Green Heating System on a Tight Budget

    blog Unico                            This week we’re retrofitting a very green heating system in a former summer cottage. Unico high-velocity low volume air duct system, low-mass Biasi boiler with Riello burner, flat plate high-efficiency heat exchanger for domestic hot water. The overall efficiency of the system should be in the very high 80s, and the best part? Our bid came in lower than another company’s proposal to install a conventional hot air furnace. Green doesn’t mean an arm and a leg. And it pays dividends for a long, long time.

Connecticut Clean Energy Fund Shifts Focus

  The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, a utility-funded quasi-public fund administered by the State of CT, has refocused its funding initiatives away from residential photovoltaic subsidies.

All forms of commercial and industrial on-site co-generation, including wind, hydro, PV, and solar thermal, are being subsidized by grants already funded in the amount of 12.86 million dollars. Any project projected to yield more than 10,000 watts of peak power qualifies.

Subsidies are also available, at reduced rates, for residential PV installations up to 5,000 watts peak, when installed by “eligible” contractors.

The good news is that solar hot water subsidies, which do apply to residential consumers, have been increased by 60% and funded  through March 2012. That’s actually the bargain of the month from subsidies, as solar hot water in CT has a typical payback of 5-6 years, much more attractive than a 12-14 year payback on PV purchases and 20 year leases.

Adding up federal tax incentives, state tax incentives and Clean Energy subsidies, solar hot water is a fabulous deal, yielding solar hot water covering app. 75% of yearly costs for about one third the total installed cost of the system. If this appeals to you, even as we move toward colder weather in CT (my panels were cooking over 100 degrees all day, pre-heating my 80 gallons of storage), leave a comment or contact me.

Solar Panels Deemed “not Historic”—- duh.

                blog-shaded-solar-panels                          The link accesses a New London Day article covering a Ledyard Zoning Commission meeting in which PV panels recently installed on the roofs of Town Hall and the Bill Public Library were described as “ugly” and as having no place in a historic New England Village. May the day never come, but PV naysayers in Ledyard are presumably not ready to return to candles and privies, are they? No. Thought not.

An interesting contrast appears when we examine Europe’s PV co-generating industry, actively supported by governments and utilities, in which panels are being installed on the roofs of buildings MUCH older than Ledyard Town Hall and Bill Library, with no objections from architectural purists. Britain’s Prince Charles exhorts owners of historic buildings in UK to refit them with energy features that make the buildings more liveable and energy-efficient, including roof panels.

A German study finds historic buildings apt candidates for energy retrofits and the mounting of panels, particularly flat roof PVs, and indeed, much of the architecture of Europe is older, but not likely to be torn down in favor of more modern, PV-friendly design.

Even the Vatican has installed an experimental PV array on one of their buildings, and advocates more energy equipment on Vatican rooftops, excepting possibly St. Peter’s Cathedral. I can see the point.

Few New England historic buildings retain their original cedar shingle roofs, and thatch never really caught on in the Colonies, for some reason. What we find on Town Halls and other public historic buildings is mostly asphalt shingles put there not to look good but to keep rain and wind out. We’ve gotten used to these modern roof coverings, and they’re now considered not jarring to historic sensibilities.

In time, we’ll come to view PV arrays as acceptable aesthetic on our Town Halls, and indeed, concerned citizens will learn to expect such things as signs of good stewardship from town officials and echoes of New England frugality, another historic value that could stand a revival.

    blog solar kitConnecticut Clean Energy Fund, a state-run and utility funded agency to promote the advance of renewable energy in CT, has increased rebate rates for solar hot water, in some cases as much as 60%. At $275 per thousand BTU per day, a two panel system with adequate tanks, connected to your existing hot water system, might yield a rebate of as much as 5500 dollars, over half the cost of the system. Add in federal tax incentives, and you get renewable, clean energy for about a third of the market cost, and a resulting payback under five years. The system I installed at our house has yielded free hot water from march to october, and will pre-heat hot water to save us money all winter. if you’re interested, give us a comment or a message.

