Thursday, June 28, 2012

VegetableYarden in Ferguson, Missouri

Picture of the beautiful VegetableYarden.
I was going to title this post, "Food Security in the Age of the Supermarket" but that sounded too boring and uppity. "VegetableYarden in Ferguson, Missouri" is a much better title and, I must admit, stolen from the intertubes. I stole it because it's beautiful in its simplicity but also disguises an issue that tends to be ignored, even by the most cognizant among us.

VegetableYarden in Ferguson, MO is a blog about a man and his family and their attempts to grow heirloom vegetables in their front yard instead of grass. The concept seems simple right? Grow fresh vegetables full of nutrients and without pesticides and serve it up to the family. But that's not the way the folks in Ferguson, see it. They see something different in that front yard. Something different than green grass, immaculately manicured, watered, and if you have some extra cash, herbicides sprayed on it so it looks like supernatural golf course grass that is soft, fuzzy, and a little bit creepy. They see something out of the ordinary.

Woah. When did gardens become peculiar and when did green grass become the norm, I say. Oh. It's a garden in the front yard that is peculiar, you say. What's the matter with a vegetable garden in the front yard, I say. It's peculiar because I have to drive by every day and look at it and it feels different, you say. But our differences are what makes up America, I say. Different means a decrease in property values, you say. Ahh, I see.

So, we are more concerned with making a buck and keeping things status quo than we are with learning how to grow something with our bare hands to feed our families? We'd rather make a buck and continue to count on supermarkets with produce ripening in dark semis and processed boxes of frozen food made with ingredients that I can't even pronounce and made who knows where? To me that's insane and a dependency that makes me feel uncomfortable. That's why I stand in solidarity with VegetableYarden in Ferguson, Missouri. He's teaching us, through his fight with local government, that to be at the mercy of the local supermarket for your food is a dumb and shortsighted way of living. He's teaching us that to lose the ability to grow your own food anywhere on your property is a dumb and shortsighted way of living. And finally he's teaching us that we are losing sight of the connection between humans and nature. I think it's time we all carve out a plot in our front yards and grow some vegetables. Are you with us?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Renewable Energy Markets Face a Bevy of Surmountable Challenges

Photo Credit: Creative Commons
user Lucas Braun
As I write this, the first day of the World Renewable Energy Forum is coming to a close and my mind is swimming with a plethora of information on the status of renewable energy (RE). One thing has been already made clear – clean techies around the world still have much work to do to ensure RE markets continue to thrive. If we would like to see more renewables adopted on a utility-scale or on the distributed generation level, then we as renewable energy (RE) professionals need to focus on changing perceptions and making RE financially feasible through policy and the free market. Highlights from some of the Ignite presentations are as follows:
  • Dr. Ken Swift, An End User Perspective on the Cost of Solar PV Installed by Commercial Organizations: Mr. Swift studied whether it made economic sense to do solar PV in commercial settings in four cities across the U.S. Some of the factors impacting return on investment (ROI) for commercial PV include levels of solar radiation, electricity costs, and state or utility RE incentives. Bottom line on cost effectiveness? Location, location, location.
  • Dr. Varun Rai, Decision-Making and Behavior Change in Residential Adopters of PV: Dr. Rai completed a survey of 365 PV owners in Texas to find out the reasons why they chose to adopt PV. Environmental impact and financial attractiveness are the biggest reasons for adopting PV. However, Dr. Rai found that solar adopters had “information overload” with respect to residential PV. This information overload was mitigated when prospective PV buyers spoke with other PV owners. In addition, people are more likely to adopt PV when there is at least one PV owner in their own neighborhood that they can talk to. Also, one interesting aspect of the study was that solar PV adopters are more sensitive to energy conservation. Bottom line? Get existing PV owners to talk to their neighbors.
  • Kristen Brown, Incorporating Climate and Air Quality Externalities in the U.S. Electric System: Ms. Brown studied what would happen if there were fees placed on “externalities” like the damages that electricity generation provides through greenhouse gas (GHG) pollutants. Ms. Brown’s study found that fees would cause changes in the electricity mix by decreasing the amount of fossil fuels and increasing solar and wind generation. When we begin to consider the damages that electricity causes it begins to affect our electricity decisions. Bottom line? If we put a cost on electricity damages, it makes clean technologies more attractive.
  • Sean Ong, PV Grid Parity in the U.S.: Mr. Ong mentioned that surveys have shown that 90% of Americans want solar PV, but the prices are too high at this moment. Once PV prices come down and are competitive with traditional utility fuels, also known as “grid-parity“, people will begin to adopt it. Grid-parity is affected by many things such as location in the U.S. and time of use. PV is more attractive to consumers in the Southwest and the Northeast U.S. because those locations are closer to grid-parity. Bottom line? Once grid-parity happens there will be a solar gold rush.
These challenges to the RE markets are surely not insurmountable. Armed with data from these presenters we can increase renewable adoption rates in the near future.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Are Humans Sustainable?

