Weekend Review: The Renewable Energy Handbook and Smart Power

May 19, 2007

William H. Kemp, The Renewable Energy Handbook (2005) and $mart Power (2004): Aztext Press

Wiliam Kemp has written two books on renewable power and off-grid systems for homes, $mart Power (2004) and The Renewable Energy Handbook (2005). (Smart Power actually uses a dollar sign for the S in the title.) These two books are largely a first and second edition of the same text, with the second edition being expanded with several new chapters and additional information.

Both of Kemp’s books are comprehensive volumes. He addresses a range of alternate power generating options. There are chapters on photovoltaic (PV), wind, biomass, and micro hydro. More than just discussing the technical aspects of the generating systems, he also covers efficiency, interconection, “Heating and Cooling with Renewable Energy,” “Living with Renewable Energy,” and the other issues surrounding having a home with renewable systems. He also has a section about making biodiesel and another section about eco-pools (naturally-, rather than chemically-filtered swimming pool systems) and solar heated pools and hot tubs.

The Renewable Energy Handbook and $mart Power both go into some depth about renewable energy systems. Kemp shows all aspects of the various systems, dealing with hardware installation, electrical connection, and the range of what is necessary to install any of the systems he discusses. While I would not rely solely on these books for direction about installing a PV system or a wind turbine, it does provide a greater depth of information. A homeowner can get a better sense of the scope of work required for installing a renewable system, and have a better idea about what is involved, and whether or not it is something they want to take on.

The book is copiously illustrated with many black and white photographs. The systems are more clearly understood when there are pictures to show the components, which people may not be familiar with. And seeing how large a battery bank is, or seeing what an inverter panel looks like helps give some potential owners an idea of what they will need to deal with if they install these units in their own homes. There are also many diagrams and tables with useful information for an owner of a renewable energy system.

Kemp provides case studies in The Renewable Energy Handbook. Five homes where various combinations of renewable systems were installed are shown, including the author’s own 3,300 square foot home. Kemp is a Canadian, and at least three of the examples are located in Canada. Though the other two are not explicitly identified, I suspect that all five of them are in Canada. These are good examples to show that renewable energy systems need not be restricted to only choice locations. Renewable systems can be installed anywhere.

A considerable portion of the book is devoted to battery storage, as well as the chargers, inverters, and other components of a power system for a completely off-grid application. With contemporary inverters, grid-tied power systems only supply power when the grid is active. In most cases, grid-tied houses will use net-metering with the grid as the “backup battery.” That way, the issues of battery cost and maintenance can be avoided altogether. However, some kind of backup power (whether that be with batteries or with a backup generator) will be needed. The battery information may not be pertinent to everyone, but Kemp provides enough information for a potential owner to consider whether or not to choose a battery system.

Kemp is an electrical engineer, and he has lived in his own off-grid house for a number of years. He writes from his own experience in much of what he writes about, and many of the photographs illustrating different systems are taken in and around his own home. While he promotes efficiency, he repeatedly points out that a renewable lifestyle does not need to be a spartan one. There are choices and tradeoffs to be made, but the stereo, the big screen television, and the cappucino machine are not prohibited, they just need to be carefully considered and the best available selection needs to be chosen.

The only issue I would like to see these books address more thoroughly is the question of evaluating which systems are appropriate for a particular location. There are a lot of factors to be considered, and every system is not necessarily appropriate for every location. A chapter that discussed how to decide whether to install a wind turbine or photovoltaics would be a valuable addition to a very comprehensive book that packs in a lot of information.

I am going to lend my copy of The Renewable Energy Handbook to my in-laws. They are beginning to plan for building their retirement home, and they have discussed some ideas for renewable energy that they would like to incorporate there. They are very interested in wind power (since they will be building in a windy location close to the Lake Michigan shore). I’ve discussed some of these system with them, but I think this book will give them good information about the scope of what they will need to do if they build their house this way. And I would recommend the book to anyone else in similar circumstances, or who is thinking about adding a renewable energy system to their existing home.