Home Energy Production-Electricity
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Can a home be self powered? We know the answer is yes, but at what cost? This is a question of which the answer is a moving target. From what I have read thus far a compromise must be made by the home owner in order for it to be economically feasible. The home owner must reduce his power requirements to a bare minimum. Sure anyone can throw $150,000 in solar panels on most any home and it will power that modern home completely day in and day out depending on the location of the home. Cloudier locations will need additional help by combining wind or hydro with solar. However any location would benefit from a combined system in that when one type is not producing the other probably is. I will list some options the home owner has in producing his own power.
You may want to read as a prerequisite Green? my blog post on the green building trend and green living. Also my Home Water Production post might reduce your electric demand which will make home electrical production more feasable.
- Solar Panels
- Wind Generator
- Hydro Generator
- Hydrogen Fuel Cell
- Gas Engine powered Generator (All types of gasses or liquid fuels)
- Steam Engine Generator (At least a possibility that could be run on solid fuels)
- Thermo Electric Generation (Thermocouple principle)
Solar Panels come in several types, and they are working on solar shingles. I will refer you to the Solar Living Sourcebook . This book goes into very good detail describing all the current types of solar cells and panels and the entire science. It also covers wind and hydro a bit. A much better book for wind and hydro would be a 1970’s book called “Producing your own power”.
Many locations wouldn’t benefit from wind power much, if at all. Do some research first to see if there is enough wind in your location. There are two types of wind mills, rotor type that is horizontal, and vertical wind turbines. For wind I personally like the looks and idea of the vertical wind turbines. You can find videos on youtube on DIY vertical wind turbines. For the Rotor type I will note that they usually come in 2 or 3 blade rotors. The mills with many blades which you see on farms are for pumping water. Rotors look like air plane propeller blades but are shaped very differently. The leading edge on air plane props is thin, but thick on the wind rotors. Some wind generators have transmissions for keeping the generator within a certain rpm range even at slow wind speeds. Others have brakes which actually resemble brake shoes in shape, except that they brake using air flow resistance. These brakes have springs which stretch under centrifugal force to allow the brakes to open up causing drag. This keeps the wind from tearing up your wind mill under high winds. Some mills might have a wind vane which may be turned 90 degrees to the wind so that it keeps the wind mill in a position where wind is hitting it from the side. This has the effect of turning the wind mill off, and it keeps high winds from damaging the mill. Some rotors may be locked as well. Some mills have more than one generator where they are turned at the same time by gears or sprockets. In general a wind mill should be 500 feet from any man made structure, and should be 30 feet above the higher tree tops.
For hydro power I would have to say that most locations could not benefit from this. Also hydro power may fall under the regulation of the EPA and Corp of engineers. However I would like to say that there may be many locations that could benefit from hydro power if carefully considered. One problem with hydro electricity is that it usually must be transmitted some distance to the dwelling site. This can be a problem if transmitting A/C because it might be against the law. Matter of fact I have read that it may be against the law to even produce A/C directly with hydro without permits and regulations and oversight. You are free however to produce D/C with hydro. Hydro power would be a good choice for out buildings such as mills, shops or barns or animal shelters.
Hydrogen fuel cells? These work like a battery in a sense. You have hydrogen on one side and oxygen on the other side of a membrane. As the hydrogen tries to pass through the membrane to combine with oxygen into water oxygen gives off electrons that the hydrogen side needs. This causes current to flow in any circuit from the negative side back to the positive side. I suppose when you run out of hydrogen and oxygen its like having a dead battery. It must be refueled with fresh hydrogen and oxygen to continue. This concludes my overly simplistic description. For now this technology is not really feasible or available for home use. The military is beginning to make use of this. It is used in some commercial applications on fairly large scales.
I guess we all know about small gasoline powered generators. And we have seen larger diesel generators. Farms around the USA use tractor PTO powered diesel generators. As a matter of fact trains are run by large diesel generators. So are larger ships. Yes that is correct, trains and larger ships are really electrically powered! Well aside from gasoline and diesel the home owner might have access to other fuels which would work just as well. Next is a list of fuels that might power your combustion engine powered generators.
- Bio-diesel (cooking oil or vegetable oils with some alcohol based additive)
- Ethanol (corn whiskey, or anything that can be fermented and distilled)
- Methane (you guessed it, farts, from manure or other organic garden waste and possibly even algae) (The Natural Gas that we get from a gas well is methane gas.)
