Green4Geeks Blog

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Solar Decision

‚ÄčOne of my favorite online comic sites is XKCD.  If you have never seen this very unique site, do yourself a favor and check it out.  One of my favorite topics to write about is solar energy.  When I can combine the two, it is a happy day.  XKCD humorously documents the decision tree on where solar truly works.  Solar is fantastic on sites where you have some fixed real estate, there are relatively expensive energy sources, or non-existent and/or unreliable energy sources, and you have plenty of sunny hours in the day.  It does not work so well on moving objects, or where it is much cheaper to find other sources of energy.  This is why you don't see folks just bolting solar panes onto the family sedan.  First, you would have to cart around the batteries to store up the energy, and second, the real estate just isn't there for the power needs of the typical automobile.  Unless solar panels get dramatically more efficient, there isn't any way that you will get enough energy to store for your grocery runs.  Follow the link, and you will see how easy it is to break it down - just pick a use case, and plug it into the comic.  Brilliant!

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Is This Smart Solar?

sun

I'm a vocal advocate of solar energy, but is forcing homeowners to adopt the correct approach?  I think not.  See the article in the St. Petersburg Times here.

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Google's Project Sunroof Can Tell You How Much Solar Could Save You

Google's Project Sunroof Can Tell You How Much Solar Could Save You

Could some new solar panels on your roof actually pay for themselves?  Is there enough direct sun where you live?  Do you have too many trees, or is your house poorly angled to take advantage of the rays you do get?  Maybe your roof is just too small.  It could be that solar panels would pay for themselves, but the payoff isn't until after you plan on selling your home.  It is tough for the average consumer to get straight answers to these kinds of questions.  If you are just curious, or actually shopping for solar solutions, give Google's Project Sunroof a try.

In short, Project Sunroof allows you to enter your address, and utilizing Google Maps and some 3D modelling, your roof shape, angles, angle toward the sun, and shading from trees or large objects, your solar potential can be determined.  The Google Maps interface you are presented with shows your home with the solar exposure highlighted with gradients representing solar intensity.

SolarRoofSelect

SunlightAnalysis

 

Once you have confirmed this is your house, use the slider tools to approximate your monthly electric bill, choose lease, loan or buy, and even pick a provider. 

SolarFineTune

 It is ridiculously easy to use, and might even provide you with a question or two when you get a quote from a solar company.

SolarSavings

 

This application does not take into account other factors that could affect your installation, such as the net-metering arrangement your local utility employs, federal or state credits for solar, taxable value of your installation or the increase to the value of your home due to a solar installation.  If only there was an app for that!

 

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Tesla Solar Without Tesla Roof

Tesla Solar Without Tesla Roof

It looks like Tesla is also thnking of the rest of us that already have new roofs, or where Solar Roof (Tesla's new solar shingle solution) is not an option.  These sleek and finsished looking roof panels are due out later this year.  It will still be obvious that you have solar panels on your roof, but these just look so much nicer than traditional panels.  Check them out here.

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Solar Shingles - Part 2

If only I had a time machine.  I just put a new roof on my house last year.  I had to, the old one was hail damaged and getting a little aged; I didn't think it would get through another set of seasons.  So, what happens less than a year later?  Tesla announces a new solar shingle.  Argh! Tesla Solar

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Amendment 1 in Florida Failed - Now What?

Amendment 1 in Florida did not pass.  Even though there were slightly more than 50% of the votes cast in favor of the the Amendment, it required a 60% majority to be enacted into law.  The power companies in Florida waged an expensive campaign to convince voters that this would be good for them.  As numerous newspaper editors, online posters, and other groups have pointed out, this proposed amendment really wasn't good for the average consumer.  I understand the power companies protecting their fossil fuel interests, and that dealing with the purchase of consumer's excess power could chip away at their profit.  What I have a hard time justifying on their behalf is the monopoly this would have created.  By the amendments passing, it would have meant that if I generate excess power from my house, I would be prevented from selling it to my neighbor.  I believe that we should be able to put energy on a free market, inter-house, inter-neighborhood, inter-state.

