Thursday, October 27, 2005

Tilting at Windmills

So here's another alternative energy rant.

I just found out that one can purchase a smallish windmill (a little over 3.5 ft. in diameter) for installation in one's home. It generates about 5-600 kilowatt hours
annually, which is about 5% of average per-home electrical consumption in the US.

I'm not rushing out to buy one, of course. I rent. And even if I didn't, I'd hold off. I'm cheap, and right now the economics don't make much sense. At the 9.5ยข per kWh that the DOE estimates for 2006, the annual household expenditure would be about $1,100 on electricity. So it would cost me $10,500 to buy three windmills, and they would only save me about $150 per year. Assuming current prices stay constant, it would take about 70 years for the things to pay for themselves. A lot houses don't even last that long.

Still, this is encouraging news. With real tax incentives (say a tax credit of 20% of the amount spent, up to $1,500 max), three windmills would then cost homeowners $9,000. That's still 60 years to pay off the investment--again, too long. But if you figure that a) the price will drop as more people buy them and b) the technology will get better as the field becomes more competetive due to more people buying the product, in a relatively short time (5 years? 10?), it could well take only 30 years to pay off the investment.

And that's important. 30 years is a standard mortgage length. So if you paid an extra $9,000 to put in windmills when you built or bought a house and included the expense in your mortgage, the windmills would more or less pay for themselves without requiring any extra monthly expenditure (the electric bill savings would cancel out the extra money for mortgage payments).

If, by (say) 2013, every house (or apartment building or office building) newly bought or built were to produce 15% of its energy needs (by any green source, not just wind), that'd be a huge step forward. And energy savings (better windows, smarter heating systems, etc.) could actually bump up that percentage without requiring any extra energy production.

Why does this make me think about the role of government? Well, for one reason, at the simplest level, you can't have tax incentives without state and/or federal governments offering them. State incentives make a lot of sense to me--if I were California, I'd be desperate to have individual homes and work buildings using solar and wind power as much as practical. In the long term, California needs to sort out its messy energy policy and supply, but in the short term, any reduction in the demand for power plant energy will help with the brownout problems. But federal incentives--above and beyond the anemic ones Bush offered in his latest energy bill--are also crucial.

For obvious reasons, energy is a national security issue, an economic issue, and a health issue. And that isn't going to change in the foreseeable future. The only thing that's going to change is the difficulty of our getting oil--we're running low domestically, we're competing with the Chinese for suppliers abroad, and the supply itself is running low. So we need to start taking action on these issues now, before our petroleum addiction screws us. And I don't just mean $3-per-gallon screws us. I mean economic-collapse screws us. These small-scale solutions seem the most manageable way to start making changes because they wouldn't require a massive overhaul of the power grid or the plants contributing to it. We'll need to do that too, but that's more complicated and contentious.

Effectively, small scale requirements for green energy production would be just another code requirement for construction. Local and state codes already massively govern how people get their houses built (pipe diameter, railing height, spacing between wall studs, acceptable roofing materials, blah blah). Why not insist, at a federal level, that all new buildings built after, say 2007, have to produce at least 10% of their own electricity by green means? (So that Chicago could use wind power and Tucson could use solar.) Or even that all buildings bought after 2007 require the same?

This could be flexible. I have no problem with production swapping along the lines of what the EPA already allows for emissions. For example, if Coke didn't want a green plant, and Pepsi did, Pepsi could produce 20% of its own energy instead of 10% and Coke could give Pepsi money for doing so while it continued on with its own non-green consumption.

I guess this is all very obvious, and if I'm not preaching to myself, I'm probably preaching to the choir. But it's astonishing to me that a painless partial solution for a pressing need doesn't even get discussed in public by most politicians in office.


At 6:09 PM , Blogger Mike M. said...

One other idea here, and I think this is even mostly true now though it's not yet feasible for home use -- if you generate your own power, especially from a renewable, cost-free resource like wind, and you generate more power than you need, you're an independent power producer. Independent power producers all allowed to sell excess power back to the grid and I think that the major utilities are required to by it, at market rates. For reasons of convenience, will and cirumstance, I doubt that most people would want to generate their own home power, so there's no threat of the market being flooded. But, it seems to me that a combination of state and federal tax incentives, along with the prospect of making a few bucks a month, could motivate some people.


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