Solar Energy Alternatives: 4 To Use When Solar Won’t Work

Solar power seems to be growing unstoppably. But unfortunately, it just isn’t going to work for every homeowner. Luckily, there are some good solar energy alternatives for homes. If you have been looking for other ways to power your house, take heart! There are plenty of quality options out there.

Why Is Renewable Energy the Future (and the Present Too)?

Harnessing unlimited renewable energy will surely go down in history as the greatest technological achievement of the late 20th and the early 21st century. And the world’s biggest countries are now working together to make the shift to renewables a reality.

There are too many benefits to list, but according to the EPA (1): “Environmental and economic benefits of using renewable energy include:

  • Generating energy that produces no greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and reduces some types of air pollution;
  • Diversifying energy supply and reducing dependence on imported fuels;
  • Creating economic development and jobs in manufacturing, installation, and more.”

Also, looking at the finance and investment side of sustainable and net-zero homeownership (LINK), most green-tech costs have come down enough to make financial sense.

The ROI on renewables can now rival or beat stocks, bonds, and traditional real estate investing. For this reason alone, even without the environmental benefits, renewables are here to stay.

How fast is renewable energy growing?

When we look at the whole picture, it is not surprising that renewables have had such incredible growth. EIA projects that the renewable portion of U.S. electricity generation will double in the next 30 years – from 21% in 2020 to 42% in 2050 (2).

A graph of U.S. Electricity Generation from Different Sources 2010-2050. Shows the level of renewables at 42% compared to traditional fuel sources.
A graph of U.S. Electricity Generation from Different Sources 2010-2050

Growth of renewables has also shown resilience in the face of the COVID-19 crisis with its novel economic uncertainty. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2020 (January to October), auctioned renewable capacity was 15% higher than for the same period of 2019. (That makes for a new record.) (3)

Renewable electric has seen global growth of about 7% during the crisis. And that’s in contrast to the decline in overall global energy demand (5%) – and not to mention the many troubles of the fossil fuel industry.

In comparison, the global demand for coal fell by about 8 percent. The decline was as massive as 20% in some places like the European Union (4).

What Are the Most Common Renewable Energy Sources?

Currently, the most popular renewable energy sources are:

  • Solar energy
  • Wind energy
  • Hydroelectric power
  • Geothermal energy
  • Tidal energy
  • Biomass and Biofuel

Also, the order of popularity of these resources changes quickly. Look at the data for the 2012-2018 period (5).

A bar graph from the REN21 Global Status Report showing an upward trend is solar energy and solar energy alternatives used in the United States, measured in Gigawatts.
Courtesy of the REN21 Global Status Report

Most stunning is the extraordinary rise of solar power. But what are some alternatives to solar energy if it doesn’t work for you?

A Few Reasons Why Solar May Not Work for Your Home

  1. There are physical objects in the way – These can include skyscrapers, trees, powerlines, your neighbor’s house, or anything else obstructing direct sunlight. This can be more severe in the winter when the sun is lower in the sky.
  2. Your roof is too small – Sometimes, your roof shape or size just physically won’t allow more than one or two panels. (Usually, you need a few hundred square feet at a minimum to make it work.)
  3. Your roof is old, and you don’t want to spend money on a new one yet – If you have shingles that are on their way out within a few years or less, you may not want to spend the money on solar panels yet. It makes sense to do both the roof and the solar at the same time to keep costs down.
  4. No part of the roof faces south, east, or west (northern hemisphere) – If you can’t aim the panels directly towards the sun, the return on investment or actual energy production may not make sense.
  5. They won’t let you – It depends on laws and regulations in your area, but sometimes the HOA, city, county, or state may not support or allow rooftop solar panels. You’ll have to check local laws and restrictions to be 100% sure on this for your own home.
  6. No sun at night – It seems obvious, but if you aren’t on a net-metering hookup with the utility company and need power, you either need to buy expensive battery systems, or choose a non-solar option.

We’ve written up a complete article with more details on why solar may not work here as well.

An example of an ideal solar roof and a drone flyover video of our first net-zero solar home renovation project in Cape Coral, Florida. You ideally want south facing, a large roof area, and nothing in the way like vents, dormers, and skylights in order to fit more panels on.

What Solar Energy Alternatives Can I Use?

