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The Real Estate Insider

News & Advice > Columnist Al Heavens
Energy Alternatives One House at a Time
by Al Heavens

Just before winter, I wrote about a documentary by Toronto filmmaker Gregory Greene, "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream."

While the film offered a doom-and-gloom scenario, the university professor who was showing it to his class was more upbeat:

"We will be working from home a lot more, finding new sources of power that will take us off the grid," he said. "We will solve energy problems house by house."

That's the idea behind Christine Woodside's new book, The Homeowner's Guide to Energy Independence (Lyons Press, $14.95).

Her book offers a look at alternative energy sources, but the ones that are available and easy to install rather than the Star Trek stuff that is still in the dream stage.

With gasoline nearing $3 a gallon in the East and well past that in the West, it's a book worth looking at.

So what are the alternatives to oil? Solar is one. Wind another. The problem is that Americans seem to have a hard time getting past fossil fuels, since it was what most people are used to, and advocates for the alternatives often make things so hard to understand that eyes glaze over easily.

For example, as winter loomed with its promise of crushingly high natural gas and electricity prices, older readers began writing in asking about coal as an alternative.

"We used it when I was growing up," one senior wrote. "It seems like there's more of it around than oil."

That's true. At the current rates of consumption, we probably have enough coal reserves to last us a few hundred years.

Yet the reason why coal isn't as widely used to heat our houses these days is because there is no way to burn it cleanly. Until that happens, coal will not be a viable alternative, unless you don't like being able to see Pittsburgh from the air or your hand in front of your face in London.

Solar is a great mystery to many. A lot of especially older readers cannot understand how solar could be a viable alternative in the northern part of the United States during winter.

The days are short, true, but still there is enough sun to keep up a limited supply. And it is also true that photovoltaic panels that collect and store solar energy harvest a lot more when the sun is shining than when it is behind the clouds.

Hap Haven, who conducts residential energy audits, has a solar hot water system with an electric heater backup. He usually remembers to turn the switch to electric on cloudy days, but after a string of brilliantly sunny days, it has slipped his mind.

He and his two children each took showers. His wife then did two loads of laundry. When it was his wife's turn for a shower, the spray turned ice cold after a minute.

"I remembered to flip the switch from then on," he said.

Woodside brings home the point that in order to make alternative energy work, we have to reduce our consumption. That doesn't mean that we have to spend a lot of time in the dark. It just means that we have to start shutting off lights when we leave the room, or take five-minute showers rather than 15-minute ones.

Some states are offering substantial rebates on solar installations, and the 2005 federal energy law, which is in effect for the 2006 and 2007 tax years, provides credits for solar installations and other projects.

Wind is another alternative source, but Woodside cautions that if you live in a place where the air is relatively still -- Missouri rather than North Dakota -- it isn't going to work very well.

A lot of environmentalists have issues with burning wood, but Woodside believes that if you learn to use it efficiently, it can be a viable alternative. Wood pellets made mostly of sawdust burn more efficiently than a log, but special stoves are required.

And that's another point: Newer heating and cooling equipment, including wood stoves, is much more efficient than even five years ago, but you are going to have to pay more up front and wait a certain amount of time for the payback that will make your investment make sense.

My wife and I have been talking about solar hot water for the house and solar electricity for my garage workshop. Our state offers rebates of 70 percent, and, combined with federal tax credits, it will cost us practically nothing.

We've also been talking about buying a hybrid car.

The only thing we need do now is to turn our talk into action.

Published: April 27, 2006




Related Articles:

  • Rising Energy Costs: Insulation
  • Perhaps an Energy Audit Before You Buy?
  • Old-house Owners Need to Keep One Step Ahead
  • Breathing New Life Into Older Downtowns

    Al Heavens writes about real estate and home repair and improvement. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home: Real-Life Advice For Hassle-free, Cost-Effective Remodeling (Dearborn Press).

    Copyright © 2006 Realty Times®. All Rights Reserved.

  • Al Heavens
    Columnist Al Heavens



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