UPDATE: Year One with Rooftop Solar

Our rooftop photovoltaic solar array went live at the beginning of March, 2015 and since it has been a year, I thought it would be a good time to give my readers an update as I have been keeping monthly tabs on the performance of the system. So here is a quick chart demonstrating the performance of the system:

Solar Performance

Date is the month-year of the bill from our utility

Ave Fº is the average temperature for the billing period

ADC is the average daily cost of electricity from the utility

from APS is the total electricity in kWh received from the utility

to APS is the total electricity in kWh credited by the utility (net metering)

Net is the net electricity in kWh (electricity received minus electricity credited minus the previous month’s kWh credit)

COST is the total charges for electricity service for the month (including taxes)

As you can see, the Net dwindles during the hot summer months as our use increases and 6 of the months we are paying the minimum possible bill which is about $40.50. Annualized, electricity now costs us an average of $104.62 per month. In prior years to our bills ranged from $428 per month to as high as $862.00 per month, a substantial savings. Now just need to work on those fat months.

I hope to put the system online this year so readers can view the daily performance of the system live.

Finally, the icing on the cake is that we are reducing our carbon footprint substantially, thus contributing in our small but meaningful way to mitigating climate change.

 

 

Good Day, Sunshine | our decision on rooftop solar

Lg_panelNow that my wife and I have made the decision to remodel our home to address, among other things, energy efficiency, it is time to look at from what sources our energy comes.

Our local utility sources power primarily from coal, nuclear, natural gas, and has made substantial investments in sustainable energy as well (one biomass, one biogas, two concentrating solar, one geothermal, nine photovoltaic solar, three wind farms, and up to 3,000 distributed energy locations). While their effort to build and purchase power from sustainable energy plants is commendable, we really want all of our energy to come from sustainable sources.

Like many of my peers, I first became aware of photovoltaics (PV) on spacecraft and then I started following terrestrial development of photovoltaic systems. The technology seemed to get less expensive every few years so the question became not if, but when and then how and who?

When

Many of our friends and neighbors have PV systems on their homes and/or businesses and discussions with them have been very positive and over the last ten years, I have watched Arizona State University (ASU) ramp up its use of PV—especially in the last four years, the growth has been quite astonishing. As of August 2014, ASU generates 21.8 megawatts equivalent (MW) of PV alone from 81,424 PV panels. See: https://cfo.asu.edu/solar-plan.

For us, the decision to move on solar became more urgent when we started our remodel this June. We had toyed with the idea for years, but now that we were making changes to our roof, it seemed logical that this was a good time to seriously consider a rooftop solar system for our home.

How

In considering a solar system, there are substantial incentives. The U.S. Department of Energy provides information on tax credits, rebates and savings by state on its website. The Federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit, a 30% personal tax credit, is the most lucrative. It can even be taken against the alternative minimum tax. To qualify, systems must be placed in service by December 31, 2016. There are other benefits including net metering—which allows one to sell daylight surplus power back to the utility for a credit which can then be applied to nighttime energy use—and a state tax credit of 10% of the installed cost of the system. Other states, utilities, and municipalities have incentives as well and all can be found here.

“Get Solar for $0 Down – Lower Your Electric Bill” headlines the Google Ad for Solar City Leasing. Installation is free, lower energy bills, but THEY get those tax credits and net metering benefits, not you. The same goes with all of the other leasing companies. But if YOU purchase the system, YOU get the tax credits AND the net metering—a much better deal if you can afford it.

Note: according to friends in real estate, if you lease and should you want to sell your abode, you cannot compel your buyer to assume the lease and may have to buy out the lease contract before the house changes hands. Let he lessee beware…

Who

So we made the decision to buy a full house rooftop system for our abode.

After researching the various firms, we chose American Solar & Roofing, a locally owned and operated provider recommended by numerous friends. The salesman, Josh Shears, was professional, friendly, well-mannered, knowledgeable, and not high-pressure. He walked me through their program, offered me lots of choices including a finance option. He put together a good package of information gleaned from our billing history, asked lots of questions and listened. He explained how the net metering works and estimated that we would see a 98% estimated kWH offset. He then spent a good deal of time chatting with our general contractor about our roof and electric panel.

