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.

Rainwater- use for plants, emergencies

blog rainwaterThe device in the photo is the legendary rain barrel of song and story, and it’s staging a comeback in conservation circles. Is your water metered? do you use that water to irrigate vegetable and ornamental plants? wash the car? wash the dog?

In the rain-starved American midwest, the rain barrel was used for many purposes, including emergency potable water. We don’t recommend any potable uses of collected rainwater, but we invite you to calculate the savings and independence of having 50-100 gallons of water at your disposal all the time to supply outdoor and bulk needs. If you’re chlorinating your pool, this water can be used. If you’re watering your plants, perfect. If you’re cleaning off muddy boots, go ahead.

   The movement to revive the use of collected rainwater will gain momentum as groundwater becomes more scarce and less pure. And whatever you’re paying per cubic foot for the municipal water supply, this water is free, and it’s rather clean, and it’s soft (minerally speaking). There’s a national association at this link.

Observe safety precautions, please. Keep the lid secured, don’t let the kids drink out of it or dance on the cover, and if it freezes in your climate, drain before winter sets in.

Passive Solar at Your House, Right Now

                                       blog sunset window                                                           Sunset through dirty windows, as shown at left, is beautiful. But it’s not efficient. Clean your windows, at least the south and west facing windows, and pull those drapes aside to let more sunight in, especially now while outside temperatures are moderate and the sun is still high and able to deliver comforting heat to your home.

   You don’t have to mortgage your house to get into the passive solar game. Figure out which windows in your house, if you haven’t already noticed, get the most sun, and put them to work for you. If you’re having trouble locating the most solar-friendly windows, follow your cat around one day. Modest-sized south facing windows can transmit as much as 15% of the house’s heat load, depending upon many factors, results will certainly vary. But the gain is always in the positive, and it doesn’t cost you anything but a little thoughtful planning.

   You can, of course, spend thousands of dollars replacing all the windows in your house with low emissivity argon barrier double glazed windows. And if you want to, go ahead. But if your budget doesn’t allow for that, substitute your brain for your credit cards and get those south facing windows working for you. When it’s colder, and here in New England it certainly will get colder as the year wanes, we’ll check in again and give you some additional strategies for covering those windows at night after they’ve worked for you all day. Be careful washing those second floor windows, please.

Point of Use Hot Water Heaters

blog point of use heaterWe solar contractors generally disparage electric tank water heaters, except when used for solar storage. But sooner or later, solar is going to let you down, in cloudy weather or when it’s very cold, and you’ll need hot water for dishes, hands, cleaning and filling the pasta pot (who wants to wait for that cold water to boil?).

Whatever backup system you use to close the gap between solar and the American lifestyle, it has to be available all the time, not dependent upon the solar equipment at all, and capable of supplying your assessed need for hot water until the sun replenishes your tanks.

Consider putting a little tank of electrically heated water under your kitchen sink. Two, three, five gallons of water, kept hot all the time (you can have a switch if you can plan those solar outages an hour in advance), ready to fill a pot, wash your hands, feed the dishwasher (yes, the dishwasher has a heater, but it lengthens the cycle by about an hour waiting for it), and even draw a mug of water for tea, almost hot enough to brew the leaves, can be had for the price of some electric power and an upfront cost ranging from $500 to $1000 US. How long will it take you to pay that investment off? Not sure that’s the right question.

   What you’re buying with your money is convenience. It’s not easy to calculate a payback on that. If you’re able, by means of two or so installed point of use heaters, to turn off your backup, whether it was a gas fired boiler, oil fired tank, or big electric tank, you may save enough energy from that idle system to give yourself a payback on the point of use heaters. But showers and laundry are not served by these relatively tiny devices, and you may need to use your backup hot water source just to keep those important services going. Go ahead. Tell me you wash all your clothes in cold water, all the time. Ok; I believe you. I don’t; and I don’t recommend it, unless you dry them thoroughly at rather high temperature. Don’t make the world a better place for all those bacteria, allergens and dust mites you want to remove from your clothes. Do you think you’re making them dizzy in the spin cycle?

   For houses with multiple baths, long piping runs, and several occcupants, point of use water heaters can be a real convenience and an energy saver. I say if your hot water source is less than thirty feet from your faucets, tank insulation and a timer are your best tactics. You can decide whether a significant upfront investment and the privilege of turning off your backup source for the day balance for you economically and energy-wise.

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.

Photovoltaic Panels and Shade- Deadly Enemy

blog shaded solar panels

A prime parameter in the specs for photovoltaic system installation in the Connecticut Clean Energy guidelines refers to shading of the panels: to wit, no shading allowed during the normal “solar day,” reckoned to be between 9 Am and 3 Pm. It’s a pretty stiff requirement here in tree-covered New England, and it may seem unfair to disqualify a potential roof site because a tree shades it for part of the day. But here, in  brief, is the danger of shading and the logic behind zero tolerance for it.

A solar PV array is configured in “strings,” or source circuits, of two to 12 panels, according to system voltage. The string of panels is connected from one to the other via the connected module leads so that the current through the string is constant, and the voltage of each module adds up to the nominal system voltage, anywhere from 24 volts for small battery-connected systems to nearly 5oo volts for high-output grid-tie systems. And in that string, or series circuit, a little patch of shade can limit the current of the entire string to a small fraction of capacity. Diodes are installed to permit current to bypass shaded or malfunctioning modules or cells, but the effect is still significant on performance.

  Shading analysis in the planning stages is critical to predictable and maximum performance. If an area selected for panel installation is shaded, the time and extent of the shading must be calculated and deducted from the expected output of the system. Sometimes module choices are affected by shading analysis; “amorphous” crystalline cells are slightly more shade tolerant than other module types.

 Non-grid tie systems suffer at least as much, if not more than grid-tied arrays. If batteries are matched to the output of the array, a small shaded area alerts the Maximum Power Point Tracking device in the inverter, which senses the efficiency and total output of the system, simply shuts down and waits for the shading to pass. For the duration of the shading, the system sits idle.

   Shade analysis, then, is a vital part of planning when photovoltaic arrays are being sited on rooftops or on the ground. The panel manufacturers and government agencies aren’t kidding when they say that zero shading is the proper amount. And we, installing professionals, may be advising you to trim or remove trees, or purchase costly racking systems to relieve shading conflicts; we’re not just upselling the job. Shade is your enemy in the solar game, whether it’s for hot water or photovoltaics. And for photovoltaics, a little shade can be deadly.