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solar isn't the answer to energy efficiency

Solar Isn’t the Answer to Energy Efficiency

We talk a lot about solar here at Energy Alabama and I think sometimes that confuses people and makes them think that that’s what we are all about, but it’s not true. Solar is great, solar is awesome, but solar isn’t the total answer to energy efficiency.

First off, there are many areas where solar just isn’t even a possibility. I live in the woods so installing solar on my house would just be silly because of all the tree coverage. However, there are many things I can do to improve energy efficiency and we’ve been working on that quite a bit lately.

In January we had Southern Valley Services come out to our house and provide an energy audit. We live in a home that was built in the mid-1960’s, and while it was well-built for the time, it has some issues and we knew it. It was pretty interesting to watch Tommy Marr go through our house with an infra-red camera and point out spots where the cold was getting in. He then provided a very thorough list of ways that we could improve our home’s energy efficiency. His list included things that would benefit older homes including a heat barrier in the attic area above our garage, proper insulation in a variety of areas (sometimes I wonder if the insulated this place at all), sealing of duct work, finding and sealing air leaks in our sunroom windows, and encapsulation of our crawl space.

None of these were huge things as far as price goes, but the all work together to cause major energy inefficiency. We’ve not done everything on the list yet but just the few things we chose to do first have made a big difference in our home’s comfort level.

You may recall our interview with Rick & Pat Trescott; their home is about the same age as mine. They’ve spent years improving their home’s energy efficiency before they finally reached a point where they were ready to install solar panels. They live in an area where they have the right solar access so solar made sense after they had completed all the other improvements. They knew that if they’d put solar on first it would have been a huge waste of money, because they would simply be grabbing energy from the sun only to have it escaping due to improper insulation, unsealed ductwork, poorly sealed windows and poorly selected blinds. The list of small things you can and should do to improve energy efficiency is endless. Solar is just the icing on the cake.

Here are just a few things you can and should do to your home to improve energy efficiency before you consider solar:

  • Seal all ductwork (including the spots where ducts enters the house)
  • Make sure that all walls and attic areas are properly insulated
  • Encapsulate your crawl space
  • Update your water heater and/or heat pump to ENERGY STAR rated versions
  • Update all light fixtures to LEDs
  • Replace all appliances with ENERGY STAR rated appliances
  • Replace windows with ENERGY STAR rated windows

So, the next time you start getting a little anxious that you don’t have solar yet, calm down. You might not be ready for solar yet. In due time. Look for the small things that you can do now to improve the energy efficiency of your home. Solar will just keep getting cheaper and it’ll still be there when you are ready.

Energy Saving Hacks - use a programmable thermostat

10 Home Energy Saving Hacks

We don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Going solar is NOT the only way to save energy!

We know that many of you have seen amazing energy (and money) savings with some simple changes around your home or business. Heck, Randy at Avion Solutions saved over 41% on their energy bills by simply becoming aware of the tools at their disposal and learning how to use them.

Avion saved another 11% by changing out their light bulbs. Now that’s a simple change that anyone can do!  We’ve talked to a number of you who have seen massive savings just by converting your lighting to LED. Of course, you don’t have to go LED to save a massive amount of money. Even switching to CFL bulbs can save you 75% over traditional light bulbs. That being said, most LEDs are now just as cheap if not cheaper than CFLs!

So, that gave us an idea, why not share with you some simple energy-saving hacks that anyone can do, and that don’t require a massive investment.

  • Use Power Strips – All those electronics in your home continue to use power even when they are in standby mode. Just because your laptop is asleep doesn’t mean it isn’t sucking power. So, instead of just letting your electronics sleep when you aren’t using them, how about using a powerstrip to shut the power off to the devices. Instead of trying to remember to unplug all your devices you can simply flip the power strip to off and stop wasting all that energy.
  • Energy Saving Hacks: Install a bi-directional ceiling fanRun Ceiling Fans Backwards – Did you know that most ceiling fans will run in two directions? There’s a reason for that and it’s quite simple. When the weather is warm you want your ceiling fan to run counter-clockwise to pull warm air up and create a nice breeze. But, don’t just turn the fan off in the winter, flip the switch so that it runs clockwise and pushes the warm air down into the room.  This can help save a bundle on energy.
  • Wash Clothes in Cold Water – We know it’s not the first time you’ve read this tip from us, and it may not be the last. Probably because washing your clothes in cold water instead of warm not only saves a bundle on energy but it also makes your clothes last longer and saves you even more money in the long run.
  • Pack Your Freezer Tight – If you have a standalone freezer there’s a good chance it’s not full to the brim and if it’s not, then it’s using more energy than it should. We’re not saying you should run out and buy a bunch of extra food to store, but you can (and should) pack it full with bags of ice. When your freezer is full the frozen foods help keep the air cool meaning that the freezer doesn’t have to work as hard to stay cold. Another benefit is that if we have a major power outage your food will last a lot longer before it starts to thaw.
  • Install and adjustable thermostat – If you are still using one of those old-fashioned thermostats that does nothing more than set a temperature, you are seriously wasting money. Adjustable thermostats are fairly inexpensive and can have a huge influence on your electric bill. An adjustable thermostat allows you to set the temperature based on the time of the day. So, if you prefer it cooler overnight the thermostat will automatically adjust. There are even adjustable thermostats that learn your household patterns and adjust the temperature automatically.
  • Caulk and seal your windows and doors – proper weather-stripping will help your home hold in heat (or cool) and better maintain your preferred temperature. This means that your HVAC system won’t have to work nearly as hard. This is one of those fixes that takes a little bit of work, but pays off in a huge way.
  • Choose filters wisely – More and more of us have switched over to those accordion-style HVAC filters. But, did you know that those filters actually reduce the airflow through your vents?  For better HVAC efficiency you are better off using the older style filters. They also happen to be a lot cheaper.
  • Change your filters – Remember that your HVAC filters should be changed about once a month. The accordion-style filters suggest longer intervals, which is one reason many people have opted for them. However, you can use the cheaper filters and change them three times as often and actually save yourself some money and energy.
  • Wash dishes wisely – Make sure to run your dishwasher when it’s full. This energy-efficient choice is actually a better choice than washing dishes by hand (and a heck of a lot easier!).
  • