Oct 28, 2016

Solar Golf Cart in Puerto Rico

I want to tell you about a lovely vacation I had with my mom in Puerto Rico. I decided I needed some time to decompress between finishing up 5 years at the US Institute of Peace and starting a new job at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development. Puerto Rico was an easy-access and affordable solution.

During our Oct. 22 to Oct. 27 visit, we stayed in Old San Juan and toured a number of coastal towns, the Bacardi Factory, the Arecibo Observatory, El Yunque National Forest, and El Morro Fort. Each of these visits had a clean energy component. Below are some of the more notable ones.
Wind Turbines at Bacardi
My mom posing in front of the 1960s conceptual bat pavilion with one
of the wind turbines looming in the background

The Bacardi Factory had two wind turbines owned and maintained by Aspenall Energies (Powertechnology.com). You can see easily see the wind turbines from Old San Juan. However, the tour was a bit expensive and I wouldn't recommend it unless you're able to trick other visitors out of their drink tokens. The drinks weren't bad. I had a Bacardi Sunrise and my mom had the Daiquiri.

Solar in San Juan
Smaller buildings might follow the solar trend of larger building in
Old San Juan. The orange star is our hotel, El Convento.
From the roof of our hotel, El Convento, we could see a number of solar hot water heaters, much like the first photo in my recent Dominican Republic post. What I wasn't able to see from the hotel roof were some of the installations on larger buildings. Check out the solar on the Ballaj√° Barracks (top left) and the Departamento de Hacienda (bottom right). Let's see if these big buildings are trend setters for the smaller ones and I'll check back in on Google Maps in another year or so.

Solar Golf Cart El Morro
Solar panel on top with the
480 year-old Fort behind
My biggest solar interaction was at El Morro Fort. It was also the best tour. The Fort is maintained by the National Park Service (NPS)--the best tour guides on planet earth--and as we were walking up for our tour, an NPS golf cart with a solar panel drove by. I ran up to it and the park ranger was kind enough to give me some information. He showed me the 8 Powertron batteries under the front seat and the electric motor in the back. I didn't get a good look at the panel on the golf cart but I imagine it was around 300 watts.

NPS collaborates a lot with the Energy Department and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). These solar golf carts fall in line with number of other clean energy NPS initiatives including solar panels on Alcatraz, energy-efficient buildings in Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks, and Hybrid vehicles in the Tetons (NREL.gov). Puerto Rico, like the 50 states, visibly benefits from these US Government services. As much and as right as we are to complain about government waste and inefficiencies, we should not be blind to the positive impact these can have on our parks, cities, and overall population.

One thing that struck me most during this vacation was the contrast between Puerto Rico, a US territory and the neighboring country of the Dominican Republic. Although the islands are merely 70 miles apart and majority Spanish-speaking, here are some of the problems I noticed in the DR and didn't see in Puerto Rico: piles of litter and trash in the streets, a pronounced gap between the rich and the poor that manifested itself in constant and aggressive begging, and frequent power outages. I believe these issues point not just to a difference in culture, but a difference in governance.

I'm excited to have a third Caribbean territory to add to my cultural and clean energy considerations--Cuba. My Vittoria Energy Expedition teammates and I are in the final stages of planning Expedition Cuba. We built the boat over the course of the summer and fall, provided dozens of groups with tours of our clean energy vessel, built @vittoriaenergy up a social media, and mapped out our route. Although Cuba is in the same Caribbean neighborhood and I've studied its energy situation extensively, I believe my expedition there will be the most eye-opening and educational.

Sep 28, 2016

Solar Visit to San Francisco: West Coast is the Best Coast

Solar homes just north of Berkeley 
My friend Valerie got married in Walnut Creek, just northeast of San Francisco on September 24, 2016. I was out there first and foremost for the wedding and to collect some Kuli Kuli merchandise. However, I never let a solar opportunity pass me up and there were plenty in California.

Above is the solar-powered MLK Student Union
As I was driving up from the San Jose Airport to downtown San Francisco, I almost stopped five times on Highway 101 to photo-document some of the amazing solar installations. However, it was a rental car and I needed to get accustomed to California drivers.

Solar cells integrated into the glass roof 
of  CA's Academy of Sciences 
provided some much needed shade
Once I made it to San Francisco, I got to go visit the Mission district, chill in Dolores Park, and go to Valerie's rehearsal dinner in Alameda. No solar but a lot of fun.

The next day, I went with my friend, Jaime, to Berkeley's campus. When we ascended the Safer Tower to get a view of the university, I realized just how much solar there was around Berkeley. From nearly every direction you looked out from the tower, there were residential and commercial solar installations. Jaime was interested in the overall view but once I began pointing the panels out, we were competing to spot the next installation.

The morning after the wedding, we decided to go to Golden Gate Park. There, we walked along the greens, visited the botanical gardens, and stopped by the California Academy of Sciences. Although I loved everything, the Academy of Sciences stood out because of its green roof and solar panels. These were integrated solar cells--a lot like what I saw at the National Academy of Sciences over a year and a half ago.

Click on this to see the cluster of homes
My final moments in San Francisco were spent at Golden Gate Heights Park overlooking the Sunset District. I saw a lot of solar homes but was elated to see 24,000 solar panels under the setting sun. This is the Sunset Reservoir Solar Project, an enormous project 5 Megawatts big--that's enough to power 820 American homes according to SEIA's calculations. Check out the photos below.

