Friday, December 30, 2011

The Atlantic's The Most Important Graphs of 2011 (Energy)


Oil Profits v. Oil Prices

big oil profits v prices for oil gas.jpg"Big oil companies make larger profits when oil and gasoline prices are high.  These revenues come from the pockets of everyday Americans.  The five biggest oil companies - BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell - have already made $100 billion in profits during the first three quarters of 2011 due to high oil prices. Yet they and other big oil companies have fought tooth and nail this year to retain tax breaks worth $4 billion annually." -- Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow, Center for American Progress

The Most Disastrous Year Ever
Screen Shot 2011-12-19 at 6.25.17 PM.png"The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the United States set a record with 12 separate billion dollar weather/climate disasters in 2011.  Total damages were approximately $52 billion.  NOAA Chief Jane Lubchenco noted that "what we are seeing this year is not just an anomalous year, but a harbinger of things to come for at least a subset of those extreme events that we are tallying."  She noted that some of the increase is driven by climate change." -- Dr. Joe Romm, Senior Fellow and Editor of Climate Progress

A Century of Love for Oil and Gas
Screen Shot 2011-12-19 at 6.29.28 PM.png"Many conservatives have attacked the Obama administration's effort to invest in emerging clean energy technologies, including wind and solar electricity generation. Yet they defend longstanding tax breaks for the mature oil and gas (O&G), and nuclear industries. However, the federal government annually spends an average of thirteen times more money on the oil and gas industry compared to investments in renewable energy." -- Richard Caperton, Director of Clean Energy Investment, Center for American Progress

Our Competitors' Green Investments

"On the two-year anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we should look back with satisfaction that we have seen the American clean energy industry through a rough period in the global economy. However, the United States risks ceding its gains and falling dangerously behind its competitors without continuing investment.  Many conservatives oppose such investments.   Without it, the United States will see an exodus of firms and capital to countries that  are growing their clean tech industries, particularly China and Germany. U.S. private-sector firms lament a lack of clear and consistent policy on clean energy. This stymies investment and slows job creation." -- Bracken Hendricks, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

Where the Green Jobs Are
highest rates of green job growth.jpg"The failure of several clean energy companies that received loan guarantees have many conservatives increasing their opposition to such investments.  However, clean energy has been a bright spot in the sluggish economy.  The clean economy sector focused on clean energy--especially wind, solar, fuel cell, smart grid, biofuel, and battery companies--grew far more quickly than the economy as a whole. A Brookings Institution report found major job growth in clean energy between 2003 and 2010: Solar thermal and wind grew by 18.4 percent and 14.9 percent, respectively." -- Kate Gordon, Vice President for Energy Policy, Center for American Progress

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Solar isn't a new idea

We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature's inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. ... I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.
                  - Thomas Edison

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What does Japan's energy troubles teach us about our own?

I came across Mark Pendergrast's new e-book after reading a blog post he did recently for Renewable Energy World.  Japan has very few traditional energy resources at its disposal so it relies on fossil fuels imports and nuclear power to power its economy.  After the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by the tsunami of March 11, 2011, popular support for nuclear power in Japan fell rather dramatically (as one would expect).  Imported fossil fuels for electricity generation, notoriously expensive anywhere in the world, became it's sole source of energy and put Japan in a tough position to re-grow its economy.
Japan's Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World

Japan now has a major incentive to adopt energy efficiency measures and install renewable energy systems which is what Mark wanted to explore with his book Japan's Tipping Point.  He does a great job of detailing the sustainability initiatives that have been promoted in different parts of Japan and providing commentary on their efficacy.  Despite major structural reasons to the contrary, the Japanese seem to continue thinking in a pre-Fukushima way.  The conclusion you become forced to consider is that they might not make the leap to the next generation of power infrastructure anytime soon.

I worked for a Japanese company (SANYO) a couple of years ago, based in the US to develop solar energy projects with their solar modules.  At the time, SANYO was the 7th largest manufacturer of solar photovoltaic modules and had the most efficient panel that was commercially available.  I was brought on as the solar leader of a new organization called the US Environmental Solutions Division.  The stated purpose of this division was to bundle various SANYO products with a clean energy focus together as a total solution sale.  It sounded like a great initiative at the time but ended up appearing to be more of a PR exercise to make SANYO branded products more attractive during its acquisition by Panasonic.  While I spearheaded a couple interesting projects like a solar charging station in Portland, OR, there was not much appetite for significant solar market development plans.

OMSI solar electric vehicle charging station for e-bikes and e-cars in Portland, OR

My experience with the Japanese left me with the impression that they will be hard pressed to make the difficult decisions they have to make to move off fossil fuels.  While SANYO was a world leader in solar panel production, they have now slipped out of the top ten.  The leadership seemed to be resting on their laurels for cell efficiency and this has allowed competitors to catch up to them and gobble up market share. Sharp and Kyocera have also lost ground to Chinese and Korean competition.  I saw confusion, indifference, and fear in SANYO with respect to exploring new ways to promote solar products in the US.  In a rather obvious application for solar, they wouldn't consider installing more than a token amount of their own modules on their own new solar wafer and ingot factory opened in Oregon in 2009.  This sort of project challenged their entrenched way of thinking; hype was more important than actually accomplishing something innovative and highlighted how collaboration across internal divisions was extremely difficult.

