Tag Archives: climate change

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!)

Everybody Smile!

Ok, everyone, today at around 5:30pm (Eastern Time) today be sure to lookup and smile! Really, really big!

Our picture is being taken by the Cassini spacecraft from orbit. And not Earth’s orbit, but from the orbit of Saturn, which is currently approximately 898,500 million miles (1.446 billion kilometers) from Earth. Therefore it will take the light from our shinny faces over 80 minutes to reach the camera (which is taking a mosaic picture of Saturn and all its rings, while Earth ‘just happens’ to be in the background). For more detail and interesting things about this, see this JPL blogsite.  Ok, yes, we (the whole Earth) will actually be less than one pixel of the final picture, but at least in my opinion we have lots of reasons to be smiling:

  1. In other space news, Luca Parmitano (pic above) is fine!, after having to cut short a planned 6.5 hour EVA (spacewalk) on Tuesday. While performing maintenance outside the International Space Station, his spacesuit started leaking (no, not leaking air, but) water internally, and he was having difficulty seeing, hearing (his headset shorted out), and even breathing due to more than a liter of water accumulating in his helmet.
  2. The global telecom industry seems to be through the worst of the current wave of cutbacks. Much is stilled needed to return to a fully sustainable business, but the pathways and impacts of the transition to IP should now be clear to most everyone.
  3. The US government (though not Congress, as yet) seems to finally get that global climate change requires more and serious action!
  4. The DRBC has again delayed permission for fracking in the Delaware River watershed. And while some people will be getting less money due cancelled drilling leases, there’s hope that this glorious area will stay a great place to live and retire to, and that our drinking water will remain clean and pure.
  5. Our own solar PV system has completed one year of operation, and we had overall a net positive production of electricity over what we actually consumed. We’re cashing a small check from our utility for the excess that they purchased from us!

Lastly, of course, it’s FRIDAY! And the current heat wave will be breaking tomorrow! So only one more night of sleeping with the windows fully open, but while it’s still 78-80F in the house!

Hope you too have good reasons to be smiling this summer. Stay cool, everyone! – Jack

Good News and Bad News

First, the REALLY BAD news: The portion of carbon dioxide in our Earth’s atmosphere is now trending above 400 parts per million, as measured at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. The late Dr. Charles David Keeling initiated this research starting in 1958 (when the measure was ~315ppm) and has had the resulting jagged upward curve named for him. The results have been repeated and verified at many locations around the globe. Further measurements of the gases trapped in ice cores (and other methods) have extended the curve backward in time to more than 3 million years ago (i.e. prior to the existence of Homo sapiens).5_2_13_news_andrew_co2800000yrs

The right hand side of the curve demonstrates the problem: At no time known to man has the amount of atmospheric carbon been higher than today. And everyday we humans add further to this by continuing to burn fossil fuels and releasing carbon (and other greenhouse gases) that have been long trapped within the earth or by nature. Without doubt, our global industrial engineering, taking advantage of the high power density of coal, oil and natural gas, has had huge benefits to our civilization over the last 150+ years. (We’d all be challenged to recognize our pre-industrial past as very “civilized” when animal and manpower — often in the form of slavery — were the prime power sources for engineering projects.) We all wish this was sustainable… but not!

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace prize (along with ex-VP Al Gore, who is perhaps most responsible for widely publicizing the Kleening Curve), stated in their 2008 report (their 4th assessment; the 5th is due early in 2014) that without mitigation, it is highly likely that average global temperatures during this century will rise between 1-6°C, due to the higher retention by our atmosphere of the sun’s radiant energy. This in turn is likely to cause significant melting of the Earth’s glaciers and polar ice caps, with an estimated minimum of 7m (22 feet) of sea level rise if the Greenland ice sheet melts. Plus the more energetic atmosphere is likely to cause chaotic weather patterns with more drought, as well as much stronger and more frequent storms. Plus ocean acidification and more scary things. Overall, a massive long-term disruption to nature and the environment, and to mankind’s existing way of life, with at least 23% of the global population threatened with loss of its drinking water, food supply and/or living spaces. Without a doubt, further impacts will also include violence between those with and those without, and possibly even global war caused by the arrogant, the ignorant or those in the grip of fear…


The good news? Well, nothing as earth-shattering, but still quite hopeful. Those who know me, will know I’m also a space geek. Yes, I follow the NASA (and other) space programs very closely. I geek out watching a live rocket launch, and have NASA TV in my bookmarks and on my iPhone. Well, today happens to be the departure date of 3 of the crew on the International Space Station (ISS), returning home after nearly 6 months of living in microgravity, scientific research, maintenance and sometimes dramatic repairs (e.g. Saturday’s unplanned spacewalk). The commander of this expedition has been Chris Hatfield from Ontario Canada (the first Canadian ever to command a spacecraft). But he’s also a musician, who yesterday released to the world via YouTube a beautiful rendition of the classic ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie (which you may know better by its haunting chorus: “Can you hear me Major Tom?”). This new music video was recorded during his off duty time on the station and includes many beautiful views within the station, and of our BLUE Mother Earth. If you remember, the original lyrics were also quite depressing… Yet in this reversion Major Tom is returning to the Earth from a space station (“a tin can”), just as Commander Chris will be doing this evening.  It’s a Must Watch, whether you’re a space geek or classic rock fan, but especially if you’re depressed about how screwed up the human race is… This gives me hope! Thank you for that, @Cmdr_Hatfield!  – 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 350.org. 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

We should all care more

One of the topics Mary Anne and I care greatly about is sustainability. Unlike some of my engineering student peers, I took extra economics classes in undergrad. I had troubles with a statement made by one of the professors: roughly phrased he said “There is always either growth or decline, never stability” (his main point was that investors can make money from either bull or bear markets). Yet as engineers we always preferred stable states (afterall, statics is much easier than dynamics!), and especially in my field of computer engineering, stable electrical states are mandatory to perform digital processing. Processor speeds are limited by the capacitance of the circuit, i.e. the time it takes for the electrical state stabilize after a state change. Of course in the last 30+ years CPU clocking cycles have gone from the kilohertz range to gigahertz, as semiconductor unit sizes have shrunk.

After I left school and entered the working world, it was the economics viewpoint that became my firm belief. Afterall, prices were always increasing (due to inflation or limited supply), or sometimes decreasing (increased supply, e.g. computers), but never stayed stable for long. But then Mary Anne went back to school for her Ph.D. in Environmental Science at Rutgers. She left the clean world of math and computers to study all those wet sciences: chemistry, biology, ecology, etc. Somewhere in that time (1994-2002) I first learned of climate change and the human-caused increases of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. As an engineer, and especially as a “systems” engineer, the large movement of carbon from trapped underground formations into our atmosphere is easy to grasp (burning), and it’s just as easy to understand that the system (Earth’s atmosphere) must change as a result. The positive feedback loops are, perhaps, not as easy to grasp, but appear to be just as real. This is not sustainable for human civilization!

Even as Moore’s Law keeps hanging in there (due to economic drivers), we still know it can’t continue past certain real physical constraints (the size of atoms, if nothing else). And so it is with our civilization’s burning of carbon…

So, now the critical question: How do we humans wish to live in the future?
I vote for a gradual self-directed change, rather than the dynamic (and likely harsh) consequences of continuing the same behaviors as the past 30 or 130 years. Oh, and yes, we very likely need both engineering and economics (and time) to reach that more sustainable state… [Oh, the ambiguity!]