The amazing Sunset Reservoir Solar Project
In conclusion, Valerie's wedding was great and I saw a lot of solar. My humble opinion is that I should get paid to visit solar installations. I don't know how I'm going to go about finding the funders, but a boy can dream.

Sep 12, 2016

Opportunities and Challenges for Solar in the Dominican Republic

My only solar photo is of a rusty solar water 
heater. Brilliant.
I was in the Dominican Republic for a lovely, September 4 wedding. Of course, my main focus was the wedding but I was also able to incorporate solar. I had a number of questions in mind: Where is the existing solar? Where could solar be plugged in that it's not? Where is electricity lacking? Where is the demand! I'm glad to report that I found some answers.

I visited a bunch of the island including the cities of Puerto Plata, Sosua, Santo Domingo, La Romana, Punta Cana, and Bavaro. The most solar I saw was in Santiago. There were a number of covered parking areas and commercial spaces covered with solar panels. I didn't get any photos of the photo-voltaic systems so you're going to have to trust me on their existence. To the right, there's a photo of one of the solar water heaters. 

My trip across the DR--plenty of opportunity for solar spotting. A special 
thanks to Marien Perez, who drove me from Punta Cana to Santiago
I traveled back and forth from Santiago to Punta Cana and back to Sosua (left). To give you an idea, it was 250 miles from Punta Cana to Sosua alone. In the rural areas between cities, I noticed a lot of single solar panel installations (probably powering the lights in homes). However, I was disappointed that I didn't see any large-scale solar farms along the highway. My friends tell me that there is a big solar installation in Monte Plata--the biggest in the Caribbean. Next time.

I imagine in the years to come, the Dominican Republic will be going a lot more solar. They've got a lot of space and a shortage of energy as I will discuss below.

Energy Efficiency
It seemed that every building I entered was equipped with Compact Fluorescent Light-bulbs (CFLs). One example was the Alta Gracia Free Trade Zone I visited. They make tee-shirts and sweatshirts for American universities. In addition to good salaries, employees enjoy a work environment illuminated by CFLs. Although it costs more up front, a CFL can last 5 to 10 times your average incandescent light-bulb and it uses about 75 percent less energy than a traditional light bulb (EarthFriends). That's pretty good motivation for Dominicans looking to save money on electricity.
CFLs illuminate the Alta Gracia Free Trade Zone

In addition to CFLs, most of the places I stayed relied on ceiling fans instead of air conditioning. It's not as comfortable as AC, especially if you're in 90 degree heat, but it's very doable. Fans can moderate room temperatures for a fraction of the cost of AC. In fact, a ceiling fan isn't much more in cost than a 60 watt incandescent light-bulb. To give you a sense of the commitment to fans, as I was leaving the country, the main hall of the Puerto Plata Airport was ventilated by a 14 foot diameter Big Ass Fan

Energy efficiency is a big deal in the Dominican Republic because energy isn't cheap and isn't always available. During my stay, I learned that in many areas, electricity is cut regularly during the days. The fancier buildings can afford diesel generators to fill the electricity gaps--but these are noisy, smelly, and expensive.

A rural house in Constanza, DR with corrugated tin roof. Photo credit: 
my Airbnb  host in Santiago, Ryan Bowen
My Recommendations
If you're looking to install solar in the Dominican Republic, I'd recommend a few things. 

First, make sure your panels can be installed on corrugated tin roofs. Many of the rural residences are made of this material. Be sure about how much weight it can bare and what it will take to secure the panels from blowing away in a strong wind. 

Second, consider approaching the many resorts. The Dominican Republic has an enormous tourism industry. Each one of these resorts draws a huge amount of energy and if you play it right, you could be a big energy provider. One way in particular would be golf cart charging stations. Golf carts are by far the most popular way to get around and a covered charging station could provide shade, reliable electricity, and eco-tourism.

Third, if you can produce a solar-powered water purification unit that is affordable and easy to use, you could dominate the market. No one--not even the locals--drinks the tap water. Think of how much that adds up to in bottled water...people would be willing to pay good money for an alternative. One group I would recommend collaborating with is Litro de Luz. My Airbnb host in Santiago works with them and I'd be happy to put you in touch. 

Fourth, empty lots. There were a lot of empty lots in the cities if you could figure out a deal with the cities and utility company to use this land for a commercial solar farm, you could sell electricity back to the grid or to neighboring businesses and residences. Of the four options, this would probably be the most bureaucratic.
In conclusion, the Dominican was an eye-opening experience and I got to see a lot of different sides to the society. I'm excited to plug in this experience to my upcoming voyage to Cuba with Vittoria Energy Expedition.

Aug 28, 2016

Coffee Conversation about Asheville Solar

On August 12, I was down in Asheville, NC visiting my brother and sister-in-law. While they were finishing up their Fridays at work, I met with one of their guitar-playing, Ultimate Frisbee friends. He works for a solar company that installs panels for homes and businesses around North Carolina.

We spoke for an hour in the Green Sage Cafe (downtown Asheville). We covered everything from the company's history to Power Purchase Agreements to how North and South Carolina compare on solar.

