Renewable Energy: What's the First Step?

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Many people using renewable energy at home will tell you that if you're interested in installing a solar or wind system to generate electricity, a good first step is to start cutting your electricity use. For example, you might want to start by installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, getting in the habit of turning off lights when you leave the room, plugging all your appliances into easy to shut off power strips, or any of dozens of other proven ways to cut your electricity use.

Why Energy Efficiency is Exciting To be honest, cutting your energy use doesn't have the romantic appeal of immediately installing solar panels or a wind turbine to generate all your electricity, but I think there are two good reasons to get excited about the idea.

1. You can start doing it today. Renewable energy systems are an investment, and financial or other personal circumstances may prevent you from purchasing one right now. But there are lots of simple, painless ways you can start cutting your electricity use around your home right now.

2. It can save you a bundle of cash down the road. The size of a renewable energy system to meet all your electric needs varies a lot, depending on how much electricity you use. If you cut your use of electricity first, you can buy a smaller, less expensive system that still meets your needs.

No, Seriously... It Saves Thousands of Dollars I've written before about how useful the Find Solar Web site is for getting rough estimates of the cost of a solar-electric system. You don't even have to have exact numbers from your electric bill to get an idea of how much a PV system for your home might cost.

On the other hand, if you do have the exact numbers from your electric bill, you can enter them into the site's solar calculator to get a better estimate. You can also tweak those numbers to get a rough idea of how much it would cost to install bigger or smaller PV systems. (Because if you use more electricity, it will likely take a bigger and more expensive electric system to meet your needs.)

Crunching the Numbers It's easy to find out how much electricity you use each month. You can request these figures from your utility, or, if you pay your bills online, you can probably get them just by logging into your account. Then plug those numbers into the Find Solar calculator in the spot for average monthly electricity use.

I found the estimate for a PV system based on my average electricity use, and it was $16,000. Yikes. But that's the average. If I plugged in the number from the month I used the least electricity, the estimate goes down to $8,000. If I use the number from the month I used the most electricity last year, the estimate goes up to $34,000. Yep, that's a breathtaking difference in price.

(Don't panic when you look at the largest number. Remember that for a grid-tied system you don't have to generate all your own electricity. You could buy the smallest system, it just might not meet all your needs for electricity. You'd have to buy the rest from your electric utility at the usual price.)

How to Start Saving Electricity The cost difference between a small PV system and a larger one is even more thought provoking when you consider that many steps to use less electricity at home are surprisingly easy and inexpensive.

Ready to go home and look for more ways to save electricity? Check out a few ideas for places to start here!