Archive for wind

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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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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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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Wind Extravaganza: Another Easy DIY Turbine

DIY Turbine Plans with no laser cut parts from TheBackShed.com

theBackShed.com's DIY windmill

When I check out the stats on this blog, DIY wind plans consistently top the most-viewed posts list. Obviously, there are a lot of people out there wanting to get in on wind power without shelling out thousands for a commercial kit. It certainly fits with the “I built it in my basement” ethos so popular here in America, and, I’m sure, abroad as well.

So, for all you backyard alternative energy warriors, here’s another plan for you to tackle, designed to be easy to construct with found and easy-to-obtain parts. Of course, you’ll have to find the motor listed (or know how to mod the design for your particular supplies) and it will still take a bit of metal cutting, but at least you won’t be struggling to find a laser cutter to build your own parts. Nice pictures of each stage should make construction easier, too.  Happy building!

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DIY Wind: kid in a candy store

OtherPower.com wind experiments

This site, brought to you from the folks at OtherPower.com, is a great source of inspiration (and humorous things to try!) when deciding to build your own wind power system. Been looking at your hamster wondering if (s)he could be working for the cause? Well, they’ve got your answer. And there are a lot of projects her for you to try, with complete ingredient lists and a discussion of how each model performed after being built. Add in discussions on choosing proper equipment for the job, and you’ve got a DIY wind power mecca, right at your fingertips.

building a windmill

The biggest gift of this site is getting to see everything in the process of being made. I always have trouble figuring out where to start when people simply show ingredients and the finished product. But here, you see the steps as you complete them, and not only that, they discuss the evolution and performance of their machines over time, so you can choose one that suits your needs without all the trail and error.

When grid crash arrives, most of us won’t have the luxury of buying a pre-fab system to generate power. So the emphasis on using materials you can find in your local environment is important. Of course, you probably don’t want to wait until you NEED wind power to try building a system. So why not visit the site today and pick a design to try? They even have a web store to help you find all those parts for your project. With several “built in a day” options to try, you could be harnessing wind power tomorrow!

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Solar Sailor: cruising through green waters

“We are confident we can build everything up to ocean liners
and in fifty years time people will look back at boats of the
20th Century and they’ll say “where are the wings”?”
– Dr Robert Dane, CEO, Solar Sailor

Imagine a boat powered by the sun. Unlike the wind, which comes and goes with unpredictable ferocity, the sun makes a fairly easily scheduled appearance most days. Add wind power as a concentrated burst of energy when the sun doesn’t necessarily shine, and you’ve got a luxury ride. It simultaneously looks like a subway train and a transformer: it isn’t the lofty elegance of an old galleon, but it makes a fashion statement nonetheless!

The Sun Sailor has won numerous award for its intriguing design. It simply makes sense to marry the sun and sailing, and takes place under some of the least obstructed skies on earth. And there’s some big name support. The leader of the company is an ex-prime minister of Australia, and recently Solar Sailor was awarded a contract with the US navy developing unmanned vehicles.

Visit the Solar Sailor site here

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America’s First Wind Powered City

It’s official: at least one city in the United States has finally ponied up for a wind powered station that will meet the entire city’s needs.  Meet Rock Port, Missouri, poised to take that trophy home for America.  Fortunately situated near a bluff and with a windy enough climate to sustain a projected 16 gigawatt hours of electricity per year, Missourans are about to get a healthy does of green in their power mix.  Annual consumption has historically only been around 13 gigwatt hours, so that power company will also be able to sell power across the grid to other places, as well as to supply electrical power when winds are down.  With this year’s tornado season as evidence, I don’t think that will be happening too often! 

For more information, look up Loess Hill Wind Farm, the company pairing with the government to provide this service.

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Too Much Wind! (Where do I sign up?)

Too Much Wind?

