Sunday, April 19, 2009

eco: solar heating means green jobs!

Our solar photovoltaic panels sit there making a dollar or two of electricity every day for us. Zero maintenance, besides occasionally wiping the grime off the panels.

As I intimated, solar heating is another story. After only two years the solar tubes on our roof stopped providing domestic hot water, so we had to turn on the back-up electric strip heater in one of our storage tanks to get hot water. A 50-gallon electric kettle is a very expensive way to get hot water, requiring far more electricity than our solar panels generate.

It was difficult to find anyone willing come and service it. (Our general contractor fired the original designer/subcontractor Bill Reyno and we wound up in legal mediation with the contractor over delays and non-functioning system.) Solar electric is just a bit of mechanical fabrication and some parts wired together; however, solar heating is tubes, wires, pipes, pumps, fittings, solder, valves, expansion tanks, electronic controllers, solenoids, and heat exchangers. There's no standardization, every contractor does it differently, and no one wants to take on responsibility for someone else's design with which they disagree. Everyone who's ever looked at our system has responded "I wouldn't do it that way..."

Finally Luminalt sent some people out. They figured out one of the pumps wasn't working. They had to isolate that pump, drain the system, dismantle it, find a lump of solder inside gumming on the mechanism, refill the system, replace a pressure valve, charge the system with glycol, test everything out. Two and a half guys, two days, $1100. Have no doubt that being environmental means green jobs for Americans! Better yet, the business end seems a little disorganized and they've yet to send me a bill!
158 degrees Temp from Solar!tank at 129 degrees!
Since Luminalt fixed it, we've been getting much hotter water, maybe because they replaced a pressure valve with a higher pressure one.
The rightmost temperature gauge in the first pic shows 158 degree glycol mixture from the solar tubes, and after pumping through a heat exchanger, the top sensor in the second pic shows 129 degree drinkable water in the first tank. It's magic!

On a sunny spring day we're getting more hot water than we need or use, which makes me dream about sending some excess heat to our radiant heating system to heat our house. The system was designed to do that, but that has never worked for a litany of design flaws too depressing to recount. Moving heat around is fiddly and depends on careful system design and installation.
Luminalt installer with Solamax tubes
Three out of the 40 Solamax Direct Flow Evacuated Solar Energy Collector tubes in this picture have condensation on the inside, so they ought to be replaced. I called the distributor SolarThermal, and the guy laughed. If they send these tubes out by UPS, a box of glass shards will arrive on my doorstep. I'd have to pay $300 for a special pallet load to be trucked to my door. That's why most solar installers use flat plate collectors or Mazdon tubes, which are not as efficient but a lot easier to transport.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

eco: Sonicare battery

A long time ago my dentist recommended the Sonicare. It lasts about 5 years, I'm on my third. The rechargeable handle contains toxic NiCad batteries, so I didn't want to throw them away. Sonicare used to provide an envelope for you to send it back, but they scrapped that, no doubt when they found doing the right thing costs money. I finally cracked the two handles open and pried out the batteries.
Sonicare toothbrush handle and its toxic batteries(The red marks are blood.)

How many people bother to do this? There's so much hate for Greenpeace in the USA, yet they have the right idea: don't produce toxic products. It should be illegal for someone to sell you a toxic product unless they pay to take it back. End of story.

I should have Googled first, someone already blogged about this, he heroically tried to replace the dead batteries. Newer Sonicare toothbrushes are apparently easier to disassemble: “The battery inside your Sonicare cannot be replaced, but is easily removed for recycling.” But why not allow easy battery replacement? They don't want you to keep your equipment working, they want it to fail, so they deliberately use a crappy short-lived toxic battery. This is the exact opposite of sustainable design. Again, legislation is the answer.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

eco: Earth Hour vs. a 2000-watt society

There's a predictable backlash to this weekend's Earth Hour, the third (or fourth?) iteration. I support the gesture and the criticism of it — we turned off our lights for half of this one, because we forgot. I posted this comment in response to one blog's "Fcuk Earth Hour:"

Earth Hour is fine, but the COMPLETE ABSENCE OF A REAL F***ING GOAL LINE from all discussions is pretty depressing.

Q: “I still have no idea what I personally should do.”