So, what happens now that the amendment failed?  Nothing, for now.  However, this could all change at the legislative level.  Don't think for a minute that the power companies will attempt to take a run at this again through the state's legislature.  It is critical that the consumers in the state of Florida keep an eye out toward future bills that may harm them.  Even that is not enough - Florida remains one of the few states where consumers are not allowed to sell their excess power to anyone except for the established power companies.  This has had a stifling effect on the growth of solar expansion in the 'Sunshine State'.  Florida legislators, are you listening?

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Florida's Solar Future: Voter Education is Key

sun checkWhen it comes to voting in Florida, it seems nothing is ever easy.  I've written about the ballot initiative "Floridian's for Solar Choice" here before (Freedom of Choice), and believe it to be a pretty solid idea.  Now it appears Florida voters have another amendment to consider, titled "Consumers for Smart Solar".  So, why two amendments?  With a nod to Isaac Newton's Third Law, in Florida politics there is nearly always an "equal and opposite reaction" to anything that anyone might propose.  Just for fun, I'm going to call it "Sexton's Third Law of Florida Politics".  If someone were to come out with an amendment stating that all kittens are adorable, it would not take long for an opposing group to be formed saying they are the spawn of the devil.  Think I'm wrong?  Just Google "Cat's are Jerks" and see how many references you come up with.  Just sayin'.

There has been a lot written about this in the past year, promoting or chipping away at both amendment proposals.  Floridians would do well to educate themselves on what is contained in both proposals, but in the age of the sound-bite and ever shorter attention spans, it seems that it is easier for proponents of both to tear down the other proposal than to support their own.  Both proposals could pass, one might pass without the other, or neither may pass.  All that is assuming that either one or both gather enough signatures to make it to the ballot.  In this case, that is 683,000 signatures for ballot initiatives that most Floridians have never even heard of.  I'm hoping that more editorial boards and local new outlets make this into more of a story.  Some are trying:  

Miami Herald - July 15, 2015 - Group attempts to undercut solar initiative with rival amendment

Sun Sentinel - July 16, 2015 - Second group launches solar energy ballot initiative

Orlando Weekly - September 15, 2015 - Who’s behind the battle over solar power in Florida?

Tampa Tribune - November 8, 2015 - Deception Cast Shadow Over Solar Amendments

 

Overview of Floridians for Solar Choice:

While Floridians for Solar Choice was first, and identifies itself as a grassroots organization, it does have some backing from corporate interests hoping to have greater flexibility in selling solar systems to Florida consumers.  For Florida homeowners, the cost of solar is prohibitive and the return on investment fairly long term.  One has to live in the home for a long while, or risk not getting the return on their investment if they have to sell their home before the system is paid off.  In other states, leasing companies install the solar systems, then "sell" the electricity back to the homeowner, offsetting the leasing expenses.  In Florida, only the big power companies that are highly regulated are allowed to sell power.  This keeps the leasing option off the table for the homeowner.  The Floridians for Solar Choice amendment language allows anyone to sell up to 2 megawatts.of energy to "the grid".  The intent is to cover the low capacity producers, such as homeowners, co-ops, and small businesses by allowing them to resell their unused capacity for use across the grid.  Some argue that this may cause increased maintenance costs on the grid that will be borne by the other consumers not on solar power.

 

Overview of Consumers for Smart Solar:

The second group appears to have made the scene primarily to contest the first group.  Consumers for Smart Solar may be a bit of a misnomer, as a large part of it's funding thus far appears to be coming from big energy companies, not consumers.  This group states that their goal is consumer protection, and that using non regulated utilities (the small home owners using leasing companies) sets up potential for overcharging customers, and straining the grid without paying for maintenance.  They believe this could lead to higher costs for non solar customers.  The creators of the web site are so adamantly opposed to the first proposed amendment that they do not even mention it by name, instead just referring to it only as the "Shady Solar Amendment".  They are concerned that the alternative amendment is "designed to benefit out of state solar companies".  Critics say that this new amendment has been created just to confuse the public, and take away from the 60% voter approval needed to pass.

