Solar power good, power plants bad. If only it were that simple. There are many variables to consider when investigating ways to produce your own power.
Windmill © Ian Britton
How the electrical grid is fed near you will be a huge factor in determining the carbon footprint of your home, with or without your own renewable power generation.
For example, the power grid in Quebec is largely fed by hydroelectric generation. Despite the enormous destruction caused by the initial construction, the dams are there now and the power is certainly renewable. So the ecological impact at source from a hydroelectric station is a lot less damaging than if you were located near a coal fired electric plant.
And since power in Quebec is the cheapest of all the provinces and a solar panel price would be constant, it also makes less financial sense for someone in Quebec to install a solar panel than someone in Ontario for example. All this is to illustrate that there is not one right answer to the question of 'to be or not to be' someone with photovoltaic solar panels.
To save money and lower your carbon footprint, you can often accomplish that best if you invest in insulation rather than power generation, so you conserve the energy you have already paid for instead of ramping up your supply.
Solar heating - passive and active
Relying on the sun to heat your home is unquestionably the most efficient route forward, at least when it comes to designing for passive solar gain. Installing solar panels (active solar) to heat your home is always born of good intentions, but it is not as cut and dried as you might think.
Any fabricated product will have what is known as 'embodied energy', referring to the energy that was required to extract raw materials, ship raw materials, manufacture and finally ship the end product.
If the amount of embodied energy in a solar panel outweighs what you will gain through it's lifespan, then regardless of your best intentions, you and the planet may be better off if you don't go that route. To lower your personal carbon footprint, not to mention your monthly utility bills, the first step is reducing your demand.
The tens of thousands you might be required to spend on solar panels to heat your home may in fact be better spent insulating your home so that you require less generated heat in the first place.
Our recommendation here could philosophically be compared to putting money into sealing a leaky bucket rather than looking for a new water source and ignoring why you are losing water.
That is certainly the case in regards to designing and building a new home, the best route forward may be different when talking about an old inefficient home that could require a colossal investment to improve its performance.
We aren't trying to make your decisions for you here, just offering some food for thought when deciding where to spend your green dollars.
Solar thermal systems in particular can be a great heat source if you have a hydronic heating system. Rather than generating power that in turn runs electric heaters, solar thermal systems pump liquid through solar panels to absorb heat directly from the sun and transfer it into your home. Heated liquid (usually glycol) is stored in a preheating tank through which other water feeds pass and absorb that heat. This can be used to preheat domestic hot water as well as the liquid in hydronic heating systems.
The proper conditions for generating hydroelectric power are rare enough in rural settings, and virtually unheard of in urban cores. Hydroelectricity is without a doubt renewable, but the ecological impact of setting up a system can be quite heavy, certainly if you intend to extract enough power to have a noticeable impact on your consumption.
So we don't strongly advocate it for personal projects, as the ecological damage often outweighs the benefits. And in the absence of a sizeable reservoir, water flow and power output will be quite unpredictable, so you may be relying on grid power more than you might wish.
Personal wind turbines
The Zoetrope turbine
It is recommended to ensure that a wind turbine is taller than any other structure or tree within 100 metres. The wind patterns of your geographical location would be the first thing to investigate in determining whether or not a turbine is worthwhile.
Small and reasonably affordable home turbines are finding their way onto the market, and are available through some national hardware stores. We don't have hard numbers on whether or not they are worth the investment, so if you have one and some insight, please share in the comments section below.
Aside from off-the-shelf turbines available for purchase, we stumbled across the Zoetrope wind turbine. It is a 'do it yourself' open source design available for free online. Again, this is something that really interests us, so if you are someone who tinkers with such things in your garage, we want to hear from you! Learn more about the Zoetrope here.