Tag Archives: electricity

Turning the Lights off at Work

It is my opinion that I have cut down my household electricity consumption to a fairly good range.  For a family of four living in an above average sized home using 360 to 390 kWh per month on a twelve month rolling average feels like a success.  Furthermore, I am offsetting more than 100% of that electricity consumption via the solar photovoltaic system on my roof.

Although my children generally groan when I tell them to head back downstairs to turn off lights when they are done playing with LEGOS or practicing piano they understand what is behind the request.  Heck, my son has turned into a little eco-warrior albeit in his own way.  For some reason he is focused on people who smoke.  His frequent refrain when we pass someone smoking is, “Why do people smoke?  It’s not good for them, it is expensive, and the smoke is bad for the environment.”  If only we all could follow the logic of a six year old.

However, much of my days is not spent at home but at work.  It is a fairly standard office setting.  A lot of cubicles, a smattering of offices, and a handful of conference rooms.  It is the type of office environment that would not be out of place in a half hour sitcom or the movie Office Space.  Fortunately my days are not interrupted by Lundberg.

Surprisingly in a recent renovation of the office space some automatic lighting controls were installed that switch lighting on and off based on movement.  This prevents offices and common areas from being lit up all night long when none is occupying the space.  I say surprisingly because the company I work for is not well known for its forward leaning facilities plan.

The conference rooms do not have these features.  Lights are still controlled by wall mounted switches and projectors for presentations have indeterminate timers.  No matter how many LEDs I switch off in my own home, it cannot compare to switching off the conference room lights at the end of the day before going home.  Heck, I turn off the lights in the three conference rooms I pass on my way to get hot water for tea whenever these rooms are unoccupied.

The computer projectors, though, drive me insane.  When these things are blazing away it is like leaving a 300W incandescent bulb burning.  Ever seen a 300W incandescent bulb?  It’s freaking bright and hot.  A couple of taps on a remote is all it takes to turn these machines off yet most meetings adjourn with the projectors being left on regardless of a meeting taking place in the same room or not.

I now find myself turning into the light and projector police at work.  What about you?  Do you turn the lights off at work?

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We Have the Tools to Create Meaningful Change

For the first time in my memory, which stretches back to the now fuzzy early 1980s, I feel that we have the tools to positively combat climate change available at a personal level.  No longer are we limited to advocating for municipal recycling, agitating McDonald’s to get rid of polystyrene clamshells, or hanging our undergarments out to dry in the sun.  Hey, it was the 1980s and I wanted save the whales so I spent a lot of time writing letters to McDonald’s threatening to boycott Happy Meals forever unless they got rid of those old school burger boxes.

Let me use solar power as an example of a tool that we have available down here at a personal level.  Consider the cost per watt in dollar terms from 1977 until 2015:

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In simple mathematical terms that is a decline in price per way of over 99.5%.  Whereas a solar photovoltaic system was probably only something that strange science teacher who drove an ancient Volvo actually had on his house is now something a lot more people can install.

Take my solar photovoltaic installation.  In a little more than two half days and for a cost of less than $11K I had 4.64 kWh of solar installed in a single array on a west facing garage roof.  After tax credits the total cost will come in somewhere around $6K.  For six thousand dollars I now produce all of my electricity needs from the sun.  Granted, it is a grid tie system so I use traditional utility power on occasion.

Yes, I use a lot less electricity than the average peer house but it’s not like I live in an off-grid yurt.  I have a typically large American refrigerator, I run the air conditioning when it is hot, I have a large screen television that gets turned on to watch football games, and so on.  Hell, I have an electric dryer and range.  The point is that you can use a lot less electricity and produce it all via the sun with a fairly minimal investment and without sacrificing the quality of life we have come to assume is natural in the United States.  This is not Ed Begley Jr. being eco-dramatic on Living with Ed.

