Solar power provides an alternate method of energy for homes

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    WARWICK-Dr. William J. Makofske, a professor of physics and environmental science at Ramapo College of New Jersey talked about alternative energy and home design several weeks ago at Warwick's Albert Wisner Library. He designed his own two-story ranch house, built five years ago, by incorporating simple, cost-effective solar systems. The house is "superinsulated" with a berm of earth. It has an air-to-air heat exchanger, a solar hot water heater, passive solar heating on the house's south side, a solar greenhouse, and a solar electric system. Dr. Makofske said that, once his system was built, his electric meter immediately began running backward: that is, his system was generating more energy than it was taking in. But he doesn't expect to get rebates any time soon. He said he'd be happy for now if confusion about meter readings would cease. "The library was kind of surprised by the number of people interested in this, but I guess it may be something due to the fact that we had 51-dollar-a-barrel oil this week," Dr. Makofske said. "We're at a turning point in terms of energy prices around the world. It all has to do with the fact that we have a finite supply of oil and we have about a 40-year supply of oil at a constant rate." The biggest concern right now is building infrastructures suitable for solar energy, he said. That takes time. "We should have started 30 years ago," said Dr. Makofske. "It's probably not too late. But if those prices shoot up there quickly and we have a depression, people aren't going to have the money to invest in changing infrastructure." People who are building houses now can take steps in anticipation of someday having a solar-equipped home. For example, they can build facing south on a slope. They can put bedrooms in the back of the house and more frequently used rooms on the south side. [For more tips, please see sidebar.] He recommends the conservative use of windows because they help heat escape. The rule of thumb is to devote to windows 8 to 10 percent of square footage on the south side. To keep south-facing windows from bringing too much heat into houses in summer, a good amount of overhang is needed — about two feet. He said he doesn't have air conditioning in his house, and it hasn't been a problem. "The Greeks and Romans knew how to do this," he said. "This is nothing new. It's just simple design. But we seem to have forgotten it over time." Efficient lighting is important too, he said. And so is gardening. "Our food system runs on oil," he said. "For each calorie of food you eat, there's 10 calories of oil that has gone into getting that food onto your plate." Using solar energy for municipal projects can be expensive, Dr. Makofske said. Credits and rebates are available, but the process can be complicated. But a solar unit for a building such as a library could pay for itself in 10 to 12 years, he said. In 2003, Extraterrestrial Materials (ETM) Solar Works of Endicott, N.Y installed a 22-panel system at the Sidney Memorial Public Library, in Sidney, N.Y. The project was made possible with a grant from the state Energy Research and Development Authority. The library uses sun power to run lights, computers and air conditioning, providing up to 10 percent of the building's electrical needs. He said he is supplying 100 percent of his electricity with the system. This past Monday, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California proposed a 10-year plan that would give incentives to home and business owners for switching to solar energy. The plan is actually a compromise from an even more ambitious plan of last year that called for half of all new homes and businesses to eventually become solar powered. "It's clearly the most ambitious solar incentive ever proposed in the United States," David Hochschild, the director of the non-profit group Vote Solar, told the San Diego Union Tribune. EMT's Dr. Canough said solar systems are very popular in Israel and Japan. "There are places in the world where every house has a solar hot water heater," she said.