Alternative Energy Solutions
Find out which alternative energy sources make the most sense for your homestead–solar, wind, geothermal, microhydro, and more.
Why Do We Need Alternative Energy Solutions?
While it may seem like an obvious answer to many people, the reason we need to find alternative energy sources is because our current sources are unsustainable. They rely on a complicated and fragile delivery system, they’re expensive, and they’re harmful.
For the last couple centuries, the Western world has made significant advancements because of fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas, etc). Specifically within the last 100 years, cars have exponentially increased our reliance on cheap oil. This oil is transported great distances (by means of cheap oil to fuel trucks and boats), and delivered to everybody at artificially controlled prices. Then we shove it in our cars and burn it as fast as we can, releasing toxic gases into the air.
This is a party that doesn’t last forever.
While this isn’t a site about economics or saving the planet (though they are real and serious concerns), to the modern homesteader, the “fragile delivery system” aspect of this scenario is a big problem. If we want to be in control of as much of our lives as possible, than creating our own energy is an extremely smart thing to do.
Once again, your homestead can be the solution. If you can use your natural resources to power your life, then it really doesn’t matter what happens to the energy grid. You’re in control of your own energy, you’re doing less harm to the environment, and once you’ve repaid your initial investment, you’re potentially saving some pretty good money too.
It’s important to remember here that this isn’t about “prepping for the collapse.” For the reasons above and others, providing your own energy is just the smartest course of action whether the proverbial shit ever hits the fan or not.
Alternative Energy Sources On The Homestead
So what alternative energy sources are available, and which ones make the most sense for you? Well, whether you are looking to be completely off grid, or just want to have some backup power, there are a wide array of alternative energy sources to choose from. And there are more and more all the time. People are continuously experimenting with ways to most efficiently convert natural resources into power.
The answer to the second question is more important though, because many kinds of alternative energy aren’t quite developed enough to be seriously usable yet on your homestead (or just not financially feasible). And unfortunately, there is also a fair amount of hype and misinformation.
Here is just a brief look at some of the more viable and efficient types of alternative energy for your homestead:
Solar Power System
Solar power systems harvest sunlight into usable electricity, to power your home. Like you would think, solar is most viable for people that live in hot, sunny areas. And if it’s a sunny DRY area (think South-western United States), it’s even more important for you to concentrate on solar, because you probably won’t be able to take advantage of technologies like micro-hydro, or wood gasification (which is dependent on lots of trees and biomass).
Solar is one of the most efficient sources of alternative energy. While some people may debate about how “green” a solar power system actually is (because of manufacturing processes, etc), you can’t ignore the ability of solar to give independence from the grid–which is exactly what we’re after.
Quite simply, the sun is just one of the most powerful resources we can harness. While we still really haven’t scratched the surface of what is possible, what we have be able to do is impressive. Because it’s one of the more widely proven alternative energy technologies, it’s also getting cheaper all the time!
The biggest factor in the solar equation is your location. If you live in a location that has less sun, your solar power system can’t give you as much energy. So, factors like your latitude, the amount of cloudy/rainy days you get, and whether or not your homestead is being shaded by trees or structures come into play. If you want to get started powering your home through solar, you can get a rough idea of your location’s feasibility here.
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One of the next biggest questions to decide when you’re thinking about solar power is whether your system should be grid-tied, or off-grid.
For a self-sufficient homestead, the answer here is simple: off-grid. The biggest difference with an off-grid solar system is that it includes batteries, which allow you to store electricity for later use. Without batteries, you can’t store power to use at night time, on short winter days, or any other time the sun’s not shining. Grid-tied systems on the other hand, offer you the ability to sell energy back to the companies, but if you don’t have batteries, you are out of luck.
There is a 3rd option, which allows you to be tied to the grid and have off-grid battery storage. This allows you to be able to sell electricity back to the grid when you have excess, and still draw from your battery when the sun isn’t shining. This option is obviously the best way to go, but also more expensive and more complicated to wire.
