What If Plug-In Hybrids Work?

Plug-in hybrids seem like a fantastic technology that could make a serious impact in the amount of petroleum fuel needed for transportation. GM executives have been using the phrase "displacing petroleum" when talking about the long term strategy for powering vehicles in the future. Biofuels, rather than fossil fuels, are drawing a lot of attention, and hydrogen is being explored both as a combustion fuel and for use in fuel cells. And many of these systems are being considered in conjunction with vehicles with some battery-powered component.

What happens to the air we breathe when plug-in hybrids become commonplace in a few years? Are we going to suddenly need hundreds of additional electrical plants to make all that extra electricity for the power that is no longer being supplied by gasoline? Would wide-scale switching from gasoline vehicles to plug-in electric vehicles be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire?

A report jointly issued by the National Resources defense Council (NRDC) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) addresses some of these questions in greater detail. It is worthwhile to think about these questions as these technologies get closer to widespread implementation. Unintended consequences of increasing numbers of electric cars already include concerns about the very quiet operation of electric hybrids when their gas engines are not running, and the potential hazard these vehicles now pose for blind pedestrians, who have much more difficulty detecting the approach of these vehicles than ordinary internal combustion vehicles.

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Future Fuels for Automobiles

USDASwitchgrass: Image Credit: USDA

I'm not that much of an automobile enthusiast. Despite my proximity to the Motor City, I don't pay constant attention to the latest twitches in the auto industry. I take the bus to work, and drive a car only occasionally, usually for errands or to shuttle the kids someplace. But I attended the GM ChallengeX event on behalf of EcoGeek.org and Green Options, and I learned a number of things about where automotive technology is trying to go, and came away excited about new things coming along in the automotive industry.

In addition to the work being done in the ChallengeX competition, GM itself is forging ahead in a number of areas with plans for a wide range of fuel options. Dr. Gary Smyth, one of the GM engineers I had the opportunity to meet over dinner, spoke at length about the fuel mix for automobiles in the future. With increasing demand for vehicles, the issue is not whether, say, switchgrass ethanol or bio-diesel is going to be the magic bullet that addresses the future demand for fuel. Rather, it is going to be a mix of a number of different fuels, all of which are being widely used, that is going to be necessary to keep up with demand, both domestically and internationally. "Displacing petroleum" was the phrase that I heard a number of times throughout the day. GM has evidently seen the writing on the wall and is taking steps to address it.

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Better Daylighting

<p><img src="/files/images/sol.jpg" border="0" alt="Advanced Glazings, Ltd." width="279" height="186" /><strong>solera : </strong>Image Credit: Advanced Glazings, Ltd.Lighting for buildings is a major part of their energy use. Increasingly, green building design is recognizing the importance of providing natural daylight as a means of lighting the building and reducing energy use. Not only does natural daylight reduce the building's energy use, but it also increases comfort for the people in the building. The LEED system includes credit for providing at least 75% of the spaces in the building with natural lighting and views, and the credit is increased if 90% of the spaces are naturally lit.<br /><br />Windows are good for providing views to the exterior. Skylights can be used to bring in more daylight, but they are not without issues. The problem with skylights is that they tend to create glare. The high contrast between areas where the daylight is streaming through the windows and other parts of the space that are not directly lit is visually (and sometimes even literally) uncomfortable. There's either too much light or too little. Diffuse light is more even and comfortable, and avoids areas of deep shadow and sharp glare. This is why so many older buildings had north oriented skylights or clerestory windows (or south-oriented in the southern hemisphere), and why those spaces were so well thought of as artists' spaces and galleries. The <a href="http://www.advancedglazings.com/ldp/index.php">light quality is much better</a> when it is from an indirect source.<br /><br />Most diffuser options do little to spread the light around. Typical etched or frosted glass has little effect. The light patterns are a little bit softer edged from frosted glass than they are from clear glass, but when it is directly lit, it is little better than clear glass. Advanced Glazings, Ltd. offers much better performance for incorporating daylighting into buildings with a line of insulated glazing called <a href="http://www.advancedglazings.com/index.html">Solera</a>. Architects have known of <a href="http://www.kalwall.com/windows.htm">Kalwall</a>, another company that has been making translucent panels for many years. Kalwall is a panel of polyester and fiberglass that offers translucency and some insulation.</p>

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Renewable Energy Plan for Michigan

State of MichiganMichigan Wind Power Map: Image Source: State of MichiganA proposed 21st Century Renewable Energy Plan was introduced last week for the state of Michigan. This is something that the state badly needs. Other states have been pushing forward programs to develop their energy efficiency and renewability, such as the Million Solar Roofs in California, or the western states' "Transitioning the West to Clean Energy and Energy Security." As I mentioned earlier, Michigan, with it's present building code, has one of the worst energy standards in the country. One aspect of this new legislative proposal is to "promote energy conservation through updated construction codes and consumer tax credits for energy-efficient appliances."

The key elements of the plan:

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Home Energy Audits

Take Dad Hiking!
I had the chance to learn more about evaluating home energy efficiency at a seminar about energy rating for homes. This is particulary valuable here in the State of Michigan because Michigan is in the bottom 5 states for energy efficiency in home construction. According to the EPA, only Hawaii is worse than Michigan. There is new legislation being introduced in the state to address some of these issues (which I will be writing about shortly), but, at present, the state requirements are very lax, and saying that a house meets the building code for energy doesn't mean all that much.

Production homebuilders would rather save a few hundred dollars so that they can keep their costs low and sell homes at the lowest price they can. They are unconcerned about the operating cost of the home, and many homebuyers are following them and only asking about the seling price. The cost of this negligence arrives in high energy bills for these homes, which buyers must deal with year after year.

But, there are some federal incentives that encourage the building of more efficient homes. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 includes a $2000 credit (not just a deduction) for home builders for the construction of a home that meets energy efficiency targets. (The deadline on the Energy Act is presently January 1, 2008, but it is expected to be extended by Congress very shortly.) "Home builders are eligible for a $2,000 tax credit for a new energy efficient home that achieves 50 percent energy savings for heating and cooling over the 2004 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and supplements. At least 1/5 of the energy savings must come from building envelope improvements." — (EnergyStar link)

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Driving Cars of the Future

This is part 2 of my series of posts about visiting GM Headquarters in Detroit for the ChallengeX program and to meet with some GM executives. I attended this event representing both GreenOptions.com and EcoGeek.org, and these articles are cross-posted to both sites. Previous story here.

Several of the vehicles were available to be driven at the ChallengeX event. Of the vehicles that were there, I was most interested in driving the University of Waterloo's entry. Most of the teams (12 of the 17 competitors) were using a B20 biodiesel blend as their fuel and all but one of the others used some form of internal combustion with E85 ethanol or reformulated gasoline. But the University of Waterloo team took a different approach.

The Waterloo vehicle was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell (with onboard batteries for backup) and propelled by front and rear electric motors. When I sat down behind the wheel, my guide from the Waterloo team explained that some of the things in the vehicle that are different from the way we're used to driving a car. There were a number of different sounds, coming from the front and the rear, as various systems came online to start the fuel cell system in operation. Matt Stevens from the Waterloo team explained the whole sequence of operation to me this way:

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Green Building Elements: Evacuated Solar Tubes

Silicon Solar Inc.Photo Credit: Silicon Solar Inc.We are pretty familiar with most of the ways solar energy is collected. There are photovoltaic panels (PV) which directly convert sunlight into electricity. Solar hot water systems are another widely known system. Water circulates through a series of tubes or through a pipe to be heated by sunlight. And solar concentrators use mirrors to focus sunlight on a narrow area, either for direct heating, or to boil water to make steam for electrical generating purposes.

Evacuated tube heaters are another method of collecting solar energy. Rather than running the water through a long circuitous course, each tube is a separate heat collector. It is made of a clear glass cylinder which allows sunlight to pass through, and a central heat collector tube. The evacuated tube insulates the collector element, which makes it more efficient in colder environments. The collector itself is typically filled with an antifreeze mix rather than just water. The top of the tube has a heat exchange element which is prevents contamination of the water being heated. The tubes are collected together in an array, with a manifold across the tops, containing the heat exchangers.

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Weekend Review: The Renewable Energy Handbook and Smart Power

William H. Kemp, The Renewable Energy Handbook (2005) and $mart Power (2004): Aztext Press

Wiliam Kemp has written two books on renewable power and off-grid systems for homes, $mart Power (2004) and The Renewable Energy Handbook (2005). (Smart Power actually uses a dollar sign for the S in the title.) These two books are largely a first and second edition of the same text, with the second edition being expanded with several new chapters and additional information.

Both of Kemp's books are comprehensive volumes. He addresses a range of alternate power generating options. There are chapters on photovoltaic (PV), wind, biomass, and micro hydro. More than just discussing the technical aspects of the generating systems, he also covers efficiency, interconection, "Heating and Cooling with Renewable Energy," "Living with Renewable Energy," and the other issues surrounding having a home with renewable systems. He also has a section about making biodiesel and another section about eco-pools (naturally-, rather than chemically-filtered swimming pool systems) and solar heated pools and hot tubs.

The Renewable Energy Handbook and $mart Power both go into some depth about renewable energy systems. Kemp shows all aspects of the various systems, dealing with hardware installation, electrical connection, and the range of what is necessary to install any of the systems he discusses. While I would not rely solely on these books for direction about installing a PV system or a wind turbine, it does provide a greater depth of information. A homeowner can get a better sense of the scope of work required for installing a renewable system, and have a better idea about what is involved, and whether or not it is something they want to take on.

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Building a Green Data Center

AISO.netImage Source: AISO.netPower needs are a growing concern for information technology (IT) needs. A server rack can now draw as much as 30,000 watts. As those servers work, all that energy is turned into heat, and in addition to the energy needed to operate those servers, all of that heat needs to be dealt with or else the electronics will overheat and fail. So data centers are huge consumers of energy, and their demands are increasing.