My coffee date was extremely knowledgeable--he's been with his company for 5 years--and taught me a lot about the ins and outs of the solar industry in North Carolina.

We focused particularly on how business ebbs and flows with legislation. A couple years ago, I read that North Carolina was third in the country for solar installations. He told me all about how this came and went because of State Tax Credits--incentives that North Carolina put in place for solar a few years ago but that recently expired. Selling solar in North Carolina was hot and now it's not. In fact, he told me he went from selling to 1 out of every 7 potential customers to 1 out of every 25.

Eventually, I'm looking to support a solar company but I would prefer to handle communications or policy. This is an option in larger companies but Small and Medium-sized Enterprises like ones in North Carolina hire people that can sell or install panels. It's a growing industry but difficult route I've chosen. This is what conversations with salesmen like this remind me of.

Aug 12, 2016

How to Solarize Your Sailboat

On August 7, I saw this sleek looking sailboat with solar
strips by St. Mary's College of Maryland
For the last few months, I've been spending my nights and weekends thinking of ways to incorporate solar panels on a sailboat and it's not as easy as you might think. 

The solar has to blend into all of the moving parts. The sails and ropes are constantly moving back and forth across the deck. Anything that gets in the way of their powerful movements will be ripped off and damage the boat.

The elements also want to destroy your expensive panels. Think of tropical storm category waves and wind--they could easily tear off a panel. 

In addition to the equipment and the elements, you have to consider the movement of the crew. Panels could cause serious injury. If a panel is poorly placed, a sailor could easily fall onto its sharp corner and go overboard. 

This boat with 3 solar panels and wind turbine
is moored in the Gangplank Marina in SW DC
I took the picture above right after the 2016 St. Mary's Governor's Cup of a boat that has found a way to integrate solar strips on top of the cabin and keep them out of the way of the sails and sailors. Though these strips are space-efficient, they don't produce that much electricity. I generously estimate that these six 3-foot long strips could produce a maximum of 240 watts at any given time. Remember that one incandescent light bulb is 60 watts.

To get a better idea of how little usable room there is for solar on a sailboat, look right. This picture is of a 35' sailboat. That's a boat that could easily sleep 6 people and it probably weighs 11,000 pounds. For all intents and purposes, it's a yacht. However, you will see that it's only able to accommodate three small panels. They could power some on-board equipment such as lights and a small fan but nothing like navigation equipment or an electric motor. This boat relies on its diesel engine to produce the power it needs.

At Vittoria Energy Expedition, we're working on safely powering a boat to sail to Cuba in the Fall of 2016. We have mounted two 260 watt panels on a super-structure on the stern (back) of the boat. This structure was constructed from aluminum tubing that we welded to fit our boat. It's positioned far enough back that it doesn't interfere with our team's movement, ropes, cables, or sails.

In addition to the two big panels on the back, we have two more angled off the sides of the cabin. These will see a lot less sun but are easy to remove in case of a storm or damage.

Finally, we will be adding a 450 watt wind turbine off of the stern (port side).

All of this energy is stored in a bank of batteries in the hull of the boat. The bank weighs over 500 pounds and requires monitoring and charge controlling--we have to make sure that the electricity the panels create and that our equipment draws interacts with the batteries at the same voltage. Otherwise, the batteries damage and we're left on the high seas with a lot of extra weight and zero power.

In terms of meeting our boat's energy demand, at their best, these panels can generate 1 kilowatt of energy per hour. During the Caribbean Fall, there will be just under 12 hours of sunlight--enough to power the lights, fans, cell phones, navigation equipment, and electric motor on the boat.

Me and Vittoria teammate Chad Johnson after completing our
support structure and solar install (not pictured, Nate Sermonis)
Our boat has more clean energy than most. This extravagant solar array is for demonstration as much as it is for energy needs. Our mission as a 501(c)3 is to educate the American public about clean energy. What better way than a sailboat--a floating classroom that already harnesses the power of the wind. With the right conditions, Vittoria could operate indefinitely, an infinity machine.

To learn more about our project, check out www.vittoriaenergy.org or email me at andrew@vittoriaenergy.org.

Jul 12, 2016

Five Easy Steps To Going Solar

In late April, I was contacted by an employee at Modernize.com. He told me that they've recently written on clean energy for The Huffington Post, About.com, and even Time Magazine. He wanted to provide some basic and awesome content for my readers as well. He told me that if I posted it on my site, he would send it around to Modernize.com followers (they have over 5,000 on Twitter)! Here's the post and I hope you enjoy my accompanying sketches.

Installing residential solar panels used to be far too expensive for the average homeowner to consider. However, since 2006 and the implementation of the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), the price of solar equipment and installations has fallen by more than 73 percent, allowing nearly  800,000 businesses and homes to convert to solar power. If you want to set up a solar system on your home, you have a lot of important decisions to make—here are 5 easy steps from Modernize to help you make the transition.

1. Home Energy Audit
Energy efficiency and solar power go hand in hand, and the less energy efficient your home, the more solar panels will have to be installed in order to meet your power demands. Ensure that you keep costs down and don’t purchase a larger system than you actually need by opting to have a professional home energy assessor audit your home for energy deficiencies. For roughly $300 to $500, an auditor can identify hidden leaks in your home, saving you up to 30 percent on your heating and cooling alone. Considering that space heating makes up 42 percent of the average home energy use, that translates into hundreds of dollars saved each year!
      The auditor will also assess how energy efficient your major appliances are and offer suggestions on ways they can be improved. Replacing these older appliances with ones that have an excellent rating from Energy Star will be another worthy step to take before talking to a solar professional. Better yet, opt for appliances that are solely powered by the sun, like solar water heaters or solar refrigerators, to completely remove their pull from your main solar panel network.