 

 A Few Thoughts to Ponder

Consumer protection can be a good thing, to a point.  However, the free market does have a way of sorting things out.  Consider the inroads made by the likes of Uber and Lyft.  Both of these companies were, and often still are, working outside of consumer protections of the market segment they are competing in, within their local municipalities.  The consumers are still embracing both Uber and Lyft, and pressure is being applied on both the legacy players and the new ones to find middle ground.  Why can't that happen with solar?  If the maintenance of the grid is increasing because of more producers, and no one knows if that will really be true, then cover the cost through a service fee on purchased energy.  

The argument that the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment is designed to benefit out of state solar companies really doesn't hold water.  Since none of these solar companies can operate in Florida now, it stands to reason that they will all be out of state now.  Why start a company in a state in which you prevented from conducting business in?  Perhaps Florida should have in-state companies doing this business - wouldn't that be a good thing?  Suppressing Floridians options on solar and/or selling energy back to those that can use it is a real innovation killer.  For a state that is drenched in sunshine, Florida could be poised to be a front runner in renewable energy, lessening reliance on fossil fuels and the pollution that they create.

The Consumers for Smart Solar initiative appears to be proving Sexton's Third Law of Florida Politics.  Passing that amendment really doesn't do much other than to simply preserve the status quo.  If Floridians for Solar Choice is as horrible as critics say, why not just campaign against it, rather than run with another proposed amendment that pretty much does nothing?  In Florida, nothing is quite that easy.  If you are a Floridian voting in the 2016 elections, take the time to educate yourself on this - it may determine the "Sunshine State's" solar future.

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Freedom of Choice

sun legalOne does not usually hear the words 'Freedom of Choice' and then think electricity, unless you are living in the Sunshine State.  In Florida, there is a state law that only allows electricity sales from investor owned public utilities.  This has put a damper on solar or other alternative energy sources from small startups from even getting out of the gate.  Florida homeowners who want to install solar systems are usually still attached to the grid, and must install a meter to do so.  Most of us have heard of homeowners with large solar arrays who 'make the meter run backwards'.  In other words, they are selling the excess electricity they generate back to the utility.  Still, the utility is in control of the process; the homeowner-producer is breaking the law if they try to sell the excess electricity to their next door neighbor.  The homeowner produced it, so why can't they sell it to whoever they choose?  What if a startup solar farm wants to sell to just one small neighborhood, or the perhaps the neighborhood wants to form a small co-op to create power? As long as they play by the same environmental rules that the big utilities do, why not?

Most alternative energy intiatives have started from some of the larger utilities, but not had a lot of traction.  Since the biggest barrier to solar is the startup cost, why would even a well financed large utility spend a lot on such an initiative when there are plentiful low cost alternatives that are already well embedeed (coal, oil, natural gas, hydro-electric, etc.).  The large utilities in Florida spend a lot on lobbyists to ensure this system stays the way it is, and why wouldn't they?  Imagine that you are a widget maker, and a competitor convinces your state's legislature that you must now start using a different method to construct your widgets, but it causes your production costs to double.  I can't really fault the producers here - the state law now favors their system.  

Instead of railing against the utlities, why not change the law?  There is one group trying to do just that.  Floridians for Solar Choice is attempting to get enough petition signatures to place an amendment on the Florida constitution, that would allow homeowners this freedom of choice.  It should be cautioned that as of this writing, there is no ballot language available yet.  The backers of this initiative believe solar powered generation systems can be installed on a homeowners roof, and the electricity be sold to the homeowner by the insaller.  This would eliminate the startup cost of the system for the homeowner, and therefore allow more widespread adoption.  The site only talks about solar panel installations on homes or businesses, so it isn't clear yet whether this could work for non site generated power in addition.  I just think it is a good chance for Foridians to jumpstart anternative power generation methods.  Another concern might be that upon passing, the utilities would lobby for not being required to puchase excess power from homeowners.  That is a risk I would be willing to take.

