Yearly Archives: 2014

The Charges Against Me

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Nature destruction—more and more common the world over.

Very interesting— a person named Dean posted a long comment on the “About the Blog” page the other day. I came close to dismissing it, because it looked strikingly like some of the myriad computer-generated spam that blogs receive and filter out daily. But it wasn’t spam, it was a seemingly heartfelt statement, written in a stream-of-consciousness style over several pages. And, reading between the lines, he was in many ways rather politely calling “bulls#&t” on this blog and its purpose. Feel feel to read the original—I took out a few lines that were ancillary, but the bulk of what he wrote is included as a comment under the “About the Blog” page. But, let me take the liberty of distilling his points for you here, because I don’t entirely disagree. In essence, and at the risk of putting a few words into his mouth, here’s what I believe is a fairly accurate, and shorter, rendition of what he wrote, and it brings up some important points—

Dear Sir,

It’s all well and good for you to go on and on in your blog about sustainability, but what you’re doing here is a bit of a joke. “Sustainability” has become just another buzzword, like “organic”, and has lost much of its meaning. The things that get done in the name of “sustainability”, including your blog, are really just ways to make wealthy liberals feel better about themselves. Electric vehicles, yoga, bike riding, eating kale, and having a few solar panels—these are all just window dressing, all just tokens with no real impact, because all of us, at least all of us Americans, are living far, far beyond our means in terms of living in harmony with the planet. Our very lifestyle, as Americans, is fundamentally unsustainable, and is driven by unsustainable market forces. These forces create over-consumption on one hand, and wealth inequality on the other. This wealth inequality precludes huge numbers of Americans at the lower economic rungs from participating in these feel-good measures. Thus, your blog and other efforts like it are essentially salves for the consciousnesses of liberal, mostly white, mostly wealthy people, to make themselves feel better as they over-consume in ways that are trashing the planet. If you REALLY want to be more sustainable, then advocate living like our grandparents did, in much smaller houses, with much less consumption, and growing and preserving much of our own food. In addition, many people who are espousing these “sustainable” ideas, and exhorting others to join them in the effort, are out of touch, and often living off of trust fund income, and therefore have both money and free time that ordinary working class people do not. If I’m wrong about all of this, please respond and explain your line of thinking to me.

—Dean

Hmmm, where to begin. My first point would be, I suppose, that if Dean were to read much of what I’ve written, that he’d find a great deal to agree with. I’ve written over and over about excessive consumption, and I’ve written several times about wealth inequality, and have consistently held the position that it’s an issue that must be solved. I’ve also explored how the efforts of the wealthy, and of wealthy nations, might differ substantially from the efforts of the less wealthy (post: “Pondering Kant“, from June of 2013).

Next, I’d probably point out that I have a full-time job, as does my wife, and we’re raising three kids as well, so I’m not exactly flush with free time, or out of touch with the challenges that normal, working, bill-paying people face. We are, however, fortunate enough to have what is probably an above-average household income. Thus, it is true that our family has “sustainable” options that some families with lower incomes do not. However, I’m not sure that makes those options any less valuable. With regard to Vermonters who live on “trust fund” income, I’ve heard this charge before, too, and it’s also a bit of a red herring. The fact that someone is living off of savings or retirement funds is probably irrelevant. It is true that retired people sometimes have more free time, but that too is a bit of a side issue. We ALL need to live more sustainably, regardless of our jobs, sources of income, and levels of free time.

