Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Challenge to Richard Branson

Back in February of 2007 Richard Branson offered a $25 million prize to anyone who can come up with a plan for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While at first glance this may seem like a noble gesture, some have questioned Branson’s sincerity. Since his airlines, railroads, and other pursuits are responsible for adding significant amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, his offer of a prize to clean it up might be seen as disingenuous. One might conclude that the offer of a prize for cleaning up the atmosphere would benefit Branson by allowing him to continue to pollute. Or, could it be that the offer of a prize was prompted by a feeling of guilt on Branson’s part? After all, Richard Branson is developing the ultimate in pointless travel, space tourism.

Richard Branson has money, lots of money, and he is involved in a variety of business enterprises. If he were sincere in his effort to do something good for the planet, he might have used the $25 million to promote projects that cut the use of fossil fuels. It makes no sense to try to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while continuing to pump it into the atmosphere at an ever-increasing rate. Funding wind, solar, hydro, and bio-fuel projects would have been a better use for the prize money.

Perhaps it’s wrong to be critical of someone who claims to want to do something positive for the environment, but then what has Richard Branson done to prove his sincerity? Backing up his words with actions would certainly improve Branson’s credibility. I requested an entry form for the Branson Challenge over eight weeks ago, and I’m still waiting for it. Can you blame me for my skepticism? And Al Gore, one of the contest judges, is concerned that the contest might distract people from taking more practical steps to battle global warming.

If you’re reading this Richard Branson, I suggest that you take the time to consider what a few sincere people are doing for the benefit of the planet. For example: Gary Reysa runs a website that caters to environmentally conscious do-it-yourselfers. John Abbott’s website and forum are great sources of information for those interested in environmentally-friendly alternatives to home heating. William Lord’s website describes the design and workings of his solar-powered home in Maine. These are just a few of the many folks who, at their own expense, tackle environmentally beneficial projects and share their knowledge with others. We’re doing these things now, not simply bragging about what we plan to do. In the long run we’ll do more good than all of the “rich and famous” combined.

If you’re sincere Richard Branson, why not prove it by helping to fund those of us who are involved in projects that benefit the environment? In addition to the technically-minded among us, I’m sure there are plenty of biologists who would like to use their expertise to tackle the carbon dioxide problem. Just imagine how much more we could do with a small grant from you! You’ll know that the money won’t be wasted because we’re already working on environmentally beneficial projects. Come on Richard Branson, you know you want to do it. You've pledged $3 Billion of Virgin Atlantic money to fight global warming. Let's see you back up that statement with action! Get out your checkbook and send us each a couple hundred thousand dollars. I’ll be watching my mailbox.

Thanks in advance,
Solar John

Friday, April 20, 2007

Solar Electric (Photovoltaic System) on a Limited Budget

Recently I mentioned that it is possible to build a photovoltaic (PV) system on a very limited budget. Here are some ideas for doing that, and some thoughts about how useful a small system can be.

PV System Diagram:

Because of the abundance of system components that operate on 12-Volts (charge controllers, batteries, inverters, etc.), choosing to build a 12-Volt DC system will result in the lowest overall system cost. By converting the DC voltage to AC and boosting it to 120-Volts, ordinary household appliances can be powered by the system described here.

Although lightning protection, fusing, and mounting hardware are not shown, this is a complete system, and a true bargain hunter should be able to put it together at a very low cost. The most expensive system component is the solar panel itself. Keep in mind that to get the most from your system, you’ll want to get the largest solar panel that your budget will allow. Here are a few options for the budget-minded:

Check ebay, flea markets, and your local newspaper for used panels.

Watch for sale prices, perhaps on discontinued solar panels. Websites are listed at the bottom of this article.

Purchase individual solar cells and build your own panel. For cell pricing and how-to information, click on the links at the bottom of this article.

If you’re lucky enough to find used panels at a good price, grab them. Since solar panels have a life expectancy in excess of twenty five years, you’re likely to get a bargain.

Solar panels can be mounted on a pole, or on a roof, as long as they are aligned perpendicular to the sun. Wood, or metal, can be used as a mounting structure or frame. Use wiring that is heavy enough to carry the expected maximum current. Ground the panels to protect them, and your other equipment, from lightning strikes.

If you’re starting with just one panel, the output of that panel will probably be below 5-Amperes in full sunlight. If that’s the case, you need not choose an expensive charge controller. As with the solar panel, you might find a bargain on ebay. If you choose to purchase a new charge controller, prices start at about $30.00. Again, check the websites listed below.

If you choose to build your own panels from individual cells, a 36-cell panel will produce the correct voltage for a 12-volt system. Wire individual cells in series. Larger cells will produce more current than smaller ones, but the maximum current will be no greater than that produced by the smallest cell in the series string. Stated another way; for maximum efficiency, all cells should be the same size. Be sure to do a good job sealing the assembly from moisture to ensure long-life from your finished solar panel.

Used batteries are available from several sources. You might check with your local telephone company for rechargeable deep-cycle batteries, or with any business that has a lot of computers. Batteries used in UPS systems are often replaced before they reach the end of their useful life. While you should use only deep-cycle batteries, you could actually use any lead-acid or gell-type rechargeable. You might get them from junked cars, lawn tractors, or motorcycles. With some scrounging, you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting more battery capacity than your small system can handle. Test batteries by charging them and by making sure that they are able to maintain their charge for several days.

If you happen to find several 12-volt batteries, you can connect them in parallel in order to increase the amp/hour capacity. By connecting batteries in parallel (positive to positive and negative to negative), the voltage does not change. As you search for bargain batteries, keep in mind that it is not a good idea to connect batteries of different types together. Connecting several batteries to positive and negative bus-bars makes it easier to isolate individual batteries, and therefore easier to identify those that fail in the future. Bus-bars can be salvaged from junk fuse boxes, hand-made, or purchased new from a hardware store. Check this blog’s archives for additional battery information.

