Solar Energy...
Ask the Energy Wiz!

Q: Dear Energy Wiz,
We will be building a new home this year and would like to make the home energy efficient. We are looking for ways to incorporate wind and solar projects into the design. Could you please help us in getting started with this project? What is the availability of grants or other types of assistance?
The Energy Wiz!
The Energy Wiz!

A: Between wind and solar energy, wind is probably the most economical at this time. There has been progress in increasing the efficiency of solar cells, but it is hard to say when we might see that progress appear in consumer technology. At present, solar panels are only about 20 to 30 percent efficient. What that means is that of all the possible solar energy available, solar panels are only able to convert around 20 to 30 percent of the energy into a usable form.

In your new home, I would suggest that you consider using both wind and solar. As you are probably aware, there are times when the wind doesn't blow, and times when the sun doesn't shine. A combination of both energy sources, might make your energy supply a bit more consistent. Since neither of these energy sources is constant, you will probably want to look at a battery backup system. In this way, you can charge your batteries when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, and then use that stored energy when it’s needed. Using both sources will require a good knowledge of electricity, and a good contractor who can tie the systems together. It might be an advantage if you can find a contractor that supplies both wind and solar sytems, as well as battery backup systems.

There are several manufacturers producing windmills for residential use, and the same is true for solar panels. While the Energy Office does not recommend specific products or manufacturers, the agency does recommend getting several estimates for any project. What you are looking for is the most kilowatts – that’s 1,000 watts – for the dollars you're spending, and of course reliability and service. Don't be afraid to ask for past customers you can contact, and possibly visit. Find out how long the company has been in business. Check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau.

It is likely that you will not be able to purchase any wind or solar system that is able to generate electricity for less money than the utilities can provide. You will however, gain a certain level of independence, and will be helping the environment. One way to reduce the cost of a system such as these is by reducing your energy requirements, and that is where efficiency comes in. You will want your home to be well insulated, well sealed – within reason, "seal it tight and ventilate right" – and you will want to use energy efficient appliances and heating, ventilating and air conditioning equipment. As a minimum, you will want your contractor/designer to meet the 2003 International Energy Conservation Code, which becomes state law on July 1, 2005. One approach is using Energy Star as a guide. You can ask your contractor/designer to design an Energy Star home, and insist on Energy Star appliances.

You can also go beyond Energy Star efficiency levels. You can increase insulation values beyond Energy Star Requirements. It is possible to increase your insulation to a point where your heating and air conditioning requirements are equal, which negates the need for backup with heat pumps. You can research appliances and not simply buy those with an Energy Star rating, but buy the most efficient within a category. You can go beyond the Energy Star rated heating and cooling equipment to the most efficient geothermal equipment – proper HVAC sizing is essential, Manual J as a minimum. You can go beyond Energy Star rated windows and buy the most efficient windows. Energy Star windows have a U-value of 0.35 or less, but windows with a U-value of 0.25 or less are available for nearly the same price. You can go from incandescent lighting to florescent lighting, which uses 1/4th the energy. If you are doing this, it is important to use high Color Rendering Index florescent lights to maintain correct color of lighting – an Index rating of 100 is near sunlight, and anything above 90 is very good. All of this comes with a price, but in most cases the extra cost for the more efficient equipment will pay for itself in the long run. This is especially true in new construction.

I would suggest you start with the book, Residential Energy, by John T. Krigger. This book is the basis for the Nebraska Home Energy Rating System, and will help to guide you to energy efficiency in your new home. Phone 1-800-735-0577 to order a copy of the book. The list of websites below can be used to help find energy efficient products.

The Wiz is not aware of any grants for residential solar or wind applications.

Sincerely,
The Energy Wiz
Additional Resources:

Editor's Note:
The staff at the Energy Office respond to many inquiries on a variety of topics from Nebraskans. From time to time, the Quarterly will share some questions — and the answers — with readers.
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