Are there viable solar energy alternatives for private homes?

Luckily, a surprising number of listed renewable energy sources are available as small-scale residential systems. While there are several solar energy alternatives, many come with some limitations. As a simple example, you can’t install a microhydropower plant if you don’t have a stream or a small river running through your property.

On the other hand, P.V. solar panels and wind turbines can be installed on most properties. But the same systems will yield dramatically different results in different areas.

That is why the main question is not What is the best renewable energy source? but, What is the best renewable source for you?

Let’s jump into some possible solar energy alternatives –

Wind Turbines

Giant turbines are the iconic image of wind power generation. But residential wind power is an entirely sound choice for a household that wants to diversify its energy supply, if it meets the specific wind conditions for installing turbines.

Small-scale wind turbines can be a good choice if you have:

  • Enough wind speed in the area.
  • Sufficient land.
  • Approval or buy-in from neighbors, neighborhood councils, or organizations.
A picture of a house on a hill with three small residential wind turbines. There is a walking path around the turbines with flower beds spread out.
Sometimes you need multiple small wind turbines to power your home. A single one usually can’t generate enough power.

What Type of Wind Turbine Is Needed to Power a House?

That depends on your energy needs, what you can afford and the type of turbine (10) you’ll choose. Two main types are:

  • Pole & Ground-Mount Wind Turbines – Much like their big brothers (the giant utility turbines on wind farms), these turbines mount on high poles in a suitable windy position. The higher the turbine, the greater the chance it has to pick up consistent wind.
  • Building-Mounted Wind Turbines – Turbines installed on roofs of buildings in suitable positions are smaller than the pole-mounted ones and have 1-2 kW capacity.

Smaller wind turbines, however, are often not big enough to power the whole house. According to the Energy.gov website:

“A typical home uses approximately 10,932 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year (about 911 kilowatt-hours per month). Depending on the average wind speed in the area, a wind turbine rated in the range of 5–15 kilowatts would be required to make a significant contribution to this demand. A 1.5-kilowatt wind turbine will meet the needs of a home requiring 300 kilowatt-hours per month in a location with a 14 mile-per-hour (6.26 meters-per-second) annual average wind speed.”

This means that you would need at least three 1.5-kilowatt turbines to power the average home.

What Is the Best Location for Wind Energy?

Wind patterns determine whether wind power even will make sense as a solar energy alternative for your home.  Geography, time of year, average wind speeds, and many other factors can make or break the project’s viability.

In general, wind turbine performance peaks during the spring, with the lowest performance in mid-to-late summer, as the EIA graphic shows. Wintertime performance is usually at the annual average for the region. There are some exceptions, though – such as the seasonal wind pattern in California (11).

A line graph collection showing the seasonal wind speeds throughout the United States, created by the EIA.
A line graph collection showing the seasonal wind speeds throughout the United States, created by the EIA.

You can search online datasets and maps by location/address to figure out the average windspeed for your home’s location. A few that we find helpful include:

  1. Climate.gov – Average Wind Speeds Map Viewer
  2. NRCS – Nature Resources Conservation Service
  3. WINDExchange – This one is our favorite! It seems to have the most information by state, including different graphs and illustrations.
A screenshot of the WINDExchange homepage showing different USA map types where you can see wind speed, wind turbine locations. It features a drill-down by State and local areas so you can check your own location.
Courtesy of WINDExchange – Pick locations by state and drill down into detailed maps and different illustrations of wind speed.

With seasonal changes, combining wind and solar can sometimes optimize your power production. When solar is producing less, wind can make up the difference. This is particularly useful if you have an off-grid home with a battery system, where the turbines can still spin at night. Designs that combine solar and wind (or other renewable sources) fall into the Hybrid Renewable Energy Systems (HRES) category.

Are Residential Wind Turbines Worth It?

Although wind is a clean and reliable energy source, physical and financial hurdles are the main possible drawbacks of home-scale wind power.

Small wind turbines cost about $3,000 to $8,000 per kilowatt of capacity. To cover all of its electricity needs, a typical home in the U.S. needs a turbine with an average 5-kilowatt capacity (ranging from 2 kW to 10 kW). That means that a wind turbine for a larger home may cost you anywhere between $15,000 and $75,000 (11) (without counting incentives for renewables).

