Friday, November 23, 2007

Home Depot and BP Solar For Homeowners

TreeHugger has an interesting article on a collaboration between BP Solar and Home Depot to provide solar installation to home owners.

The comments section has some good info on the economics, reliability and maintenance of solar panels.

According to the comments -

A typical 1 Kw solar system, that will provide 85% of a homes electricity, is around 22,000 dollars before rebates (maybe 1/2 that or less after rebates). Federal rebates are up to 2000 dollars and some states have rebates plans as well (Florida offers up 20 20,000 dollars for a 2Kw or more home system).

Solar panels have a 25 year warranty and may have a useful life of 40 to 50 years.

The inverter used to convert the DC from the panels, to AC for use by the electrical devices in your home has a 10 year warranty.

Note - The comment that 1 Kw solar system would provide 85% of a homes electricity doesn't sound quite right, unless we are talking about a very energy efficient home. I have a small electric space heater that uses 1.5 Kw and a Microwave that uses 1.2 I guess I could either stay warm or eat.

It's not really that simple, because I don't run my microwave 24 hours a day and I rarely use that very inefficient space heater - and when I do it doesn't just stay on but rather cycles off and on to maintain a set temperature.

We have to consider the average energy used during the day/night, when we are home/not home, and seasonal variations to come up with a realistic value for a home's electrical energy use.

I've read the average U.S. home uses about 900 kWh a month. Which works out to be about 30 kWh a day and 1.25 kW per maybe the 1 kW solar system isn't that far off from what we need after all (at least while the sun is shining).

The nice thing about having the type of solar system that is connected to the grid would be that when we turn on the TV, radio, computer, lights, stove, coffee maker, toaster, microwave and a hair dryer in the morning we can use energy from the grid and when no one is home during the day, and the sun is shining bright, we can feed energy back to the grid.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Compact Fluorescent Floodlights

I hadn't seen compact fluorescent floodlights until recently, but Lowe's offers two indoor/outdoor 18 Watt Replacement Bulbs for $3.50.

It's a pretty good deal to replace two 75 watt incandescent lights with these CFL's that have a nominal life of 6000 hours (about 5 to 7 times that of an incandescent) and use 1/4 the electricity that the incandescents use. Assuming these two CFL's are on for 6 hours a day you will save about $18 per year in electricity costs compared to two 75 watt incandescents.

I recently replaced two indoor 65 watt incandescent flood lights with two 15 watt CFL's (the main difference between these and the typical spiral type CFL's is that they take awhile to reach their peak brightness...but that's fine with me considering the energy savings).

In Snohomish County the common spiral type CFL's are $1.99 or less at Bartell's, Walgreens and some local hardware stores with coupons (usually available in the store) from the Snohomish County PUD

Like most people we are gradually replacing all the incandescent lamps we can in our household with the more energy efficient compact fluorescent lamps

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Simple Suggestion for a Good Life

I heard someone say the other day that their goal in life was to help people and have some laughs.

That sounds good to me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Be an Expert on Anything

Is it really true that it's not what you say but how you say it?

The "Wired" article how to Be an Expert on Anything has advice from Stephen Colbert including using lots of acronyms and abbreviations, not being afraid to make things up and speaking with lots of confidence.

I'd have to add that the cadence of speech is important in fooling some of the people some of the time. The two ends of the spectrum are the quick-talking "it sounds good if you say it fast" method and the drawn out "airline pilot talking on the passenger address system" approach.

You could also try mumbling or talking very quietly, so people catch a few words you say and may end up thinking you know a lot more than you do.

You might try a Socratic method (teaching by asking questions) by not offering any answers or opinions of your own but just keep asking questions that may or may not have much of anything to do with the situation at hand but may make people think you are very deep (or dense).

Monday, November 19, 2007

Turtle Island Foods - Home of The Tofurky

Graphic From Turtle Island Foods
With Thanksgiving coming up this week maybe this is the year to check out Turtle Island Foods Tofurky

The Tofurky is becoming more popular every year, as the reported in an article yesterday - Vegetarians, Meat-Eaters Dig In To Send Sales of Tofurky Soaring

The article provides some of the history of Tofurky and says in 1982, the inventor of the Tofurky, Seth Tibbott,"was just an ordinary hippie living in a treehouse when inspiration struck."

It goes on to say,"an early version of Tofurky, made from soy milk, was a mammoth affair with eight tempeh drumsticks. Tibbott said he had visions of families giving thanks over a large Tofurky, only to realize that just a few people at any gathering were likely to eat it. The latest version serves three or four people, and the drumsticks were replaced by cranberry apple potato dumplings."

