Sunday, January 25, 2015

Idling vehicles - bad for all concerned

At this time of year I occasionally notice vehicles left idling in parking lots, sometimes they are completely unattended.  While this practice has been common in the winter in northern states for a long time, it is a really bad idea for a lot of reasons.   From a sustainability standpoint reducing wasted gasoline and CO2 emissions is a no-brainer. Leaving vehicles idling is an old habit that is irrelevant to modern engines that do not need to be kept warm.  By one estimate nearly 2% of the nations CO2 emissions come from vehicles that are not moving.  According to a study by the Argonne National Laboratory in 2009 drivers actually averaged 16 minutes a day of idling.

An idling vehicle emits 20 times more pollution than when it is moving at 30 mph.  These emissions are particularly problematic for children who are more sensitive to air pollution since their defense mechanisms are not yet fully developed.  This is why many school zones have declared their parking areas "No Idling Zones".  Here in Maine temperatures remain below freezing on average for most of the winter, here is a chart from my weather station spanning February 2013 through April 2014:
While it is understandable to want to warm up a vehicle for a minute or so before you get in it, the vehicle itself does not require it.  When an engine idles it is not running at its optimum operating temperature and condition, resulting in incomplete combustion of gasoline that can leave fuel residues in the engine which can shorten its life.  Modern fuel injection vehicles can and should be driven after only warming up for a few seconds since that warms up the catalytic converter and other parts of the car more rapidly.  Here is a helpful reference about vehicle idling and the issues surrounding it.

With the advent of hybrid vehicles, needless idling is being reduced because almost all hybrid vehicles shut off their gasoline engines when they are at a standstill.  Vehicle manufacturers are also developing auto stop features for regular gasoline engines, and many vehicles in Europe now have that feature.  My wife and I have owned hybrid vehicles since 2001 and are very familiar with engines that automatically stop when the vehicle stops, although people new to this feature find it disconcerting at first.  The engine restarts instantly when you put it in gear or move your foot down on the accelerator.  This is one of the schemes that hybrid vehicles use to reduce their carbon emissions and obtain low emission ratings.
My 2012 Chevy Volt has a remote start feature that allows me to warm up the vehicle for 10 minutes from over 100 feet away by clicking the keyfob.  This wonderfully convenient feature allows me to step into a warm vehicle in the dead of winter.  Since I leave the vehicle plugged in, it will use energy from the (240V Level II) charging station to warm the battery unless it is below 20°F in which case it will run the four-cylinder 1.4 L engine/generator for a while in order to generate enough waste heat to warm up the battery to a safe level.  Electric vehicle batteries can be damaged if they draw power when they are below freezing, so the vehicle needs to protect itself in this instance.  Sometimes in very cold weather if I am driving in fully electric mode, the engine will start and show a display on the dashboard that says: "Engine running due to temperature".  GM engineers considered this an optimal trade-off to protect the very expensive battery bank.

You may believe that turning a car on and off repeatedly wears out the battery and wears out the starter, but it's not true. Today, nearly every passenger vehicle engine uses electronic ignition so you do not need to crank the engine for multiple seconds to start it like the old carburetor engines.  You may not have noticed it but modern vehicles very rarely need to be jump started and keeping jumper cables in the trunk is a thing of the past.

To quote from the above-mentioned reference:
The city of Aspen, Colorado, launched a program called Idling Isn’t Cool, which targets people who let their cars idle to warm them up in cold weather or while running errands. Environmental health specialists walk through town and place small, laminated placards featuring an image of the earth sweating from heat on windshields of offenders. The placard reads, “Turning off your engine when you are not driving is one of the easiest things you can do to lessen your contribution to global warming.” It goes on to explain that 30 seconds of idling is ample time to get engine oil circulating. It also cites the city ordinance that makes it illegal to idle an engine for 5 minutes or more and provides a link to calculate personal carbon emissions,
Not idling your vehicle is a simple behavior change similar to turning lights off when you leave a room.  Both things will save you money and improve the quality of life on planet Earth for future generations.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Staying warm with interior storm windows

Small interior storm
window installed
Maine, which has the oldest housing stock of any state in the US has a lot of leaky old buildings heated with oil boilers.  Needless to say these buildings are expensive to heat and waste a great deal of fossil fuel .

Several years ago my friend Topher came up with a simple design for a double pane interior storm window that doubles or triples the insulation value of windows while also preventing all air movement through the window.  Through the auspices of our group called the Midcoast Green Collaborative we set up workshops throughout the state to teach people how to make these very simple windows.  Since then we estimate more than 10,000 of them have been deployed around the state and many more in the world at large.