Generators for Peace of Mind

blog generatorThe generator in the photo is probably larger than you need to run your house, and it also probably costs more than a nice car. But you can rent one like that, for a reasonable fee, and have it hauled to your house/office/business after an event to supply temporary power. At home, though, a smaller, portable generator can keep the American convenience level high while you wait for the power to be restored after a storm or accidental event. Generators are stocked at your local home store (Orange front, Red and Black front) for as little as 250 US most of the year. But taking that power plant home and connecting it to your house is more involved and requires research and planning.

   Connecticut Light and Power requires that portable home generators be connected to your house in compliance with the National Electric Code and its own guidelines. That means a licensed guy like me has to do the work, and the equipment has to be UL listed and approved for the purpose. The importance of all this regulatory protocol is that people die from home generator use and misuse almost as often as they die from disasters.

Major hazards are: Carbon monoxide, emitted in generator exhaust, collects in closed areas seeps down stairs into other areas, and kills people. In the 2006 storm season too many people died after the floods receded because of generator misuse. After carbon monoxide comes electrical shock caused by improper hookups in the presence of water. Electricity and water kill when mingled. And another, no less important hazard from home generators is called “islanding,” when generators feed back to the grid through home distribution panels and ad hoc hookups and send power to the transmission lines. Line workers are endangered by islanding, and there have been too many fatalities. It’s hard for linepersons to guard against some joker starting up a generator while they’re working on a pole. And other homeowners or licensed electricians are also endangered by islanding when work is being done on wiring in storm-damaged homes.

   How big a generator do you need? To operate everything in a typical modern American home (air conditioning, cooking, lights, hot water, computers, television, etc.) a round figure would be 10 kw. That’s 10,000 watts. You might do ok with 8 kw.

   You might also be fine with a smaller generator and some awareness about what loads you’re using at any one time. With shrewd load  management I can run my house on my 5 kw generator, the same one I use to power remote or as yet unconnected construction jobs. We do fine that way. But we have to think about it.

   You can have a generator, and you don’t HAVE to hook it up to your house wiring. You can run extension cords to selected loads (fridge, microwave, space heater) and get by ok. And it will be safer. That’s your most cost-effective route, but it’s inconvenient, and probably un-American.

2010 Heating Oil Prices Minus Politics

        blog oil truck       This link is to an online trading chart describing the expected arc of fuel oil prices through December of 2010. Some of you who burn home heating oil have already bought, at rates from $2.oo US to $2.30 US. And you did well. What you can expect, according to the futures price charts, is steadily rising prices on wholesale fuel oil through December, topping out at about $2.30. Notice I said wholesale.

You will actually pay retail, which will range from 10% to 40% over wholesale. The difference pays for your oil company to operate trucks, pay licensing and insurance fees, make payroll, prebuy wholesale lots at the terminal (big tanks, usually near railroads or water ports), and make a living.

  Notice I said 10% to 40%. Quite a range. So-called full service oil companies keep technicians in house to repair customers’ equipment. They claim they operate this team at a loss or at break-even. Your oil will cost more because you are paying for “good service.” So-called “Discount” oil companies do not maintain service teams, or train their drivers to perform simple repairs, and you can’t get them at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And you pay less for your oil. The fact is that many companies struggle to make ends meet on the “discount” model, and the most successful oil companies in our corner of Connecticut are those that maintain service teams. And they charge more for their oil.

   You have another option. There are lots of companies: say mine, for instance, which sell no oil, only service. We work hard to keep customers’ equipment running year-round, and you can get at least some of us on New Year’s. I was out on Christmas Day last year, but it was only two hours, then back home to dinner. I don’t run my service operation at a loss, and my rates are competitive with those of the “full service” oil companies. Curious, wouldn’t you say? Maybe they really do lose money on their service. But I don’t. That’s my living.

   So ponder your options as a heating oil consumer, and measure whether the convenience of calling one company for oil and equipment maintenance is worth a premium price per gallon for heating oil. Consider the numbers, ask for price quotes, inquire about budget plans and pre-buys, and make some smart choices about how to get through this winter. I’ll be busy all fall with preventive cleanings and service, but not too busy to help you get your heating and hot water equipment ready for winter. Most of my customers see me just once a year, for the preventive maintenance. Sometimes we replace a part before it fails, and my customers trust me to make that judgment. Then they don’t have to call me on New Year’s Eve.