The system should be up by the time our remodel is finished. Once we have a few months under our belt, I will post an update about the installation experience and a chart so readers can follow our system’s performance month to month.

Please feel free to comment on your own experiences and/or ask questions if you are considering one.

UPDATE: Home Performance with ENERGY STAR

hpwes_vert_200I posted “Home Performance with ENERGY STAR” in August of 2011. For a variety of reasons, mostly financial, we did not immediately solve the various issues that were revealed by the audit.

However, in early June of this year, we broke ground on a remodel that will address nearly all of these issues. We stripped the kitchen and all the living areas (except living quarters) down to bare floors, walls and roof. We are upgrading our roof insulation to an ENERGY STAR rated R30; we are replacing all ceiling fixtures with sealed LED units; and we are upgrading our refrigerator and HVAC units to ENERGY STAR certified. When completed in late November, we will have addressed every issue identified in the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR audit we conducted over three years ago. I will post updates to the performance of the changes in chart form each month after we are finished. Look for the first in early January.

Charged Up

2013-tesla-model-s-reviews-car-and-driver-photo-461958-s-429x262In the summer of 2000, I was traveling home from a visit to my mother in New York. In those days, I traveled quite a bit for business and had reached a high status on America West Airways assuring me a first-class seat on most flights. On this particular flight, I found myself sitting next to Bill Post, the CEO of our local electric utility, Arizona Public Service. It was a fortuitous meeting. In our conversation near the end of our flight, we started talking about electric cars—about whether there would be a near future where the internal combustion engine (ICE) would become a thing of the past. Bill indicated that he thought it was quite a bit in the future but that there were some promising advancements. This is where I first learned about the General Motors EV1, the first, albeit limited-production, electric vehicle from a U.S. automaker. Before we deplaned in Phoenix, Bill offered to let me borrow one of APS’ EV1s for a day or two. He gave me his secretary’s phone number and suggested I call her.

At the time, I was two years into a 42-month lease on a new red Porsche 993 Targa. Having found success in business, this was my dream car. It was expensive and powerful and it made me feel powerful. I called Bill’s secretary that Friday morning and arranged to pick up the EV1 on the following Tuesday. After just one day of driving the EV1, I was hooked.

The car was amazing. It had good acceleration (it was actually quicker that the Porsche) but most amazing  was how I felt contributing to a cleaner environment. At the time, my wife and I had been married eight years with no kids. We were both vegetarian and conservationists, but we had not made many significant lifestyle changes to benefit the environment. It was time.

In July of 2000, the Porsche went bye-bye and I took ownership (actually, it was a lease) of a 1999 General Motors EV1. Driving an electric car inspired me change my driving habits completely. I slowed down, coasted down hills when possible, and used the regenerative braking to recharge the battery. It was great. I thought I would never never go back. I joined the EV1 “Owners Club” and followed the technology, hoping for a family car as our first child arrived early the following year. But just two years into that lease, the bad news arrived. GM was abandoning the project and all leased cars were to be returned after the leases expired. A year later, I returned my EV1 to the dealer, disappointed but confident that the technology had proven and that there would be an electric car future once battery technology advanced and the range of such cars extended.

In the meantime, we bought a Mini-Cooper that was good for a toddler and a baby and then eventually replaced it with a 2006 Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI (Diesel) that with cleaner diesel fuel seemed like a good choice. A 4-door car was now necessary to satisfy two growing children and an aging back.

When the Japanese hybrids arrived, I was not thrilled. Although they were more efficient, they were still just electrically assisted internal combustion engines, not electric motors. Last year, I started to look seriously at replacing the Benz, which had close to 100,000 miles on it. Most of my driving is local but we have a cabin in the mountains and any EV would need substantial range to make the 120-mile 3,000 ft. uphill climb during the summer where daytime temperatures can reach 112ºF plus. I considered the Nissan Leaf EV, but the range at 75 miles (under normal conditions) is too limited and the car too small to meet the needs of my now two-child, two-dog family. The Volt, being the successor technology to the EV1, made more sense. The Volt range is probably 40 miles or less in the summer heat and then an ICE kicks in and keeps the battery charged. It is an electric drive, so it still counts as an EV. However, there still is that internal combustion engine. If this were just a decision about gas mileage, I would have opted for the Volt, but this was about something more. I really want a pure EV. I believe in the technology and if we want to help EVs become the norm, we need to invest in it.