They are constructed from a 1 x 2 wood frame with heat shrink plastic film affixed to an inner and outer surface to create a double pane window.  Highly compressible weatherstrip foam tape is adhered to the outer edge so that when the window is inserted into the window frame a complete seal is created.  Each trapped air layer has an approximate R-value of 1.  If you assume a single pane window which has an R-value of 1, by inserting an interior storm window you are trapping 2 additional air pockets resulting in an R-value of 3.  This dramatically reduces the heat loss through exterior windows.  In most homes in northern cold climates these windows pay for themselves in the first heating season.

The cost to build these interior storm windows is approximately a $1.25 per square foot.  This means that they can be constructed for a cost of $15-$20 per window.  Generally they take two people 30 to 40 minutes each to build and do not require any significant skills or special tools.

If you live in a cold climate and want to reduce your heating bills these interior storm windows represent an extremely cost effective way to do that.


Very detailed assembly instructions on my webpage

Midcoast Green Collaborative webpage
Basic two-page instruction sheets (pdf format)
Thermal study of a window with interior storms added

Instructions are also available in Charlie wings excellent book: "The Visual Handbook of Energy Conservation".   Here is my review of the book.

Topher's website

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Do you know what a Negawatt is?  Negawatt power is a theoretical unit of power representing an amount of energy (measured in Watts) saved. It is basically the opposite of a Watt, or energy saved through energy efficiency.  Say you replace a classic 100 W incandescent light bulb with a 10 W LED lamp, every time you turn it on you are producing 90 Negawatts.  As Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (who coined the term) has said "The cheapest Watt is the one that's never created."  He considers the concept of conservation "a change in behavior based on the attitude 'Do Less to Use Less."

An easy way to create a Negawatt is to turn off the light when you leave the room, you would be surprised how quickly this can add up by simply changing your behavior which costs you nothing.

While this concept is not normally applied to solar energy produced, I sat down and looked at the numbers for my solar energy array to see how much energy I am saving.  Below is a chart showing the actual energy produced by my solar array for the year of 2014.
The gray line represents the average monthly estimated power which totals 5.45 MWh for the year.  My 31 panel 5.7KW solar array produced more power than estimated which is typical for Enphase micro inverters, so I actually generated 5.7 MWh.  In my mind these are also Negawatts.  In terms of dollars, my utility charges 13.8 cents per kilowatt hour, so this means that I have saved $786.60 for the year on my electric bill.  If I were still paying off the loan on my solar array at a low interest rate, this would represent almost half the annual loan payment.  Since I paid off the loan thanks to an inheritance from my Dad, this enhances the "Negabucks" for me.

Of course there is less value in installing a solar array if you have not already significantly increased the efficiency of the electrical usage in your home.  When we purchased our newly constructed home in 2001, the light fixtures all had 100 W incandescent lamps installed in them.  The first thing we did was replace them with CFL's that used only around 13-15 W.  I think we replaced around 12 lamps, and since then we replaced those with more efficient LED lamps at 7-9 W.  (Here is a handy chart comparing light bulb types and costs).  By reducing our load, we reduced the size of the expensive solar array significantly.  By the way, we disposed of the old 100 W incandescent lights by shooting them with my pellet rifle!

If we assume that each 100 W lamp is used an average of 4 hours/day, then it would use approximately 146 kWh/year, so all 12 lamps would use 1752 kWh/year.  By replacing them with 7 W LED lamps they would use approximately 122 kWh/year - a Negawatt rating of over 1629 kWh/year.  At our electric rates that adds up to a Negawatt savings of $224 per year.  These kinds of numbers make the concept quite real and tangible.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Berkeley Study: Solar Adds $15,000+ to Average Home Value

This article is re-printed from the the January 2015 newsletter from Re-Vision Energy, a solar energy installer based in Portland Maine.

Many prior studies have suggested that solar adds to a home's value, but they have often been limited in time range and geographic scope. Now, a team of scientists from Berkeley Labs, in partnership with universities and appraisers, has found that solar unequivocally improves the value of a home, on average by an amount of $15,000.

The data is based on analysis of "almost 22,000 sales of homes, almost 4,000 of which contained PV systems in eight states from 2002 to 2013—producing the most authoritative estimates to date of price premiums for U.S. homes with PV systems."

Some key findings:
  •    There was no statistically significant difference in the solar premium between new and existing homes.
  •    While not conclusive, the study suggests that solar, regardless of size, adds a special appeal to home buyers (the 'green cachet'), meaning that smaller systems (2-4kw) may have a disproportionately high premium relative to their actual energy production.
  •    Solar value is "statistically similar to [market premium approaches] estimated using the income and cost approaches, methods familiar to appraisers." ( - meaning that appraisers should be able to integrate solar valuation into already understood methods of assessing other premium features of a home.
  •    The study did find that the premium for a PV system depreciated faster than the system's output - i.e. a 1 year old system might fetch a $6/watt premium whereas an 8 year old system might fetch a $3/watt premium (even though the system is producing almost 100% of the power in year 8 as it was in year 1). On the other hand, a PV system in year 8 would have by that time repaid nearly all of the original investment to its owner, so any premium is a great deal!

