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Solarious, the Sequel

It all started with a plan to get a little real-world experience in green. I was going to learn how to use a solar panel, and maybe hook one up to the place where I live, achieve true energy freedom, and hopefully help a few mega-corporations forget my phone number in the process. It felt innocent, idealistic, practical even. So I started Solarious here to follow the journey and catalogue some of the things I learn along the quest for self-sustainability. Today, almost three years later, it’s the journeys I haven’t shared here that have most greatly affected my destiny on this planet. But I’ll have to fill you in on all that later. In an effort to explore the world of green employment and a couple creative projects as well, I took a break from writing here last year. But the good news is I’m back, and could never have guessed how fast things can change even in a single 12 month period!

One major change is that green has finally gone from the niche market to the mainstream. Now I’m not arguing that adoption of policies and practices has approached the levels which it should. If anything we are like scrawny freshmen showing up for the first day of high school, ready to have our minds filled with the “answers” to life. There is so much we don’t know, both in and outside the classroom/laboratory. We are hardly even skilled at figuring out the things we have to know, much less knowing those things themselves. But at the end of that first day of school, we are at least learning that the cool kids aren’t always the established social powers, the big companies and time-honored traditional ways of doing things. No, becoming an entity of value, and not just financial value but a more-encompassing social and existential value, is becoming trendy.

This is an important moment for the “green movement”. Suddenly, you bring your canvas bags to the grocery store and no one stares you down. The farmers markets are crowded like never before if the owners of hybrid cars are an example, then anyone can be persuaded to join the green team! There is a danger posed by the level of acceptance that trendiness brings. This is the period in which society opens its ears to an idea. The people who are committed to this idea have a responsibility to carry the weight of the lifestyle they espouse. If people think that going green is about canvas bags and farmers markets and fair trade certified and recycling, then it will become something like so many movements before, a fad which fails to entertain its masters, and what an opportunity we will have lost in an age of potential.

When I started to learn about sustainable living, I was fascinated by the number of different ways in which you can change your life to become more self-reliant. It’s a little intimidating actually, when faced with the vague idea of “greening” your life. As time has progressed, I’ve come to see this area of thinking less a green movement and more one toward sustainability. Semantics, you say. Call it whatever you want so long as the job gets done. Well, I heartily agree. But in this case, the idea of green has become something quite corporate. Coca-Cola has a green division, so do BP, Walmart, and countless other behoemoth corporations who clearly don’t place doing the right thing above financial profit. No, they would not even be allowed by corporate bylaw to exist in such a state, so I feel fairly comfortable saying that efforts toward “greening” their work processes and products are largely driven by profit and little else. And there is little doubt on the surface that such a condition is less than conducive to long-term sustainability!

But this is where one must look deeper. True self-interest alone would force individuals to not drive the world down to the rims, because they still need a place to live. It is possible to be quite “green” and lead a totally unsustainable lifestyle. You buy carbon credits to offset your abnormally high amounts of air travel for work. Or maybe you bought a Prius so that your 40 minute commute each morning and evening wouldn’t make you so guilty. How about going “organic” and paying more for the privelege to eat steaks and drink exotic coffee and eat fair trade chocolate without remorse.

Hey, I do love a good Andean chocolate bar too, no need to protest. Just realize that there is a difference between being green, which is largely about taking your current habits and sprucing them up to where no one was harmed in the making of your XX so you can consume it happily, and sustainability, which means that somehow or other, we need to start living within the means of this planet and the systems which operate therein. Change is coming and it’s not going to be found all dressed up pretty with a pretty organic hemp ribbon and pricetag at a farmers market booth. No, this change, like all before and the myriad yet fated to come is going to be gritty by the terms of the day. Trust me, there is nothing sustainable about sipping a fair-trade columbian coffee and ordering the free range bison burger if that’s all you’re doing to combat the processes of inefficiency taking over our society. You thought it was “green” to buy hemp clothing. Could you MAKE that fabric from a plant?