Even better is that none of the technology used in a solar system is in its infancy, so the maturity of the design is well along which means the systems are reliable.  No one is going to be spending hours up on a roof trying to figure out why the panels are not producing any juice.  The solid state system just sits on top of the roof generating power from the sun without any moving parts or noise.  Day in and day out whenever the sun shines and even when it does not.  If that is not a powerful tool to combat carbon emissions and the resultant climate change I do not know what would qualify.

Going solar is just one of the many tools available to us to make a difference.  We all need to take a moment and examine our lives.  What are the activities that we engage in that have an outsize impact on our carbon emissions.  Tools exist and are available to us that can ameliorate almost any source of emissions if we are willing to make the effort.

Given the horrible state of national leadership on climate issues it is incumbent upon us as concerned individuals to make every effort and deploy every tool.  You might feel good about yourself when you sign a petition, but it has to go further than that if we are to have any hope of a sustainable and equitable future on this planet.

My goal over the next few months is to really examine what the tools are that can help me—a guy living a fairly normal suburban life with three other people in eastern Iowa—eliminate my carbon emissions.

A Full Month of Solar in September

September 2017 was the first full month with solar providing electricity for my home.  Yay!

The numbers are in and things look good.  For the entire month my solar photovoltaic system produced 509.63 kWh of electricity.  Compared with my estimated based on average solar radiation, my array’s azimuth, and other factors I predicted the system would produce approximately 536 kWh in September.  The system ended up at around 95% of the estimate.

This is a mixed bag, but the weather played a factor.  It was cool and cloudy for a good chunk of the month, so we used little to no air conditioning save for a few days when it decided to reach into the nineties.  Thanks climate change.

In terms of production versus consumption I ended the month producing an excess of approximately 130 kWh of electricity.  I will be very interested to see what my bill looks like with a full month of the bi-directional meter installed.  Last month’s bifurcated bill was an absolute mess to understand.

Also, the thrill of monitoring my photovoltaic system’s production has not really worn off.  On sunny days I loved to check and see how much the system is producing.  Every kWh feels like a small victory.

My New Addiction

One of the great features of my SolarEdge inverter is a monitoring system that produces a great looking dashboard:

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There is an app for my phone that shows the same information updated at fifteen minute intervals.  Damn, this is addictive.  I check it probably ten times a day to see what my new toy is doing.

Now that I mention it, I wonder what the production is right now…

How Much Electricity Will My Solar System Produce?

By the beginning of September I should be generating electricity from the solar photovoltaic panels mounted on my roof.  The system will be comprised of 16 290W panels mounted on a nearly directly south facing roof (270 degrees azimuth give or take a degree for those of you into these things).

Using a variety of calculators online I averaged out the estimates of “peak solar hours” for my system as designed and came up with the following chart to estimate my solar system’s output:

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The output is based on taking the system size (4.64 kWh) times the peak solar hours and reducing it by an assumed system yield (65%).

The system yield is probably the trickiest number to estimate.  I went as low as 65% because that level would still allow me to meet my annual electricity consumption based on a 400 kWh per month rolling average, which dipped to 390 kWh the past few months and which I hope will drop even further with some forthcoming household changes.

The yield is a function of so-called system losses and general lower production due to siting issues, shade, cloud cover, dirt, etc.  My hope is that on balance I see a system yield in the 75% range.  This would give me a little breathing room above and beyond my average annual consumption.

The worst part right now is the waiting.  The solar installers are ready to go and the panels have arrived but we are waiting on the power company and the city to sign off on the system design.  Every day that I see the sun out shining bright is a day that I feel like I have missed an opportunity to generate clean electricity from the sun.

My Personal Paris

The U.S. government will not save us from climate change.  The signs have been apparent long before Donald Trump took the oath of office and handed over the U.S. government to fossil fuel interests in a manner so brazen even Dick Cheney would blush.  The final nail in the coffin of the possibility of leadership from the U.S. government came with the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

Make no mistake, the Paris climate accord was not going to be the tool with which to save the world from man-made climate change.  It was a first step in codifying a structure with which to address the issue in a constructive manner.  The current President of the United States does not understand constructive problem solving since it cannot be manhandled into a monosyllabic tweet at five o’clock in the morning.

