Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Celebrating the First Anniversary of this Blog

If you accept the notion that “America is Addicted to Oil”, then you probably accept the high cost of gasoline as a penalty for your addiction. I find that notion unacceptable, and this blog chronicles my efforts to do something about it.

I’m learning about alternatives to fossil-fuels, and this is my way of sharing that information with others. I’ve found that it is possible to cut utility costs and do something positive for the environment on a modest budget. My renewable energy systems are growing, and my utility bills are declining. I hope to inspire others to embrace renewable energy because our combined efforts will have a significant impact upon the environment, and help to preserve natural resources for future generations. It may come as a surprise to some, but you don’t have to give up anything. In the long run your lifestyle will improve, not decline, as a result of alternative energy.

Besides saving the planet, I believe that it is important for all of us to be prepared for emergencies, and I often post ideas for doing so.

If you’re a regular reader, I’m glad to have you on board. I hope you’ll tell other like-minded people to visit as well. There is much more to learn, and much more to do. I hope to purchase a plug-in electric hybrid vehicle (PHEV) when it’s time for my next car, and to recharge it with power from my PV system. I’ll measure my overall success by how much I’m able to reduce my use of fossil fuels, including the use of electricity from coal-fired power plants.

We’re not addicted to oil, it’s just that suitable alternatives are hard to find. I suspect that bright young people will come up with solutions, just as they have with computers not so long ago. You’ll soon be “gas-free” if you choose to be, and you won’t have to settle for a car or truck that doesn’t meet your needs. The cost may be high initially, but will decline as it has with other innovative new products over the years. Additionally, the money you’ll save by not purchasing gasoline will be more than enough compensation for the high sticker price. I predict that once PHEV’s become available, the cost of gasoline will mysteriously drop significantly, perhaps below $2.00 per gallon. I don’t generally consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but in this case I am.

Please check in once in awhile to see what I’m up to, and participate by leaving comments. Let’s learn from each other.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Emergency Survival Ideas

Living through an emergency is challenging, but even more so for those whose don’t prepare in advance. To some, emergency survival means living in primitive conditions and eating bugs. My idea of survival is to live as comfortably after an emergency as I did before, without moving from my home, and certainly without eating bugs. Knowing that an emergency will force me to give up some conveniences, I still believe my goal is achievable, but probably in a much smaller space.

In addition to stocking up on water and food, my photovoltaic (PV) system plays a significant role in my survival strategy. But keeping even one room warm in the winter is a challenging task, since my PV system doesn’t produce nearly enough electricity to do the job using resistive heating. To deal with that problem I’ve installed a corn-burning stove. And, while the stove’s motors require a significant amount of electrical energy, the PV system is capable of providing it. It is only necessary to store a supply of corn sufficient to keep the stove going in the event of a long-term emergency. A pellet-burning stove would be another good choice for emergency heat, with the added bonus that mice are not attracted to the pellet fuel as they are with corn. A good supply of bagged pellets can easily be stored in a garage or basement. A wood-burning stove or fireplace is another alternative heating option, but you’ll need to keep an ample supply of firewood on hand. An advantage of a wood-burning stove is that it does not require electricity to operate. A disadvantage of wood is that it does not burn as clean as corn or pellets, requiring more attention to the chimney and flue lines. Electricity may also be needed in order to circulate the heat. A kerosene heater is another emergency heating option, but not a particularly attractive one since it involves storing a large quantity of an expensive and flammable liquid fuel. Additionally, the smell of kerosene burning is not something I’m particularly fond of.

Refrigeration is another thing I don’t want to do without in an emergency. Besides preserving food and making it taste better, refrigeration is a necessity for those who need to keep medicine fresh. To make sure I have enough electrical power to maintain refrigeration in the event of a long-term emergency, I’ve had to abandon the idea of using my big, energy-wasting refrigerator-freezer combination. Instead, I provide power to an efficient top-loading freezer. Even with my small photoelectric (PV) system I can keep frozen food frozen indefinitely, and I can use the freezer to produce ice for use in portable coolers. I already have several blocks of ice in the bottom of my freezer, giving me a head-start for the next power failure. A full freezer has the added advantage of operating more efficiently than a not-so-full freezer. The coolers (ice chests) can be kept outside during the winter in order to make the ice last longer, and in the coolest part of the house during the summer.

In the event of a grid power failure, I’ll do most of my cooking in a microwave oven. I’ll also consider a solar-cooker, an outdoor charcoal grill, and even a campfire in the backyard as long as firewood is available. It’s important to remember that it might be necessary to boil water for drinking, and all of these options can be used as necessary.

Electrical energy needs will be the greatest during the coldest winter months when keeping warm, cooking, and lighting place the greatest load on my solar electric system. Periods of extended cloud cover might also limit the amount of energy available during these times. My goal is to enlarge my current PV system until I’m confident that it can meet my needs under the worst-case conditions. Once that’s done, I’ll have an abundance of energy generating capacity and storage to serve me when power outages occur during mild or warm weather. My goal of living comfortably in the event of an emergency is easily achievable during those times.