I do understand that there is a line to be drawn in this age of interconnectivity and mass learning called the internet. You don’t have to know how to do everything, you just Google it and ten minutes later you’re a Minor Expert, whose degree from the school of everything is already in the mail. So there’s plenty of time to look that stuff up when it becomes relevant. Again, we’ve got plenty in common, no judgements here, but what would you do if your cell phone and all-access (wind-powered?) DSL plan went down and there was no internet freely available to you? How would you go about getting the knowledge you need? Don’t you think it’s time to start taking some of those steps toward knowledge now? This all sounds a little doomsday, and it’s designed to, because the aim is more about illustrating that sustainability is the true paradigm for future decision-making.

When you make a decision in your life, it’s fine to start with thinking about reducing your current burden on the planet. There’s so much that can be done in this area you could easily occupy a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect Nalgene bottle and recycled tile for your bathrooms. It’s like being a programmer and wanting to know every latest language that’s introduced to the market in a quest to be the newest greatest thing out there. Facebook may have wanted you to learn their proprietary FBML in 2008 but now they are deprecating the entire language in favor of more traditional programming language solutions. So if you spent a lot of time learning FBML to break into that lucrative user base, your time would have been better spent elsewhere, learning a language that’s useful in many applications and will stand the test of time.  It’s a matter of depth, you have to know something pretty well, and for a time, before you actually know much about its strengths and limitations.

Too many green products still go by the adage “Why have one tool when you can have two?” when sustainable thinking, like the standard language framework, are built on the priciple of “Why have two when one will do?”. So pick your battles wisely by learning about the processes underlying the actions you take for granted in your daily life. It’s a level of scientific examination for which few currently have the stomach, but it’s essential that as people in the greater public come with questions about being green, what they see is a message of sustainability, one that respects nature and our place within, one that doesn’t gloss over the issues at hand in order not to scare away potential advocates, and one being delivered by people who live whole, happy lives that just don’t happen to hurt the planet. So find a corner of the issue and start biting away at it, get to know it thoroughly. When people come asking how you did it, it will seem natural to share your journey and help them to take the leap.

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The Future of Renewable Energy Employment

The results from the latest American Solar Energy Society Green Collar Jobs Report are in, and it’s good news all around for dedicated greenies and renewable energy workers. As the report title indicates, renewable energy is expected to employ more than 39 million people in the US alone by 2030, up from an approximate 9 million today. In fact, while the US economy overall took a brutal beating this past year, the renewable energy and energy efficiency sector expanded at three times the rate of the rest of the economy. And this is just the beginning. According to the study, 17% of all American jobs by 2030 may be in these sectors, a whopping one in five or six jobs!

View the full report here, or the executive summary here. The conclusions include a case study on renewable energy employment in Colorado, long considered a state with both a progressive mindset and great renewable energy potentials.

While many of us dream less of working for someone else than of living in a cabin somewhere with no employer at all, the truth remains that going off-grid requires careful planning and a bit of start-up cash. So while you gather your nest egg for your dream house in the woods, why not help support the very industries that will help you achieve those dreams once you are ready? The more bright minds we get into the research and development market and intelligent designers and engineers we place on the ground promoting alternative energy, the lower prices will be and the more efficient products will become. Energy effieiceny, in particular is an underdeveloped market that can really help put a dent in our planetary emissions. Ever heard the phrase the best energy is that which you don’t have to produce? How true!

Incidentally, which jobs are predicted to make you the most bank? Solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, fuel cells, and biofuels, especially in the areas of engineering, chemistry, mechanical workers, and business managers.

Solar photovoltaic and solar thermal will lead the renewable energy markets

Solar photovoltaic and solar thermal will lead the renewable energy markets

Another good bit of news, due to the slowdown of the world economy (yes, I said good news, keep reading), there is a glut of solar photovoltaic equipment that was produced in expectation of a stronger world market. Therefore, the equipment costs of a photovoltaic installation are expected to fall by up to half in the coming year! Together with the tax credits being expended to 30% of your total installation costs, that could mean a savings of more than 65%! Which, of course, you can reinvest into other green techs, helping promote the industry and virtually eliminating your power bills at the same time. Beautiful.

If you’re ready to make the jump into green employment now, check out this article about how to properly set yourself up to be hired into your dream job.

