The Power of the Wind and the Sun

Wind can be a gentle breeze grazing the sail of your boat on a hot day or a surprise gust during a rain storm. The sun can steadily coax raspberries to ripen or burn your shoulders while you work in the garden. Surely the wind and sun are two of nature’s primal forces in the Finger Lakes Region and yet when harnessed, they can also provide a source of clean and efficient electric power.

Guilford and Beth Mack in Phelps have always wanted to use the wind and sun to generate power. Adding and using renewable energy sources have been a family goal since the 1970s. “We have always had a commitment to the environment and a philosophy of using renewable energy; we don’t want to pump a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. We decided to heat with our own wood and do all we can to use renewable energy for our electric service. This makes so much sense to us,” says Guilford who is an electrical engineer. After the Macks’ last child went off to college, they knew the time had come to finally realize their dream and try both wind and solar energy, some 40 years later.

The Macks selected Halco’s Renewable Energy Division to design and install two systems to provide a combined 50 percent of their electric usage for a test year. They installed a wind electric turbine on a 100-foot tower in an open field near the Mack’s house. They also put in a grid-connected solar electric system oriented due-south on an adjustable-tilt pole mount several feet from their house.

Melissa Kemp, Halco’s manager of renewable energy explains, “When it comes to renewable energy, most people don’t realize that New York State has excellent wind and solar resources. In the Finger Lakes we have about two-thirds of the solar power of sunny Phoenix, Arizona. and a third more than the resources of Germany for example, where renewable energy is most often implemented. The Finger Lakes Region is a wonderful place for renewable energy and resources are plentiful.”

How is Wind Made Into Electricity?

“Wind is caused by the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface when the planet spins on its axis,” says Melissa. “Wind-power works just the opposite of a fan; instead of using electricity to make wind, power turbines that look like windmills use wind to make electricity.” The wind turns the blades, which spin a magnetic rotor on a high-speed shaft that is connected to a generator. The spin determines the frequency of variable AC into a load controller which then transforms DC back to AC power. Electricity is generated by much the same principle as the alternator on your car.

How is Solar Made Into Electricity?

Solar panels are usually placed in a sunny, unobstructed area facing south. When light hits the solar panels with particles of sunlight called photons, the panel converts them into electrons of DC electricity. An inverter takes the DC power and changes it to alternating current or AC power. AC power is the kind that your television, computer, and toasters use when plugged into the wall outlet.

Measuring the Power

To measure the effectiveness of both systems, a Net Energy Meter keeps track of all the power. The Macks have a small shed near their home that houses all of the inverters, meters, and digital displays. Any energy that is not used during production will go back into the electrical grid through the meter. Guilford adds, “Not only are we supplying our own electricity, but we are contributing our extra power to the NYSEG Grid for others to use.” Guilford likes to visit the shed where he can monitor the power because he is tracking the effectiveness of the two systems.

The Mack’s electric bill was only 34 dollars for the whole month of March. “The electric meter actually runs backward when you are producing more electricity than you need for your home. We literally sell it back to NYSEG,” explains Guilford. The original price tag for the wind and solar electric systems was approximately $70,000, but the Macks only paid about $35,000 after realizing nearly $15,000 for NYSERDA incentives, and taking $20,000 in federal and New York State tax credits. An attractive consideration for anyone implementing renewable energy is the 30 percent federal energy tax credit which currently runs through 2016.

Halco specializes in retrofitting existing and historical structures by performing complete energy audits and making recommendations for practical improvements so no energy is ever wasted. This is usually the first step in any project. Hal Smith, president of Halco Heating, notes, “This area has a highly-educated population when it comes to energy considering the many area colleges, industries, farms and companies committed to the Region’s health.”

Halco’s renewable energy business spans 60 percent solar, 35 percent geothermal and 5 percent wind. Some families now lease the solar panels instead of purchasing them so there is little cost up-front.

While Beth Mack continues to work at the Finger Lakes Surgical Center in Geneva, Guilford keeps close tabs on the performance of both renewable systems. He walks out to the shed often to compare and contrast his energy output. Based on their production results, the Macks indicate they will keep both the solar and wind systems. This year they are planning to add a few more solar panels to the equation, and their renewable system will be complete.


Industry Terminology

Sustainability is synonymous for self-sufficiency when it comes to managing the consumption of energy resources.

Net Zero
Net Zero means that renewable resources, such as geothermal, wind or solar energy are utilized for comfort. To achieve this goal, the tightness of a home in increased and energy loads are reduced. It also means that at the end of the year you do not owe your utility company any money.

Energy Audit
One of the fees on a utility bill (SBC/RPS fee) is sent to New York State to finance energy saving measures like comprehensive energy audits. These audits are performed at no charge to the consumer by local companies such as Halco that are accredited by the Building Performance Institute. An energy audit will pinpoint where you are wasting energy and make recommendations for correcting the problem.

Retrofit Net Zero
The results of an energy audit can leave you with a number of choices from a simple do-it-yourself sealant, to a complete conversion, to renewable energy. Many contractors offer a Net Zero effect in new construction, but you do not have to have a new house to achieve Net Zero and be sustainable.

Tying in to the Utility Grid
During peak power usage, solar or wind power is supplemented by power purchased from the utility grid supplied by your utility company. During low usage however, excess power produced by the renewable system is sold back to the utility. For Net Zero the goal is to buy no more power from the grid than you put back into it.

DC Power
Direct Current (DC) is electricity that is directly produced from the energy source and flows in one constant direction. It must be converted to AC to be used by consumers.

AC Power
Alternating Current (AC) is where the movement of the charge periodically reverses direction. It is the type of electricity delivered to homes and business.

by Lori Bottorf Petrie