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 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 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!

Jan 13, 2016

Sketching my Solar Visits

This blog has been an excellent opportunity for me to express myself. Before I started it just over a year ago, I had no outlet for creative writing, photography, or start-to-finish project implementation. Wheresthesolar has filled that void tremendously. Every blog post requires a bit of luck finding the solar, photographing it, putting a unique spin in the writing, and then pitching it on social media. Even though the work may only take a few hours, the duration of a post (from inspiration to publish) can be a few weeks.

In addition, I've had to learn how to present my thoughts over multiple mediums. Before this blog, my online presence gave no indication of my interest in solar. Now, I communicate this interest through Wheresthesolar on Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, and Flickr. Each platform requires a certain amount of finessing.
Top: Auntie Celeste's oil
on canvas of Chris on the
Bottom: Animation by
Aunt Eileen 

Recently, a couple of my family members suggested I start sketching some of my favorite photos. It seems to be the 'in thing'. My former boss, retired Congressman Jay Inslee (now governor of Washington) auctioned some of his sketches to donors during his 2012 gubernatorial race. My buddy, Mike Bradley (see post below) told me that the real lynch pin and draw to the Wait but Why blog are the stick figure drawings. Even President Bush has a number of portraits on display down at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in University Park, TX.

Sketching and painting runs in the family. My mom originally taught me to draw. I pencil sketched frequently in middle school and high school. It used to be one of my ways of relaxing and focused my ideas. My mom's sister Katie is an architect and urban designer at MICA in Baltimore. Their youngest sister Eileen is an animator in Los Angeles (Eileen's site). Their aunt Celeste was a prolific oil-on-canvas painter in Reno. Here is a collection of some of Celeste's work.

Solar is difficult to sketch because there are only so many ways to flatter a photo-voltaic panel. As I was looking through my solar photos on Flickr, I decided to go with the one above. It's from a visit March 2015 to the Western Presbyterian church in Foggy Bottom. I liked sketching this photo because of the vanishing point, the human element with Betsy Carter in the foreground, and the simplicity of shapes. I hope you like it!

Jan 8, 2016

Soofa Solar Bench at Lafayette Centre

Location: Connecticut Ave/ K Street, Washington, DC, USA
My name is Michael Bradley--you can call me Mike--and I'm a friend of Andrew. He roped me into doing a blog post.

Andrew and I met at the University Notre Dame. We were in neighboring dorms.  Since Notre Dame, we've stayed in touch through football games, Christmas parties, and email chains.  Since I moved to DC in 2013, we talk a lot about renewable energy and blogging.

Good blogs fascinate me. They seem to best represent the evolution of the long essay into the internet age.  I read a lot of them and am always looking for new and useful information to share with Andrew. One of my recent favorites is (definitely worth checking). I enjoy the mix of comedic commentary, in-depth research, and stick-figure illustrations. A lot of my reading focuses on technology and energy.  I am specifically interest in products and ideas that make actual financial sense as opposed to new theoretical research. I care much more about function over form.  That's the CPA in me. I'm excited to be sharing a little bit of that background through this blog.

Now onto my post. On a recent stroll through Lafayette Centre (pedestrian walkway near Farragut North Metro Station) I noticed a modern-looking bench with a solar panel mounted on top of a center console. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the solar was providing power to USB ports on the sides of the center console. It was a great solar find and I made sure to snap a photo since I knew Andrew would be interested.

This is the first one of these Soofa benches I've seen in DC. After some additional research, I found that the benches are being piloted throughout Boston. Changing Environments, a Cambridge-based Internet of Things startup is the parent company.

A few ideas about this bench:  
1) these would be great out along bike paths, hiking trails, or down on the national mall.   
2) it would be ideal if these guys partnered with an app like Spotcycle, so you'd actually know where the benches are.  
3) I could definitely see many clean energy-minded business owners getting these for outside their businesses.
4) Lastly: the best trait of this invention is that it works right out-of-the-box.  My suggestion to Soofa, and to the many products like it, is to start selling their product the same way that Texas Instruments sells the most successful solar-powered product of all time - the calculator.  The reason that every calculator in the school classroom runs on solar is because it’s easier and more convenient.  No teacher wants to put batteries in 25 calculators.   I think these products would have a lot more success if they made their sales pitch: "Obviously, the people want charging stations.  This is the easiest way to do it.  The set-up is under 5 minutes, it works everywhere, you never have to worry about extension cords."