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Finally, the proof! Trees help save you green

From the folks over at the Forestry Sciences Lab of Oregon and the National Institute of Standards and Technology comes proof that planting trees around your home will save you money in the long run on your electric bills.  This is something that has long been suspected and anecdotally promoted, but this is the first study to take people’s actual electricity bills and compare them with the amount of growth of trees near the home.

Its official, trees save energy!

It's official, trees save energy!

If you’re headed for off-grid living, chances are that you’re implementing some sort of solar or wind technology in your power mix, so careful siting of the trees you plant and the panels or turbines you place will be necessary.  But if each tree you plant makes the job of those alternative technologies that much easier, it would be hard to go wrong!  Other studies have shown that a single mature tree can produce as much cooling effect as five, yes that’s FIVE AC units.  For each tree.  Now that’s a powerful plant!

Also, don’t forget that other studies have shown that planting trees in your yard actually raises the property value of your home to prospective home buyers, even without factoring in energy savings.  So in today’s lackluster home market, a few well placed trees could make the difference between a listing that sits or sells. And also, every tree you plant in your environment helps to filter the air that you breathe every day, making your lungs and body that much healthier and promoting biodiversity.  For an example of a nice tree distribution program, check out the Los Angeles organization Tree People, who partner with the city to give away free trees to city residents who agree to care for them.  This weekend, they’re giving away fruit trees like peaches, nectarines, and apples.  Yum!

Here’s the link to a Discovery News article outlining the methodology of this latest study.  Planting Trees Saves You Cash.

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Resolutions for 2009

It’s that time of year again… time to dust off last year’s resolutions and slap a new title on ’em.  No, of course not!  To me, the best thing about writing down resolutions is revisiting them in the far future as a sort of diary of where you were in life at that moment. I’ve gone every way – make one and stick to it, make fifty and try to hit as many as possible, and pretty much everything in between.  In doing so, I’ve hit on a system that seems to work pretty well in terms of actual achievement:  these days, I make as many as will fit on the front of one piece of paper, then post it on the wall of my clothes closet.  In the mix are at least two very easy things to achieve, at least one hard one, and at least one long-term carry over from years past.  Oh, yeah, and ushering in world peace, which I can only hope will be achieved in my little lifetime!

So what does 2009 bring? The Solarious experiment has been going strong for ten months now, making this the first Jan 01 I’ve encountered here.  From a starting posting frenzy, posting has fallen into a few lulls as life business crowded its way into the forefront.  So my first resolution is to find a comfortable posting schedule that will allow you to get all the latest info while still keeping food on my table.  Isn’t that the great game of life anyway? But on to the good stuff… what’s new here at Solarious!

Interviews Galore!

I resolve to make this site a premier destination for people who are looking to reduce their burden on the planet.  I will introduce a monthly interview series with political and environmental leaders and with people who are making great changes in their own lifestyles so that you can hear firsthand how easy taking the green path can be.  I’ll also be profiling green (and not so green) cities and communities to show you real-world examples of places taking action against global warming and other such monsters.  If there’s someone you’ve been dying to hear from, let me know, and I’ll try to make it happen.

Second, I will be introducing an organic series discussing gardening tips, food purchasing tips, home decorating ideas and interesting low-cost ways to bring organic products into your home.  Check back every few weeks for a new installment.

I’ve been reading (and reviewing) books like crazy this year. And until the library runs out of titles, you can expect more of the same in the coming months.  Look out for an improved rating system which helps define which titles are good for general info versus one which give you practical tips you can implement now, and also a library page which will allow you to search reviews by topic.

Class Time!

Class Time!

The solar power class is up and running now (check out the Photovoltaic class page), but again, look for improvements such as a searchable list of places offering photovoltaic classes around the country and an expansion into wind and other renewable technology theories.  I’ll also be adding a practical projects gallery, complete with photos of completed installations and a rating system denoting how difficult each was to complete and how well it works. The other back pages will be getting more updating love too!

The summer sunshine seems like a distant memory right now after a week of rain, but the solar cooking section will also be getting its own page, complete with recipes and a larger variety of cooker and dehydrator projects for you to complete.  I’m hoping to get a few “beta testers” and a rating system for the dishes as well, so that you can get a better idea of how things taste.  My cats will be so disappointed to have their job outsourced, but sacrifices must be made in the name of science, no?

