Posts tagged 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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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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Celebrating Labor Day

What better topic for Labor Day than reduction of necessary labor by moving off the grid? When you make the decision to cut the power lines, you are making a contract with yourself: to do whatever labor is necessary to keep your alternative energy system running to provide your necessary power. Luckily, whether with solar, wind, or micro-hydro power, once you’ve invested in the initial construction phase, you’ve gotten a lot of that work out of the way and you can let nature take it from there.

However, all systems do require upkeep. Solar panels need dusting and readjusting, wind towers need tuning, and hydro systems must be cleared of debris.  This upkeep is one thing that turns a lot of people off about off-grid power. It SEEMS like a lot of work when one is addicted to simply having on-demand power by signing a check every month.  However, when you see the bigger picture of your energy consumption scheme, things make more sense.  The majority of the power generation in an off-grid system is generated by nature.  This is also true in a utility power generation system, but there, workers must transport the raw materials (usually coal) to the power generation site and physically feed the burners.  Between the labor costs of mining the materials and getting them to the power station, and then the labor required to string and maintain power lines to transport the electricity to you, you’ve racked up a lot of human capital for each kilowatt hour you consume.  By taking a pledge to do minimal maintenance on your own system, you are freeing up human capital for other tasks, like designing new generations of alternative energy delivery or other such noble tasks.  (I won’t expound on humanity’s likelihood for picking such noble professions over, say, sleeping on the couch on a holiday like today.  There are limits – enjoy your time off!)

In fact, this discussion underlines a concept that interweaves into a lot of simple living theory.  In order to see your real savings, you should be able to see outside your own life to the greater good of our neighborhoods, nations, species, and planet. By investing a small amount of time, you can count yourself a philanthropist.  Go ahead, put it on your resume! After all, time is a luxury of which each of us only has so much.  You’ll probably find that you end up freeing more time by not having to work to pay certain bills than you will spend in upkeep.  In conclusion, if you want to save energy, your fellow man, and the planet all at once while building your karmic bank account, start planning a way to get off the grid today.  That way, by Labor Day next year, you might celebrate by DOING some labor for a change, instead of needing a break from your daily grind. Happy holiday!

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Link: “How I built my Solar Panel”

How I built my solar panel

The link above demonstrates a nice DIY version of a solar array, using damaged solar modules that can be bought at low price on eBay. This resourceful astronomer also built himself a DIY wind turbine, so if you’re considering doing either, this is worth a look.

This panel was designed to work in sunny Arizona (a beautiful state!), which is a perfect place for setting up an array, especially given the large number of off-grid properties there which would be prohibitively expensive to wire up to the utility power company.

He includes lots of good tips about what to look for when buying your solar panel modules to string together into the final product, so you can learn from his mistakes, and also know a bit more about what is actually important to the functioning of the modules. Above is a picture of the finished box containing the panel. Good luck with construction!

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BOOK REVIEW: the Self Sufficiency Handbook

The Self-Sufficiency Handbook: A Complete Guide to Greener Living by Alan and Gill Bridgewater

the Self-Sufficiency Handbook

The title of this book is perfect. There are no crazy survival tips here, although I wouldn’t mind having this book along in a pinch. It’s a guide for getting your existing house off the grid, and also for evaluating properties in terms of their sustainability potential. The writers live in the UK, after years stateside, so the companies and tips are both oriented toward those countries. But there is a nice discussion of navigating local laws no matter where you decide to drop your hoe and start gardening.

After a nice discussion of housing, which includes talks about insulation, orientation, ambient heating/cooling, alternative energy sources, and materials, they move on to daily living practicalities. First, getting light. That done, next you need food. This is where the book really shines. There is an in-depth lesson on growing an organic garden, including successful composting and which crops should be planted where and when, what needs rotation (and a sample rotation schedule that will leave you with fresh foods year-round) and what can stay put, and the care profiles for a large variety of different garden plants. They are careful to share wisdom on how much land you need to make your off-grid dreams happen, and also on how to choose property that will lead you to success.

Animal husbandry is covered in detail species by species, along with construction considerations, possible worries and probable successes of owning each type. The sections are not overly in-depth – I thought they were perfect for the off-grid enthusiast with lots of commitment but no experience with husbandry. Of course, one can never emphasize enough the time it will take to properly care for animal on your own property. They cover it nicely, if briefly, by saying this: if you own animals, you will have to feed them EVERY DAY, holiday or not. Yes, that’s EVERY day. Having kept horses growing up, I can relate to the urgency with which they repeat this statement throughout the book. Take heart.

The last section of the book can best be described as a tutorial section of recipes for survival. Not pemmican or Gorp-style recipes, but rather old-fashioned recipes for things like candles, making soap, making chutneys and jams, and brewing beer and making wine. Their recipes are pretty short and look easy to handle. In fact, the whole book was particularly well planned to fit each concept on two facing pages, so you’re never left looking for information in a thick chapter of words. I’m sure this limits the amount of information that can be presented a little, but I didn’t notice.

If you’re even considering moving off-grid, or even just converting a section of your yard to an edible garden, you should pick up this book. It’s fairly new, but with its special emphasis on looking at your actions in terms of an overall lifestyle, I think it will one day be considered a standard text in self-sufficiency. Which, as gas rises toward the $5 mark, is something we could all afford to learn more about.

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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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