- Hydrogen (water without the oxygen, taken using electrolysis )(though the industry gets this mostly from fossil fuels)
- Wood gas (the part that we see as a flame when burning wood, only it doesn’t ignite, made by the cooking of wood chips)
- Wood alcohol (“Methanol” wood gas that has been run through an automotive catalytic converter or by simply cooling the gas so that it condenses or condensed in the same way that moon shine stills condense ethanol)
I explain the fuel production in the post on Home Energy Production-Fuels. In this I talk about methane production and wood gas and wood alcohol production.
Steam engine? I have seen some nice looking small scale steam engines on the web for sale. Yes I would consider this in a home situation, powered by wood or coal fire. But remember steam is dangerous. Its the kind of thing you power up, keep everyone away while its running, and don’t go near it again until its powered down and cool. Though modern steam engines may be more well designed with safer better more reliable release valves and designed to implode rather than explode. If they implode the water simply falls downward and puts out the fire. Steam is still used in industry a lot. I hear for power production steam engines are inefficient. In other words using the wood for wood gas powered generator would be far better use of the wood. Though steam is still something to consider for locomotion as in boats or rail. Steam can be used for some industrial purposes where a long rod with pulleys along it turn belts which power industrial machines.
Steam itself is also used much in the food industry for cooking. Steam kettles. Some kettles produce the steam at the kettle from electric heat. Other large kitchens still have gas fired boilers in a basement and pipe the steam to the kitchen. From what little I have read using concentrated solar rays to power a home steam engine is not feasible at this time. Though I hear Europeans are beginning to successfully use this technique on the small scale.
But if you are really interested in steam engines just take a look at the numerous YoutTube video’s demonstrating small home made steam engines. Steam power is definitely something to think about.
For home electrical storage you have about two main choices. Lead acid batteries is one. The power grid is another. Well nickel iron batteries would be another but they are very expensive, however they take a lot of abuse and last 20 years easily. On a side note these batteries use potassium hydroxide as an electrolyte. Potassium hydroxide you may know as pot ash which is used to make home made lye soap. You make lye by pouring water over pot ash (white fluffy ash from the burning of wood) and the drippings from this is lye. This means it is alkaline the opposite of acid. Lead acid batteries seem to be the only good choice for off grid storage and has been used since we began using electricity. Lead acid batteries use sulfuric acid and lead plates. This acid of course is dangerous outside the battery cases. So be careful. It will burn skin and make holes in clothing and shoes or boots. Fumes might not be good either.
Battery makers have come up with special ways to make the lead plates as to increase the surface area. This means you can store more electrons in a smaller volume which means lighter batteries. A person could make his own batteries but they would not compare in performance and size to the commercially available ones. Lead will coat anything that solder would stick to. Making your own plates would not be difficult. A person could roll his own plates or foil with what is called a Jewelers Roller Mill. With this mill you could also make waffle patterns or other patterns in the plates to increase surface area. I would guess you could make plates from silver, copper, aluminum, lead, nickle and zink for this purpose. Brass and bronze maybe as well. I doubt that you will wan to make gold or platinum plates or foils, but you could with this mill. A quick web search will reveal web sites that sell all or some of these various metals. It only makes foils or plates 5″ in width though.
Lead foil could also be rolled with nylon cloth in a roll or coil shape. Sulfuric acid is difficult to get in any size larger than a liter. The EPA, DEA, ATF and homeland security will be watching purchases of Sulfuric acid. It would be best to recycle the acid from used batteries. A person could use gallon size glass jugs for a battery case or even make his own ceramic cases. Still this is dangerous business. It would be better just to buy the expensive batteries. A deep cycle battery means that is specially built for many many charge/discharge cycles and will have longer life span. A home would need enough battery power in amp hours to last 3 or 4 days without sun, wind or any form of energy production. The ” Solar Living Source Book” covers batteries in detail.
Lead acid batteries come in 3 or 4 types. Flooded lead acid batteries FLA both normal car batteries and deep cycle marine batteries is what we are all used to. These also come in low maintenance batteries that have caps that are very difficult to remove or no caps. You may also have heard of Gel Batteries which are also known as SLA Sealed Lead Acid batteries. SLA may also be called VRLA battery (valve-regulated lead-acid battery). These gel batteries can be positioned in any direction, even up side down. They don’t leak. Then there are AGM (Absorbed Glass Matt) batteries where fiberglass mats hold the acid in between plates. For your home battery banks you will most likely choose FLA or AGM type batteries. AGM are double the cost but no maintenance and safer. These no maintenance batteries are specially designed to recombine hydrogen and oxygen so that they don’t loose water during charging. For charging you may want a 3 stage charger system with computer control built in, not a mere trickle charger.
