Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reducing My Energy Consumption

I have been systematically making small changes to my home to reduce my energy consumption. I started with the easiest steps; lowering the thermostat in the winter and raising the temperature in summer, purchasing energy star eligible appliances and choosing an LCD TV over a plasma (an LED TV is even more energy efficient, but was not available at the time). The next simple step was to change all the incandescent light bulbs for florescent bulbs and when I installed additional lighting it was florescent fixtures. (Though, I warn that the clothes in my closet look oddly colored in florescent light.) The next project was to install solar films on the windows and patio door and drapes and curtains on all the windows. These were small steps, but I learned over the years that small steps do add up.

The following year, after servicing the heat exchanger and furnace to ensure they were working properly, and appropriately sized for the house, and inspecting the attic and accessible areas of the basement and crawl spaces for adequate insulation, I turned to the Building Envelop Research of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for guidance. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory performs their Building Envelop Research for the US Department of Energy, DOE. The DOE publishes their guidance in their “Insulation Fact Sheet,” which is available on the blog home page. Following the recommendations by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory the attic, crawl spaces, eves, ductwork, underside of a large portion of the main level floor were insulated with cellulose. The pipes, wall end caps, knee walls, sump pumps and all identified areas were sealed, the garage ceiling was insulated and an insulated garage door installed. I was actually surprised at the winter energy savings and pleased with the improved comfort in the master bedroom and bath.

My next project was to spend the winter saving money eating and entertaining at home, watching DVDs for “nights out” on my LCD, eliminating trips to the mall and saving up money for my next energy saving project. Back in October 2008 President Bush had signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-343). The Act extends the 30% investment tax credit for residential solar Photovoltaic or geothermal heat pump installation for eight years through December 31, 2016 and removed the cap on qualified solar photovoltaic projects and geothermal projects (from the previous $2,000). This allows taxpayers to use the credit to offset dollar for dollar their federal tax liability, and to carry unused credits forward to the next succeeding taxable year. Essentially Uncle Sam was now willing to pay 30% of the cost of my next energy savings project. I couldn’t believe it.
According to the DOE heating and cooling account for 56% of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, making it the largest energy expense for most homes. So that is where I looked for my next project. A wide variety of technologies are available for heating and cooling your home, and they achieve a wide range of efficiencies in converting their energy sources into useful heat or cool air for your home. Heat pump systems provide both heating and cooling and offer the benefit of delivering more useful energy than they consume. Unfortunately, on very hot days or very cold days they do not do as effective a job as an air conditioner and a furnace. For climates with moderate heating and cooling needs, heat pumps offer an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners.

Higher energy efficiencies are achieved with geothermal (ground-source or water-source) heat pumps, which transfer heat between your house and the ground or a nearby water source. Although they cost more to install, geothermal heat pumps have low operating costs because they take advantage of relatively constant ground or water temperatures. However, the installation is expensive because of the need to bury coils to deliver constant temperature fluid or install a groundwater pump and injection well to supply constant temperature water to the system. Ground-source or water-source heat pumps can be used in more extreme climatic conditions than air-source heat pumps, and are more effective at cooling and heating at the extremes.
According to the heating and cooling experts and the manufacturers of the various equipment that I have, my heating and cooling system, which is a split system with a gas furnace and air conditioner for the lower level and an air heat exchanger for the upper level, should last another 7-12 years. The most sustainable approach would be to use the current system for its entire expected life despite the fact that I could probably reduce my energy consumption somewhat by changing from my current equipment to two geothermal (ground source) heat exchangers. Though geothermal heat exchangers are more expensive to purchase and install than a traditional furnace and air conditioner, they are far more efficient, reportedly consuming 25-30% less energy to operate. The most reasonable thing to do was to wait and continue using my current system even with availability of the tax credit. Thought for the next several years I will continue to keep an eye on my equipment condition.

In October 2009 Virginia announced that a portion of the stimulus dollars for the state would be allotted to its Residential and Commercial Solar and Wind Incentive Program to provide rebates to partially reimburse the costs of renewable energy systems. For residential users on the first 10 kilowatts, the rebates will be $2.00 per watt for Photovoltaic Solar systems, $1.50 per watt for small wind turbines and $1.00 per watt for solar thermal units (solar hot water heaters). The rebate is less than you might think because system capacity is defined as the installed system’s predicted peak alternating current (AC) output which is around 75%-80% of the DC rating. Combining this incentive with the federal tax credit of 30% and the sale of the renewable energy credits, REC’s, which can be sold to utilities needing RECs and suddenly, there is a positive return on the investment. It was still a big decision because even with rebates and tax credits we have to come up with the cash to pay for the system and while current prices quoted for RECs are $220-$300 per kilowatt/year and are sold in 4 or 5 year contacts there is no guarantee that the REC’s will have any value in the future.

One of the selection criteria for my home was the large southern roof span, perfect for solar panels. I was able to reserve funds from the Virginia Renewable Energy Rebate Program for a 6 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system before all the money was gone and we put the deposit down for an American made solar photovoltaic system installed by a local company. We will be installing a 6 kilowatt system that we estimate will save us approximately $1,300 per year on our electric bill. That is about twice the savings we achieved by insulating the house; however, the cost (before rebates and incentives) is more than ten times the cost of the insulation project. Even after all the rebates and incentives (assuming I successfully navigate these) this energy savings was many more times more expensive than the insulation project.

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