Four Steps to Becoming a Renewable Energy Resident

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By Debbie Van Der Hyde

Are you thinking about installing solar panels, a wind turbine, or a geothermal heating and cooling system for your home? Do you want to create your own electricity from renewable resources? How do you work with your local utility to set up net metering to sell unused energy back to the grid?

Before starting down the residential renewables path, make sure you are already maximizing your home energy conservation efforts. Review our article 10 Quick Ways to Green Your Home, or check the US Department of Energy site for more ideas.

Once you’ve got your home and behaviors as green as can be, think about your goals for energy production. Do you want to reduce your energy costs? Make money from an abundant natural resource on your property? And how important is the length of the payback period for your investment?

Solar, wind, and geothermal all are free and sustainable resources, but the initial residential installation costs are higher than conventional electrical or heating and cooling systems. Solar and wind also are variable resources, meaning that they are not available 24/7—so the energy produced must be used, stored, or sold back to a utility. In contrast, geothermal is a steady resource but must be tapped through pipes installed deep within the ground. (See our stories on solar and wind or geothermal for more information.)

Four steps to becoming a renewable energy resident

Call your local utility to understand which renewable options and resources are available in your area. According to a workshop co-sponsored by Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (NW SEED) and Puget Sound Energy, homeowners can take four steps to become part of the local energy movement:

Step 1: Assess needs. Determine how much energy you currently use and estimate costs to install solar panels, a small wind turbine, or a geothermal pump.

  • Solar: Depending on the installer, solar photovoltaic panels can cost approximately $6,000 to $9,000 per kilowatt (kW) installed. The size of the installation depends on your energy needs and the square footage of your home, with a typical installation averaging between three and eight kWs. Annual operating costs are minimal beyond periodically washing the panels. Homeowners also can purchase basic panel checkup plans from their solar contractor.
  • Wind: Small wind turbines can be approximately $20,000 installed. Ongoing operating costs also are very low, and the environmental benefits can offset these costs over the lifetime of the system. In some cases, micro-turbines and roof-mounted wind units may cost less; however, some experts have concerns that the technology still is unproven. Be sure to do your homework if you explore this route.
  • Geothermal: According to the Geothermal Exchange Organization, geothermal installation prices will vary based on home size, climate zone, excavation needs and the model of pump chosen. A general rule of thumb is $20,000 to $30,000 for a 2,000- to 3,000-square-foot home. These costs can be recouped over time, as customers will save approximately 50 percent on their utility bills, plus eliminate the costs of oil, propane, or natural gas.

Certain states and regions offer energy production incentives for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) produced with wind and solar as well as tax exemptions for systems less than one kW in size. The federal government also is offering until the year 2016 a 30-percent tax credit for the installed cost of small wind systems and geothermal pumps. Your state energy office or local utility may offer rebates for renewable energy systems as well. (For more information on state incentives, see the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency .)

Step 2: Evaluate feasibility. Consider your site and think about the feasibility of a renewable energy installation.

For solar, consider the typical weather patterns in your region, your home’s orientation to the sun, available space on the roof, and whether the roof is shaded by trees.

For wind, evaluate the wind speed on your property, by using a professional service or by viewing wind maps of your region. Small wind turbines usually are suitable only for residents with more than one acre of land and a Class 3 or greater wind. Wind turbulence from buildings can be a deterrent, and towers need to be at least 60 feet high, often more. Urban dwellers, especially, must consider their city’s building parameters, including height restrictions, as well as neighborhood covenants that may preclude residents from modifying their home’s exterior.

For geothermal, consider your property size, landscaping, and access. In a small lot, a contractor will need to use a drill rig to create bore holes up to 400 feet deep to install vertical pipes. A less expensive alternative called a horizontal loop system often is used in rural settings. Flexible pipe is laid in coils in shallow trenches below the frost line. For retrofits, also consider the system that the geothermal heat pump is replacing. Using existing ductwork will reduce costs.

Step 3: Get a contractor and permits. Find reputable solar, wind, or geothermal contractors in your area and discuss your goals and site. Compare bids and make a selection based on which solution will best meet your goals. Once you have selected a contractor and signed a contract, you or your installer will need to apply for an electrical permit and building permit, if applicable. If you are planning to generate energy from solar or wind, your utility or contractor also will add a DC-to-AC power inverter near your existing utility billing meter. This inverter is critical to converting the energy produced by your solar panels or turbine into a form that matches the grid. (Geothermal pumps are used only for heating and cooling the home and not for energy production.)

For wind and solar, you also will need to contact your utility to understand and apply for an interconnection agreement. While it varies by utility and state, this process may include installing a production meter in conjunction with the solar or wind installation. The production meter keeps track of energy that you do not use to power your home and can sell back to the grid. Some utilities reverse the meter for the energy sold back; others cut an annual check and send it to participating residents.

Step 4: Follow up with tax credits and maintenance. Once your system is installed, you can apply for your state’s renewable energy system certification for a state production credit as well as applicable federal tax credits. You also will need to maintain your system per installer guidelines and monitor production to help make sure that it keeps working over the lifetime of the system.

Congratulations! You’ve taken the first steps toward joining the local energy movement.

Debbie Van Der Hyde is an experienced freelance writer with a strong interest in sustainability, clean energy, and the green economy. 

© 2011 SCGH, LLC. All rights reserved.


  1. Walter Echols October 15, 2011
  2. Walter Echols October 16, 2011
  3. Douglas June 10, 2012
  4. Stacy December 18, 2013

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