A: Reduce your share of greenhouse gas emissions to a sustainable level. Cue Chevron's revolting greenwash ads with a concerned Jeremy Irons lookalike intoning "I will use less energy". But how much less energy?!? With 7 billion people on earth, some engineers in Switzerland estimated that a sustainable personal share of greenhouse gas emissions works out to average power use of 2 kilowatts. In other words, all your energy use (not only electrical) should come to no more than 17,520 kilowatt-hours per year. Read Wikipedia's "2000-watt society" article, which references Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent "The Island in the Wind" article in The New Yorker where I first heard of it.

2000 watts seems doable if you just look at your monthly electricity bill — you're way out of line if you use 1400 kW·h a month of electricity — but it's staggeringly low if you factor in heating, transportation, and your share of society's energy consumption. I think it's 60 million Btus a year, only 478 gallons of gasoline! Ride a bike, go hardcore on energy conservation, don't heat or cool your house, only fly every few years, consume dramatically less manufactured goods. And/or spend a lot on renewable energy generation.

It's a daunting challenge, so all the feel-good stuff doesn't mention it, so people sincerely believe that by replacing a few lightbulbs and recycling some paper they'll save the planet. Every little bit helps, but those are tiny little bits.

Just because it's difficult, the reactionary "I can't/won't live that way, therefore I won't try at all and will be venemous and hateful towards enviro wackos" is far more moronic than not participating in whatever Earth Hour is going on.

Hacked Chevron 'I will use less energy' billboard (hacked billboard in DC, from Bioephemera blog


Monday, March 16, 2009

eco: charge big money for damn plastic bags

I walked the dogs around Candlestick Point. The little sandy beach on the bay was layered in plastic bags. There was literally one every square yard. Pulling it out often revealed another one underneath. Depressing and completely unnecessary.

OK, maybe you don't live by water. Someone comments:
I'm more concerned about the plastic bags that don't make it to the landfills. Take a road trip along I-5 in California or out along I-40 or I-10 to Arizona and you'll see downwind of every truck stop joshua trees and other awesome desert plants choked by these things, mostly cut off from the sun by thousands of Taco Bell bags that have blown away from the parking lots out into the desert. Depresses the hell out of me.
Meanwhile lawyer Stephen Joseph runs savetheplasticbag.com, with the usual confusion as to how plastic bags aren't so bad. Don't bother reading the site, there's no admission of how awful these things are, and it's full of the usual bait and switch crap, e.g. "If we really want to save [marine mammals and turtles], then we would need to ban fishing."

On issues like this people create all kinds of false choices and dichotomies:
"If you ban plastic, how will people store trash/pick up dog poop?"
People can scrounge bags or buy them, no one is proposing a ban on selling bags. If you put something in a bag for good, it's not going to drift away.
"Plastic bags are no worse than paper bags"
Maybe (paper bags are easier to reuse and easier to recycle), but the point is reducing the waste stream
The choice at the supermarket is not "paper or plastic?". The choice should be "Do you want to buy a paper bag for 25 cents that includes a cleanup & recycling fee, buy a plastic bag for 20 cents that includes a cleanup fee, or get a clue and bring your own reusable bags?" People will wise up fast.


Friday, September 19, 2008

eco:darkness falls

You're told incandescent bulbs are bad and waste energy. Our house only has them in the dining area as a sculptural feature. But cumulatively any kind of lighting adds up. We had our garden lights and house lights on:

and I noticed our consumption was an astronomical 3770 Watts. Start turning them off...
  • −300 Watts: garden lights (low voltage) off
  • −200W: garden pump off
  •  −30W: pump lights (low voltage) off
  • −200W: dim dining lights (evil incandescents) as low as possible
  • −200W: power off dining lights
  •  −30W: rear fluorescent lamp off
  • −200W: power off monster stereo
  • −470W: awesome second floor lights (halogen) off
  • −430W: living room lights (more halogen) off
  •  −60W: side light (halogen) off
  • −260W: dim downstairs lights (halogen track lights) as low as possible
  •  −40W: power off downstairs lights
  •  −80W: dim studio lights (halogen track lights) as low as possible
  •  −20W: power off studio lights
So to save energy, live in the dark.

I saw the Cellophane house at the MOMA "Home Delivery" show of prefab homes, which has all LED lighting. It's an... interesting space.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

eco: still leaking 300 Watts after lights out

We have an outside digital electrical meter (2nd and 3rd pictures in this post) that shows our home's instantaneous electrical consumption. I try to glance at it every time I leave or enter the house. Every home should have one, but it really should be inside your house staring you in the face, better yet a web site you can browse from anywhere. (Designers keep coming up with cute designs for things that show your consumption, but they won't work unless the gizmo can ask your house about your consumption.)