There are some steps that can be taken. A number of hosting service providers purchase renewable energy credits (RECs) to improve their green presence. And that's a good step, particularly for services that can't directly use renewable energy. But one company takes their commitment to the environment several steps further. They are even the only commercial data services provider that is also a member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). And this has also landed them on Inc. Magazine's Top 50 Green Companies.

Affordable Internet Services Online (AISO.net) environmental concern extends from their solar power array, which provides 100% of their electrical needs, to the construction of their data center building. The facility is powered by an array of 125 on-site solar panels which power the servers and switches, as well as building lighting and air conditioning, with battery storage for nighttime operation. The facility also has a backup generator and a grid connection, but has only used the latter to sell excess power back to the utility.

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Green Building Elements: Tankless Water Heaters

Univ of Alberta Creative ServicesPhoto Credit: Univ of Alberta Creative ServicesNext to bulding heating and cooling, water heaters are the largest energy consumers in most homes. But, with a conventional water heater, much of the energy is spent on keeping the heated water from cooling off while it sits, waiting to be used. Tankless water heaters don't have these standby losses, and can be a much more efficient choice in some circumstances.

Tankless water heaters have no hot water storage (hence tankless), but can quickly raise water temperature by as much as 50 degrees F (~30 degrees C). They can do this with a flow rate ranging from 4 gallons per minute (GPM) to as much as 9 GPM. Tankless heaters are also much smaller than conventional water tank heaters, which can be a consideration for smaller homes where space is at a premium.

Depending on usage patterns, a tankless water heater can provide hot water much more efficiently than a regular tank heater. One manufacturer's information lists an annual operating cost (based on 2004 prices) of $166 for their tankless heater versus $210 for a conventional natural gas water heater, and propane and electric conventional heaters are even more expensive to operate.

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Tip o' the Day: Rechargeable Batteries

There are lots of electronic devices people use, and a large number of them are powered by batteries. Various music players, remote controls, and if you have kids, all manner of electric toys. And, if you are using alkaline batteries in these devices, you are probably going through lots of batteries.

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Wood Burning = Green Heat?

Heat-Kit.comPhoto Credit: Heat-Kit.com
Heating your house with firewood is completely retro. I mean, cutting up trees and burning them, that's just so old fashioned and inefficient, and not green at all.


What do you mean, wood burning can be green?

In fact, masonry heaters (which are also sometimes called "Finnish heaters" or "Russian heaters") can be a green source for heating a home. While a traditional fireplace may be only 10% efficient (which is to say not!), a masonry heater can be 90% efficient. A well insulated house (even in a cold, Canadian location) can be heated on a single cord of wood per season. In a sense, a masonry heater is to a traditional fireplace what a compact fluorescent (or, even better, and LED light) is to an incandescent bulb.

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Shiny, New Solar Panels

Practical InstrumentsHeliotube: Photo source: Practical InstrumentsSilicon solar cells are a pretty established technology. The panels have become more or less standardized to a regular form factor so that installers can use the same mounting hardware regardless of whose panels are being used. Big corporations like Wal-Mart and Google are readying large installations of panels that will produce enough electricity to rival a small power plant. Manufacturers are developing the technology, and new models of solar panels regularly outperform their older cousins by squeezing out a few more watts per square foot.

The silicon portion is still the most expensive portion of the photovoltaic (PV) solar panel, however. So a new solar panel that uses 88% less PV material than traditional panels could help cut the cost of going solar.

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Household co-generation system

Co-generation is a systems approach for producing poth power and heat. Combined heat-and-power (CHP) plants produce electrical power, and use the heat from that production to also provide heat to local buildings (often through underground steam or hot-water piping systems). These systems have been most often found at hospitals and universities, where a large number of buildings can be efficiently served by a combined facility such as this. But new systems are bringing this same technology into the home.

Micro-CHP units are new to the US, with the first installations just beginning in the northeast. The technology for these units is not brand new, however. There are more than 30,000 homes with these units installed in Japan, where the gas utilities have been promoting them. In Britain, 80,000 under-counter micro-CHP systems are on their way and will be installed in the coming years.

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Energy Efficiency for Green Living

<p><img src="/files/images/powerhouse.jpg" border="0" alt="power house" width="155" height="151" />There are many factors that contribute to greening a building. Of these, energy is an extremely important part of the equation. The <a href="http://www.usgbc.org/" title="USGBC">US Green Building Council</a> (USGBC) recognized this fact when they named their green building program LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.<br /><br />Energy costs can be a surprisingly large part of the cost of owning and operating a building. </p>

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Do-It-Yourself Power

How reasonable is it to try to generate your own power? You want to take that big, green step, but there are a lot of unknowns. Is it hard to do? Does it take a lot of equipment? Will the systems last? What is the best system to use for your location?


I can't give you simple, easy answers to most of these questions, since there are too many factors, and it's not a one-size-fits-all kind of question. However, there is one question I can answer: Is it worth considering a renewable generating system? The answer to that is 'yes.'

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