So what lessons does this teach us in the US?  As I've written before, Americans are cursed with substantial fossil fuel resources under our own soil.  With the Japanese being "blessed" with paltry resources and still unable to take decisive action towards renewable energy, things don't look so great for renewable energy in the US anytime soon.  The Japanese are not alone in their resistance to change with respect to energy.  The US with a population of almost 2.5 times that of Japan has about the same amount of installed solar PV.  US leaders continue to talk about nuclear as the hope for the future despite the obvious safety and economic troubles with it and despite no practical hope for new reactor additions anytime soon.  Wind farms get rejected for aesthetic reasons while coal continues to be our primary fuel source for electricity.
Bike & electronics charging solar canopy (concept)
Regardless, I continue to remain convinced that solar technologies will trump our other current energy options in a rather short period of time.  The cost curves of solar and it's O&M advantages with respect to everything else will win out; the environmental benefits will merely be icing on the cake.  Once we make the decision to go solar, the build out period will be much faster than most people realize.  I don't think the path to our solar future will be clear or easy however.  Some sort of major shock will have to get us all on the same page.  I would have thought Fukushima was that sort of shock for both Japan and the world.  Maybe not.  It's a naive thinker, however, who bets on things staying the same when radical change is the new normal.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why propane users need to investigate solar

Propane is a dominant heating fuel in rural parts of the US. Propane users typically purchase a large volume of fuel all at one time. It would not be unusual for them to have to write a check for $1250 1-2 times per year.  What this means is that like with a solar water heating system, they are pre-paying for the fuel they use to heat their home and domestic water.  Unlike with natgas and electricity customers, it's not great a leap for propane consumers to understand how a solar water heating system would benefit them in the long run since they can't spread payments out over time.  Additionally, propane customers tend to come from agricultural communities were communities tend to have a longer view of financial prudence.

To give a little flavor of the economics, I modeled a 2 panel, 70 gallon tank system pitched at 30 degrees facing due south in Des Moines, IA.  Using a solar water heater with propane back up tank, the homeowner would save about $450/year in water heating costs (using $2.50 per gallon for propane).  Switching to an electric back up tank with the same solar system, would save this homeowner about $500/year.  Either system would reduce the home's greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.3 tons of CO2.  Even with only the federal tax credit, this system would have a 10-year payback or 6.5% rate of return.  If propane prices go up to $3.50, the payback is cut to just over 7 years.  If your state has any additional incentives, you'll see paybacks as low as 5 years. 

A couple of good resources for propane related information would be Build With Propane and this propane supply outlook paper.
Save now and save later with solar. With a solar system, you fix your energy costs today and hedge against rising prices tomorrow.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A little perspective about Solyndra

My summary of the Solyndra story:
  • Company launched in 2005 to create a unique thin-film (CIGS) solar module to avoid using expensive (at the time) silicon as most other solar companies use.  They took a calculated business risk to create an innovative product to address a gap in the marketplace.
Solyndra's technology & value proposition
  •  Prices of silicon collapse in 2009.
  • Almost overnight, the business case that Solyndra was trying to make completely reverses.  More efficient panels are now the same price as Solyndra's less efficient panels.
  • Solar panel manufacturing has been extremely turbulent from the beginning so Solyndra stays the course and attempts to weather the storm.
  • On May 26, 2010, President Obama gives a speech at Solyndra headquarters to tout his commitment to American job and clean energy development. This was a company that both the Bush and Obama administrations wanted to associate with for political purposes.
  • June 2010: Solyndra is producing 30MW of solar panels per year and is in a tie as the 10th largest thin film manufacturer. 
  • November 2010: Solyndra gets a $535 million loan guarantee from the 1703 loan guarantee passed in 2005 by the Bush administration.
  • Silicon prices continue to fall hitting a 6-year low in June 2011 (~$50/kg from ~$470/kg).
A solar cell nestled in raw polysilicon
  • Solyndra tries to restructure its loans again in August 2011 but is refused and subsequently loses a contract with the US Navy.
  • Bankruptcy--September 1, 2011
Solyndra was an innovative company in a dynamic market.  The founders took a big risk in a very risky business.  Like other companies in other industries, they lobbied the government for special consideration and like other companies in other industries, they got it.  Governments facilitate markets and companies participate in these markets.  My view is that clean energy companies should get special consideration because they promote technology and ideas that help society as a whole.  Special consideration doesn't mean direct investment however.

One lesson learned from this story is that governments are horrible venture capitalists.  This should be expected since unlike VCs, governmental decision makers are betting with someone else's money.  While market development is a solid roll for governments, picking specific winners like VCs try to do, should be left to private investors.
Solyndra couldn't keep up with John Boyd's OODA Loop

One lesson to not learn from this story is that solar energy can't compete with traditional energy and that solar is doomed to failure.  Solyndra failed in most part due to falling prices of solar components and a general inability to keep up with changing business assumptions.  While this was bad news for Solyndra, this is very good news to proponents of clean energy.  Solar energy is on pace to be the least expensive source of electricity for most of the world in a decade.  All this political theater over Solyndra will seem pretty silly when that happens.
"The trend is my friend."
-Old adage of market makers

Friday, October 7, 2011

Renewables face stiff competition in the energy PR war

Companies selling legacy energy products (oil, natgas, coal) are winning the public relations war over climate change.  This makes sense in a way since they have a lot more to lose than the clean energy companies have to gain.  Fossil fuel centered companies have an elaborate (and expensive) strategy to undercut the value proposition that solar & wind companies have been trying to make in the court of public opinion.  Front and center in this fight is to deny that humans have any impact on the climate and that any changes that might be occurring have nothing to do with burning carbon based fuels.

As you'll see in the chart produced by Riley Dunlap and Aaron McCright, two university sociologists, climate change denial is a well-organized, comprehensive affair.  Regardless of how you feel about this issue, I find it very interesting that so much money, human energy, and legislative time is being committed to refuting something that has an objective answer.  This tells me that the parties in the matrix below are more savvy to the fact that how we feel about an issue matters more in spurring action than whether the something is true or not. Deceptive messengers typically jaundice common sense people to the message however, and truth has a tendency of coming out in the end regardless of obfuscation efforts.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Nothing clean about coal

Coal has been a tremendous asset for the industrialization of the world over the last 200+ years.  Over half of our electricity is produced with coal and it is a major source of American jobs.  The spin doctors at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity go too far, however, when they claim that carbon capture and sequestration will make coal "clean."  Even if carbon capture wasn't an implausible fantasy on the scale of Reagan's Star Wars program, coal is dirty throughout its journey from extraction, processing, transportation, smokestack and finally fly ash disposal.  Clean coal initiatives address none of those other yucky bits.

