Category Archives: Solar

Solar Energy, Thermal, PV, Passive House

Solar Party

Last Saturday (Oct 26th), I participated with others from the Kentucky Solar Energy Society in a work project for the University of Louisville assisting several of their research projects going on at the new Karen Lynch Park within the Beargrass Creek watershed of urban Louisville. There were at least 20-25 people present working on multiple projects and ongoing efforts to improve and monitor the water quality and general environment. This is one of many improvement projects lead by the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, as well as others. Specifically, I and five others were there to install a 1.4kW off-grid solar system funded by UL’s research. We were the volunteer labor, but the employees of Solar Energy Solutions were the professionals.

Thanks to Matt, Ezra and Robert who took the time and extra effort to teach and involve everyone!

Thanks to Matt, Ezra and Robert who took the time and extra effort to teach and involve everyone!

The system is not grid connected, but instead will directly power a DC pump to move water up from the creek to a water tank (not yet installed) that will feed an artificial 50+ foot waterfall back down into the creek, adding oxygen in the process. All powered by the sun! The research projects will be measuring the levels of dissolved oxygen before and afterwards, and make other quality measurements to determine the effectiveness of the modification and how many of these installations would be needed to significantly improve the entire watershed.

Ezra making the final connection to the pump controller.

Ezra making the final connection to the pump controller.

Altogether the entire solar installation only took about 3.5 hours. We probably would have been much faster, except that the tin roof of the shelter had no sheathing under it, and could only support one person with extra care required. The UL team was still working to get the piping in place when we left. It was a good day for a worthy cause! – Jack


Fall is finally here! Can winter be far behind?

First frost this past Sunday morning in Georgetown KY, and this morning I had to scrape the car windshield for the first time of the season. The furnace has been checked and works (and no bills to pay to the HVAC folks this year. Yeah)! We have a pretty orange pumpkin (an organic one even!) and are once again struggling with when to make pumpkin pie, verses keeping it longer on display… Mary Anne saved a batch of green tomatoes which are now slowly ripening on our dining table. All is right in the world, yes?

But I’m also certain the first frost was late this year! Since we moved to KY 9 years ago, the first frost that kills our tomatoes and basil has always been the first full week of October, or earlier. Yet stranger! I was eating fresh basil from an outdoor garden while visiting in northeast PA this same very weekend! So the killing frost was even later in the Poconos Mountains than in KY this year! Weird weather, for certain, but yes, I’ll say it – Climate Change! There. I said the words. And yes, I know one season or one measurement or one location cannot be used for evidence of climate change, which by definition is global and over decades of time. Yet, I feel strongly that we (everyone) need to be saying it more!

I recently had a conversation with an elected local official who explicitly told me that the very mention of ‘climate change’ was a politically divisive term. He said our efforts to promote renewable solar energy would be better received (by certain political interests) if we avoided using that in our argument. Here was a reasonable intelligent gentleman, who was clearly successful in business, clearly committed to public service and was unable to accept the findings of hundreds of worldwide climate scientists and experts in their field who have found after decades of study that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and “the largest contribution… is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750” (IPCC AR5WG1). I was appalled, to be sure. But perhaps I shouldn’t be, given that a Google search for the IPCC report has as its third entry a “Right Side News” article about a Heartland Institute debunking of the IPCC’s latest analysis. What is this country turning into???

Well, probably not a ‘winter wonderland’… but I will still hold out my hopes for this coming winter season at least!

The future of …

Last week, I was an invited speaker at the Southern BioProducts and Renewable Energy Conference in Tunica MS. My topic was the Past, Present and Future of Solar Technologies. The organizers found me through my participation in ASES (which I’ve talked about previously) and because I’ve been a member of the board member of the Ky Solar Energy Society for the past 3 years. I was honored to provide a brief overview of solar technologies and some of my personal experiences to the folks there. A great small conference and a great set of people trying to make a better world.

Now, I’m not a leading expert on the current solar research going on in academia [by far], but I have been following the solar industry for 10+ years, and have invested much of my own time, energy and money into becoming educated in the technologies and their applications. We’re purchased multiple solar systems for our home (1 PV system, and two thermal systems installed). I’m an engineer, so I can’t help myself from learning how it works, why, the economics, etc. So I’ve become a solar energy advocate. And yes, I have some biases… because I believe our future depends upon transitioning off of our addiction to fossil fuels and becoming a sustainable civilization, rather than one that dies out after destroying its environment via natural resource extraction (too many examples of that in human history!).