Then along came the Tesla Model S, an EV that simply meets all of our needs as well as our wants. The range is substantial at TeslaMTCY260+ miles. It is a spacious, full-size 4-door and able to comfortably carry 4 adults and lots of gear. There is even room for the dogs. It is a gorgeous automobile that brought an unprecedented unanimous vote by the judges for Motor Trend’s Car of the Year 2013. The Tesla Model S is truly a state-of-the-art vehicle and it is our choice to replace the Benz (and EV1). Besides, I already have the power dedicated for an EV in my carport.

We expect to take delivery in July.

ENERGY STAR®-rated light bulbs | A Bright Future

Incandescent light bulbs are extraordinarily inefficient. Of the energy they consume, just 10% emits as visible light and a whopping 90% emits as waste heat. According to ENERGY STAR®, if every household in the United States changed one incandescent light bulb for an ENERGY STAR rated bulb, the annual energy cost savings would approach $600 million and greenhouse gas emissions would drop by 9 billion pounds. This would be like taking 800,000 cars off the road.

ENERGY STAR-rated light bulbs save energy by using 75% less energy and by emitting 75% less heat, thus reducing home cooling costs. These bulbs include compact fluorescents (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs). When buying, look for the ENERGY STAR logo.

CFLs come in various shapes and fit most incandescent bulb lighting fixtures. CFL light color varies; for the most incandescent-looking light, choose 2700-3000K CFLs. CFLs last six times longer than incandescent bulbs, but have drawbacks—they are fragile, they take as much as a minute to come to full brightness, and they contain mercury (a heavy metal and toxic pollutant), classifying them as household hazardous waste. Spent CFLs must be recycled; see Earth 911 for local CFL recycling information.

Mercury-free LED bulbs last 22 or more years in a typical home, are more durable, come on instantly, and are more energy efficient than CFLs, but they are also cost more up-front that CFLs. A new Phillips 60 watt replacement bulb arriving in stores in 2012 is most like an incandescent bulb in brightness and color, lasts 25,000 hours and uses 9.7 watts to produce the 60-watt equivalent luminosity.

Dimmable CFLs have limitations: they are more expensive, have shorter lifespans, require special dimming switches, and multiple bulbs on the same dimming switch may not have differing brightness levels. Dimmable LEDs are also a bit more expensive but do not share the limitations of dimmable CFLs.

For more information:

on CFLs and LEDs, see http://eartheasy.com/live_energyeff_lighting.htm

on ENERGY STAR, see http://www.energystar.gov/

Home Performance with ENERGY STAR®

A recent report to our state utility commission indicated that demand for electricity could outstrip local supply as early as 2014. Consequently, our region could see rolling power outages during summer peak demand. Citizens can help the state meet this challenge by reducing electrical demand. Home Performance with ENERGY STAR®, a partnership between utilities, the EPA, and the Department of Energy, is a program designed to assist homeowners become more energy efficient. We liked this because we could save money, reduce our carbon footprint, and contribute to the energy sustainability of our region.

Our ENERGY STAR audit started with a visit from an Energy Starcertified contractor that managed the entire process; first by conducting an assessment of our home for just $99.00. The assessment included a full audit of our air conditioning system, ductwork, insulation, and building envelope that took approximately 6 hours. Then, a representative walked us through what they had discovered and recommended steps for improvement.

According to the report, “shell leakage” was our biggest issue. The shell is the part of the home that separates the cooled and heated interior of the home from the outdoor air. Our shell was so leaky that the inspector could not properly conduct the test to determine the extent of our problem. Upon further inspection, he found that a major culprit was “ceiling penetrations” from 80 can (ceiling) lights we had installed to reduce floor and table lamps to create a more open floor plan. My bad.