With These Costs, Will a Wind Turbine Ever Pay For Itself?

Although the initial investment is high, luckily, most states offer tax cuts or other incentives that can help you significantly cut your wind project’s cost. Depending on all of these factors, you can expect to earn your investment back within 6 to 30 years (11).

A map of the United States showing the annual average wind speeds throughout the country. It's shaded more green towards the coastlines and red/orange in the middle, which indicates higher wind speeds towards the middle of the country in the flat plans areas.
Courtesy of NREL – A pretty cool illustration of what annual average wind speeds look like through the USA.

While that may seem like a long time, remember you will reduce your monthly utility expenses. And after the return period, your power will be virtually free.

Beyond money (because money can’t buy us another planet, right?), it is estimated that by harnessing wind at your homestead, you could reduce your yearly CO2 emissions by 2.5 tons (10).

Biomass Energy At Home As a Solar Energy Alternative

Biomass is the most traditional alternative to solar energy on this list, but also the most controversial one.

Types Of Biomass For Heating A Home

Historically, biomass was all plant matter that people could burn to produce thermal energy. Chopped wood was the most common source and often considered the most efficient. Hence, there are two types of biomass.

  • Wood biomass
  • Waste biomass

Modern biomass fuel has been reimagined as green and gets made from industrial and agricultural plant waste. Sawdust and other carpentry waste, plant waste from agriculture, and even dung are all used to create environmentally friendly biomass for burning.

A picture of a cow standing in a field looking straight at the camera.
Cow dung is used as fuel in my countries. With almost a billion cows on earth, the supply is plentiful…

However, there is one long-running problem with biomass use for energy production. Due to the growing demand for the resource, there is an increase in deforestation for biomass production.

Is Biomass Zero-Carbon Fuel?

Wood biomass is supposed to be a carbon-neutral renewable resource, at least in theory. Wood burning should release only as much CO2 as the tree has sequestered during its growth and not more. However, cutting down old-growth forests for biomass taps into long-term CO2 storage and releases the gas back into the atmosphere.

Truly renewable, zero-waste biomass fuel hasn’t managed to replace wood, at least not yet. And the over-exploitation of forests for mass burning is undermining the CO2 equilibrium (13).

Does Burning Biomass Cause Pollution?

Pollution, too, is not irrelevant with biomass.

Besides releasing wood smoke (14) and polluting the air outdoors, a recent study has found that common wood burners have a detrimental effect on indoor air quality (15). The most significant danger to human health is high particle pollution (PM), plus the release of carcinogenic volatile organic compounds such as benzene and formaldehyde. However, the stove industry disputes these findings.

A picture of chopped-up trees in block forms for use in biomass fuel applications. The wood is older and has a lot of orange and grey colors to it as it sits in the pile.

How To Use Biomass Sustainably As A Solar Energy Alternative?

Whatever the final verdict on wood smoke may be, it is undeniable that biomass is very practical because it’s always available, even if the power goes out. In the same way people use oil power generators, the best way to use biomass as fuel in your home is to use it only when other options are off the table. 

There are several ways to make your biomass use sustainable.

  • Opt for pellets made out of waste products.
  • Opt for sustainably harvested, certified wood fuel.
  • Use new, eco-certified stoves.

You can find more information on environmentally-friendly wood and biomass burning in the EPA’s Burn Wise publication (16).

Microhydropower For Your Home

For those lucky enough to have a stream flowing through their property, there is one more simple and consistent solar energy alternative – small hydropower.

An illustration with a green background showing how water is channeled from a higher elevation on a stream to a hydro turbine in the lower elevation, creating a constant flow of water that spins the turbine to produce energy.
A diagram from Energy.gov showing how using gravity from the uphill water can power the turbine that is downstream for constant power.

Microhydropower systems can make hydroelectric power and could be ideal as a solar energy alternative. Microhydro production can range from 5 to 100 kilowatts. There are also turbines categorized as pico hydro that have less than 5 kW of power. A 10-kW system can provide enough power for a large home, a small farm, or even a small tourist resort (17).

