09 February 2013

Goodnight Irene

Zero Energy Construction is going off the air.

I am moving on to some more technical and less political blogging.

Thank you to those folks that have followed this blog.


31 January 2013

Fossil Fuels’ Hidden Cost Is in Billions, Study Says

Reposted from the Washington Post


WASHINGTON — Burning fossil fuels costs the United States about $120 billion a year in health costs, mostly because of thousands of premature deaths from air pollution, the National Academy of Sciences reported in a study issued Monday.

The damages are caused almost equally by coal and oil, according to the study, which was ordered by Congress. The study set out to measure the costs not incorporated into the price of a kilowatt-hour or a gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel.

The estimates by the academy do not include damages from global warming, which has been linked to the gases produced by burning fossil fuels. The authors said the extent of such damage, and the timing, were too uncertain to estimate.

Nor did the study measure damage from burning oil for trains, ships and planes. And it did not include the environmental damage from coal mining or the pollution of rivers with chemicals that were filtered from coal plant smokestacks to keep the air clean.

“The largest portion of this is excess mortality — increased human deaths as a result of criteria air pollutants emitted by power plants and vehicles,” said Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who led the study committee.

Nearly 20,000 people die prematurely each year from such causes, according to the study’s authors, who valued each life at $6 million based on the dollar in 2000. Those pollutants include small soot particles, which cause lung damage; nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog; and sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain.

The study lends support to arguments that society should pay extra for energy from sources like the wind and the sun, because their indirect costs are extremely small. But it also found that renewable motor fuel, in the form of ethanol from corn, was slightly worse than gasoline in its environmental impact.

Coal burning was the biggest single source of such external costs . The damages averaged 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with 0.16 cents for gas. But the variation among coal plants was enormous.

The worst plants, generally the oldest and burning coal with the highest sulfur content, were 3.6 times worse than the average, with a cost of nearly 12 cents per kilowatt-hour (which is more than the average retail price of that amount of electricity).

The best plants carried a cost of less than a quarter of a penny. Natural gas plants also showed a large variation, but both the best and the worst costs were far smaller than for coal.

Such variation suggests that existing technology could be applied to make the electric system a lot cleaner, experts said. One of the study’s authors, Maureen L. Cropper, an economist at the University of Maryland, said the findings should be used not to raise the price of electricity based on an average of indirect costs but to measure the cost of cleanup on a plant-by-plant basis.

The study did not measure damage from pollution-control devices. “If you’re taking the output of a scrubber and dumping it in the Monongahela River, that’s not in our study, Professor Cropper said.

The study found that operating nuclear plants did not impose significant environmental costs, although uranium mining and processing did. But 95 percent of uranium mining takes place in other countries, the study said. Canada and Australia together account for 44 percent of world production.

The committee did not put a dollar value on the risk of a nuclear accident that would produce environmental damage. It also noted the uncertainty of the cost of long-term disposal of high-level wastes.

The committee said environmental damage from gasoline and diesel fuel cost 1.2 cents to 1.7 cents per mile. A co-author of the study, Daniel S. Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute, said that would come to 23 cents to 38 cents per gallon. Still, Mr. Greenbaum said, “we were hesitant to make that a central part of our findings,” because pollution also results from manufacturing cars.

The study did not calculate the military cost of protecting fuel imports.

As for wind energy, the study said it killed birds but not enough to seriously affect populations. A possible exception was raptors, birds of prey that ordinarily eat species whose numbers are being reduced by spinning turbine blades.

The study was not kind to ethanol. A mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent unleaded gasoline, or E85, showed slightly higher damages to environment and health than ordinary gasoline, because of the energy required to raise the corn and make ethanol from it.

Electric vehicles and vehicles using synthetic diesel fuel, also ranked poorly. The electric vehicles might do better if emissions of heat-trapping gases had been factored in, because they have lower carbon dioxide emissions per mile than gasoline-powered cars. But the cars running on artificial diesel would look slightly worse in that analysis, the study said.

30 January 2013

Colorado A Solar Leader


Colorado has gained a place at the forefront of the drive to power the US on clean, renewable energy. The revolutionary movement is still in its infancy, however, and the state’s solar energy industry participants are looking to add to the momentum.

The Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (COSEIA) on Jan. 16 announced that it will present the outline of its plan to pave “The Path to a Million Solar Roofs” at the Solar Power Colorado conference and trade show at The Westin in Westminister, outside Denver, Feb. 5-6.
Coloradans are reaping the benefits of collaborative pro solar, wind, clean tech policies, plans and actions that span government, commerce and industry, academia, and civil society.