Thats a Lotta Carbon!

That's a Lotta Carbon!

I’ve also made a personal commitment to make this blog carbon neutral.  Every day, I will offset the carbon used while plugging in to post. Because there’s nothing I want less than to make MORE pollution!  If you want to do the same, check out my last post, “making you computer carbon neutral” for some tips on reducing your digital burden.

And the super long-term goal? Well, like many of you, I’d like to completely cut the power lines in life.  Having no power at home and having sold the car as outlined months ago, I’m already pretty far along with that goal… but until I get off my butt and install some real solar power, I’m still internet cafeing it (which entails eating some pretty long miles-to-plate meals, no doubt) and using municipal water for basic human needs.  So, those activities are on the chopping block as I look for ways to cut back even further.  Teaching people about the joys of alternative energy is one way I can reduce this burden without actually making life any more spartan. Every time you implement something you learned here or pass it along to someone else who does, the total planetary energy load is reduced by that much, which makes me so very happy.  So in closing, I ask you this: if you see something of interest here and implement it, share your experience with the rest of us or at the very least, tell your friends! Together, we can make 2009 the tipping point for renewable energy and sustainable living to bring both into the mainstream for a brighter, cleaner future. 

Blessings to all of you, and thank you for a wonderful year here at Solarious.

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Lessons From Today’s Economy

When making a commitment to switch to renewable energy in your life, the factor most often cited for delaying the switch is the upfront cost of installing an alternative energy generating system.  This is understandable, especially given the large amount of press coverage from the days when solar panels were VERY expensive and no tax credits existed to help a homeowner out of the financial hole created by purchasing fifty grand worth of panels.  However, these days it is possible to jump start your energy generation renovation without breaking the bank.

Of course, when you’re struggling just to keep up with this month’s gas bill, any additional expenses can seen like an insurmountable burden.  This is the case with many homeowners today, who are just trying to stay afloat with huge mortgage payments and utility bills.  Which brings me to my lesson of the day.  You see, there is a paradox in today’s world that goes something like this: when times are good, you don’t look for alternative solutions to problems because you have the leeway (read cash) to do things in the relatively inefficient way that you’ve always done them without breaking your bank account.  When times start to get bad, people don’t invest in alternative solutions because our natural human tendency is to imitate the ostrich, complaining about the squeeze but doing nothing to change the paradigm which produces said results.  The head in sand approach carries us through until Phase Three, the collapse of market sustainability.  Did we really think that our financial woes started yesterday with the mortgage crisis?  No, it’s been coming on for years, while we all sipped margaritas by the heated pool and pretended we could really afford the cars in our driveways. At this point, survival becomes king and all innovation gets laid by the roadside unless it costs practically nothing to implement.

This is the situation we find ourselves in now.  Another winter looms dark and cold in front of us, but in the struggle to keep up with growing bills and shrinking wages and savings, we feel we can no longer AFFORD to make the investments required by alternative energy, regardless of their future value.  Which is a shame if you ask me, because this is potentially the BEST time to get into generating alternative energy.  Not only have the renewable energy tax credits been renewed and expanded at a national level, local solar and wind initiatives are cropping up across the country that offer innovative ways to finance the switch.  Here in Los Angeles, Mayor Villagarosa announced a couple weeks back a new solar initiative which calls for installing 500 Mw of solar power on city-owned rooftops, a huge investment in concentrated solar power generation out in the Mojave desert, and a residential solar rooftop program that together promise to make the program the largest municipal solar program in the country, if not the world.  Home efficiency products like computer-run zone control systems are also experiencing a renaissance of innovations which are bringing the price down into the reach of the masses.  But alas, most homeowners are so deep in the hole that we risk losing many of these innovations to crippling financial woes within the small business sector as no one implements their ultimately sensible technologies.

