25 years of electricity and after it’s paid for, the components will have deteriorated so I have to start all over again. I don’t see the economy in that.”

Response:  This has been true, and this argument was my personal sticking point against a solar array for many years. However, the tide is turning and may head the other way in the future. It remains an absolute fact that an array is more easily planned with the build, not as an afterthought.

Argument #5:  “A solar array is not aesthetically pleasing.”

Response:  I agree. I’ve never looked at a solar array and felt it was beautiful. That’s why I predict my wife won’t be crazy about a solar array on a house I’m getting ready to build. That’s OK because the roof is high and steep and it may be more trouble than it would be worth in this case. But I’ll more than make up for it with the robust thermal envelope I’ve designed and the addition of one or more air source heat pumps (we’ll talk about these in the next article). There is usually more than one way to get things done.

Argument #6:  “Them solar panels they want to put up in that there field are gonna fry us all and cause cancer!”

Response:  No words here in response. This doesn’t even justify a response. These types of exchanges actually do occur – either at public meetings (planning, zoning, community input, etc.) or “over-the-fence” talk from one neighbor to the next. And they underscore ignorance. (OK, not all ignorance is accompanied by poor grammar – emphasis was mine.) Enough said.

A personal annoyance: “power outage” is universally understood to imply a failure of the prevailing electric utility to deliver electricity to the point of consumption.

But the word “power” means energy transferred per unit of time, or the rate at which work is done. Electric power is but one form of power. If you say, “we have a power outage,” you are implying that “we” are unable to perform any work. This scenario was true in my eye care office a couple of months ago when the electric provider experienced an outage due to storms. But I was still able to perform physical labor!

These points are the basis of why I feel we should be more serious about renewable energy:

  1. I don’t think the “Northeast blackout of 2003” (a loss of electricity in August 2003 affecting 55 million people in the U.S. and Canada) taught us anything, other than our electric grid is strained and we are too lazy to do anything about it.
  2. I haven’t checked in a while, but the last time I did, I didn’t come across any “natural gas collectors” that could gather fossil fuels out of thin air for our consumption.
  3. We don’t know what we are talking about with electric cars. We seem to think that a higher prevalence of electric cars in this country would imply that we’re getting more serious about renewable energy. Well, have I got news for this way of thinking:

A. Our electric grid can’t handle it.

B. According to Holman Jenkins (see reference below), our personal cars sit idle for 95% of the time anyway.

C. When idle, the electric car still consumes energy from the grid.

D. The electric grid is still sustained primarily by fossil fuels.

Don’t let me deter you from buying that electric car you’ve been dreaming about – if you want, buy a freaking Tesla! But please understand the concepts involved.

When electric cars are equipped with solar panels, I’ll reconsider my position.

This isn’t a “you should put solar panels on your home” narrative. This is a recommendation of things to consider when we contemplate our homes, buildings, living expenses, utilities, and the amount of dependence we want to have on others as well as circumstances beyond our control.

The series isn’t over! Next week, we’ll talk about ways to move energy from where you don’t want it to where you do want it. And we’ll remain perplexed at why this topic isn’t highlighted more often.

As always, contact me with any building science or value engineering/construction questions you may have at Lee@DrLeeNewton.com

To learn how to profitably invest in real estate, download our eBook below.

Until next time,

Dr. Lee Newton

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