There are other political barriers to this initiative.  Many amendments to the state constitutuion fail due to many voters beliving that this is not the sort of thing that constitution amendments should deal with.  Other popular amendments have failed for this reason.  In Florida, amendments to the state's constitution require a 60% majority to win.  That is going to require a lot of well funded public education on the topic, all while well financed public utility companies will likely run ads counter to this initiative.

I'm looking forward to seeing the language of the proposed amendment; it could soon be a sunnier day for solar energy in Florida.

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Solar Shingles

sun dollarThis article, which was published last week in the Tampa Tribune, really caught my eye.  I have been monitoring the prices, specs, and lease options on rooftop solar for a while.  I haven't pulled the trigger on an install yet for several reasons, but highest among them is that next year I need to replace my roof.  There is no point to installing panels over a roof that will soon be replaced.  I would prefer something like the shingles described in this article over traditional panels, but there are several factors I would like answers to first.. That said, here are my issues:

  • Not to sound negative towards an obviously happy customer, but I'm not sure the woman written about researched this as thoroughly as she could have before making a "$30,000 to $40,000" investment.  There are several manufacturers (or at least experienced installers) of this type of solar shingle in Florida, and they have been doing it for some time now.
  • The cost is still pretty high, and in my opinion, is teetering on the edge of reasonable payback.  Let's go with the $30K price tag to be fair.  For a twenty year lease, that is $125 a month before fees (the leasing company needs to make some money off of this too).  I am assuming (based on the attached photos of the control system) that there is no storage system for dark or cloudy periods, which means she will only be getting the benefit of the peak sunny times times on cloudless days - or about eight hours a day of usage.  In Florida, the average electric bill is generally above $300 per month.  Her savings therefore, would come much closer to 33% rather than the 60% she is hoping for.  Also, keep in mind that solar panels efficiency tends to degrade over time, further depressing the formula.
  • If she paid out of pocket for this system, her payback will be closer to the industry claimed 16-20 years.  It is also reasonable to assume the panels and associated electronics will require maintenance over the payback period, making it stretch out a little more.
  • If she leased the system, it can be written into the lease that all maintenance costs would be borne by the leasing company,  This seems like a good way to go for most homeowners.

Don't get me wrong; I sincerely hope that this happy homeowner gets everything out of the system that she anticipates, but I remain skeptical.  When I make the move, I prefer it to be a sure bet.

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Green4Geeks

It was about time for a retooling...

What is Green4Geeks?

Green4Geeks was concept site I started putting together several years ago, where I thought I might do a little blogging, publish some technology articles I had written, and in general be a holding place for whatever items I found interesting.  Now, I've decided to dust it off, and give it another run.  What I've found is, that I write a lot of commentary on various sites, and have felt a little confined in the formats or even the purpose of the sites I post on.  Posting here instead allows me to say everything that I want to, without limits, and then if it is appropriate, link to it from elsewhere.

Why Green4Geeks?

Green4Geeks is the concept that there are a lot of engineers, makers, tinkerers and the like, who love efficiency and "being green".  Sure, there are always the outlandish displays of pure power and excess; I fondly recall the muscle cars I've owned and raced in the past.  This is something a little different.  Now, I want to find out how low I can get my electric bill while maintaining my current lifestyle.  It has to be green, but that doesn't mean you have to give up everything.  How can I still drive a high performance vehicle without spending a fortune on energy to get that performance?  You get the idea.

Join the Discussion!

Email me or log on and leave comments.  Either way, I would love to hear from you.

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