American (Wind) Technology Will Save the World (?)

blog honeywell turbine The device in the picture looks like a hubcap, I know. Is what it is is, it’s the single most encouraging breakthrough in small-output wind-powered electrical generation since, I don’t know, maybe Ben Franklin. The engineering genius of the Honeywell Wind Turbine is a bit over my head, but I’m an old electrician, and I know a superior motor when I see one: replaceable vanes for easy maintenance, vane orientation works with off-angle winds (obviating pivot bearings), weighs app. 170 lb. with six foot diameter, threshold generating begins at two mph wind speed, and the field windings are in the rim, out where turbine speed produces the greatest possible inductive force. Recommended minimum mounting height is 33 feet (the roof of a two-story American house with attic, roughly) and the retail package is self-contained, with inverter, charge controller and safety switches right in the box. Suggested retail price $6495 US. I found them being marketed at $4500 US, plus shipping. The Honeywell turbine will be marketed, initially, through Ace Hardware retail stores, and its output is estimated at app. 2750 kilowatt-hours/year in winds ranging from 2 mph to 42 mph. Depending upon your local utility rate, that probably means $$300 US or so in energy savings, all put back on the grid, operating, unlike solar PV, 24 hours a day, whenever the wind blows. Service life is estimated at twenty years, with a manufacturer’s five-year warranty. This technology didn’t come from China, it didn’t come from Europe, locations where energy is a higher priority socially and politically. It came from Honeywell’s R&D in the great USA, where innovation has for two hundred years been only one of the things we offer to a hungry global economy. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys, Willie Nelson sang. For heaven’s sake, encourage them to be engineers and researchers.

Ask the Right Questions About World Oil Supply

blog oil rigs

The oil derricks shown at left against a smoggy sky are located in……..go on, you’ll never guess– Southern California. And they could have been located outside Philadelphia, along the Gulf Coast of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or in the Caspian Sea of Central Asia. Oil derricks are everywhere, just not in your back yard yet. We are in a great and conflicted discussion about how and whether to tap the undersea oil reserves off our own coasts, and enduring a humiliating and damaging spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

I have noted in past posts that our reserves of oil, natural gas and coal are estimated to last us, globally, for at least 250 years. Is that comforting? For maximum comfort, stop reading here. Don’t go on and ruin a good mood.

One of the “right questions” to ask about world fossil fuel supplies is: when do we START running out of fossil fuels? When does world daily demand outstrip world daily production? When does demand begin to bring about stupid foreign policy behaviors designed to secure a supply of oil, gas and coal against future scarcity? When do the suppliers of oil begin to manipulate and torture (acceptable in economic circles, not so much in terror suspects) the consumers of oil by raising prices to punitive levels and controlling supplies to create artificial scarcities for their own purposes? When are we faced with the datum that we have used well over half  of the original deposit of oil in the earth’s crust, and from here on the picture is going to get more and more difficult as we face slowly, almost imperceptibly dwindling supplies?

  Probably you’ve stopped reading  before now. If you’re not reading this, lucky you. The questions listed above are some of the many good ones that need answering as we contemplate the future of fossil fuels as our energy supply.  We write these posts for ordinary people like ourselves, and we aren’t really up to the detailed math anyway. So here are some answers for ordinary people, and some opinions based on reasonable thinking. And here’s a wiki link to some straight talk about those hard questions.

   Even if the hard data on fossil fuel reserves globally was not widely available (it is, but say it was a secret), we could make an observation or two about the behaviors of those powerful custodians of our welfare in recent years. Foreign policy in America is complex, but no one except a 9-11 consipiracy theorist (which puts Michael Moore and Rand Paul in the same cozy little bed, what a happy thought) could deny that oil drives much of American foreign policy for the last 20 years. OPEC (Oil Producing and Exporting Countries) has been staging artificial scarcities and fixing the price of oil for some years now, exerting an influence over world affairs out of proportion to the size and influence of the member countries. Remember, if you’re over 40, the Great Gas Crunches of the early 70s. And the equipoise of world daily oil consumption and production? We’re there. We consume more than we produce. By just 50,000 barrels a day as of late 2008. Think we’ve reduced our consumption since then?