So I left the house in the evening and consumption was 640 Watts, I came back it was 530 Watts.
I turned off two fluorescent aquarium lights, and our consumption dropped to 330 Watts (which makes no sense, the aquarium lights are only about 20 W each), a minute later it jumped up to 460 Watts

I don't know what causes the huge variations of 130 Watts either way. The aquariums have heaters that cycle on and off; maybe our Toto toilet is heating its seat or water; our crappy awful overpriced noisy Sub-Zero refrigerator cycles on and off.

Worse, I don't know the big contributors to that residual constant 300W. The only obvious thing is two fluorescent lamps that we always leave on. Everything else is "off", including the monster hi-fi. So where's the rest of the electricity going? The electric meter doesn't say. Your breaker box should display consumption on each circuit, but it doesn't (this is a huge opportunity for Square D, Cutler Hammer, etc.!). You're forced to think:
  • burglar alarm is on
  • router and modem are on
  • Toto Washlet toilet ("I thought Asprey was a refined English jeweller until I got a Toto", but I digress) is on
  • three computers, a TV and DVD are in standby
  • 4 Velux skylights are watching for infra-red pulses
  • our broken over-engineered non-functional heating system is off and I've disconnected electricity to its domestic hot water tanks, but it has at least 5 electronic control sensors thinking what to do
  • a few power strips are off but have winking lights
  • digital clocks in the radio, coffee maker, oven, toaster...
  • garden light and pump controllers watching for X-10 signals to turn on
  • power supply and infrared remote sensor for electric blinds in living room
  • the solar photovoltaic system controller (1st picture in the same post) is monitoring our panels (ohhh the irony if the solar system wasted many Watts while the sun is down)
You may think 300 Watts is no big deal, but it's terrible. Two people pedaling bicycles hard can barely generate 300W. It adds up to 7.2 kiloWatt-hours a day for a dark house and nothing on, which is crazy when PG&E's baseline quantity (after which they charge you a higher rate) is 8.3 kW·h. I'm pretty committed to not wasting energy (I unplug my toothbrush base after it's charged), but I guess I have to unplug each one of those to see if it's the unexpected culprit, then decide how much time I want to spend plugging things in and out and reprogramming their digital clocks. I really wish USA had switched sockets like they do in Britain and Australia to make it easier to disconnect power.

The government's Energy Star program should mandate that every electrical device lists its standby consumption as well as its "on" consumption, and mandate that everything plugged in should consume less than 1 watt in standby or when its attached device is charged. Even at 1 Watt per device, a moderately wired house will burn 40+ Watts, 1 kW·h a day.

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

eco: drying with solar wind power

I showed our first-generation low tech solar wind photonic membrane evaporator, here's its replacement saving money, avoiding pollution, and reducing wear and tear.

clothes drying on laundry trees by Kris Borchardt
Even lower tech than before, but the two laundry tree sculptures by Kris Borchardt are functional art.

And here's lower-tech indoor clothes drying technology for $13.
Pull-out end of retractable clothes dryer lineBusiness end of retractable clothes dryer line

If you put clothes in a dryer during the summer, you're crazy.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

eco: "struggling to survive" vs. population

Yet another TV report on starving Somalians and their "struggle to survive". Meanwhile, in a barren sub-Saharan desert, the population is skyrocketing. In 1991 as the hell was gathering steam, population 7 million. Now 9.5 million. 48% of the population is under 15! 3.4% population growth in 2003 (it was 2.9% in 1992).

I don't have compassion fatigue, I have anger. Unless you have a realistic means to deliver a better life for your family, don't have kids.

Googling for overpopulation Somalia finds reports making the connection... dated from the 1990s. I wonder why people have large families in such dire circumstances, this National Geographic story from 2000 looks at the issue.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

eco: confusing the cost and value of environmental responsibility

Dear Hattie Kauffman and the newscaster who introduced you,

Our local CBS5 station just showed your piece on hybrid sales, which was in part yet another economic analysis of buying the hybrid model. It's a happy coincidence that the car model that pollutes less and wastes less fuel might save money. Even if it NEVER paid for itself, why shouldn't consumers spend their own money to reduce their environmental impact? They spend on leather seats, 19" wheels, and satellite navigation, please lecture them in a shocking exposé how those features will never pay for themselves!