And, I’d have to strongly disagree that small efforts like driving electric vehicles, or biking, or growing a garden are irrelevant. I don’t have the exact numbers, but our household has gone from using thousands of gallons of fossil fuel a year, to nearly zero, through the combination of energy efficiency, electric vehicles, and renewable energy production. That’s not an insignificant change. Likewise for all the other efforts of people in Vermont (and other places, too). I’m currently spending the holidays with relatives in southern Florida, and I’m nearly in shock from how different this state seems to be from Vermont. This appears to be the land of rampant and conspicuous consumption and the bulldozing of nature as if it’s going out of style. I haven’t seen a single solar panel since I arrived in the Sunshine State six days ago. And the reason Vermont is different? Thousands and thousands and thousands of small actions, by individuals. Small actions definitely add up. But small changes, even though they add up, aren’t the end goal. The real end goal, and the raison d’ etre for this blog, is nothing short of wholesale systems change. As Dean points out in his comment, not much about the current American economy is sustainable. We need complete renewable energy systems, cradle-to-cradle recycling and reuse systems, entirely new ways of growing food, and other sustainable systems of all sorts. The smaller steps won’t get us all the way to these systems, but they are necessary first steps.

Then, there’s the fact that I can’t think of any other way to change the world than through individual actions. I’ve written about this before, too, (one such post: “A Potential Path Forward“) but the short version—voting with our dollars is by far our most powerful, and in some cases, only tool. Eventually, eventually, there will be enough people of a certain mindset to make changes through voting (this is certainly already happening in Vermont). But it starts with individual action.

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..and this all brings to mind Robert Frost.

In the end, will following the ideas of this blog save the planet? I don’t know for sure, but I know that it can’t hurt. I know that if we all did these things and found the results to be insufficient, that we need to revise our methods and try even harder. And, I know for sure, 100% sure, that if we all live our lives as if the planet didn’t matter it will result in a vastly diminished future for future generations. So, I’m not backing down here, and I’m not changing course. To paraphrase another Vermonter, Robert Frost, we’ve got miles to go before we sleep. And because it’s Christmas day, the entire poem seems fitting— Merry Christmas, everyone.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though.
He will not see me stopping here,
to watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near.
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake,
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.

Top image credit: 123RF—Hywit Dimyadi. Image has been cropped.
Snowy evening image credit:123RF— Ivan Kmit.

Heading Out on a Limb

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In recent weeks, both Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have made statements about the dangers of developing artificial intelligence. Curious, I picked up a book on the subject, “Our Final Invention”, by James Barrat. While many people have visions of a wonderful future where thinking machines solve our problems, Barrat isn’t one of them. He lays out quite the case— first, that there are no real barriers to the development of what he calls “AGI”, or advanced general intelligence, and from there to “ASI”, or advanced super-intelligence. Once machines can improve themselves, they could conceivable do so very rapidly, in a sort of intelligence explosion. The early possession of such technology could potentially lead to great rewards, so corporations, nation-states, and criminals alike are developing it as fast as they possibly can. And, there appears to be no stopping this development—no set of laws could stop it, and would only ensure that bad actors achieve it first.

Second, Barrat holds that we truly don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into here, that thinking machines are highly likely to be “black boxes” that we don’t understand, and will be “alien minds” that could easily be hostile or indifferent to humans. He gives an interesting example, of how an ASI machine designed to play chess could decide that it needed to build a spaceship. Without careful programming, Barrat holds that these machines are highly likely to be disastrous for humans as a species, and that even if we’re as careful as we can be, that accidents are likely to occur, and that those accidents might kill millions.

So, all very interesting. But, as Mr. X reminded me recently, we humans don’t really have any shortage of existential threats. If not AI, then the danger could come from something else—nanotechnology, or super-viruses, or biotech, or an asteroid strike, or nuclear weapons. Or, something much, much easier to see and understand—environmental destruction and exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity.

Now, my thought here—regardless of the threat, we need to slow down, as a species. We’re rushing pel mel ahead, on all fronts, without paying quite enough attention the big picture. I watched “Interstellar” over the Thanksgiving weekend, and one line in the movie caught my attention, when one of the characters referred to the 21st century as an “Age of Excess”.

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That moniker seems to fit. It’s not just the relentless development, it’s that so much of it is driven by consumerism and the desire for profit, with no meaningful direction. We’re either trying to entertain ourselves, or to make our lives ever easier, or to distract ourselves with some other new “opiate of the masses” (posts: “A Little Hardship is a Good Thing“, “Minimalism for the Mind“, and “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism“). Or, perhaps worse, as Barrat points out, to develop ever more sophisticated weapons of war. Much of it we don’t actually need, and much of it distracts us from the big things that we really need to be paying some attention to.

