Archive for September, 2008

Solar Panel Primer

Looking to buy a solar panel for your home, or maybe build your own? It can be confusing trying to sort out the actual capacity of a panel and what it will or won’t power. So here are a few facts about solar panels to get you started on your way to energy freedom.

Solar panels are composed of individual solar cells, wired in some combination of series and parallel to achieve the desired voltage and amperage that produces the wattage you need for operation. In order to charge a 12 volt battery, you need a panel that outputs 18 volts. Here is a fact you’ll want to know: a solar cell, no matter how large or small, puts out a total voltage of 0.55 volts. For the sake of making math easy, let’s call it 0.5 volts.

So in order to get 18 volts, you need to create a voltage multiplier circuit (which for those of you not following the photovoltaic course on this site means a SERIES circuit). Between 34 and 36 cells wired positive to negative will achieve this. (0.5 * 36 = 18 volts) Let’s say you have a bunch of cells that have 0.5 volts each, and 1.5 amps each. If you simply wire 36 in series, as is recommended, you will end up with a panel that puts out 18 volts with total amperage of… 1.5 amps. All together, this means you will get 27 watts (per hour of full sun).

If you’ve checked the back of any of your appliances recently, you may realize that this wattage is not enough for your needs. After all, even a compact fluorescent 12 volt bulb will probably use at least 9 or 10 of those watts each hour it operates, which is 1/3 of your total available power. (For the sake of this example we will ignore the fact that you probably wouldn’t need a light while the sun is shining!) Use three bulbs, and your power will run out with the sunshine at dusk. So how do you increase your available power?

Most photovoltaic system batteries are designed to operate at 12 volts (similar to a standard car battery), so you don’t want to up the voltage unless you want to start upping the number of batteries as well. If wattage (available power) is equal to voltage * amps, and you can’t change the voltage, then it stands to reason that upping the amps is the way to go. To do this, you wire groups of cells together in parallel. In order to wire things up in parallel, the things wired together should be the same, meaning you will be wiring together groups of 36 cells (wired in series). To double the amperage, you would wire two sets of 36 cells together, for a total of 72 cells, 18 volts, and 3 amps (1.5 amps * 2). Now, you have an available 54 watts (18 * 3) per hour of full sun. For every additional set of 36 panels in series that you add (in parallel) to your array, you get an additional 1.5 amps, and your total wattage is increased by 27 watts per hour of full sun.

There are a few other things to remember when choosing a panel for your needs. The first is kind of obvious: the sun only shines so many hours per day. In most places, you can expect between 5 and 8 hours of “full sun” (the conditions under which your panel produces its maximum output) per day. So if you have a 50 watt panel and 6 hours of full sun, you can expect around 300 watts of power production daily sent to your battery (or perhaps a little more from a few hours of partial sun production). On cloudy days, or if you live in an area of high particulate pollution such as a large city, you will get less.

Which brings me to fact #2: to get the full output from your panel, they must be kept clean. Over time, dust settles on the panels and reduces the amount of light hitting the surface. Or in the winter, in cold areas, you will have snow to contend with, and in the fall, you’ll have to keep an eye out for leaves falling atop the panel. Birds are another common culprit. We’ve all seen the ground under areas where birds congregate… it isn’t pretty. Basically, your panel will output at the level of the cell getting the LEAST sunlight. So if you have one cell in full shade (or fully covered with something), and others in the sun, your total output will be reduced more than you’d intuitively think. Save yourself some grief and locate the panels in a place easy to access for cleaning, and outside the regular path of avian neighbors.

Lastly, since solar panel setups are Direct Current (DC) systems, and since most household appliances run on Alternating Current (AC), you will usually need an inverter to convert DC to AC power your appliances can use. But there is a good reason to consider investing in some 12 volt appliances and lights. In the process of inverting the power to AC, about 15% of the power is lost. So if you have a total of 500 watts to use, and you invert it all to AC, you will have about 425 watts available for powering loads (appliances). There is an increasing variety of 12 volt appliances on the market, from light bulbs and radios to refrigerators. The more 12 V appliances you use, the more use you get for your available power.