Once you have your solar power system in place and you are collecting energy from the sun, your “repayment time” has officially started. Your repayment time lasts until the money that your solar panels have saved you equals the expense that you incurred to get them all set up. This time period varies greatly from city to city and state to state. In Hawaii it could be 3 years whereas in Seattle it could be 10, due to differing costs of energy and different weather. In general though, repayment time is a good measuring stick to help you plan your solar options.
Geothermal energy is becoming more understood all the time, but the average person in most parts of the world is still very unfamiliar with how geothermal works, what its applications are, and how you can benefit from it.
Geothermal energy is energy that is gained by from the heat exchange between the temperature underground, and the ambient temperature of the air around you. Notice the word here is “energy”, not “electricity.” That’s because geothermal energy is best suited to heat and cooling applications, and is typically used with a geothermal heat pump.
In this application, a series of pipes are installed a few feet underground, and then connected with the geothermal heat pump to form one giant continuous “loop.” Either water or a coolant type solution is poured into the pipes. In the summertime, the fluid underground will be cooler than the ambient air temperatures above ground, so the heat pump uses this to cool the air that is then pumped through your house.
In the winter, the same scenario occurs, but with the opposite effect. The fluid underground in this case is warmer than the ambient air temp, so the warmth is used (and compounded) with the pump to create hot air that is then circulated through your house.
The impressive thing about this geothermal heat pump is that in terms of energy, it is essentially 400% efficient. In layman’s terms, this means that for every 1 unit of energy used to operate the system, 4 equivalent units of energy are extracted. Incredible.
This technology has been around for quite some time, but has gotten much better over the years. As houses have gotten more and more efficient, the effects of this efficient heating and cooling system are only magnified. Some people are now coupling geothermal heat pumps with radiant, in-floor heating, to capitalize on 2 great technologies at one time.
Small Wind Turbine
Small wind turbines are an intriguing alternative energy source, and has long been dubbed the “cleanest and greenest” alternative energy. Their effectiveness however, is highly site specific.
Why? Because most people don’t have consistent enough wind (both in quantity and direction).This means it can be pretty “hit or miss” on an individual scale. Whereas solar power can essentially be used with some degree of effectiveness almost anywhere on the planet, wind is a different story.
When wind energy first began to gain popularity, there was actually some cost savings over solar, but as the costs of photovoltaics has come down over the years, wind has less comparative advantage (if any at all).
Wind is also a mechanical method of harvesting energy (i.e. a turbine), whereas solar is a passive one. This means that a wind turbine will undergo more wear and tear, and require more maintenance over the years.
There are other challenges to using wind as an alternative energy solution. Tall towers are needed to get any real production. Finding qualified technicians that can install and service wind turbines is difficult. Compared with other technologies like solar, the cost per kWh can be relatively high. In order to install, they usually require a permit. Excavation, concrete anchors, and making sure things are taut and plumb adds even more time and hassle to the installation process, with more opportunity for something to go amiss.
Still reading? 😉
Even with all that being said, wind turbines can perform exceptionally well on hilltops or at the mouths of large canyons (Think about where you have seen commercial wind farms). Due to the fact that harnessing wind involves putting a turbine up on a large tower, wind power typically makes more sense in rural or “outskirts of town” areas, where there are fewer buildings, and looser zoning regulations.
Long story short, wind will likely not be the most viable alternative energy source for most people. If you think you might be an exception to this, and are willing to face the complexities of harnessing the wind, start by checking the wind resource map for your local area.
Micro Hydro Power
Micro hydro power has been around for centuries, and operates on the same basic principle as wind turbines. The obvious difference….. water is turning the turbine instead of wind!
Unlike wind or solar however, micro hydro power can be continuously harvested, even if the wind’s not blowing or the sun isn’t shining.
This makes micro hydro one of the most consistent and even sources of alternative energy out there. On sites that produce enough electricity, some homesteaders even choose to forgo batteries altogether, knowing that their flowing water will support their peak electrical use and any other time of day.