Answer: We’re getting there. It’s always good to ask the question of whether or not our society is sustainable. At home or within our places of business it is necessary to live within our means and do our part to reduce our consumption of natural resources, reuse things instead of throwing them away into a landfill, and recycle materials so that they can be reused in another product. The Thursday Ignite session at the WREF 2012 brought together a diverse array of speakers that understood the methods of becoming more sustainable. Overviews of each presentation are as follows:
Photo credit: BrightParks
  • One presentation touted the great opportunity of educating the large U.S. Hispanic market on the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy (RE). There are approximately 50 million U.S. Hispanics with trillions of dollars of buying power. The opportunity is ripe to start targeting this untapped market with renewables especially where a large portion of Hispanics live. In the Southwest U.S., Hispanics could be key to an economic recovery for the nation while giving a much needed boost to the RE sector.
  • Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In the next presentation The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) advocated a new approach to solving our energy issues by using “systems thinking“. Roughly, systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. Our energy issues are so complex that we need to take everything that affects or touches the energy issue (environment, human health, economy, fuels, transportation, etc.) and think about how each of those work together to create this huge thing we label “the energy issue”.
  • Up next was a rep from the Solar Electric Light Fund, a Washington D.C. non-profit that uses solar to assist those living in energy poverty. My attention was peaked right off the bat when the presenter said, “Energy is a human right.” The organization helps poorer communities around the world take ownership of their energy needs with solar PV and thermal. For example, they provided a solar drip irrigation system in Benin, West Africa, which enabled them to rid themselves of a fuel generator which was always susceptible to fuel supply disruptions. The community is now able to bring fresh vegetables to the market on a regular basis, which also helps provide economic stability.
  • Finally, a novel idea presented by a recent Phd. took the Environmental Protection Agency’s “brownfield” project to another, more sustainable level called “BrightParks”. A substantial amount of the estimated 400,000-600,000 “brownfields” are landfills. The EPA’s brownfield project will take a landfill and either cover it with a solar array to supply electricity to the local community or they will create a public park on a landfill. The goal of BrightParks is to take this a step further and make these landfills a multifunctional space that produces clean energy, restores the native ecosystems, and creates a social space with a network of trails for people to enjoy.
The panel of speakers was impressive and truly provided methods of making our world a little more sustainable and renewable. How are you working towards a more sustainable and renewable world?

A Journey Around the Globe in Search of Energy Efficiency

We were transported around the world during an Ignite session at WREF 2012 that featured case studies for making buildings efficient in different climates. The audience was taken on a journey to climate extremes from the muggy island climate of Cuba to the hot and arid desert climate of Iraq. It was quite the whirl-wind tour with other stops in Taiwan, Ethiopia, and Mexico. Each climate has its own unique challenges for keeping a building heated and cooled properly for its occupants throughout the year.
Our journey started out in Cuba where Professor Dania Gonzalez Couret explained that since the social revolution in the 1950′s, Cuba has been working towards social equality for all of its citizens. Part of this social equality is building a sustainable environment by focusing on:
  • Energy efficiency in Cuban structures with the use of efficient appliances
  • The encouragement of bicycle use in the urban corridor, and
  • The study of building ventilation and cooling techniques without the use of air-conditioning.
After Cuba we moved onto cost-effective international energy improvements for buildings in mild or hot climates. Members from Appalachian State University studied the energy efficiency of multifamily housing in Mexico and Taiwan. They completed energy audits on typical multifamily housing and compared the results with the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) specifications. The team of researchers then calculated the energy expense of the current housing as well as how much could be saved if multifamily homes in both countries would be brought up to IECC standards. Needless to say bringing up any structure to IECC standards will save a lot of money on energy costs.
Next we traveled to Iraq for two presentations. The first one, by Dr Kamil Yousif, was a study on how well solar window film screens blocked out ultraviolet radiation as well as reduced solar heat gain. Dr. Yousif proved without a doubt that window film could decrease cooling costs by about $50 per year. In addition, the payback period is a mere 1.5 years. The second presentation was from Dr Ghanim Kadhem Abdul Sada. He studied the effect of a water spray roof system and found that by keeping the flat Iraqi roofs wet with just a minimal amount of water, there was a reduction in temperature inside the structure. This contributed to a decrease in the amount of air-conditioning needed throughout the day.
We’re thankful that these academics traveled from all over the globe to share their stories on energy efficiency methods within their own climates. What are the  energy efficiency methods that are unique to your culture and climate?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Secretary Chu: The Government’s Role in the Future of Renewables