This is by no means a complete list of considerations when buying a solar generation system, but it should be enough to help you sort through the eBay flotsam and find a panel that meets your particular needs. Stay tuned for next time, when we’ll be discussing batteries!

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Coastal Cleanup Day 2008

If you’re in the Los Angeles area this Saturday September 20, join over 11,000 volunteers in the LA basin alone for California Coastal Cleanup Day 2008, a 24 year tradition that’s become the largest volunteer event in the world. Last year, over 60,000 volunteers picked up almost a million pounds of trash across the state, and this year, the Los Angeles event will pick up its millionth pound.  You’ll find everyone from the corner grocer to celebrities shoulder to shoulder attacking the coastal waste that causes visual blight and environmental danger.  Did you know that the North Pacific Trash Gyre, the large swirling mass of trash floating between Hawaii and Japan is more than twice as large as the state of Texas and is growing faster than even the scientists studying it had feared?  Or that plastics, which break down into little tiny pellets after extended exposure to water, are so prevalent that you could cover the surface of the world’s oceans with a saran wrap coating of the plastics in them? Obviously every bottle you pick up helps stem the tide.

If you’re not able to join everyone in Los Angeles (check out the website, complete with map of locations, here), consider starting a similar event in your area.  After all, waste has a not-so-funny way of wandering toward the sea, even from far inland places.  Or if this Saturday doesn’t work, make any day your cleanup day! With a few fliers and an ad on Craigslist you’re sure to attract a like minded crowd to help get some unwanted trash off the streets.  Often, local parks have cleanup days that offer both benefit and beautiful surroundings in addition to an educational afternoon.  Some of my favorite memories from youth are of going to my local park and cleaning up the riverbanks.  Needless to say, cleaning my room didn’t hold the same appeal.

If you can’t do any of the above… (you didn’t think I was going to let anyone off the hook, did you?)… then sit your butt down on that couch if you’re not already there and get to thinking.   The best way to eliminate waste is to avoid creating it in the first place. Find a way to encourage recycling or to make throwing things in the trash more appealing than tossing it on the ground.  Design a better trash can, out of which waste doesn’t blow away in high winds.  Create a non-toxic biodegradable packaging so that when people do throw their containers down, it’s not creating an everlasting toxic legacy.  There are at least as many ways to help the planet as there are people to try them, so find yours and get started! Hope to see all you locals at the beach!

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Living Roofs: A Little Greener than Usual

When installing a photovoltaic, solar heat, or wind generation system, one concept with which you’re sure to become familiar is that of structural load. The concept of a twenty foot wind tower on your roof spinning down free energy all year is nice, but in practice, you’d more likely rip a hole in your house without some careful consideration.  Therefore, sustainable roof design has adapted to include a variety of green techniques, each requiring their own load profile.  When used in combination, the elements can add a visual and technological depth to a space that is almost hard to describe.

Living roofs are required by law in some European cities, so it’s strange that so few people in the US have ever even heard of them.  Basically, in a city, roofs cover between 30-40% of the available land acreage. Streets cover a good percentage more.  By building a living roof, you offset the loss of porous surface area by simply elevating the layer above the structure.  New sustainable design firms tend toward relatively autonomous plantings so that care needs are minimized.  Varieties of drought resistant grasses or low-water plants like ice plants for a more spectacular display.  Traditional examples of living roofs often display a more cultivated cover.  Some are actually used as rooftop garden spaces, with fully functional plant beds in frames. They slow down water across their surface area and help promote local biodiversity.