2. Solar Energy Design Specialist Evaluation
Once your home is as energy efficient as possible, it is a good idea to have solar professional come and evaluate how compatible your home will be for a photovoltaic system. These design specialists will analyze your home’s orientation to the sun, the pitch of your roof, and how easily they can perform the installation due to your roofing material. You will need to have looked over your energy bill history before this appointment so that can tell them what your current kilowatt usage is. A general rule to keep in mind is that since most homes use roughly 2,000 to 6,000 watts, you should expect to need roughly 200 to 600 square feet of roof space to adequately generate enough energy. If your solar professional suggests a solar power system that is drastically divergent from these figures, then you should get a second opinion. When the analysis has been completed, you’ll have a good estimate for just how much this renovation will cost.

3. Call Your Power Company and Realtor
Depending on where you live, some utility companies are willing to buy any excess energy that you generate with your home’s solar panels through net metering. When you talk to them, find out what their current rates are and what steps you will need to take in order to participate in this program.
      It is also advisable to contact a local realtor who can evaluate how adding solar power to your home will impact your property value. Some homeowners have seen their property value increase enough to recover almost 97 percent of their renovation expense!

4. State and Federal Incentives
The ITC provides homeowners with a 30 percent return on their solar investment in the form of a tax credit until the end of 2019. That means that if your total renovation is projected to cost $25,000, you will receive an additional $7,500 on your next tax return. This money can certainly help make your initial investment a far more attainable expense.
      Most local and state governments also have some form of incentivization depending on the system you install. To find out what is available for your area, visit the database of state incentives.

5. Purchase or Lease
Now that you have all the important information for how adding solar power will impact your home expenses, it is time to determine your cumulative return on investment (ROI). If you determine your ROI to be worth the renovation expense, then contact your solar professional and have them finalize your designs. But if your ROI bottom line is too great, does this mean that you have to completely give up on solar power? Not necessarily. Many solar companies have a lease option available for homeowners which might be a viable option for you.
      At the end of the day, it will take a lot of research and effort to make your dreams of having a solar powered home come true, but the reward of having a home that takes care of its own power needs will be well worth it

Jun 26, 2016

What People are Saying about Solar in DC

My Vittoria colleague, Chad Johnson, and I walked around the Shaw neighborhood in DC. We're super passionate about solar and know a thing or two but we want to see what others think. Some of these responses to our interview questions are priceless!

And here's a little bit more about Vittoria Energy Expedition. It's a mission to educate American people and businesses about clean energy projects in frontier markets. Here is our Indiegogo fundraising page  and some of our videos

I will be sailing with a crew of 5 to our first of many destinations, Cuba. During this early-August expedition, we will visit 15 different clean energy generation facilities--wind, solar, biomass, and dams--and interview locals about their energy challenges. Cuba presents a fascinating energy case study because of its grid isolation as an island, warming relationship with the US, role as the "King of the Caribbean", and reliance on volatile Venezuelan crude.

We had a launch party with 300 people in attendance on May 21 and right now, we're in the fundraising stage of our campaign. Money we raise will go to clean energy classes we will be offering in Washington DC-area, film production of our visits to the energy sites--ultimately resulting in a documentary, content development for distance learners, and detailed online mapping and analysis.

We will directly educate hundreds of people in this initial voyage and in-person courses. In addition, our online materials will be pushed out to thousands over social media. We're hoping it goes viral!

Jun 14, 2016

Solar Power in the U.S. Military

By Bobby Shields

I am a Notre Dame grad and current Masters candidate in Security Policy at George Washington University. I study cyber security and energy security policy, with an interest in how renewable energy can affect U.S. national security. Andrew and I became friends soon after I arrived in DC in 2013. I've always enjoyed reading his blog and hearing his insights about solar over dinner at Keren Restaurant. Below is a short article summarizing my recent research on the topic of solar power in the U.S. military. Feel free to email me at rshields1@gwu.edu if you have any feedback!

Tim Bolger wrote about clean
energy and the military in
Sept. 2013--source
In August 2015, the U.S. Navy signed a deal to purchase power from a 150 megawatt solar farm in Arizona to help provide power to 14 military installations in California, making it the largest renewable energy purchase by the U.S. government to date. This deal adds to the U.S. military’s growing list of solar power projects, as the Defense Department races to make solar a staple of its energy portfolio.

Federal initiatives have fueled the U.S. military’s “solar surge.” Title 10 USC § 2910 mandates that the Defense Department consume at least 25% of its facility energy—equating to 3 gigawatts of energy— from renewable resources by 2025. The Obama administration’s recent Clean Power Plan regulates the amount of carbon dioxide emissions in each state. These mandates have prompted the U.S. military to partner with state utilities and independent power producers to implement solar energy projects. As of 2013, the military has allocated billions of dollars to establish more than 130 megawatts of solar energy systems powering military bases in at least 31 states and the District of Columbia. The military has also invested in small-scale solar technologies for operational environments, including solar blankets and tents.

