Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Another Excellent Public Meeting

We had a very good turnout for tonight's meeting. Despite the wet and frigid weather, about 45 folks came to Mountain View High School tonight to hear about the Co-op. Lyndon said that 17-18 families have already signed up, which means that the Co-op is better than a quarter of the way to meeting its goal of 175kW.

He also announced something new: if a family pays an extra 10% down (which means the total downpayment would be 20% of the system cost), then they will be put in the "high priority for installation" group. This could accelerate the installation date by several months.

It was hard to gauge the audience's reaction to this. Nobody asked any questions about it. My own preference would be that the installations be done roughly in the order in which people sign up.

I was pleased to hear that SolarCity has two meetings set up specifically for business customers. These will be held at the Chamber of Commerce on March 16 and 21. The State and Federal financial incentives for businesses are better than for individuals, so I hope some medium-sized businesses will sign on to the program and get us all the $7.90/watt price.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Going Rate For Solar is $9.87

One question about SolarCity that I've gotten a lot has been some variant of "how do I know that $7.90 per AC Watt is a good price?"

It turns out that there is a very informative page on the California Energy Commission's web site that let's anyone calculate the going rate for solar in their community.

If you go to that page, scroll down, and click on "Data Showing Approved and Completed Systems After January 1, 2005" you will get access to a huge Excel file. It contains size, pricing, location, and other data for every solar project in California (including solar thermal).

I extracted the data for systems installed in Mountain View in 2006 and 2007 that were between 2 and 4 kW. The median price was $9.87/AC watt and the average price was $9.80/watt over this sample of 22 systems. The graph below shows that price/watt seems to be the same no matter how large the system is (within this narrow range of 2-4 kW.)

The graph doesn't show up as clearly as I would like in this blog, but I would be happy to share the Excel file or the image on request.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

We Bought Our Solar System Today

A busy day! I went to lunch at Rotary with Twana. She gave a 30 minute presentation explaining the idea of a carbon footprint and how we are trying to cut ours in half in the next 3 years. The audience literally gasped when they saw how large a portion of our CO2 emissions come from air travel. Twana asked for a show of hands of members of the audience: had anyone ever calculated their carbon footprint? Not a single hand was raised.

Right after lunch I met with Don Giberson from SolarCity. He brought over the paperwork so we could finally order our solar system. There were lots of papers to sign -- about as many as when we bought our last new car. I signed everything and handed him the check for the downpayment. It feels good!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Problems with Carbon Calculators

Twana and I were talking about our carbon footprint today. She couldn't believe it was as large as I said it was. I gave her the numbers I'd used in the Rotary presentation two weeks ago, and when she plugged them into the carbon calculator at The Climate Crisis web site, she got lower numbers than I had gotten from Acterra's calculator.

"OK," I thought, "this should be easy to settle. If two calculators are different, I should just be able to go to a third calculator and it would agree with one or the other of the first two."

No such luck! I spent a couple of hours checking out 7 different calculators, and there is far less consensus than there should be. I found at least two cases where there were discrepancies between the footnotes in "How we calculated the numbers" and the actual results that showed up on the screen. I'm very frustrated by this. If one of the goals of environmentalists is to cut CO2 production -- and it is -- we need to understand where to invest and how to change our behavior to do this effectively.

To give you an extreme example of how bad the discrepanices are, the Bonneville Education Foundation's calculator says that 10,000 kWh of electricity produced in California generates 3,264 pounds of CO2. But the Carboncounter.org's calculator says it produces 7,300 pounds.

The divergence for CO2 created by air travel was similarly large.


My conclusion is that Acterra's calculator is the best one that I was able to find, and it does a really good job of explaining how it comes up with the results it presents. So, I've included a link to it on the right-hand side of this blog.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Our Site Visit from SolarCity

This afternoon we had our site visit to see how big a solar system we would need and what the best place to put it would be.

Don Giberson was the guy who came out from SolarCity. I gave him a year's worth of electricity bills (actually, a year's worth of projections because the work I've done in the last few months to reduce our consumption hasn't yet been fully reflected in our actual bills). We then went up on the roof.