The largest challenge in making a rooftop garden (besides keeping the frame watertight so it doesn’t leak onto your roof) is one of structural load.  Obviously, cubic feet of dirt are heavy – just ask anyone who’s done construction or landscape work lately.  On your roof, they bear down on the surface, creating stress on the seams between fastenings and structural supports.  It is important to find ways to relieve this stress either in the building phase, or, as is more common, in the design phase of a remodel. Soil scientists have designed artificial soils that weigh less than traditional soils, and other growing mediums such as local crushed brick can be used. But usually this involves restructuring the load on beams so that the roof avoids carrying actual weight.

As mentioned earlier, a living roof may not be the only alternative energy installation vying for structural load bearing on your house.  If you install solar panels or a solar heat collector, the same weight issues come into play, and careful siting along strong structural axes or retrofitting are necessary.  With wind, add in the force of the tower’s rotation and the wind profile of the actual tower and it’s probably better not to site a tower on your house at all unless you like weird noises and warped beams.  Save that for the back yard.

If you are considering installing one technology already which calls for boosting the load structure of your roof, why not design for the (future) implementation of another complementary technology now? As hurricanes so aptly illustrate, a little extra roof support ain’t gonna hurt you.  With as much roof space as we have in this country, we could probably meet half our food needs if everyone started a garden today.  Victory Gardens for a new millennium.  Even just switching from a traditional tar shingle roof (made from petroleum) to a gravel-based cover slows water loss considerably across your whole property.  Take a look at these examples of how nice living roofs can look, and consider integrating a little (more) green into your next roofing project.

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The Solar Necktie

It seems inevitable that eventually clothing designers will hop on the solar train and integrate solar power into their designs. Already, Noon Solar and several other handbag manufacturers are realizing nice profits creating stylish solar designs that charge your cell phone on the go. But this invention takes the solar geek award by a landslide. The Solar Necktie, brainchild of researchers at Iowa State University’s Textiles school, is a perfect integration of office style and solar cool. It even has a place to tuck your cell phone in the back while its charging!

I have to admit, I’d have expected to see this sooner on the runways of Calvin Klein than a university. And most of the other designs left a little to be desired in the style file. (though they designed a solar jacket, too, which has potential!) New Flexible Thin Film solar technologies will be greatly expending the potential for power generation in our daily activities very soon. They can be wrapped around buildings, woven into fabrics, and used in other compounds to generate power from all sorts of things. Though this design still pays obvious homage to the solar look we are used to, soon, you may not even notice that you are using a solar appliance until you actually draw power from it. Kudos to these researchers on a nice application and guidepost for future designers.

Read all about the products here: Research Bulletin

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Hitting Your Stride

Going green or cutting off the power line completely are not easy tasks. We are accustomed to our routine conveniences and live in a world that is loathe to advertise the actual costs of the products we consume.  When viewed in its entirety, the global environmental crisis we are facing is so daunting that many people fail before even beginning by despairing at the enormity of it all and then lapsing into apathy.  Obviously this is the largest waste of creative capacity imaginable on our planet.  You get it, so you’re smart enough to do something about it, yet you don’t.  So don’t let yourself become one of those people.  Do something today. Maybe you already are.  The thing about “Do something today.” that is so great is that when you take that approach you tend to set realistic goals, more on the level of an hour or two’s commitment than the nebulous grand ideas that tend to live largely on paper and never in the real world.  And you set a pattern that defies apathy, even if you eventually change the depth of your commitment. And one day, you will find yourself hitting your stride and it will become natural part of your life instead of a scheduled task.

There are a million ways to break a habit, and only one to make one: practical application.  You can read every book in the library about art, for example, but until you create something, you cannot call yourself an artist.  Your friend’s kindergartener who brings home finger painted pictures daily is.  Which should make potential artists feel better about the quality which one considers art (Isn’t art, in the end, really largely an issue of attachment?), but it usually doesn’t.