By aggressively incorporating solar energy into its energy planning, the Defense Department is (1) combating climate change; (2) strengthening its energy security; (3) and enhancing its operational mission capabilities in remote locations.

See more about the additions here
First, the U.S. military’s solar projects can help combat climate change. Being the largest consumer of energy in the federal government, the Defense Department’s solar energy pursuits can significantly reduce the U.S. government’s carbon footprint. Moreover, mitigating climate change contributes to the U.S. military’s mission. According to a 2007 Defense Department report, climate change “poses a serious threat to America’s national security…acts as a threat multiplier for instability…[and] will add tensions eve in stable regions of the world.” The U.S. military thus has a national security interest in investing in solar energy to help tackle climate change.

Second, solar energy projects strengthen the U.S. military’s energy security. U.S. military installations are vulnerable to electrical grid disruptions from natural hazards, and physical or cyber attacks. Solar energy technologies can diversify military installations’ energy sources and increase the scope of onsite power generation to hedge against these electrical grid disruptions. Solar energy technologies thus add to the resiliency of military installations and help ensure continuity of operations.  

Third, solar-powered facilities and equipment help military personnel meet mission objectives in remote locations. Lightweight and portable solar energy technologies provide a reliable alternative to power generators, which require costly and dangerous fuel resupply and storage. These technologies are already being deployed: U.S. Marines used portable solar panels and solar tent shields in a battle zone in Afghanistan’s Khyber Pass. The Defense Department will continue to fund research for flexible, lightweight solar panels for remote site generation in tactical battlefield applications.

The future is bright for solar energy use in the military. The Defense Department’s large purse and 25% renewable mandate will help lead the U.S. government’s push for solar power research and implementation. Solar power can even lead the way to future innovations such as microgrids—self-sustaining, islanded grid units—at military bases. In fact, the U.S. Army has spearheaded development of a microgrid that employs solar and other energy sources in Fort Bliss, Texas. Initiatives like this can make the military a leading figure in solar energy.

May 31, 2016

Working with Solar Sailors

One of the first boat sketches
Nate shared with me
I'm joining a team that wants to educate about clean energy...through adventure!! We will be sailing to sites on a solar powered sail boat and I couldn't be more excited.

When I first started this blog in November 2014, I had a few goals: to learn more about clean energy, talk with experts, visit some clean energy sites, develop some street cred, and eventually start working with people in the field.

Nate Sermonis, a buddy of mine told me about his plans to sail to different clean energy sites around the world to share what he learned with others. This was early Fall 2015. He had read my blog and wanted me to join the cause.

This project is exactly what I had hoped my blog would result in--working on renewable energy and getting to travel the world with it!

As I see it, my role in this endeavor is two-pronged--help get clean energy equipment and help with promotion. Blogging has prepared me. I've been asking my contacts in the clean energy world about the best way to outfit this boat and getting good deals on equipment. As for promotion, I've been helping run the Twitter site, developing a list of funders, and put on our amazing launch event.

Filming our launch video at the docks in SW DC (left to right):
me, Chad Johnson, and Nate Sermonis. April Avant--fundraiser
extraordinaire--is not pictured
The current team of four has diverse backgrounds--government, social media, private sector--but we all have two things in common. First, we want to educate people. Whether it's Google hangouts, conversations, online videos, or media interviews, we're trying to share our experience and help others dream. Second, we're all pretty good communicators.  We got the word out for our launch party and attracted 250 people to our rooftop celebration!

We've still got a long way to go before our July expedition to Cuba. We need to sort out the visa situation, finish designing the boat, and raise $15,000 more.

This solar-powered expedition will be the focus of my blog for the next few months so buckle up!

May 3, 2016

Solar in the United States Versus India

American Solar
Solar has a long way to go in the United States. In 2015, it made up a measly 0.6% of the electricity generated (EIA). In addition to that, of the 4,000,000,000,000 (that's four trillion) kilowatthours of electricity, about 67% of generated was from fossil fuels. There's a lot of room for growth, especially in the American southwest as you can see from the map.

Here are some fast facts:
  • The US has over 22,700 MW of solar capacity, enough to power more than 4.6 million average American homes.
  • In the first half of 2015, a new solar project was installed every 2 minutes.
  • Since 2006, the cost to install solar has dropped by more than 73%.
All of the points above were pulled from the Solar Energy Industries Association's Industry Date.

The US is undeniably a solar leader in the world. Of the top 10 largest solar photo-voltaic projects in the world, the US has 6 (Wikipedia)! Our top six projects crank out 2,700 MW. To give you an idea of the scale, 1 MW could power 1,000 homes.

The US has a long way to go in terms of percentages. Remember, only 0.6% of its electricity comes from solar whereas Germany produced 50% back in June 2014 (Triple Pundit). But it's tough for the US to move too aggressively in this direction. Besides, it has massive reserves of coal in Appalachia, oil in Alaska and off-shore, and natural gas all over the place.

Indian Solar
While the US has it made in terms of energy, India has been hustling for decades to meet the needs of its 1.2 billion people. The energy consumption in India is the fourth biggest after China, USA and Russia (US Debt Clock). The energy produced doesn't come close to meeting demand.

