Perspective on Alternate Energy Sources Wind vs. Solar vs. Generator

(based on Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex)

Non-weather related power outages happen in places like California, or maybe New York, but not in Texas. Or do they?

Texas leads the way nationwide in utilizing renewable energy sources and offering the options to customers. However, the state doesn’t offer incentives for individuals to produce their own power sources, but legislation provides tax breaks for businesses who opt for implementing alternative power sources. The federal government, however, offers some incentives for those who want to explore the options of wind and solar energy.

Yet in February 2011 many Texas towns experienced rolling blackouts as extreme cold and icy conditions taxed the power grid. Later the same year, record-breaking heat drove energy consumption even higher than the cold weather did. Some analysts project this trend of rolling outages will continue in the future.

While a fifteen-minute power loss on occasion doesn’t bring with it much more than annoyance, many people experienced days without electricity during 2011. The trend of consumers using more electricity than power companies can provide has many residents and small business owners scrambling for a way to supplement electricity with backup generators or some other alternative energy.

Three main options for alternative power come to the forefront when looking for a system to offset the effects of an overtaxed energy grid. Wind, solar and natural gas generators all provide electricity, but a backup system powered by natural gas seems to be the most cost efficient and reliable. This is not a small portable generator, but a system installed and ready to kick on any time electric power goes out.

Initial Cost of Alternative Power Systems
Without knowing detailed specs for a particular home or business, estimating the initial cost becomes very difficult. Breakeven points depend highly on the initial cost and system selected. At first glance, wind and solar energy appear to have no operating costs. In reality, they do require maintenance. These expenses must be considered as well to determine a true point in time when implementation of the alternative energy system pays for itself.

When comparing initial costs, many factors influence the exact price of a system. The figures in the chart below are an average cost of installation for a system large enough to power an energy efficient home of around 2,000 square feet.

When looking at the three main alternatives, the initial cost is a big factor in selecting the best option for your needs. Someone looking for an option completely off the current electricity grid may fare better with a combination of wind and solar. However, for most consumers, the initial investment to implement such a large-scale option is cost prohibitive. Not to mention, a windmill large enough to power a home or business completely requires additional land acreage. Most companies require a minimum of one acre for every windmill.

Unless they remain tied to the electricity grid, both wind and solar alternatives require a bank of batteries to store power for times when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun doesn’t shine. Batteries add to the cost of maintaining an energy system and must be kept at specified temperatures to increase efficiency and avoid damage. Without batteries, these systems do little good during a power outage. Without a substantial bank of batteries, the stored power may or may not outlast a prolonged outage.

While smaller solar systems exist at a much lower cost, these are usually systems designed for short-term power outages and do not provide a enough electricity to run a complete household. In an instance where the power outage lasts for a significant amount of time, the smaller systems do not provide adequate energy.

Advantages and Disadvantages
Once installed, wind and solar energy sources are indeed free to operate from a standpoint of not requiring any type of fuel. However, operation costs include maintenance. If severe weather damages a wind turbine blade, a solar panel or any other component, replacement costs are high. While the owner can maintain the battery bank, he or she should anticipate the need to replace batteries every few years or more often if one becomes unusable.

Wind and solar are natural energy sources, clean and appealing to those looking for a green option to poweringtheir home. However, the production of solar panels does carry a potential for pollution. The blades of windmills kill birds and emit noise. In addition, even if a residence has an extra acre of land available, many homeowner associations do not allow wind turbines due to height restrictions and accompanying noise.

Most wind turbines require a minimum wind speed of 10 MPH for operation. When the wind falls below that level, blades cease operation and production of any electricity. At that point, the home must either revert to grid-based electricity or utilize battery power. Thus, in Texas summers, as August temperatures soar and wind stops blowing, the windmill isn’t very helpful.

Because solar panels depend on sunshine, cloudy days produce little power. Imagine the weeklong rains of spring in Texas and dreary days of winter when temperatures plummet and consumers need more energy.

During peak times when power outages are most likely, these two systems may be the least efficient. At times, when the wind blows nonstop for days at high rates of speed, and the sun shines brightly for months without rain, these systems can produce too much energy, causing a different type of problem. Although utility companies will credit an account for excess energy, the system must be on the grid to realize this option. In the case of too much power, individuals may be asked to shut down their system for a specified length of time.

A natural gas generator is installed with a connection to natural gas. Although it won’t produce electricity as a supplement, it automatically comes to life in the event of an outage. This system continues running as long as needed without any battery requirement. As an alternative for protecting a family or business during power outages, rolling or otherwise, the natural gas generator is the most reliable. It is also the least likely to suffer damage during fierce Texas storms. Resembling a large air conditioning/heating unit, most homeowner associations have no stipulations against installation.

The initial cost of a large system is roughly a third of the cost for a solar or wind alternative, and smaller systems cost a fraction of the other types. Once installed, the natural gas generator requires virtually no maintenance, giving it an additional advantage over other systems.
Operating costs of a gas generator depend on the current price for natural gas. While prices fluctuate from month to month, overall prices have decreased in the last few years as production increases. Analysts expect the downward trend to continue as more gas wells begin increasing the supply.

Natural gas burns clean and thus like some other fuels for backup generators. Regardless of weather, the natural gas generator provides electricity in the event of a power outage without fail, and it won’t stop even if fifteen minutes turns into days or weeks.