Category Archives: Eco-Activism

November 2019 Solar PV and Nissan Leaf EV Performance

November was an ugly month for solar photovoltaic production:

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Why?  My system was disconnected and shut down due to a planned upgrade.  The guys from Moxie Solar installed an additional 8 panels and the attendant “balance of system” components like a new grid tie inverter.  The 8 additional panels represent an approximate 62% increase in nameplate capacity for my system.  Given the orientation and installation location are virtually the same as the previous 16 panels I expect to see an approximate 62% increase in solar production once the array is powered up.

This has to be one of the most frustrating parts of a solar installation.  The rooftop install and other system components were done in a little more than a working day.  The city inspection was done in about fifteen minutes and done a few days after installation.  The permission to operate and the simple act of flipping the switch?  I am still waiting.

See most of those zero production days in the last week of November?  That is the cost of waiting for someone to come over from the electric utility and watch a person from the solar installer flip a switch.   It is like a bad anecdote about union rules from the 1980s.  Soon…the switch will be flipped soon.

This might also be the last month for a while where I seen an average of over 5 miles per kilowatt hour in my Nissan Leaf.  For the month I drove a total of 619 miles that used 123.8 kWh of electricity at an average efficiency of 5.0 miles per kWh.  At an average carbon intensity, I avoided emitting ~702 pounds of CO2.

What November really taught me is that cold weather kind of sucks for an EV.  My particular Nissan Leaf is not equipped with the heat pump, so it relies on a resistive heater to provide any level of defrost in cold weather.  Most of the time my trips are short enough that I just deal with a cold cabin while the heated seat and steering wheel keep me cozy.  Put three passengers in the car and the windows start to fog up pretty quick with hot breath.  There is nothing so dispiriting as watching the guess-o-meter drop by 30% or more when you turn on the heat.

It is not enough to dissuade me from recommending an EV in general or an older Nissan Leaf in particular.  There is something to be said for taking advantage of a market dynamic like extreme depreciation.  You can have your Tesla Model 3.  I will take my solar panels, Nissan Leaf, and decarbonized home to the bank every day.

The Financial Math Behind Decarbonization

What if I told you that for the price of a base model Tesla Model 3—good luck actually finding one—you could decarbonize your household?

What if I told you that this is not a thought exercise but an examination of steps already taken?

Are you ready?

The price for base Tesla Model 3 is ~$35,000.  That is the price assuming that you can actually purchase the so-called “standard range” model and before any applicable tax credits.  For the purposes of this discussion I am going to leave tax credits aside for the time being.  So, we are working with a starting price of $35,000.

For that price you get an electric vehicle that has to draw power from the grid, which depending upon your locale and power company may support coal fired electricity.  It may also support fracking for natural gas or the nuclear power energy, assuming any of that industry remains in your region.

What else could you do with that $35,000?

Over the course of the past two and half years I have installed solar photovoltaic panels on my roof in two phases.  Why two phases?  Initially, my power company would only allow my roof mounted solar photovoltaic array to exceed my annual consumption—based on average expected production—by ~10% or so.  Considering how little electricity my household used in comparison to the average this worked out to a system of 4.64 kWh.  This initial phase cost me ~$11,000 before tax credits at the state and federal level.

In the past month I added ~62% more capacity to my existing solar photovoltaic array at a cost of ~$7,500.  In the past year I added an electric vehicle to the mix, which has upped my household consumption, in addition to a few winter months in 2019 where my prior panels were covered under deep snow curtailing production.  We also forgot to turn off a garage heater, which ran up the electric bill in February.  All told these changes goosed our consumption just enough to allow me to install an additional eight panels on my roof.

As it stands right now the photovoltaic array on my roof has a nameplate capacity of 7.52 kWh.  This was complete at a total cost of ~$18,500 before any tax credits.  Remember, we are leaving tax credits aside for the moment.  Assuming my household usage patterns hold—including one electric vehicle—this system will produce more than 100% of my household’s electricity requirements for the year.  The estimated excess production should allow me to replace my natural gas water heater with an electric air source heat pump model further reducing my household requirements for fossil fuels.  With the water heater replaced in the next year my household will only use natural gas for the forced air furnace in the colder months.  Trust me, I am looking at options to replace that as well.