The Paris climate accord was limited, but it was a start.  Just getting everyone to the table—save for Syria and Nicaragua at the time—was a major accomplishment.  Just getting everyone to agree that man-made climate change was a problem and that we should act was herculean.  We all can agree, however, that the Paris climate accord did not go far enough to address the problem and it does not include forcing functions for countries that fail to live up to the commitments made to the world.

Regardless, the framework of the Paris climate accord is irrelevant for those of us in the United States.  This does not mean that we have to sit idly by and watch as the world tries to address the problem.  I surmise that at this moment in history most of the tools that we need as a civilization exist for us to combat climate change and secure the future of Earth as a viable habitat for humanity.

Consider the following chart of the sources of carbon emissions in the United States:

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As an individual we have a hand in every slice of the pie with a more direct impact on some more than others.  It is our job as residents of the planet to figure out how we can meet or exceed the goals of the Paris climate accord without the agreement of politicians in Washington D.C.

Everyone has to figure out how they will act on a “personal Paris.”  Unlike almost any other time in recent history we have the tools to make meaningful change at a personal level.  Solar photovoltaic systems are cheaper now than ever and make economic sense in almost any market in the country.  Electric vehicles are now more common than ever before and accessible to a larger share of the population that at any other time in the short history of the technology.  Commuting can be reduced or eliminated via bicycling or telecommuting or just becoming an early retiree like all those couples living in vans on Instagram.

My point is that we have a plethora of options in order to address every slice of the emissions pie pictured above.  If you have the discretionary income there are options.  If you have extra time there are options.  If you need to save money there are options.  As I stated earlier, unlike any other time in recent history we have the tools available to use to make meaningful change.

We need to take responsibility for our actions and act in a correspondingly restorative way.  We need to become the change we want to see in the world.

Thinking about Household Electricity Consumption

As I dither about installing a solar photovoltaic system on my home I also spend a lot of time thinking about electricity consumption in general.

When I first contacted a few solar installers in my area—who have all been very responsive which is a sharp difference from other home service providers lately—all of the systems were sized far in excess of my needs.  I have written before about my household electricity consumption and it remains something that baffles me well into 2017.

The twelve month rolling average electricity consumption of my household is approximately 400 kWh.  It has been stable within 20 kWh of this number for about three years.  What does that number mean in comparison to the average U.S. and Iowa household?

According to the Energy Information Administration the average U.S. and Iowa households consume approximately 900 kWh and 847 kWh per month respectively.  What the hell are people doing with all of this electricity?

It is not as if I live in a small house without the use of many electric appliances.  We have a large-ish French door refrigerator, chest freezer in the basement, electric dryer, and an electric range.  When I lived in a house with a gas range, gas dryer, and no deep freeze the monthly average was below 200 kWh over the course of three years.

We use the air conditioning in the summer, although it is rarely icy like in some houses.  We cook at home all the time using the electric range and small appliances like my beloved Instant Pot.  There are two elementary school aged children in the house so we run through a lot of clothes that often times use the electric dryer.  Sure we turn off lights in rooms, have LEDs in all but a few fixtures, do not watch very much television, and generally exist in a somewhat analog entertainment world (e.g. books that are actually printed on paper occupy many an end table spot).

It makes me question the urgency to install a solar photovoltaic system.  Yes, such a system would divorce me from the somewhat dirty grid in Iowa where even though a large percentage of our electricity is wind derived much of the rest comes from coal.  However, would I be better off investing that capital in something else that might have more of an impact ecologically speaking?

Furthermore, if I am living a modern life at half of the juice—so to speak—of the average household in my state doesn’t that mean we have a lot of room to become more efficient without really sacrificing anything in terms of modernity?  Just some random—kind of like the Tweeter in Chief going off in the morning—thoughts for a Monday afternoon.