So the good news for solar customers?
  1. You can feel confident that your solar investment will pay for itself, either over the life of the system as you live in your home, or by fetching a premium price should you need to sell your home.
  2. Studies like this make banks increasingly comfortable with solar, meaning it should continue to get easier to use a home equity loan or home equity line of credit product to invest in solar.
For the data-hounds, there is more information available online:
Report PDF2.17 MB
Full Report Fact Sheet PDF259.78 KB
New Homes Fact Sheet PDF236.39 KB

This article is re-printed from the the January 2015 newsletter from Re-Vision Energy, a solar energy installer based in Portland Maine.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


I recently came across the term ecocide which is defined as: “Destruction of the natural environment, especially when willfully done.“  It made me sit and think for a considerable amount of time about when humanity first began to willfully destroy our environment.  My intuition is that it began on a large scale with the industrial revolution and then accelerated as consumerism ramped up in the 1950s.  Behind all of this is the population explosion that drives humanity to exploit our resources beyond what is reasonable or sustainable. Ecocide is actually defined as criminal in 10 or more countries around the world and the United Nations has been working on creating a legal framework for defining it for decades.  Interestingly, ecocide is generally considered international crime in wartime, but not in peacetime.  I think this says a lot about humanity and our values.  The first country to make ecocide a crime against humanity in peacetime or war was Vietnam in 1990.  The other countries that have enacted similar laws are primarily centered around the Russian Federation.

It is not hard to think of examples of ecocide.  The rapid deforestation of South America, strip mines, mountaintop removal in the southeast of America and the list goes on.  And it scales all the way down from these gigantic overpowering images of destroyed landscapes to the construction of new housing developments in which forests are bulldozed and paved.  And scaling down even further, does one stop at using Roundup to control weeds in a suburban lawn?   Where does one draw the line?

I have read a bit about the native American tribes that lived here in the northeastern US before the colonists arrived.  The original Americans were able to live and thrive in harmony with nature in a climate that is quite unforgiving in the winter.   There is an excellent book: “Reading The Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England” that describes how our forest today evolved with fascinating examples of unique terrain and how they formed.  In one section, the author describes what the Maine forest looked like before colonists clear cut it for timber, ship masts, and to create pasture land for sheep and livestock.  Apparently the trees grew tall and so widely spaced that you could run a horse at full gallop through the forest.  The native Indians managed the forest actively by periodically burning out the underbrush in order to bring back the berries and maintain walkable terrain in the forest.   One could easily misinterpret the deliberate burning of underbrush as ecocide until one explores the benefits to all concerned including flora and fauna.   I can only imagine the careful deliberation as tribal elders decided when and where to begin a controlled burn and the centuries of history of this practice that helped to create an eminently livable environment.

Another perspective I have on humanity and the ecocide we are committing on a global scale is that eventually humanity will become multi-planetary - if we survive the destruction of our home planet.  In the process of reaching out to colonize other worlds, we will first need to live in small closed environments in orbit and in small constructed colonies.  By living in these closed environments we will be forced to be conscious of all of the inputs and outputs to the system and the processes within that sustain life.  From the perspective of orbit, astronauts on the space station are constantly awed by the view they have of the earth and come to love our tiny blue marble. I am hoping that as we transition toward living on other planets that these experiences of living in small closed ecosystems will teach us valuable lessons about respect for ecosystems as we create them and terraform planets such as Mars in the long-term future.

reposted from my old blog post from 09/06/14

Saturday, January 10, 2015

IoT - Geeking out with live data to the web
I have always been an early adopter of things technical - yes I am a geek!  Before the phrase: "The Internet Of Things" (IoT) was in common usage, I had been using a product called the ioBridge to feed live data to the web from my solar installations.  Back in 2011 the TV show "The Big Bang Theory" did a segment in which the geeks controlled a lamp via the web.  It was absolutely hilarious, but like much of the science in the show it was based firmly in reality.

For myself, I find it more useful to send information the other way.  The first thing I did was to install temperature sensors to monitor the solar heating system I designed for my workshop:

The charts above are live on my website (updated every 10 minutes).  Throughout this blog page you can click the images to see that web page with the live data.  This allows me to closely monitor the performance of my heating system, and more importantly to share its successful operation with hundreds of people who view my website daily.

I also installed temperature sensors in the heat recovery ventilation system I installed in my workshop that clearly demonstrate how well it performs:
These gauges update in real time on my web page documenting its performance.