Solar and wind energy installations almost doubled between 2007 and 2011, and Colorado’s become a renewable energy and clean tech hub for manufacturers and participants all along the value chain. That’s driven green job creation, and boosted tax revenues, not to mention near and long-term health and environmental benefits from reducing carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and impacts of energy resource development.

“The Metro Denver region alone had about 1,500 companies and 18,000 workers in the cleantech sector in 2011, and achieved a 35% increase in direct employment growth since 2006,” according to one of three initial Clean Energy Economic Development Series reports on the success and benefits of renewable energy development in US states produced by the Environmental Defense Fund and Collaborative Economics.

COSEIA is looking to keep the renewable energy locomotive going with its Million Solar Roofs campaign and 2013 Solar Power Colorado conference.

“Solar energy is now a $100 billion global industry. As Colorado pioneers its path to a Million Solar Roofs, we’re excited to bring solar executives and utility leaders together to build partnerships for future growth,” executive director Neal Lurie was quoted in a COSEIA press release.

“We are excited to outline our Million Solar Roofs campaign at the conference and to enlist industry leaders to help us flesh out the details to refine the plan for reaching this ambitious goal.”

The goal of the campaign, COSEIA elaborates, is to “provide about 3 gigawatts (GW) of solar energy in Colorado by 2030 through a combination of photovoltaic (PV) electric systems and solar thermal heating and cooling systems.”

To do so, COSEIA members and partners aim to “boost public outreach, utility partnerships and public-private collaborations to encourage the growth of solar energy from small arrays on homes to large utility-scale projects, and from community solar gardens to industrial rooftop projects. To reach this goal, solar would supply nearly a fifth of our state’s energy needs.”

For more on COSEIA’s Milllion Solar Roofs campaign and its plans to get there, check out this blog post by The Denver Post’s Cathy Proctor.

Colorado Solar Industry Association Readies Launch of Millon Solar Roofs Campaign was originally published on: CleanTechnica. To read more from CleanTechnica, join over 30,000 others and subscribe to our free RSS feed, follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or just visit our homepage.

29 January 2013

Congress Must Act Boldly on Global Warming: Sanders Cites Record U.S. Heat in 2012

January 9, 2013

BURLINGTON, Vt., Jan. 9 – Coming off the hottest year on record in the United States, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said today that he will introduce legislation to move aggressively to reverse global warming.
“The scientific data is clear that global warming is real and significantly caused by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels,” Sanders said.

“After the hottest year on record and extreme weather disturbances such as Hurricane Sandy, we must take strong action to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels and move toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy,” Sanders added. “I intend to introduce legislation in the Senate to do just that.”
Sanders’ legislation will include a transparent fee on greenhouse gas emissions from the biggest polluters. It will call for an historic investment in efficiency, sustainable energy, advanced transportation infrastructure, and clean energy research and development. The measure also would end fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks.

The annual U.S. temperature last year was 55.32 degrees Fahrenheit, a full degree warmer than the old record set in 1998, the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., announced on Tuesday. Scientists say the temperature increases are happening faster than they expected and that the warming trend is a result of climate change caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem is global. Record temperatures in Australia, for example, produced what the government called “catastrophic” fire conditions in the most populace part of the continent. The average temperature across Australia on Tuesday was the highest since statistics began being kept in 1911.

The United States in recent years has doubled electricity generation from wind and solar power sources and enacted fuel economy standards that will help our cars and trucks get to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. “But we are not doing nearly enough,” Sanders said. “That is why I will be introducing legislation that would deal realistically with the crisis in a way that is aggressive but achievable.”

28 January 2013

Microgrids: Providing safe harbor in a storm

Reposted Leia Guccione

As Hurricane-cum-Superstorm Sandy approached the Eastern Seaboard, millions of Americans living in New York and New Jersey spent the days before the storm stocking up on bread, water, batteries, and other critical supplies; many others sought safety by fleeing the area, seeking refuge with friends and relatives beyond the storm’s path.

The impacts of Sandy are now familiar to many: the electricity grid went down, leaving upwards of 8.5 million people without power. Yet, there were a handful of literal bright spots in the darkness. One man in New Jersey powered his home with his Toyota Prius hybrid and inverter-based power balancing controls, which ensured that the power from his car was at the right voltage and frequency for his house. At the Brevoort Tower in New York City, the story was much the same: the building kept its lights on—and its heat and hot water—with a natural gas combined heat and power generation system, inverter controls, and most importantly, an automatic transfer switch (aka smart switch) that allowed the building to seamlessly disconnect from and reconnect to the grid. In other words, both the New Jersey homeowner and the Brevoort became microgrids.