Midway through the week at the 2012 World Renewable Energy Forum, Secretary Steven Chu of the United States Department of Energy and Santiago Seage, CEO of Abengoa Solar spoke during the plenary session titled, “Government and Industry: Driving the Clean Energy Transition.” Even though there are many threats today to the expansion of the renewable energy (RE) market, inexpensive natural gas being one of those threats, I came away from this plenary session with reason for optimism. Governments can play the role in RE expansion, not through endless subsidies, but through strategic investments in key areas.
Secretary Chu speaking at WREF 2012
Mr. Seage, the CEO of a $6 billion dollar global solar technology company, drove the point home that it’s time that government and industry realize the free market is unable to solve our energy problems by itself. In addition, he said that the volatility of energy prices is compounding our energy problems and global governments can intervene to create consistency and predictability so RE businesses can thrive. Perhaps the most proactive thing this global businessman said was that energy prices need to reflect the cost of CO2 emissions and other environmental costs. Seage said, “We cannot continue living without a price on something that has a price.” Assessing the true environmental costs and impact of using carbon is critical to the success of the renewables industry.
Secretary Chu spoke next and described some of the innovative ways the U.S. Department of Energy enables the RE market, not just because it is the proper thing to do for the environment but because it also makes economic sense. The Nobel prize winning scientist began with a review of the current climate science and referenced four different studies by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies,National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationHadCRU, and Berkeley. All four studies say that over the last 200 years the average annual land temperature has been increasing. Without a doubt, Sec. Chu said, greenhouse gases (GHGs) are preventing heat from escaping out of the Earth’s atmosphere thereby warming surface temperatures and changing the climate. So what can we do?
The good news, Sec. Chu said, was that the cost of doing something about climate change is going down every year. The question is no longer if clean energy will become competitive with conventional forms of energy, it is a matter of when it will happen. The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) SunShot Initiative has the lofty goal of reducing the costs of solar energy systems by 75% before 2020. President Obama’s intent with the SunShot Initiative is to position the U.S. as a leader in the clean energy economy by unleashing research and development to drive down prices. So far, it seems to be working. In 2004, the cost to install a solar system was $8 per watt. In 2010, the cost was down to $4 per watt. Mr. Seage and Sec. Chu both touted the benefits of governments investing in RE research and development to help strengthen the RE market.
Sec. Chu also reminded us that most of the good fortune for the RE industry in the United States was due to the American Recovery Act funds and that the DOE is already thinking about life after the Recovery Act. Some of the things they’re focusing on include:
  • Asking Congress for an extension of the Wind Tax Credit.
  • Investing in research, development, and deployment to drive down costs of RE.
  • Lowering the cost of capital so investment becomes less risky. This can happen by broadening the pool of investors and diversifying their investments in clean energy.
  • Working to coordinate REs with transmission and distribution, fossil fuel reserves, and energy storage. If we don’t do this today and when prices plunge the tech will be there but we can’t deploy because the system isn’t ready.
  • Continuing to increase energy efficiency in our buildings and appliances.
Sec. Chu reminded us that the solutions to climate change will be economical and that it’s possible to have energy in a cleaner way. There’s also a huge market opportunity for developing clean technologies and exporting them around the world. The Secretary also left us with this question: “would you rather be a buyer or seller of RE technologies to the rest of the world?” I know my answer. What’s yours?
For another prospective and more details on Secretary Chu’s presentation, check out Andrew Michler’s article on Inhabitat.
Cross-posted at the 2012 World Renewable Energy Forum blog.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Colorado Energy-efficiency Law Spurred $166 Million in Investments