Next week (Sept 30th) the United Nation’s IPCC releases to the public the final draft of its latest (5th assessment) report. I’m no expert on climate change or global warming either. Nor is Mary Anne (she’s an environmental scientist, rather than a climatologist). But as is my usual behavior I have spent time reading and trying to understand the prior 2007 IPCC report (ok, actually I just read the synthesis report, which in itself is >100 pages; the three Working Group reports are challenging academic tomes to read), and I’ll be trying to read and fully understand this latest update too. The new report is just from Working Group I (the other groups and the AR5 summary report are not due out until 2014), which covers the physical science basis for their findings. A condensed version for policymakers has been released in advance.

Given the media’s coverage so far and build-up already underway, I fear for what happens next. Our media-driven society seems to believe the opinion of a random person-on-the-street is just as ‘right’ and actually more important, than the hundreds of career professional experts working in the field from 39 different countries. Let’s please take the time to become educated on the topic, and actual READ the report (even if just the condensed version), rather than listening to just the ‘public opinion’ spewed out so far. I’m at least “95% certain” of certain other biases that are in play here…  – Jack

About time!

Last week the Washington Post discovered the federal government has finally begun installation of a solar system on the White House roof.

Well, it is about time! This was actually announced way back in 2010. So what took nearly 3 years for the installation to begin?  [No, this will not become a discussion of politics (no one in the solar industry wants the business swings!). Let us all remember that George W. Bush installed a solar system in 2003; after a prior republican administration removed the solar thermal system installed back in the 1970s (see this link for a review of the history).]

This was a federal procurement that had to be competitive bid. So I get that took some time, and possibly more than one round of that, plus of course the federal bureaucracy. Yet the US military has been installing solar at bases in more than 31 states over the past several years. So they already know lots of experienced, reputable installers, with proven reliability and good system designs out there. Ok, maybe, they were waiting to confirm that global climate change is a national priority… which is what the President finally confirmed last month. Can’t be that…

Or maybe, they were just waiting for prices to come down? Which is exactly what has happened! Solar PV modules are down more than 60% verses what they cost in 2010 (from ~$2/watt to $0.75/watt of capacity). And that’s way way down from the >$75/watt in 1977 – a 99% price drop over the past 35 years! So low that the panels are no longer the primary cost element in residential scale systems. Yes, there is other hardware required, such as the wiring, racking and mounting hardware, as well as the electrical inverters, which make the AC power that we generally consume, from the DC power that is natively produced. Of course, there is the labor costs (i.e. local jobs) that will vary greatly with the type and complexity of the installation site. But there’s also the local permitting, interconnect and inspection costs that can be as high as $2500 or more for a simple residential system (and will vary greatly by municipality and utility company). According to the DOE, these and other soft costs are holding back the adoption of solar in the US. Maybe that was the White House’s problem … but I doubt it!

Well…who knows what took so long inside the government. But now, the real question: what’s holding you back from going solar? Isn’t it about time? – Jack

BTW, according to a Lawrence Berkley National Lab study released earlier this month, the US average 2012 ‘all-in’ price of the residential solar PV systems was $5.30/watt of installed capacity. That’s nearly a $1 more than what we paid for our system installed in June last year (and we paid extra for US manufactured PV modules).  So these numbers may vary greatly for you too, and these are all before federal, state, and utility incentives that can lower your actual cost even more!)

When Building with Straw, Beware of Pigs with Strong Lungs

Sorry to have been off-line for so long, but AT&T has no service where Mary Anne and I attended a week-long workshop on straw bale building techniques. Blue Rock Station is Jay and Annie Warmke’s home and farm (llamas, goats, chickens, fruits and veggies, but no longer any pigs!) in rural eastern Ohio. They, plus instructor Aaron and summer interns Michelle and Jina, had us working on multiple phases of three current building projects. We learned very hands-on about rammed earth foundations using old tires, framing with straw bales, sealing with cob and lime plaster finish coats, plus the nice artistic touches of glass bottle widows, built-in shelving, and using broken ceramics to create mosaics. We got very dirty and very tired, but had a great time! We learned a lot, and met many wonderful people (staff and fellow attendees) who are likely to become long-time friends!


Perhaps, not so surprisingly, Jay and I share a passion for solar energy. He’s the current vice-president of Green Energy Ohio, who I had just learned about last month at the ASES conference. More surprisingly, it turns out Jay was previously the executive director of BICSI, so we had good time reminiscing on the heydays of the telecom industry. Then about 13 years ago Jay and Annie decided to “chuck the whole corporate way-of-life” and moved to Europe for 3 years. They then decided to return to their roots in rural Ohio, where they had previously purchased their dream property: a 38 acre abandoned farm and ex-logging camp on a south facing ridge overlooking a beautiful aspen-oak-maple forest valley. They built their earthship home themselves, and have been farming, writing books and teaching to spread the word to others ever since. Their message is much more than about straw bales or green building techniques. It’s about living sustainably while living richly (and without much money). A great life lesson, especially for me, with my recent exit from nearly 30 years of corporate life and currently searching for my best path forward — Argh! That’s definitely corporate-speak, so I guess I’m not fully weaned as yet!