I deployed another ioBridge that monitors the solar domestic water heating system I installed for my home:
The monitoring equipment is mounted on the wall near each device, and any time anyone is looking at a webpage with this information on it the device lights up a number from 1 through 4 indicating which of the four sensors are being read and providing live data to that webpage.
It is quite encouraging for me to walk into my utility room and see numbers flashing on these units indicating live viewer(s).  By the way, the folks at ioBridge consider to me to be a power user - deploying technology like this is not for the faint of heart or the technologically na├»ve.

But wait there's more!   When I purchased my Chevy volt electric vehicle, I became very interested in monitoring how much power it uses to charge the battery.  And I also wanted to know how much energy it needed to use to keep the battery warm in the dead of winter.  It uses power from the charging station to heat the battery to keep it from being damaged by freezing.  So yet another web page with charts:
The chart above correlates temperature dips and energy consumption from the charging station.  Tall spikes are when I charge the vehicle, short (lower energy) spikes are for battery thermal management.

And yet more…  after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, I geeked out and built a Geiger counter kit.  And it occurred to me I could interface that to the web:
The surprise result from this experiment was that I could detect solar events such as Coronal Mass Ejections (high-energy radiation from sunspots) as shown in the chart above.  My webpage compares charts from my Geiger counter with actual current solar radiation information for comparison.

Oh yes, there's more!   I also have a weather station that feeds live data to the Weather Underground, there are several ways to access my data from the web including the Rapid Fire page below:
My Weather Underground personal weather station page shows current and historical data in considerable detail along with an up-to-date WebCam image of my home or workshop.  Years ago, I used historical information from my weather station to evaluate my site for a small wind turbine.  (More about my recently upgraded weather station in this recent blog page).

The solar power system that I installed starting in 2009 came with its own web portal that monitors the energy output of every panel individually - this information is available to me privately.  On my webpage I show the public information showing energy generated on a daily basis.  I also show historical energy and cost information based on accurate records I have kept of site energy production and electrical bills.

I was able to use this monitoring system to diagnose a failed piece of equipment last June.  Here is my blog page about that little adventure.

One of the first live-to-web items I added to my webpage was images from two WebCams showing my home updated every minute:
Live image of my home
live image of my workshop
On my webpage I have compiled a series of panoramic views of our property going back to 2003.  It is fascinating to see the tree growth and other changes over the years:

I monitor almost all of these pages on a daily basis and it gives me warm fuzzies to know that all of my systems are operating well and my solar systems are saving energy and money.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book review: "The Last Hours of Humanity: Warming the World to Extinction"

click image to purchase: print $8.99, Kindle $.99
I just finished reading this short (46 page) book by Thom Hartman published back in August 2013.  What this book does like no other is to put contemporary climate change into the context of geologic history.  The writer lays out all of the known extinction events and the theories about their causes.  He then reviews current conditions and draws parallels. The biggest take away from this book is that all of the other extinction events took thousands of years to happen.  The current extinction which is already underway will take mere decades or a century or two at most.  It is all made painfully clear what is going on, why, and how there is very little time left for us to take action if it is not already too late.

I have skimmed through Naomi Klein's excellent "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate" and Elizabeth Kolbert's "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History", and found this book to be wonderfully concise and crystal-clear in the way that he defines the crisis unfolding around us.  This is a very quick read with no skimming required and packed with thoughtful insights.  He makes the reader painfully aware that the fossil fuels that took millions of years to bury are being burned in the blink of a geologic eye with the most dire of consequences.  It is not just carbon dioxide that we need to be concerned around it is the methane that is being released from the Arctic tundra and deep ocean methane clathrates.  Methane is 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 and as the oceans warm a feedback goes into effect triggering massive releases of this potent gas.  The only question is: has our climate already crossed a tipping point or not and is there anything we can realistically do about it?

This very short book is a must read if you want to be fully educated about abrupt climate change and its causes and outcomes.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The End of Endless Growth

Over the last few years I have become increasingly aware of the contradictions inherent in the capitalist ideal of continued growth and the very finite resources of our biosphere.  It is quite clear that this is completely unsustainable and humanity is due for a major transition within the next few decades if we are to survive.  One of the concepts that I find compelling is that the fossil fuel industry must leave most of the discovered resources in the ground if humanity is to maintain a viable biosphere.  Clearly this comes in complete conflict with their ideal of profiting from extracting those resources.

With all this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to find that someone has written beautifully conceived overview of the situation. Nafeez Ahmed, writing for Motherboard has produced two articles released on Jan 1+2, 2015 that cover this topic with brevity, clarity and some rich insights.  So rather than recapitulate his well reasoned and crisp writing I am simply going to link to the two articles which I encourage you to read them.  He addresses energy, food, finance, and ethics in a deeply thoughtful and concise way.

The End of Endless Growth: Part 1

The End of Endless Growth: Part 2