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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.


Which Renewable Energy Sources Will We Include in Our New Home?

Wood Pile

The Small Home, Big Decisions series follows Jennifer and her husband, Tyler, as they build a self-reliant homestead on a piece of country property in northeastern Kansas. The series will delve into questions that arise during their building process and the decisions they make along the way. The posts are a work in progress, written as their home-building adventure unfolds.

Before we even began the discussion about solar panels vs. wind turbines vs. ground-source heat pumps vs. woodstove, Tyler and I first considered design and efficiency. We chose to build our house smaller than the average new U.S. home, because the less space we build means the less space we have to heat and cool. We are modeling our house design on passive solar design principles, including in selecting the house site and orientation, window placement and overhang, and insulation. We know that having an efficient, well-insulated structure will reduce our need for energy consumption. (Don’t worry: How to select and choose from the many renewable energy sources will get more play in later posts; this is meant to serve as an introduction to the topic.)

Currently, we are looking into renewable energy sources. Based on the cost of connecting a pipe to the natural gas line and running it our future home, and our general distaste for fracking and drilling for natural gas in the area, we are going to have a propane tank put in for the two items we need gas to run (our stove and the water heater’s pilot light). To power everything else, and to really minimize how much propane we need to use, we’re looking at a mix of wood, solar and maybe even wind to supplement.

A quick note: We did consider staying off-grid entirely; however, we don’t have the capital or the skills to outright purchase and install the systems that would be required. Kansas currently allows for net metering, so we’ll be able to “sell” out home-produced energy to the grid.

Wood heat. This, to us, is a no-brainer. We own several acres of woods and are committed to sustainably harvesting from this space to supply our woodstove and heat our home (see the beginnings of Tyler's wood-splitting accomplishments above). With a 95-percent efficient propane furnace as backup, and with the incredibly clean-burning and efficient woodstoves on the market, we’re totally sold and have planned the stove’s central location into our house design. Coming home and building a fire in our woodstove is something we’ve wanted to do for comfort and enjoyment, in addition to the self-sufficient, practical reasons. We will move in to a house equipped with a stove, which is one of the “really cool things about our house” that gives us the energy to work through the more hairy details. We have yet to begin the search for the best woodstove.

Solar panels. A local company, Cromwell Solar, has partnered with a local bank to provide leasing arrangements for solar panels. We are planning to pursue this option, as the upfront cost of solar panels, while declining steadily over time, is possibly too high for our budget. However, with the leasing, we will have the option to buy out the panels at a later date. We are looking into the options with Good Energy Solutions, and a combined solar-wind system that incorporates products from Pika Energy as well.

Wind turbine. Our land has a hill; a large, steep hill surrounded by open space on all sides. Our woods are a good distance from the top of the hill, so the site seems nearly ideal for a home wind turbine. We haven’t looked into the details of this option much, but we have done some reading on home wind power and are currently exploring Bergey wind turbines. Ideally, we’d have both wind and solar, so we have a variety of renewable energy sources to run not only our house, but our future barn, electric power equipment and tractors, and so on. By having more than one option, we increase our energy security and, obviously, the amount of renewable energy we provide for ourselves and back to the grid. This would likely be installed at a later date, due to cost limitations, but we are looking into federal tax credits to make this a more feasible option (keep reading for more on these credits).

Geothermal. Right now, as we’re still not to the point of pouring a foundation, is an ideal time to consider ground-source heat pumps. The initial cost is steep and, even with a federal tax rebate incentive, out of reach financially for us. If you are interested in geothermal, however, this incentive, as I read it, would provide you with a good chunk of change back as part of your first tax return after you install the system. 

For information on tax credits for all of the renewable energy sources considered above, you can refer to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE). We plan to continue to look into the credits and other incentive options as we move forward. Stay tuned!

Photo by Tyler Gill of the wood pile he has started. He is cutting up a fallen oak tree so that we'll have a stockpile of dry wood ready for the woodstove next winter.

Next in the series: How Do We Finalize Our Home Construction Loan?
Previously in the series: Land Survey Plat Update: How Did We Work with a Planning Department and 2 County Commissions?


Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer and Tyler by leaving a comment below!

michael
3/2/2015 8:34:34 AM

If your building small, efficient and passive solar your heating and cooling requirements should be very low. That will allow you to go with smaller units than is usually required, so that will be a big money saver for you in buying what you need for the house and your costs to run. An earlier commenters experience proves that and so do a lot of other peoples real world experience. You should look into Green Building Advisor website there is a lot of proven info there even without joining. They will have links to The Pretty Good House which is an informative article that helps to guide you in the best direction to spend your money for the greatest return in savings throughout the life of the house. Also if your building small and efficient you can eliminate the cost of the propane furnace, water heater and more expensive gas range as well as never having to buy propane at higher and higher prices. The gasses that can build up in the house from range use alone can be very bad healthwise over time without constant ventilation. The money you save on all those items will allow you to put more into the house and install a larger solar array to make more electricity to be able to run an electric stove that will cleanly heat your house when in use, a mini split that will efficiently heat and cool your house and a high end electric hot water heater that will last a long time and all these items will be run free of fossil fuels at a fixed rate from your nice clean solar system. It's cheaper to invest in the extra solar now plus then you don't have any of the maintenance cost associated with the fossil fuel items down the road.


jkongs
3/1/2015 5:04:47 PM

Wow - thanks for sharing such inspiring stories! I'm even more ready to dive in, and am really glad to hear about the various places in the country that smart design, modest size, and smart use of renewables is definitely doable and a long-term way to go.


mark
2/28/2015 10:44:39 AM

We finished building on Whidbey Island in WA in Oct 2013. We built a 1985 sq foot 2 story using SIP's and a Bosch geothermal system. We also have 2 small woodstoves that we use occasionally in the house, but the only source of heat in the garage/shop. We have 11 acres of large 2nd growth trees, about 140 feet tall on average, some of which randomly fall and create a lifetime supply of firewood. We also have a 7 KWh solar array on the roof. We are close to net-zero on energy consumption, and actually turn an annual profit on the net-metering and WA state incentive plan. The house can be viewed at: http://www5.eere.energy.gov/buildings/residential/partner_profile/548 withe the red paint.


vickchuckshaw
2/27/2015 6:52:02 PM

Hi Jennifer. There are some pretty remarkable similarities between your plans and our house. Thought you might be interested in our experience. We live in southern Utah @ 7,500'. Winters can get down to -30 and summers up to 90. We are blessed with LOTS of sunshine year-round. Our house is small - we heat 684 sq. ft. + 2 small lofts. We built with SIPs and our roof is roughly R-50 and the walls R-30 (haven't looked up the actual nums recently). We designed our house to maximize passive solar, heat with a small, efficient Morso wood stove baked up with a piezo-fired, high-efficiency wall furnace (which we only turn on if we're leaving for a few days in the winter). The solar/wood combo is dynamite. During last year's cold/snowy winter, we burned 1/3 cord of deadfall wood from our 40 acre property. On full sun days, we'll burn a short, hot fire in the morning and the sun will heat our house to 80 degrees. On cloudy days, we'll have another short, hot fire later in the day and that's it. Small + passive solar + insulation + wood is unbeatable. Plus the overhangs and insulation keep it wonderfully cool in summer. FWIW, we are off-grid with an 1,100W system that runs our well pump, efficient freezer and fridge, clothes washer, lighting, power tools etc. Plenty of power, if you pay attention a bit. We do have an auto-start, propane backup generator. While we've found the generator really helpful, we don't run it much - less than 50 hours total over the last 2 years. Good luck with your home. A lot of our country's problems can be eliminated if we'd only pay attention to common sense. Peace, Vicki Shaw, Escalante utah


paulab
2/27/2015 8:01:35 AM

Sorry if this goes twice. You might look into WindEnergy7. I think it is out of Ohio, and there are many ways to configure a wind/solar option. Also, check into the Vermont Bun Baker, from Vermont Marble. Neat little stove. VERY efficient, and has an oven in the bottom and you can cook on the top. So, if you are firing up the stove, you may as well save the propane, and cook/heat at the same time!