What it all means?  You don’t have to be a maestro to get involved.  Just pick something and implement it in your life.  Chances are, no matter what strategy you pick, it will be an improvement over the standard.  Many people spend a lot of time wondering which choice will be best for them, and in the end, don’t get anything, because the spark of ingenuity has faded which led them to that point.  Do your research, but understand that the energy revolution is not a plan for tomorrow, but for today. You’ve heard me say it before.  In the spirit of kindness, I won’t leave you all pumped up with nowhere to go.

Here’s a little inspiration for you for things that won’t take more than a few moments:

Plant a tree. The EPA estimates that a mature tree provides the same amount of air conditioning as five AC units.  You can take cuttings of most plants and root them, or simply plant a sapling or seed that you find in your surroundings.  Of course, if you then take care of it, making sure it has enough water to survive the first crucial year or two, then you can count that as doing something in the future too.  But by then you’ll probably feel so good from doing that, you’ll have a whole colony of trees somewhere.  Estimated time: 10 minutes, and time spent finding a tree to plant (or cultivating stem cutting in moist plastic bag).

Buy recycled shopping bags. It’s no accident that reusable shopping bags are popping up in stores these days.  What used to be the exclusive realm of whole foods has become big business.  And when you think about what you’re saving in terms of landfill space, and add in the fact that most large retailers give reusable bag discounts, you really can’t argue against them.  Of course, you’ll need your shopping bags if you take the next step and start shopping at the local farmer’s market once a week instead of a comparable grocery store trip.  Local farmers supported, all for the price of a little gas. Estimated time: under a minute.

Hydroscape your yard.  Print a Google map of your house and yard and draw on it the places where water tends to collect when it rains.  These are the low points, and when planned right, you can save a lot of money on property maintenace just by regulating the flow of water across your land.  Create a conceptual path through your area, create a path for water flow, and raise beds surrounding this natural flow to minimize your need to water.  This also gives you the opportunity to have a larger variety of plants, because you create tiny climate zones specific to each bed.  Estimated Time: a few hours planning, 2 hours per bed.

Freecycle something. Find something in your house that you don’t use and offer it to the local population at large for free at http://www.freecycle.org .  If you’re feeling generous, offer to post the item through the mail to the lucky recipient.  It really IS a good way to keep things out of landfills and it fosters your non-retail community.  Estimated time: ten minutes, including finding something to post.

Buy at least one solar light. These days, you can buy a set of solar lights for $10 -15.  The nicest ones I’ve seen are floating pool lights which change color, but there are also lots of varieties of solar yard lights, and also solar Christmas lights.  I particularly like the Lampion, pictured above. Try leaving these lights outside during the day while you are out of the house, and then using them to replace a light you use at night.  Carbon free power and mood lighting might prove the perfect combination for your evening.  Estimated time: half an hour on eBay and a minute a day.

Use greywater to flush your toilet.  Unscrew the pipe below your sink and place a bucket under the now-open pipe.  Use this water to trigger the toilet’s automatic flush response.  Combine it with the old “milk jug in the tank” trick and you’ll use a lot less water.  This will save you however much water you use at the sink by recycling it at least once.  Estimated time: fifteen minutes, and a slightly altered routine.

Visit your local library instead of the bookstore. Similar selection, better price.  And since you share the book with your community, you save resources and encourage further government spending in future libraries.  How many books do you read more than once anyway?  Donate the ones you own (outside your core library) to the local library so others can learn too.  I hardly have to explain the benefits of that!  Estimated time: Twenty minutes to clean out your closet.

So there you have it, something you can do today.  One last freebie: write a suggestion below, so that others can learn about your own great action idea.  =)

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Why Energy Matters (because matter is energy!)

In quantum physics, the traditional physical rendering of nuclear particles is thrown out the door and matter is imagined as a collection of waves. It’s not that electrons and protons et cetera cease to exist, it’s that what we conceive of as an atom may not exist in its observed form for more than an instant. Electrons were once considered the sole property of one atom, who may or may not negotiate a time-share agreement with neighbors for coveted valence electron real estate, the most stable investment for material longevity. But consider that in an electrical wire, the electrons are moving up or down the length of the wire, actually passing from atom to atom kind of like buckets in an old fire brigade. So the atom is now simply a temporary result of the coincidence of wave actions which conduct energies through material – a highway interchange if you will. Like the particular configuration of cars one might capture by photographing the interchange, the particular atom you “see” exists only in the moment of observation, and then ceases to be exactly so ever again. The concept is perhaps best illustrated by a quote from Heraclitus, who, writing five centuries before the days of Christ might well have unwittingly been the first quantum physicist:

“You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you.”

Which brings me back to the question: why does energy matter?

On the surface, it is becoming increasingly clear that our current energy market cannot sustain healthy social development, and that we must identify and cultivate promising alternative technologies. Solar, wind, and hydro power have been around longer than we usually care to admit given their still limited implementation. Before there existed President Carter addressing Congress about solar energy, and appropriating $88 billion toward alternative energy research (those are 1979 dollars, mind you!), there were many houses in our country’s history that had implemented windmills, water wheels, solar heat collection, and other technologies. We Americans are an ingenious lot, and faced with a lack of available electrical grid, we often invented whatever was necessary for creature comfort. What we need now is to apply the highly structured rigors of factory line processing to these and other renewable energy technologies born of personal innovation. Lack of supply has been an issue in the solar, wind, and biofuel industries as the markets have adjusted to high foreign demand. I’m all for solar and wind farms anywhere on the globe, but clearly we need to change legislation to make alternative energies more attractive domestically if we ever want companies to earmark space on production lines for us.

Digging deeper into cells, one might start to see other patterns at work. Why is it that all living things need energy to survive? What drives our demand? Where does that energy come from? How do we convert it to a form that is useful to us? If energy is an excited state of potential which transfers and transforms, but never becomes more or less than it is at any one moment, then what we need is to collect energy in places (our bodies) like a pool of temp workers, ready to chip in and haul rocks on command. When boiled down, most of earth’s usable energy arrives on earth as radiation from the sun. What doesn’t is generated from within the relatively cooler center of our own planet. We as creatures have collectively devised many biological pathways for converting solar radiation into usable energy, and have learned to take advantage of various physical properties of matter conducive to energy transformation. Without input, our only choice is to reduce output. Beyond a certain point, such reduction is unrealistic, and we must find outside sources of fuel. Recent advances in biofuels try to answer the need for a more immediately efficient conversion of energy than that offered by fossil fuels. We also create physical structures designed to convert solar, wind and water (gravity based and hydrothermal) energies into usable form. All are basically engineered pathways for solar energy to store and collect.

When viewed through the lens of quantum physics, as discussed earlier, then all of matter necessarily ceases to have truly unique properties. In explanation, though what we perceive as an atom has a physical structure, it is only at a brief moment. The electrons, and even the nuclear particles, are constantly being traded from one atom to another in wave motion. So though an electron may pass from an atom of silver to an atom of lead, there is nothing about it that says it is either a “silver electron” or a “lead electron”. It is just an electron. And the same is true of other particles which combine and recombine at discrete moments in time to form the atom familiar to our minds.

So the game of energy becomes one of pathways. We don’t change the force available to push electrons through a substance, we simply try to clear paths for them to bully their way through matter losing as little force as possible. The qualities that make a good conductor or insulator are related to their inherent magnetism. Positive and negative charges push and pull and hopefully, the overall structure of the material stays stable and allows electrons to flow like a river through the molecular structure. Or not to, depending on which you desire. Basically, everything has SOME ability to conduct electricity: that’s why you can get shocked through air. The way to increase the efficiency of our energy collecting devices is to cultivate energy pathways where appropriate and also to perfect storage capability of energy once collected. One third of the light that hits the planet reflects back off into space immediately, and another 5 to 10% of the energy is absorbed by our atmosphere on the way down to earth. What does hit the surface should be cultivated carefully.