POWERGRID, India's state-owned electric utility company witnessed two of the largest blackouts in recent history. In July 2012, more than 700 million people were affected by one to two day blackouts in the north (Guardian).  India experienced another blackout in January of 2001 that affected 230 million people (WSWS). India's blackouts dwarf those experienced in other countries.

The government's awareness of its energy deficit is pushing India to invest, invest, invest in new power sources. I wouldn't be surprised if they start snagging a few of the US's spots on the 10 largest solar photo-voltaic projects.

It is also important to understand that India has been a global renewable energy leader. The country was the first in setting up a ministry of non-conventional energy resources in early 1980s. Solar currently makes up 14.59% or 6,763 MW of India's renewable energy, excluding hydro (Renew Indians). Wind comes in at 66%. India expects to install a total of 100,000 MW by 2022 (Business Standard). That's just six years from now and that's 14 times what they currently have!

I've been lucky to correspond with one of the companies at the tip of the spear, Su-kam. They've been servicing rural residences since 1989. Su-kam installs the solar panels, the wiring, the inverters, and most importantly, the batteries. Batteries play a critical role because they allow users to be independent of the grid--a grid which has experienced some major outages.

For now, the US enjoys the top spot in total renewable energy. However, India's needs are pushing it to be a fierce competitor. Let's check back in 2025. I bet this will be a very different looking analysis. 

Apr 22, 2016

Solar Chanel

Location: Library Dr, Mars Hill, NC 28754, USA
My name is Chanel Gardella and I'm Andrew's soon-to-be sister in law. I know he cares immensely about solar, so I always keep my eyes peeled for panels. Asheville is full of great solar opportunities. 

The other day, I was working out in Mars Hill, NC and I noticed these panels on top of the Mars Hill Public Library. They were soaking up some sun, on one of the warmest days (so far) of 2016. I know Andrew always appreciates a good solar-photo and I loved the clouds, so I had to stop my car and take this shot.

 I can't wait for Andrew to move to Asheville, where he can invest in his own solar endeavors and spend more time enjoying life with us!

Apr 12, 2016

Solar and Big Data?

On April 9, I got to Skype chat with a Yale student based in China. He's working in China on a device, the NODE, that monitors its surrounding environment and reports that info back to cell phones. The applications are endless! After our Skype conversation, he expressed interest in writing a post for WheresTheSolar. Here it is:

Gordon with some friends and the NODE in Southern Africa
Hi, my name is Gordon McCambridge, and I am the inventor of NODE. NODE is a low cost, ruggedly designed, universal data monitoring unit. I was on a research trip in Southern Africa and was working with organizations engaged with the “last mile” of vaccine delivery. Our team realized that these organizations lacked the real-time field data that they needed to get the vaccines to destination intact.

We put our engineering hats on and realized that a solution to all these challenges could be achieved by combining a few “maker”  technologies – an Arduino and a cell phone. 
A close up of NODE

We further realized that such a device could be tailored to many different fields through the addition of different sensors and attachments: a rain gauge and soil moisture sensor for the farming collective or a GPS unit and set of temperature probes for the blood bank shipment. Our concept was a device that was both low cost and rapidly scalable--a stark contrast to the previous standard of highly specialized and expensive devices.

With that concept, a year of effort, and a trip around the world, NODE was born. We have piloted our device in Zimbabwe and prepared for manufacturing in Shenzhen, China--a global capital of electronics manufacturing. We have found many clear links to solar energy and solar technology for NODE. For example, a key use case for the NODE can be supplying real time power and general environmental data on a given solar installation over a cell phone network. With this data, we would allow solar-focused organizations to quickly identify system issues and troubleshoot remotely.

NODE with a Solar cells on top
We also want to incorporate solar tech into our general designs. Specifically, we are experimenting with solar charging for NODE. NODE doesn't draw a lot of power and we should be able to directly connect it to a low cost solar panel and use that power to charge and run NODE indefinitely in any situation.

As you can see, Gordon is up to some really cool stuff. If you're interested in working with Gordon or simply want to learn more about his project, he would love to hear from you. Feel free to reach him at info@pivotech.co or +1 (484) 809-1025.

Mar 23, 2016

DC vs. Berlin: Who is More Solar?

Source: Solar GIS
I recently contacted Dr. Peter Nagel, Editor in Chief of the Energy Law Journal via Twitter. He's based in Frankfurt, Germany and seems to really know his stuff. The journal is in German and google translate doesn't always do the most accurate job. I was interested in doing a comparison of our respective countries' two capital cities, DC and Berlin. Dr. Nagel was interested in the idea too. However, when I presented the initial research and comparisons, he seemed to shy away. I'm disappointed in that but happy the exchange resulted in this post.

So here's what I found to start the comparison.

On the national level, Germany is really beating the US on the solar battlefield. According to TriplePundit, in June 2014, Germany reached over 50% of its electricity demand (23.1 GW) with solar power. Around that same time, the U.S. had just just .54% (20 GW).

Let's drill down to the city level. Here are some of the key statistics I found.

-DC has 658,893 people (US Census Bureau 2014).
-Berlin has a population of 3,502,000 (2012 UN Data).

