Alternatives: educate, design, budget
In the energy business, “alternatives” refer to alternative ways to get the benefits of electrical power without the use of depletable fossil fuels. For most of the planet, and for The Bahamas, utility power is produced using some form of oil-based fuel. Throughout most of human history, the most popular alternative for utility power has been hydro-electric power, which uses the power of rivers or oceans to move turbines. Windmills have also been used as an alternative to pump water.
In recent years, however, those windmills have been used to turn turbines to create electricity, and are now an alternative source of utility power along with acres of solar collectors producing photoelectric power. These two alternatives are the focus of planners of utility power everywhere. But these require massive and dramatic investments by the state, and conversion has been slow for most places, especially for small economies.
On the other hand, individual homeowners or businesses have a range of opportunities to use alternatives to reduce their reliance on grid power. There are many systems for this reduction, from solar or wind systems to geothermal and chemical systems, but for the homeowner, the primary keys to reducing energy are still education, design and budget.
Most people have no idea how power is used in their homes or buildings. They turn stuff on or off, believing that power is being turned on or off at the same time. They are surprised to find that many of their appliances, especially their favorites – the ones blinking the time all day and night, or that cycle all day, like the water heater – are always using power. Knowing how power is used in your building is the first step in controlling the use of power, and the most important step in developing an energy strategy. A British study has shown that when an individual is given direct feedback on their use of power, their consumption is reduced by between eight percent and 15 percent, without any change in their environment. Monitoring the use of power in the building is the first step to reducing it.
Design is under-rated. If instead of turning on the air conditioning, opening the windows allowed cooling breezes to create comfort, the cost of power to run air conditioning would be dramatically reduced. If the push-out shutters and porches prevented the sun from pouring into the house and heating it up, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is low and hot, the need to turn on the air conditioning in the first place is reduced. Attic insulation or ventilation reduces the extent to which the ceiling becomes a radiator in the late afternoon. Reflective pavements on the west side of the building bounce the sun’s heat into large openings, like sliding glass doors, increasing heat gain. A tree with a canopy planted strategically is a traditional solution. Design is a most valuable player on the energy strategy team.
What about budget? The most common response to a question about using alternatives is that “it’s too expensive”. This is based upon the fact that most off-grid systems cost a lot of money compared to installing an electrical service. They may seem expensive, but when compared with other choices the homeowner makes, they may not be. For example, the cost of a fairly large off-grid system would cost less than a new car. But while the homeowner would march into the bank and borrow the money to buy the car, an asset that loses value from the moment it leaves the showroom, they consider a PV system (solar generator) too expensive, which first adds value to the building to which it is added, then increases that value as the cost of electricity increases. A loan for the solar system would usually make more sense.
But on the assumption that the loan is not an option, how does the homeowner build a strategy for the use of alternatives? The answer is to create an energy budget, with a strategy for eventually converting to alternatives:
1. A solar water heater. The standard electric water heater accounts for almost a third of the typical power bill, and can be replaced for a modest amount.
2. Emergency lighting and power. A small PV system on a panel that provides essential power and lighting during emergencies eliminates the need for fossil fuel-based generators and operates safely during and after storms.
3. Alternative lighting. Lighting for garden and security uses may be separated from the house supply.
4. A variety of pumps. Pool pumps and pumps for lawn sprinklers and other irrigation purposes are easy targets for a staged implementation of an alternatives program.
5. Not quite alternatives, the use of LP gas appliances increases internal control of power in the home. This may be especially useful for heat producing appliances, like ovens and dryers. However, this alternative simply replaces one fossil source with another.
Recently there has been concern about The Bahamas’ ability (or lack thereof) to meet the UN Millennium Objectives. As important as they are, those objectives are less important than our own. The lifestyle of the homeowner is created more by the extent to which his pocket-book and his bills are friends than by the satisfaction of the UN goals, and therefore it makes sense to reduce reliance on power that will cost more over time. By first educating themselves about energy use, designing buildings that require less external energy and creating a budgetary strategy to eliminate the need for grid power, the homeowner is also satisfying those Millennium Goals. Who knows? By 2030 we might just have met them.
• Patrick Rahming & Associates is a full-service design firm providing architectural, planning and design services throughout The Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Visit its website at www.pradesigns.com, design blog at https://rahmblings.wordpress.com and like its Facebook page. The firm can be contacted by phone at 356-9080 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. The firm’s mission is to help clients turn their design problems into completed projects through a process of guided decision-making, responsible environmental advice and expert project administration.