It also mentions that vegetarian foods were a $1.2 billion industry last year, up 44 percent from 2001.


I'm not certain but I'm guessing the name of the company that makes the Tofurky comes from Gary Snyder's book of poetry Turtle Island which contains one of my favorite poems "For The Children".

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Opening Your Own Coffee Shop

Opening a coffee shop may sound like a fun and exciting way to make a living, and I have no doubt it can be for the right person in the right place, but this article from Slate gives one person's perspective on the hard work, thought and dedication it takes to make a profit from a small coffeehouse.

My coffeehouse nightmare. - By Michael Idov - Slate Magazine

I would never want to discourage someone from following their dream, but most (if not all) small businesses require a lot of work and dedication from the owner(s), and small cafes in particular have a very high rate of failure. But you will never know until you try.

I think the main problem with the Slate author's business plan was that he thought most of the work would be done by people he hired, and then was surprised to find that was not economically viable, so he and his wife had to spend a lot of time working at their coffeehouse (eeegads!).

Good, dependable workers are hard to find and keep in any job, but anyone who starts a small business not expecting to spend the majority of their time working at that business, is very naive.

I've had a couple of opportunities to get into the restaurant business as a manager or small cafe business as an owner, years ago. I didn't do that for a variety of reasons including not wanting to spend my life in a small town in Montana and because I had worked in these places I knew how much time the manager/owners spent at work. One of the places included a mobile home behind the place and the other had an apartment upstairs - perfect for literally living at work.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Depending on the situation you might work with your family, meet a lot of interesting customers and end up loving it.

I daydream about opening a small cafe or coffeehouse fairly often...maybe one of these days I'll be in the right place and right time to do that.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

How Many Espresso Stands Near You?

According to Yahoo! Yellow Pages there are 62 coffee houses/espresso stands within 5 miles of my current location.

There would be more but in my case the 5 miles extends into Puget Sound and includes quite a bit of pure residential area.

If I was in downtown Seattle I could find over 200 coffee houses/espresso stands within 5 miles.

I think it's great that espresso stands and coffee houses have become so popular.

I generally only buy expensive coffee drinks as a treat, but I appreciate the fact that these establishments provide a living for many people, as well as a place for people to congregate, relax, read, converse or study.

I like Starbucks, and Peets for the excellent coffee, but I particularly like the funky local sort of coffee shops that have friendly baristas, a neighborhood feel, outdoor seating if possible, vegan food, books, free wireless and music.


The economics of coffee, turning 20 cents worth of beans into a 2 dollar latte, help people who own coffee shops and espresso stands make a living and conversely encourages other people to write articles about saving money by not buying lattes.

I'd argue that buying an expensive cup of coffee every so often is worth the price if we consider the big picture of wanting jobs, and nice neighborhoods with places where people can go to relax, converse, hang out and just enjoy life.

The article I linked to above explains that by not buying a latte and muffin every day you could save 150 dollars a month and if you invest that 150 dollars a month, with a 10% return, for 40 years you will end up with almost a million dollars.

It doesn't make sense for most people to spend 5 dollars a day for a latte and a muffin, but an occasional trip to an espresso stand or coffeehouse where we might treat ourselves to an expensive cup of coffee to go - or stay and have conversations, listen to music, study, have coffee or snacks - might contribute more to what we consider a good life in the long term than pinching our pennies so hard we end up being a wealthy resident in a nursing home who missed out on a lot of fun along the way.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Our Daily Bread - The Movie

I saw the movie Our Daily Bread recently. The movie gives us a chance to think about where our food comes from, the impact food production has on people who work in that industry and humane treatment of animals.

The synopsis from the film's website says,

"Welcome to the world of industrial food production and high-tech farming! To the rhythm of conveyor belts and immense machines, the film looks without commenting into the places where food is produced in Europe: monumental spaces, surreal landscapes and bizarre sounds - a cool, industrial environment which leaves little space for individualism. People, animals, crops and machines play a supporting role in the logistics of this system which provides our society’s standard of living.

Our Daily Bread is a wide-screen tableau of a feast which isn’t always easy to digest - and in which we all take part. A pure, meticulous and high-end film experience that enables the audience to form their own ideas."

For a 90 minute movie with no dialogue "Our Daily Bread" zipped by for me. It's not an in-your-face anti-food movie at all. You can see the hard work people do to bring us food, think about what impact that work has on them and decide for yourself if the mechanized raising and harvesting of animals fits into your personal philosophy.

There are parts of this movie that would not be suitable for young people or those who are at all squeamish, but overall it's a sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying, but completely dispassionate look at industrial food production.

