Alternative Energy – Is It Stepping Over Dollars To Pick Up Dimes?

Governments praise alternative systems

For several decades now our federal and many state governments have been singing the praises of alternative or renewable energy systems. They want us to go to a photovoltaic, solar thermal or wind system for our electricity, instead of our local energy supplier. Government bodies are offering tax incentives, deductions and credits to businesses, municipalities and not-for-profit entities to get them to do that. There are incentives for homeowners too. Many become eligible for special mortgage provisions and/or special depreciation rates if they install an alternative energy system.

Federal and state governments as well as some energy suppliers maintain websites and information sources designed to answer queries about these energy systems. Their representatives often speak about the benefits of alternative energy and encourage its use.

Two eye-opening meetings

In April 2000, at Little Rock, Arkansas, I attended a meeting of school administrators and government officials discussing new school construction. One school principal asked U.S. Department of Energy, Senior Financial Specialist Ward Huffman what their priorities should be. Huffman suggested that they begin by buying a Monolithic Dome because it offered the most energy savings, then use geothermal heating and cooling and solar, if they could get a grant. (Click here to see Dr. Huffman’s podcast.)

In February 2005, I attended another meeting. This one focused on alternative energy systems. People there talked about generating electricity with solar cells, wind mills, fuel cells, etc. But they all ended up saying the same thing: Right now, it costs more to generate a kilowatt of energy alternatively than it does to just buy it. In fact, it costs so much more that you can’t afford to do it. In other words, you would be stepping over dollars to pick up dimes!

Some Alternatives to the Alternatives

But maybe there’s an alternative to the alternatives. What if you eliminated 50 to 75 percent of a building’s need for energy? With its superior insulation, that’s exactly what a Monolithic Dome does.


Let’s say that a school district wants a government grant for the installation of a photovoltaic system in the school building it’s planning to build. If they want a conventional structure, they better plan on asking the government for a grant of at least $40,000. But if they want a comparably sized and outfitted Monolithic Dome, a grant of $10,000 should do nicely. Because the Monolithic Dome uses so much less energy, it may very well require only a fourth of the money that a conventional structure needed for an alternative energy system.


In 1996, after we built the Oberon, our first Monolithic Dome model in Italy, Texas, I learned that our local power company was offering its customers $400 toward the purchase of a heat pump. I called them and a representative came out. I told him that we planned to cool our two-bedroom, 800-square-foot Oberon with one ton of air conditioning and to heat it with a 1250-watt wall heater. He ran the numbers.

Surprise! Although a heat pump would be more efficient on a conventional home and would eventually pay for itself, the same was not true on a Monolithic Dome. On the Oberon, the heat pump would never save enough to pay the capital cost difference. A one-ton air conditioning unit cost $500; the wall heater cost $80. Compare that $580 to the $2500 price of the least expensive heat pump then available. The capital cost of that extra $2000 is about $200 per year. If you add maintenance and depreciation, you’re probably adding another $200 per year. Obviously on our dome, we could not recover capital cost through savings on energy costs.

Currently for a Monolithic Dome home, we suggest one ton of air conditioning per one thousand square feet. So, for a 2000-square-foot home we would use a two-ton unit. Twelve hundred square feet would take a 1.5 ton air conditioning unit, which is about the smallest and simplest central air conditioning system available. Installed, it costs about $3500 and generally comes with 20 kilowatts of electric heat. Monolithic has learned to disable three of its four heating elements, leaving five kilowatts or 5000 BTU in the heating elements. Even that is overkill for Monolithic Domes in the southern half of the U.S.

But instead of the central system, the 1200-square-foot dome could be nicely air conditioned with four, 5000-BTU window units. Each unit costs only about $150 and has the added advantage of an individual thermostat. As for heating, built-in electric heaters or four, 1200-watt, plug-in fan heaters can do that. These fans can be bought at many discount stores, for about $30 each, and they run on the same amount of electricity as a hair dryer.

Alternative energy system for a Monolithic Dome?

So — if what we’re using currently is so economical, is an alternative energy system in a Monolithic Dome home even worth considering? It might be, under certain circumstances.

For example, Texas, as well as some other states, is a net-zero state. In a net-zero state, you can legally sell electricity back to the power company from whom you bought it at the price you paid. Therefore, it should be possible to equip a dome with an alternative energy system that takes in sunshine and makes electricity all day long. At night when the photovoltaics or solar don’t work, we buy our energy. But during the day, we usually make more than we need, so we sell our surplus back to the power company by pushing it through the power meter and reversing its flow.

If, during the day, we generate the energy we need plus extra that we sell back and only buy at night, we could have a zero-cost home. That’s a practical, reasonable goal, and chances of obtaining it are far better with a high performance Monolithic Dome simply because the dome, by its very nature, uses so much less energy.

Note: We originally presented this article on March 20, 2005. Dollar amounts quoted were valid at that time.