-DC is 68.3 mi²
-Berlin is 344.3 mi²

Annual kWh of Sun per Meter Squared
According to Solar GIS (above)
-DC gets 1500 kWh/m2
-Berlin gets 1150 kWh/m2

Installed Solar Capacity
-DC has 17 MW of solar energy currently installed and ranks the district 34th in the country in installed solar capacity (SEIA's DC Solar Profile). Apparently that's enough to power 2,500 homes.
-Berlin has 83 MW of installed solar (Solar Power in Germany). Of the German federal states, Berlin ranks 14 out of 16 in installed solar capacity.

-According to SEIA, DC has:
  • 130 solar companies at work throughout the value chain in DC, employing 1,000 people.
  • In 2015, $20 million was invested on solar installations. This represents a 132% increase over the previous year, and is expected to grow again this year.
  • The Department of Energy’s Forrestal headquarters building is one of the largest solar installations, generating about 230,000 kw/h per year (US Energy Information Administration).
-Berlin has:
  • 17 solar companies (Google search)
  • SEIA's counterpart is the German Solar Industry Association (GSIA). GSIA has 800 member companies and SEIA has 1,000. When you consider that GSIA is only seven years old (SEIA is 42) and Germany is 1/4 the population of the US, GSIA isn't doing too poorly.

So what are our big takeaways? In terms of installed solar capacity, DC has .249 MW/mi² whereas Berlin has .241 MW/mi². DC has 1 MW for every 38,758 people whereas Berlin has 1 MW for every 42,1923. So even though Berlin has more installed solar capacity than DC, DC has more installed solar per mi² and per person than Berlin. WIN!!!!!

So we know what the cities can produce in terms of solar. Determining what solar they consume is a lot more difficult. Below are some graphs to help you understand what energy sources the cities are consuming. You can see that solar has a long way to go before is beats out other competitors like oil or natural gas.

Final Berlin Energy Consumption for 2012: 262,326 terajoules.
Source: Office for Statistics Berlin-Brandenburg, 2015.

Estimates of District of Columbia Energy Consumption for 2013: 180,188 terajoules
Source: EIA after converting Btu to terajoules

Mar 13, 2016

Learning About the Solar Politics of DC

On February 9, I got to interview Anya Schoolman, the force behind DC Solar United Neighborhoods or DC SUN. DC SUN is less than ten years old and has already been instrumental in bringing solar to hundreds of homes around DC and blocking the merger between utility giants Pepco and Exelon. It was a real honor to sit down with Anya and by far the best education I've received in the solar politics of Washington, DC.

Community solar--you buy a big solar
installation with your neighbors and you all
save money on electricity
One of the most interesting points that Anya mentioned has to do with community solar. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, community solar allows "several energy customers to share the benefits of one local renewable energy power plant. The shared renewables project pools investments from multiple members of a community and provides power and/or financial benefits in return."

This is a no-brainer way for you and your neighbors to make money! However, Anya explained that community solar is being held up by DC's at-large Council Member, Vincent Orange. He's the Chairman of the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and has the power to push community solar legislation through. Common Vincent!

Another big thing we focused on was the Exelon-Pepco merger. Exelon is the largest US nuclear power plants operator and regulates utilities in IL, PA, and MD. It's looking to buy out the Potomac Electric Power Company or Pepco. The merger seems inevitable--Exelon is a giant that employs 30,000 and looks like it can easily gobble up Pepco and its 1,400 staff. Anya and DC SUN oppose this merger vehemently, arguing that Exelon will not be a friend to home solar and clean energy installations. Their efforts have helped delay it but the war isn't over.

During the interview, Anya informed me that DC's Mayor Muriel Bowser got a $25 million payment for one of her pet projects after the merger was initially shot down. The Mayor then began to publicly favor the merger. In addition to that, many of DC's elected officials own stock in either Pepco or Exelon that would benefit from this merger. Classic David vs. Goliathe.

To conclude, if you're living in the DC area and want to go solar or would just like to learn more about DC SUN's work, you should visit them at www.dcsun.org. They're a dedicated team and tireless workers.

PS--one complaint I have about my video is sound quality. My cell phone has a hearing problem. To give you an idea, of the 20 minutes I recorded, I could only use 4 minutes because most of it sounded like mumbling. Does anyone have any cheap audio recommendations? Thank you.

Feb 21, 2016

Scott "The Solar Wizard" Sklar Interview

I went with a different color for each
 of the videos of this 4-part series. The
full interview combines all colors
On February 3, I got to sit down and interview Scott Sklar. I often refer to him as the clean energy wizard. You can ask him anything about energy and he'll have an answer--often very futuristic. If you ask people in the solar world about him, they are proud if they had the chance to work with him. For his host of government and private-sector clients, he's always concocting a mixture of renewable energy solutions. So to interview him for my blog was a real catch.

The interview lasted just under an hour and it was a struggle getting it down to 4 sub-five-minute segments. The discussion covers a broad range of topics: the evolution of Scott's Stella Group, the future of America's energy portfolio, a beach ball-like solar lantern, and how to succeed as a clean energy entrepreneur.

This is what Sklar's solar house reminds me of. You should go visit!
We did the interview in Scott's Arlington office. It feels like you're entering into Merlin's house from Disney's Sword and the Stone. The room is packed full of inventions I've never seen and half-completed science projects.