What about the electric vehicle?  This is where the power of the market and a realistic assessment of one’s needs come into play.

A Tesla Model 3 is a fine automobile.  Dollar for dollar, it may be the best vehicle on the market right now when one considers its relative performance and environmental bona fides.  However, it still costs $35,000.

In January of this year I purchased a used Nissan Leaf for ~$11,500.  The Leaf had ~33K miles on the odometer, but the battery was in great condition being that the 2015 and later model years utilized an updated architecture that corrected some of the prior model years’ most glaring problems.  A purchase price of more than eleven thousand dollars might sound like a lot, but this was a car that retailed for more than $30,000 when new.  Losing two thirds of car’s value without high mileage is crazy town.  Or, good for the person who can take advantage.

If one can live with a lesser range, one can take advantage of the market punishing these older EVs for not being up to Tesla’s newer standards.  If one drives in town, for the most part, there is no disadvantage.  In almost a year of daily driving I have had just one instance of the range “guess-o-meter” dropping below ten miles remaining and I have never experienced the indignity of “turtle mode.”

How does this all add up?  Total cost for me to purchase an EV to replace all of my daily driver miles and enough solar photovoltaic capacity to power me entire household, including EV electricity requirements, was less than $30,000 before any tax incentives.  Compared to a $35K Tesla Model 3 I would say that I ended up in a better place.  Five thousand or so dollars better, mind you.

This is not to diminish the decision of someone purchasing a Tesla or any other EV.  Rather, it is to illustrate that there is an alternative path to decarbonization that is neither as expensive as portrayed by many and without any appreciable downsides.

The future is now.

This is What the Future Looks Like

Last week the installers from Moxie Solar completed the installation of eight additional solar photovoltaic panels on my west facing roof and the attendant upgrades to the electrical system (e.g. larger inverter).

Here is what 62% additional solar capacity looks like from the road:

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See anything?  That is right, you do not see anything out of the ordinary save for a standard suburban house.

Here is what that same additional solar capacity looks like from the west side of the house:

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This is what the future looks like.  Twenty four panels—sixteen 290W panels and eight 360W panels—producing green electricity every time the sun sends its rays our way.  These panels do their thing every day without nary a thought or action from me.  Silent and motionless these panels produce clean electricity.  This solar array will produce more than 100% of my household’s electricity needs including an electric vehicle.

If this is not the future than I have no idea of what will come to pass.

An Efficient Middle Finger Aimed at Donald Trump

Since the election of Donald Trump the world has seemed a little topsy turvy.  Facts are not facts anymore.  Lies are alternative facts.  And god knows what else has changed in the last twenty minutes.

In September, the great cheese puff announced that the Department of Energy was going to propose rules to roll back or delay efficiency requirements for categories of bulbs that account for approximately half of the sockets in the United States.

Why?  There was the usual word salad of free market, decreased regulation, Obama, freedom, America, choice…you get the idea.  The kicker may have been that Trump feels the new light bulbs make him look orange. Uh, bro, the reason you look orange is because you go to the same spray tan place as the kids on the Jersey Shore.  Do not take skin regimen tips from Snooky.

In honor of our idiotic president’s lame ideas and his minions seemingly inability do anything positive for the country I decided to extend a metaphorical middle finger and replace the fourteen reflector light bulbs in my basement:

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Out went fourteen incandescent and in went fourteen LEDS.  This is the low hanging fruit of efficiency improvements in any household.

Now, why hadn’t I done this sooner?  Honestly, until recently these were very low use lights in our basement.  Until we finished the very large craft table and set my daughter up for piano lessons these lights might not have been turned on all week.  With winter on the way the kids are downstairs a lot more and the lights are on a lot more.

If we can keep making changes like this during the current moronic administration, imagine what the changes will look like under a political environment that actually supports positive change?  I am sure that Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that.