It would also be good, moving forward, to not only do a better job of keeping the big picture in mind, but to keep some redundancy in our lives. Can we survive if some existential threat knocks us back a step? Do we have backup systems for food, water, finance, transportation, and communication? Do we know our neighbors, who we might have to depend on in an emergency? I’m afraid that far more often than not, that we don’t. And because of that, we might be headed right out onto a limb here.

 

Just in the Nick of Time

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The new solar array, powered up (and nearly invisible) just as the first snowfall begins.

And… we just powered up the new solar system. 10,000 watts of solar, feeding into the grid. Though, quite a bit less than that at this very moment, because it’s snowing hard and the snow is piling up. So, I got the project (mostly) completed just in the nick of time. I still have some inside work to do with the water heater (post: “An Efficiency No-Brainer“), and a few odds and ends here and there, but the bulk of it is finished. Some photos of “Phase Two”—

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Thirty-six Enphase micro-inverters. Each panel gets its own inverter, and feeds 220-volt power into a trunk line, and from there through a meter and into our main sub-panel.

 

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Step one– putting up the rails.

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The rails are held to the roof with brackets that are attached with 3 1/2- inch lag screws. I got lucky with the purlin spacing, and only had to add one, the new wood is visible here. I also had to add an extra block of wood under each bracket to give the bracket screws enough material to grab onto. Each rail had 11 brackets, so that meant 66 blocks that had to be added. It took a while; I was glad when I had them all in.

 

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Our interim power solution while we were between systems, two Honda 2000-watt ultra-quiet generators, tied with a patch-cord to combine their outputs. The 30-amp plug is tied through a transfer switch inside to the load center in the house. Our biggest load is the well pump, which appeared to draw 2300 watts. One generator is mine, the other is my neighbor’s; he was gracious enough to let us borrow it for a few weeks. This setup proved quite flexible– we could run one generator, or both, or one and not the other, depending on how many loads we wanted on. The generators also idle way down in “eco” mode; better than listening to a large generator yammering away.

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Midway through the roof work, Green Mountain Power came and pulled the power in. Here’s the transformer cabinet in front of the barn.

 

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The combiner box. Each row of 12 panels feeds a trunk line that ends up at one of these 220-volt breakers. From here the combined power of all the panels feeds into the solar meter.

 

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It turned out to be easier to bolt up all the invertors before the panels. High winds were hampering my panel installation efforts, anyway.

 

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The “Sola-deck” box flashed into the roof. The three trunk lines terminate here, and are tied to THHN wire to go through the conduit and down to the combiner box. It is also possible to use the Sola-deck box as the combiner, but we didn’t wire it that way.

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Finally, a nice day to install panels last Sunday. I worked non-stop and got nearly all of them up in one day. I made a jig to hold each bottom panel while I connected it. There’s probably a better way, but I was working by myself.

So, the bulk of the project done. Each inverter reports data to the internet; I’ll keep track of the input. If all goes well, we’ll be powering the house and the cars and still have some left over. Material for a future post…

An Efficiency No-Brainer

 

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An attractive photo for an important but visually mundane topic…

This post is about water heaters, but I didn’t think a photo of a water heater would garner much attention, so I opted for the pretty-woman-in-the-shower picture. The news here is important, though, and worth attracting some attention—in the last few years heat pump technology has made two areas of household energy use dramatically more efficient. One of those areas is space heating, with the advent of affordable and highly efficient cold-climate heat pumps (also known as “ductless mini-splits”), and the other area is water heating. Heat-pump water heaters are now available that are two to three times more efficient than standard resistance-element heaters, and could save the average family $300 a year or more. As one would expect, they’re more expensive than standard models, but heating water is one of the larger energy demands in most houses, and because of this the units can pay for themselves in just just a few years. And after they’ve paid for themselves, it’s money in your pocket every month, and far better for the planet, too. Like I’ve said before, efficiency really is the goose that lays the golden egg.

