Friday, April 22, 2011

Adding Solar Increases Home Values

I had been expecting this trend. Now there's data to support my speculations.

In Stewart Wadsworth's course on PV (photovoltaic) installation, he said he had seen a sequence of 3 different kinds of consumers over the course of 300+ projects. At first, it was the type that wanted to help in the environmental movement and had some extra money. Then, it was the Silicon Valley engineer type who had a fascination with the technology. But most recently it was the financial types, the ones who had done the fiscal math and discovered that installing solar panels was actually one of the best personal investments available in a troubled economy.

Solar's five to eight year return on investment was better for these customers than most anything attached to the record low Fed interest rates. Solar is much more consistent than the stock market. It might even be called boring, but investors have lost their taste for the exciting over the past couple years. Boring feels safer.

So it seems only natural that the location for much of these PV installations, the home, is seeing an increased valuation. To me, the motivation for installing solar is the same as what makes so many homeowners in the first place: Going from renting to owning has long been a pathway to financial prosperity. And although I haven't seen PV marketed as a process of switching from renting one's electricity to owning it, I think that is the fundamental appeal, at least for those more into greenbacks than green politics.

I think it will continue to be a worthy investment even as the subsidies ramp down.   The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report shows about a $5.50 per watt increase in home prices, while the cost of installation was $5 per watt. And SolarBuzz now has the steadily falling retail price of installed solar around $4 per watt (including inverter). Even if a buyer's market supports less increases, this still makes solar one of the most effective ways to increase the value of a home.

And I expect that the solar homes tend to sell much quicker than the average. With an increase in price comes increased incentives for realtors to move such properties since they get bigger commissions. The banks prefer lending to a homeowner that will have more monthly cash on hand due to a smaller utility bill. And the prospective homeowners will save on utilities while appeasing any preferences towards a smaller carbon footprint.

Many market analysts are projecting a downturn in the solar market over the next few months. This is due to the European fiscal struggles that are likely to kill a lot of their solar subsidies. But I think there will be a counter-balancing trend in the US as those who would like to see their home's value rise during a tough market learn about the fiscal attractiveness of solar.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Structural Fab

Soon we will be making buildings more efficiently and sustainably using computer controlled manufacturing and as-needed supply strategies. This article in MIT's Technology Review discusses bringing the FabLab and RepRap processes to the construction industry.

I particularly like the biomimicry aspects of making load bearing members in a building structurally resemble bones. Now if we just add some sensors as well, our buildings could tell us when they are breaking.

I suspect this will mean the replacement of many labor intensive construction jobs, but the building industry shouldn't expect to avoid the same technology-driven disruptions that the automotive, aeronautic, electronics and even shipping industries have endured.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Geothermal HVAC

Here's a video that nicely summarizes geothermal cooling an heating in HVAC design. The startup that put this together is getting mentoring help through a partnership between the US DOE and SBA.

Indie Energy Smart Geothermal™ for Buildings from Indie Energy on Vimeo.

I made some reference to this kind of process in a recent presentation on biomimicry for one of my Environmental Studies classes. Looking at a termite mound, you can see the inspiration for both solar chimneys and geothermal cooling.
The sun heats the tower potion of the system, using convection to passively drive air flow. Air is drawn in through tunnels that go well below the surface, accessing the cooler temperatures below ground. Thus the termites are able to keep certain chambers very consistent in temperature and humidity in hot, arid climates.

When building employ these kinds of systems, they can cut their heating and cooling costs drastically.
Amory Lovins' did an excellent article in the April '05 Scientific American that included a field tested prototype in a home near Bangkok, Thailand.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Deriving 3D Models From Photos

Alright! I may soon be able to bullet-time photograph a broken plastic widget and 3D print out a replacement from a homegrown 3D printer, like Bowyer's RepRap. Then I won't have to send as much to the landfill. Repairmen can expand their revenue stream: 1) scavenging at Goodwill or eWaste yards 2) look up the broken part online or inverse-panoramic photograph it, and 3) print out the replacement. Boom, fixed machine for a low, low price.

Although this is not the first venture into this space, I'm glad to see Microsoft throwing some weight behind it. We will need lots more development. I visualize a day when I can call in a contractor, who shows up with a laser grid projector and a camcorder, and then brings an accurate blueprint/3D model to the next meeting.

I wonder if the intellectual property protectionism will be as ineffective for manufacturers as it has been for the music industry.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bacteria Making Cellulosic Butanol

Energy Secretary Chu has announced success at the DOE's BioEnergy Science Center: they have a bacteria that makes isobutanol from cellulosic plant materials. Bottom line: farmers will be able to sell their crop waste for making a fuel that should run in regular gasoline engines.

This implies:
- added farm income from making fuel out of waste
- less retooling of the auto industry, less retrofitting of the vehicle fleet
- clearing forests of fuels can result in fuel
- US energy independence courtesy of the agricultural sector

Thursday, March 3, 2011

US Navy Half Off Fossil Fuel by 2020

This wide ranging Scientific American article discusses how the Navy and Air Force are becoming less dependent upon foreign oil in the interest of security. The Secretary of the Navy says his department will be halfway off of fossil fuels by 2020. The Air Force has a similar goal. It is already the leading purchaser of renewable energy in the federal government. [BioFuel test flight video]

With the Defense Department's fuel budget at $14 billion in 2010, this means a massive change in the economics of alternative energy. To help justify their strategy, a report has just been released showing a ratio of about 1 dead soldier for every 24 fuel convoys in Afghanistan. But what really bugs the brass is the notion that the US military might could be suppressed by foreign manipulation of the oil market.

As with computer chips and railroads, I expect the US Military will again buy down the price of a new technology. [see Breakthrough: the Death of Environmentalism] So consumers will soon have many more clean energy options courtesy of the military.

Here's a notion for how the California alternative energy goals can align nicely with the military's counterpart:
Pipe some of the exhaust from the state's natural gas power plants through algae tanks. Add some sunlight and harvest huge amounts of algae. Spend a bit more solar energy on conversion to liquid fuels, and a waste stream becomes a fuel supply for the Navy & Air Force. The utilities address their obligations to reduce their CO2 footprint while the military is willing to throw lots of money at domestic fuel production. Everyone's happy except OPEC.

BTW, the Navy's first hybrid electric ship saved $2 million in fuel on its maiden voyage to San Diego.

Reference: DOD's Energy use

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Food Prices Driving Revolutions

NPR has a story about how droughts and high food prices might be driving the people of Africa and the Middle East towards overthrowing their governments.

UN Anticipates 50mil Displaced by Climate Change by 2020

Yes, 50 million climate change refugees by 2020. This PhysOrg article relays the announcement at an AAAS meeting in LA.

With global society strains like this, I expect the US will become more concerned about borders. The GOP will push hard for a wall on the southern border. The accommodation might include a wall, and probably will include drone patrols, added border personnel, maybe even robotic patrols on the ground.

I expect there will be more US Military missions of a humanitarian nature. If soldiers can help people survive where they are, then they won't have to shoot them at our borders. Better strategically to spend our money than their lives.

How to help people stay in a climate stressed region? And how would the military approach a solution? Desalination & water filtering. Localized education in permaculture, composting, solar thermal applications, etc.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Graphene and Fullerenes on PBS's Nova

Fullerenes and Graphene are going to radically change electronics and industry. They promise terrific features with a great potential for sustainability in their manufacture.

In the Making Stuff Stronger episode (about 25 minutes in) they discuss CNTs - Carbon Nanotubes.  CNTs are about 100 times stronger than steel, yet you can make them without mining.

About 18 minutes into the Making Stuff Smaller episode, Graphene is described. These single layers of carbon are the best conductors (besides a superconductor), the best thermal conductors, and can be made using pencils and tape!

The Making Stuff Cleaner segment had the best news, IMHO. About 37 min. in, a researcher at Argonne National Lab was shown using shredded plastic bags to generate CNTs. The catalyst is cobalt acetate and is needed in volume. But the process converts about a fifth of the plastic bag mass to CNTs according to a New Scientist article.

Fullerenes (including CNTs) and graphene can be made into electrical components while still remaining very tough. So we may soon have printed computers, paper batteries, solar umbrellas, and auto bodies that store electricity. What if the foam insulation you spray into your wall could stop a bullet, record humanity's entire music collection, store enough electricity to run your EV, and be safe for your toddler to chew on?

With the supply resources for these carbon materials being readily available in most of our waste streams, the critical challenge seems to be how to get the energy costs down. But since the solar resource supply is 5000 times the current demand, I think that barrier will fall pretty soon. In a few decades the oil industry could be more about plastics than energy.

And someone may get really rich developing the most elegant solution to our growing climate change challenge: suck the excess carbon out of the air and mineralize it into cheap, high tech carbon materials that radically reduce our collective carbon footprint while offering the potential for stuff to get smarter.

Monday, February 7, 2011

99% Wave Energy Capture?

According to this Popular Science article, researchers have figured out how to capture 99% of the energy in a deep ocean wave. Looking further into the technology, I find it is a bit like those old water wheels. And I found a terrific interactive graphic that shows how this mechanism works when used on a tugboat as a propeller.

When I see a 99% capture rate, I get a bit suspicious. Sounds too good. And looked at another way, we are talking about an almost perfect wave dampener. You should be able to set up a wall of these near a coast and protect the land from big ocean waves, even tidal waves if the system is powerful enough.

Mind you, even if you captured all of the was energy in the oceans, according to Saul Griffith, it would still only supply about a fourth or a fifth of humanity's demand. I think wave energy will be viable in a few places, but the bulk of our efforts should go towards making solar cheaper than coal. The supply for solar is more than 5000 times the demand!