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Earth Talk: Compare costs of alternative energy

Is it better to go with your utility's renewable power option or install your own solar or wind power?

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Q: I’d like to know the relative electricity cost of utility-scale solar and wind plants versus rooftop residential solar. In other words, how can I know whether to subsidize my utility’s alternative energy plant or renovate my own home?
– Randy Wilson, Flagstaff, Ariz.

A: Making such a determination is complex, but you could start with “In My Backyard,” a new online tool by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. You need to know your electricity usage and what size solar photovoltaic (PV) system or wind turbine you could install. Then, using Google Earth maps and data on the amounts of sunshine and wind at your location, the tool will estimate the electricity you could get from a certain size wind turbine or PV array installed on your property.

The costs to install renewable energy systems vary greatly by location, warn researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And kilowatt-hour costs vary by utility, as do state and local financial incentives. One piece of good news: The federal investment tax credit allows for 30 percent of the cost of your system to be deducted from your federal tax bill and is good through 2016.

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