The folks at Funny or Die realize the power of satire and ridicule to move public opinion.  Check out their little ditty about the latest "energy drink" to hit the shelves:

- I drink [use] it everyday because it's really my only choice.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Getting past the blessing (curse) of vast fossil fuel reserves

Saudi Arabia--#1 oil exporting nation and wants to export solar energy as well
As an enthusiastic supporter of clean energy technology, I try to keep aware of the ongoing ebb and flow of renewable energy development in the US. In a previous post, I talked about how the US is both blessed and cursed by our vast fossil fuel reserves. Saudi Arabia is also blessed with vast fossil fuel reserves yet they seem to looking to the future more so than we are in the US.  They recently announced a $100 billion spending plan for renewable energy development.  Unlike in US where we see no societal benefit to significant clean energy infrastructure projects, the Saudis seem aware of the fact that finite energy wealth does not have the same long term economic benefits of sustainable energy sources. With respect to oil in particular, drill baby drill as a national energy plan makes much more sense in Saudi Arabia than here, but they are heading in the direction of innovation versus continued dependance on legacy technologies.

The US Southwest has vast solar potential but we have little national will to develop it
Clean energy has been plagued by up and down cycles for decades and today is no different.  With the new construction downturn, credit market paralysis, double-dip economic recession fears, outrage over misapplied federal stimulus dollars with Solyndra, and a political shift away from clean energy initiatives, it looks like renewable energy is in decline here. All these issues hurt wind & solar in the US in the short term, but I think the real headwinds for clean energy come from more structural and systemic issues.
Masdar City in Abu Dhabi -- a zero carbon, zero waste, car-free city in development
 We sit on vast reserves of coal, natgas, and even oil to a lesser degree but we haven't woken up to the truth that these won't last forever.  The global nature of the energy markets drive the price and availability of these resources no matter what fuel we consider or where that fuel happens to lie.  We are blessed and cursed with our abundance today because it has both created a fantastic quality of life for most Americans while it has also spoiled us to the virtues of thrift and frugality.

Saudi Arabia along with China, India, Abu Dhabi and a host of other developing nations with less plentiful energy inheritances are planning for the future and making concrete investments today.  Just as past wars have been started and decided over access to energy, the future of global events will be tied to control of energy resources.  By ceding the initiative to other countries, we risk future irrelevance in international affairs and will become dependent on the goodwill of those who have no goodwill towards us.  While we shouldn't be committing to any specific technology as the only long term solution, we need to be developing them all with the resources that we have today.  It is in our national interest to regain this initiative.

A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow.
— George Patton

Friday, July 29, 2011

Milwaukee Shining a Light on Solar

Milwaukee Shines
Last night, I went to the press conference in Milwaukee that announced the Milwaukee Shines Solar Financing program.  It was well attended by the mayor, city officials, and homeowners interested in participating in this new initiative.  Milwaukee is one of the 25 Solar America cities designated by the Department of Energy.  Milwaukee's Office of Environmental Sustainability is managing the grant money and publicity through the Milwaukee Shines organization.  After researching various factors that have been barriers to widespread solar adoption, the leadership of Milwaukee Shines decided to work on the upfront financing piece of a solar system that has prevented many homeowners from going solar.

In partnership with Summit Credit Union, city of Milwaukee residents can apply for loans up to $20,000 for solar water heating and solar electric (PV) systems.  All the costs of the solar installation can be built into the loan as long as the work is done by a Focus on Energy Residential Ally solar installer.  Additionally, the first 20 applicants get an additional $1,000 incentive off the cost of the installation.  This is above the 30% federal tax credit and the Focus on Energy incentive ($800 for a 1 panel system, $1200 for a 2 panel system).

Milwaukee is really making a tremendous effort to reshape the residential energy landscape to encourage clean, renewable energy; local jobs; and decreasing reliance on imported energy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ways to use solar water heating in a home

I love to talk and write about solar technologies.  My goal has always been to encourage all things solar because I think awareness of one type of solar system will benefit all the others.  Solar PV is the darling of the clean energy world--for good reason.  It produces versatile energy in a clean, quiet, safe, and predictable way.  The major downsides are its current cost and efficiency.  While these problems will be overcome with time, solar water heating is ready today.  It's still fun for me to see a home making 130 degree F water just from the sun on a cold March afternoon in Chicago. While my primary focus is on solar domestic water heating, I wanted to expand on some other ways a solar water heating systems could be used in a normal US home.

Solar Domestic Water Heating
The most simple way to harness the power of the sun in a home (after daylighting and applying passive solar design principles) is to heat up domestic (drinking) water with a solar water heating system.  This technology is well-established and easily adaptable to almost any home or building with a hot water demand.  Solar domestic water heaters are sized to reduce the water heating bill of any home in the US by 60-80%.  A typical home would need about 2 solar panels (50 - 80 sq. ft.) and about an 80 gallon storage tank.  Any solar system of this type will have some sort of back up water heating component to ensure that the residents have a steady supply of hot water despite the solar conditions of a particular day.

Solar Space Heating
If a homeowner is looking to squeeze a little more heat out of a solar water heating system and try to contribute some of this free energy to heating the home, there are a couple of ways to accomplish this. Not to be confused with a solar air heater, I'm still talking about an automatic system that heats up a liquid for use in the house.