I had expected that the best spot for solar panels was the east-facing roof (the side away from Bush Street), but Don found some shading problems from trees two yards away, and also from the numerous vent stacks on that side of the roof. Our south facing roof is very small, and also had some shading issues from utility wires nearby.

Don said that the west-facing roof is definitely the best place for solar for us. PG&E pays more for electricity produced in the afternoon, so a southwest orientation is ideal. We'll end up paying somewhere around $10,000 for a system that will virtually eliminate our electricity bill. (I project that we will use about 5,000 kWH per year in the future.)

While we were up on the roof two neighbors came by to talk about solar. One asked Don to call her to schedule a visit to her house. Cool!

Solar Homes in Old Mountain View

Today I interviewed Bonnie Prescop for the article I am writing for the Old Mountain View Neighbhorhood Newsletter about homes with solar PV systems. There are five in the immediate area of my home. On the way back from her house to mine, I dropped off about 10 fliers at homes in the neighbhorhood that looked like they had good, unshaded solar potential.

The article will be part of the March edition of the newsletter. My current draft is pasted below. I really like the quote from Terri Petersen that closes the article.

Living La Vida Solar

There are five homes between Castro and Calderon with solar electric systems. By interviewing the solar pioneers I learned that no two solar systems – or solar families – are alike.

The first couple in the neighborhood to go solar was Philippe Habib and Heidi Cartan. They live at 526 View, and Philippe installed the 2.5 kilowatt (kW) system in 2001, which provides much of the energy needed by their family of four. They have an excellent southern exposure, but the steep pitch of their roof made the installation a physical challenge. At one time they also owned an electric truck whose batteries they recharged at night.

Julie Lovins and Greg Fowler were the next family to go solar. They purchased their 2 kW, 12-panel system in Sept. 2003 from Akeena Solar and had it installed on their east-facing roof where it catches the morning, mid-day and early afternoon sun. Julie and Greg have found that the system provides nearly all the electricity their home needs, and their annual electricity bill has been reduced to slightly more than $5/month. They note that the growth of redwood trees in neighbors’ yards is decreasing the output of the system more each year.

Steven and Bonnie Prescop at 752 Calderon were the next family to go solar in November 2003 as part of a remodel that expanded their home from 1200 to 2200 sq. ft. Their 18-panel, 2.5 kW solar array is on the south side of their addition and is invisible from the street. Bonnie runs an in-home day care business that takes a lot of electricity. Even though they nearly doubled the size of their home, their electricity bill is about half of what it was prior to their $13,000 investment in solar electricity. Steve expects the system to pay for itself in 7-10 years.

The 2.5 kW system of Jordan and Wendy Dea-Mattson (311 Jessie Lane) is also quite hard to see from the street. They had it installed by Akeena in mid-2004. Looking to the future, Jordan is very enthusiastic about the cost reductions that will occur when Palo Alto-based Nanosolar brings its new manufacturing facility in San Jose on line late this year. Nanosolar has developed a semiconductor ink can be used to make a solar cell using a simple printing process. The ink is deposited on a flexible substrate and the nanocomponents in the ink align themselves properly via molecular self-assembly.

The newest, largest and most visible solar system in the neighborhood is at 541 Bush Street, near Mercy-Bush Park. This is the home of Tim and Terri Petersen and their two daughters. Their 4.4 kW system, installed by REgrid Power, became operational on Jan. 5 of this year. Thanks to a sunny January, it produced 474 kilowatt-hours in its first four weeks of operation. The Petersens have owned their home since 1999 and paid for their system by taking some cash out when they refinanced their home last summer. Tim says that he expects the system to reduce their PG&E bills by 80-85%. The initial idea for the solar system was Tim’s, and Terri was hesitant at first. However, as Terri said when I interviewed her, “We watched An Inconvenient Truth and I stopped arguing.”

