Thursday, September 30, 2010


After the election, the Obama administration will roll out energy legislation, if not cohesively, at least in chunks.

That was the take-home, for those of us in the energy-and-climate business, from a recent full-on interview in Rolling Stone.

I could go for some chunks right now.

Of what, though?

Knowing the folks advising him, some of them at least, and knowing the proposed policy as declared before 2008 by Holdren and others, it will be chunks designed to address various carbon stabilization wedges.

Here's Obama, from the interview, providing hints:

"When I talk to [Energy Secretary] Steven Chu, who, by the way, was an unsung hero in the Gulf oil spill — this guy went down and helped design the way to plug that hole with BP engineers — nobody's a bigger champion for the cause of reducing climate change than he is. When I ask him how we are going to solve this problem internationally, what he'll tell you is that we can get about a third of this done through efficiencies and existing technologies, we can get an additional chunk through some sort of pricing in carbon, but ultimately we're going to need some technological breakthroughs. So the investments we're making in research and development around clean energy are also going to be important if we're going to be able to get all the way there."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Alladale updates

Here's a Yale Environment 360 post by Caroline Fraser highlighting the Alladale Reserve and another similar "rewilding" scheme in the Scottish Borders.

I was pleased to read it, since it gave me an update on some issues I follow from time to time in Scottish conservation.

Regular readers will remember our fact-finding mission to Alladale three years ago. There's a string of posts on this blog.

The Alladale project, owned and led by millionaire Paul Lister, is attempting to reintroduce various Highland fauna, but particularly moose right now, later wolves and bear.

I have to say, I think the community organization model used at Caroline's other featured site, Carrifran Wildwood, will outlast Paul Lister's commercial one.

Lister, as we discovered once we met and talked with the guy, is not particularly interested in the Scottish communities that surround him. Aimee and I and the other Unity College researchers that visited saw this at first hand. He's also disrespectful of the Scottish hillwalking and mountaineering fraternity.

But like all Scottish landowners he does not control access, nor does he have a right to do so, so this lack of respect, which has led to an inability to communicate with both locals and walkers, has led to difficulties with his scheme.

While the Carrifran scheme, which serves similar goals, appears to have generated wide participation and admiration.

My grandfather, the Kinder Trespasser, would have approved of this scheme, whilst Listers would have been seen as yet another moneyed theft of the people's birthright.

There's little doubt that most Scottish people see the Alladale scheme like this too. Fraser outlines the issues. Lister has a major PR problem on his hands and it will prevent him from succeeding with his goals.

The other difference with the two schemes is that the Carrifran scheme is concentrating on natural flora before fauna. Lister is fairly distracted by his lack of competence in biology, which has led him to concentrate on higher levels of the trophic web than may perhaps be viable, restoring or seeking to restore various charismatic megafauna before the food systems that support them are restored.

This last point is arguable, since the major problem with primary producers in this food web is overgrazing by red deer (Cervus elaphus), which might be reduced if one of his predators, the wolf, were successfully introduced. This is the best argument Lister has. But current law will require him to fence the entire reserve and run it as a zoo before he gets his wolves.

It would make a lot more sense to me, ecologically and in terms of public relations, to concentrate on restoring the native pine and other remnants of Caledonian forest first, engaging the community in plantings and visits as they have done at Carrifran.

Trouble is, no-one will pay to see this, which negates the commercial "safari park" approach that Lister seeks to demonstrate.

And Lister definitely lacks the patience to get on a slower plan to rewilding.

Passive house piece

Here's an interesting NYT article about a house Bensonwood is building to the Passive House standard.

Bensonwood, of course, built the Unity House, also a passive solar design.

Note the use of a blower door at the point the building envelope is complete.

We'll be building an other passive solar building here on campus soon, to add to our existing fleet. This time the architectural firm is Go-Logic of Belfast. The funding will come from the Kendeda Fund.

Kayla, one of our Sustech students and an occasional blog contributor, recently served an internship with Go-Logic.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

All the fun of the fair

Here's our booth at the Common Ground Fair. We were there all day yesterday and today, and we will be there all day tomorrow too, dispensing college advice as well as advice on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

I enjoyed my time with all the fair-goers, answering energy questions and trouble-shooting solar, wind and household retrofit problems.

I also got to walk around a little. The second display is our friends at ReVision Energy. Staffed largely by our former students, this excellent solar/wind design and installation company operates throughout the region.

We like them because they help out with internships and come to talk to class on a very regular basis. They are also extremely competent and honest. Energy audits are an integral part of every service. They will be sure to tell you when you don't have enough wind for a turbine, or when you'd be far better off investing in insulation done by some other contractor before you buy an expensive solar system from them.

I wish there were more companies like theirs in this business.

The blower door display was the big attraction at our booth. One interesting character, Dan Huisjen, a local energy auditor (whose email I have if you are interested in hiring his services), was disturbed by the fact that the door had been assembled incorrectly to the display frame.

This was because our poor blameless librarian, not one of our energy people, had opened up the display that morning, but Dan proceeded to set things right, and in the process attracted a crowd, who then hung around for an impromptu explication of the way a blower door works and is used.

Dan is certainly an energetic kind of energy auditor.

Other things I saw and liked: This home-made sheep stand would certainly save my back when it comes to dung-tagging and hoof-trimming. Aimee saw and liked it too and we might make one for the Womerlippi Farm.

I liked the sign at MOFGA's resident farmer's farmstead.

I am happy to identify with the peasant moniker, coming, as I do. from a long line of the same.

To my mind a peasant or husbandman is the most redeeming occupation. After all, what a peasant does is capture sunlight using efficient agriculture, taking the sun's energy and the soil and rain to make food, fuel and fiber in abundance.

Amen to that.

One good peasant can support an awful lot of people. Many more of us might aspire to this exalted status, instead of, for instance, hoping to succeed on American Idol, or for that matter, Wall Street, or emulating thuggish gangsters.

Finally, I enjoyed as always the sight of MOFGA's 10KW Bergey turning in the warm breeze above the main fair parking lot. This is of course the same model that I obtained a broken version of this summer, for the price of disassembling and trucking it to campus.

I proposed a occasional seminar class for this coming spring semester that will repair and reassemble and raise our 10KW Bergey, after which we will connect it to one of the college's meters and net-meter the power produced.

Violating the law

We're at the Common Ground Fair all weekend, in the Energy and Shelter area, showing off wind assessment and energy audit equipment and the like, and answering questions about energy and college.

Come see us and ask a question. Who knows. You may even get a good answer.

One guy yesterday didn't like his answer. He wanted to know why he couldn't put a wind turbine on the roof of his camper and use it to produce electricity for the camper while driving down the road.

I explained, very, very carefully, that the extra drag contributed by the turbine would add to his fuel consumption, and the energy created by the slipstream turbine would be at least less than the energy of the additional gas consumed, and probably much less. He would probably do better to hook up his vehicle's alternator to whatever interior battery he was thinking of charging, if it isn't already hooked up so. If he wanted much more electrical power he should fit a more powerful alternator to the vehicle. He might profitably use a wind turbine while the vehicle was parked, but not while it was running down the road.

This is of course a fairly simple application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Entropy Law. Any of our Sustech students could have given him the same practical answer, and any of our juniors in other majors too, after taking their required third-year class in climate and energy.

But this fellow was not helpfully educated. He was, rather, most offended. He looked very hurt and then angry, rejecting the information, could not accept it, and then argued against it, raising his tone all the while.

Beautiful to watch.

A picture of denial.

If we could get a read-out of his brain during those few minutes, we could probably solve the energy crisis and the climate crisis all at once, because we could track and follow the brain's denial mechanism, identify the neurological seat of whatever incorrect mental model he's using, just completely troubleshoot the wonky plumbing that some people have up there.