Wind Turbine

It seems that utilities in Denmark have stumbled upon a problem.  On windy days, the wind turbines they use to generate 20% of the country’s power needs are intermittently producing TOO much energy, reducing power costs to $0.   Yup, that’s zero.  So power company Dong Energy (from Denmark) and Project Better Place (located in California) are teaming up with Renault and Nissan to build a fleet of electric cars with lithium ion batteries that can be recharged during periods when the power grid is carrying too much energy.  Then, this national fleet will get infrastructure, as Denmark plans to roll out a nationwide charging station initiative.  Nice!  To top things off, in looking for ways to “spend” the extra power, Denmark has also gotten cozier with some of its neighbors, selling inexpensive power to those such as Norway whose own energy needs are greater at certain times.  Now that’s international relations as it should be. 

What I want to know is: if Nissan and Renault are already going to build this fleet of purely-electric cars for Denmark and a similar program in Israel, why don’t they release them state-side as well?  Since the death of the EV1 in America, the only electric car we’ve had is the new plug-in option on the Toyota Prius.  Here’s to hoping they make a few with steering wheels on the left side. 

MDI Air-Car

Speaking of steering wheels, have you heard about the new car from MDI that runs on air?  AIR.  It has a 80s VW meets PT Cruiser kind of body, but inside seems pretty nice, and features… a steering wheel in the center of the car, so it can be driven anywhere in the world.  Why did it take someone so long to think of this?  Really.  Right now the car is only being tested in India, but with a promise of $3 fillups (that’s for the TANK, not a gallon) and 180 miles between each one, a lightweight fiberglass frame, and considering you get the car and a home air compressor for less than $20,000, I’m pretty certain it won’t be long before people want one worldwide.

 

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Quickie: Renewable Energy Installation Database

For all you Earth Day surfers out there, here’s a good site to check out, courtesy of the Stella Group in Washington DC:

Geographic Database of Renewable Energy Installations

It’s a nicely compiled state by state listing of proposed and operational energy installations.  If you’re looking for a little “been there” inspiration or want to know what sorts of alternative energy are well-suited for your area, start here!

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BOOK REVIEW: Power of the People

I just finished reading Power of the People: America’s New Energy Choices (2007), a nice short read about the history of, current usage of, and the future possibilities for energy consumption in the United States. At 188 pocket-sized pages, the book doesn’t take more than an afternoon to thumb through. This is thanks to the concise way in which Carol Sue Tombari explains things. She writes as though you’re sitting down together to share a nice salad lunch, not stuffy, not too complicated. But in the mix, she throws in a surprising amount of information about the current energy landscape. You see, Ms. Tombari knows what she’s talking about, after years working for both private and governmental authorities on the topic of energy. So when she talks about the ways in which power utilities fell victim to disincentives for innovation when they “reregulated” in the 1990s, you can bet she saw it happen from the front lines.

Power of the People

The book is divided into two main sections of two chapters each. First, you find out why all this is important anyway. What IS the energy crisis? Then on to Energy 101, a brief discussion of the current power generating technologies and what is already possible in terms of augmenting power load both at the personal and utility level. I learned a lot about how the utilities work (and why this model is outdated). The next main section focuses on the future. What will we have to do to survive the looming power shortage? In the first chapter, she outlines the different players in the energy system, and then discusses how each is challenged by setbacks, and suggests how that challenge will have to be overcome. The last chapter outlines the future and its many possibilities.

I really liked the format of the sections, in which each technology is presented in “the good”, “the bad”, and “the balance” sections. This allows you to get a clear overview of the limitations and promises without delving too deep into science. If you are looking to implement alternative energy solutions in your life but don’t know which one fits for you, I’d recommend this book heartily. If you already have a clear idea of what’s going on, you’ll still find a nicely written essay with interesting photocopy-friendly facts to quote.

The best audience for this book, however, are those who are looking for a way to change energy consumption on a societal level. Buried within the outlines of various technologies is an underlying cry – “Innovate!”, challenging readers to help find the solutions alternative energy implementation barriers. Only a few logistic issues separate most alternative technologies from gaining wide-spread acceptance. What is the power of the future? Could you be the mind to crack the riddle?

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