Friday, February 16, 2007

Sustainable Silicon Valley

A couple of days ago Phil Yurkonis turned me on to the Sustainable Silicon Valley mailing list. I signed up, and found out that their monthly members meeting is today. So I drove over to the newly developed area of East Palo Alto near the Four Seasons Hotel for their meeting.

There were only about 20 people there, and we each got to introduce ourselves. Several people had already heard of the MV Solar Buyers Co-op and seemed very impressed with it. I gave out some flyers about the upcoming meeting on Feb. 27.

There were two speakers, and the one I really liked was Alan Pong. His specialty is to diagnose and tune the HVAC systems in commercial buildings. He's been doing this for quite a few years for Ferreira Service, Inc. Just like George Denise's talk on Tuesday, Alan told about how he was able to find enormous savings. He described one project where the heating system AND the air conditioning system were both running most of the day, fighting each other. Until he installed data loggers and analyzed their outputs the building owners had been unaware of the situation. After all, the employees were all comfortable because the battling systems DID keep the air the right temperature. He was a really interesting guy and a very good presenter, and I hope to attend more Sustainable Silicon Valley meetings in the future.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

7 World Crises

Tonight I attended a presentation by Hermann Scheer, the author of Energy Autonomy: The Economic, Social and Technological Case for Renewable Energy. It was held at Google and sponsored by the German American Business Association (GABA). The talk was called "Toward Energy Autonomy," and is described here.

Hermann Scheer is a member of the German Bundestag (Parliament) and President of EUROSOLAR, the European organization for renewable energies. In a career devoted to the replacement of nuclear and fossil fuels with environmentally sound energy sources, Dr. Scheer has received numerous awards, including the World Solar Prize and the Alternative Nobel Prize.

He says that the world faces 7 Crises:
1. Climate crisis
2. Availability crisis for fossil fuel and uranium
3. Social crisis (collision between first world and third world needs). He pointed out that 40 countries import more oil than the value of ALL their exports. In essence, they are completely bankrupting their national economies to feed their thirst for oil, just as a junkie will do anything to obtain heroin.
4. Nuclear crisis due to weapons proliferation. "A stable society should be a prerequisite for being a nuclear nation, but many nuclear nations (Iran, N. Korea, Pakistan) are far from stable.
5. Water crisis due to unsustainably high water consumption rate of the current infrastructure. In many countries we are mining "fossil water" by tapping into ancient aquifers just as we are mining fossil fuel.
6. Health crisis due to a variety of pollutants, such as smoke from coal fired power plants in China. For example, average life expectancy in Russia has fallen significantly in the past 15 years.
7. Food crisis, due to modern agriculture's addiction to chemical fertilizers, fossil fuel, and soil loss.

He then bridged to talking about how Germany has become a leader in the deployment of wind and solar energy. He said there were 3 keys:

1. Guaranteed access to the grid for all renewable producers, whether home rooftop or major producer.
2. Guaranteed payment at a fair rate to all producers
3. No limits on the quantity of renewables introduced.

(Home owners in PG&E territory experience 1 and 2 but not 3. The amount of power we can feed the grid (and get paid for) is no larger than the amount we consume (measured in $, not kilowatt hours).

He said that Germany has added 3,000 megawatts of power each of the last 6 years and created 150,000 new jobs. He said that Germany produces 20 times more wind energy than the UK, even though the UK is windier, and that German wind energy is 30% cheaper than in the UK.

I had to leave before he took questions. I did not leave feeling good about the future of the planet. :(

Second Story in The Voice

Don Frances, the Editor of The Mountain View Voice, gave the Solar Buyers Group some really nice free publicity in his column today. He wrote:

Sunny side up

BRUCE KARNEY'S plan to bring bulk-rate solar to Mountain View — he's calling it the "Mountain View Solar Buyers Co-op" — is coming along nicely, it seems, after a huge turnout for last weekend's kickoff meeting at the Mountain View Senior Center.

"More than 220 people attended Saturday's meeting, which was more than twice as many as my most optimistic estimate," Karney wrote.