The DVD of this movie may be available at your local library.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Payday Loans = Costly Cash

The Federal Trade Commission alerts consumers that Payday Loans = Costly Cash but apparently there is nothing the Federal Government can do to stop exploitation of the working poor, young people starting out, or military people who end up paying the typical 391% APR charged by payday lenders.

A typical scenario is the borrower writes the payday loan provider a check for $115, to be cashed on payday and the loan provider gives the borrower $100 cash.

In the ideal case someone needs money until they get paid and then pays off the loan on payday. It's really not that ideal for the borrower since they are stuck with the 391% APR...but 15 bucks interest on a 100 dollar loan doesn't sound that bad in an emergency situation.

The problem of course is that the people who have to use payday lenders are often not able to cover that $115 check when payday comes up in 14 days and end up with late fees from the payday lender and possibly their bank if the lender attempted to cash the check. They end up in a vicious cycle of extending their 14 day loan for a longer period of time, and that original $100 might end up costing them $390 in interest in a year, plus whatever fees the payday lender charges.

It all depends on how you look at it. Paying 15 dollars to borrow 100 dollars for 2 weeks, sounds okay - but paying 15 dollars every 2 weeks for a year ($390) to borrow that $100 sounds terrible.

It's a lucrative business.

There are 10 of those types of businesses in a 5 mile radius of where I live and they seem to be included as standard features in the new strip malls being built around town.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Last Pepper

This is the last pepper from a plant I grew in a container this summer. They were nice to look at but not nearly as hot as I expected, since the picture on the plant tag showed an exploding firecracker. I don't know what variety they are. They were very colorful ranging from green, yellow, orange, purple to red.

They taste like a sweet red bell pepper. I'm guessing that they needed more direct sunlight and warm nights to fully mature - than we have over here in the Pacific Northwest or else I started them late - or they are some variety of a sweet pepper.

I bought plenty of hot peppers this summer from a farmer in the Yakima valley that comes to the local farmer's market. I made some hot sauce by blending habaneros, scotch bonnets, simple sugar, and vinegar and also froze several batches of chopped peppers for use this winter.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Getting Energy From a Star 93 Million Miles From Earth

KCET, Public TV in LA ran this story last summer about two concentrated solar power farms to be constructed in California's Imperial Valley and the Mojave desert by Stirling Energy Systems.

This system uses mirrored solar concentrators and a tracking system to focus the sun's rays to heat a Stirling Engine which turns an electric generator.

The Stirling engine was invented by the Scottish minister (and part time engineer/inventor) Robert Stirling in 1816. It was intended as a safer alternative to steam engines.

In the video the CEO of Stirling Energy Systems says the two future Southern California solar farms will be capable of providing the energy for 1 million homes, which is equivalent to the power produced by Hoover Dam. He also states a "100 mile square" solar farm would provide all the U.S. energy needs.

This article in Wired from November 2005 is talking about the plan for Huge Solar Plants to Bloom in Desert.


As technologically exciting as this project sounded from the admittedly somewhat dated Wired article and the relatively recent July 2007 video from KCET, this blogger's story from yesterday Stirling Takes the Fifth brings a different perspective on the current state of this project - which may or may not be moving forward.

The author Elizabeth McCarthy states, "We do know that the CPUC okayed these projects, although Stirling lacked site control of the many thousands of acres required to build out its projects in the Mojave Desert and in Imperial County. We also know the technology has not been applied on a commercial scale to date."

I thought it was odd that there wasn't more information available on how things were progressing, but maybe it's just a matter of getting siting permits and starting to build the farm.

Monday, November 12, 2007

To Those Who Served

To all the brave men and women who have served our country so that we may enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - we remember, honor and thank you.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

I Want To Say One Word To You - Just One Word


If I was a young person interested in getting into a growing field either in the R&D, installation or sales area - solar energy would be my first pick of an industry that is guaranteed to grow in the coming decades.

I am including some interesting facts from a DOE funded study on solar energy utilization and basic research needs, to back up that recommendation.

