Friday, July 27, 2007

A Refrigerator-Freezer Strategy for Energy Efficiency, Saving Money, and Eating Healthy

At first glance it might seem that a small refrigerator is a better “green” choice than a larger one, but for most households this is simply not true. While a small refrigerator probably uses less energy than a larger one, you’ll also find yourself making more trips to the grocery store. You might save a few dollars on your electric bill to operate the smaller fridge, but you’ll spend much more than that on gasoline for the extra trips to the store.

A properly-sized refrigerator and a chest freezer is the best overall strategy for most families. A top-loading freezer is inherently energy-efficient because the cold air doesn’t “fall out” when the door is opened as it does with any freezer that has a side door. Adding to their efficiency, a typical chest freezer doesn’t have other energy-consuming features such as a light or a fan.

Not only does a chest freezer allow you to stock up on long-lasting items from the grocery store, it also allows you to preserve items grown in your garden during the summer months. Growing your own food not only cuts your grocery bill, home-grown foods are usually healthier and tastier than the same items when purchased at the grocery store. Since I’ve started using a freezer, I’ve increased the size of my garden. This ensures that I’ll have plenty of fresh produce and plenty to save in the freezer. And since I save seeds, my home-grown produce is almost free! If you’re not into gardening, you can stock up on locally grown food in the summer by visiting a farmer’s market.

If you’re about to purchase a refrigerator or freezer, be sure to look for those that have earned the “energy star”. If you’re replacing one that is over ten years old, you might save 50% or more on your electric bill. A 21 cubic foot energy star-rated refrigerator might use 430 kWh per year, or about 1.2 kWh per day. At ten cents per kWh, it will cost about $43.00 per year to operate. Actual results depend not only on your electric rate, but also on how you use it and where it’s located in your home. A small energy star-rated chest freezer might require 300 kWh per year, costing you about $30.00 per year to operate. The basement is a better location for the freezer than the garage because it’s cooler there, causing the compressor to run less frequently. The heat that the freezer produces is often desirable in a cool basement.

A small photovoltaic (PV) system can be used to provide backup power in order to prevent your food from spoiling during an extended power outage. I chose a PV system instead of a generator because it is quieter, less expensive to operate, and I don’t have to store fuel. As a bonus, my PV system provides power to the freezer on a continuous basis, cutting my electric bill. Since my PV system is not large enough to power both the freezer and refrigerator, I’ll use the PV-powered freezer to produce ice which can be used to keep refrigerated food from spoiling during an extended power outage. When I’m able to enlarge the PV system, I’ll add the refrigerator to the load. Currently, I have 340-Watts of solar panels, and 420ah of battery capacity. The PV system is able to meet the energy requirements of the freezer, except when cloudy conditions persist for several consecutive days. When that happens, I run the freezer on grid-supplied power until the batteries are recharged by one or two days of sun.

Transitioning into a future where fossil fuels are declining does not necessarily mean that we will have to do without comforts that we’ve become accustomed to, but we’ll have to do things differently. Recent innovations, like compact fluorescent lights and energy efficient appliances, show that we’re able to adjust to these conditions without giving up anything. This trend is likely to continue, radically changing the vehicles we drive and other products we use. Changing your food preservation strategy is a good, healthy way to begin your journey into the future.

My Garden - July 2007
Solar John

Monday, July 23, 2007

Hey GM, Bring Back the Electric Car!

If GM's EV-1 electric car were to be manufactured today, it would have a battery pack that weighs half as much as it did in the old EV-1. Great strides in battery technology have been realized since the demise of the EV-1, making this possible. Faster recharge time and longer life are additional benefits of the best currently available batteries. The new breed of Plug-In-Electric Vehicles (PHEV's) would include a backup generator to extend the range, but most owners wouldn't use it for day-to-day commutes. In other words, most of the time they wouldn't use any fossil fuel at all, instead using power stored in the vehicle's batteries. And while using grid-supplied power to recharge the vehicle is not truely a "Green" solution, it's better than the millions of gas and diesel-powered cars that pollute our air today.

Unlike today's hybrids, the fuel-powered engine would recharge the batteries, not directly drive the wheels. GM could be a leader in electric vehicle technology, and a profitable company once again. But more importantly, the world would be different. There would be no need for oil wars, and gasoline would be less expensive due to decreased demand.