In addition to the electrical requirements for lighting, heating, and refrigeration, energy will be needed for a radio, TV, and to charge cell phone batteries. These devices use only a small amount of energy, easily provided by even a small PV system. Still, they must be considered when calculating energy needs. Here is an example/summary:

Corn stove - - - - - 100-Watts - - - 12 hours per day - - 1200-Watt/hours per day
Chest freezer - - - 35-Watts(avg) - 24 hours per day - - 840-Watt/hours per day
Microwave oven - 750-Watts - - - 0.5 hours per day - - 375-Watt/hours per day
Lighting (cfl's) - - 45-Watts - - - - 3 hours per day - - - 135-Watt/hours per day
TV - - - - - - - - - - - 60-Watts - - - - 2 hours per day - - - 120-Watt/hours per day
Radio - - - - - - - - - 5-Watts - - - - - 4 hours per day - - - 20-Watt/hours per day
Cell phone charger - 25-Watts - - - 1 hour per day - - - - 25-Watt/hours per day

Total need per day: 2715-Watt/hours

These needs can be met with 700-Watts of solar panels, assuming 4 hours of sunlight per day. Installing eight 100-Watt solar panels and an appropriately sized battery bank will ensure ample power in the event of a grid power failure. Holding down the cost of the PV system was accomplished in this example by excluding devices that consume large amounts of energy. Using a microwave oven instead of an electric frying pan is much more energy efficient, and using a broom instead of a vacuum cleaner also helps. A larger system would, of course, provide even more comfort during an extended power outage by providing the power needed for additional appliances, and other substitutions are possible. A few hours of air conditioning in the summer can be substituted for the use of the corn-burning stove in the winter. However, we’re talking about a window air conditioner in this example, since the PV system described here cannot provide enough power for a central air system. Still, as I said earlier, I believe it is possible to live comfortably in the event of an emergency, but in a smaller space.

In addition to its use as an emergency backup electrical system, the PV equipment can provide a portion of your everyday electrical needs, reducing your utility bills. You might use a small system to power only a few items in your home, perhaps your refrigerator and freezer. As your PV system grows, you can add additional appliances. I hope to own a plug-in electric hybrid vehicle (PHEV) someday, and will use my PV system to charge its batteries. If all goes as planned, I’ll be driving on free power from the sun.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

An Alternative to Record High Gasoline Prices

At a time when many of us are contemplating vacations and weekend outings, we’re now experiencing the highest gasoline rates ever. Instead of accepting things as they are, why not make a resolution to do something about it. It won’t be easy, or inexpensive, but you can do something that will improve the quality of your life for the rest of your life. The first step is to come up with a plan.

To deal with the ever-increasing cost of gasoline you have two choices; use less gas, or don’t use any gas. A more fuel efficient car, perhaps a hybrid, is an option you’ve probably considered, but have you ever thought about eliminating the use of gas entirely? As impractical as that might sound, it is possible, and you can do it without trading your car for a bicycle. You can do it with (drum roll)….. a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, or PHEV, is powered by an electric motor. When its batteries are depleted, a small gasoline motor takes over. Since the vehicle’s batteries are recharged by plugging into an AC outlet, you may not need to use the gasoline motor at all. It has been estimated that the cost of electricity to recharge the car is the same as replacing one gallon of gasoline with one dollar’s worth of electricity. But it gets even better than that. If you have the ability to generate your own electricity, perhaps with solar panels or wind energy, your fuel costs can be totally eliminated! Imagine, instead of purchasing gasoline, you could be driving on free power from the sun!

While electric cars of the 1990’s had serious limitations, advances in battery technology are the driving force that will soon result in practical PHEV’s. The best currently available batteries are lighter, last longer, and can be charged more quickly. PHEV’s with the new lithium ion batteries should show up in dealer showrooms within a year. In the mean time, let’s think about that solar or wind generating equipment.

Unless you live in a rural location, wind probably won’t be an option for you, so this article will focus on solar photovoltaic (PV) power instead. It’s important to understand that the charging requirements of a PHEV represent a heavy load, and therefore a hefty PV system will be needed to do the job. A system of that size doesn’t come cheap. On the other hand, the cost of the PV system is offset by the gas savings that you’ll experience with each mile that you drive. You’ll have to do your own math, but it’s not unusual nowadays to spend in excess of $300.00 for gas each month just to get to and from work. A PV system can be amortized over many years, lowering your transportation expenses considerably.

To do the calculations, you’ll need to see a specification sheet on the particular PHEV you choose to buy. You’ll need to know how many charging amps are required, and for how many hours. The distance you travel each day will be an important factor. You’ll either have more than enough power on a charge to get to and from work each day, or you’ll have to supplement power from the electric motor with the car’s gasoline motor. The gasoline engine extends the cars range, but at the cost of burning (expensive) gasoline. Again, you’ll have to do the math to see if a PHEV is right for your situation.

If PHEV’s catch on, and it’s likely that they will, refueling stations will begin to appear, especially in locations where cars are parked for an extended period of time. This will include parking lots associated with workplaces, motels, and shopping centers. Since the new breed of PHEV’s will use ordinary household 120-Volt AC service, finding a recharging location shouldn’t be a problem in the future. Since you’ll be able to recharge once you’ve reached your destination, the electric-only range of your vehicle is greatly extended, further reducing the likelihood that you’ll need to use gasoline.