Option 1:
Homes with an existing forced air furnace could install a solar water heating system sized to heat nearly 100% of the domestic water heating demand plus make a contribution to space heating (~25% or so).  A system of this sort would have about 5-6 solar collectors (150 - 240 sq. ft.) and about 200 gallons of storage tank volume.  This solar system would operate just as in the diagram above but have a second heat exchanger for transmitting solar heat into the return of the forced air furnace.  The second solar heat exchanger would pre-heat the air returning to the furnace so that it has less of a temperature rise to meet the desired room temperature.
Water-to-Air heat exchanger that would go in the air return side of a forced air furnace
Option 2:
Solar water heating systems could also deliver space heat through the use of a fan convector. A comparably sized system to #1 but without integrating the space heating delivery system to the furnace.  The homeowner could install a system which would automatically divert solar heated fluid through a fan convector(s) strategically placed in the home.  In this scenario, heat from the fan convector would warm the space as it becomes available from the solar system.  This contribution would help keep the thermostat from activating the primary space heating system as often.  A good application for this option might be for a vacation home that needs to be kept warm enough to prevent the pipes from freezing when not being occupied.
Myson fan convector unit on the left. Probably VELUX roof windows above.
Option 3:
Some homes have a hydronic heating system where medium temperature (140 degrees F) water circulates between a water heating unit and various zones throughout a house.  This heating system lends itself to a nice merger with a solar water heater.  As the hydronic fluid returns from a zone in the house depleted of heat, a heat exchanger from the solar storage tank could add heat to the fluid before it reaches the traditional heater.  This is one of the most efficient ways to deliver heat from a solar heated fluid to a living space.  These solar systems could be sized to be rather large (8-10+ collectors) depending on the space heating goals the home may have.
Tubes under the floor deliver heat to the room in a hydronic heating system
For any of these options, this style of heating system isn't usually the best primary space heater for a home since the winter months (when you want heat) typically correlate to shorter days and thus less solar energy to be harvested. Like with a solar domestic water heater, however, a solar space heating system will reduce the number of BTUs the traditional heater will have to deliver to the house even during the winter months.

Solar High Mass Systems
In this variety of space heating using solar energy, a solar water heating system heats up a large mass (many, many tons) of sand under a home which then slowly releases the heat over the winter months.  Owners of these systems begin to direct the solar heat to the sand mass which extracts the heat through a matrix of tubes embedded in the sand.  Many homes in cold climates are accomplishing 75%+ of their space heating needs through this style of solar water heating system.  Not all that complicated or that expensive, Solar High Mass systems will require a bit more homeowner involvement to make them work effectively with their lifestyle.  This also would need to be designed into a new home from the start since so much sand or other high mass material would need to be under the living space.  The Artha Sustainable Living Center is a great resource for more information on these systems.

Solar Assisted Ground Source Heat Pumps
A ground source heat pump (GSHP), aka geothermal, is a device that heats and cools a building by moving heat to and from the living space to a series of pipes in the ground.  Additionally, a GSHP can contribute to the domestic water heating needs of a home as well.  These systems function in a very similar way that a kitchen refrigerator does except the ground is the heat sink in the cooling cycle versus ambient air as with the refrigerator.
Imagine an array of 3-5 solar collectors on the south facing roof to integrate with the GSHP

A rather new implementation of a GSHP adds an array of solar water heating panels to the mix.  This Solar Assisted GSHP offers a few advantages over a standard GSHP:
  1. The solar collectors can add heat to the ground all summer to allow the GSHP to be more effective at space heating in the winter.
  2. Solar panels can pre-heat domestic water in the summer so that the heat pump may not need to function at all to provide domestic hot water when the weather is temperate.
  3. Added heat can come from the solar collectors in the winter to augment the space heating cycle.
  4. During the spring and fall, the heating load may be low enough that the solar collectors could provide enough space heat so that the heat pump would not need to operate.
GSHPs slowly deplete the ground heat immediately surrounding the bore wells over the life of the system.  For this reason, many green building codes don't classify this technology as "sustainable" or "renewable."  Coupling a solar array to the GSHP is a way to make this excellent technology truly sustainable.

The solution to our energy problems rises in the east every morning.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Idealism doesn't drive sustainable energy development

Northern Iowa Wind Farm - (Going Green In Orange)
A recent article on Renewable Energy World asks the question how did the US grow an energy consciousness.  I can't say that I agree with the implicit assumption the title makes.  I don't think most Americans really think about energy all that much or how important our current existence is on inexpensive, readily available, easily stored energy.  The United States is blessed (or cursed) with abundant natural resources.  This has clouded our collective long term thinking with respect to energy.  We are able to look at availability of energy on a very short term basis because we've had such a consistent supply of all forms of it for so long.  When was the last time anyone pulled into a gas station and found the filling tanks were empty?  How often do blackouts occur on the power grid? When either of these disruptions happen, big challenges ensue but fortunately they haven't occurred that often.  We get the power we want, when we want it, and it doesn't really cost us that much.

Compare this to energy situation of other countries around the world.  Island nations typically have very limited energy options. Their geographic separation from adjacent countries forces them to generate electricity locally and import petroleum via tanker ship--very costly and risky for their national security.  Japan, the world #2 for installed solar, has also resorted to massive reliance on nuclear which is now showing it's flaws in the most catastrophic way possible.  Faced with limited options, people take risks that they otherwise may not have taken.
Island of renewable energy (Michaelis Energy Island)

Germany is another story as well.  As the global leader in renewable energy development with 17% of its electric power capacity coming from renewables, outsiders may think that the Germans have a particularly strong commitment to clean energy.  While environmental reasons are now one of the arguments that Germans make for continuing their current energy policy, national security issues regarding supply of natural gas were the real spark for their dramatic shift towards wind and solar.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian natural gas companies have periodically played games with the supply of natural gas flowing to western Europe.  The spark that woke up the German populace was a disruption of gas during the peak heating season over the winter of 1992-93.  Cold homes in the winter are a strong motivating force for spending more on local energy.