caresabouthealth
2/25/2015 2:49:19 PM

Trouble is that most wood heating experts have a vested interest - they earn money by selling wood stoves or firewood. That's why the opinions of the the UN Environment Program, the World Meteorological Association and the American Lung Association are important - their concerns are solely for the climate and our health. Global warming is complicated because limiting warming to 2 degrees (the target set at Copenhagen and Cancun) cannot be achieved without reducing emissions of methane, black carbon, carbon monoxide etc. Phasing out log-burning stoves in developed countries was one of 16 key measures to achieve this woodsmoke.3sc.net/ghg The wood heating industry ignores all these considerations and bases its 'climate calculations' on the assumption that we have 100 years to fix the problem, despite the fact that the 2 degree target is likely to be exceeded in the next 25-30 years. If you have done your research, you would known that a modern EPA-certified wood stove emits 97 lbs of PM2.5 pollution per year (that's the the type of pollution most strongly associated with premature deaths). A modern passenger car emits about 20 grams per year, so the average EPA-certified stove is causes as much pollution per year as 2,200 gasoline fueled passenger cars - woodsmoke.3sc.net/woodheater-car-comparison#USEPA Wood stoves are therefore bad for our health as well as bad for the planet. It would be worth looking into this further before making your decision, especially Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment give 17 reasons to ban wood burning www.ehhi.org/woodsmoke/utah_17reasons_0115.shtml and The Fireplace Delusion http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-fireplace-delusion


jkongs
2/25/2015 8:39:01 AM

Missy: I honestly hadn't given much thought to EMFs from solar or wind energy. Not that I haven' considered EMFs at all, but that with my daily interaction with computers, WiFi networks, and cell phones - as a start - I don't know that I consider solar panels or wind turbines a worse potential offender. Also, the benefits, for us, greatly outweigh the risks. CaresAboutHealth: Thank you for bringing up these points. Today's modern woodstoves are incredibly efficient and burn much cleaner than previous models. I will look more closely at the HAC system. Here's one article from a wood-heating expert that we've referenced in making our decision: http://www.motherearthnews.com/renewable-energy/wood-heat-zm0z13fmzsor.aspx. Thanks for reading!


caresabouthealth
2/24/2015 9:51:25 PM

Rather shocked you are ignoring the UN Environment Program and World Meteorological Association's recommendation to phase out log-burning stoves in developed countries to reduce global warming as well as improve health woodsmoke.3sc.net/greenhouse Even the cleanest log-burning stoves are pretty dirty and cause excessive global warming compared to the alternatives http://woodsmoke.3sc.net/ghg Ground source heat pumps are expensive, but air source heat pumps are pretty cheap and can deliver 5 or 6 times as much heat to the house as they use in electricity. In Australia, Matthew Wright, executive director of Zero Emissions Australia (dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero) recommends replacing gas heating with efficient heat pumps (that can heat and cool homes) instead of gas systems - the benefits are about the same as installing solar PV - http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2015/2/24/smart-energy/thinking-going-solar-what-about-air-conditioner-instead If you have a properly insulated passive solar house this would be an ideal alternative to the health hazards of burning wood. Before going ahead, please consider the advice of the American Lung Association, who caution "against wood-burning and urges cleaner alternatives for winter heat" www.lung.org/associations/states/california/for-the-media/american-lung-association-in-16.html


missy
2/24/2015 6:36:59 AM

I am curious if you have done any research on ElectroMagnetic Fields in relation to your solar and wind energy options. I dream about having an off grid home at some point but unfortunately wind and solar are absolutely terrible offenders when it comes to electromagnetic pollution and its horrible effects on our body. This is what I have read anyway. If you have not considered this I would suggest for you to research EMF pollution and sensitivity. I do not know a lot about this and plan to research more on my own as well. But I do know that after having my home filtered from this pollution my families health has improved significantly. I would be curious as to any comments you have and if you find any info that may be helpful. I REALLY hope that there is away around this because in my heart I believe that EVERY home should have solar and wind, but not if it deteriorates our health.