January 2019 Solar got Whacked by Snow and a Polar Vortex

Winter returned to eastern Iowa in a big way in January.  Want to guess when it got all wintry up in this house?  Check out the chart and tell me:

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Yep, you can see when the nearly foot of snow covered my solar panels.  Normally the snow will slide off with a few warmer days.  Heck, even when it is still pretty cold the sun can make enough of a difference to clear the panels.

However, when the polar vortex comes along with some new snow the panels on top of my garage remain covered.  Things should warm up this weekend—it might be sixty five degrees warmer this weekend versus Wednesday—and the snow should clear.

Just over 68 kWh of solar electricity for a month is the lowest production number in my system’s brief history.  It is also less than half the production from the same month last year.  It goes to show that I might need to invest in one of those soft rubber roof rakes to clear my panels in times of inclement weather.  Especially if I am going to expand my system by more than 50% to account for the electricity use of my Nissan Leaf.

More to come on the solar expansion very soon.  I promise.

Something is Missing from the Green New Deal

The Green New Deal is the shiny new thing in the 116th Congress.  This an unalloyed good thing.  We need to be talking about the big ideas that can move this country forward instead of always arguing about small ball politics.

However, I fear that something is missing from every discussion about the contents of the Green New Deal.  Trees.  Rather, forests.  Forests?  You know, those mass groupings of trees.

What about forests?

Forests are the unsung hero of our fight against climate change.  Decidedly analog, forests do not get any of the hype afforded to electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, or even god damned nuclear fusion.  Why?  It is probably because people’s eyes glaze over when someone talks about forests and stereotypes of treehugging hippies run through their minds.

However, before we can deploy enough renewable energy or replace enough automobiles with EVs forests can help us combat the coming climate apocalypse.  Trees absorb carbon dioxide and capture it in their wood fibers.  Trees help to slow down the rainfall preventing erosion, top soil runoff, and even filter rainwater as it falls from the sky through the canopy to the ground.  Trees help to cool the surrounding area.  Trees provide habitat for animals.  Unless you are the most Trumpian right wing reactionary there is no denying the enviable service record of trees.

The key is not to just save the forests that we currently have, but to recover the forests that we have lost.  I propose a nationwide effort to recover as many acres of forest covered land as possible.  There are literally tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of acres of land that were once covered with forests that could become verdant again.

In the region known as Appalachia it is estimated that more than 1.5 million acres of mountain top land has been reduced to bare earth and rubble by coal mining over the last fifty years.  Reforestation of these degraded lands is an opportunity to provide much needed jobs in the region, improve the environment, and build a legacy for future generations.  All by planting some trees.

In 2018 California saw almost 1.9 million acres burned in wildfires.  Reforestation of these lands is an opportunity to reduce the ecological impact of wildfires in that state and ameliorate some of the secondary impacts like mudslides in subsequent years.

In Colorado, as a result of the invasive mountain pine beetle, one in 14 trees in the state is dead and almost three quarters of the state’s lodgepole pine stands are impacted.  In the end the infestation and resulting tree die off may leave an area the size of Rhode Island deforested.  Reforestation is an opportunity to reverse some of this damage and restore Colorado’s forests to their majestic beauty.

These are just a few examples, but I could have chosen examples in the Pacific Northwest or northern Minnesota or Arizona.  Almost every state in the United States could benefit from reforestation.

Here is the best part.  Reforestation does not require any new technology or industries to be created.  Reforestation does not require any new government agencies to be created.  We possess the knowledge, organizations, and infrastructure to implement a nationwide reforestation plan.  We just lack the money.

Ahhhh, money.  How much money exactly?  Who knows?  How much land do you want to cover in trees?  Piedmont Land and Timber, a timber management company in Georgia, publishes a very concise breakdown of the costs to reforest an acre:

  • Herbicide application: $125/acre
  • Controlled burn: $60/acre
  • Planting @ 500 seedlings per acre: $74/acre
  • Landowner cost: $45/acre

The total to plant an acre of trees, albeit for timber production, is ~$300 according to a private company.  The largest part of that expense is the application of herbicides which could be eliminated in many cases where the goal is not to develop a stand for logging at a later date.  Regardless, I will use $300 per acre as a baseline for cost.