The main message that Americans have heard regarding renewable energy is that it's good for the environment.  This is an idealistic message that has been both polarizing and lacking in teeth to drive tangible action by even those who believe the message.  Many people immediately think Quixotic farce when they hear anything about solar or wind development--overly idealistic and impractical.  Focusing on the environmental component to renewable energy makes this a political discussion where there are perceived good guys and bad guys.  We also get a lot less personal satisfaction from an effort to conserve energy while a neighbor continues to be profligate with his consumption and waste.  Our environmental savings are easily erased by people not of the same mindset.  None of this serves the purpose of a steady state energy system where we all have access to reasonably priced energy without the negative externalities of fossil fuels.

My read on the US energy situation is that we have about 10 years or so to make some dramatic changes in our mix of energy options to avoid disruption issues that other countries have already had.  10 years is a long time in the sense that we could (and probably will) chose to continue procrastinating on making the spending decisions that we need to make.  10 years is a short time in the sense that the capital improvements we need to make could take that much time or longer to actually complete.

The RE World article I reference above makes the case that governmental policy has been the most effective change mechanism in the US.  Maybe so but our current energy mix has very little renewable energy in it other than hydroelectric.  I honestly can't tell what the spark will be to awaken the sleeping giant once again and unite our efforts behind a common cause.  Hopefully, it will be something much less dramatic than Pearl Harbor was.
The worst kind of wake up call
- Let's use our brains people and get ahead of these very foreseeable future energy challenges.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Seducing your solar customer

Great link for more tips from Don Draper on how to woo women, I mean solar customers
As I prepare to head up to Custer, WI this weekend for the MREA Energy Fair, I started thinking of a different approaches to solar sales and marketing.  Many of the people involved with solar energy are so enthusiastic about it that it lead me to the conclusion that green energy fairs are a lot like a singles bar for environmentalists. It's the place renewable energy enthusiasts go to be seen and meet new sustainable products.  So continuing down this line of thought, I realized that the art of meeting members of the opposite sex is merely a very personal sales process.  Just as there are no "10 easy steps" to meeting someone interesting, there is no checklist that will guarantee that you to close more solar business.  That being said, there are some effective strategies to consider, re-consider, apply, and refine in both venues before you set off to woo.  Take some time to think about your "game" and put some of these strategies into action. 

Pay attention.  Focus all your attention on your customer to learn their true solar motivations.  Look at them in the eyes.  Smile at them.  Be enthusiastic about their enthusiasm.

Warm them up.  Be friendly and make it fun for your customer to work with you.  Suggest things to them--don't tell or push them.

Let them talk.  Dominating the conversation is a big turnoff for almost everyone.  Probing questions that give them room to talk are key.  Talk too much and you'll come off as a pushy salesperson.

Take a little care of yourself.  You need to take a shower but the point here is to have a consistent message and corporate appearance that reflects your commitment to providing a professional product.  Bad business cards, logos, company names, and inconsistent solar messaging are the equivalent of long nose hairs or bad breath to a solar business.  Don't Jersey Shore your corporate image though as the sustainable energy community is about doing more with less.  Simple yet consistent is the way to go.
VELUX solar systems only need a 3-person crew to install although it might take all 7 of the Jersey Shore.

Be persistent.  Don't let a rejection get you down.  No matter how good your game might be, not all people are going to click with each other.  The key is to stay in the fight and keep working the crowd.  Have the confidence that renewable energy is the key to a stable future and that there are other like-minded people who you will click with just around the corner.

Don't be too serious.  Despite the many negatives surrounding our current energy situation, don't dwell on the gloom & doom.  Seduction is about making people feel better about themselves.  Turn negatives into positives and draw solar customers to you.  Lighten things up with a natural humor.

Play hard to get.  Solar isn't for everyone.  A subtle cockiness about the exclusivity of joining the solar club will pique interest.  Even though solar is expensive for many, it's not for all.  Those are the people we want to find and they typically don't make buying decisions solely on price.

Time to perform once the deal is closed.  Meeting new people is hard but once they say yes, you aren't home free yet.  You have to remember that the way your installation goes will be a huge factor in repeat business to that customer's peer group.  Neighbors will ask about your customer's system and will be curious about the installation company.  You'd be surprised how many new solar people drag their friends and family to their basements to show off their solar heat or electricity so dress up the balance of system components to impress.  Satisfied customers are your biggest marketing ally.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The solar water heating leader of western Iowa

Solar heated water--on the go!
I met Mike Howard of Iron Eagle Technologies about a year ago when he expressed interest in the VELUX solar water heating system.  Mike lives in a small town in the western part of Iowa called Elk Horn and has an uncanny passion for renewable energy.  While not normally the first place I'd rush off to for a sales call, his efforts on the solar PV and electric vehicle fronts captured the attention of CNN and SEIA for their national reporting so I thought to check him out.  My job is to find the right sort of installation partners to help us grow our solar business and Iron Eagle appeared to be a great fit.

Elk Horn happens to have a thriving Danish cultural heritage attraction called the Danish Villages.  Combining his passion for renewable energy, Mike saw an immediate connection with working with VELUX for solar water heating since our parent company is based in Denmark.  Iron Eagle became a VELUX solar 5-star installation partner last summer and immediately began installing solar water heaters throughout the town.  We installed a 4 panel system on the Elk Horn public school for preheating the water going to the cafeteria.  Later we put a smaller 2 panel system on a home in town.  Mike has also installed 8 panels on the roof of his new Norseman Brewery building--a Danish beer brewed with the help of Danish solar panels!  VELUX couldn't have asked for a better solar installation partner.