The biggest limiting factors with a micro hydro system are the delivery components (i.e. pipes and wires!). Delivery of energy from the turbine to the site in need of it, and in some cases, delivery of flowing water to the actual turbine.
Accordingly, in order for microhydro power to be feasible, it should be in close proximity to the area that you are trying to power. If you have a stream flowing on the opposite end of your 209 acre property, it’s not realistic to plan on converting that into electrical current to power your house.
On the other hand however, if you have a site that is fairly close to running water, and the pipeline and transmission distances can be reasonably close, micro hydro can also be extremely financially beneficial.
Finally, if carefully constructed, micro hydro power can be installed with minimal disturbance to the environment.
Setting up micro hydro systems is fairly straightforward. The calculation for figuring your wattage per hour is basically dependent upon knowing the flow rate in gallons per minute, and knowing how many feet of “head” you have on your homestead. Head is the vertical drop of the water level from one end of your site to the next.
If you multiply these 2 numbers together, and then divide by a multiple of 12, you should have a good rough estimate of the wattage you can generate per hour.
On the whole, micro hydro power is more robust, more reliable, and offers a lower kWh cost than a small wind turbine. It should be given some serious thought if you have a site with running water.
One of the forgotten technologies of today’s generation that is starting to be explored more and more is wood gasification. Wood gasification is the process by which you can convert wood and similar biomass into electricity.
How does it work?
Without getting overly scientific about it, wood or charcoal is superheated (but not combusted) to the point that it releases a combustible gas, that is then used to power a generator. The generator must be one of the tri-fuel generators, that can run on gasoline, natural gas, or propane. The generator then creates electricity, which can power your home’s appliances.
Because it uses wood (and other similar biomass), gasification is best suited to areas where there is an abundance of biomass that can be used for fuel. This means the timber lots of Western Europe, the tropics, the Eastern U.S., the Pacific Northwest.
Because of the climatic requirements, wood gasification is a good counterpart to solar energy. If your area is cloudy and wet, your conditions aren’t optimal for solar, but are perfect for the vegetative growth that powers gasifiers. If your area is sunny and hot, then solar all the way. Vermont vs. Arizona, or Seattle vs. Southern California.
Gasification can be used to power your entire homestead on, or even vehicles. Wood gas can also be compressed into 6 gallon cylinders or other fuel storage units for use later.
Although this isn’t something that people commonly know today, the technology dates back to the late 1800’s, when people were first experimenting with gasification combined with other fuel types (coal, coke, hydrogen). When gasoline was rationed during World War II, several cars across Europe and the United States were actually fitted with wood gasification units, and used to power vehicles.
If you live in a wooded area, gasification offers a solid alternative energy solution to power your homestead, because wood (when harvested sustainably) is renewable. Excluding sweat equity, it is free to you. It provides intriguing by-products as well. It leaves you with bio-char, and actually sequesters carbon from the environment. Applications are being experimented with more and more all the time, but this is a technology to explore and implement on your homestead if you can.
Which Alternative Energy Solution Makes The Most Sense On My Homestead?
So if you’re asking yourself which alternative energy source you should be incorporating on your homestead, the answer is “several of them.”
That’s right, the name of the game with alternative energy is to layer in a few different sources. With a few rare exceptions, geothermal heat pumps can provide benefit to almost every homestead, although it’s best use is in heating and cooling (not producing electricity).
Solar power really is the darling of alternative energy right now. It’s costs have come down so much, that almost everybody looking into alternative energy should consider it. Micro hydro, wind power, and wood gasification have more site specific requirements, but each offer upside on the right site.
One of the nicest location trade-offs in the alternative energy world, is the relationship between wet and dry areas.
If you live in a generally arid climate, it’s probably arid (at least in large part) because it gets a lot of sun. These locations are inherently well-suited to solar energy. Think about the American Southwest, the Mediterranean, the Middle East. At the same time however, because of the lack of water, these are locations where powering your homestead with micro hydro would be much less feasible. Wood gasification would also be difficult, because the lack of water in arid climates usually translates to fewer trees and less biomass.