Michael Bradley is a '09 University of Notre Dame grad. He lives near DuPont circle with his wife, Lexie and their dog. 

Jan 4, 2016

The Bird Poop Solar Panel

Location: 30 Meddin Dr, Tybee Island, GA 31328, USA
Solar on Tybee IslandOn Dec. 29, I went to Tybee Island, GA with my mom. This was a mini vacation after spending the holiday with family in Asheville, NC.

Tybee was a familiar place for me. During the summer of 2008, I spent 8 weeks in neighboring Savannah working at St. Mary's, a group home for children. I would often go with the kids out to Tybee Island for field trips and days at the beach.

When my mom and I arrived in Savannah, we watched a short documentary on its history. One of the places mentioned was the 144 foot tall Tybee Lighthouse, one of seven surviving colonial era lighthouse towers in the U.S. This was something we both decided we wanted to see.

In the late morning of the 29th, we were out touring the lighthouse grounds when I spotted above solar panel. 

The panel is standard size (64.5 inches by 39 inches; 60 cells; around 270 W of power). However, what made this panel unique was its terrible location. I've seen a panels in a number of locations; on trashcans, traffic counters, roof tops, parking meters, churches, stream flow gauges, sinks...even on light poles. However, in over a year of reporting on solar, I have never seen one directly under a telephone wire. Big time #solarfail.

Although the panel is receiving a lot of sun and correctly facing south, the birds are excreting all over it from their perch on the telephone wire. Bird droppings, like shadows from trees or cracks in the crystalline greatly reduce the panels efficiency. In this case where the crap is dispersed over multiple columns and rows, my best bet is that the panel's efficiency is reduced by half. In addition to that, bird scat is corrosive--look what it can do to the paint of a car! This was just one of a dozen similar #solarfails I saw on the Tybee Lighthouse grounds.

Robin about to poop
This robin will soon be outputting all over the place.
Photo credit:
Since starting my solar blog, I've seen bird feces planted on panels here and there but never like this. Most of the installations I've seen are on rooftops or in the middle of parking lots where bird can't sit above them and bomb them with their waste juice. The only way I could see there being a problem for roof panels is if they were next to berry trees (holly for example) where they could be splattered with bird chunk. Another possible way would be if they were under some major migratory path and getting bombarded by Canadian goose turds.

All guano aside, this is not the first time I've seen tensions between our feathered friends and solar power. A year ago, I read about Ivanpah, the utility-scale solar park that was actually cooking birds mid-flight. The Californian park uses 350,000 giant mirrors to reflect sunlight onto towers loaded with boilers, which then generate steam. This concentration of light can reach up to 1,000 ° Fahrenheit and can fry a bird like an ant under a magnifying glass.

As I was writing this piece, I decided that the tension between birds and solar power deserved an original Microsoft Paint sketch. I hope you enjoy my amateur artwork below.

In conclusion, Tybee Island has a couple of options: move the panel out from under the wire or leave it and install plastic birds of prey. I'm not even charging for those suggestions.

Dec 7, 2015

Interview with Empowerment Solar

Top: Ramadi, where Morgenstein served as a
Marine and saw the effects of electricity cuts
Bottom: Ramallah by night, where most of 
Empowerment's work will be focused
You may remember my post on the solar installation at the Argyle condos. It was one of my first interviews and I got to speak with the building manager, Wayne Gleason about the 84 panels on the condo roof. On Nov. 15, I headed back up to that rooftop to interview Jonathan Morgenstein of Empowerment Solar.

Here is a brief overview of the interview:
    -I give a quick intro on my blogging experience
    -Jonathan explains the motivation behind Empowerment
    -He then talks about why he chose Ramallah
    -He lays out his plans for the launch and expansion
    -He finishes with what we can do to support
This was a particularly exciting interview because Jonathan is focused on doing international solar projects. This was right up my alley--my eventual goal is to take advantage of existing renewable energy tech and plug it in to high-growth but energy-unstable cities around the world. Jonathan aims to bring solar to the West Bank and then growing his program across the Middle East and North Africa. Check out Jonathan's Indiegogo campaign here if you'd like to learn more about where he's coming from and what he hopes to accomplish.

Outside of the video interview, Jonathan and I connected a lot over international affairs. He has extensive international experience: he served as a U.S. Marine in Iraq, election monitor for IRI, legislative assistant on foreign affairs in the U.S. Senate, and a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace for a couple of years. These jobs have helped him to see the importance of energy in global markets and the role accessible electricity plays in stabilizing conflict zones. 

This interview was also special because I was joined by my friend, Manuel Leon a.k.a. Potencial Puro. I've been looking to get Manuel out on a solar visit. A few months ago, he offered some encouragement on my blog and even gave me a solar hat fan. For that, I am forever indebted to him. Manuel is a graphic artist, designer, photographer, and videographer. He did a professional job of capturing the interview, which you will see below. If you'd like to skip the interview but still get a sense of our experience, you can go straight to this time lapse of Manuel, Jonathan, and me wandering around the roof.

There were a few lessons I learned from the interview experience. First was the importance of video editing. I was able to reduce 20 minutes of video to three and a half and that's a lot more digestible for Youtube viewers. Second was transcribing. I thought subtitles would be helpful for viewers and a bunch of Youtubers recommend it for search engine optimization. Third was sound. Manuel had a microphone on his camera which caught the noise but produced a buzzing sound and had trouble picking up our voices in the wind. I might try to fashion a boom mic next time. Finally was appearance. Although the view in the background is gorgeous, Jonathan and I were squinting in the sun or lost in the shadows. I was also having a less-that-stellar hair day. Lighting and looks help the video look a lot more professional.

Thanks for reading my ramblings and I hope you enjoy the interview!

Dec 5, 2015

Chat with Solar ELF Bike Guy on Capitol Hill

Location: S New Jersey Ave SE, Washington, DC 20515, USA
James McGinley with his solar ELF just south of the Capitol
On the morning of December 3, I was walking around the Capitol. Members of Congress were coming from a vote and as always, there were a few demonstrators out trying to catch the legislators' attention. I spotted and approached one of the stalwart demonstrators that I've been looking to speak with for a long time, the owner of a solar-powered ELF bike.

I was so excited to finally see him in person so I raced up to the bike and barraged him with questions. His initial recoil and consternation were reactions I'm all too familiar with when I come on strong. I slowed down, took a few breaths, introduced myself, and then restated the questions. We spoke for about 5 minutes.

His name is James McGinley. The first thing I noticed was the tattoos. Those on his cheeks read "Wage Love" and those in the crosses on his head read "Start Loving". I didn't asked about them but my eyes kept wandering back throughout the conversation. As you can see from the photo, he's got an impressive beard and is well-dressed for the warmth. I imagine he spends a lot of his time braving DC's elements. He has a small frame and his eyes were constantly scanning my face looking for answers--his brow furrowed. James was a fountain of information and I only wish I had recorded the conversation.

Our conversation started on solar. I told him that I run a blog about solar in DC, which was met with indifference. He told me that he has been interested in renewable energy for some time. His plan was to bike across the U.S. in the solar ELF. There are two 100-watt solar panels on the bike, one on the roof and one on the trailer. The trailer also stores the batteries, which can keep his bike going for a long time.

When I asked him what the range was, he responded "How long can a sail boat sail?" This sort of educating counter-questions wasn't exactly what I was looking for.

Then the conversation shifted from energy to his advocacy, something I was trying to avoid.

James then told me that he spends a lot of time going to strategic locations around DC. He goes to K Street among the lobbyists, the Capitol with the politicians, and Union Station to catch commuting Senate staffers. He's trying to inform them about his views on Israel and Palestine.

I know the Middle East is an incredibly touchy subject so I began disengaging and he started to monologue. I like conversations but I get frustrated when people begin speaking past each other. Again, James is a wealth of knowledge and I think he is good to be sharing his beliefs. However, I would encourage him to let the conversation flow naturally and ask more questions.

For more information about James and his cause, here is his blog. If you'd like to speak to him, he frequents South New Jersey Ave SE and Independence Ave SE. 

Nov 20, 2015

Boating and Biking in Amsterdam—Solar Style

Guest post by Steve Polich

I was recently travelling in Europe and saw a lot of solar. While I was there, the world’s first bike commuter path (figure 2) with embedded solar cells was celebrating its first birthday. Al Jazeera reports that the 70-meter test track near the town of Krommenie (a suburb north of Amsterdam) is a success. “A Dutch project to turn the nation’s bike paths into energy-generating solar roadways has just cleared its first major test with flying colors.”