Just last week, Mike finished a terrific mobile display of a fully functional solar water heating system.  On the roof of the shed, he mounted 2 VELUX solar collectors in a roof-integrated configuration.  On the side of the she, he had a sink and shower installed.  In addition to using this for general promotional efforts, Mike wanted to provide solar heated water for the bike racers of RAGBRAI coming up on July 25th.  He plans to have ice cream, root beer, and samples of his new Norseman Brewing Company beer for the riders in addition to his solar heated water.  He'll be pulling this display to events with his newly wrapped van that sports graphics of the solar PV and water heating products he installs.
Solar projects for Iron Eagle Technologies in Elk Horn, IA

Solar technologies work and are ready for mass market adoption.  The efforts of people like Mike Howard are just the sort of catalyst that we need to make this a reality.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Rebuild with Solar

Natural disasters are dominating the headlines these days; Mississippi flooding and mega tornadoes have destroyed entire cities across the southeast and in Missouri.  As communities start the clean up process and begin to rebuild, we ought to encourage them to implement better building concepts and materials.  Insurance companies may only pay replacement costs but community leaders could team with local lenders to finance solar systems under established PACE regulations.  Solar technologies are ready today and the only barrier for their adoption is upfront cost.  Considering solar at this stage of the redesign process is the time to make it work most cost effectively and allows for creative ways to mitigate the upfront cost.  We will all be better off for it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The inevitability of solar

It probably wouldn't be too surprising to learn that I really like solar technology.  Passive solar design, solar air heating, solar cooling, daylighting a space, solar water heating, and PV are all fascinating to me.  I even count biofuels as "solar" too as we're using sunlight to grow plants specifically designed for liquid, transportable fuel.  The energy transition that we're in now feels to me how I think people in the 50's were thinking about space exploration.  Those were hopeful times where technology was magical to the common man and promised positive changes in the future.  Solar today is very much like that; almost everyone sees the promise of it even if they have reservations about its practicality.  My argument though is that solar is also, in all its forms, truly the only sound energy option for the next 25 years or more.  I don't claim that solar will be the only energy technology we'll use, but I see it as the heavy lifter in our energy mix and in that it will provide the bulk of the power we'll need to live the lives we want to live.

I don't say this as an idealist or insider looking to help solar win out over other technologies.  I say it because there are no other candidates on the horizon that will be as scalable and affordable as distributed solar is now and will continue to be for some time.  That is why I'm in the solar business.  I like a clean environment but that didn't motivated me to change careers.  I saw an opportunity to get into a growing solar industry on the ground floor; I see our society as a whole as getting in on the ground floor of solar right now too.  My job is to grow solar water heating in the residential space.  I work to find projects and partners across my region and each system sold is hard fought.  I know that we're not far from a time when solar technology will be on every building, however because we're already seeing the military move in this direction today.  By 2013, solar won't be a novelty anymore but a fundamental building component.
Europe is already there in many areas; what happens when the sleeping giant (US) awakes?

If solar is inevitable, then why even write this post?  Because the journey is just as important as the destination.  Growing a solar base of energy capacity has been sporadic up to this point because we haven't really acknowledged the fundamental instability of our existing energy portfolio.  We're really the only major country without a comprehensive energy policy which is even more damaging because we have the largest impact on world affairs.  Without a consensus behind solar technologies, we'll continue to be distracted by the loser technologies.  We'll fritter away our time & money on dead ends which will make the inevitable shift to solar that much more difficult.

The Losers
Nuclear won't win because we've had over 60 years to figure out a way to handle the waste, danger, and cost of a nuclear plant for electricity generation; we haven't yet and probably won't for at least another 30 years or more.  Coal is plentiful and will probably have a role for some time, but the world will no longer accept externalizing the environmental or societal costs of coal production for much longer.  Agree or disagree, but climate change is an issue that is not going to go away.  Natural gas is plentiful today and at cheap prices but as we continue to load shift transportation and electricity to this fuel, its run as a fossil fuel darling will end too.  If people like T. Boone Pickens can make their case, we'll be burning a lot more natural gas in the coming years; rising prices are sure to follow that move.

I want to be positive towards solar without resorting to throwing other energy sources under the bus (maybe I shouldn't have titled this section The Losers then ;-).  Selling against something is confrontational and tends to put people on the defensive if their world view is being challenged.  Enough can be found on the web bashing fossil fuels, but I wanted to point out up front that the discovery of oil in particular has been one of the most transformative developments in all of human history.  There may have never been a better time to be a human being than right now, and we owe this fact to oil.  It's inevitable that solar technologies will displace oil though and not because oil is dirty or inefficient or imported from hostile countries.  It won't even really be much of a choice to use less oil; it is because oil is becoming too expensive to burn anymore.
2008 numbers; the line is pointing up again today in 2011
Drill baby drill
We're already at a trading range between $90 and $115 per barrel with a global population at or near 7 billion people and the following 3 facts can only lead to even higher prices: 
  1. We're going add another billion people in the next 15 years (more mouths to feed).
  2. A greater percentage of the world will demand to live with a standard of living as we have in the US (more cars to drive).
  3. We are consuming oil as we extract it today and no major reserves exist to make up for rising demand (nothing lasts forever).
Sure we have market players trying to manipulate oil prices.  Sure we limit where we drill new wells based on aesthetic and environmental factors.  The rarely discussed fact is that we haven't found any easily extractable oil reserves in any sort of quantity since the North Sea and now that's almost gone.  We need to be finding reserves on the scale of Saudi Arabia's Ghawar field every couple of years to keep up with the forecasted demand growth from rising global populations but we aren't.  We drill everyday (baby) but we have to acknowledge that the wells are literally running low.  The excellent but sobering documentary The End of Suburbia makes the case for what all this means much better than I can.  My contribution to the debate is to point out that the solar technology we have today can mitigate most if not all these troubles in a very, very short period of time.