Where does this leave the individual investor?  Well, let me say this.  Our inability to seek change when we have the financial capabilities to do so undermines the entire potential for distributed alternative energy generation.  If you are having trouble with your mortgage today, the time to invest in solar was a few years back when you still had cash in your bank account.  If you’re still sitting relatively pretty today, now is the time to invest, not a year from now.  You see, there are several alternative energy technologies which are eligible for tax credits and also have a relatively fast breakeven point.  Take solar hot water heating, which costs little to install and in most climates can easily provide most of your home water heating needs.  The federal tax credit allows for a 30% rebate on the total cost of installing the sytem.  This no-cap rebate is by far the best offer that the federal government has ever made to homeowners wishing to adopt alternative energy.  So take them up on their generous offer BEFORE everyone, nation included, runs out of funds to support the program.  Those who installed their systems years back are now enjoying minimal heating bills while the rest of the country shivers up to their fireplaces hoping heating costs go down.   (Which, incidentally, they have recently, but only due to total financial collapse, and that’s no prize!)

Housing starts are at an all-time low right now, but for those considering building a place, radiant heating is another option which makes imminent sense for a small up-front investment.  By heating water using solar power which is then pumped through pipes within the flooring material, your cold winter morning runs to turn on the shower will be replaced by a nice warm stroll over to the tub across your new radiant heat floor.  All for adding a few extra pipes in the concrete foundation you already planned to pour.   To me, with my childhood memories of shivering in bed and calling out to my bro to turn on the shower and let it heat up before I would venture out of the covers, that alone would raise the quality of life immensely. And for those who already have a structure in place, you can use the same concept for radiant wall heating for far less upfront expense than retrofitting a floor.

But back to the lesson at hand.  If you have been lucky enough to plan your finances well enough not to be irrevocably hurt by this impending crisis, you are in a uniquely great position to further the market for alternative energy here in the US.  As it stands right now, though the US is the largest producer of solar panels and wind turbines in the world, most of the product produced is shipped abroad to places with a stronger national investment in alternative energy than our domestic programs.  As the incoming administration plans to shift some traditional manufacturing sectors over to producing more renewable generation equipment, we need to uplift the market here in the US so that it becomes cost effective for emerging US companies to sell to US customers rather than simply shipping abroad.  If you can afford it, making the switch to alternative energy will not only help your pocketbook in the long run, it will help our nation’s crippled financial system learn to walk again.  And this time, we can take green steps toward to future instead of our previous dirty footprints.

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A Very Excellent Article

Well, you all have heard me sound off about getting away from Big Spending and returning to a simpler lifestyle, but here’s someone who’s written it all down in way better form than I could hope to articulate.  Read this article if you need any inspiration for getting off grid.  In fact, read this article whatever your motivations, we’re in for an interesting ride in today’s economy, and this explains both how we got here and how we can change the future.

Here’s the link: Money and the Crisis of Civilization.  Bravo!

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My Letter to Obama about Energy and the Environment

Well, okay, it was to his energy and environment transition staff, but hey, you never know!  One of the things about this upcoming administration to which I’m most looking forward is their commitment to getting public feedback as a regular part of the legislative process.  So of course, when they asked for my (and your!) opinion on what we as a nation can do to invest in alternative energy and the environment, I had to do my part.  You can too by visiting http://change.gov/page/s/energyenviro and sending them a message of your own.  Below, in somewhat edited form, is the environmental and energy wish list I hope to see in this country in the upcoming years in hopes that it will foster debate here on the site and elsewhere about the most important conservation and resource generation issues we face and how they may be solved.  What do you want to see happen?  Comment below and then head over to Change.gov to participate today!

***** My Energy and Environment Wish List *****

I think the most important thing that people need to realize is how the current energy supply affects prices and the need for more infrastructure.  For example, the concept of peak load on power plants: though conservation initiatives often highlight using off-peak power, rarely is it explained that central utilities must offer enough wattage to supply the highest moment of demand in a year.  Therefore, redesign of total power loads is highly beneficial, such as the advantages offered by off-peak charging of electric/hybrid cars (and tractors/industrial vehicles?), use of alternative energy storage programs such as that by LADWP (which uses off-peak hours to pump water uphill so that peak hour demand can be offset using hydro power and the excess supply built into the system is not wasted), programs which reward consumers for reducing their PEAK POWER LOAD (and therefore also their total power bills!), and more localized power production which loses substantially less than the 50% average wattage which travels over wires and is better tuned to the needs of a particular location.  This form of savings would allow existing power plants to use their energy much more efficiently and reduce need for new utility construction all while increasing our national security from foreign attack.  (Oh yeah, and phase out incadescent lights and unnecessary “standby” mode appliances!)

