Renewable energy options require careful consideration for options
Worland – “When we talk about alternative energy, it is important that producers step back and ask themselves why they are interested in renewable or alternative energy,” says Milt Geiger, Wyoming Extension energy coordinator.
Geiger notes that producers should think about their motivation for utilizing alternative energy, which often includes economic considerations.
Geiger comments that rates charged by power companies are affordable for consumers.
“Power companies want to encourage efficiency,” he says. “They charge a higher rate if people use more energy.”
While the idea may seem counter-intuitive, Geiger explains that they are regulated by the Public Service Commission and are required to provide energy as cheaply as possible.
“Efficiency and using less energy allows them to supply power more cheaply,” Geiger says. “If Rocky Mountain Power, for example, has to buy another power plant, that makes everything more expensive.”
However, if consumers can use less energy, power companies don’t have to buy or build new power plants and can reduce costs.
Geiger notes that the first step in looking at renewable and alternative energy is to assess energy use.
“We have to understand how we use energy and what we are paying for it,” he explains. “For example, in the Midwest, many people heat their homes with heating oil. This winter, it didn’t matter what the price was, people couldn’t find heating oil.”
Volatility in the energy sources can also increase costs.
“In the U.S., we do a very good job of keeping energy costs relatively low,” Geiger comments. “Electricity, for example, isn’t a huge part of the budget. If electricity went up by 10 percent, we’d notice, but it is a small part of our budget.”
After analyzing how people utilize energy, Geiger says the next logical step is to change behaviors to conserve energy.
“When we look at how we use energy, conservation is next,” he says. “This idea just says that by changing our behavior, we get some benefit.”
Efficiency is an additional important consideration to conserving energy.
“We can ask energy to do more useful work and not waste it as heat,” Geiger says. “Efficiency just increases the productivity of energy.”
Efforts such as exploring Energy Star appliances can provide the most bank for a buck.
“For example, refrigerators today use only one-third of the energy as ones from the 1970s,” he comments. “We could also talk about things as simple as installing additional insulation.”
Geiger notes that after conservation and efficiency improvements and an analysis of energy use, there are a number of options for renewable energy sources, particularly geothermal and small hydroelectric power.
“Wood is also getting more attention now,” he comments. “The Department of Energy is providing incentives for increased efficiency for wood stoves.”
“One of my favorite energy sources is solar thermal,” Geiger says. “It gets a bad rap, but people can use it to heat hot water, which addresses 20 percent of the utility bill in most houses.”
Wyoming’s climate is also fairly effective for solar thermal.
“When the sun shines, we get heat. In a solar thermal system, that heat is collected by heating up water,” Geiger explains. “Solar thermal is basically a plumbing operation.”
Two types of systems are available – flat plates or evacuated tubes – and both are effective in Wyoming.
The system also has a positive net present value, making it economic as a water heating system.
Geothermal heat pumps can be convenient and reliable.
“When we look at renewables, some can be intermittent,” Geiger explains. “The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. Ground service heat pumps use the ambient temperature of the earth to heat and cool a structure.”
Because the earth’s temperature remains constant, the source is reliable and works everywhere.
“There are several different styles,” he adds. “A pond system can be the cheapest way, and a closed loop system circulates a fluid – propylene glycol – through a closed system. The fluid picks up heat and we can extract it in our house.”
The systems are 300 to 600 percent efficient, which makes them attractive. However, initial startup costs are expensive.
Other options, such as photovoltaic and wind, are also available.
“Worland is a better solar source than Miami, Fla.,” Geiger says. “We have lots of sun, high elevation and cold.”
The systems work well, particularly since costs for solar panels have decreased significantly in cost over the past several years, from four dollars per watt to 55 cents per watt.
At the end of the day, for those interested in alternative energy, Geiger says they should take a look at the economics of using renewables.
“Assess energy needs, change behaviors and do efficiency improvements first. Then we should talk about alternative energy,” Geiger comments. “There are compelling reasons to move to alternative energy, but we have to look at the economics.”
Reasons to switch
“Most commonly we hear that people are interested in renewables because of economic considerations,” UW Extension Energy Coordinator Milt Geiger explains. “People can be extreme and live off-grid, but that will be expensive.”
Many people also cite environmental concerns as their reason for looking to switch to alternative or renewable energy sources.
“People have to answer the question how much more are they willing to pay for electricity that doesn’t deplete a resource and ensures resources for the future,” he explains. “It varies from person to person.”
The other motivation for utilizing renewable or alternative energy is the technical and enjoyment aspects.
“Some people have great satisfaction from glancing at the meter and saying, ‘I produced this much energy today,’” says Geiger. “It is harder to put that into economic benefits, but it is an important consideration.”