The project is still developing, and is not without problems, but the idea is that this concept will someday help create roads that generate the same power that electric cars use to travel on them.

SolaRoad has been in the works since 2009, and is the brainchild of Dutch research institute TNO. The power-generating pavers are created by embedding crystalline silicon solar cells in 8.2 x 11.5 ft concrete slabs, before covering them in a one-centimeter layer of tempered glass. Then, reports the Guardian, a “non-adhesive finish and a slight tilt are [added] to help the rain wash off dirt and thus keep the surface clean, guaranteeing maximum exposure
Figure 1: Cruise boat on the left and
local boaters on the right
to sunlight.”

There are at least three times more bikes than cars in the Netherlands with nearly 22,000 miles of bike paths. Imagine the power if all of these paths generated this kind of glow-in-the-dark solar power!

As I pedaled from my Airbnb room to the Anne Frank house, I rode along a canal and noticed the local boaters taking advantage of solar energy—in this case, the moored boat gets energy from the solar panel bobbing on the tethered buoy (figure 1).

Later in the day, I took a one-hour cruise around the perimeter of Amsterdam. While I waited for my boat, I noticed several tour boats collecting solar energy (figure 1).

And although this next project is still in the concept phase, take a look at what Dutch solar energy (Royal HaskoningDHV) is slated to accomplish in the near future: The Tilting Locks.

Figure 2

Nov 13, 2015

Solar near Meridian Hill Park in DC

Location: 2440 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA
You can see the panels in the top-left of this photo
Last Sunday, I was walking through Meridian Hill Park when I spotted the solar panels on the roof of the Park Tower Condos at 2440 16th St NW in DC.

I've tried to get onto the roof before but my requests were denied. Because of this, I can't give you any close-up photos or an assessment of the panels. I also tweeted to @CapParkRealty but didn't get a response. However, from Google Maps, I was able to count 48 solar thermal panels on the roof.

Solar thermal panels concentrate the sun's energy onto tubes with then heat water, which is then circulated back down to boilers and storage tanks. These are also known as "solar collectors" and may also refer to installations such as solar parabolic troughs and solar towers.This is different than photo-voltaic panels, which convert the sun's energy directly into electricity.

So since I couldn't get any up-close photos on the roof of the Park Tower, I decided to do the next best thing...a hand-stand selfie in front of the panels.

Nov 4, 2015

Hart Schwartz on Solar and "Well-to-Wheels"

Location: 301 E 8th St, Austin, TX 78701, USA
A ground-level view of St. David’s on the left and the adjacent 
parking garage. You can see the solar panels on top.
My name is Hart Schwartz and I worked with Andrew in Marseille in 2010 as an English teacher. I research fuels, renewable energy, and automotive trends in the US. I believe that one of the most important quests in transportation is how to transform the national fleet of personal vehicles – some 250 million of them – into a truly clean fleet.

I wanted to contribute to Andrew’s blog and found a great example of solar in downtown Austin—it’s the parking garage of the historic St. David’s Episcopal Church, pictured on the right.

As a transportation researcher, I was particularly happy to find this parking garage. It is commonly believed that placing zero-emission vehicles on the road, such as electric or hydrogen fuel cell drivetrains, will cut emissions. However, this assumption overlooks the fact that most US electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, including roughly 40% from coal. This means that even those wonderful Teslas with their sleek styling and all-electric drivetrains still consume large quantities of fossil fuels when they are plugged into the grid for charging.

Top: If one walks up to the roof of the parking garage, 
the solar panels can be seen much more clearly.
Bottom: Here are the six electric vehicle charging 
stations on the ground floor of the parking garage.
The greater public needs to start looking at “well-to-wheels”, which measures the total fossil fuel consumption, from mineral extraction to vehicle emission, and includes the total fossil fuel impact and emissions profile of any kind of drivetrain. If we want to create a true zero-emissions vehicle fleet, we need to design efficient, mass-scale ways for electricity to be created and transmitted to the zero-emission vehicles.

How does this work in practice? Are there any places where one can find real-life experiments in zero-impact well-to-wheels vehicle power generation?