So he threw out a last one liner to the effect that he "knew the US military was doing it" so it must work. His tone was nasty by this point, so I told him that the US military wasn't doing it, because the US military was smarter than that, and he angrily stumped off into the netherworld from whence he came.

Why publish this encounter on the Internet?

It's just an example of the kind of reaction we get to a lot of energy and climate science problems, from denialists to anti-wind activists. People listening way too hard to the voices in their own heads.

My wife used to have a great bumper sticker on her truck.

It read, "Don't Believe What You Think."

Good advice for our students.

Critical thinking is probably the most important skill to learn in college.

Here's a good question:

Does the Common Ground Fair save more energy than it uses?

People drive to this fair, sixty to eighty thousand of them, from all over New England. I would guess the average fair-related gas consumption to be at least five gallons and possibly ten. Two to three visitors per car.

That would be between 100,000 and 400,000 gallons per fair, discounting all the other energy that goes into the products sold, and running MOFGA (which excellent outfit uses a lot of renewable power and even generates some itself).

To save that much energy, each visitor would have to go home each year and engage in a behavioral change that reduced overall energy use by the equivalent of a couple-three gallons of gas, or about twenty or thirty KWH. Two or three times that for a family.

Behavioral changes that would count might involve buying more efficient local food (not all local food is more efficient, but most is), or other energy saving products, as well as the more obvious household energy changes demonstrated in the Energy and Shelter area.

Is that possible?

I doubt the average fair goer succeeds in learning enough that is new or additional about efficient agriculture or living techniques to do this. This is especially unlikely because most fair-goers come each year, and most have already adopted energy-saving measures. One couple I talked to yesterday were looking to get a wind turbine, but it very soon was apparent that they didn't consume enough electricity to make sense out of a wind turbine. They didn't use heat oil either, but instead burned firewood for fuel. The only serious energy improvement they might make was to trade in their car, which they drove very little, for a more efficient one, and even that was unlikely to pay for itself. They were probably exceptional, but illustrative of the inherent problem of "preaching to the choir."

But the occasional or new fair-goer might reduce energy consumption by a very large amount, particularly when you consider that some might choose to implement a lifestyle choice that lasts much longer than the per-year time-frame of the fair.

So if I go to the fair and learn about a new weatherization or insulation technique, or visit Unity College's blower door exhibit and learn how to get a proper energy audit, and thereby reduce my oil consumption by a hundred or two hundred gallons a year as a result, over many many years, I might "pay" for many visitors' energy required to get them to the fair.

All this is speculative, but not nearly as implausible as wind-powered camper guy.

In any case, the fair is fun, one of the best fun things I do every year in my job.

A little fun never hurt anyone. Or any planet.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Cryptic cornucopia

I was looking for a bit of lumber yesterday and I happened upon the squash, onion, garlic and dry bean harvest curing in the attic of the Sustainability Barn.

Hiding away up there. Who knew? But just look at this all this food!

This abundant supply is destined for the Food Pantry. All of it was grown on the college lands, by the college's gardening staff, together with student help, through the Veggies for All Program.

Here we see dry beans, drying. I guess that's what dry beans do.

Followed by some excellent onions.

And an abundance of multicolored squash.

I have to say that, for me at least, seeing this food makes all the barn-building effort worthwhile.

Kudos to Tim Libbey, Garden manager, and Sara Trunzo, the Veggies for All coordinator, for making this happen.

Hoofing it

Students from the introductory class in captive wildlife care came to the farm Monday and Wednesday to learn how to handle sheep. These are first years, but they were intelligent and spirited and willing to get stuck in.

Each group got a sheep in need of dung tagging and hoof-trimming. The animals were checked for fly strike and anemia caused by barber pole worms, a nematode parasite. The groups that worked with the new ewe-lambs were able to see, or in one case learn to give, tetanus shots.

We had a few high jinks as students learned to handle animals competently. Animal handling takes practice. You have to move quickly but smoothly, with a good deal of confidence. Each move has to be with full, firm force, no half-measures. This takes a good deal of practice, and your first moves might seem very like the first blasts of a trainee bagpiper, or the first attempts to drive a stick-shift car.

On reflection, I'm reminded that this characteristic might be what makes animal handling training such a good thing for them at this age. Well over eighty percent of the students in this program are female.

Needless to say, this is not the normal kind of movement exhibited by teenage people in public. Students of both sexes at age eighteen, but especially female ones, routinely lack this kind of confidence in their movements and persona. Our society, with its emphasis on appearance and glamor, mitigates against development of other kinds of confidence and agility in young men and women. One of the ways it does this is by assigning them both unfairly them to certain kinds of roles, and by repeatedly providing the message, especially to women, that what matters is always looking good.

As any trainee sheep shearer will tell you, it's not actually possible to look good while learning how to catch, move, and "throw" a 150 pound woolly-minded animal for the first time in your life. You do not have a spare second to consider how your attempts look to any audience you may have. You just have to learn on your feet.

A couple of our class members hesitated a second or lacked the proper confidence or applied less firmness than was called for and their sheep were gone in milliseconds, off to the far corners of the home paddock, not to be caught again that day.

Oops. Oh dear, how sad, never mind. Try again with another one.

Get back on the horse that threw you.

There are lots of other good things that come out of animal handling training. We emphasize the responsibilities of any post involving animal care -- you're the one that has to get up and feed, water, and check your flock, whether it's Monday, Friday or Sunday, Christmas or your birthday, and while that duty can be delegated to a responsible person, you have to be absolutely sure that the person you delegate it to will do it and do it properly.

The animals won't understand if they have to go without clean water or feed or needed medical care for a day because you were derelict in your responsibilities.

We also emphasize the animal carer's role as a scientist. First year students' eyes tend to glaze over in Bio I and II, but once you learn how important it is to know your parasites, or plants, or diseases, and once you realize that biology is foundational to animal medicine, and that animal care is actually applied biology, then you might have a better reason to crack open that fat old biology book and learn some of those Latin names or some of those important cycles of respiration or those pathways of protein synthesis.

So the briefing for the sheep handling training gives us a chance to lay this all on again, and we lay it one pretty thick, with emphasis, because it's such a good teaching moment.

Who knew you could get so much out of learning to move, throw and tend sheep.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Farm for the Future

Here's the BBC movie, for class, parts one through five.

Interesting business clips

I try to keep a pretty close eye on the new technology in renewables and energy efficiency, for two basic reasons: 1) Any scale-able, cost-effective renewable and efficiency technology is by definition a climate mitigation solution, and I need to teach the latest information in my classes and class modules relating to climate change, and 2) I also regularly teach classes and modules of classes in energy and energy efficiency.

This is a fairly volatile market, and if you blink you might miss any of the various changes, roll-outs, and other things going on. I'm often surprised how little attention some otherwise authoritative commentators pay to these meanderings, since a break through in any of the competing technologies can be game-changing for all the others.

Of course, the claims of companies for their new ideas and equipment always have to be taken with a pinch of salt, and energy tech markets can be very slow to change, but there's been enormous and fruitful work done in the last decade or so in many areas.

So, for instance, I'm very interested in wind turbine technology, but any serious further reduction in the price of solar PV, which has dropped 40-60% per watt in the last two years, will begin to make turbines seem far less cost-effective, and eventually, perhaps, even obsolete.

Here's a couple of clips. UTC, the Connecticut tech giant that owns Sikorski helicopters, Carrier HVAC/AC, and other major light-to medium-heavy engineering and US manufacturing may make a bid for UK-based Clipper Windpower, which is as far as I know the first time UTC has thought to go up against GE in wind tech. If this takeover goes ahead and bears fruit, a serious US-based competitor to GE may emerge. There are a few but none with this kind of clout.


And a UK biofuel concern that owns a potent new bug that converts high-carbon landfill waste to fuel has landed a serious deal with another US firm.