Every time sloppy journalists do this they only show an inability to distinguish the *cost* of things from the *value* of things. Your news anchor introduced you with "[car buyers] still need to be sure they're getting more bang for their buck", a truly fatuous remark. I admire people who are environmental even when it costs them money, maybe you should look in the mirror and do the same.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

cars: posts, Prius, progress

There seems to be only one skierpage after endless registering to comment, so were you motivated to be my Boswell you could search for all the pearls I toss before swine all over the IntarWubwubwub-Dot-Tubes. Here's one I wrote more pearly than others, fighting the unwarranted hostility towards the Toyota Prius:
Meanwhile, the Prius is a mind-bending class of its own. The most fuel-efficient car in the USA (48 city/45 highway) isn't a two-person runabout, isn't a subcompact car, isn't a compact car, isn't priced out-of-reach. It's a midsize practical hatchback for $21,000. The mega-lame bunk is the other car companies and Toyota itself haven't tried to compete. The Prius has been number 1 for years (ever since Honda discontinued the Insight). In that time every month brought another car company relentlessly pushing 4-door sports sedans from 350 HP to 400 and now 500+ HP, but the Prius coasts unchallenged. Where's the equivalent parade of Prius-killers busting past 50mpg? Where's the Prius competitor that gets 40+ but is fun to drive? Why do Toyota's smaller cars get worse mileage? All we have is the promise of GM's Volt around 2010 2011, and nothing from other companies.
There are literally over a dozen Prius parked within a block of here, and I'm surprised there aren't even more. Once you want a more economical less-polluting car (here's the EPA's full list for 2008 (pdf) ), there-can-be-only-one. Why buy a Smart or a Mini that's smaller only to get worse mileage? Why buy any other hybrid? Do you really need a stupid tall SUV? Almost every decision process leads inexorably to the Prius. And none of my friends who've bought one is smug, they like the car but are smart enough to know it doesn't solve everything/anything.

Meanwhile my search for an all-wheel drive snow car may have a light at the end of the tunnel: there will supposedly be an Audi A3 2.0TFSI DSG quattro, and an AWD Mini Clubman in 2009. But the mileage of both will probably be nothing special. Where's the Prius of AWD cars? (the Ford Escape sure ain't it).

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

eco: solar wind photonic membrane evaporator

I wrote about having both kinds of solar panels. (Quick update: The solar heat panels do heat our domestic hot water, but our overall heating system is still a busted inefficient disaster...)

I neglected to mention our third solar system, a proven hybrid technology that takes advantage of wind power as well. Here's a picture of one end of this engineering marvel:
solar photonic wind dryer
Unlike our other solar systems that cost many thousands of dollars, this cost about $25, and a ham-handed DIY disaster was able to install it in an hour. All the parts are available on dusty shelves at Ace Hardware: clothesline cord, two special reels, two hooks, and a nifty line tensioner. And it worked perfectly. Anyone who doesn't install one of these is throwing money away. (Update: Some people don't understand: this is a clothes line so you can dry your clothes for free without running an energy-consuming appliance.)

Despite its excellent technical features, it didn't fit in with our garden landscaping. (We still have a miniaturized version strung across our utility room.) Here's an early look at its replacement:
laundry trees by Kris Borchardt
Two laundry tree sculptures by Kris Borchardt, in the process of installation.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

politics: the real security threats and how to diss your boss Bush

9/11 was a stunning attack on the USA, but are a bunch of puny terrorist cells really the biggest threat to the USA necessitating an endless Global War on Terror? Here's Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker posing the question to Bush's s Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell.
   I asked McConnell if he believed that Al Qaeda was really the greatest threat America faces.
   “No, no, no, not at all,” he said. “Terrorism can kill a lot of people, but it can’t fundamentally challenge the ability of the nation to exist. Fascism could have done that. Communism could have. I think our issue going forward is more engagement with the world in terms of keeping it on a reasonable path, so another ism doesn't come along and drive it to one extreme or the other. And we have to have some balance in terms of equitable distribution of wealth, containment of contagious disease, access to energy supplies, and development of free markets. There are national-security ramifications to global warming.”

Hmm, the emphasis bits sure don't sound like any part of the Bush doctrine I've ever heard. Next time a Democrat is attacked on national security, I hope he or she quotes this guy.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

eco: global climate change in one picture

I spend (waste) time on blogs contesting global warming denialists.