Let’s use the lands degraded by coal mining in Appalachia as a model.  So, we are working with ~1.5 million acres over several years.  Total cost, assuming $300 per acre, would be $450 million.  Over five years the annual cost would be $90 million.  That is about the cost of a single F-35A fighter plane per year.  Imagine what restoring 1.5 million acres of land would look like from an environmental standpoint.

The money is large when it is looked at in isolation, but it is paltry when compared with so many things in Washington D.C.  Just consider our current president’s pet border wall.  Each mile is estimated to cost $25 million dollars.  We could trade four miles of border wall per year for a restoration of Appalachian forests.  I am willing to make that trade.

Will anyone in Washington D.C. speak for the trees?

Two Approaches to the Environment on the Ballot this Midterm Election

In November we will be given a choice to change the direction of the United States politically.  As is the case every two years the entirety of the U.S. House of Representatives is up for election.  Many of the House districts in the United States are drawn in such a way that partisan incumbents face little challenge to their reelection bids.

In Iowa, however, relatively fairly drawn House districts mean that we have an actually competitive race between incumbent Rod Blum, no friend of this blog, and Democratic challenger Abby Finkenauer.

As an environmentalist I think comparing the candidates’ views on climate change to be instructive as it serves as a point of departure from the Trump wing of America and the rest of the country.

Rod Blum is a climate change denier.  As a member of the arch-conservative and downright wacky House Freedom Caucus Blum has not met an environmental rule or agreement that he did not want to gut like a catfish.  In 2014 he went on the record as a skeptic of climate change.  He supported Trump’s move to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.  While in office he has continued to financially benefit from oil and gas stocks while moving to open up public lands to more oil and gas drilling.

The League of Conservation voters nailed it by giving Rod Blum a 2% lifetime score when it comes to national environmental issues.  Honestly, I am quite surprised he managed to drum up 2% given his voting record.  He’s basically Scott Pruitt, but from Dubuque, Iowa.

Contrast that with Abby Finkenauer, who has an entire section of her campaign website dedicated to the environment and clean energy.  Entitled “Growing our Clean Energy Economy and Protecting our Environment” it states that:

I’ll play a similar watchdog role in Congress, and will just as firmly stand up to attempts to weaken key programs and measures that fight climate change, grow our clean energy economy, and protect our environment. Ultimately it’s time we had a representative who fights for Iowa families – ensuring they can live in healthy environments supported by good jobs – rather than standing with corporate polluters and those opposed to science.

A-freaking-men!

I believe that the choice of what is right for Iowa’s 1st district and, thus, the United States is to vote for Abby Finkenauer this November.  It’s just the planet that is counting on you.

What Impact Does a Single Aluminum Can Make?

About once a week, sometimes more, I pick up a discarded aluminum can on the side of the road in the last few miles of my usual thirty mile out and back.  Cyclists are not the source of these cans, I believe, since most of them are on a stretch of road well-travelled by garbage trucks, work vehicles, and jackasses who litter.

Aluminum, as we all learned in elementary school when Earth Day was new and shiny, is easily recyclable.  The problem is that less than half of the estimated 100 billion aluminum cans per year are recycled.  Now, a 50% recovery rate is pretty good compared to plastic or paper but considering the ecological impact of turning bauxite into aluminum it is unacceptable.

It takes a lot of raw bauxite ore and energy to make aluminum.  Recycling the aluminum flips that equation on its head.  The old saw that we learned as kids was that the energy saved from recycling one can could save enough energy to run your television for three hours.  When you are concerned about the environment and love watching Thundercats on Saturday morning this is a big deal.  Now?  Not so much.  Here’s the deal.  It takes twenty times the energy to produce an aluminum can from raw ore versus recycling said can.  Put in kilowatt hour terms it takes ~4.2 kWh to make an aluminum can from scratch. So, every can you pull from the waste stream and put into the recycling stream saves about 4 kWh of electricity and, by extension, about 4 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

That is for a single can.  If I pick up a single can across the 25 or so weeks of “prime” riding season here in eastern Iowa the end result is a savings of about 100 kWh of electricity or 4 to 5 days of solar photovoltaic production from my rooftop array.  Start multiplying that over all of the people taking a ride and it adds up to some real electricity savings.  Think about getting closer to 100% recovery of the 100 billion aluminum cans manufactured in the U.S. every year.  Those are big numbers.

How big?  For every one billion cans or four billion pounds of carbon dioxide not emitted that is like doing any one of the following:

  • Over 388,000 of the average car driven for a year or
  • Almost 196,000 homes energy use for one year or
  • About 460 wind turbines production for a year
  • And a whole lot more…play with the numbers, it’s fun.

This is why it is important, in my mind, to pick up the cans I see littering the road and trail when I am on my bike.  A few seconds every ride is all it takes.  Heck, in Iowa we have a freaking deposit law so every can also nets you a nickel.  Do it for the nickels!

Tomorrow is a Dangerous Word

It is my contention that tomorrow is not the hopeful word that we make it out to be but that it is a dangerous word.  Perhaps, it is the most dangerous word that we frequently use without considering the ramifications on our daily lives.

A few years ago CSX, the railroad giant, had a television ad that featured the word tomorrow in all of its hopeful glory.  The idea was that tomorrow held infinite possibilities for good things.  All true, no doubt, but what if we never act on those possibilities because there is always the perception of another tomorrow.

I posit that tomorrow is the most dangerous word because it lets all of us off the hook.

All of the things that might be a little difficult today we put off until tomorrow.  And tomorrow never comes for a lot of the things that we put off.  I will ride my bike to work tomorrow.  I will pack my lunch tomorrow.  I will plant that tree tomorrow.  I will be a better person tomorrow.

The idea of tomorrow allows us to bask in the glow of the virtuous thing we intend to do without actually having to accomplish anything.  We will get to it tomorrow.  It is so tantalizingly close as if it were today.  Tomorrow is the instant gratification that our Instagram obsessed culture demands.

However, the environment may not have a tomorrow because we are so greedy today.

What if there is no tomorrow?  What would you do today?

It’s Ok to Wear Cotton

Cotton kills.

If you spend any time performing an activity outdoors someone has said that to you in the past year.  It might have even been you, which in that case you are “that guy.”

Here’s the thing.  Cotton is actually pretty damn comfortable, it doesn’t end up with those funky synthetic fabric odors, and I do not look like Dwayne Johnson when I am riding the three miles to work on my bicycle.

It’s ok to wear cotton.  Heck, I even prefer cotton t-shirts to performance wicking t-shirts on any bike ride save my long days in the saddle when the mileage creeps up around the fifty mark.

It’s ok to wear cotton.  We all do not need to be kitted up like pseudo-Tour de France racers for a quick pedal around town with the kids.  Sure, your jersey, shorts, socks, and handlebar tape are all color coordinated but you still look like a tool when you are following behind tottering children struggling to finish the ride.

It’s ok to wear cotton.  When we step off the bike and stop in for a beer no one wants to look like a pack of MAMILs (Middle Aged Man In Lycra).  It’s a thing and it is not pretty.

It’s ok to wear cotton.  We all probably have several cotton t-shirts sitting in a dresser drawer waiting to be worn.  There is no need to head out to the shop and buy a special shirt just to ride a bike.  Dig into the dark recesses of your forgotten cloths, pull out that t-shirt from vacation a few years ago, and wear it with non-ironic pride on your next ride into work.

It’s ok to wear cotton.  If we want cycling to be anything other than a niche activity pursued by enthusiasts we need to stop telling people that it is wrong to wear a simple t-shirt. We want people out of their cars and on bikes.  People are healthier, the air is cleaner, and our communities are more resilient when people drop the keys and start pedaling.  Too often the people who should be helping get others onto saddles are the same ones who are scaring people away with their mantras about cotton.

Join me this summer in putting away the wicking fabric for just a moment and taking a ride in a simple cotton t-shirt.  You might actually feel like a human being again.