Funnily enough, a UK commentator in that last clip bemoans the loss of UK tech to the US, where she believes that renewables are in serious boom, supported wholeheartedly by our politicians:

"It's just so sad that we are losing these companies to the US," she said. "Why aren't we building these plants in the UK? Sustainable development in the UK keeps getting knocked back by skittish politicians. We just need to go for it, like the US is."

Which just goes to show, everything is relative.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mountaintop activists visit Maine

Wikipedia stock photos of a mountaintop removal mine in Appalachia and the Kibby wind farm in Maine.

The Natural Resource Council of Maine has been a steadfast supporter of Maine wind power for several years now, and has resisted every attempt by local "environmental" interests to convince or force them to withdraw that support.

For good reason. NRCM is one of the more reasoned environmental organizations there are, and is capable of understanding some economics and drawing reasoned and quantitative comparisons.

Most recently they bought some Appalachian activists to Maine to see our wind farms and to highlight the comparison. I for one was blown away by the picture of pure happiness on the one activist's face when he contemplated the notion of making clean energy on a mountaintop.

I suggest you watch the video. It's Channel Five, so they'll make you watch an ad first, but it's worth it.

Joy is a beautiful thing to watch.

But we're tougher thinkers than that at Unity College. Let's just run the numbers implied by this admitted PR stunt, so we can see exactly which system is actually a more efficient use of land.

If you take a 2,000 or 3,000-foot tall mountaintop in Maine and put a shiny American-made GE 1.5 MW/hour rated turbine on it, you will make on average 500KW/hour from your nice new turbine. This is due to the fact that the wind doesn't blow strong enough to run the turbine all the time. We call this ratio, which in this case I assume to be 33%, the "capacity factor." To get the best performance, to make sure the turbines don't interfere with one another, you should put one turbine roughly every 1,000 feet. If we calculate the area each turbine sits on as a 1,000 foot square, we get an energy/land ratio of 4.4 KW/square feet/year.

(500KW/hr x 365 days/yr x 24 hrs/day ÷ 1 turbine/1,000,000 square feet)

The Appalachian coal mine, on the other hand, will have a seam depth of anything from a few feet to several tens of feet. I don't know, and couldn't find at short notice the average depth of an Appalachian coal seam, but if we calculate on the basis of a ten-foot seam, we can easily multiple or divide by various factors to suit our own favorite biases. A pound of bituminous coal carries around 12,500 BTUs, which is about 3.7 KW. Solid bituminous coal is about 80 pounds per cubic foot. Our ten-foot seam delivers, then, around 3,000 KW per square foot.

(3.7 KW/pound x 84 pounds/cubic foot x 10 cubic feet/square foot of land)

Seemingly, coal is several orders of magnitude more efficient than wind in terms of the amount of mountaintop land that is needed.

But wait: Coal is typically burned in relatively inefficient power plants of about 35% thermal efficiency. In other words, 65% of the heat energy goes up the chimney before we can convert it to electricity. Newer "combined cycle" plants are more efficient, and the EPA's "cap-and-trade" acid rain regulation is driving the adoption of the newer technology (an example of a successful cap-and-trade system), but there are still quite a few of the older plants in use. Combined cycle plants have about a 55% thermal efficiency.

What to do? If we split the difference at 45% we might have a good average thermal efficiency for coal-to-electricity.

Then we need to understand that the amount of land needed to actually access the energy value of coal-bearing land increases by a factor of two or three or more. There has to be room to bulldoze all the overburden, the land that was previously on top of the coal. And then there's rail lines and power plants and a place to put the coal ash. This last is an enormous waste disposal problem. The Guardian just did an interesting exposé of the difficulties in China, while a major disaster occurred at at least one storage site in the US recently.

Meanwhile, while this is all happening, the wind power plants are quietly producing, year upon year, for a couple of decades. You'd be amazed how little maintenance is needed. Sometimes I wish they needed more, because that would create more jobs. But they just sit there for twenty years or more. Then the turbines get refurbished, and the plants produce for some more years.

But of course, initial fabrication-and-construction costs consume some energy, and even some coal. Coal makes coke which makes steel which makes wind turbine towers and generators and trucks and trains to transport turbines. The energy return on investment for moderately well-sited, properly managed wind power plants is typically around 80 to 1, or just 80.

Whereas we already decided our coal mine can only deliver 45% of it's energy as electricity. That's an EROI of 0.45. And we haven't even calculated the energy costs of delivering the coal to the plant or mining it or disposing of the ash..

For the purposes of comparing energy return per unit land, however, we can just assume on the one hand that the energy costs of producing wind turbines and refurbishing them every twenty years, if they are only one-eightieth of the actual energy produced by the turbine, are negligible. We might then, even-handedly, assume that the energy costs of transporting coal and disposing of ash are also negligible. Generous, maybe, but for arguments sake....

So we need to divide the energy per square foot for coal by a factor of three or four because there's that much more land involved, especially in waste disposal. If we use a factor of 3, we get 1,000 KW/square foot of land.

Which still compares very poorly to the 3.7 KW per square foot of land for wind turbines.

Except for one thing: the wind power plant is renewable, and delivers 3.7 KW every year.

And we already accounted for the turbine costs themselves, albeit rather crudely, by balancing them against those hidden coal costs of transportation and disposal of ash.

When the coal is gone, its gone.

So yet another correction factor is needed. And it's a very subjective one. We'd be well within our analytic rights, if we had any, to multiply the wind power output by an infinite number of years because, well, renewable is renewable.

That's what it means.

But it's unreasonable to think that any energy supply technology will stick around forever. This is the mistake that is being made by advocates for fossil energy, and their climate denialist apologists. They imagine that there's no scientific or engineering progress, or to be more accurate, they can't conceive of such progress. A lack, rather than a presence, of imagination.

More than likely, we'll invent a better solar panel, or a new bio-diesel producing algae, or a Mark II Bloom Box, and the clean green wind turbines and the coal plants will become as obsolete as steam engines.

So if instead of using an infinite number, or even a big number, we use a number related to the number of years this particular kind of energy supply technology might be expected to last before it's superseded by a newer kind, we might come up with a more reasonable comparison. I like the number 20, because 20 years is about the rest of my working life as an energy wonk, and I sure want to live to see the day when the denialists and fossil fuel advocates get their comeuppance.


3.7 KW/square foot x 20 years possible viability = 74/KW per square foot of land committed to wind power use.


1,000 KW/square foot x 0.45 thermal efficiency = 450/KW per square feet committed to coal mining use.

450 KW is still eight times as much as 74 KW, but it is a comparable number, almost in the same order of magnitude. That was the point of the NRCM stunt, to show that coal and wind are comparable use of mountaintops. They're quite correct, although we'll need somewhat more mountaintops to have wind turbines do the work than we would if we had coal mines.

And my assumptions of the energy costs of coal extraction and land use were generous. I gave coal the benefit of the doubt, while I didn't inflate the time period during which wind power might be relevant. If anything, I underestimated it.

So, dear readers, given that the land efficiency is at least comparable if you make certain assumptions, what it might boil down to is this: assume you're a total NIMBY: What would you rather live next to, a wind turbine or a coal mine?

And which mess will be easier to clean up, when all is said and done?

And which one contributes most to climate change?

I generally don't think like a NIMBY, but if you use your imagination, from a national point of view, both wind power and coal mining are economic "bads". The NIMBY question is irrelevant, if you're the nation thinking as a whole. All bads are local bads to someone. We should choose to minimize both.

However, as I've pointed out in other articles, we still need a base load power supply. So wind power may not displace coal power in production. It's more likely to displace natural gas, at least until we develop the kind of grid-scale wind forecasting that will allow us to power down coal plants in a timely manner. Such forecasting is in place in some grid areas, but it isn't ubiquitous.

But if we could choose one over the other, based on these numbers alone, the numbers implied by NRCM's latest PR effort with these Appalachian activists, we'd choose wind.