That brings us back to St. David’s Episcopal Church. This solar installation provides electricity for the building’s needs (such as lighting) but also services six electric-powered vehicles. Thus, for any amount of driving that is powered by these specific EV-charging stations, these EVs can truly be described as well-to-wheels zero-emissions.

Mr. Schwartz was a researcher for the Fuels Institute in Washington, DC until December 2014, publishing a white paper on Driver Demographics. He completed his MBA at the University of Denver in 2012. He currently resides in Austin, Texas and consults on converting big data into clear narratives.

Oct 24, 2015

A Taste of Solar in Lisbon

Check out these and more photos here
I was touring Lisbon on October 19 and couldn't help but notice some solar. This was a three day trip to the city for a conference on NATO and Industry. I was excited enough to be travelling internationally and the conference didn't disappoint either. However, I didn't expect to see so much solar! What a pleasant surprise.

Here's Portugal's solar profile: by the end of 2013, Portugal produced an estimated 437 GWh of electricity which supplied nearly 166,500 homes and saved approximately 107,074 tonnes of CO2 emissions. In 2013, solar power was responsible for .58% of the total electricity produced (source). Not bad and that's about what percentage the US is at.

Here are the descriptions for the collage:

  • Top left--Solar Do Castelo Inn located next to the Castelo de São Jorge. From the Castelo, I noticed a number of solar panels on the roof. It's not photovoltaic, which converts sunlight directly into electricity but solar thermal, used to heat water.
  • Top right--A line of PV panels on the roof of the Museu do Combatente with the Torre de Belem on the right. I have no idea what they power and the tour guides at the museum weren't terribly knowledgeable on the issue either. 
  • Bottom left--PORTugal Wine located in the Jardim da Torre de Belém. I couldn't find information on the solar but here's some additional info on prices and selections.
  • Bottom right--View from the Castelo de São Jorge overlooking Lisbon. In the foreground, you will notice a gorgeous collection of solar panels. I believe those are positioned on top of the ZamBeZe Restaurante.
Below is a map to help you locate the different solar sightings.

Oct 16, 2015

Solar Powered Hat Fan

Photo taken from my roof in Mt. Pleasant
Here's the newest innovation I've come across.

How does it work? There is a small fan mounted to the brim of this yellow cap pointed towards the wearer's face. The small solar cell on top powers the fan directly. There is no batter so it only works in the direct sun.

One of my colleagues at USIP has a brother that works at Wagner and Co. The brother acquired this hat at a conference and then my colleague passed it onto me. Once people know you as the "Solar Guy", random gifts and ideas start streaming in.

Oct 7, 2015

Solar Coop in Mount Pleasant

Location: Mount Pleasant, Washington, DC, USA
This is one of two signs I've seen within a block of my
Have you seen signs like this in your neighborhood? If so, there be solar.

The Mount Pleasant Solar Coop is an association of more than 300 households in Mount P. They were founded in the fall of 2006 by neighbors Anya Schoolman and Jeff Morley.

They decided to adopt the coop model because it allows information sharing and bulk purchasing.

Learn more at their website and I also enjoyed their profile video.

There are other solar coops in the area. In fact, Grant Klein of has been mapping them out in Virginia. Check out his very detailed map. I don't know how up to date this is but it's pretty cool. 

Sep 11, 2015

Saving Energy On The Go--Street Sense Style

What do you see when you envision a solar panel?

Some of you may have visions of over-sized panels of glass weighing down your roof. Others may see an “immovable sea of glass glimmering in the blazing desert sun.” Did you know that there are spectacular innovative solar-powered products to enhance your life? They include tools for education, fashion, health, & entertainment. Here are few unexpected finds the guys at Street Sense came across that you can pick up today.

Headlights in the trunk?
Imagine your car breaks down on a lonely dark highway in the middle of nowhere. How are you going to repair that broken taillight or see the spare tire you have in your trunk if you can’t see what you are doing? Well you should use the solar cap pictured above behind Ken. The cap charges during the day and on its lowest setting it will last you thirty six hours. Plenty of time to fix a broken headlight, change a tire or replace a spark plug. Don't go strolling rock creek park at night without one.