The marketing hype is that you can use the grid for 100% efficiency battery. This is not exactly the case because there is a power inversion loss of about 6% or more. However batteries are only about 80% efficient. So this still means that the grid is a better choice than batteries in many cases. The feds has mandated that the power companies pay you for any power you supply to the grid. This has the effect of running your meter backwards. I hear some only run your meter backwards to the 0 point, meaning after this you are giving the grid free power. Check with the electric company in your area to get exact details on this, and make sure they are clear. This is called “Net Metering”. Its a great option that makes solar power much more attractive. I have heard that some companies will not give you full credit for the power you put back into the grid however. For example if they charge you 10 cents per kilowatt hour, they may only pay you 6 cents per kilowatt hour for what you put back into the grid. They may only pay you what it supposedly cost them to produce the electricity, but not their profit margin. Make sure you find out how much you will be given credit for. The book “Solar Living Source Book” covers everything you need for hooking up to the grid.
Oh and have you considered that you must provide security, maintenance and replacement for your home power production equipment? This is a service you get when you pay for grid power.
I spoke above about the fact that some compromises will need to be made in order to self power a home. Lets talk about those compromises.
- Live in a passive solar home if possible. (This home is the most energy efficient design)
- South facing oriented windows (most of the windows are on the south side if not all).
- Highly Insulated Roof.
- Berming on north/east/west ends.
- Use breeze ways or mud closets for entry ways
- Use evergreen trees on the north side and coniferous trees on the south side
- Seal up house with caucking and other measures (but ventilate well)
- Use vapor barriers properly
- Ventilate roofing properly
- Use thermal barriers properly(i.e. metalic foil coatings on insulation, or even aluminum foil)
- Design for natural ventilation and take advantage of natural air flow across nearby landscape and for area.
- Upgrade your home to be as energy efficient as possible (This is more than simply adding lots of insulation)
- Use gas for anything that you could possibly use gas for in place of electricity including lighting, a/c, refrigeration and freezing. Or at least have this alternative available.
- Use heat exchangers on your ventilation and outside air intake.
- Use LED and Compact fluorescent lighting instead of incandescent.
- Use sky lighting as much as possible.
- Use window lighting as much as possible (without overdoing it, too much window space means too much heat loss).
- Solar heat water first with backup on demand gas heating of water.
- Have on/off switches on all power outlets (vampire repellant)
- Use only 120 volt for a/c appliances (no 240, usually for electric a/c, heat, stoves and ovens, washer/dryer, arc welder) Actually 240 is more efficient than 120, but I was indicating overall reduction of power consumption and simplicity. If you want one 240 outlet I see no problem. Do some calculation to see what might work best.
- Minimize your use of water if power is required for running/pumped water. (see my post on Home Water production and storage).
- Watch out for vampires! These are home appliances that constantly use power even when turned off.
Wind mills and Hydro turbines are fairly easy to make as a DIY project and you can use automotive alternators as the generators. Just search the web for plans. On a side note an automotive generator could be used as an inverter, they produce a/c and then rectify it to DC. You have to bypass this rectification and turn it with a dc motor. Its not efficient but it could be a good makeshift inverter. These are called rotary inverters, widely used by the military at one time. They are not nearly as efficient as solid state inverters but may last longer and be more reliable. Fire Fighters and Electrical companies like using Rotary inverters. They are also far more expensive than solid state inverters. You would only be able to power a half dozen compact fluorescent lights on this however. 3 amps is about all this makeshift rotary inverter would supply.
Power Meter Store is a web site that sells watt meters for keeping track of how much power appliances or lights are using. It would be nice one day if a smart home would send power usage stats from all outlets and lights to your PC for review on a spreadsheet. Also before you consider a green home you may want to run a weather station on your home site for a year or two before you build. This station could give you information on an hour by hour, day by day, month by month basis for temperature, barometric pressure, wind direction and velocity, rainfall and humidity. Ice and Snow fall might have to be recorded manually. Also some of the sensors for these now are wireless for easy installation. Weather Shack is a web site that sells such weather stations equipment.
Lastly, my main gripes about the grid are…
- In most location there is no competition so you are dealing with a monopoly.
- Meter installation charge.
- Connect Fee
- Disconnect Fee
- Base rates
I would like to see a situation with competition everywhere and none of the above. Meaning you simply pay for the electricity you use. If you stop using it, you don’t pay. If you can’t pay, they simply remotely and electronically shut off your access. When you have paid for what you have used, they simply get on a keyboard and turn it back on or better yet, the system does it for them as soon as your balance is no longer in the red. But to be fair I see good reason for the initial new service setup fee and deposit.
|Producing your own Power-Great info on hydro and wind power.|
|Solar Living Sourcebook has really great into on Solar and Grid Tie, as well as some on wind and hydro. Solar heated water as well.|