On the other hand, if you think about areas that get lots of water, often they come with more clouds and less sun. The British Isles, Pacific Northwest, New England, and other similar areas. In these locations, micro hydro power and wood gas are extremely viable options, whereas solar would be less so.
There are plenty of places in the world that have both sun and water… we call them the tropics.
That’s right, if you live in or near the middle latitudes of the earth, you are among the people that can likely power your homestead by solar, micro hydro, or wood gasification (you can also grow anything you want, and we’re all jealous of you…. except you have more bugs, more mildew, and nasty storms).
Long story short, the best energy source for you depends on your context. If your climate is more hot and dry, solar. If it’s more wet and rainy, micro hydro and wood gas. Have both? Take your pick. Be thoughtful about it, and remember that the design of your home and the energy requirement of running it has as much to do with getting off-grid as the energy you produce.
Mid-Sized Alternative Energy Sources
These solutions makes sense for people that are trying to power critical household devices and appliances during short-term emergencies, without access to larger scale alternative energy, or in areas with an unreliable power grid and intermittent outages.
For people that regularly go without power for extended periods of time, a gas, diesel, or multi-fuel generator is a great way to ensure that your most critical appliances and devices get the electricity they need. In hurricane areas, these are HIGH on the list for anybody trying to be prepared. Although they are not cheap, they can power fridges, freezers, heating and air conditioning, and just about anything. With heating and cooling devices in particular, make sure that your generator is appropriately sized. Electric heat and cooling usually requires a significant load.
Many people would like to get a gas or diesel powered generator, but simply can’t afford it right now. The car inverter is the solution! In an emergency situation (particularly the short term emergencies that last a week or less), you can use a car inverter to power your home’s lights, TV, and other electrical devices, simply from the gas that is in your car’s tank. Plain and simple, a car inverter is your most simple, cost-effective solution to a short term electrical grid failure.
Battery Backup Power Supply (with A/C conversion)
Backup batteries are great for storing a small amount of energy for power outage situations. In a sense, a backup battery is another kind of “inverter”, taking stored energy and turning it into alternating current. These are perfect for powering computers, charging phones, and especially medical devices (Because my kids have a serious blood sugar condition, my wife and I have one of these to power the pump that continuously feeds our daughter overnight).
Small Scale Alternative Energy Sources
If you’re only trying to power small handheld devices in emergency situations, or will be temporarily traveling off grid, there are a handful of great alternative energy solutions to keep in mind.
Most people don’t think of batteries as an “alternative energy” source, but we include them in the conversation, because batteries provide a way to power devices, independent of the grid. They are essentially the smallest unit of stored energy. While they may not be enough to power your entire home, you shouldn’t just blaze past them on your way to solar, or some other more “exciting” form alternative energy. It may just be that in a pinch, the most important things you need are a battery powered flashlight and transistor radio. For as inexpensive as batteries can be purchased, you should stock up.
The Power Pot is actually a cooking cup and a generator rolled into one! Using thermoelectrics, the Power Pot converts heat into usable electric current that can charge devices like cell phones, GPS units, HAM radios, headlamps, and more! When you think in terms of an emergency situation, the ability for this little product to “stack functions” (i.e. provide heat, cook food, and charge devices) is invaluable. Highly recommended!
Similar to the Power Pot, the BioLite stove is a thermoelectric camp stove that can be used to power USB connected devices while it’s warming your hands and cooking your food. The great thing about BioLite is that it doesn’t take any fancy fuel, it can be powered with just twigs and sticks that you find on the ground around you. No need to carry special tablets or canisters with you.
Portable Solar Panels
Another great tool for harvesting energy from the earth around you is a portable solar panel. Small portable solar panels can be used to directly charge your devices via USB, or you can get the accompanying rechargeable batteries and charger to give yourself even more versatility. Either way, this is just 1 more great solution to keep in your car for powering devices when you need to!