There’s a short video on this Consumer Reports page that gives a good overview of these heaters. Basically, the units use heat pumps, similar to those in refrigerators or air conditioners, to pull heat from the air and put it into the water, and this takes only about a third as much energy to accomplish as creating that heat with a resistance element. Now, while these heaters are probably a wise investment for the vast majority of homeowners, there are a few factors to be aware of before deciding to make a switch. Among them:

— The heaters produce dehumidified air as they operate, which is a side benefit for most people. But, unlike a standard water heater, they need to be installed where there is access to a drain for the condensate to drip into.

— The units are a bit taller than standard water heaters, because the heat pump portion typically sits on top of the tank, so you need to have space for that. Here’s a picture of the Whirlpool model I bought as part of my current net-zero project, and you can see how it’s taller–

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— Because heat pump water heaters pull heat from the surrounding air, they operate more efficiently if they have a bit of extra space around them. In most installations this isn’t a problem, but if your current water heater is in a very tiny closet, it might be an issue. Related to this, they cool the air around them as they operate. If you live in hot climates, then this can be another benefit. In colder climates, you might see less overall efficiency gains in the winter if the building has inefficient space heating, and the water heater forces that system to work harder.

— Because the price of solar PV panels has come down so dramatically, it is now cheaper to heat water with a heat-pump water heater and electricity from PV, than it is to install a thermal solar water heating system. This path to hot water requires far less maintenance, too.

— The units do make some noise, unlike standard electric water heaters. I don’t have mine installed yet, but the water heater we’re replacing is a direct-vent propane model, which has a blower fan, and I actually expect the new one to be quieter.

So, these heat-pump water heaters might not work for everyone, in every situation. If I had to generalize, though, I’d say that the vast majority of everyone out there with a standard resistance-style electric water heater could come out way ahead by switching to a heat pump model. For those people who get hot water from a fuel-oil furnace, it might enable them to turn off their furnace in the summer, when they might otherwise have to keep it running. And for people who heat water with natural gas, the units might not save enough to pay for themselves. Though, if you could switch from natural gas to heating with renewable electricity, then it would still be a big win for the planet, even if your pocketbook didn’t see a difference.

I know two people right now who have switched, and both seem to be thrilled with the performance of their new models. I’ll have ours in soon, and I’ll do a post about it in a month or so.

Copyright: choreograph / 123RF Stock Photo

A Little Hardship is a Good Thing

I’ve been working pretty hard, physically, on the project, but I feel pretty good, health-wise. Some periods of hard physical labor, I think, are good for a person from time to time. So, reflecting on this, it occurred to me on the drive to work this morning how much physical labor is NOT in our modern lives. We turn on the faucet, and water comes out, no more hand-pumping or carrying water. We take a few steps to our vehicles, no more walking, no more saddling of horses. We hit a button and the garage door pops open, no more doing that manually. We go through the drive-through lane for some breakfast, no more cooking, no more getting out of the car. Heck, we don’t even have to roll the car window down anymore, just push a button… This all reminds me, disturbingly, of the human characters in the film Wall-E. Corpulent, buoyed along on floating chairs, attended to by machines, sucking on drinks with straws, beholden to the “commodity form”. Here’s a clip in case you haven’t seen the film–

We’re not there yet, but you have to admit that we’re on our way. Most people’s lives (in the “rich” nations, anyway) are so devoid of physical labor that people work hard at their sedentary jobs and then spend the money they earn to pay to go exercise, and to do all the running and lifting that their grandparents would have done just to subsist. Worse, all of this comes at an environmental cost—resource consumption to create, market, and run our labor-saving devices, and then yet more resource consumption to create, market, and operate the machines in the gym.

So, my thought-of-the-day— embrace some of the physical work in your life. Or, as Gandhi put it, “One must learn to enjoy one’s chores”. If there’s a good side to our modern labor-saving devices, it’s that they give us the luxury of doing some picking and choosing when it comes to labor. We don’t have to slave in the mines, we can choose some slightly more fulfilling versions of exertion. My personal choices would be cooking with family and friends (with prep and clean-up, quite a bit of labor, but of the good sort), cutting and splitting firewood (time in the woods, alone or with someone else, fresh air, sunshine…), and gardening. Other people’s choices might be different, BUT— realize that no choice at all will put one on the path to floating-chair-land…

Video: PassivelySedentary, YouTube.

Project Photos, Phase One

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The meter sockets. The one on the right is the “gross meter” to record solar input to the grid. So far my wiring has passed muster with only a few minor changes needed. A small change required here; the equipment ground in the solar meter can’t go straight to the ground rod.

Well, I think I’m roughly on track with the add-a-bunch-more-solar project (if you missed it, see post from the other week “And the Project Begins“). I gave myself a month to complete the conduit runs underground, and we finished that today; almost two-thirds of a mile of conduit. Green Mountain Power is still waiting on one easement from a neighbor (a pole on their property will need an additional stay), so they can’t pull the high voltage wire in yet. But, my part is done, so it’s on to the solar panels on the barn roof. Some photos of this portion–

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The conduit at the house end of the run from the barn to the house. The main breaker is at the barn, so this is secondary power coming in to a 100-amp subpanel. The conduit on the right is for internet, with 500-lb strength pull cord getting pulled through as it gets put together.

 

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All the dogs, having a good romp.

 

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The main trench to the road; 42-inches deep. The high-voltage line will get pulled through this conduit; 7,000 volts in a single large co-axial cable, to a transformer at the barn. For this portion of the run we put the communications/internet conduit one foot above this one as we backfilled.

 

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The goal– to get to this stake. A single pole goes here, near the road, before the run goes underground. The last few feet can’t be dug until the pole is set, and then it has to be backfilled immediately and tamped.

 

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The deep well for the transformer (cabinet visible behind the dirt pile), and the internet conduits stubbed up in the foreground. The internet run splits from the power run at both cabinets; communications cables must be at least five feet from the high-voltage cabinets.

 

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The view down the valley as we work. It’s been reasonably pleasant so far, but I’m definitely racing winter; a bit of snow the other evening was a reminder…

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The new 225-amp load center in the barn, with the solar feed coming in at the top, the grid power coming in from the left, and the feed to the house going out toward the bottom (not all of the cables are attached in this photo).

Anyway, last night I unpacked all the invertors and racking and other parts for the solar modules on the roof, and I’ll just call that part “Phase Two”. I’ve given myself a month to get that part in place; I’ll post pictures.

 

The Parking Lot of the Future, Today

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New chargers at Green Mountain Power, in Rutland, VT.

I drove the Leaf down to Brattleboro, yesterday, a 240 -mile round trip; the longest I’ve taken yet in one of the electric vehicles. But it was relatively easy, thanks to some new chargers right where I needed them (both for this trip and for driving to work). Not one, not two, not three, but EIGHT new chargers at the Green Mountain Power operations facility in Rutland, each with two charge ports, PLUS a fast charger. They are all freshly installed, and the fast charger isn’t energized yet, but that’s seventeen new places to charge, all in a line. But, it occurred to me that this is what most parking lots will look like in the years ahead; EV numbers continue to rise (post: “EV’s Everywhere“).

The trip was really fun; I had gone down to give an EV presentation at a workshop in Brattleboro sponsored by a variety of environmental groups there. Part of the event was devoted to electric-assist bicycles, and I rode one for the first time. They are pretty amazing; every time you pedal it’s as if you’re three times as strong as you would normally be, even though the bikes look almost like regular bikes, and the propulsion is silent. I also heard a thought-provoking presentation by Dave Cohen, (link to VPR story with photo) a cycling enthusiast and integrative psychotherapist, who discussed how our technologies have a not-so-good side effect of insulating us from real-world sensory input. To him, cars, including EV’s, keep us from truly experiencing the world, and he thus advocates biking (or walking) when possible. A topic for a whole blog post, when I get a chance. Very nifty video about one of the projects he’s helping with—