So the information that we’ve got “lots of time, hundreds of years” to solve the energy equation and escape our deepening bondage to oil and the forces that control its supply is deceptive. Seventy five years of clear oil reserves, 250 years of coal reserves don’t seem as reassuring as they did. We’re already displaying scarcity behaviors. Our own American oil companies and financial investment industries manipulate the price and availability of oil for their own purposes. Hard to deny, then, that we’re in twilight, or at least the late afternoon, of the fossil fuel era. Won’t trouble you in your lifetime? All shortsighted, self-absorbed people get the hell out of the discussion right now. Goofy will begin your Disneyworld tour at five minutes before the hour. This is the Gotterdamerung of oil, the long retreat. Those who stay awake and keep watching “won’t get fooled again.”  This is a time for serious people, both expert and ordinary, to do lots of thinking and a bit of talking about where we’re going as consumers of energy.

 Renewables, including solar pv, solar thermal, wind and fuel cells, are a long, long, long payoff. Add two more ‘longs’ to that statement. We had a comment from a reader lately which quoted a conservative think tank to the effect that the numbers on renewables in the short term are laughable. The numbers said what the correspondent wanted them to, but they didn’t lie. Renewables is a long haul. And the owner of the first solar pv system in your neighborhood is sure to get laughed at for the huge investment and slow payoff. But those individuals and nations that are already acknowledging the slow decline of fossil fuels as a viable energy source are the far-sighted ones. Even their mistakes do them prouder than the smokestack economies and Drill, Baby Drillers. It will take daring, not denial, to secure an energy future for ordinary people like us as fossil fuels continue, year after year, to grow just a tiny little bit more scarce, and a measurable amount more expensive.

Mexican Power Crisis— A Modest Proposal

blog mexico power plant

The photo at left shows Laguna Verde, the site of Mexico’s two nuclear reactors presently generating almost 5% of its electric power. Mexico has some oil and natural gas reserves, and has always been a net energy exporter. If you sense an irony in building a nuke plant in a place named Laguna Verde (Green Cove), don’t make a big thing of it. They haven’t had an environment-threatening accident since commissioning in1989, and recently Mexico announced its intention to convert the two reactors to operate on low-enriched uranium, greatly reducing its output of nuclear waste and reducing the possibility that waste from the plant could be used to manufacture a weapon.

  Apart from the nukes at Laguna Verde, Mexico generates the bulk of its power from, you’ll never guess,  hydro-electric. Mexico has only two fossil fuel plants, each generating about the same power as the Laguna Verde plant. Total generating capacity in 2007 was calculated at 50 megawatts.US capacity is estimated at just over 1 MILLION megawatts). The economy of Mexico is centered around agriculture, light industry and tourism. Any jokes about the drug trade at this point would be in very poor taste. Mexico struggles; Mexico survives; Mexico finds it very difficult to live in the shadow of the world’s largest consumer economy. Mexico needs a break.

Hence my modest proposal. The power utility in Mexico is government-owned.  Mexican energy policy is already more progressive than that of  the privately owned power utilities in the US, by quite a bit. Mexico’s power consumption is estimated to grow by 6% per year for the foreseeable future (US power consumption is estimated to grow by half that much). The Vicente Fox administration, recently replaced by the slightly more conservative Calderon administration in 2009, has outlined ambitious programs for exploiting the wind and wave potential of Mexico’s climate for power generation.

Why not make Mexico a solar test bed for the skeptics of the world? Mexico’s governmental power rests heavily in the centralized administration of the Presidency. The initiatives for massive solar projects would not be held up by, for instance, wounded bellowing from oil-addicted naysayers whose last names rhyme with McConnell and Palin and Cheney. The problem, as is so often the problem, is money.