  • Sunlight provides by far the largest of all carbon-neutral energy sources. More energy from sunlight strikes the Earth in one hour (4.3 × 1020 J) than all the energy consumed on the planet in a year (4.1 × 1020 J). We currently exploit this solar resource through solar electricity — a $7.5 billion industry growing at a rate of 35–40% per annum — and solar-derived fuel from biomass, which provides the primary energy source for over a billion people. Yet, in 2001, solar electricity provided less than 0.1% of the world's electricity, and solar fuel from modern (sustainable) biomass provided less than 1.5% of the world's energy.
  • The world now uses energy at a rate of approximately 4.1 × 1020 joules/yr, equivalent to a continuous power consumption of 13 trillion watts, or 13 terawatts (TW). Even with aggressive conservation and energy efficiency measures, an increase of the Earth’s population to 9 billion people, accompanied by rapid technology development and economic growth world-wide, is projected to produce more than double the demand for energy (to 30 TW) by 2050, and more than triple the demand (to 46 TW) by the end of the century.
  • Covering 0.16% of the land on Earth with 10% efficient solar conversion systems would provide 20 TW of power, nearly twice the world’s consumption rate of fossil energy and the equivalent 20,000 1-GWe nuclear fission plants.
  • Solar fuels in the form of biomass produce electricity and heat at costs that are within range of fossil fuels, but their production capacity is limited. The low efficiency with which they convert sunlight to stored energy means large land areas are required. To produce the full 13 TW of power used by the planet, nearly all the arable land on Earth would need to be planted with switchgrass, the fastest-growing energy crop.
  • To contribute significantly to global primary energy supply, a prospective resource has to be capable of providing at least 1-10 TW of power for an extended period of time.
  • The three prominent options to meet this demand for carbon-neutral energy are fossil fuel use in conjunction with carbon sequestration, nuclear power, and solar power.
  • The challenge for carbon sequestration is finding secure storage for the 25 billion metric tons of CO2 produced annually on Earth. At atmospheric pressure, the yearly global emission of CO2 would occupy 12,500 km3, equal to the volume of Lake Superior.
  • Producing 10 TW of nuclear power would require construction of a new one-gigawatt-electric (1-GWe) nuclear fission plant somewhere in the world every other day for the next 50 years. Once that level of deployment was reached, the terrestrial uranium resource base would be exhausted in 10 years.
  • The third option is to exploit renewable energy sources, of which solar energy is by far the most prominent. United Nations (U.N.) estimates indicate that the remaining global, practically exploitable hydroelectric resource is less than 0.5 TW. The cumulative energy in all the tides and ocean currents in the world amounts to less than 2 TW. The total geothermal energy at the surface of the Earth, integrated over all the land area of the continents, is 12 TW, of which only a small fraction could be practically extracted. The total amount of globally extractable wind power has been estimated by the IPCC and others to be 2-4 TWe. For comparison, the solar constant at the top of the atmosphere is 170,000 TW, of which, on average, 120,000 TW strikes the Earth (the remainder being scattered by the atmosphere and clouds). It is clear that solar energy can be exploited on the needed scale to meet global energy demand in a carbon-neutral fashion without significantly affecting the solar resource.
The next time someone suggests carbon sequestration, switchgrass or nuclear as a viable option for meeting the world's growing energy demands you can whip out some of these factoids.

Carbon sequestration needs a leak-free storage facility with the volume of Lake Superior.

Switchgrass would need to be planted on all arable land in the world.

Nuclear power plants with a 1 GWe capacity would need to built every other day for the next 50 years.

According to the DOE report, covering 0.16% of the land on Earth with 10% efficient solar conversion systems would provide 20 TW of power, nearly twice the world’s consumption rate of fossil energy.

Boeing Spectrolab has developed new technology solar cells that surpass 40% efficiency.

If you take the DOE's estimate for a solar array that covers .16% of the Earth to provide 20 TW, and use 200 million square miles for the earth's landmass - you come up with 320,000 square miles, an area that is approximately 565 miles by 565 miles. Using the 4X greater efficiency of the Boeing-Spectrolab cells brings this down to 80,000 square miles, an area approximately 282 miles by 282 miles.

I've seen estimates that a solar array placed in the U.S. desert that was in the range of 2,500 square miles (50 miles by 50 miles) to 10,000 square miles (100 miles by 100 miles) would provide all the U.S. energy needs. None of these figures are exact, since they require assumptions regarding energy use, solar cell efficiency and available sunlight - but at least they give us an idea of what size a solar array would need to be. Putting a 50x50 mile or even 100x100 mile solar farm in the desert sounds good to me when we consider the alternatives.

The complete DOE report is a 276 page PDF file which you can access at Basic Research Needs for Solar Energy Utilization

I've posted a condensed 10 page PDF file over here.


Note: For you young whipper-snappers, the "I want to say one word to you..." quote is from the movie The Graduate (1967).

Back in the 60's the word was "plastics".

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Benjamin: Yes I will.

Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That's a deal.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

BBC NEWS - Most Ready For 'Green Sacrifices'

In the U.S. four out of five people think it's "definitely" or "probably" necessary to make significant changes in their lifestyle to help prevent global warming or climate change.

It's interesting that one in five think that it's "definitely not" or "probably not" necessary to make any lifestyle changes. Those must be people who can afford five dollars a gallon for gasoline, or maybe they are already as green as they can be.