And it's very unreasonable to complain about the "blight" of wind turbines on Maine mountaintops, once you begin to think nationally, and contemplate the blight of mountaintop removal mining. That blight will still be with us in hundreds of years. If Maine's wind turbines are still around in twenty or thirty years, well, I'd be very surprised.

But it would only be because they are still useful.

And once they are not, they'll be much more easily removed and the land restored.

If we don't use the most cost-effective means to reduce climate emissions, our Maine mountains will change forever, as tree species and birds and other animals leave us, to be replaced by species more adapted to a warm climate.

Ironically, it will a climate more like southern Appalachia. Read Maine's Climate Future for the full prognosis.

I don't expect anyone to be convinced by all of this number-crunching. Least of all, one of Maine's anti-wind activists. Such folk are in many ways like the apologists for the coal industry. They are arguing uncomplicatedly for the protection of a small way of life for a very small number of people, the pleasure of seeing a view unmarred by turbines, the hope not to have Maine's still nights punctuated by the regular woosh of a turbine blade. I can sympathize a little. But like the coal industry apologists, like Knut, they're desperately holding back a turning tide.

And the real comparison is much more complicated.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Democracy's big test

California's GHG emission law is under challenge by ballot initiative, led by a posse of carbon-dependent corporate funders and Tea Party billionaires. What a rat's nest of misinformation and irrationality that campaign is likely to be!

The ordinary California voter, who may or may not know anything at all about climate science, must now choose between a basic cap-and-trade system, not unlike RGGI, Maine and New England's own system, or no emissions controls at all.

Choose? On the basis of what?

My work in basic climate education leaves me fairly clear-eyed about just how much and how good the climate knowledge is that a lot of folks have, and it's not very good at all. In general, I suspect, and my suspicion is supported out by some data I've seen, I think men are generally the least knowledgeable about climate change, and most likely to believe that they "know" somehow that it isn't happening or going to happen, and that the scientific consensus is somehow manufactured by left-liberal activists.

A very lazy kind of conclusion to jump to, and one that might support all your favorite pastimes if you drive a big truck or like a sport that makes heavy use of the internal combustion engine.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian, an assortment of environmental philosophers and futurists is reported, at least according to this opinion piece by Micah White, as seriously considering the attenuation of democracy because, well, they think people are too stupid, and that instead we need to be led by some junta of enviro-dictators.

I tend to think that this is another lazy conclusion to jump to, and a very slippery slide.

And boy, won't Limbaugh have a field day with this one.

But what if the Tea Party and the oil corporations had a nice voter drive and nobody came? I hope they spend an awful lot of money and lose their shirts.

I think this might just happen for two reasons. One is liberal, environmental, northern California, the original Ecotopia.

The other is Hollywood. Which of course has much more access to media than any evil Tea Party genius will ever have. And who knows, even the gubernator might get involved.

So, while Lovelock and Finnish philoso-nazis can hypothesize about the end of democracy, and while the Tea Party funders and oil and coal interests can actually fund it, a thousand cuts of misinformation and distortions, those of us in the cheap seats get to see the spectacle of a test case.

It's going to be an interesting fall.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

From my email bag today

Good Day,

My name is Wyatt Taubman and I’m an Environmental Studies student at the University of San Diego. I’m reaching out to you because I think you would be truly happy/excited to know about the online global college contest for the ‘Greenest Student’ that just kicked off last week., an environmental news website run by student writers (of which I'm one), is sponsoring the contest in an effort to showcase the most creative and innovative green ideas emerging from college campuses. I'm sure students at your University would love to enter this awesome event and have a chance to let their green ideas be known and win a new iPad and matching iPad case that has been donated by Dukes Restaurants to make studying and saving trees a little easier! An active college email account is all that is required to enter the contest.

The contest has a judge's panel consisting of professors from the University of San Diego, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Hawaii, as well as students from an array of colleges. Students will have a month to submit their ‘Green Resolution’ online before the entries are collected for judging! Please view the contest page here: Greenest Student College Challenge.

Could you please forward this email to students who might be interested in entering the event and to faculty who might be able to share this event with even more students at your University?

This is the first global brainstorming session for green student ideas! We are trying to get as many students involved as possible. Thanks for any help that you can provide.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

The real work

I don't know what I'd do if for some reason I couldn't do practical work anymore. I'd go crazy, for sure.

Ordinary white collar work -- and education is no different than any other in this respect -- is often so nebulous in so many ways that you have a very hard time knowing when you're succeeding.

I spent so much of my life making or fixing things, from F4s to solar power systems, that I have a very great need to be able to sit back at the end of the day and say, well, yes, I managed to accomplish something today.

Call me neurotic, but the satisfaction I get leads me to think that we'd all feel a little better if we had a little bit of what Gary Snyder has called "the real work" to do, every so often.

My most recent practical project is the straw bale house restoration. This is the building that Aimee and I built years ago as a way to avoid paying rent while we saved, and while Aimee finished grad school, so we could afford the mortgage on the Great Farm farmhouse.

The Bale House was also an experiment in building, using straw bale and recycled materials, which is why it looks so old-worldy, with hemlock posts and beams and clay cob and lime wash all major materials used in construction. It cost less than $20,000 to build, and costs less than $200/month to run, including taxes and insurance.

The Bale House was, however, never finished. We had to move in before it was finished, and once we moved out, another family moved in before we had chance to do any more work. There are also some mistakes and poor design features I'd like to correct.

So every weekend for several weeks now, I've been spending quite a few hours each day over there fixing things up. I've had a little help from the future occupant and her friends, but mostly I've been alone and it's been great.

The first project, once we cleaned up the mess left by the previous occupants, fixed the roof, and got the solar power system working again, was to add insulation to the kitchen roof. The old roof was only R10, a major design flaw. This was done of course to save money, but actually cost a lot of time, and now some money to correct. This led to several problems, not the least being ice dam formation. I fitted recycled metal roofing at the start of the latest retrofit, which will stop water getting in from ice dams, but I'd like to stop the ice dams completely, and make the kitchen more energy efficient. the answer is to fit R19 insulation and sealed drywall over the old rafters, bringing the R-level up to about R30.

The next job is to fit finished drywall to the ceiling of the main part of the house. This ceiling, originally R20, had already had the R19 treatment, plus another layer of 1/2 inch foam board leading to R44, and had ceased making ice dams. But I had never managed to get drywall over the last layer of foam board.

This is a cathedral ceiling and so needed a drywall lift. I also used the lift for the kitchen work. because I'm working alone, I need the lift even for a relatively low ceiling like the kitchen one. Often, on a drywall crew, three guys will do a low ceiling, two to hold each board, a third to drive home the screws. I have to do it all myself, mostly because no-one is available to help me on the days when I'm working.

The last shot is of the almost finished kitchen ceiling. Since I took this shot last week, I've already sanded the drywall mud and added a good coat of primer. The finished drywall looks a lot better than the old smoky rafters.

Now all it needs is another coat of paint and a bit of trim.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Solar economically viable: back up figures

Picture: The Unity House: a working example of the kind of grid-tied solar installation covered in the following article.

One of the commentators on a piece I wrote that happened to get posted on Andy Revkin's NYT blog asked for some back-up figures as to the viability of solar PV.

The claim I made in the original piece was that solar power is cost-effective now if purchased using lease or long-term finance. The original comment referred to both solar thermal hot water and solar PV. The commentator specifically asked for references for the solar PV claim, and that is what I give here, but I could also work up some numbers for solar hot water if required.

This is a conditional claim, as I mentioned in the piece, but because the piece was written to be "punchy" and so actually get read, some may have missed the conditions:

An ordinary solar PV installation is currently cheaper than your electricity bill in several states, if you use longer financing and a lower interest rate, or if you lease. Cost effectiveness varies by state and location. In some states you need the federal rebates, in some states you need state and federal, in others you can swing it without, and in some it doesn't pay at all. (A database listing available rebates and other subsidies is available here.)

