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Renewable and alternative energy sources make sense for many homeowners, especially if the home is well built and well designed, with efficient appliances.
Production of electricity and hot water at home using natural energy from the sun is nothing new. But technologies have greatly improved over the past few years. Not only do they cost less to install, but they’re more reliable, more efficient—and simply a better deal. In addition, the supporting hardware is vastly superior to the old stuff . The politics of alternative energy is changing too, albeit more slowly than many would like. In many states, utilities are now required to buy back any “extra” electricity you produce. And both wind turbines and solar installations are eligible for 30% tax credits with no upper limit from the federal government, plus certain state and utility incentives. If you’re looking at alternative systems, here’s some essential information.


WIND TURBINES SOFTER BREEZES
Small-scale wind turbines that create electricity have always been a fairly specialized form of power generation—most valuable in mountainous and coastal regions. The challenge has been to build a turbine that produces adequate electricity, even in low wind, to make it worth the cost. We’re getting much closer. For example, both the Swift turbine (above right) and the Skystream turbine (opposite page) begin producing power in winds of just 8 miles per hour.


The advantage of wind power over PV? The wind often blows when it’s dark outside. But before you buy, take a look at the national wind map published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). You’ll see that not every area of the United States is well suited for wind-powered living. In fact, if you live in any of the Southeast states—and you don’t have a place right on the water—wind is a long shot. You will make a lot more power with a good solar PV setup.


PHOTOVOLTAICS LOOKING SHARP
The race is on to build better PV cells that convert sunlight to electricity. New solar films and panels are being tested that are more efficient, less expensive, and lighter than ever. The current challenge is to find a more affordable alternative to the polycrystalline silicon based panels that dominate the market. But while that R&D is going on, existing solar products are becoming more practical.


 


VELUX SOLAR HOT WATER
Although best known for its skylights, Velux began offering turnkey solar hot water systems a couple of years ago. In a three-person household, the company’s basic system can supply 50%–80% of the hot water needed annually, You can also order skylights that match the dimensions of the hot water panels so that they blend with the roof elevation. www.veluxusa.com


MARATHON HOT WATER HEATER/STORAGE TANK
The Marathon Hot Water Heater is an example of greater emphasis on durable storage for solar hot water systems. It’s also flexible. It can serve as either super-insulated storage for solar panels, or produce its own using electricity with a built-in element. Lined with plastic, the tank will not rust, and comes with a limited lifetime warranty. www.marathonheaters.com

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