Now for the bad news: To supply the energy needed to fully recharge a PHEV each day will require a PV array of about 4000-Watts. A system of that size will cost somewhere between $20 and $40 thousand dollars. However, federal and state programs will reduce that amount dramatically, depending upon where you live. If you can save $300 per month in gasoline, the payback period might be less than 4 years. And these figures don’t even take into account the fact that gasoline prices will most likely continue to climb.

Due to the high cost of a PV system, you may choose to charge your PHEV using utility-provided electricity. If utility rates go up, or the cost of solar panels goes down, you can adjust your strategy accordingly. Using utility-provided power, you may get the best rate at night when you’re likely to want to do the recharging anyway. Perhaps you’ll choose to install a down-sized PV system, providing a portion of the power needed to charge the PHEV. You can add to the PV system later if conditions change and it benefits you to do so.

If a plan that includes charging your PHEV using a PV system interests you, your first step might be to consider a few PV system options. You could opt for an off-grid PV system dedicated to the task of charging the vehicle, or maybe a grid-tied system that also provides some of your household power. An off-grid system is a good “green” choice, while a grid-tied system is a good “functional” choice. With ether option, you’ll never again need to be concerned about the cost or availability of gasoline, except perhaps for your lawn mower.

I’m going to tell my car dealer that I don’t intend to buy another vehicle until I can buy a PHEV. With enough consumer interest, car manufacturers will respond. If you can’t wait for a commercially available PHEV, I’ve heard of a California shop that converts ordinary gas-powered cars to plug-in electrics.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Is a Solar Photovoltaic System a Good Investment?

Is a photovoltaic (PV) system a good investment? Many “financial guru’s” will tell you that it’s not. When considering the high cost of a PV system, and the modest savings you’ll see on your electric bill, it’s easy to understand why financially savvy folks tell you to invest elsewhere. Adding insulation and replacing inefficient appliances are far better investments they say. Buy a hybrid car and some compact fluorescent lights instead, we’re told. These suggestions have merit, but what do you do AFTER you’ve done those things? You’re still burning fossil fuels! Chances are you’ll continue to pay for electricity at an ever-increasing rate for the rest of your life.

Will you earn a bigger return if you invest in mutual funds? Possibly, but what fun is that? You should be investing anyway, perhaps for your children’s education and for your retirement. Hopefully you have an investment plan that will meet those goals, but do you want to put ALL of your extra money into that? Life will be dull if you don’t use a portion of your earnings for other purposes. I’m not saying that the addition of solar panels will make your life more exciting, but we do tend to take for granted all of the comfort and convenience electricity brings to our lives. If you’ve experienced an extended power failure recently, you know what I mean.

Having your own power generating equipment not only shields you from inevitable rate increases and power outages, but also prepares you to cope with fossil fuel shortages that are predicted to be a part of our future. I suspect that many of us will someday be driving plug-in electric vehicles (PHEV’s), and those of us who have our own PV systems will be able to recharge ours at no cost. Instead of burning gas or paying high utility company rates, we’ll be traveling on free power from the sun!

When you produce your own electricity from PV panels, you’re also reducing the load on a coal-fired power plant. This benefits all of us in many ways. Coal is dirty when it is mined, dirty when it’s transported, and dirty when it’s burned to produce electricity. Coal mining in Appalachia is responsible for the destruction of mountains and forests. Pristine streams are buried under debris that is the byproduct of mining operations, and ground water sources are polluted. Coal dust and smoke pollutes our air, and carbon dioxide that results from burning coal is a major contributor to global warming. Many lives have been adversely affected by mining-related activities. By choosing to install a solar electric system you become part of the solution, instead of contributing to the problem.

The savings you can expect as a result of installing your own PV system are only part of the story. Without such a system an extended power outage may force you from your home, cause your food to spoil, and damage your plumbing. Dealing efficiently with power outages not only saves you money, it’s comforting to know that a backup system is in place.

The next time a financial expert tells you solar PV is a bad investment, ask to see his (or her) crystal ball. The value of PV as an investment can only be known by someone who can see into the future. We’ve already seen sharp price increases in gasoline, and perhaps we should feel lucky to have gasoline at all when we look at the current situation in the Middle East. Another crisis in that region may result in a shortage that will trigger a rush to have alternative systems installed. If that happens, you might find yourself near the bottom of a very long waiting list for system components and installation service. I’m glad that I’m able to purchase panels and equipment now, and I hope to have a system large enough to meet all of my needs before it’s too late.

Financial experts tend to ignore everything but the bottom line. The idea of conserving natural resources for future generations doesn’t seem to cross their minds. If you can’t get a decent cash return on your investment today, it’s bad, period. It’s unfortunate that bean counters tend not to see the big picture, the true cost of producing electricity by burning coal and the true value of a PV system. Not only that, I wonder if they ask themselves "is this a good investment" when they buy items like toilet paper or sox.....