Archive for October, 2008

Great News for Solar!

It looks like the tax credits for alternative energy are getting renewed after all!  The “Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008″ preserves the previously expired (at the end of 2007) tax credits for homeowners who install one of the following technologies: insulation, replacement windows, water heaters, and certain high efficiency heating and cooling equipment. Be sure to check EnergyStar.gov for rules and more details, as not all Energy Star rated improvements are eligible for the tax credit.  This includes solar water heating and several other technologies.

You will only be eligible for the credit for construction starting in 2009 or later, so consider holding off on the home handy work for a few months (like we need another excuse to procrastinate!).  Here is a partial list of the credits available, as taken from this site:

  • Windows: 10% of cost, up to $200, for qualified ENERGY STAR windows, skylights and storm windows
  • Doors (exterior): 10% of cost, up to $500, for qualifying doors (most ENERGY STAR doors will qualify)
  • Roofs (metal): 10% of cost, up to $500, for qualifying ENERGY STAR metal roofs
  • Insulation: 10% of cost, up to $500, for qualifying insulation (not vapor retarders or siding)
  • Air Conditioning (split or package systems): $300 for qualifying systems, not all ENERGY STAR systems qualify
  • Water Heaters (tankless only): $300 for qualifying systems
  • Cars: Credits are available for certain cars, and is limited by 60,000 per manufacturer before a phase-out period begins
  • Solar Water Heating: 30% of cost, not available for water heaters used for pools or spas
  • Solar Power (Photovoltaic): 30% of cost, must provide electricity for the home
  • Fuel Cells: 30% of cost, up to $1,000 per kW of power that can be produced

H.R. 1424 improves the federal solar tax credit from a flat $2000 to 30% of total system and installation costs (and anyone who has done an installation of this type knows how huge a news item this really is!), and also gives commercial solar companies and power utilities the opportunity to get in on the rebate action too, so now you may be able to talk to total price of a commercial install down into the realm of affordability.

Of course, let’s not forget that many states offer their own incentives for switching to solar or other forms of alternative energy in addition to this tax credit, so you may end up getting well near 50% off of your installation costs!  Now that’s something any shopper can appreciate!.  The credit is now extended (as part of the Wall Street Bailout) for the next eight years, so expect some great new solar innovations soon as companies rush to fill the market demand.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Light Revolution

The Light Revolution

Health, Architecture, and the Sun

by Dr. Richard Hobday

In times past, we instinctively understood that our lives depended on the glowing warmth of the sun.  Without space heaters and microfleece, every winter was a stark reminder that the sun’s warmth can be all too fleeting on a winter’s day.  And in the spring, great rites and festivals celebrated the coming of longer, more fertile days.

Somehow, however, the sun’s importance in modern architecture has diminished over the course of the twentieth century, often even as firms attempt to “green” buildings by reducing airflow (and therefore, heat loss).  The Light Revolution is a beautifully researched book about the sun’s journey over time through our collective consciousness.  It is also a medical book, celebrating the healing power of sunshine, which has been known to cure a whole host of diseases and other maladies. Even as a solar enthusiast, I learned a lot about ways in which solar power and medicine has been utilized in the past, and also about why current architecture has strayed from its heliocentric past incarnations.  When you realize just how many things the sun can cure, and how many very respectable people have argued its merits over the years, it is almost hard to figure how the box factory/warehouse/office building came to be.

What I liked most about the book was its discussions of quality of light.  After all, sitting under a tree is hardly the same as sitting on a beach, though both can be considered daylight.  According to Dr. Hobday, our modern lighting systems are negatively affecting our health, and costing us billions of dollars in loss of health and productivity.  The quality of indoor light is most often below the luminant threshold necessary for internal vitamin D production.  As you’ll discover in the book, vitamin D is absolutely critical to our ability to prevent and heal infections and diseases.

Rounding out the interest to readers is an interesting look at how political considerations often eclipse design considerations in the planning and construction of buildings.  He showcases some nice attempts at solar building design from the past, and shows how each achieves or falls short of its goals.  In the end, the lessons from the past serve to greatly underline the future potential of light therapy and its applications in health and architecture.

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QUICKIE: Solar Powered Christmas Lights

Looking for an easy way to integrate a little alternative energy into your holiday festivities?  There are a lot of exciting solar products coming out of Asia these days, as several eastern countries have gotten the jump on the US in terms of R&D and product development.  Which isn’t so good for the US’ current energy market, but it is good for solar energy enthusiasts!  Why don’t you try a string of solar powered Christmas lights in your front yard?  They turn themselves on automatically at dusk (if you want them too), similar to existing solar lawn lamps, they have solid light or blinking options, and they can easily be strung around fences, eaves, railings and wreaths to create a cheerful effect that’s also effortlessly green.

I have a set of white fairy style lights of this type, and they are great.  Not having a yard, I simply place the receiver in the window each morning and come sunset, I have a 60-LED solar powered flashlight for late night reading that lasts several hours! They throw a surprising amount of light for their tiny size.  If you’re interested in these or any other solar power accessories such as solar powered flashlights for emergency or off-grid use, head to ebay today and search for solar lights.  Finally, sunshine you can hold in your hand!