Thanks to all! – Jack

Growing Local Food in Cities

A few weeks back when talking about food systems and our preference for local and/or organic foods, a few people pointed to the “impossibility” of growing sufficient volumes of such food for the urban masses. Yes, this is a challenge, but I have to disagree on “impossible.” There are well documented examples elsewhere of using brown-fields and rooftops for urban gardening and also commercial scale farming. Many of them use vermiculture (yes, that’s with worms) to quickly turn high volumes of food waste into beneficial compost for these urban farmers.

Last week I got to visit an exciting and new urban food demonstration project happening just a few blocks from downtown Lexington KY. Food Chain is a non-profit that recently took up residence in an ex-bread factory (alongside a great micro-brewery, a new micro-lot coffee roaster, and some other arts studios/offices) that just got their small-scale indoor integrated farm running in the past five weeks. The project is fearlessly led by Rebecca Self and Mims Russell. They soon expect to have a consistent monthly production of 125+ lbs of Tilapia and even more hydroponically grown vegetables, to be available at local restaurants and retailers. This aquaponic method is great example of re-thinking farming, a la (one of my favorite topics) Systems Engineering. All the nutrients needed for the green veggies are conveniently derived from the fish waste by naturally occurring bacteria that covert ammonia into nitrates (see this video of it). The water is fully recycled, with only about 1% daily loss (due to transpiration and evaporation) plus the water content of their harvest. Currently, the main inputs are electricity (for the pumps, space heating and artificial lighting) and the fish feed, plus some daily labor (it’s a farm!), seedlings and the fingerling fish (currently provided by the nearby Kentucky State University aquaculture program). They’re already thinking about how to reduce those inputs, possibly via solar thermal and PV, and using the spent grains from the brewery as a majority (but not all) of the fish feed. I previously visited a similar scale teaching system at Berea College that uses a greenhouse for natural sunlight and passive heating (but therefore also has seasonally variable production volumes).

My forward plan: volunteer my time to help reduce their inputs further (e.g. solar technologies), and expand their outputs to other food products (using that vermicompost), including mushrooms grown on more of that brewer’s grain. Oh, I guess I have never mentioned here that another hobby we greatly enjoy is mushrooming – cooking and eating them, of course!, but also foraging for fungi in the wild and growing some at home. Yes, that’s fun-gi-culture! So it’s sure to be fun!, and I’ll try to keep you up to date on our progress. – Jack

Solar 2013

I attended my first annual conference of the American Solar Energy Society in Baltimore last week. The ASES conference was a roller coaster of emotions and learning for me…

Overall, I see ASES as a strange (but I think healthy) mix of academics, industry and advocacy. I got the clear impression that the technical papers and academic presentations are the core of ASES (and you can see this in their excellent publication, Solar Today). The engineer in me loved these talks, but I was there representing the Kentucky chapter, and therefore I found myself most aligned with the advocacy side. A real insight I gained was how much the US solar industry is suffering, even while installations are booming! In Asia and Europe, where government policies for clean energy are clear and incentivizing rapid increased production, their engineering and manufacturing have already ramped up. With such a large increase in global supply, even with increased demand, prices for solar system components (mostly for PV) have declined by >60% over the past three years. As a result there are relatively few remaining manufacturers here in the US, even though the solar cell was originally invented at Bell Labs (59 years ago this month, and the same year ASES was established). Certainly there are some very innovative US solar companies, and some segments are doing well, such as in financing, monitoring, mounting & racking, and of course local installers. It is mostly the local installers who have created the boom in solar jobs – over 119,000 US jobs and growing at 13% annually. And solar advocacy is likely a primary cause of this, mainly through state by state legislative policy changes, known as an RPS, that require electric utilities to acquire and distribute energy from renewable sources, rather than their historical default of fossil fuels that release carbon and other pollutants into our atmosphere. This was highlighted in an excellent presentation by Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.


You’ll notice that KY is not one of the 29+ states with an RPS. It’s a hard politically when ~93% of KY’s electricity is produced by burning coal and current electricity rates are 5 to 9 cents per kwhr. But the really scary news is that these very successful policies are now under threat of being reversed by the fossil fuel industry and climate deniers. This is hugely depressing, as has been our efforts in KY to move toward greater sustainability. It was also sad to hear how ASES itself is struggling financially, and that just when national support for advocacy is needed, it may not be in a position to help (there are some positives).