But in New Jersey, which ranks second only to California in total installed solar capacity, scores of residential and business customers with rooftop solar PV sat in the dark, even after Sandy’s clouds parted and the sunshine returned. Why? Based on its lower cost and simpler setup, most customers had installed grid-tied solar, and in accordance with current regulatory codes nationwide, such systems are required to have a control feature that automatically disables the inverter—the device that converts power generated by the PV panels into usable electricity for home appliances—in the event that the grid goes down.

The control device is intended to prevent unintentional islanding, a scenario where a device—such as rooftop solar PV panels—continues to feed electricity into the local grid, even when that grid should be without power. Preventing unintentional islanding is important for a number of reasons, foremost among them the safety of utility electricians working to repair faults in the grid and restore power to customers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Imagine a scenario in which the grid goes down but customers with solar PV keep their lights on. It’s entirely possible with the use of a smart switch, much like that used by the Brevoort Tower, in order to achieve intentional islanding. When the grid goes down, the solar PV system switches from grid-tied to an independent mode, allowing it to continue generating electricity without feeding the local grid and endangering utility workers.

Such flexible solar PV systems would typically work in conjunction with a bank of batteries to power critical loads in your home, such as the refrigerator and oven.

However, two hurdles stand in the way of greater adoption of this more flexible system, which offers a kind of safe harbor in a storm when the normally reliable grid goes down: 1) heightened cost, and 2) rigorous permitting which serves as a disincentive.

Grid-tied systems with the flexibility to become grid-independent are more complex, typically involving the addition of batteries for energy storage plus rewiring the home to establish a subpanel that carries the circuits for the house’s critical loads. This more complex system comes with a cost.

Consider, for example, the systems offered by the company Wholesale Solar. WS offers a traditional grid-tied solar PV system (2,000W capable of up to 271 kWh per month) for a little over $4,000. Meanwhile, they offer a grid-tied solar PV system, which switches to backup battery power in the event of a grid outage and uses the solar PV to charge the batteries in an "off-grid mode" (1,500W capable of up to 204 kWh per month) for close to $6,000, plus the cost of batteries, which adds at least another $2,000, depending on the size of the battery bank, double the hardware cost. Finally, if you’re a customer who already has traditional grid-tied solar PV installed on your home, WS offers a “conversion” kit that starts at around $7,000.

But in the wake of Sandy, Hurricane Irene, the derecho summer storm of 2012, and other threats to the grid, customers are increasingly reaching the conclusion that such added costs and complexity may be worth it. Plus, compared to diesel, propane, or natural gas stand-by generators—which can be similarly expensive, have associated fuel costs, and are both loud and dirty—the safe harbor offered by clean, quiet solar is looking more and more attractive.

For certain, the flexibility to take harbor in a hybrid system—one that includes solar PV, energy storage or generation, and smart switch technology that enables intentional islanding—is an exciting opportunity. But it’s not a case in favor of abandoning the grid entirely. This technology can and should provide value and resilience to utilities and their customers alike.

While utilities may fear that their customers will find intentional islands a paradise from which they never return, the reality is that most homeowners and businesses don’t want an intentional island, but rather a harbor where they can receive power from their utility when it is available and affordable, and the flexibility to temporarily leave the grid and generate power of their own when practical. With more hybrid systems installed in homes, businesses, neighborhoods, and campuses, microgrids can become our safe harbor for the next storm.

27 January 2013

The Foul Legacy of the Tar Sands: Lakes Turned Into Cancer Sites

The Foul Legacy of the Tar Sands: Lakes Turned Into Cancer Sites

Back in 2010, residents near the shores of Canada’s Lake Athabasca called on the government to commission an independent study about the impact of the tar sands development in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan on the environment. Lake Athabasca is located downstream from one of the major tar sands developments and residents, who had found more and more fish with deformities (including huge tumors), demanded that a system of environmental monitoring be put in place and an investigation be carried out.

On Monday, the study resulting from these concerns was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and the verdict is clear: tar sands are bad for our health and for the environment.

In the study, Canadian researchers found that, since the 1960s when the tar sands development was started, the level of pollutants — specifically, of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been shown to adversely affect birds and aquatic organisms — has risen in six freshwater lakes. By examining sediment from five lakes within a 22-mile radius of the tar sands and one remote lake about 60 miles north, scientists found that PAH levels are now 2.5-23 times greater than than had been around 1960.