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BOOK REVIEW: Mycelium Running

Mycelium Running: Paul Stamets, Google Books Listing

Mycelium Running

This book is very inspiring!  I can’t even remember how it ended up on my library list, but since starting it, I haven’t put it down.  I also haven’t stopped talking about the wonders of mushrooms, much to my friends’ chagrin.  Yesterday even found me stooping in a neighbor’s yard, trying to figure out how to extract a cool-looking mushroom from their lawn without damaging the manicured turf!  Did you know that a cubic inch of earth can contain about 8 miles of mycelium, the fungal thread that matures into familiar mushrooms?  Or that some species of mushroom can survive on crude oil, breaking down the hydrocarbons into fertile soil in a matter of a months?  Other species of mushroom have shown promise in destroying neuro toxins, absorbing heavy metals, even killing the HIV virus.  Whoa, Shitake!

Seriously though, this book is excellently written with plenty of nice pictures for visual reference and a decidedly scientific style.  The author really knows his stuff, too, and he has the patents to prove it.  Everything is covered here from using mushrooms to repopulate logged forests to starting your own backyard mushroom garden or mycelial water filtration system.  The types of fungii and the environments in which they operate are also eloquently discussed.  There are charts galore showing which species can be used for different applications such as removing certain toxins or digesting certain wood species, even how to battle parasitic fungii with other species which are more environmentally benign.  Bottom line is that our oft mistreated fungal friends may hold the key to saving our planet more efficiently than we humans ever could.  Also, their unique medicinal properties, which though known in the Far East for centuries have only recently entered exploration by Western scientists, may be the key to the cancer and viral cures of the future because many fungii protect their hosts from infection and disease in a microscopic act of “you scratch my back…”.  Now that’s a pretty good reason to eat a heaping plate of fungii!  Five big shroomy stars.

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Solar Power Class: Semiconductors and the P/N Junction

Holiday’s over, class, and it’s time to get back to our solar power lessons.  Today, let’s talk about semiconductors, and a slew of other things along the way!

What is a semi-conductor?  Pretty much what it sounds like.  If a substance which conducts electricity (think copper wires) is a conductor, and one that does not (rubber) is called an insulator, then a semi-conductor is right in between. Basically, atoms with only 1 or 2 electrons in their valence (outermost) orbit conduct electricity more easily than those which have a full or almost full outer valence (7 or 8).  The first are conductors, the latter are insulators.  So semiconductors are those with 3, 4, or 5 valence electrons, which means that they are neither particularly inclined nor disinclined toward conductance.

By taking silicon (which has 4 valence electrons) and doping it, as it is called, with an element which has either 3 or 5 electrons, materials with a net positive or negative charge can be created. This has to do with silicon’s natural crystal forming tendencies.  If the material used had 3 valence electrons, then the overall material has a positive charge and it is called a P-type material.  If it had 5, then the material holds a negative charge, and is called an N-type material.

All interesting enough, but things really get going when you place the two together.  The P/N Junction is the innovation that pretty much ushered in the electronic age.  The particular application of this material to solar power was actually one of the first experiments done with it, by Bell Labs back in the 50s.  When a P-type material and an N-type material are placed back to back, and a circuit is completed wiring the two pieces together, the sun excites electrons in the negatively charged layer (remember, this layer has extra electrons) and as the voltage (or pressure) builds to a point at which they overcome barrier resistance, they begin to jump to the positively charged layer where holes in the crystal structure await them.  From there, the circuit exits the P-type material and travels back to the N-type material via the wire circuit to restore the electron balance in each material.  If we hook up a battery amongst the wire circuitry, it is those bounced electrons which we store and call energy.

Okay, time for a break.  Join me back here tomorrow for the next installment of our solar power class.  In the meantime, for your reading pleasure, check out The Light Revolution, a great book about the necessary influence of the sun in our health and buildings.  Full review soon!

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Thanks Everyone!

Just a quick thank you to all you wonderful readers out there: You helped make Solarious one of WordPress’ Fastest Growing blogs for the month of September 2008!  Thousands of people have followed my journey and hopefully started or continued on their own.  To each and every one of you, I salute you.  Together, we will reshape the future.  Thanks again!

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Plants Need Rescuing Too!

The other day I was out for my morning run when I happened upon an all-too-common urban sight: gardeners pulling up plants to make room for the next season’s flowers in commercial flower displays.  To be precise, the gardener was pulling up young boxwoods which over the course of the growing season had lost their perfect lollipop shapes, and replacing them with rounder versions of the same plant.  Anyone who has boxwoods in their yards will know that they are perennial plants which grow slowly and make excellent living borders.  Certainly not landfill material after a growing season.

To replant the same thing and toss the old plants seemed like such a waste for a little aesthetic symmetry, so I stopped and asked to rescue as many as could be carried.  The gardener said sure, and in fact, wouldn’t I like to come back the next morning, too, when they would be pulling all the marigolds and replacing them with mums?  Of course I would!  So the next morning I bundled up early and went to retrieve the flowers.  Though marigolds are annuals, and were near the end of their lives, they were heavy with seeds, and easily yielded at least 2000 for planting in the spring.  Not bad for a morning’s work!  And in two months, the whole process begins again as a new season’s colors take over the beds.

This is pretty much the norm for commercial landscaping services.  If you are looking for inexpensive (usually free!) plants for your garden, consider asking your local plaza who does the gardening and contacting them about rescuing unwanted plants.  They usually keep a regular schedule which you can put on your calendar.  Even almost-spent annuals can make great displays of color for entertaining before yielding seed for future plantings.  If you have a compost pile, this organic matter will greatly aerate your pile, increasing the speed at which the soil is formed.  And, of course, you learn a little more about what goes into creating the perfectly manicured version of the world that we urbanites take for granted.

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