In all cases, you need a flat or south-facing roof exposed to full sun.

Lease versus purchase? For outright purchase to be cost-effective, you need to have a supplier of capital (either yourself or a financial institution) that is willing to see solar PV as part of the house, much as we currently see the furnace or hot water tank, and calculate opportunity costs or finance accordingly.

Since this requires uncommon vision for banks right now, at least on a first mortgage, and since few of us will have the dollars up front, for most of us ordinary folks, whose capital is tied up in house and retirement savings, this would require a home equity loan.

For the lease option, you need a company such as Sungevity or New England Solar.

The cost structure is much the same in either case.

So, in the case of purchase, for instance, if you live in Maine and currently draw power from the grid to the tune of 10,000 kilowatt-hours (KWH) per year (a little more than the New England average), you'll pay around $150/month to the power company, give or take twenty dollars depending on the source of that power.

If instead of paying this large bill, you place a 3 KW per hour rated solar power system on your roof, opting to pay a smaller power bill plus a solar system purchase bill instead, you'll make about 5,000KW of your needed 10,000KW/year with that 3KW of solar modules.

(3KWH/hour x 4.5 hours/day average sunlight x 365 days per year = 4,928 KWH/year)

Half is about right. Currently, without further development of the grid, and with Maine's current net-metering law, although you don't legally have to do this, I would size the system so it runs the parts of your house that keep running during the middle of the day, so fridges, freezers, hot water tanks, and the like. This is usually about half the total. This particular choice puts the least stress on the grid, and is not likely to cause the negative externality of a major grid demand-supply imbalance unless an awful lot of us do the same thing in one swell foop.

To the grid the initial connection of the panels, once the sun shines on them, looks more or less as if you disconnected a few appliances. Later, once the grid gets used to solar and distributed generation in general, and has figured out how to "dispatch" it to where it's needed, or if we ever get a "feed-in" tariff law, you can add more. Oversizing the original inverter would facilitate adding more modules later.

The current installed cost of that 3KW-rated solar PV system is about $25,000 in Maine. I got my figure from my regular communications with local installers.

The commentator, who lives in Oklahoma, asked for specific references. This is a bit like asking for a reference for the price of a new furnace installation in Oklahoma City. I don't know any installers there, and these kinds of pricing questions are not normally the concern of referenced scientific works. Instead, I would refer him to the price of ordinary modules and suitable inverters in a catalog such as Northern Tool, or use Google shopping, or any other outlet whose prices are the same nationally, or ask him to fill out the Sungevity online quote form.

A lot of installers will buy solar equipment from online vendors for the simple reason that you can do your ordering at night or early morning, when you're not out installing. I also buy from the same kinds of outlets, albeit for my educational and research work, and for our own two modest properties, which is why I'm familiar with the pricing, brands, and outlets.

To provide some objective back up for the figure of $25,000, I went to these sources and priced the equipment needed. Click on the links above and below to see the prices.

From these ordinarily priced sources, I see that I can get 110 watt panels for $410 and change, 135 watt panels for around $450, and so on. I need 28 units of 110 watt panels to make my 3KW system, so if we buy them from Northern Tool and include some dollars for shipping and taxes, the total is about $13,500 (at $480 each), a conservative estimate. The inverter is about $3,000. There's some wire needed, a couple of new kilowatt-hour meters, and a big old circuit breaker, about $1,500 all-in. The rest is design and labor.

It's actually only a couple days work for two guys to install, but installers tend to charge top dollar, as far as contractors go. This will change as our local community colleges are cranking up to qualify many more installers for solar and wind power devices using ARRA and other recent federal investments.

Still, $25,000 is a lot of money just to get out from under half your electricity bill. But you get 30% back on your taxes in the first year or years through the governments current rebate programs for renewable energy, so the cost is then $17,500. Financed on a mortgage or home equity loan at 20 years at current low interest rates, the price of that much money is between $95 and $120 per month.

The mean point of that, say $105, compares unfavorably with the $75 you pay for half your electricity bill, but as you can see it's very close. I also picked an unfavorable state, Maine, with relatively high power rates but relatively few average hours of sunshine daily. In California, Arizona, or Florida or any sunny state marked on this map, the average hours of daily sunlight are more like 7 or 8, so there is a considerable increase in power produced, enough to close the gap.

Or you can install a smaller system.

It turns out that Maine has additional state-level rebates currently that also close the gap, but I wanted to keep the numbers simple so people can begin to see the kind of thinking needed here.

Folks can and should quibble with my numbers (if you have nothing better to do) but as with many economic and ecological modeling problems, the insight here is not so much to do with precision as it is to do with finding new and different ways of looking at the system's dynamics. In this case, that means understanding solar PV as long-term capital, perfectly appropriate when you consider how long the panels last, 25 years or more.

Actually we don't know how long PV panels last. There are several systems I know of that were put up in the late 1970s or early 1980s and the panels are still working fine, although the inverters and batteries have all been replaced. In some cases there is a small drop in output, around 15%, but only after long time periods. Grid-tie systems don't need batteries, and inverters have improved a good deal, so these concerns are far less in the kind of system we're talking about here.

The take-home message:

The commercial viability of solar depends as much or more on the kind of finance used, any subsidies, and the hours of sunlight per day, as it does on the price per installed watt.

On that last, though: It's coming down. There are two ways this is happening. The first is market reorganization as speculators take advantage of these price points. Sungevity is a case in point. Their business is less solar design and more arbitrage. What they are selling is less solar installations and more market knowledge and various kinds of guarantees to homeowners and to their own investors. They are also aggregators of a kind, taking advantage of various economies of scale. Lease financiers such as Sungevity already face more favorable prices for PV installation, so they can bring the capital price down. I'm not privy to their exact price structure, but I can guess. They buy modules wholesale from the factory, which saves them a large percentage. They have one engineer for dozens of projects, saving design costs. They don't customize each set-up, at least not so much, so their installers can knock them out quickly, much as the Dish or Direct TV guys get your leased satellite dish up in an hour or two. And instead of being a bank and having to satisfy a loan committee and loan regulations, they're using private equity money, which they can access faster.

This kind of money does, however, require a higher return, so I would expect that the homeowner who is prepared for the nuisance of ordering up the installation and filing for the rebates herself can do as well or possibly better if she can find cheap capital.

The rebates also reorganize the market. Installers emphasize them in advertising and audits. I've gotten one of these rebates every year for the past five years, although so far only for insulation, not solar. Eventually I'll get around to solar, but only after I've gotten all my other energy needs down using insulation, renewable heat, and the like. That's the right way to think about it because the return is greater on insulation, up to a point, than on solar. Again, this is ordinary economic thinking. I'm not a wealthy man. Opportunity costs for the use of my available capital prevent me from doing this right now, but once I've paid down the home equity loan I'm currently using to pay for wood stoves, Energy Star appliances, windows, and insulation, I can use the same for solar.

Additionally, the actual price of solar PV modules and associated inverters has dropped by roughly 40% in the last three years. This has been reported nationally, but I also have personal experience to draw on. The last time I priced a Kyocera panel it was $699 for 135 watts, now it's $450.

Actually, I just refitted the small solar cabin we own, an off-grid summer/hunting/recreational camp, with a new inverter and a charger, for about a third of the original price. The solar module was still fine after 8 years' use. They're hard to break.

If this trend continues, as we expect it to do because new factory capacity is being built in the US, China, Japan and elsewhere, and new solar production technology is much cheaper to run than older technology, even Maine would be cost effective without the state-level rebates, in one to two years.

It is also a real possibility that the federal rebate would be unnecessary within a few more years.

