Solar energy is one of the most popular methods for generating renewable electricity. While solar technology exists in a variety of formats, photovoltaic (PV) cells are the most practical for small-scale production. PV cells are the active components of solar panels, using a semiconductor material (usually silicon) to loosen electrons from light rays. Magnets then guide the loose electrons into a current.
While solar energy is attractively abundant, it's also expensive to harness. A residential solar panel installation will typically cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $35,000. However, much of this cost will be offset over time by saving you money on your monthly electric bills.
Wind power offers another way to harness weather for energy production, and although they're not quite as common as solar energy systems, wind generators are actually more efficient. Wind power systems rely on wind turbines -- windmills -- that catch the wind in propellerlike blades. This turns a shaft within the turbine, which spins a generator to create electricity.
Like solar power, wind energy systems pose a significant financial investment. Would-be users may also face issues of land coding and push-back from neighbors opposed to a 100-foot-tall windmill across the street. However, for families or small farms with abundant land, a wind-powered system is a great way to take advantage of a free and infinite resource.
Weather isn't the only natural force that produces renewable energy. Dairy farmers in Vermont are collaborating with utility companies on experimental but highly successful programs -- affectionately called "Cow Power" by one farm -- that utilize manure processing systems to put the methane gas created by cow emissions to work producing clean energy. This is one example of biomass electricity systems, in which fuels are made from sources like plants, paper and manure.
If you work a farm or deal with a high volume of the above kinds of waste, biomass systems offer an immensely practical method for disposing of that waste while making you a little money back from the electric company. The catch? A relatively small percentage of people actually have access to high volumes of biomass material.
Once you've found the perfect renewable system for you, what happens next? Read on to find out.