Illuminating minds 
It’s the turn of the century and teachers stood before the class at the blackboard with chalk in hand educating and fascinating young minds. In today’s advanced world children can access vast arrays of knowledge through smart devices powered by the sun. The device Reggie found is the iSlate, a solar-powered iPad. Currently, the solar pads are helping impoverished children in India learn about the outside world. This product shows great promise just could possibly take your next mid term exam from Meridian Park without having to worry about your battery dying via this trusty solar power device.

Solar Roller 
Ever experience the use of an electric wheelchair? Scott has. It is heavy to manually operate and when you lose power, it’s not like on your phone where you go to any cafe. That is what makes the solar wheelchair a great innovation. Can you envision never pit stopping your vehicle because you got a solar panel on it? At 5 mph you can ride 4.5 hours at a time. In fact, you may elect to outfit it with USB outlets to charge your small electronics. This translates into even more savings on your domestic energy bill. The solar wheelchair will charge all day and store power for that midnight ride.

Let the show begin, Tickets Please!
We don’t care for crowded theaters and that random person picking up their phone in the middle of an important scene. We also demand energy conservation. We want to have our cake and eat it too! Now you can, with the world’s smallest solar-powered movie theater, Sol Cinema (pictured with Vijay and Adam). The theater is a converted trailer that seats eight people and is completely solar-powered. Imagine the savings of operating the entire cinematic experience including video projectors, sound system, laptops, hard drives and lights from the energy of the sun via solar panel. No energy bill, performances anywhere at anytime, encore!!!

Tell us your favorite solar product on go and if you would like to learn more about solar energy & their uses in the D.C. Metropolitan area let us know with your comments on

Sep 9, 2015

SolarCity Sales Cars

Location: Columbia Heights, Washington, DC, USA
This SolarCity Nissan was parked up by Columbia Heights at 13th and Lamont. In my four years and constant biking in DC, I've only seen a handful. I'm sure my fellow solar energy enthusiasts are seeing more SolarCity cars in the company's home state of California and in the American Southwest (see map below). DC isn't seeing a lot of SolarCity because its small residential market has already been penetrated by businesses like Solar Solutions LLC. Also, it takes a LONG time for utility provider Pepco to connect solar systems to the grid (EQ Research).

This is one of the sales cars, probably making sales in the much friendlier Maryland market. Maryland is a big solar market--just look at the roofs--and I've spoken with reps at SolarCity who say they're expanding aggressively in that state. As a whole, SolarCity is at just over 6,000 employees. They'll be doubling that soon and we'll be seeing a lot of that on the East Coast.

SolarCity is present in 20 states (including a few that aren't
captured in this image)
SolarCity is the number one installer of residential solar in the United States. They've done very well with their solar leasing model. It has a wide base of network installers that run around in vans and saves the company a lot of money. The vans are green and have similar markings to this one.

I've tweeted at SolarCity to get an idea of how big their fleet is but haven't heard anything back yet. If anyone has any more information about this, please let me know!

Update as of Sept. 11: SolarCity got back to me on Twitter and said they have 75+ warehouses with each warehouse location averaging 55 vehicles. If my math is correct, that's 4,125 SolarCity vehicles!

Sep 2, 2015

A Solar Friend in Tanzania

Location: Kagera, Tanzania
This panel creates 150W, which powers a
phone, light, and TV
I paid Facebook $80 to push my Wheresthesolar Facebook page to Morocco, the Dominican Republic, and Tanzania. I targeted these countries because Morocco wants to become an electricity exporter to Europe (Reuters), the Dominican Republic is an island nation whose growth is thwarted by a prolonged electricity crisis, and solar is turning Tanzanians like Patrick Ngowi into millionaires.

My 2-week Facebook campaign generated 150 likes on and a huge jump in my visits (150/week to 450/week according to Google Analytics). One Tanzanian man, Humphrey Missama responded with great enthusiasm. We arranged a call on WhatsApp.

I told Humphrey about my project and that I'd be interested in learning more about his projects in Tanzania. The WhatsApp connection was good but there was still a bit of a language barrier. Also, it was a long process. It began on July 18 and I wasn't able to complete my post until September 2--over month and a half. However, Humphrey provided some great information and an interested story. Here's what I learned.