On the home front, the solar project continues apace, though it has kept me busy 24/7 and threatens to do so for another six weeks. I’ll post construction pictures soon. But, plenty to ponder on all fronts, and much of it, like electric-assisted cargo bicyles and 17 chargers all in one parking lot, are visible signs of movement in directions that are good for the planet. Yay…

And the Project Begins…

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After ten years off-grid, in comes the power…

Ok, a post about the project here. We built our house ten years ago, and have powered it ever since with wind and solar. Almost. During the short, cloudy days of November and December, and other times when we get a string of stormy days, we sometimes need to run a gas-powered backup generator. For years I’ve thought about adding enough solar to completely free us from the generator and fossil fuels, but in an off-grid setup the system becomes more and more inefficient as you add more panels, because you’re adding generation that you might only need to use 5% of the time. The other 95% of the time, all that potential power goes unused (for more about this inefficiency, see my post “Not Sexy” ). But, we were very close to net-zero despite the generator use, and I wasn’t quite sure how to change the system in a way that would make economic sense.

Then we got the electric cars. Which we love. And then I started wondering about powering not just the house with solar, but the cars, too. Suddenly, the thought of tying to the grid for more efficiency began to seem like a practical path forward. Then, I realized that a number of renewable energy rebates and incentives are set to expire at the end of this year, so it seemed like a good time to push ahead with the entire grid-tie, add-more-solar plan.

So, that plan, now underway, is to bring in the grid power in from the road, underground, to the barn. Then, I’ll reverse the cable run that currently takes power from the house to the barn, and use it to bring power the other way, from the barn to the house (the barn is between the house and the road). Then, I’ll add 10,000 watts of panels to the barn roof, and grid-tie them with Enphase micro-inverters. The current PV system, with the inverter in the basement, will stay largely intact, but will become a fairly robust PV and battery backup system for those times every year when the grid power goes down.

That’s the very short version, anyway. Oh, and then we’ll replace the propane hot water heater with a new, highly efficient electric heat pump water heater, which will virtually eliminate the propane bill.

If all goes well, monthly cash flow should about even out. We’ll pay for the home-improvement loan, but we’ll be able to mostly quit buying propane (we’ll still keep the propane range-top, for now), we won’t have to buy fuel for the generator, and we can charge the cars here and save the money that we normally reimburse my wife’s place of work. On the practical side, I can also quit fueling and maintaining the generator, and can quit climbing up on the scaffolding next to the barn all winter to rake the snow off the solar panels.

Then, after fifteen years the system should be paid for. After that—virtually free utilities and transportation energy, for decades.

That’s the rough outline, anyway. There’s actually a lot more to it, but I’ll discuss the details as they come along. Until then, I’ve got plenty to do…

 

EV’s Everywhere

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Yes, I’m still alive… I have a running list of sustainability topics to opine about, but it’s been non-stop hectic around here. Part of this is due to my new PV project, which probably deserves its own post. The short version, though—I’m putting my money where my mouth is, and should soon have enough generation to power the house AND the two Leafs.

But, speaking of electric vehicles, I thought I should at least put up a short post about something that was very apparent this weekend—the number of EV’s that are out and about has increased dramatically in the last year. Sixteen months ago when we got the first Leaf, the car seemed to be something that most people in public had never heard of nor seen. Not so anymore. The other day in Burlington virtually every charger was being used, and I saw a Ford C-Max, a Ford Fusion Energi, a Volt, several Leafs, and a Smart ED. Fortunately, the number of chargers in Burlington has also increased by leaps and bounds, from perhaps 3 when we got the first Leaf (post, “Leaf Day-One Top Ten List”), to 24 or more today (including 3 fast-chargers). Closer to home, Middlebury has also gotten more chargers, including one fast charger. And, this evening I stopped by those chargers to grab some groceries and top off the batteries, and after I had plugged in all the chargers were full; a whole row of Leafs and a Volt. Good stuff world! I’ve written before about how important EV’s are to where we need to go (“The Real Reason EV’s Matter”), and anecdotal evidence would tell me that we’re on our way.