Our contractor recommended replacing 60 of the can lights with new LED units that would not only seal the holes, but also provide us with more efficient, mercury-free lighting and considerable savings in energy (9 watts LED vs. 60 watts incandescent each) at a cost of $3,650.00.

Our total bill for this and the other recommended actions (including rebates) was $12,000. If their estimates are correct that we could save 50% on our electric bills, we should see repayment in less than 5 years.

Ecological Burial (updated)

In 2004, my dad passed away at the age of 96. In his Last Will and Testament, he designated cremation for his body but did not specify what to do with the ashes. After the cremation and memorial service, I asked my mother what she thought we should do with them and she suggested perhaps spreading them somewhere in nature, since he liked nature walks. However, I was concerned that spreading them in nature was like littering. My chief concern was that the ashes may contain toxic chemicals and therefore it would be irresponsible to spread them in nature. Since no one else in the family was interested, I collected the nondescript black plastic box of his ashes and placed it on a shelf in my closet.

Recently, I have decided to revisit my dad’s choice of cremation, the dispensation of his ashes, and my own feelings about my body after death. The presence of my dad’s ashes in my closet for these six years felt like unfinished business. The catalyst for this reexamination was a class last semester studying carbon footprints and life cycle. When I prepared my own will some years ago, I selected cremation for the same reasons Judy Collins wrote in Song For Duke that “funerals were a waste of flowers.” I felt that graveyards were a waste of land.

Now, armed with information about greenhouse gasses and toxic chemicals, I chose to research the issues. The questions in consideration were the potential environmental impacts of various forms of body disposal and whether there are commercially available choices for sustainable burial. The search led to the Green Burial Council (GBC), an independent, nonprofit organization that provides guidance to the mortuary and cemetery industries regarding environmentally sustainable deathcare practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, toxification, and waste; and to preserve natural areas.

Traditional Burial

Burial in caskets represents 70% of annual body disposal in the USA. This usually involves embalming the body with formaldehyde (a carcinogen) to slow decomposition and then interring in a metal or wood casket that is often encased in concrete and then buried in the ground in mostly commercial cemeteries. According to the GBC, “cemeteries across the nation bury approximately 30 million board feet of hardwood, 104,000 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete” annually (Rudolf, 2010), hardly a sustainable practice.         

Sustainable Burial 

Responding to popular demand from a growing green movement, sustainable coffins made of bamboo, cardboard, and other biodegradable materials such as shrouds are now commercially available, as are nontoxic embalming fluids; and the GBC promotes their use along with creating standards for ecological burial grounds in keeping with their mission.

Cremation

Cremation is a process that reduces the body to its base elements. Traditional cremation is a process that involves sustained temperatures of 1,800ºF for two to three hours and thus typically releases 573 lbs. of carbon dioxide and emissions of mercury vapor from dental fillings into the atmosphere.

A new process that uses just one-seventh of the energy is alkaline hydrolysis, known by its trade name, “Resomation.” This procedure takes the same amount of time as traditional cremation using lower temperatures (365ºF), high-pressure (145 psi), and chemicals (water and potassium hydroxide) to emulsify the body into a sludge that is then chemically treated to lower pH and then disposed of into municipal sanitary sewer systems and mercury emissions from dental fillings is virtually eliminated using this method. The remaining bone is then pulverized into a fine white powder. According to the manufacturer, resomation results in a reduction of greenhouse gasses of 35% over traditional cremation.

My research showed that the remains by either method are reduced to ecologically safe dry calcium phosphates, which are used in making fertilizer. Cremation remains are usually either kept in urns (and then displayed or buried in cemeteries), or spread into the environment.

Ecological Burial

The GBC eco-certification program certifies burial grounds providing three levels of standards classification for ecological burial as follows:

Hybrid burial grounds simply allow sustainable burial (no embalming requirement, biodegradable coffins accepted, and no requirement of a vault).

Actress Lynn Redgrave was buried in this bamboo coffin (Harris, 2010).