Mandatory minimum Leed certification levels (or some similarly arranged standard) for new construction starts and promoting eco-remodeling over creating new buildings where possible (with corresponding tax incentives for each) will go a long way toward reducing environmental toxins and energy use loads while stimulating the building and sustainable material markets.  Of course, tax credits for passive solar design and thermal resources (geo and solar) should be in the mix to highlight these low-impact technologies, which have relatively fast break-even points.  Tax credits for using non-toxic building materials and for installing “greenswitches” (which allow you to deactivate wall outlets and lights from a single light switch by the door when you leave the house for the day or go to sleep at night) would be great too!  Also, promoting organic food and material production greatly reduces our overall need for petroleum supplies (for pesticides and herbicides), while helping to restore America’s soil health and ecosystems.  Community garden programs could also use a boost, maybe by offering a green roof gardening program on existing public roofs, producing food for community programs while reducing the buildings’ energy needs.  And incentives for greening cities (like the Million Trees LA program), with special emphasis on using plants which produce edible fruits, nuts, and other foodstuffs to increase urban agricultural density and further buouy city budgets (an interesting example of a group trying to promote this is fallenfruit.org).  Perhaps also offer incentives for people who spend locally and stimulate their towns’ and cities’ economies and efficiency?  (RecycleBank has an successful program along these lines)

More research should be done on using nature’s own arsenal of environmental restorers and protectors (for example, using mushrooms for reforestation and toxic chemical environmental remediation).  We can also use certain restorative biofuel feed crops to rebalance the natural soil cycle, preventing erosion and therefore water pollution.  Our water, in particular, is a resource we cannot continue to allow to be polluted by heavy metals and current waste streams.  Providing farms better incentives for (or harsher punishments for not) properly collecting animal wastes that end up in the water supply.  Also, active superfund sites, especially mining sites, need to be addressed as soon as possible to prevent further contamination downstream.

As for alternative energy sources, there are so many different exciting technologies out there in the prototype and early market stages, the next phase (besides, of course, funding more R&D and business development!) will be ensuring that we have qualified technicians who can utilize these developments and technologies within the current marketplace competitively.  Offering more GANN-style grants for alternative energy and resource management studies at both undergrad and grad levels and creating and/or expanding a GreenCorps (modeled after the PeaceCorps) program which could first be challenged to green all federal and governmental facilities are both interesting options.  They can also promote public awareness of the consequences of their waste disposal actions and maintain a national resource database, which would help to source materials from within the country and with minimal transport for manufacture and also further educate people about the natural resources of the areas in which they dwell.  America could easily create lease or loan programs modeled after Japan’s successful solar leasing program or the SELF (Solar Electric Light Fund) loan initiatives in developing nations.  Both have been extremely successful in increasing solar adoption in times of economic despair (Japan) and area with fewer monetary resources (SELF), and could easily be applied to other alternative technologies.  Cuba’s solar school mandate is another great application of initial investment leading to long-term savings.

Two side notes on R&D for alternative energy technologies.  First, we need further development of integrated technologies, such as solar roof shingles, which serve multiple purposes and fit within current design models.  Currently, most alt technologies are add-ons – you mount them onto something else that’s already there.  With integrated technologies, the need to do this would be reduced, such as cars that have wind driven motor rotation when traveling above certain speeds (when wind can be effectively funneled through existing structures).  The other side note is that the digital divide, while not expressly an environmental problem, is something that we and all other nations will have to address in the coming years.  If we could fund people seeking ways to power computers without grid power or create highly efficient digital components, this will obviously help reduce future energy burdens on the US and globally.

(well, it continues beyond here, but congratulations if you’re still reading, ’cause I know I can really get talking when it comes to saving the earth! ) What are your ideas? Do you have stories of people (other than the listed examples) already doing these things?

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