In the past decades, there has been a huge increase in developing the tar sands, as these are viewed as an increasingly important part of the world’s oil reserves at a time of rising energy prices and insatiable demand.

The tar sands in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan are the third largest reserve in the world and contain 97 percent of Canada’s reserves. Some speculate that Canada has been drawing heavily on the tar sands, and overlooking the environmental impact, as a way to “cushion the Canadian economy from shocks in global energy prices.”

Tar Sands Development Has Made Wildlife Ponds As Polluted As Urban Ones

The title of the study is “Legacy of a half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems.” Based on the dirty evidence in once pristine lakes, that “legacy” is one we don’t want.

Indeed, the scientists’ long-term findings are all the more crucial as the tar sands industry has contended that pollution is “natural.” PAHs can be found in coal, crude oil, petroleum and in products made from fossil fuels, such as creosote and asphalt; they can also be released into the air when fossil fuels and organic matter are burned and are produced by volcanoes and forest fires.

But the researchers found, since 1978 (when large-scale production of tar sands got underway), that the levels of PAH deposits have been “steadily rising” from what they had been at for centuries. As the study simply states,

Because of the striking increase in PAHs, elevated primary production, and zooplankton changes, these oil sands lake ecosystems have entered new ecological states completely distinct from those of previous centuries.

“We’re not saying these are poisonous ponds. But it’s going to get worse. It’s not too late but the trend is not looking good,” as the study’s lead author, John P. Smol, a professor of biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said in the New York Times. The wildlife ponds have become as contaminated as those in urban areas, he also noted.

The results of the Canadian scientists’ study make it even more clear why we need to stop the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline which is to transport oil down through the western U.S. to refineries along the Gulf Coast. Who knows what damage the pipeline could do to so many lakes, ponds and other freshwater sources; to our flora and fauna, to us?

Read more

26 January 2013


At this point, the effects of climate change on American communities are difficult to ignore. 2012 was officially the warmest year ever recorded in the US, with 362 all-time record highs (and zero record lows), and the second-most occurrences of extreme weather on record.
But a lack of federal leadership has left local governments on their own to plan climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. They’re where extreme weather is most acutely felt, the first line of defense in times of climate crisis, and tell the truest account of climate change’s impact on America.

These factors may seem like the perfect recipe for failure, but they’re leading cities and counties across the country to take innovative resiliency action to protect lives, strengthen infrastructure, and preserve local economies, according to ICLEI USA.

ICLEI is the leading network of local governments working to address climate and sustainability challenges. Representing more than 1,000 members worldwide, it’s finding that local impacts drive local action.

“2012 has been a wake-up call for local governments,” said Michael Schmitz, ICLEI USA executive director. “While it’s been easy for members of Congress to pretend like this isn’t happening, America’s city and county governments don’t have that luxury.”

A recent survey of 300 local governments laid out the reality of climate change in America: 74% perceived changes in the climate, and 59% are pursuing adaptation planning for hotter temperatures, more intense storms, and higher sea levels.

ICLEI has highlighted 20 communities across the continental US leading the charge and responding to extreme weather by planning for the future. Among the more notable examples:
  • Atlanta, GA – Experiencing hotter seasons that worsen urban heat island effects. Responding with a climate action plan, including cool roof/pavement standards and 10,000 new planted shade trees.
  • Chicago, IL – Experiencing extreme heat and flooding. Responding with the landmark Chicago Climate Action Plan and the most installed green roof square footage in America.
  • Eugene, OR – Experiencing major wildfires and ultra-dry conditions. Responding by increasing water conservation, reducing demand on hydroelectric power, and planting drought-resistant trees.
  • Miami Dade County, FL – Experiencing severe flooding, identified as the most vulnerable city in the world to sea level rise. Responding by addressing sea level rise and disaster response in urban planning, and investing millions in flood mitigation projects.
  • New York, NY – Experienced $19 billion in damage from Superstorm Sandy. Responding with a $2.4 billion green infrastructure plan, restoring barrier wetlands, and requiring a climate risk assessment for new developments. 
These communities are leading America’s climate change response, and their experiences are also being used to help even more local governments take action. ICLEI has published a series of guidelines and tools to empower elected officials to plan for climate adaptation and mitigation, while boosting renewables and energy efficiency.

Reports continue to predict delaying action to address climate change will only increase the local effects. “We need to build more resilient communities that can withstand the impacts of climate change,” continued Schmitz.

Thankfully, with ICLEI’s resources at hand and the experiences of other communities to guide a path forward, more and more local governments may soon be able to take their first steps toward a more sustainable future.