Ever seen the movie “What the *”%#^” Do We Know”? There is a scene about an experiment in which a research team wrote words on bottles of pure water and stored them for a period of time. Later, they took microscopic pictures of the water’s molecular structures and found that water stored in containers with positive messages had a different, more orderly crystalline structure than those in containers with messages of discord. This is a nice analogy for the next generation of solutions we seek in the energy field. We must physically alter our perception of energy as a finite thing and instead see it as a state of being. If we can align our politics and resources together in harmony, like a rogue wave, we add energy to the equation by working together in a unified fashion. There do exist different technologies for delivery of this galactic energy bonanza, but if we continue to work in isolation from each other, we will never realize the true conductive property of collaboration. This may eventually prove true even down to the microscopic levels discussed earlier.

Energy matters because matter IS energy. So without energy, we cease to have matter (at least in its current atomic form). If you ever doubt that taking power generation into your own hands is a significant achievement, think about what you’ve just read. We all have certain power generating capabilities simply resulting from our own consumption as animals, but by exploring the various pathways for energy to enter the equation and cultivating a more direct consumption pattern than traditional distributed power we increase the potential for material life on this planet in an even greater sense than the actual energy collected. Which means that your available energy generation (energy is never created, it simply transforms) is an exponential gain, not just an isolated act. By controlling your own energy fate, you are actually contributing to the continued existence of all matter. Now that’s a cause worth fighting for.

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Learning From our Youth

From the look of it, Erich Christian has a long career in alternative energy ahead of him. He’s already designed a biofuel manufacturing plant and been given a contract to provide fuel for his local school district. In addition, he was appointed to a governmental committee exploring alternative energy ideas for future implementation. At this rate, by the time he graduates high school, he’ll probably have a few patents! Read the full story here.

It’s so great to see young people, traditionally treated as somehow separate from the world in which we all live, getting into the action with alternative energy. As they say, the beginner has many techniques, the expert few. If we want to find a simple solution to our world’s problems, we will have to trust the power and relative idealism of young minds. I like also the idea of the Aquaduct, created by what appear to be several college students. The bike holds two tanks of water, enough water for a family of four’s daily needs, which are manually filtered by the pedaling action of the bike. This allows women to eliminate hours of walking to water supplies in nations without a reliable water system. Brilliant, simple, elegant. The young women behind BioTour, a vegetable powered school bus that tours the country sharing knowledge about WVO, are barely out of college. In fact it was a college road trip to Burning Man in Southern California that led them to their calling. And some parents don’t think concerts are constructive learning opportunities!

As students, we keep our minds open to the possibility that we do not know. This is what allows us to learn new things. The greatest failing of our corporate system today is that we produce “experts” rather than students. As such, people feel little need to make breakthroughs when they are already supposed to be the final word. Students, on the other hand, have two valuable attributes: they have a lot of unrefined ideas, and they don’t know any better than to think they all might work. Through the fortuitous combination of the two, revolutionary breakthroughs become possible and even occasionally get implemented. Our world’s experts, meanwhile, are often encouraged to focus on what they already “know” to be true.

2008

Personally, I can’t wait to see what the current generation brings to the power debate. Motivated by a sense of financial and environmental urgency, today’s young people are realizing they may have to create the future they need, rather than trust that the current power structure to provide it. A beautiful example of this is happening this week (September 11-13) in Los Angeles. The PeaceJams Conference invites 14 to 25 year old attendees to join six Nobel Peace Prize winners in a brainstorming workshop about the future of our world. The three day event is intensely focused on creating solutions to environmental and social problems, and the only way to get in if you’re over 25 is to bring three age-appropriate people with you. Especially cool is the goal of implementing a billion “acts of peace” in the next ten years as a result of this conference. I never thought I’d wish to be 18 again! Here’s the skinny on the event and how to register.

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