Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Quakers in Maine host a solar farm

I am a Quaker and was raised in England where the religion began.  We are properly called: "The Religious Society of Friends in Search of the Truth", or just Friends.  I am active member of the Midcoast Friends Meeting in rural Damariscotta, Maine and we recently decided to host a solar farm on our property.

The story begins in 2015 when Pope Francis released his encyclical entitled "Laudato Si".  The remarkable document is a call to action on climate change in which His Holiness lays out the issues clearly and concisely.  He talks knowledgeably about the science (he has a degree in science), but more importantly he chastises the world for placing capitalism ahead of the well being of humanity and all life on earth.  As he said once: “God always forgives; human beings sometimes forgive; but when nature is mistreated, she never forgives.” It is well worth reading and religious communities - Catholic and otherwise - have responded all over the world by taking action.  Some have divested their investments from fossil fuels, other have installed solar panels on their church roofs, and many other actions are being taken.

Friends found his message deeply moving and several of us formed a discussion group in late 2015 to explore his message and called it the "Climate Justice Group".  We met monthly and after talking about the encyclical for a while, we felt called to take action.

3 175W solar panels installed on Meeting House roof in 2008
Over the years we had already taken many steps to "green" the building by installing 3 solar panels on the roof (back when they were very pricey).  They offset a portion of the buildings needs. We also replaced all the lights with CFLs, and more recently LEDs as they burn out.  We switched the heating oil to a blend of bio-fuel and installed interior storm windows in the winter.  Many Friends drive hybrid vehicles and 2 of us have electric vehicles (Chevy Volts).

We were aware of a solar farm that been installed nearby.  This consists of over 170 solar panels that produce up to 50kW.  9 co-op owners get to use that energy to offset their electric bill.  Each member purchases as many panels as they need to offset as much of their energy as they choose.  The co-op leases the land from a landowner with open property to spare.

After some discussion the Meeting approved the idea of hosting a solar farm on our property and approached ReVision Energy - the largest solar installer in Maine to let them know we had a site available.  ReVision staff were very enthusiastic and actively supported and promoted the solar farm.  By the winter of 2016 the farm was fully subscribed with 9 owners and we signed papers leasing the land at the bottom of our field.  The Meeting House will get over $600 per year for the lease.

On Thursday, June 22, 2017 I got approval to turn the whole solar farm on.  Here's a picture of me activating one of the 5 inverters:
The solar array was producing 44.6kW after it was all powered up!

Here is an article in the local paper about the farm in the local Lincoln County News.

A web page for the Midcoast Friends Community Solar Farm show performance metrics. 

Here are some images showing the ReVision Energy crew installing the equipment:
installing posts and racking

rails installed

sturdy steel post with aluminum brackets

half the panels installed

5 inverters and controls

completed Midcoast Friends Community Solar Farm

Utility connecting the farm to the grid
View from the Meeting House
A few Friends were dismayed by the impact of the sight lines as seen from the front porch of the building.  So we have planted 2 dozen shrubs and bushes along the back to form a screen so we won't see the less attractive back side of the solar array once they grow in.
planting miniature arbor vitae trees
Quakers have made this statement concerning our perspective:

"Our faith as Quakers is inseparable from our care for the health of our planet Earth. We see that our misuse of the Earth’s resources creates inequality, destroys community, affects health and well-being, leads to war and erodes our integrity. We are all responsible for stewardship of our natural world. We love this world as God’s gift to us all. Our hearts are crying for our beloved mother Earth, who is sick and in need of our care."

For the whole document, click below:
Living Sustainably and Sustaining Life on Earth – The Minute from the Plenary
February 20, 2016

Hopefully our small contribution in support of renewable energy will help slow the impact of climate change.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Replacing a failed solar microinverter

A few weeks ago I checked the Enphase Enlighten web portal (see it here on my web site) that shows the real-time performance of my solar power system and noticed that the top-left solar panel was not producing power.  The numbers showing Watts per panel are updated every 10 minutes, and you can play back data from previous days/weeks etc.

So I contacted Enphase and they confirmed that the M190 microinverter had failed and authorized an RMA for a warranty replacement.  These products are warrantied for 15 years and this is the 2nd one I have replaced so far.  (Microinverters convert DC solar power to 240VAC that feeds power into the building).  I received the replacement unit a week later and asked my friend John if he could come over and help replace it, John is a retired builder and enjoys climbing around on buildings!  We borrowed my other neighbor's ladders and climbed up to the roof.

It was a relatively simple matter to replace.  First I turned off the main breaker for the array, then climbed up and covered the panel with cardboard to prevent it from generating power while disconnecting and re-connecting it.  We unbolted the panel and moved it over to access the microinverter underneath.

It was quick work to remove and replace the new one which came with detailed instructions for safely performing the procedure:

I shot a time-lapse video of the process:

Once it was installed, I had to press a button on the Envoy web interface box so it could "find" the new inverter.  

Then a quick call to Enphase so they could update the web page that shows the array performance in real time.
This was a quick an painless process, and I'm grateful for good friends/neighbors and a great warranty on the products.