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User  Riisipuuro
Over the last 5 years two Colorado utilities (Xcel and Black Hills) have invested about $166 million in energy efficiency programs for their customers. This is an incredible of amount of money and an incredible amount of energy saved in just half a decade. Utility energy efficiency programs can not only help you reduce your monthly energy bill but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from utility coal-fired power plants. Whether it's compact fluorescent lightbulbs, caulking around windows and doors, or adding insulation to a crawl space or in the walls, weatherization methods not only save you serious money quickly, but also increase the comfort-level of any living space. Remember, before adding any supplemental renewable energy like solar PV, solar thermal, or wind it's important to have a full energy audit of your property to learn how to use the least amount of energy possible. Reducing your energy consumption by becoming more energy efficient will help decrease the size and cost of a renewable energy system. Plus energy efficiency is cool!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Community Solar: A Smart Approach to Bolstering the Renewables Market

A session at the World Renewable Energy Forumon Community Solar Energy Development was full of informative presentations on how to think outside the box a bit to help make solar PV and wind energy more prevalent in our world. Traditional solar applications tend to focus on a small slice of individual homes, which have south facing roofs unencumbered by shading. Financing for a solar array is often difficult to obtain and buying outright is difficult for many homeowners. This session provided innovative methods on how to provide solar to the many instead of the few.

Photo Credit: Akhil Jariwala, Creative Commons
  • Clean Energy Collective presented and mentioned that their goal was to have community solar farms which create a win-win for the utility and its customers. Solar farms have a few benefits for customers including accessibility to as many utility customers as possible with very small minimums. Also, another benefit is of extending rooftop solar incentives that would be normally declined to the homeowner because of poor rooftop solar access. Utilities can benefit from community solar farms by the provision of automated monthly bill credit information from the solar developer without any burden to the utility and real-time telemetry monitoring to adequately track and schedule facility production.
  • FLS Energy presented next and started off saying that their goal is to provide solar energy to everyone. The way they do this is to own the solar assets whether they be PV or solar thermal and then provide a power purchase agreement. This model works for a business or community that lacks the upfront funding, for non-profits, or for groups that want long-term maintenance and performance guarantees. FLS Energy works on Section 8 housing to provide tenants with low-cost solar thermal units and recently offered a solar thermal power agreement to a university because this university wasn’t allowed to take advantage of the tax incentives.
  • Regenesis Solar Power in Fort Myers, Florida provides solar thermal to a community through the local gas or electric utility. They act on behalf of the utility and go door-to-door offering solar thermal for no upfront costs, just a $34.95 monthly fee on their utility bill for 20 years. The utility can expand their renewable energy offerings with no effort as well as accelerate efficiency and demand reduction initiatives.
  • Solar City leases solar modules to customers for a monthly fee. They are evolving into the community solar arena by working to install arrays on military housing at cheaper rates than the utility can provide and is working to install more solar on affordable housing. They are also proponents of “virtual net metering.”
With these innovative community leasing strategies, solar for everybody is no longer a distant pipe-dream. What are you folks doing to bring solar to your community?

Wishful Thinking

*Before adding PV, wind, or solar thermal to your residential or commercial structure, the first step is to analyze this structure's energy consumption through a professional energy audit. I'd like to see some public education on the importance of an energy audit for any structure. Remember Smokey the Bear's forest fire shtick drilled into our heads over the last few decades? How about something like, "Henry the House" desperately wanting to know how much energy he consumes and wastes throughout the day?

*With over 300 sunny days a year on the Front Range is it too much to ask for solar PV and thermal modules on every residential and commercial unit (after an energy audit of course)?

*How about affordable plug-in electric cars that go more than 100 miles on a charge with PV and wind powered recharging stations?

*Dreaming of companies large and small adopting business sustainability practices to maximize profits, reduce their carbon footprint, and enhance the lives of their employees and the communities that surround them.


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