Solar and Biofuels offer alternatives to petroleum
Larry Behnke and his 20+ year old solar panels
As gas prices continue to rise it is no surprise that many Americans are looking for more efficient ways to power their homes and automobiles. People are taking matters into their own hands and finding ways to conserve energy. From installing solar panels on their homes to manufacturing biodiesel from used vegetable oil, consumers are saving energy, and not a moment too soon.
According to a recent ABC News Online article, former National Iranian Oil Company executive Dr. Ali Samsam Bakhtiari said the world’s oil fields are producing as much oil as they can. He said there are five years left to plan priorities for the use of crude oil. But the day is coming when there won’t be enough oil for everyone
But there are alternatives. Solar water heaters, solar electric energy and biofuels are just a few.
Merely switching to compact florescent bulbs can make a profound difference. According to the Energy Star Web site, if every household in the U.S. replaced one light bulb with a qualified compact fluorescent light bulb, it would prevent enough pollution equal to removing one million cars from the road.
Many automobiles now burn flex fuels, which have been proven to significantly reduce greenhouse gases. Flex fuels are combinations of ethanol and petroleum-based fuels.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now has a ‘vegetarian’ research vessel that runs on soybean oil. In August of 2005, the Huron Explorer became the first modern U.S. research vessel to operate free of petroleum products.
Solar energy and biofuels are nothing new. Solar cells were invented in 1954. And it was over 100 years ago that Rudolph Diesel created his diesel engine and it didn’t burn fossil fuels – it ran on peanut oil.
During the oil crisis of 1973 renewed interest in solar energy began and by 1977 President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House and established incentives for solar energy systems.
Many solar energy companies got their start during this time, but few survived once the embargo ended. Fuel became abundant and the Reagan administration allowed the solar energy incentives to lapse.
One company that survived is Energy Conservation Services of North Florida, Inc. ECS is a state licensed contracting company specializing in the installation and maintenance of solar hot water, solar pool heating and solar electric systems.
Tom and Shirley Lane own and operate ECS and have been in the business since 1977.
“We did a lot of swimming pools in the late 80s,” Tom said. “We did a lot of solar electric, too.”
Lane said that even in the 80s and 90s it usually took three years for a solar heating system to pay for itself. However, as fuel bills go up solar systems become even more valuable.
In August of 2005, President Bush signed into law a massive federal energy bill providing $14.5 billion in tax breaks for builders and homeowners. Existing homeowners as well as new homebuyers who install solar hot water systems and/or solar electric systems after July 1, 2006, can take advantage of a variety of tax incentives and rebates.
“The most fascinating thing is our business has grown 600 percent since October 2005,” Lane said. “And 95 percent of it has nothing to do with the incentives.”
Lane said most people are not even aware that incentives are available.
Tax credits, deductions, rebates and loan programs make it more affordable than ever to go solar. But act quickly; these credits are set to expire on December 31, 2007.
Additionally, Gainesville Regional Utilities has a $350 to $450 grant for customers who install a solar hot water system.
Clay Electric offers a five-year eight percent loan program for solar hot water systems. Combined with the 30 percent tax rebate, solar systems will pay for themselves in about five years.
For information on grants and tax credit visit: www.dep.state.fl.us/
High Springs resident Larry Behnke has been using solar energy for 22 years.
After reading an article in Mother Earth News he bought a book and installed his own system, which to this day provides power to his home.
“I became part of the ‘back to the land movement’ a decade after it was popular,” Behnke joked, describing how he and his family roughed it, using kerosene lamps to light their home prior to installing his solar system.
“It was really easy to go from kerosene to solar lights,” Behnke said. “Just hit a switch.”
The Behnke’s used a variety of cost cutting methods to power their home.
“We used propane to heat water and for refrigeration,” Behnke said. “We used the wood stove for heating the home.”
Behnke pointed out that another perk of his system is he can always add panels as necessary. The system grows as the need grows.
“We started with three panels and two batteries,” Behnke said. The system now uses five panels and four golf-cart batteries and provided power for the electric tools used to build the dome home he now lives in.
The dome is wired half-solar and designed with energy efficiency in mind. The skylight faces south allowing sunlight to shine in during the cold winter months. In the summer the window is low enough to keep the sun out and the home cool. A solar powered exhaust fan draws hot air out the top. A wood stove warms the home in the winter. A gas water heater provides hot water on demand.
“It senses when you turn on the hot water faucet. It heats water as you need it instead of having a 40-gallon tank sitting around,” Behnke said. “That is so wasteful. With this system you never run out of hot water. This saves you money. It is false economy to keep buying the tanks.”
Behnke said that in Europe and the Orient this type of water heater is in popular use.
“They compare our system to leaving your car idling all day in case you need to drive it somewhere.”
Behnke said he noticed a drop in his electric bill when he began using compact florescent light bulbs. His bill now averages about $20 a month with his refrigerator being the main electric consumer since his gas refrigerator stopped working. Even his well pump is powered by solar electricity.
“When the grid goes down during a hurricane for five days I can still pump water and have air circulating and have light at night,” he said.
Behnke took advantage of incentives offered during the Carter administration when he built his solar system. In the 22 years it has been in operation, the cost of this homemade system has been $16 a month.
“Solar energy pays for itself and is good for the environment,” Behnke said.