It’s a storyline that plays out over and over again on bright sunny days, where homeowners with grid-connected solar arrays can become energy producers for their neighbors. From these high-performance, inherently energy-efficient homes, excess electricity flows instantly onto the grid whenever rooftop energy production exceeds usage, where it is then consumed by nearby grid users. And in the view of Dan Chiras—author of The Homeowner’s Guide to Renewable Energy—solar homeowners such as these can effectively be viewed as non-traditional renewable energy sources, as their surplus energy becomes an energy source for others.
According to Chiras—a well-known writer and educator on renewable energy and green building—this scenario is fundamentally enabled by homeowners through significant reductions in overall energy usage. In other words, these homeowners should minimize overall energy usage in their dwellings through conservation and efficiency practices prior to pursuing the deployment of traditional renewable energy sources—including solar, wind, and other sources.
When you install a solar electric system or a wind generator, you become your own plant manager. You’re no longer at the mercy of your local power company.
That pragmatic guidance—dispensed through the Conservation Rules chapter—is typical of the advice Chiras delivers in droves in this revised and updated version of his book, which should be considered a prerequisite for anyone contemplating the pursuit of energy independence for their homestead.
Toward that goal, Chiras carefully sets out definitions and examples for terms he uses throughout the book, including the key building blocks of energy conservation (for example, switching off lights when one leaves a room or taking shorter showers) and energy efficiency (for example, using LED lightbulbs or installing a geothermal heating and cooling system). He then provides insights and suggestions on a wide range of practices, components, and systems that can be used to positively impact the overall energy usage metric. The upshot here, of course—in addition to moving toward the obvious goal of energy independence—can be dramatically reduced utility bills.
The remaining chapters delve into the general landscape as well as relevant specifics of the major renewable energy choices available to the homeowner. While one can find more detailed reference books that focus singularly on each of these topics, as a comprehensive work there is probably no equal. The entire complement of chapters includes:
- Renewable Energy—Clean, Affordable, and Reliable
- Conservation Rules—The Cornerstone of Your Energy Future
- Solar Hot Water Systems—Satisfying Domestic Hot Water Needs with Solar Energy
- Free Heat—Passive Solar and Heat Pumps
- Solar Hot Air and Hot Water Systems: Affordable Heat from the Sun
- Wood Heat
- Passive Cooling—Staying Cool Naturally
- Solar Electricity—Powering Your Home with Solar Energy
- Wind Power—Meeting Your Needs for Electricity
- Microhydro—Generating Electricity from Running Water
For homeowners living in cooler climates where heating drives the majority of utility costs, the Free Heat chapter would be of high interest. Among the topics explored in depth: the fundamentals of passive solar heating; the importance of properly siting a home such that its long axis has an east-west orientation to maximize solar gain; and the pros and cons of ground source heat pumps.
As one might expect in a book on renewables, the Solar Electricity chapter is robust and may have the most universal appeal, due to the technology’s broad applicability and its rapidly declining cost curve. Though Chiras does not specifically dwell on the concept of the zero energy home—homes that produce as much energy as they consume over the course of a year—solar can of course be one of the key lynchpins toward a posture of zero energy or energy independence. While the entire book is well illustrated, Chiras has used a healthy dose of diagrams and illustrations in this chapter to reinforce his prescriptive guidance on grid-connected systems, grid-connected systems with battery backup, and off-grid systems.
This book works nicely as a ready reference for the homeowner considering renewable energy alternatives, largely due to the fact it is well grounded by the real-world experiences of Chiras around how these often-complex practices and systems work, and how to approach integrating them into a new or existing home. Much of the content has been collected and vetted through the homes and structures Chiras has lived in or built over the years, or from his experiences as director and instructor at The Evergreen Institute—a renowned center focused on renewable energy and green building. And for those wanting to dive deeper into any of the topics, he includes a comprehensive Resource Guide section at the back of the book, a nearly 30-page, chapter-by-chapter list of relevant publications and organizations.