So, my personal conclusion is that the solar age is here, and in some ways inevitable, except that we tend to see solar as short term, not long term capital. I expect we'll figure that out as people begin to save money with solar. I'm looking forward to buying a system in about five years here, by which time, with all the new production capacity, I would guess the price of modules should be about 70% of what it is now. Of course, I plan to install it myself, so I'll pay less. I also plan to buy the panels at wholesale price, and because I run only energy-efficient appliances and don't use electrical power for hot water, I don't need as much as 3KW. I can get by with half that.

The real problem, as the commentator mentioned, is the fact that we currently have sufficient grid-based electrical production capital to make our power demand, in the form of ordinary power stations, so the solar capacity is redundant. The other problem is that the solar power comes only during the day when the sun is shining.

But this last turns out to be a good thing with solar. (It's more problematic with wind power.)

Maine, and New England in general, like most northern regions, has a daily electrical power demand peak that is roughly twice its nighttime "base load." Adding solar power to the grid in this fashion, one roof at a time, means that the power companies will have to change the way they dispatch power. Each time an inverter is connected to a breaker panel, when the sun shines, the ebb and flow of power in the grid is slightly altered during the day. For the time being and until there is a lot more solar capacity installed, any large amounts of solar power that arrive during this daytime peak mean only that the grid operators have to slow down some stations, and these are generally peaking stations, not base load stations.

A peak load station is one that can be powered up and down quickly. These include natural gas stations and some kinds of hydropower stations. A base load station takes time to power up or down, and instead likes to run continuously. Coal and nuclear power are typically used for base load.

Currently, grid operators probably can't see or measure any solar-powered drop in peak demand anywhere except perhaps in California. This will change eventually. But for a few more years yet of adding additional capacity, they'll be able to cope. The problems will arise when the new solar capacity begins to approach the capacity of peak load power stations in any particular region.

Until then, any solar power capacity additions will have much the same effect on the grid as a football game ending, except that this football game ends each day, as the sun climbs in the sky. The balance between demand and supply is momentarily upset, and operators reduce supply by powering down certain kinds of peak load power stations, particularly natural gas-powered ones. It wouldn't be hard for weather forecaster and geoscientists to build computer models to predict this power production timing, which would help the power companies cope. We're currently learning to do this with large scale wind power.

You never get rid of all the base-load and peaking power stations because the sun doesn't shine 24/7. There will still be night-time, and still be cloudy days. In this sense, solar, and wind are best seen as a replacement for fuel in the grid, not a replacement for power stations. You still need much the same amount of base load and peak load power station capital, but you can get rid of quite a bit of fuel use.

When making cost comparisons across grid sectors, the cost structure of the solar sector looks to an economist more like the cost structure of fuel purchasing. Solar power happens to have a stable price, and one that is coming down, while oil and gas have recently been unstable and can spike upward, so this is an attractive feature of solar for grid and power company managers.

But you can get rid of some power stations if you reconfigure the grid.

I happen to think that some of the new "fourth generation" nuclear power systems such as the "Hyperion" reactor, or the new "Bloom Box" fuel cells, might also be interesting new capital options for power and grid operators because they offer the new option of distributed base load, which we can use together with solar to harden electrical generation against natural disaster at the local level, create "microgrids" and reduce the extent of outages. But there are other interesting new ways to think about base load capital too. One is electric vehicle storage.

You can also get rid of more stations, and even some base load stations, if we begin to drive battery electric cars, which we charge up during the day and draw down at night. You have to charge them up at work using solar power on the roof of your workplace, or placed around the parking lot. You then drive home and plug your car into your house's computer-run power center, which makes sure only to draw down enough power that you can still get back to work the next day.

Whatever our commentators may think of all this, the bottom line is, there's a lot more electrical generation technology around now, some of it renewable, others, like the Bloom Boxes, still need fossil fuels (natural gas, in the case of the Bloom Box), but are better for the environment.

This is US-owned tech, and we should be thinking about how we use it to get our climate emissions down, meet or exceed our international commitments, and reduce the cost of energy to consumers.

The idea of using leases or long term finance for solar is just one example of new ways to think about solar power, power distribution, and energy demand, and associated ways to reduce climate emissions.

There are others: In Maine, one local renewable energy company is proposing a solar power station to reduce the cost of what would otherwise be a very expensive power line upgrade, another example. In California, the new thin-film PV produced by Nanosolar is going primarily to power stations on the roofs of big box stores.

The greatest objections to all of this interest in solar will come from people tied to old ways of producing power, either economically, politically, or culturally. They will object that this is all pie-in-the-sky, utopian, not "real" energy thinking. Apparently "real" energy has to produce pollution to get taken seriously. This is a cultural tendency I've observed among, for instance, older petroleum geologists and engineers. The cleanliness and efficiency of, say, a Nanosolar plant is foreign to them. Although some "paleotechnology" is involved in solar power production, it's minimal compared to coal and oil, and the life cycle production per unit pollution is much greater.

In any case these are not rational objections and will not withstand even another 20% or 30% drop in the price of solar PV modules.

Such folk of course also hate the 30% federal subsidy for solar, and object to that too. But even were the subsidy to be removed, the price would still likely catch up after only a few more years. And remember, the hidden costs or "externalities" of coal and oil are substantial, and include oil spills off our shores, dead miners killed in accidents, the alteration of Appalachian skylines by mountaintop removal mining, and, last but not least, climate change. The cost of such things are major subsidies from the general welfare to destructive forms of power production and should also be taken into account. In a sense this is partly what solar rebates do, correct the positive externality that is supplied to the general public when a homeowner or business turns their roof into a small power station for their own and the general good.

Another option would be a carbon price or carbon tax to correct the negative externality of power production pollution and accidents. I quite liked Maine (Republican) Senator Susan Collin's recent proposal for a carbon tax-and-dividend system because a dividend would reduce any regressive effects of a carbon tax.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

UC on Democracy Now!

Here's our student Jean doing very well in a national interview.

A green White House

After the big send-off the day before yesterday for our Solar Road Trippers, I began to ponder what I would do if the White House was a building I was responsible for.

And, of course, the first thing I would do is not "put solar on it" but perform an energy audit.

It turns out that there has been at least one and possibly two serious energy audits done on the White House.

Our friends and partners Rocky Mountain Institute, together with the Department of Energy, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and NREL did one for Bill Clinton in 1996, which resulted in a lot of retrofit work being undertaken to both the White House and the Old Executive Office Building. That report, titled "Greening the White House," is available, as is a summary here.

And, according to this news article here, the Obama administration ordered a new audit shortly after coming into possession of the First Mansion.

The next thing I would do is whatever the audit said were the "low hanging fruit," the most cost-effective and immediate energy saving actions. Given that the '96 audit aimed to pick most such fruit, we may be needing an apple ladder right about now, but that doesn't mean to say there wouldn't be some fruit to pick. Light bulbs, door seals, windows, attic and crawlspace insulation, insulation in general, and air leaks in general are all typical low hanging fruit (not in any particular order). The earlier report mentions that quite a few of these were done.

Then I might think about switching heat fuels. The White House needs a "hardened" system of utilities that can survive emergencies, and in particular must have seamless and uninterrupted electrical power, and so is ripe for a dedicated, microgrid combined heat and power system, or CHP.

I had only a short amount of time for research and couldn't find out what kind of system was currently in place. I would use natural gas, which is available by mains supply in DC, but I would keep a back-up supply in an underground tank. A natural gas CHP system can be up to 85% thermally efficient, which is much better than, for instance, an older oil-based heat-only system at 65%. And gas emits far less GHG per unit energy than oil.

Then, and only then, I might think about solar PV and solar thermal, or some other form of renewable energy. I'd put a fairly large solar PV system on one of the larger nearby buildings with less architectural and historical concern, or on the mall using trackers, and I'd put evacuated tube based solar hot water back on the West Wing roof, right where Jimmy Carter put his original system.