The simple meta-fact is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports on global warming are the scientific consensus (as in "the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned", not a never-gonna-happen "unanimity"). Every nation on earth, including the Bush administration in the USA, plus 40 national science academies, endorses the consensus. Fine, 18% of climate scientists think things aren't so bad or the conclusions. But that leaves 82% agreeing with the conclusions or thinking things are worse. And since IPCC 4th report came out we've seen more worrying effects.

Here's the science.
  • The greenhouse gas effect is simple physics (sunlight comes in, but the greenhouse gases block infrared radiation back out).
  • CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations going up from 280ppm to 370ppm at an ever-increasing rate during the industrial age is undeniable, and billions more of us burning more and more shit at the same time is undeniable.
The effects of that on overall climate can only be understood with a climate model, so you need a scientist (not a politician, not a columnist). Climate models disagree, so the rest of us need the IPCC.

So denialists take other tacks. It's solar variation. It's methane from cow farts. There's less soot (damn environmentalists) so more sunlight. There's something else going on!

This is all true. Climate is hella complex.
http://data.giss.nasa.gov/modelforce/ is a simple summary page with a fantastic chart that shows NASA's understanding of what forces climate.
NASA's chart of various climate forcings
At the left is CO2, the big one. But there's also methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N20) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), also greenhouse gases that man pumps out.

Denialists like to offer solar variation as another explanation for temperature rise, but as you can see its effect is much smaller and besides, solar output has gone down in the late 90s (here's a graph and more debunking).

Denialists like to say water is the biggest greenhouse gas. This is true. Lots of things change along with climate, like water vapor, but don't make it change, hence water isn't in the NASA chart. As it gets warmer H2O in the air increases, making it worse; but we can't measurably affect the concentration of water vapor in the air.

Denialists also like to point out anomalies a long time ago, that CO2 concentration in ice cores lags temperature changes, that there have been ice ages, that it was hot (actually in Europe only) in the middle ages. All true, and understanding these helps improve climate models. But here's the chart of CO2 in industrial times. Ask your local denialist: If CO2 causing global warming is bogus now, then what's the effect of that continuing to go up and up?
Carbon History and Flux


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

eco: depressing do-nothing attitude

On a post about VW re-attempting a 235mpg car, user rgseidl commented, and many people agreed with the sentiment:
... no consumer wants to be the goody-two-shoes sucker that cuts back or pays more while the neighbors continue to live it up in their Chelsea Tractor (aka the free rider problem)
It's actually not that dire a quote because it's in the context of an impractical expensive engineering demonstration, but it captures so much of what's wrong with US (and British? — "Chelsea Tractor" is a Britishism for a SUV in the city) attitudes:
  • It asserts an untruth (in fact lots of people spend more/cut back to a Toyota Prius or Honda Fit) without any evidence to back it up, but it seems plausible as an emotional argument.
  • If just one neighbor has an SUV, it's an excuse for doing nothing.
  • It touches on the crazy demand that higher MPG and low emissions should pay for itself. (Do fancy wheels or rear-seat electronics pay for themselves?)
  • It asserts that particularly American demand for everyone to "play fair" before doing the right thing. Yet Americans resist any taxes, cap-and-trade systems, and incentives that impose fairness.
You would think that anyone who despite all this negativity does the right thing (what a concept!) is a brave unconventional hero. Nope. Environmentalists already get accused of being smug self-fart-sniffers, and are attacked for any slip from an unattainable perfection ("You drive a fuel-efficient car but I see you wear leather!!"), now they're "goody two-shoes suckers".

Dinosaur US business interests and befuddled right-wingers may want you to feel helpless and resentful about environmental problems, but you still make hundreds of choices every day whether to help or hurt the environment. The miasma of negativity surrounding doing the right thing doesn't absolve you of personal responsibility.


Monday, March 5, 2007

eco: hypnotized by mass media

Nice rant about the uphill struggle against consumer culture in the USA.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

eco: where are the brilliant LED lamp designs?

Went to Design Within Reach looking for some lamps. They have lots of OK "mid-century" designs for lamps, but almost every single one is packing a bloody incandescent bulb, one that wastes 95% of its electricity as heat. Have they not learned about compact fluorescents? Go to IKEA and every lamp has a CFL.