Critics of the electric car worry that a suden influx of plug-in cars would overload the already-strained electrical grid, and in some parts of the country this is certainly true. Still, it makes more sense to increase electrical generation and distribution capabilities than it does to continue to use fossil fuels, which are declining and non-renewable. For those who can't wait for power infrastructure upgrades, alternative energy such as solar and wind is an option. Although the cost of such systems is high, the savings over fossil fuel-powered alternatives are significant, and the payback is quicker than you might expect.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Inventions That Change the Way we Live

It’s easy to name inventions that have changed our lives. The electric light, radio, and television are among the most notable, and the personal computer is among the most recent. It seems that each of these devices appeared suddenly, but they were actually perfected over time. With that in mind, it’s interesting to contemplate life-changing devices on the horizon.

We may eventually look back and realize that the photovoltaic panel (PV) was the life-changing invention of the present time. While solar photovoltaic panels were once only used in the space program, now they can be found almost anywhere around the world. They not only provide power for lights, they provide the energy needed to pump water for people, as well as for cattle, in locations far from power lines. Thanks to PV panels, remote villages and vacation homes can use the same electrical appliances that city-dwellers use. And now, as electric rates are increasing and reliability is an issue in some parts of the country, many grid-connected homeowners are also installing solar panels.

Some utilities have imposed a tiered-rate structure for electrical usage. While the first 300KWH per month is relatively inexpensive, electricity use in excess of 600KWH is billed at a much higher rate. A PV system can be designed to use solar power as the primary source of electricity, only using grid-supplied power when the PV system’s capacity is exceeded. Switching is automatic, and the homeowner may not even be aware that it has happened. Other sophisticated PV system components protect the batteries from over charging or over discharging, and coax the best possible performance from the system.

Fossil fuel supplies are on the decline, resulting in escalating costs to bring electricity into our homes, but there are other factors that are beginning to make PV systems more appealing to the average household. Newer consumer electrical devices require less power than their older counterparts, making it possible to get by with a smaller PV system. From light-bulbs to major appliances, it’s rare to find an increase in electrical consumption in a newer device. The exception to this rule is the plug-in-electric vehicle. If these become popular in the future, we’ll need sufficient capacity to charge them. Still, the cost of PV panels is expected to decline sharply within the next two years, further increasing their popularity.

The PV panel is not like other life-changing inventions, it simply provides power for them. And, unlike other life-changing inventions, we usually keep solar panels out of sight, rather than on display. As we transition to PV systems, our lives may not have been altered per-se, but without PV all of our electrical devices will be useless, or to costly to use.

President Bush said recently “we’re addicted to oil.” The truth is, were addicted not to oil, but to our cars. By the same token we’re not addicted to electricity, but rather to our lights, radios, TV’s, microwave ovens, dishwashers, and other appliances. And it’s hard to imagine how tradesmen would perform without their power tools and equipment. Because a transition to PV will be gradual, we may not recognize it as a life-changing invention until when we think of what life would be like without it.


Monday, July 09, 2007

My Backyard Garden

It’s mid-July, and my garden is in full-swing once again. Here’s a brief tour:

Tomatoes are on the left. Pole beans are in the background. From left to right the raised bed is home to: Sweet Snap Pea’s, Eggplant, Green Pepper, Basil, Dill, Parsley, Carrots, and Honeydew Melon.

More than anything else, I like to grow tomatoes. We eat them fresh, and can them for use all-year-long. Nothing you can buy at the grocery store in the winter compares to the great taste of canned tomatoes.

I grow “heirloom” tomatoes, and they come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Cherokee Purple (leftmost tomato), is a great tasting variety that grows well in my environment. Shown next to it is a Better Boy.

The ugly-shaped tomato on the right is a French variety, Cuostralee.

My corn crop was ruined by squirrels last year. To deal with the problem I started a “Squirrel Relocation” project. It looks like I’ll be eating sweet corn from my garden this year.

I’ve had good luck with cucumbers this year. Here are some of the dill pickles I made. I also grow the “dill”, used to give the pickles their flavor.

Raspberries were nearly ready for picking when this picture was taken. I'm getting about a pint of raspberries per day, as of July 8th.

The photo on the right is a closer look at a dill plant.
In addition to great taste, it’s good to know that my family is eating food that has not been genetically engineered, and is free of pesticides and preservatives. I save “open-pollinated” seeds from my own crops each year, just to be sure. My post of 9/6/2006 provides additional information about my gardening practices.