I didn't have my videographer, Potencial Puro with me so I had to make do with my cell phone. My phone did a good job with the visual but the audio couldn't compete with Potencial's shotgun mike. In addition to that, I didn't have a tripod so I had to binder clip my phone to a stand-up glass statue.

These interviews were very info-dense so it took a long time to edit. I finally finished on February 20.

Although I found the interview educational, I think my videos should focus more on very hands-on experiences like touring a solar field or building my own, mini-solar experiment. That's the style that seems to work for the Primitive Technology Youtube channel. Most of this guy's videos have 1 million+ views!

And now, the video. My favorite is Part II. Check it out!

Feb 11, 2016

Appalachia's Clean Energy Future?

A typical scene in Appalachia, much like what I saw in
Williamson in the Fall of 2007
A recent interview with Scott "the solar"Sklar prompted this post and if you will permit me, I'm going to take a little time to talk about energy trends other than solar.

When you and I think of Appalachian energy, we think of coal-loaded trains stretching on endlessly and distant dynamite blasts opening up entire mountain tops for mining. In the Fall of 2007, I spent a week in Williamson, WV and I learned a lot about energy.

One day, I visited an Arche Coal mountain-top removal site and the scale of everything was HUGE! I rode around in a mini-van with some fellow Notre Dame students. A Mack truck with a tall, yellow flag guided us around. This was so earth movers with wheels 12 feet tall wouldn't accidentally back up onto our 6 foot tall van.

The "mountain-top removal" technique was no exaggeration either. Whole mountains had been reconfigured into dirt piles and runways and trenches to extract the black gold.

Our tour guide explained that at that point--fall '07--coal created 52% of American electricity. Although the current percentage is debated, it's in the mid- to low-30s. That works out to roughly a 20% drop in 10 years and if we kept that up, coal would be at 0% around 2032.

However, a lot of this change has happened because of the amazing natural gas boom so I doubt it will keep falling at this rate. However, coal will keep falling and this will change the culture and landscape of Appalachia as we know it.

During a recent solar interview with clean energy expert, Scott Sklar, I got an idea of what Appalachia might look like in 2050. Instead of a coal trains and dynamite, Sklar sees energy generated from whirring windmills, deep geothermal wells, and tree harvesting.

This is not an out-of-touch dream from a clean energy zealot. It's very probable.
  • Appalachia has an abundance of trees, which can be harvested in rotating patterns for burnable pellets and bark chips. I'm from the Pacific Northwest and this is something I saw frequently in the Weyerhaeuser owned forests of southwest Washington. 
  • Dead trees and biomass on the forest floor are also a big source of energy. 
  • Wind blowing over the mountains is forceful and you can ask anyone--like me--that's walked to the top. It could power innumerable turbines. 
  • In addition to this, Sklar claims that at least half of U.S. geothermal reserves are under Appalachia. Yellowstone and its geysers may be the first thing to come to mind but don't forget about this old mountain chain. 
The region is equipped with a good network of trains and blue-collar workers, which could greatly accelerate this energy transition. The great thing about this vision for Appalachia is that it is optimized through its diversity. If one method doesn't work, there are others to replace it.

There are a few steady trends that I imagine will change energy in Appalachia. I have tried to capture them in the sleek looking table below. 

Clean energy
Number of jobs*
Cost per watt
Political opponents at the federal and local levels
Percentage of American electricity

*As of November 2015, the solar industry alone employed 208,859 workers (National Solar Jobs Census). In a job-hungry region like Appalachia, coal will be fighting an uphill battle against new employment opportunities. 

Jan 21, 2016

Solar Video--My Attempt to Emulate Bill Nye the Science Guy

Bill Nye the Science Guy
On a recent holiday drive from Savannah to DC with my mom, we were talking about my blog. We talk a lot about the blog. My mom has great faith in me and wants my blog to be a big production. She's a drama teacher. She told me that the videos I had posted thus far were bland. I guess my panoramic shots of solar aren't quite worthy of mainstream attention.

We brainstormed for a while and she suggested I do a video where I explain something about solar and make it a bit more relatable to people who don't necessarily have a solar passion. Something like what Bill Nye the Science Guy was able to do with science.

Fast-forward two weeks. On Jan. 16, I wandered around my neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant in search of some commonplace, "relatable" solar. For just over an hour, I filmed at four different locations, including a solar trash compactor, solar gas line monitor, and solar parking meter, and solar-powered Bikeshare station. I chose these installations because they are ubiquitous in DC, anyone can see them while walking, and I was well-versed (having blogged about all four).

But this wasn't just any shoot. I'm very lucky to have a friend who's a videographer, Potencial Puro. He helped me film my Nov. 15 interview with Jonathan Morgenstein. He has all of the appropriate equipment: a camera with a fish-eye lens, shotgun mic, and tripod. It produces a much higher quality video than my cellphone.

Check out the video!

One thing you might notice is that there are a lot of passers-by. One of the difficult things about filming is that you have to keep a straight face and focus on your material, even when people are bumping into you or purposefully trying to throw off your game. I've got a whole new level of respect for in-the-field news reporters.

I was also horribly under-dressed and freezing by the end of it. You'll see that I don't look too warm in the video and see a bit more of my complaining in the outtakes.

Despite the difficulties, it was a fun shoot and I plan to do something similar in the near future. I hope you enjoy it!