What's worse, is where are the LED lamps with brightness adjustability, color mixing, and amazing new forms that take advantage of the featherweight of LEDs? DWR only had two LED lamps, they should have dozens.

There's more technology in a $35 Black Diamond LED headlamp for the outdoors than in any lamp in the entire store. Pathetic! I guess "designers" only know how to mount a conventional bulb socket onto their creations. Actually mastering LED circuitry and electronic controls is too hard for them.

As I said before, Design without engineering is bad design, and there's a lot of it out there.

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Friday, February 2, 2007

White House lies about global warming responsibility

Here is an exact transcript of US Energy Secretary Sam Bodman's response to the recent IPCC report that solidifies the overwhelming consensus. It's in the context of opposing any kind of mandatory control on emissions:
Even if we were successful in accomplishing some kind of debate and discussion about what caps might be here in the United States, we are a small contributor when you look at the rest of the world.
What a bald-face f***ing lie!

In 2002, USA contributed 24.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Here's the chart.

Inaction in action, bolstered by lies.

I've updated his Wikipedia biography to nail him on this; anyone know how I can save a piece of audio from the BBC World Service for proof?


Saturday, November 18, 2006

eco: both kinds of solar panels

As I mentioned in comments, the solar power system that's finally working is electricity. Here's a shot of two of the nine photovoltaic panels:
two SX170B 170 W solar panels on roof
Note the shade from neighboring tall house in autumn that's cutting efficiency.

Our heating system is still inoperable, despite 17 months and all those tubes and wires. So the solar heat-collecting tubes have yet to be placed on its rack:
waiting for solar heat tubes
Wait, that entire thing is in shade! Will it ever work?

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

eco: solar power payback time

Jake from Declination Solar installed 9 SX170B 170 Watt panels by BP (the slightly-less-evil oil company that bought Solarex) and a Xantrex grid-tied inverter months ago, but we didn't have sign-off to hook it up and local utility P.G.&E. kept losing our proof of insurance. Finally they found the right form and a guy came out to plug in a new electronic (but not remotely readable) electric meter.

I powered up circuits, turned on the Xantrex inverter, BIOS versions appeared (does this inverter run Linux ?), it began a 240-second countdown to sync up with the utility power, and then:
Xantrex inverter shows 1112 Watts instantaneous, 0.120 kWh so far
Wahoo! 1112 Watts baby!

Run outside to new meter and:
P.G.&E. receiving 451W net from house
I'm contributing more energy than the house consumes, P.G.&E.'s wasteful customers are getting 451 Watts from me. Maybe the polar bears will survive after all.

Of course, if I so much as turn on a hair dryer:
P.G.&E. giving me 1010 W
One 1500 Watt appliance and I've swamped the photovoltaic panels and need 1010 Watts; we're back to paying the utility to burn fossil fuel.

I've yet to get the rebates and tax credit and accounting from our builder, so I'm not sure how much this cost. But it's a great feeling for a drop in the bucket.

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Tuesday, October 3, 2006

eco: polar bears, other nations, and genocide

Does the environment matter? Well, here's one thought about it, often misquoted or quoted in part.

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
from The Outermost House by Henry Beston (1888-1968)

Because each one of us leads an energy-intensive life that produces tons and tons of waste carbon dioxide, and because there are over 6,500,000,000 of us, the arctic ice is melting, and so polar bears, to me the most amazing beasts on land or sea, are dying. They are drowning, despite being incredible swimmers, because the pack ice from which they hunt seals is vanishing.

There is no consequence for this, no God will reach down to punish us. Those who care will find it hard to go on living, those who don't will be happy idiots.

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Sunday, July 31, 2005

eco: solar progress uphill

Harnessing solar energy economically is the great engineering challenge of our time. My partner and I are putting solar thermal and photovoltaic on our new house, but we'll spend US$ tens of thousands of dollars (after tax breaks) just to save $100 a month in in electric and heating bills. It's an emotional and spiritual decision, not a rational economic one. But if someone can drive the cost per watt or BTU so low that putting in solar becomes an easy way to Make Money Fast, the market will take over.