Mexico is relatively poor. Mexico is also beset by a thriving drug industry that operates within and without its system of laws and enforcement agencies. Mexico is Colombia ten years ago, in one sense. If the Chinese, Saudis, Venezuelans and other cash-rich groups want to foster the next emerging superstate on the globe, why not Mexico? The credit of the nation is not perfect; a credit crisis in 1994 was embarrassing; the recent US recession has prostrated Mexico’s GDP for reasons that are widely discussed in the media. For good or bad, Mexico’s economy is tied to that of the US.

What if Mexico had an energy surplus, a power distribution system that was spread over the country via solar PV farms and wind farms to permit the growth of local industry (and yes, i’m no fool, the possible relocation of more manufacturing jobs from US companies, to the detriment of the US job situation, already strained) and entrepreneurship by local and foreign interests?

What if Mexico could offer solar power constructed near the site of any proposed manufacturing facility, creating a national grid with flexibility and extra capacity to accommodate new growth? What if solar electric power came to the countryside and permitted the campesinos to farm more aggressively and operate light industry for export? what if every small city in Mexico had a solar plant to cogenerate along with the national grid and produce revenue and a bit of energy independence, leading to a more decentrialized economy?

What if? I don’t know where the money will come from. But the world has money, and the world’s creditors should be taking another look at a society that already has progressive energy policies, a workforce proven in its desire to earn higher wages (that’s why they cross that river, Bob), and a centralized government in which things can get done without undue wrangling from a stubborn obstructionist ox-brained unlettered shrill-messaged war-friendly faux-religious opposition. Unlike any other society bordering Mexico, in any way at all, certainly.

Mexico is ready for alternative energy. The US is mired in denial and old-time religions centered around oil. The Mexican people are already motivated to pursue economic improvement, even to the point of moving to the US and sending their meager wages back home to loved ones. Mexico deserves a chance. An alternative energy boom in Mexico could take on the excitement of another gold rush, and the result can only strengthen a state that needs every advantage to deal with its internal problems.

Beyond Coal– What Future Lies There?

Carbon Footprint blog

Bluntly put, 23% of US energy consumption is supplied by coal. We have enough coal reserves to meet our complete energy needs for 250 years. Natural gas, a byproduct or co-recoverable resource with oil and coal, supplies 24% of our energy needs, and we increase our ability to find and recover it each year. Crude oil, about which so much political ado has prevailed in the last 50 years, is still partly a domestic resource. we only import about half of our yearly consumption. And oil supplies app. 37% of our national energy needs.

If you subtract industrial use and home heating, coal supplies, through generating plants, about half the nation’s electric power. Natural gas generation, nuclear generation, and renewables do not promise to put coal out of the picture soon. A HUGE portion of the nation’s carbon footprint, if you care about global climate change, comes from the burning of coal.

We recently lost 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, and we lost 47 miners in 2006 in the Sago mining disaster. Coal mining ranks with commercial fishing and military service as  the most dangerous professions in this society. We all listened and watched as prayers, opinions and excuses went up all over the country over the fate of those 29 men, and the question came up once or twice:  Do we have to do this? Do we have to put men and women at risk to gouge coal from the earth profitably, burn it in some of the dirtiest smokestacks to generate our electricity, deal with the effects of rapid climate change while wringing our hands or engaging in denial, and watch our hunger for energy as a society grow every year without respite?

Do we have to kill our miners at this rate to keep the coal plants burning? yes, apparently we do. Until we have an alternative, and right now we don’t, we have to keep drilling, mining, leasing offshore sites to the highest bidder and waiting for the accidents and spills. We have to have the energy. At any cost, human, economic and, apparently military. The quiet conspiracy to secure Iraq’s oil was a failure. “Clean coal,” at least so far, is a myth few of us can buy. Nukes are scary, and dirty in the long run (dangerous to all life forms for 159,000 years after disposal).
We have no choice. We will continue to put miners at risk, drill and pipe natural gas, float drilling rigs where a spill could be disastrous, and humble ourselves at foreign tables, if not spill American blood, to secure a share of the world’s oil reserves. We don’t know how long we can keep this up; but we don’t have a plan to free us from this dangerous and expensive cycle: the pursuit of more and more energy. God bless the miners, drillers, reactor jockeys and power plant workers. We need you more than we let on; and we sacrifice you at a rate that would shame an enlightened society.