Run-of-the-river is the simplest form of efficient microhydropower. It consists of the following components:

  • Forebay or another type of structure for capturing water
  • Water conveyance channel or pipeline that transports the water to the turbines
  • Turbine (Reaction or Impulse), pump, or waterwheel – transforms the energy of flowing water into rotational energy
  • Alternator or generator that transforms the rotation into electricity
  • Regulator for controlling the generator
  • Wiring that distributes the electricity.

Is Microhydropower Bad For The Environment?

Microhydropower systems provide clean energy but come with a catch in the form of an artificial water catchment.

The fact that you have to divert a part of the stream into the turbine system can negatively affect the stream’s ecosystem.

A picture of a stream in the woods with a log bridge running across it.
A stream with a constant and brisk flow of water could be ideal for microhydropower, if you have access to it on your property.
  • Aquatic life may get caught in the pipeline and end up in the turbines.
  • The entire ecosystem downstream will be affected if you draw too much water into the hydroelectric system.
  • With larger projects, the construction of forebay may alter the landscape and the streambed.

Talk to your hydropower professional about these issues, because there are ways to buffer or avoid them altogether with clever design. Capturing only a minimal amount of water is a first step to ensure that the ecosystem downstream remains healthy and functioning.

Geothermal Energy As Solar Energy Alternatives For Homes

On the outside, our Earth may seem pretty cool at times, but beneath the crust, it is boiling.

The molten core, magma flows, hot water, and geological processes produce heat inside the Earth. That energy is called geothermal energy, and it is only logical that engineers would harness it to meet our energy needs on the surface.

A picture of an industrial-sized geothermal plant in Iceland.
Iceland, on an industrial scale as a country, is nearly 1/3 completely powered by geothermal energy.

Geothermal heat pumps or GHPs are electrical air conditioning systems. Rather than creating the needed heat, the GHPs shift it between the earth source and your house by moving fluid through ground piping. Don’t let the name confuse you – GHPs can both heat and cool your home.

GHP systems use 25-50% less electricity than an average conventional heating system. And they reduce overall energy consumption and the related emissions by 44% to 72% (18)

Other Reasons for Using GHPs at Home Are:

  • GHPs can be used almost anywhere In the U.S. because shallow ground temperatures are pretty constant throughout the country (although the type of project and the cost will depend on various factors)
  • GHPs can deliver more energy per unit consumed (3 delivered per one consumed, according to EPA) versus conventional systems, provided they are sized correctly and installed right.
  • GHPs with a desuperheater can heat household water by taking heat from the house and heating water for free. In the winter, the system reduces water heating costs by about 50%.
  • GHPs are good at controlling indoor humidity, keeping it at the desirable 50 percent.
  • GHPs can be installed in new building projects but also retrofitted for a net-zero remodel.
  • GHPs hardware takes up less space than a conventional HVAC system.
  • GHPs have no outdoor parts, which makes them less prone to damage or vandalism.
A great quick 2 minute video by the U.S. Department of Energy explaining how geothermal heat pumps work.

Is Geothermal Worth the Investment?

The most common question about geothermal energy is how a geothermal heating system costs.

A complete geothermal heating system, with the unit and all the groundwork included, will cost $12,000 to $45,000. This depends on the home size, available land, local geological properties, existing piping infrastructure, and the choice of the pump itself.

It is worth saying that geothermal for a home can undoubtedly pay off in the long run.

The U.S. Department of Energy states that, through lower utility bills, you can recoup your initial investment in 2 to 10 years. Plus, you can offset some of the costs by using special financing and renewable energy incentives (18).

Conclusion: Solar Energy Alternatives Abound

In case solar power is not ideal for you, there are plenty of energy sources alternative to solar that are equally clean.  And they can help fulfill your living space’s net-zero potential, as well. As we’ve shown, some combination of different systems could also make a lot of sense.

All home-scale renewables can be suitable energy sources. But house orientation, presence or absence of water, geology, climate, wind patterns, and many other individual variables dictate which ones will work best.

By thinking outside the box and hiring knowledgeable experts, you could implement an excellent stand-alone or hybrid renewable power system. Using your property’s and household’s strengths will maximize your energy production – all while helping save our climate (and your budget). This is what we call a true win-win.

What’s your personal experience with residential renewable energy sources other than solar? Let us know in the comments.

Resources and Reference

Erin Shine

Erin Shine

Founder | Attainable Home

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