It costs consumers $300 USD to buy and transport the solar panels and batteries from Tanzania's capital of Dar es Salaam to the northwest region of Kagera. Kagera is where Humphrey's work is concentrated. The cost very much depends on the quality of roads of the region and the power needs of the consumer, which can range from 70-300W. There is a great need for electricity in Tanzania and the Tanzania Electric Supply Company (Tanesco) struggles to meet all of this. Solar seems like a great fit.
Humphrey in his element

Solar is not Humphrey's full time job--he is a teacher. He doesn't have capital so he collects money to buy the panels. For fun, he likes to watch football, especially English Premier League. His dream is to become bigger in the solar business and open his own solar shop. Maybe he'll end up like Patrick Ngowi.

This post gave me a great feel for some of the incentives and barriers to solar in Tanzania. However, do you think this is stepping too far away from my original focus of solar applications in the DC area?

Aug 19, 2015

Solar Water Wheel in Baltimore

Location: 731 Eastern Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21202, USA
Baltimore Water Wheel
Check out my feet
On August 16, I went to visit Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Some people go for the fancy restaurants, others go for the Aquarium but I was there for the solar/water powered trash barge. It was glorious.

The trash wheel sits right next to the Pier Six Box Office--it's the tent that you can see in the background. It collects trash from the water of Jones Falls, which is quite a bit. Heck, in May and June of 2014, it was picking up about 3-4 tons of trash a day! To learn more, I'd recommend checking out this EcoWatch article, How a Solar-Powered Water Wheel Can Clean 50,000 Pounds of Trash Per Day From Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

As you can see from the photo, the wheel has a few key components.
  • The solar panels (30 of them total that can generate 30 kwh of electricity on a sunny day)
  • The floating dumpster, which can be detached and transported elsewhere
  • Conveyor belt that lifts the trash to the bin
  • The water wheel, which provides power to the conveyor belt
  • The canvas covering, which protects the batteries and gears from foul weather
  • The orange buoy lines, which direct the trash toward the conveyor belt
If you're having a tough time picking this out in the photo, please see my detailed drawing below.

Finally, I would highly recommend interacting with the wheel on Twitter, @MrTrashWheel. It's highly informative and pretty amusing. Every time I've tweeted at them, I get a quick response.

Andrew's Trash Wheel Drawing
If this isn't detailed enough, please email me at This drawing is an homage to

Aug 13, 2015

I Installed Solar with Grid Alternatives!

Location: 1948 Capitol Avenue Northeast, Washington, DC 20002, USA
The other volunteers and me posing with the finished product
August 8 was a big day for me because I did my first solar install! Since starting my blog, I've seen a lot of solar, visited numerous sites, and even watched installs. However, I've never done it myself.

Grid Alternatives--a group that offers "renewable energy technology and job training accessible to underserved communities"--organized the installation. They brought all the tools, worked with the homeowners, provided lunch, and provided the training (both on-sight and in an earlier group session). Grid began in California in 2001 and only recently expanded to Washington DC in Fall 2014. 

The single-family home we were working on was just northeast of Galludet University in Ivy City. Here are a few notes about the day:  
  1. There were nine of us total. The Grid crew (Serena, Sal, Antwon, Aaron, and Henri) and volunteers (Himali, Anna, Alex, and me). This was actually a lot less than usual, which allowed the volunteers to get a lot of training.
  2. It was a good workout. We wore hard hats and our harnesses the whole time. Taking them off at the end of the day was a huge relief. We used cable that attached to body harnesses. The cables were then attached to the framing of the roof. This whole situation is know as a 'yo-yo' and can make for some great resistance training. The roof was pitched at about 25 degrees and I felt it in my calves and quads afterwards. 
  3. We installed twelve 250 watt panels (totaling in 3000 watts capacity). Putting the panels in place was a small part of the installation. Most of the time went into the prep work (pulling wire, setting the framing, installing the microinverters, etc.). 
  4. What boosted my day the most was that the home owners were there. It was clear that they were appreciative of the work and would not have been in a position to install solar if it had not been for Grid. Their teenage boy asked a bunch of questions and wanted to show off all of his basketball and weightlifting skills.   
If you're at all into solar or want to give back to your area, see if Grid has a chapter near you. I would highly recommend it.

Below are two videos. One is a time lapse of us putting the panels down shot on an iPhone from the Grid truck across the street. I can be seen on the right and bottom at the end of the video. The second is a video I made to capture the day in photos and some short videos.