Lesson 2 – Intro to Renewable Energy Generation in Natural Building

Solar Panels

Active solar devices such as photovoltaic solar panels help to provide sustainable electricity for any use. Electrical output of a solar panel is dependent on orientation, efficiency, latitude, and climate—solar gain varies even at the same latitude.

Typical efficiencies for commercially available PV panels range from 4% to 28%. The low efficiency of certain photovoltaic panels can significantly affect the payback period of their installation.

This low efficiency does not mean that solar panels are not a viable energy alternative. In Germany for example, Solar Panels are commonly installed in residential home construction.

Roofs are often angled toward the sun to allow photovoltaic panels to collect at maximum efficiency. In the northern hemisphere, a true-south facing orientation maximizes yield for solar panels.

If true-south is not possible, solar panels can produce adequate energy if aligned within 30° of south. However, at higher latitudes, winter energy yield will be significantly reduced for non-south orientation.

To maximize efficiency in winter, the collector can be angled above horizontal Latitude +15°. To maximize efficiency in summer, the angle should be Latitude -15°. However, for an annual maximum production, the angle of the panel above horizontal should be equal to its latitude.

Wind Turbines

The use of undersized wind turbines in energy production in sustainable structures requires the consideration of many factors.

In considering costs, small wind systems are generally more expensive than larger wind turbines relative to the amount of energy they produce. For small wind turbines, maintenance costs can be a deciding factor at sites with marginal wind-harnessing capabilities.

At low-wind sites, maintenance can consume much of a small wind turbine’s revenue.

Wind turbines begin operating when winds reach 8 mph, achieve energy production capacity at speeds of 32-37 mph, and shut off to avoid damage at speeds exceeding 55 mph.

The energy potential of a wind turbine is proportional to the square of the length of its blades and to the cube of the speed at which its blades spin. Though wind turbines are available that can supplement power for a single building, because of these factors, the efficiency of the wind turbine depends much upon the wind conditions at the building site.

For these reasons, for wind turbines to be at all efficient, they must be installed at locations that are known to receive a constant amount of wind (with average wind speeds of more than 15 mph), rather than locations that receive wind sporadically.

A small wind turbine can be installed on a roof. Installation issues then include the strength of the roof, vibration, and the turbulence caused by the roof ledge. Small-scale rooftop wind turbines have been known to be able to generate power from 10% to up to 25% of the electricity required of a regular domestic household dwelling.

Turbines for residential scale use are usually between 7 feet (2 m) to 25 feet (8 m) in diameter and produce electricity at a rate of 900 watts to 10,000 watts at their tested wind speed.

Building integrated wind turbine performance can be enhanced with the addition of an aerofoil wing on top of a roof mounted turbine.


Solar Water Heating

Solar water heaters, also called solar domestic hot water systems, can be a cost-effective way to generate hot water for a home. They can be used in any climate, and the fuel they use—sunshine—is free.

There are two types of solar water systems:

  1. Active
  2. Passive.


An active solar collector system can produce about 80 to 100 gallons of hot water per day.

A passive system will have a lower capacity.


There are also two types of circulation:

  1. Direct circulation systems;
  2. Indirect circulation systems.


Direct circulation systems loop the domestic water through the panels. They should not be used in climates with temperatures below freezing.

Indirect circulation loops glycol or some other fluid through the solar panels and uses a heat exchanger to heat up the domestic water.

The two most common types of collector panels are Flat-Plate and Evacuated-tube.

The two work similarly except that evacuated tubes do not convectively lose heat, which greatly improves their efficiency (5%-25% more efficient).

With these higher efficiencies, Evacuated-tube solar collectors can also produce higher-temperature space heating, and even higher temperatures for absorption cooling systems.

Electric-resistance water heaters that are common in homes today have an electrical demand around 4500 kW·h/year. With the use of solar collectors, the energy use is cut in half. The up-front cost of installing solar collectors is high, but with the annual energy savings, payback periods are relatively short.


Heat Pumps

Air-source heat pumps (ASHP) can be thought of as reversible air conditioners. Like an air conditioner, an ASHP can take heat from a relatively cool space (e.g. a house at 70 °F) and dump it into a hot place (e.g. outside at 85 °F).

However, unlike an air conditioner, the condenser and evaporator of an ASHP can switch roles and absorb heat from the cool outside air and dump it into a warm house.

Air-source heat pumps are inexpensive relative to other heat pump systems.

However, the efficiency of air-source heat pumps decline when the outdoor temperature is very cold or very hot; therefore, they are only really applicable in temperate climates.

For areas not located in temperate climates, ground-source (or geothermal) heat pumps provide an efficient alternative.

The difference between the two heat pumps is that the ground-source has one of its heat exchangers placed underground—usually in a horizontal or vertical arrangement.

Ground-source takes advantage of the relatively constant, mild temperatures underground, which means their efficiencies can be much greater than that of an air-source heat pump.

The in-ground heat exchanger generally needs a considerable amount of area.

Designers have placed them in an open area next to the building or underneath a parking lot.

Energy Star ground-source heat pumps can be 40% to 60% more efficient than their air-source counterparts. They are also quieter and can also be applied to other functions like domestic hot water heating.

In terms of initial cost, the ground-source heat pump system costs about twice as much as a standard air-source heat pump to be installed. However, the up-front costs can be more than offset by the decrease in energy costs.

The reduction in energy costs is especially apparent in areas with typically hot summers and cold winters.

Other types of heat pumps are water-source and air-earth.

If the building is located near a body of water, the pond or lake could be used as a heat source or sink.

Air-earth heat pumps circulate the building’s air through underground ducts.

With higher fan power requirements and inefficient heat transfer, Air-earth heat pumps are generally not practical for major construction.

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