Q. It's been so windy in my area the past few months that it's got me thinking about using windmills to generate power. I know this is done in lots of places but can it be used for homes?
A. Sure it can, but it all depends.
Drive around the rural countryside in your area and odds are good you'll see some older farms with mechanical windmills that pump their water. Wind technology has grown significantly over the years to today's wind turbines that generate electricity to help people lower their energy bills and work efficiently in both stand-alone systems and in systems tied to the electric grid.
But like I said, it all depends, and there are several key factors that determine whether or not you can use wind power for your home.
The main variables are your location and the availability of the wind resource – how strong the winds are and how consistent they are – as well as the site – how much room you have for the turbine that will not be blocked by trees or buildings, as well as how far the turbine will be located from your home since resistance from running a wire to the house or batteries will lose a great deal of the electricity that is produced.
Today's small wind turbines can be very cost-effective in producing power for a home or farm. If your local zoning laws allow the use of a wind turbine and your location offers a good wind resource and you have the room to put up a turbine, you ought to look into the use of this technology.
Keep one thing in mind – just because the wind is blowing near your home doesn't mean there is enough constant, strong wind to power a turbine for your energy needs.
Before getting too excited about using this technology, go to the Department of Energy's site for energy efficiency (www.eere.energy.gov) and check out the state wind resource maps. There are quite a few places in the country where wind energy makes a lot of sense from both economic and environmental aspects, so make sure you're located in one of them or you ought to consider alternatives.
Finally, you can get a lot of great information on small wind systems from the American Wind Energy Association (www.awea.org), including contact information for manufacturers and even a state-by-state guide that will help you plan for buying and installing a system for your home or property.
Q. In talking with some neighbors recently, I discovered that our utility bills seem to be quite a big higher than most of them are paying. I thought our bills were reasonable before, but now think they may be too high.
Any way I can find out what the average is?
A. Comparing your energy bills to those of your neighbors is a pretty difficult thing to do. Your homes might be the exact same size with the same floor plan and same type of appliances, but there may be huge differences in your bills for a whole bunch of reasons.
The prime culprit is usually lifestyle how many people live in your home, what temperature settings do they prefer, how often do you have guests for extended periods, how many children are in the house, etc.
But there are other factors as well about the houses themselves. Maybe your home faces east where it gets hit with the morning sun while your neighbor's home faces north. Maybe your attic insulation has been reduced by the big boxes you've got stored up there. Maybe your home has uncovered wood floors while your neighbor has thick carpeting and other thermal mass that soaks up heat. Or maybe your walls are painted a dark color while his light-colored walls better reflect light and cut down on the need for electric lights.
There's a great tool on the web that will let you figure out how your home's energy use compares with similar homes around the country. It's the ENERGY STAR Home Energy Yardstick (www.energystar.gov) that lets you input your last year's energy bills, give some simple information about your home and then lets you see how your home's energy and environmental performance compares with the average energy use in American homes.
It even gives suggestions for ways to reduce your energy use, and points you to a number of great web pages with tips and strategies for saving energy.
Ken Sheinkopf is a communications specialist with the American Solar Energy Society (www.ases.org). Send your energy questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.