• Natural burial grounds requirements include the following: that the land must be pre-assessed by an independent professional ecologist to identify any issues regarding endangered species, cultural resources, and hydrology; that bodies are either not embalmed or are embalmed using only GBC-approved non toxic chemicals; that burial containers must be either made of nontoxic materials or be biodegradable; a ban on the use of pesticides; and that an endowment and rules are put in place to sustainably govern the site perpetually.

• Conservation burial grounds are GBC’s highest rating. In addition to the burial practices outlined above, it requires siting “contiguous to, or in a position to augment the conservation goals of an ecologically significant park, wildlife corridor, critical habitat area, or permanently protected open space; or (with appropriate management practices) be large enough on its own to be considered a landscape-level conservation effort” and be managed as such. Excavation and burial practices must also be minimal in its impact on the land and plant diversity; and the site must operate in conjunction with an environmental stewardship organization such as a government agency or NGO legally bound to it to manage it as such in perpetuity.

Conclusion

spreading dad’s ashes

After researching, I see that cremation is not sustainable and I will rethink my own decision for deathcare—likely opting for an ecological burial without embalming, and interring in a GBC-certified conservation burial ground. Regarding dad’s ashes, we spread them on July 12, 2011 on the roots of a tree planted some years ago in his honor at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he served as a Founding Trustee. In the end, at least some of his remains have returned sustainably to the nutrient cycle of the earth.

UPDATE: Pod Burial

Recently, one of my esteemed sustainability professors, Bruno Sarda, made me aware of an Italian company, Capsula Mundi, that has come up with a unique idea that ties together an ecological approach with the idea of a memorial tree—an egg-shaped pod made with 100%  biodegradable material is constructed and the body is placed inside in a fetal position. The pod is then planted in the soil and a tree is planted atop. The goal is essentially a reforestation project where instead of cemeteries, one creates “memory forests” where loved ones could come and care for the tree as a tribute. Perhaps the GBC’s eco-certification program will consider a fourth classification for eco burial.

Links:

Eco Caskets & Coffins, Urns & Vessels | http://www.finalfootprint.com/

Capsula Mundi | http://www.capsulamundi.it/progetto_eng.html

Green Burial Council | http://greenburialcouncil.org

References

Briggs, B. (2011, January 18). When you’re dying for a lower carbon footprint: ody-disposal process offers more eco-friendly alternative to cremation. Retrieved June 9, 2011, from MSNBC website: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/‌id/‌41003238/‌ns/‌business-going_green/‌t/‌when-youre-dying-lower-carbon-footprint/

Green Burial Council (GBC). (2011, January 1). Burial grounds. Retrieved June 8, 2011, from http://www.greenburialcouncil.org/‌standards/‌burial-grounds/

Harris, M. (2010, May 19). Actress Lynn Redgrave laid to rest in bamboo casket [Web log post]. Retrieved from Grave Matters: http://grave-matters.blogspot.com/‌2010/‌05/‌actress-lynn-redgrave-laid-to-rest-in.html (Photo provided courtesy of Final Footprint, US distributor, Ecoffins.)

Rudolf, J. C. (2010, June 30). Into the great green beyond [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/‌2010/‌06/‌30/‌into-the-big-green-beyond/

How Green is Your Lawn? (via Teatown Thoughts)

I am reading “Producing and consuming chemicals: The moral economy of the American Lawn” by Paul Robbins and Julie T. Sharp for a Society and Sustainability class at Arizona State University, where I am a nontraditional student studying sustainability.

This blog post came up when I was researching for a less technical article. Teatown is in the next town over from where I grew up. I remember it well.

Here is a website for growing and maintaining a sustainable lawn: http://www.safelawns.org/

Peace

How Green is Your Lawn? Should the Traditional American Lawn be an Endangered Species? In recent years, it has become clear that solving environmental problems requires everyone’s participation. Saving the earth is not a spectator sport!  With spring in the air, there is no easier place to start than in your own yard.    Transforming a monoculture grass lawn into a mosaic of plants and habitats will in the long run save you time and money, and will create a more biologi … Read More

via Teatown Thoughts