Tag Archives: electricity

First Step in a Path Toward Deeper Decarbonization

Once you have purchased an electric vehicle—in my case a used 2015 Nissan Leaf—and installed solar panels—in my case a total of 24 panels for a nameplate capacity of ~7.5 kWh—you are left with a question: how do I further decarbonize my household?

If you live in a single family home in the United States there are a surprising number of places where fossil fuels are being used on a daily basis.  Most home owners do not really consider these sources of carbon emissions.

Consider the lawn.  Anyone with an inkling of environmental conscience understands that the turf grass monoculture that dominates our landscape is essentially a hellscape of inappropriate plants, harmful chemicals, and energy intensive maintenance.

In my household we have abandoned the chemicals and I am ripping out sections of turf grass as often as I can in order for it to be replaced with perennials suited for my region.  However, I am left with some amount of turf grass and social expectation that this grass be mowed on a semi-regular basis.

Trust me, I have pushed the bounds of both social expectations and legal ramifications over the years by allowing parts of my lawn to go weeks without seeing the spinning blade of a lawn mower.

Nonetheless, I am bound to some degree to maintain a well-manicured lawn.  As a good suburban homeowner I spent the last nine years mowing my lawn with a traditional gas powered push mower.  I dutifully filled it up with a small amount of ethanol free gasoline every few weeks and spent about an hour clipping my grass down to the maximum height setting.

Thankfully, a series of mechanical mishaps aligned with my desire to rid myself of this pollution spewing beast.  How much pollution does a mower release, you ask?  It depends upon the source and methodology, but according the EPA lawn mowing accounts for up to 5% of the United State’s total air pollution.  Not to mention the millions of gallons of gasoline that are spilled filling mowers.   Add in the oil required for four stroke engines and you have a lot of fossil fuels being consumed to keep our lawns high and tight.

Now, I could have rolled old school with a reel mower as someone will surely point out.  I would also ask that person if they have ever mowed more than a few hundred square feet with one of these contraptions.  Seriously, another eco-minded neighbor bought one and every household with an interest tried it once.  Reel mowers are the Zima of lawn care.  You try it once and never think about it again.

Strolling the aisles of my local Home Depot—an activity one is likely to engage in when waiting for your child to complete soccer practice—I noticed a clearance sticker on a Ryobi cordless electric mower.  Now was the time to jump on the electric lawn mowing bandwagon.

For less than the cost online of a regular push mower—battery electric or ice—I took home a battery electric self-propelled mower.  The 40V mower came with a single 5-amp hour battery.  If I believe the online reviews this battery should provide about 45 minutes to 1 hour of cutting depending upon usage.  We shall see.

Additionally, I purchased an extra battery online.  The cool thing about the 40V Ryobi tool line is that with such a large installed base there is a healthy aftermarket in third party batteries.  I was able to get a compatible battery rated at 6-amp hours for less than $80.  With two batteries I should have more than enough capacity to complete mowing my lawn.  Again, we shall see.

For the first time in forever I am looking forward to the beginning of lawn care season if only to see how the electric revolution applies.  The march toward a deeper level of decarbonization carries on.

Personal Goals for 2020

Welcome to 2020 folks.

I have always said that I do not do “resolutions.”  Except for the year I told people that I was going to take up smoking, gain weight, and drink more.  Granted, I failed on all three but I made some resolutions. However, I will make some goals.

The reason I publish these goals and cadence them on this blog is that I have found it is hugely effective in getting me to execute.  The power of accountability. What follows does build on what I wanted to achieve in 2019.

Here are my goals for 2020:

  • Deeper decarbonization: It is one thing to put solar panels on your roof and buy an electric vehicle.  That is just the start. As I look at my household energy use holistically I can see several opportunities for deeper decarbonization.  A couple of examples: replacing an aging gasoline powered lawn mower with an electric lawn mower; replacing an existing natural gas fired water heater with an electric air source heat pump “smart” water heater.
  • Replace 500 Vehicle Miles with Human Powered Transit: It is one thing to replace a gasoline powered mile with an electric powered mile, but it is an even better thing to replace all of these miles with human powered miles.  Why? While an EV is orders of magnitude more efficient than an ICE vehicle, both pale in comparison to the efficiency of human powered transit. It is not just about the direct energy costs of delivering a human being to their desired location, but the embodied energy of the infrastructure required for cars.
  • Ride 2,500 Miles on my Bicycle: Last year I rode over 3,000 miles.  I am keeping the goal the same for this year because I am looking to incorporate more commuting into my summer riding and I am going to try and branch out with some different riding.  Maybe I will even get back into mountain biking after almost a decade out of the saddle.
  • Ride 2 “New to Me” Trails: There are so many potentially amazing trails just in my region that I have not ridden.  It is easy to become complacent and ride the “usual.” I am going to try and break out of the rut.
  • Local, Direct, and Packaging Neutral Beer: It is one thing to buy local beer, but it is better to buy it directly from the brewery without creating packaging waste.  Combining all three is like the holy grail of beer consumption.
  • Read 40 Books: Last year I read 51 books against a goal of 25 books.  I guess that I was sandbagging a little bit. Moving the goal up to 40 books, but there are a lot of thick and dense tomes on my book list.  Like Capital in the Twenty First Century dense.
  • Reduce Lawn, Increase Landscape Variety: There is too much grass.  Our lawns are giant monocultures that are crying to be diversified.  The goal this year is to take some of that grass out and replace it with diverse plantings that are beneficial for both the environment and wildlife.
  • Maximize Local Food: Month in and month out, food is the second largest expense in my household after a mortgage payment.  Directing as much of this money as possible to local vendors and producers is the single biggest change that I can make in 2020.  I have about three months of detailed information from the end of 2019 when I began thinking about this as a baseline, so I think I will know if I am doing a decent job.

December 2019 Solar Production and EV Performance

The additional capacity for my solar photovoltaic array was finally turned on in the middle of December.  For some reason the monitoring software is screwed up—probably because it is tied to the old inverter that is now powering an array for a friend in northeast Iowa.  It is my hope that the issue is resolved in the next few days and I can start comparing total production of the array.

Regardless, I have a decent idea of how I am doing relative to total consumption versus total production using the readout from my bi-directional meter.  For December I ended up using ~208 kWh more than I produced.  Considering that my system was not operational for half of the month I am going to take this as a good sign that I should now produce more than I consume most months out of the year.  In the past December has been one of the worst for solar production.

Knowing my numbers at the beginning of the year it is my estimate that I will be net positive when it comes to total consumption versus total production even including my electricity usage for driving my Nissan Leaf.

For the month of December I drove my Nissan Lead 574.7 miles at an average efficiency of 5.0 miles per kWh.  This translates into a CO2 savings of ~651 pounds compared to driving my prior vehicle assuming an average carbon intensity of electricity from the grid.

For the entire year, I drove my Nissan Leaf ~7,987 miles at an average efficiency of 5.2 miles per kWh.  I think this is a pretty good average efficiency based on what I am seeing on forums and what not.  This represents a savings ~9,119 pounds of CO2 compared to driving my prior vehicle assuming an average carbon intensity of electricity from the grid.  It also represents ~$1,132 savings in fuel costs assuming I draw power from the grid at my residential rate.

The Downside of Snow

Unlike a lot of people I actually like snow.  I like snow so much that I spend my hard earned money to strap wooden sticks to my feet and fling myself down mountainsides covered with the stuff.  Come to think of it, when I describe my ski trips like that it does not sound so sane.  I digress.

The only problem that I have with snow is that it covers up my solar panels.  Like the two inches of snow that fell overnight:

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After last year’s snowy and cold January and February left my panels snow covered and non-productive I decided to come into this winter prepared.  Enter the SnoBroom:

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Okay, the SnoBroom is just the blue foam blade atop the extendable pole.  The extendable pole might be the true star of this story.  It extends to a maximum of 24’ which seemed like a lot right up until I was clearing snow for real:

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With the pole alone I was able to clear the first row of panels and a portion of the second row.  You can see on the closest panels that I spent some time with a step stool to get additional height.  Yes, I was able to nearly clear the panels.  No, I did not fully clear my array.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to come up with a better approach to clearing the array.  Snow, aluminum steps, and a little liquid moisture make for a precarious endeavor.  Practice makes perfect, right?

The other reason I did not push the issue this afternoon is that the temperature is supposed to be nearly 40 degrees with sunny skies tomorrow.  The snow will take care of itself this time.

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.