Why solar wins
Once we see the scope of the challenge we face, the only conceivable step to take will be a large scale roll out of distributed solar technologies (PV, water heating, space heating, passive design, and daylighting).  It will be the most logical step because it is the step that individuals can actually participate in.  Plumbers can plumb solar water heaters with little or no training.  Carpenters can install skylights today.  Homeowners can connect more PV panels to their homes as their budget allows over time.  New buildings will capture and shed solar heat with no need for new technology--just a rearrangement of building and landscaping materials we use already.  We won't have to wait for anyone in charge or anything else to be invented for a dramatic roll out to occur.  It is really up to us individuals.
Roofing crew installing a solar water heating system

I can imagine that this post will have critics; I haven't really tried to make a convincing argument for many of the details I brought up.  I just wanted to lay out the way I see things though, and I get the feeling that many others are of a similar mind.  Change in life is inevitable and oftentimes difficult.  The sooner that you recognize the change, the better you can prepare, and the smoother the transition will be.  I'll continue to sell solar systems everyday because I enjoy the product, the challenge and the people in the industry.  I know that solar won't be novel for long though and that in many ways, I'm working my self out of a job.  I think that I'll be able to handle that change just fine when the time comes though. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Reducing water heating costs in multifamily buildings

Solar water heating is a very simple concept; the sun's rays heat water, the heated water is stored in a tank, and then it's used whenever someone wants it.  In previous a post, I made the case that solar works effectively anywhere in the US.  Just because something is possible, it doesn't mean that it's practical however (Nissan Leaf?).  The purpose of this post is to highlight a particular application for solar water heating that can be very rewarding both environmentally and financially.

Here in Chicago, we find many 3-4 story residential buildings that get divided into as many as 12 units.  Some of these buildings are owned as condos with separate unit owners and some have a single owner managing the units as apartments.  In either case, domestic water heating in this style of building can either be done with a central boiler (very common) or with individual water heaters for each unit (less common).  Plumbing a solar water heater as a retrofit to a multifamily building with individual water heaters is probably a less ideal application so I'll highlight two ways to work with a central boiler.

The Chicago Graystone--a typical residential building in the city

Case 1: Condo
In a condominium, each unit is individually owned.  The unit owner pays a mortgage on their unit as well as an association assessment to handle shared expenses (snow removal, common area heating/cooling/lighting, landscaping, roof repair, etc).  In the case of a condo building with a central water heater, domestic water heating is a shared expense.  In this case, a modestly sized solar water heater could be plumbed in-line before the existing water heater to pre-heat all incoming cold water into that tank.  A 6-unit building could see 60-80% water heating cost reduction with just a 3-4 panel system.  The cost of this system would be shared by the unit owners.  The unit owners would then calculate their ownership percentage of the new solar system installation costs to claim the 30% federal tax credit as well as any state or local incentives that might apply.  As a rule of thumb, 1 solar collector for every 2 units should meet federal tax incentive requirements for system productivity.  While organizing a condo association around a capital improvement project like this may be akin to herding cats, implementation of a solar water heater could be very simple to do with a solid return on investment for the association.

Cat Herding--much like many condo meetings I've been to

Case 2: Apartment Building
Many landlords of buildings with central boilers for water heating provide their tenants with hot water as part of the monthly rent.  This scenario may be one of the most attractive applications for a solar water heating system.  Like in a condo building with a central boiler, a solar water heater would pre-heat water flowing into an existing water heater.  The benefits to the landlord are very attractive.  Not only will he or she reduce their monthly costs on water heating bills, but the solar system will bring them a 30% federal tax credit, accelerated depreciation benefit, any state/local incentives, and position the apartment as one that is more attractive to younger tenants than comparable other buildings without solar.  On top of all that, the building will actually have more hot water to draw on so the building manager will get fewer complaints for cold showers.

Solar may have kept him out of hot water with his tenants

For further reading, Wisconsin's Focus on Energy program has developed a fact sheet detailing many of the advantages of solar water heating in multifamily applications.  I recommend that you check it out.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Free Hot Water with Every New Home!

Image courtesy VELUX America

In a recent NY Times article covering issues surrounding the ongoing housing slump, an interesting sales tactic caught my eye.  One builder outside Chicago is offering a credit at a local GM dealership with the purchase of a new home and he's not the only one.  While this promotion appears to be working to generate some sales, I have an even better idea for home builders.

In a market where new homes are competing against plummeting existing home prices driven by foreclosures, builders must differentiate their product on things other than price.  New homes must offer features that you can't find in older ones if they have any hope of being attractive.  One thing that almost no existing house has is an integrated solar water heating system.  A new home builder looking to stand out and make an impact in the minds of buyers should offer "Free Hot Water with Every New Home!"  Unlike with a free car, a free solar water heating system would reduce the homeowners' monthly power bills, reduce their carbon footprint, appreciate in value as fuel costs rise and make a leadership statement that appeals to 94% of us.  On top of that, local renewable energy creates good, local green collar jobs.

Solar water heating works everywhere in the US with almost immediate payback on invested dollars when financed as part of a standard home mortgage.  In an economic downturn, the best way out is to commit money to long term infrastructure enhancements.  In the past, this has meant roads, dams, bridges, etc that provide value for many years after the upfront costs were recovered.  Now we can add renewable energy to that mix.   Let's commit to making this sound investment today so that we can reap the benefits for decades to come.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where Chicago gets its power

ComEd sent out its annual Environmental Disclosure Statement last week detailing where the electricity that supplies Chicago has come from.  50% nuclear, 38% coal, 9% natural gas, and then all the others--not a very pretty picture. 

Leaving all the operational safety and environmental impact considerations for our major electricity sources aside, it's just not a great idea to have so much of generation capacity confined to such a small number of sources.  Maybe one of the best arguments for growing a distributed generation network of small solar systems is the redundancy it provides us all.  Even those of us in a neighborhood who don't have a solar system on our own roof benefit from the system on our neighbor's roof. 

So what's the trigger that will get us started on this better path?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why SRECs work for Solar Water Heaters

For this post, I'll need to define a few terms and answer a few questions first.

What are RECs?