I might connect one of the original JC panels to this new system as a pre-heater, and just for sentimentality's sake. the LEED building system gives points for re-using and recycling materials, so you could pick up a LEED point for this.

Or put it one the grounds as a "statue."

President Carter said in his dedication speech that one day these particular flat plate collectors would perhaps be a museum piece, and they probably are. They were never more than 10% thermally efficient, even when they were brand new. They're very heavy, too, and so have a lot of embodied materials, glass, copper, aluminum, and steel.

I would guess that they capture about 100 to 200 watt-hours per hour of heat energy in the middle of the day, and much less at either end of the solar cycle. The new evacuated tube systems are much lighter, have fewer embodied materials, and are several times more efficient. they also start to work earlier in the morning and keep working later into the afternoon.

Ironically, however, you could do an audit and then do all the retrofit work and do it as well as it could possibly be done and still not succeed in drawing the public's attention to what you had done, or encourage others to do the same, while if you used one of the original Jimmy Carter panels, however inefficient they are, you might be able to get through to some folks.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


The Big Send Off for our intrepid Solar Road Trip Roadies went off very well, with much speechifying and presence of paparazzi.

The students for their part managed to do quite well under the spotlight. Jean, who's in my Environmental Sustainability class Tuesdays and Thursdays, was on TV for what she said was the first time. I though she came across quite well.

Well done, Jean! Whenever I'm on TV I seem to mumble out of my beard.

I wanted to make sure the van really was already running on biodiesel, so I went sniffing once Amanda had started it up. In all the fuss it would have been easy for Jesse to postpone the run down to China's biodiesel filling station.

Oh ye of little faith.

But no, the exhaust smelled like burnt french fries.

Just the way it should.

(Biodiesel is sold in China, Maine, which is only one among many: Moscow, Poland, Norway, great Maine towns named for just about anywhere other than Maine.)

I hope Amanda and the other van-certified driver remember to let the van's glow plug work for a few minutes each morning. It would be bad to have a solar road trip and not make it to the road.

That biodiesel needs a bit more heat priming than regular diesel.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch...

in more day-to-day climate education activities, I have to cover climate data, archives and proxy records for today's Global Change class.

To liven up what otherwise would be a drab tour of the many types of data record in nature, I'm going to talk about glaciology and the hockey stick controversy.

I've always liked glaciers and a good argument.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Royal roady

Our Solar Road Trip guys have some competition. The Prince of Wales, no less. The prince is heading out on a city-by-city tour of the yUKe, to spread a message of sustainability.

Hey! Our guys thought of it first!

Flattery is the sincerest form of imitation.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Buddy, can you spare a dime for a solar panel?

Krugman's vinyl is stuck. But I can't say I blame him.

He's written what seems like endless opinion pieces about the need to step up deficit spending, to increase Keynesian stimulus. But who's listening? This is not an easy sell. Most Americans have jobs, most pay taxes, and the deficit looks pretty large to most folks. They're not anxious to add to it.

It's 74 years since the General Theory was first published.

You'd think we'd be past this by now, that we'd actually have serious data and a more secure knowledge of our own economy, wouldn't you? That we would really know what to do? But it's monstrously powerful, this endless Keynesian debate, the supply-siders versus the demand-siders forever, like the Army-Navy game, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, or cats and dogs.

Krugman is of course technically a New Keynesian, and for those of us interested in arcana, we could study some of the arguably new twists the New Keynesians and the neoclassicalists have come up with. Not that it matters. As long as the main choices with which we are presented are increased spending versus tax breaks for the investing classes, we're still arguing either side of the Old Keynes.

I am starting to think that this is all a very big red herring, that there's a third way kind of way around all this.

I'm also beginning to think that our Solar Power Road Trip crew may have hit upon one such program.

Lets just examine the so-called alternatives for a minute. The key argument from Krugman is for more stimulus, to relieve what he sees as a liquidity trap kind of stagnation, similar to the US in 1938, or Japan during the 1990s. In this view, the government should borrow money now, taking advantage of cheap interest rates and the likelihood of inflation, to spend our way into more jobs. But while this program has excellent academic credentials, it hasn't, and won't, gather any speed with Americans in their present frame of mind.

The Democrats in Congress right now, and by default Obama (because he hasn't argued for doing anything else) are betting that they've done enough stimulus, that if they did more they'd lose in November because of the outbreak of fiscal rectitude that underlies parts of the current conservative backlash. They've made their bet and find themselves forced to stick with it, although I would guess that some of them would like to follow Krugman's recommendation.

The Republicans in Congress, and those of the Tea Party that are primarily motivated by fiscal concerns, are betting on the Bush tax breaks. They hope to be able to continue them or even increase them, into the sunset.

Most Americans just kind of sit there, even a lot of the unemployed ones, and don't know what to think because the media they use are uniformly uninformative, because most people don't study these things in college, and because, well, isn't that why we hire these leaders?

Aside from all this, I do wonder how many unemployed Americans it would take to make a serious jobs movement? Obviously ten percent, or nine-point whatever percent, is not enough. This is nothing but testimony to the power of capitalism as popular theory. Even the unemployed are really just waiting to get back on the tracks of the rat race, not questioning, not theorizing, not organizing. This complete lack of political awareness is amazing to me.

But back to the main thread, and McKibben's, and 350.orgs, call for a massive presidentially-sponsored investment in solar roofing.

At first glance this seems like another call for demand-side action, pretty much as it was with the ARRA stimulus for energy audits and weatherization.

But a primary sponsor is the firm Sungevity, one of the solar PV lease firms that began to spring up after the price of modules began to drop a couple years ago. They have even offered to solar-roof the White House for free. Obviously good advertising for them, whether or not the Obamas take them up on it, and I do hope they read my points below about not needed to place the modules actually on a 210-year old historic building. But a generous offer all the same.

Let's understand though, ordinarily, this offer to the Obamas aside, Sungevity makes money on leasing panels. The only reason we don't care to buy panels ourselves is because a) we don't know that they can save us money, and b) we're averse to adding debt even when it's cheaper than the alternatives. We'd rather keep paying an electricity bill that is greater than what the cost of leased panels would be.

So is this really a liquidity trap, as Krugman would have us believe?

Or is it just a lack of energy knowledge and analysis skills?

It would be pretty silly if we had a recession and couldn't get out of it, even if there was a huge amount of cost effective energy work to be done and a huge amount of private capital looking for secure investments at 8 or 9 or 10 or 12 percent, and the only reason we couldn't put two and two together is that we didn't have enough folks trained to crunch the numbers.

Sungevity is really practicing old-fashioned arbitrage, not engineering or electrical work. All they're really selling is the smarts to crunch some numbers and some effective guarantees for investors. There's a massive amount of similar cost effective energy work to be done, not just in solar PV but in even more cost effective investments such as insulation, but a huge lack of knowledge about how to do anything about it.

And, what really drives me particularly nuts about all this, while we wait for leadership, there's a climbing Keeling Curve.

So Obama has another option, one that dodges neatly between the horns of the Keynesian dilemma, and that might even help with November's election currently so worrisome for the embattled Dems.

All he has to do is make a speech and give it, explain to the American people carefully, probably a few times, in his endearingly wonkish way, that solar power is now sufficiently cost-efficient that many of us could have solar roofs, either on lease or using our own equity. If he was being a good energy wonk, actually, he'd make sure to prioritize insulation and weatherization work first and foremost, using similar equities-backed financing, such as the PACE system. And he should start with the White House. With an energy audit, actually.

He has to say some words in this speech sufficient to galvanize colleges and universities around the country to teach the economics and analysis to thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of energy auditors and energy investment consultants to-be, to break down the knowledge barriers and get the liquidity flowing.

He could even throw in a few barbs about how this will get us off foreign oil, make it seem like a rejoinder to OPEC, a way to de-finance the Saudi, Iranian, and and other oil money that flows to radical Islam, and so on, to head off the Tea Party's criticism before it starts.