Energy Innovations, founded by Idealab dot-com incubator guy Bill Gross, has thought so hard about this, it's inspiring.
  • They're focused on a great mission: "Our immediate goal is to reduce the payback time for a solar system so that it becomes a sensible and logical investment to electricity users around the world."
  • They're focused on a great market: the billions of square feet of roofs of commercial buildings that just lie there, unused, baking in the sun.
  • They're focused on cost over technology. Read their entire Innovations section, especially the "Lessons Learned". They looked at Stirling cycle engines, servo-controlled "petal" mirrors, big heliostat arrays, Fresnel lens concentrators, ... and abandoned them because they couldn't get them cheap enough in a short timeframe.
Yet even with all that focus, it is still so damn hard. Solar cells with reasonable efficiency cost money, so you concentrate sunlight on them with cheap mirrors, but then you have to track the sun with a mechanism that costs money. The more you concentrate, the more you can spend on exotic solar cells, but then you have more mechanical engineering. And the concentrated sunlight bakes the solar cells: you could try to capture that thermal energy but that raises cost and compexity, so you have to come up with a cooling system. The tradeoffs are everywhere.

There are other companies with big ideas: cheap PV films, PV coatings, nano-scale concentrators, etc. While these efforts that could change the fate of the Earth get a few millions in venture funding, the 2005 US energy bill gives around $6 billion dollars in tax breaks to carbon-spewing global-warming smog-creating oil, ethanol, and coal producers.

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Sunday, May 8, 2005

cars: 4x4 x zero

We want to replace our 1998 Suburu Outback Sport. The new car needs
  • 4-wheel drive for snow
  • handle well in snow
  • hatchback for dogs
  • environmentally responsible, i.e. high MPG, low CO2 and emissions. (For all three, go to the EPA's www.fueleconomy.gov)
  • compact for city driving
  • be an improvement on the Subaru.
Price is pretty immaterial (lucky bastard :-) , so we're happy to pay for winter package, super-ultra premium sound, navigation system, leather interior, and any and all options that don't reduce MPG.

You would think there would be dozens of cars that fit the bill. You'd be wrong.

Car makers want to sell an SUV for this. Well, I'm not interested. By making the car 20% higher, the handling gets worse, the weight increases about 20% and the aerodynamics are messed up, so MPG goes down. Besides, in general an SUV is just a fat ugly car for mean people. Despite all the macho ads showing SUV's tearing up virgin wilderness, they're no better in snow than a 4WD car. Real skiers drive a Subaru, a 4WD truck, or an old Audi.

What's left is several niche cars.

Toyota Matrix: not really a snow car, the 4WD version seems an afterthought.
Volkswagen Golf R32 is too small, and is more a hot-rod with 4WD than a snow car.

We drove the Volvo V50. It's pretty luxurious and quiet, but it doesn't drive nearly as well as the Subaru, and it looks and feels like a long station wagon. Heck, if we wanted a station wagon, there are all the BMW 'x' and Mercedes 4MATIC station wagons to try. Also the MPG of the 4WD version is lousy (19/27, 8.5 tons CO2, 6-7 EPA air pollution score) because it's only available with turbo.

That leaves the Subaru Outback Sport. But as in 1998, Subaru treats their compact car as their cheap car: no leather, no premium sound, no Vehicle Dynamics Control, no OnStar, no winter package, plus they leave it buzzy and cheap. You can get a much nicer version of the same platform, the Forester, but that's an ugly near-SUV. You can also get better features by getting a WRX Turbo, but again it's worse MPG.

However, there is another version of the Subaru, the Saab 9-2X. The non-Turbo version has an OK 23/29 MPG, 7.5 tons CO2, 6 EPA air pollution score.

GM got slammed for this forced marriage of Sweden and Japan, but the badge engineering actually works for us: take a great platform and make a higher-quality model. The big question mark is whether this model will be discontinued given GM and Saab's troubles. I've only seen two on the street.

The Audi A3 Sportwagon has just started shipping. It looks much nicer in the flesh than the ugly corporate nose suggests, the trick DSG transmission is excellent, and the German car companies seem happy to sell you a premium version of their smallest car. But the quattro model is not available?! This is Audi, the four-wheel drive innovators whose original "quattro" supercar 25 years ago changed the automotive landscape forever! Furthermore, the rumor is the quattro S3 will only ship with the monster 3.2 liter motor, i.e. poor MPG.

Note how the better options only come with a bigger engine, thus worse MPG and handling. I don't understand why the two are tied together. You don't need more than ~150 horsepower in a sensibly-sized car in the USA. My genitals won't be any larger with a more powerful engine under the hood, so what's the point?

The most environmentally responsible approach is to hold on to our current car (23/30 MPG, 7.5 tons CO2, no air pollution score).

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