Renewable Energy Certificates (Credits) are tradable energy commodities that represent the clean component of generating 1 MWh of electricity from renewable sources.
 From: Scalo Solar Solutions

Why do RECs exisit? or "Fund it and it will come"

States across the country have passed Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) bills over the past few years. RPS's have come about because the people have demanded that a portion of their electricity should come from clean energy sources.  RPS percentages vary across the country.  In Illinois, we have a requirement to generate 25% of our electricity from renewable energy by the year 2025 (1).  Most of our electricity comes from coal and nuclear power and there has been a rising movement to shift some of this generation capacity to better energy sources.  Wind, Solar Electric, Landfill Gas, Biomass, Hydroelectric, and Biodiesel are all technologies that qualify for RPS goals.

RECs are the "currency" that states use to meet their RPS.  If a 1 MW PV farm gets installed in Chicago, then the owner of that PV farm can sell about 1,200 RECs to Illinois to help it meet its RPS goal for the year.

Illinois consumes about 136,000 MWh of electricity per year (2) so would need about 6,800 MWh of renewable energy to meet RPS goals for 2011 (5%).  Since Illinois current generates only 735 MW of renewable energy, Illinois is forced to buy RECs from sources outside the state.  If you view RECs as a stimulator for renewable energy which also stimulates jobs, cleaner water & air, university research, and energy independence, then Illinois is exporting millions of dollars to fund other states clean energy goals.  If you fund renewable energy (with RECs), clean energy will be installed.


What are SRECs?

In the Chicago PV farm example above, Solar RECs (SRECs) are RECs that come from solar energy systems.  Certain states have created special solar carve outs in their RPS bills to mandate a small percentage of their RPS to be met by solar technology specifically.


Why Solar Water Heaters should qualify as SRECs generators?

Solar water heaters (SWH) are different from solar electric systems (PV) in that SWH converts sunlight to heat while PV converts light to electricity.  SWH systems reduce the energy required to heat up water for cleaning, bathing, and cooking in our homes just as PV reduces the energy required to power our lights, TVs, appliances, computers, etc.  PV qualifies for meeting RPS goals because PV energy has been easy to measure and track where SWH has been more difficult to quantify.  This is no longer the case however due to the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC).  This group now measures the energy output of a complete SWH system in a particular area and publishes this data on its website.  In Chicago, a 2-panel solar water heater can produce 2,680 kWh worth of energy in a year which would equate to 2.7 RECs.

My contention is that since this SWH production data is independently verified, it should serve as a basis to qualify SWH systems as SREC generators.  SWH systems are a robust, cost effective way for a property owner to reduce their energy consumption with clean energy.  SWH adoption is scalable in that systems can be installed very quickly and work at almost any property.  Lots of local jobs would The state would also benefit by keeping its clean energy investment dollars local and continue to pay dividends for the years ahead.  Some areas have already begun to allow SWH systems to generate SRECs towards their RPS (NC and DC); I hope that more follow suit in the coming years.


(1) RPS data from DSIRE
(2) Illinois energy facts from

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why Solar?

Distributed solar energy systems are currently in direct competition with grid delivered electricity and gas.  There is very little market penetration for solar yet and those of us advocating for solar could be daunted by the slow pace of its adoption.  One of the beautiful things about distributed solar is that once a person decides to go solar, a system can be up and running on their house in a very short period of time.  A whole neighborhood could be powered by the sun in less than a couple of weeks.  Once we have a solid, national will for clean energy, scaling up distributed solar will take much less time than anyone might think.

This brings me to my point for this post--building a solid, national will for clean energy.  I have distilled the reasons for solar into the 4 points that I'll lay out below.  There are plenty more reasons for renewable energy, but I think keeping the list short and factual is most effective as I want it to be memorable and irrefutable.  Let me know what you think!

1. Fossil Fuels Pollute

Not only when burned while creating usable energy but they also pollute during extraction, refining, and transportation.  Plus we can do so many more useful things with natural gas and oil than burn it; we're going to need it for fertilizer and advanced plastics in the years ahead.

2. Foreign Energy is Dangerous

We get much of the energy we use from foreign countries.  Reliance on the energy essential to our way of life from other countries is risky no matter how friendly the countries might be today.  Energy crunches and supply interruptions create energy market turmoil that could lead even a trusted ally to ration energy that once flowed freely.  We also get much of our oil from countries that are outright hostile to the American way of life.  How long can we keep that up?  How many lives are worth sacrificing for cheaper gasoline?

3. Solar Energy is Abundant

Uranium, natural gas, oil, and coal are all energy resources that we're consuming much faster than they can be replaced.  Every year much more energy from the sun hits the Earth than we currently need to maintain our way of life.  We have the technology available to us today if we would decide to pursue significant fossil fuel reductions.  Many times we get caught in debating all the limitations of solar and wind.  I think the image above is a powerful statement to what sort of resource we're wasting as we squabble about the details.  Applying the renewable technologies that we have ready today will become a spring board for the clean energies of tomorrow.  We have to get positive feedback cycle started today.

4. Solar Pays for Itself

The sun and wind send no bills.  The utilities do however and their rates aren't going down.  What sort of payback do you want for your solar investment?  No matter where you live, I can guarantee a faster payback with a solar water heater than with sticking to a traditional water heater.  Same thing goes for a PV system or wind turbine on the electrical side.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Solar Energy Pioneer in Elk Horn, IA


The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has done a series of webisodes highlighting the ways that solar energy is being implemented in different parts of the US.  I was pleasantly surprised to find Mike Howard of Iron Eagle Technologies interviewed at the 2:03 mark of episode 2.  Mike's a real pioneer in his community and is an example for the rest of the country.  In his small town of Elk Horn, IA, he has installed more electric vehicle charging points per capita than anywhere else in the world.  He has the solar PV array shown in the video and a solar water heating system (from VELUX ;-)) installed on his house next door.  We also put a VELUX solar water heater on the public school in town with a few more in the works for this year.  I'm so happy to see Mike get the national attention that he deserves!