And if investors, homeowners and building owners began to listen, that Keeling Curve, or at least the American contribution to it, would begin to come down.

Where America leads, others will follow.

I can't see a downside. Can you?

The daily energy peak (twice daily if you live in a state where they use AC), actually, and the lack of effective storage. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. It will take some years. By simply reversing the flow of energy in the existing wires, from homes and other solar roofs during the day to workplaces during the solar day, we could probably make 20, 30, perhaps even 35 % of our electricity with solar delivered through a slightly reworked version of our current grid, more if we add electrical charging stations at work and use computer modeling to finesse drawing down charge from EV's at night to watch TV and so on (you want to draw down just enough and a bit more, to allow you to get work in the morning, to the charging point at work).

But like I said, the efficiency work should come first. Which, actually, is what I plan to do right now, adding some insulation to our straw Bale House. And I'm late. And the dry wall-lift I'm using to finish this newly insulated ceiling has to be back to Home Depot by 3pm.

Enough theory. Action!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Perspective on the Carter panels and energy legacy

As our students and Bill McKibben are preparing to make the solar power road trip to DC to try to talk President Obama into recharging the Carter energy legacy, I think it's worth a time out, at least on these pages, to think about this a bit.

How do I feel about the solar power road trip and the Jimmy Carter energy policy legacy?

Understand, Bill's job, and the job of, is to stir up students and the public in general to push politicians like the President into getting something done.

My job is to think through, and to teach other folks to think though, what actually should be done so that we actually do the right thing, and then, on occasion, to demonstrate the doing of it. I like this job because it suits my personality. I'm very solutions-oriented, and I enjoy technical complexity and analysis. And I'm not unfond of even sometimes stuffing insulation into cracks or connecting the odd solar module or erecting the occasional wind turbine. It's a lot more fun for me and the students than sitting in the office or classroom, and I much prefer my students learn the lesson that ideas are not deeds and that someone always has to translate the one to the other, if anything real is to happen.

But a long time ago I was an activist, like Bill, and a pretty decent one, and ran campaigns and wrote for activist magazines and even once helped lead a campaign that targeted then-President Clinton in much the same kind of way. So I can identify, even if I am not too sure about some of the specifics.

In general, I think it would be a good thing for President Obama to highlight climate change problems and energy solutions, particularly American job-creating energy solutions right now. He has been doing so, with speeches and visits to factories and the like, but it really hasn't broken through the rest of the political noise yet, to penetrate through to the average American, and this needs to happen. Bringing Jimmy Carter's panels back to the White House, even symbolically, might just do this.

I wouldn't be surprised if a few White House staffers aren't sitting around a table right now trying to decide what to do with McKibben and the students when he shows up. On the one hand, the President can't be seen to hob-nob with any activist that gets in a van and takes a drive to see him. That just wouldn't end. But on the other hand, McKibben might just have offered the White House an opportunity, on a plate, to break through the noise and communicate directly with the American people about energy and climate.

(Since at least one of these staffers is one of my former professors, Steve Fetter of the Maryland Policy School, this is an intriguing scene, and ironic, to me personally.)

It would even make sense, to my mind, for President Obama to further endorse solar technology by agreeing to McKibben's request to beef up the White House solar systems. It fits in with the current need to beef up jobs programs, and solar technology is one area within renewable energy that the US has mastered and has numerous patents and other proprietary knowledge. More people need to know about this capability and be proud of it and learn to use it. The time has come to rapidly expand the use of both solar thermal and solar PV in America and the world. Right now, of all the things that we inherited from Jimmy Carter's energy policy legacy, this is a good one to recharge. President Obama could even bring President Carter up for the inaugural ceremony of a new White House solar power system.

That would be a very successful outcome, wouldn't it?

But we'll see, I suppose. Time will tell how successful Bill's trip is. From Bill's point of view, actually, the trip is already successful, since he's already been on Letterman and in USA Today.

Now that that the political/activism discussion is out of the way, lets talk tech, because while I'm interested in the activism, I'd like to offer some smarter suggestions than to just slap solar on the White House willy nilly.

It just doesn't necessarily make much sense to literally "put solar on it," as the road trip's slogan goes, especially if we're talking actually putting PV on the White House, or any historical building.

There's simply no technical need to do this.

One of the nice advantages of photovoltaic systems is that you can step up the voltage, invert it from DC to AC, and transmit it through regular power lines. You can get all the advantages of solar PV by putting the modules in just about any sunny spot you want, and either running the power into the White House if close, or running the power into the grid if further away, and crediting the attributes of that green grid power to the White House account through Renewable Energy Credits or RECs.

Or you can put the modules in your grounds and run it into your building. There is already a solar PV system on a building within the White House complex, the so-called cabana, actually the changing room at the swimming pool. The PV system was placed there in 2002 by the National Park Service, the agency responsible for the White House, and it works and produces a peak output of about 9KW.

That was a good compromise, to put the system on the pool house, not the 210 year-old historical building, and any transmission losses between that building and the main building would be negligible.

This existing system probably only makes a fraction of the power this building needs, though, and could be increased in scale ten-fold.

But I wouldn't put the new panels on the roof of the main building.

If instead of solar PV we're talking solar thermal, particularly solar hot water, it does make sense to put the equipment on the main building. But not PV. There are other choices.

A particularly nice strategy would be to put solar arrays in various places in the grounds or even on the National Mall. To make this work nicely, I would use US-made polycrystaline modules on US-made trackers. This isn't the very latest technology, but it's interesting technology.

Here's an example, the NRG Systems factory in Hinesburg, VT. Full disclosure: NRG supports Unity College. But you could buy someone else's trackers.

Trackers are interesting architecturally, and can be used to enhance a building's grounds or to enhance a public open space. They increase the amount of the sun's rays that can be captured by the panels by following the sun around the sky. One of the technical details about solar power is that the most energy is captured when the sun is hitting the panel directly. Trackers help to do this. They aren't always cost-effective, but they can be. It's fun to watch them follow the sun throughout the day. They make built landscapes come a little more alive. Solar trackers would be very cool around the Ellipse or up and down the Mall.

The very latest technology is of course thin-film or amorphous solar. This is the material that will reboot energy production in the US: the most important and viable new renewable energy tech. But these kinds of modules require even more space. The state of the art is to install them in mass quantity as solar power stations on the roofs of large industrial buildings or in the desert.

Washington DC is definitely a desert for common sense, but it isn't the Mohabe. Space is at a premium and expensive. However, those big old New Deal-era buildings on the National Mall are all solar power stations waiting to happen. Taking a whole bunch of thin-film modules and wiring them up on these buildings would be a nice jobs program for a few hundred electricians and electricians helpers, and a good investment in the technology and in public awareness of the technology to boot.

My third recommendation would involve the main building, or at least the vaunted West Wing. Solar thermal technology, which is what the original Carter Panels were (you'd be amazed how many reporters who contact me don't know the difference or just assume that the Carter Panels were electrical ones), is best installed close to the point of use. It's quite efficient to heat hot water with the sun, but it's not at all efficient to transmit heat energy long distances unless you actually are the sun. (Even that statement is technically incorrect, since what the sun transmits is light energy that the solar thermal panel converts to heat.)

But I wouldn't use Carter era flat plate collectors. There's probably not enough room on the White House to put up enough flat plates to collect enough heat to provide enough hot water for the folks that live and work in the White House.

Plus, it's still a 210 year-old historic building, and we wouldn't be very architecturally or historically sensitive people, were we to clutter it up with a lot of solar collectors.

Instead, the way to really honor the Carter legacy would be to put evacuated tube collectors on the West Wing in exactly the same spot that the original panels were placed. The more efficient tube collecters would need less space than the Carter-type flat plates, and an installation the same size as the original would provide a much larger fraction of the needed hot water than the original one did.