Of course, being able to drive a speedy, quiet car and power it for 3-cents a mile might also have something to do with it…

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And here’s some non-anecdotal evidence—rising numbers of EV’s in Vermont.

Top image credit: Flickr Creative Commons by HighTechDad, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/hightechdad/7686093864, image has been cropped.

 

Grid Parity

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A graph put together by Deutsche Bank—solar is likely to be cheaper than grid power in the relatively near future. Other forecasts vary a bit, but all tell this same basic story.

If you aren’t familiar with the term “grid parity”, then perhaps you need to be, because it might change your life. Here’s the simple version—electricity created by solar panels is, in most cases, more expensive today than what most Americans pay for grid power, even when calculated out over the life of a photovoltaic system. But, prices for conventionally-produced grid power are slowly rising, and prices for solar are steadily dropping. At some point in the relatively near future, solar power is going to be the same price as grid power—“grid parity”. And after that? Solar will be cheaper, and this likelihood has some large implications. I recently heard Alec Guettel, co-founder of Sungevity, Inc, say that “Solar has won, but the world just doesn’t know it yet”. I think he might be right.

Now, it’s a bit hard to truly pin down “grid parity”, because, like everything else, it’s complicated. Not every region of the country will get to grid parity at the same time; a number of factors affect when those two lines in the graph above will cross. Key among them—the price of grid-power in a particular location, how sunny it tends to be there, how much it costs to get solar installed (those that can do it themselves might save enough to be at grid parity now…), whether or not the system is financed (and at what interest rate), whether the electric company offers time-of-use pricing, and whether there are subsidies or tax credits available. Sunnier locales with relatively high utility rates will hit grid parity first (or have already). In the U.S., places like Hawaii, southern California, and Arizona are already at or very near grid parity even without tax credits. In the slightly-less-sunny Northeast, the federal 30% income-tax credit on solar installations, or third-party ownership models, like those offered by Sun Common and others, make solar pay here, too, in many cases.

Here’s an example of a form of grid-parity that pertains to my post the other week about commercial solar installations (post: “Rooftops Please”). Even here in slightly-less-sunny Vermont, a combination of federal tax credits, accelerated depreciation, the value of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and a form of time-of-use pricing offered by Green Mountain Power make large-scale solar arrays, like those in open fields like I was discussing the other week, pay off. (GMP offers a 6-cent premium on each Kwh of electricity from grid-tied solar installations, an “adder”, paid because solar is produced at or near peak demand on sunny days, when wholesale electricity on the spot market is expensive). In these situations, grid parity has been more than reached, which is why you see these installations springing up all over the place—somebody’s making some money.

And, virtually everywhere, if you are able to install solar yourself, on a roof that you already own, you are likely already at grid parity. In my case, building a house that was 1500 feet from the power lines, solar made sense even ten years ago due to the cost of the bringing in the power lines, which is why we’ve been off-grid all of this time. (Though that’s set to change; I’m about to dramatically expand our solar production to run the EV’s on solar power, which will entail grid-tying. More about this project in a future post.)

Now, about those implications—some thinkers worry that grid parity will result in a death-spiral for utility companies, as more and more customers abandon the utilities and put up their own systems, which would raise the cost of transmission for the remaining customers, and thus rates, resulting in still more customers pulling the plug. I don’t actually think this is likely—grid-tied systems are actually quite a bit more efficient than off-grid ones (see my post, “Not Sexy” ). In addition, large urban areas and manufacturing facilities will always rely on the surrounding countryside for renewable power, which will entail a grid. Rather, I think the most likely implications are actually good for the planet—it’s likely that solar power will truly boom in the coming years as it gets cheaper and cheaper, and we will actually begin to fully transition to an economy powered by clean, renewable power. That’s some truly good news. As for personal implications—keep your eyes open out there, because you might be able to install solar and come out way ahead, and it might be sooner than you think.

Graph credit: Deutsche Bank