"I was particularly pleased to see individuals of all ages, from late 20s to late 70s, in the audience. It's the largest civic meeting I've been to in many years where people didn't show up because they were trying to stop a project."

Karney was inspired by the recent success of Portola Valley, which managed to strum up enough buyers — nearly twice the needed amount, in fact — to get a 30 percent discount from SolarCity, a Foster City company which installs solar arrays.

A discount of that size, Karney estimates, "brings the price of a kilowatt-hour of solar electricity down to about 10 cents — less than PG&E's lowest rate."

Not too bad. The next informational meeting will be Tuesday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Mountain View High School Theater. For more info on the company, visit www.solarcity.com.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Solar Conversations at Chamber of Commerce Mixer

It's Valentine's Day, and Twana and I went to the Chamber of Commerce monthly mixer before going to dinner. Twana won a really nice gift basket with wine, dark chololate, and other treats!

Lots of people had heard about Saturday's successful meeting. Former Mayor Mike Kasperzak told me that he and his wife Lisa just got a quote on a solar system. By coincidence, the sales rep was a young man that Mike had known for more than 25 years. I like the fact that the solar industry is creating local jobs (unlike the fosssil fuel industry). Even if the panels themselves come from outside the US (some do, some don't), the sales, installation, and administration is all done locally.

Mike O'Farrell, the President of the Chamber Board, said that he would be interested in having a presentation about the Solar Buyers Group at Palm, where Mike is the VP of Facilities. I'll definitely follow up! I think that Alison Nelson, the CEO of the Chamber, is already in touch with SolarCity and planning on setting up a special info meeting just for Chamber members.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Green Buildings at Adobe

I went to the TASC lunch today (Technology and Society Committee). Bob Kirby has been running these events for something like 20 years, and I go about four times a year. Today's speaker was George Denise. He works for Cushman and Wakefield, which manages Adobe's three high-rise buildings in San Jose.

George gave a great presentation (using no Powerpoint!) about all the amazing things he and his team have done to save energy and water and reduce solid waste. They recycle 87% of their waste stream.

He said that they invested $1.4 million, got $389,000 in rebates from PG&E and others, and generated $1.2 million/year in savings -- a payback period of less than a year.

So much energy is wasted in the US -- it's inspiring to hear from someone like George that the savings are just sitting there, waiting to be achieved -- even in a really "green" buildings like the Adobe headquarters complex.

I was able to make a short announcement about the Solar Buyers Group and hand out some fliers for the Feb. 27 meeting (7 PM at the MV High School Theater).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Live Version of "An Inconvenient Truth"

My wife Twana is one of 1000 people who have been trained by Al Gore and The Climate Project to deliver the content of An Inconvenient Truth as a live Powerpoint presentation. She went to Nashville for 3 days in January to be trained. There are about 20 others in the Bay Area who have also been trained.

Today we went to San Jose to watch John Allen deliver the material. He was trained a few months before Twana, and he did a great job getting free publicity. Mike Cassidy wrote a column about him in the San Jose Mercury News on Feb. 6.

The presentation was good, but suffered by comparison to the movie -- but that's only natural, because it was John's first time to give it in public, and Gore has given it hundreds of times. The audience ranged from ultra-environmentalists who don't drive or heat their homes to ordinary soccer moms who just want to know how to get started in energy conservation. John and his computer genius son, Eric, have created a blog to capture ideas and resources about the climate crisis.

The afternoon was interesting for me, and I think it will be very helpful for Twana as she gears up for her first live delivery of the material.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Standing Room Only at Today's Meeting!

Wow, what a great start for the MV Solar Buyers Group! I was expecting 60 people at the meeting at the Senior Center this afternoon, but 250 showed up! Jamie, the lady from the City who was staffing the door, told me that she had to turn several people away because there were no more seats available!

Almost everyone stayed through the Q&A, and there were lots of great questions. I don't know if there's any way that future meetings will top this one, but I hope they at least come close!