For more information about the process of installing my solar array, click here to see the detailed blog.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Solving mysteries with my new IR vision "super power"

Something has been bothering me recently.  When I drive home at night in my Chevy Volt and pull into my drive, the motion sensing lights come on.  Since I was driving in EV mode, the 1.4L gas engine/generator was not running - so there should not be sufficient heat signature for the IR motion sensors to "see".  (PIR - Passive Infrared Motion sensors have a white lens that focuses IR wavelength emissions onto a sensor that is able to distinguish warm moving objects moving against a cooler background).

Now that I have a "Super Power" - I can see in infrared thanks to my new FLIR One IR camera that I keep in my pocket. 

I just plug it into my phone and voila I can take still, video and time-lapse IR images.  It's so small - about the size of a keyfob that I now carry it everywhere in its protective case.

So I decided to "see" what was hot.  First I took a picture of the Volt in the 55F ambient weather:

Then I used the remote to turn on the vehicle and pre-warm the cabin to 76F - a luxury that I have always enjoyed in the Volt!  So here it is warmed up 10 minutes later:
You can see a little heat on the hood and driver side window but nothing really hot. (The camera scales the color palette to the whole image, so minor differences are accentuated).

So I drove into town and back, a round trip of about 14 miles in light drizzle. And here is an image taken right after I parked:
The noticeable difference is the tires!  They are 15-20F warmer than ambient now.  If it had not been a cool wet day, they might have been much warmer.  This is enough of a heat signature to trigger a motion sensor.  Mystery solved!

Here's a closer look at the tire:
Parts of the tire read over 75F which is 20F warmer than ambient!  Also the disk brake rotors were up above 85F

It's cool having this amazing IR camera in my pocket (along with my Moto Droid).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Improving refrigerator efficiency

I live alone, and my kitchen has a typical refrigerator designed for a full household.   I am not one of those people who needs to keep a lot of food in the refrigerator, so it sits largely empty most of the time. One of the drawbacks of a lot of empty space in a refrigerator is that it becomes inefficient.   Every time you open the door all of that cold air falls out.  If your refrigerator is filled, there is less air to fall out, but more importantly there is more thermal mass storing the cold inside.  My solution to an increase the efficiency of my refrigerator is to store gallons of water in old milk containers.  This is a simple, easy solution that seems to reduce the run time of my refrigerator.  If you have empty space in your refrigerator, I suggest you save some milk containers and rinse them out thoroughly and store water in them, it's always handy to have some cold water around anyway.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Trash Talk

I live in the small town of Woolwich, Maine with a population of around 3000 people.  Our town is managed by half a dozen selectmen and women, and we meet annually in the school gym to vote on the annual budget for the town.  In recent years our town has been hotly debating how to manage waste and recycling.  Since our town is equally divided between what can best be described as ignorant rednecks and liberal progressives, the debate can be quite lively.

The issue of how to encourage more recycling has been on the table for years.  Our recycle to waste ratio is about 25% recycled which is pathetic compared to most other local towns that recycle 50 to 60% of their waste.  A few years ago we voted to institute a Pay As You Throw program in which you had to buy bright orange labeled bags from the town in order to be able to put trash out at the curb for pickup.  The bags sold for $1 each and this so thoroughly pissed off one local that he petitioned for a special town vote to repeal this program because he felt it was punitive to those with low incomes.  His shortsighted thinking did not acknowledge that this program would save the town over $80,000 a year and thus reduce our property taxes.  However his petition passed due to a very vocal minority at the meeting and the program was canceled after three months.  The program was wildly successful during the three months that it operated and our recycling rate went from 25% to over 45%.  The moment the town stopped using the bags again recycling dropped back down to below 30%.  I am often embarrassed to be a resident of this town for reasons like this.

On the bright side, we do have mixed stream curbside recycling.  This means that we can dump anything recyclable into a bin and leave it at the curb.  It is picked up and sent to EcoMaine - a nonprofit facility that is co-owned by several local towns.  There they sort and separate the plastic, glass, paper, cardboard etc. into bundles that can be sold.  My personal ratio is about 60% recycling 40% trash by weight, and I believe my ratio is improving this year but I stopped weighing my trash bins at the end of 2016.

EcoMaine furnace
The good news is that we have now opted to send our trash to a Waste-to-Energy furnace that is also operated by EcoMaine.  The furnace produces steam to drive an electric generator.  The power produced is sold to offset some of EcoMaine operating costs.  The ash from the furnace is screened for metals and is then sent to a landfill owned by EcoMaine.  So ultimately the amount of waste that is landfilled from our town is very small.  The problem is that a lot of recyclable materials are being burned due to the laziness of our local rednecks.  

I remember touring a recycling sorting facility in Massachusetts many years ago and noticed that all of the glass no matter what color was crushed and dumped into a bin.  I asked the plant operators what happened to that glass.  They said that the aggregate color is a light brown and it is sent to a local Coors bottling plant where they reuse the glass to make beer bottles.  This is just one of the many ways in which recycling operates in a successful way regionally.