The final system component is the DC to AC inverter. If your budget will allow it, choose a True Sine Wave Inverter big enough to handle all of the loads you’ll want to connect simultaneously. For example; two 25-Watt light bulbs, a 60-Watt TV, and a 35-Watt fan will result in a need for an inverter rated at not less than 145-Watts of continuous power. If budget constraints force you to settle for a Modified Sine Wave Inverter, the inverter store (link included below), has one for $25.00.

Using ideas presented here, you may be able to put together a 50-Watt system for under $200.00. If so, and assuming 4 hours of sunlight per day, your system should produce about 200-Watts of power each sunny day. That may not sound like a lot, but it can be a big help when the grid power fails. One 13-Watt compact fluorescent light will burn up to 13 hours on that. Or it could power a TV, a fan, and some light for several hours each evening. If your battery is oversized with respect to the capacity of the solar panel, you’ll be able to store up power to use when you need it. While it may take several days to fully recharge your batteries, perhaps you’ll have enough stored power to get you through a short-term grid power failure. An oversized battery bank is good to have in a weekend cabin or camper as well. Although it may take several days to fully charge the battery bank, your goal should be to have enough stored power to last for the entire outing.

Once you’ve experienced the benefits of a small system during an actual grid power failure, you’ll probably want to enlarge the system so that it can do more. If you use the system on a daily basis, you’ll notice a small reduction in your electric bill. Check this blog’s archives for tips and information.

If you choose to build a small system, please let me know. I would like to write about your experience in an effort to help others. Bookmark this blog and check back often.

Solar John

Purchasing New Equipment:






Building your own solar panels:








Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Alternative Energy - Presidential Blunder

A Ford executive had to intervene when President Bush almost plugged an electrical cord into the hydrogen tank of a Ford hydrogen-electric plug-in vehicle recently. Fortunately, no harm was done, but the situation would have been different if the president had succeeded. The story might have gone something like this:

Instead of plugging the electrical cord of a hydrogen-electric vehicle into the car’s electrical connection, President Bush inserted it into the car’s hydrogen tank. When questioned about this, the president refused to admit his mistake, and will not set a timetable for withdrawal of the cord. He claims that setting a timetable will send the wrong message, and that the car would simply wait it out. The president remains steadfast in his decision. Critics on both sides of the isle accuse the president of rushing into this without clearly thinking about the consequences of his actions. Some say that he just looks stupid. Meanwhile, sources close to the president say that he has concluded that the best way to solve this problem is not to withdraw the cord, but instead to push it in even farther. Believing that the car is equipped with an electrical connection deep within the fuel tank, the president is said to be going forward with his plan, even though advisors have thoroughly checked the fuel tank and concluded that no such electrical connection exists.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Size Matters

If you happen to find a renewable energy article in a magazine or on the Internet, more likely than not it will be about a system costing thousands of dollars. It’s rare to find a story about a modest system, unless it’s for a remote cabin or camper. I started this blog, in part, to compensate for the lack of information about small systems. Entries are the result of my own experience and training, and what I’ve learned from others. I’ve received valuable information and advice from on-line discussion forums, and I contribute when the topic is within my area of knowledge and experience. As a result of one of my responses to a question on a photovoltaic system (PV) forum, I received a very nice message recently. Here is a portion of that message:

“A person was looking for feedback and everyone, I thought, was being kind of rude to him because of his limited budget. You were the only one that responded with any useful information.”

Internet discussion forums provide a good opportunity for novices to ask questions, and to get some pretty good free advice from experts in just about any area of renewable energy, but they seem to cater mainly to those with big budgets. Sadly, participants can sometimes be rude to beginners with small budgets. That attitude is just plain wrong. It is especially important to help those with limited budgets. As our energy needs increase, and natural resources decrease, the demand for small systems will skyrocket. The wealthy will install large systems of course, but the average person will conclude that it makes more sense to conserve electricity and use a small system than to install a large system and continue to waste energy.

Getting by with a small system is becoming increasingly easy to do since appliances tend to be much more energy efficient than their older counterparts, and going small doesn’t necessarily mean doing without. Eliminating phantom loads, and using mechanical replacements for things like clocks and doorbells, help to lower a household’s energy needs. Switching to compact fluorescent lights can play a large role in reducing the energy needs of a home.

It’s easy to overlook the benefits of starting small. A small system is a great learning experience. By monitoring system performance, the user gains valuable insight to how a larger system works. An increased awareness of the need to conserve energy is another important benefit of a small system. With that awareness you’re more likely to conserve energy, even when connected to the grid. A small PV system can be good for the environment in other ways as well. Replacing the equivalent grid-supplied energy with that from just 2 or 3 photovoltaic (PV) panels can actually reduce the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere by 1000 pounds each year. Just think of the effect thousands of small systems would have on the atmosphere!

Size does matter. Small systems will someday do more for the environment than all of the large systems combined. Kenya, for example, has more solar PV systems per capita than any other country in the world, and most of those systems are under 25-watts.

Those who invest in renewable energy systems, even small ones, are less likely to need to be rescued in the event of an emergency. If you’re someone people turn to for advice, don’t discourage, ridicule, or ignore those with limited budgets. Show them how to achieve the best possible results with the limited resources available to them. By helping others you’re also helping the planet, and therefore yourself and future generations.

Check previous posts on this blog for system design and implementation ideas. I've provided links to some of my favorite sources of components and information.

Solar John