Alternative Energy Homes

I think we’ll be seeing more and more alternative energy homes in the coming years. The combination of higher fuel cost, increasing environmental awareness and improved alternative technology will drive this trend.

Here, I want to describe what I consider an energy-aware home to be and what factors someone building such a home today might consider.

Definition of Alternative Energy Home

To begin, my definition is not as restricted as some.

I believe a home can still be considered an alternative energy home even if it’s connected to the grid. Some purists might insist that only homes that are completely self-sufficient should be considered alternative energy.

I admire the commitment of someone who lives “off the grid”, but I believe that requires more of a lifestyle change than is reasonable for most of us. The few people I’ve known that have done that almost seem to define their lives in terms of their energy lifestyle.

I think most of us want to be responsible citizens and save money while protecting the environment, but we don’t want it to be the focal point of our lives.

We want to have light at night, have our homes be reliably warm in the winter and even have the luxury of accessing the internet via our own computer without having to worry about the charge of the battery bank in the basement.

To my way of thinking, a person can use the utility companies for their convenience and still be environmentally responsible.

By convenience, I mean being able to have power even if the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. I also mean being able to leave home for a few days or a week without having to have your friends tend the woodstove to keep the pipes from freezing.

I’ll discuss this further but first I want to make another point.

If a home derives all its energy from the utility companies, I don’t consider that an alternative energy home even if the utility companies produce their power from alternative sources such a hydropower or wind farms. In my definition, at least part of a home’s energy should be self produced to qualify.

At the same time, I think energy companies should be encouraged to use renewable sources and eventually eliminate the need for fossil fuels.

Energy policy should be multi-faceted. Alternative energy homes are part of the solution because they use a minimal about of energy to begin with and produce at least some of what they need from renewable resources themselv

Characteristics of an Alternative Energy Home

Several factors characterize an alternative energy home. And it's not just slapping a solar panel on the roof.

The first step is energy conservation. This means things like having a well-insulated home with all air leaks sealed.

It also means using energy efficient appliances and adopting energy saving habits. These can be as simple as turning lights off when you’re not in a room or getting used to having the house a little cooler and perhaps wearing a sweater.

The point is that saving energy is as valuable as producing energy. Perhaps more so since virtually all forms of producing energy have some downside.

A simple example, consider heating a home with wood.

Imagine two homes, each about 2,000 square feet. One is poorly insulated, has single pane windows and a lot of leaks. In addition it uses an old wood stove that in both inefficient and dirty.

The second home is well-insulated, tight and has high efficiency windows with insulated shades. Also, it has a modern stove that burns at almost 90% efficiency while producing almost no smoke.

You can well imagine that it’s going to take a lot more wood to heat the first home. In addition, the home won’t be as comfortable – the rooms will be drafty and the heat won’t be as even.

You can also see that if it took four cords to heat the first home for a winter and one and one half cords for the second, the energy saving efforts in the first home were the equivalent of three and one half cords of wood every year.

Whether the energy source we’re talking about is wood oil or the wind, energy conservation reduces energy need.

So the first demand of an alternative energy home is energy efficiency.

Passive Solar Design

Passive solar design principles should be part of any energy efficient home design. The sun will provides heat and light if we pay even a little bit of attention to it.

Although optimizing a home for passive solar collection can become complex, significant benefit can result from even the simplest application of solar principles, such as having most of the windows on the south side of the home and few on the north. Passive Solar Home Heating and Passive Solar Design Rules of Thumb have more information on this subject.

Home Heating

Home heating and cooling carry the biggest energy demands for a home. Therefore it makes sense that alternative forms of home heating are important in an alternative energy home.

I’ve already mentioned passive solar heating. Geothermal Energy and Wood Burning are two other alternative heating sources that are practical today.

Energy Generation

Power in the form of electricity is ubiquitous in modern life. Heating, lighting, refrigeration, entertainment and many conveniences all require electricity.

The first step, as we’ve talked about is, energy conservation. If nothing else, buying Energy Star rated appliances saves a considerable amount of energy. You can find more simple energy saving ideas on the Energy Saving Tips page.

Ideally, and alternative energy home would generate at least some of it’s own power. The technology to do this still requires considerable commitment on the part of the home owner, but it’s becoming simpler and more practical all the time. The main generators people use are wind turbines and photovoltaic panels (see Solar Panels and Wind Turbines). They aren't as generally applicable as the wind and sun, but run-of-river turbines work great and are very practical in the appropriate situations. For example many ranches and farms have streams running through them that can generate enough power to run their whole operation. One of my dreams is to have a home on several wooded acres in the mountain with a stream with a waterfall running through it. I’d enjoy the beauty of the waterfall and divert a bit of the flow though an unobtrusive turbine to generate electricity for the home.

Fun to dream. As we consider all these options, it’s easy to imagine a time when homes require very little energy and generate a good part of it themselves. When they can’t meet their needs themselves they have the power grid to fall back on, only the electricity in this imagined grid of the future will be generated from sustainable resources rather than today’s fossil fuels.

That’s nice to dream about too.

Check out other pages if you want to learn more about alternative energy. You can find links below.


Click here to return to Alternative Energy Primer home page from Alternative Energy Homes

Passive Solar HOme Heating

Solar Hot Water

Solar Pool Heating

Solar Energy

Wind Turbines


Woodburning Stoves

Masonry Heaters