In one slide that Lyndon Rive (the CEO of SolarCity) showed, he said that installations could stretch out until December if the number of people signing up for the co-op is really large. Not good! I talked to him after the meeting about instituting some kind of "first to sign up, first to install" policy. He said that is a possibility. I hope so. It seems fair, and it will give people a strong incentive to take the plunge.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

My Presentation to Mountain View Rotary

Twana has been in Rotary for a couple of years, and she set it up that I could speak about the Solar Buyers Group at their meeting today. I put together a short (7-slide) PowerPoint on very short notice.

There were about 25 Rotarians at the meeting, with an average age of 60+. I thought it would be a really tough audience, but not at all! One member, an architect named Dennis Kobza, told me that he has had a solar PV system on his home for 23 years!! Another member, Bert Raphael, has had solar (with battery back-up) at his Los Altos Hills home for a few years.

The presentation went really well, and the image from the final slide had a lot of impact. The photo was published last week in the New York Times. One Rotarian came up to me afterward and said "That picture was the whole presentation! It's all you needed to show." I've copied it below. The caption I used for it was: "Ask not 'What will it cost me to do this?' Ask, rather, 'What will it cost my grandchildren if I don't do this?' "

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Great Story in the Voice

Wow, my phone call with Don Frances has really borne fruit! He gave the Solar Buyers Group a really nice write up in today's Mountain View Voice.

Here's what he wrote in his article.

Bulk rate solar
Local leads effort to hatch a deal with solar supply company
by Don Frances

Recently, dozens of property owners in Portola Valley decided to pool their numbers in an attempt to obtain solar power arrays at bulk rate. As a result, about 68 homes participated in the deal and were outfitted with power- and money-saving solar arrays — at a 30 percent discount.

Inspired by this success, local resident Bruce Karney is announcing he'd like to duplicate the idea in Mountain View, with the same solar company, and he says now is the time to strike.
Karney, a "knowledge management consultant" by trade, says the first step is to recruit as many property owners as possible to meet with the company, SolarCity, and "learn about what happened in Portola Valley." To that end, he's booked a spot at the Mountain View Senior Center for next Saturday, Feb. 10.

"SolarCity has some numbers in mind about the size of the discount they'd like to offer to the people of Mountain View," he said. According to Nicole Ratner, marketing director for SolarCity, the company is considering a similar discount for Mountain View participants — between 20 and 30 percent, depending on market rates.

In Portola Valley (and parts of neighboring Ladera), the 30 percent discount came after residents met the "threshold" amount of electricity, 175 kilowatt-hours, which SolarCity's arrays would generate. Since the average home uses about 4 kilowatt-hours, that meant roughly 44 homes were needed for SolarCity to move forward.

In the end, with the help of some local schools and other government sites, they nearly doubled that goal, Karney said. The final deal was agreed to in late December.

Now is the time for such a deal in Mountain View, according to Karney, because a tax credit for solar upgrades expires in 2007, rebates from the California Energy Commission are still worthwhile, and because "hot August days" are far enough off.

As for the threshold, Mountain View's is also set at 175 kilowatt-hours, Ratner said. Considering Mountain View's size — and the fact that this time the Foster City-based company is also courting small business owners — Ratner is hopeful the threshold will be met.

"I'd love to see it [happen]," she said. "To put Mountain View on the map."

"We started this company to bring solar to the masses," she added.

The next step, Karney said, is for interested residents to attend the meeting at the Senior Center and hear what SolarCity has to offer. At that point "the process largely shifts over to SolarCity, because they need to go out and do individual assessments," he said.

Karney imagines the next few months as a time for getting property owners on board with the idea. Sign-ups would end in April, with solar installations beginning at that time and ideally being completed sometime in July.

"Thirty percent off is enough to get most people excited no matter what it is," he said.

The meeting is in Mountain View Senior Center's Social Hall, on Saturday, Feb. 10 from 3 to 5 p.m. Karney will be there, along with SolarCity representatives and possibly some participating homeowners from Portola Valley.