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.