OTOH, I was greatly inspired by many of the people of ASES, lots of highly intelligent and motivated individuals, both the old-timers [thanks to many for sharing your insights and time with me last week] and the many young professionals now driving us forward. The breadth of success stories and innovation in passive, thermal, transportation, modeling, as well as in PV is exciting to me. I found the huge accomplishment of solar in Germany (with about the same solar resource as Alaska) to be inspiring and evidence of what humankind can achieve when there is consensus for action. I also enjoyed the Skype™ presentation by Bill McKibben, president and co-founder of Yet also I am troubled by his stark testimony on the lack of consensus here in the US of A – having to be arrested to bring public attention to the issue of climate change seems so last century…

So, taking advantage of my recent efforts to make this blog more visible and interactive [porting to WordPress was another cause for no new posts last week, sorry], I open the floor to all of you. What do you think of solar energy? Why have we not made much progress? Will we soon? What actions have you taken? Or what’s keeping you from taking action? Please let me know your thoughts.180px-Buerstädter_sonnensegel

And remember: when there’s a fuel spill of solar energy,..
it’s called a Sunny Day!  – Jack

Do you GIS?

I have come to the belief that Geographical Information System (GIS) is the next Excel – i.e. a tool that will become indispensable in everyday life, and most especially to an engineer.

My first exposure to GIS was in the mid-1990s. On a project for PacBell (now AT&T, again), we were building a revolutionary new, fully integrated Operational Support System (OSS) for their ‘new’ network that was going to replace POTS throughout California (I’ll write more about that project sometime soon). But we didn’t get very far with GIS then. A decade later, when Mary Anne was hired to teach Environmental Science at Ramapo College, one of the courses they wanted her for was GIS. She didn’t know much at the time, but with her background in CompSci, she dived in and learned it. She’s been teaching it semi-regularly for nearly 10 years, and continues to do so now at Georgetown. Last year, while on the Wi-Fi project that I mentioned last week, a super talented RF Engineer on the project came up with an analysis methodology using GIS tools. It is a really powerful way to analyze lots of data (and present it geographically), and greatly helped our clients to decide where and how much to build out their networks. I have always been intrigued, but never had the time to learn GIS myself – that is, until now.

I have had a great deal of fun these past 8 weeks, following along on some of the projects Mary Anne’s students are doing this semester (e.g. tromping through a remediated wetlands with a GPS recorder), plus diving into the textbook that she teaches from. I’ve learned a great deal, though somewhat specific to ArcGIS version 10 from ESRI, the company that has most commercialized GIS technology (and is still privately held!). If you’re interested, I recommend “Understanding GIS – An ArcGIS Project Workbook” by Harder, Ormsby and Balstrøm, and published by ESRI. They include a DVD of the software with a limited license and a reasonably complex project to work on over its 9 chapters. It includes discussion of the ‘fun’ parts of any technology project, such as uncertain or changing customer requirements (noooo, I’ve never had that challenge), how to make an analysis easily repeatable and flexible, and even a whole chapter on creating the presentation with the results of analysis. It is a little overly scripted for me, but that likely makes it easier to teach to a general audience (without a computer software background).

When I was a young engineer and anxious to get that first promotion, I looked closely at what others were doing when they got promoted. In those days, business skills were still rare in Bell Labs/AT&T Network Systems, and were ever more important than prior to the 1984 Divestiture. So I focused on developing those more (a.k.a. I turned to the ‘dark side’). For me, that included a rotational program into our sales force (more about that sometime, too), and then coming back to a role in product management. It was there, that I first started using Excel regularly. I developed spreadsheets to track our budget verses actual expenses, our software R&D capitalization/amortization schedule, another for our sales opportunity funnel and revenues, and then put it all together in a product-specific income statement. At the time my peer product managers had no similar insights into these details, as very limited financial information was computerized (and mostly on mainframes). But I could run all kinds of ‘what-if’ business cases or probability assessments, and see the profitability impacts instantly. Since then I’ve used Excel for lots of non-financial things too: engineering performance modeling, net zero energy (NZE) analysis, requirements tracking, contact lists, uncountable charts for presentations, weather analysis, and even a game or two. In 1992, I got that first promotion, and I have always attributed it to my abilities with Excel, bridging technology with business skills. But now that I’m learning GIS, I am wondering, how does an independent consultant earn a promotion…? 😉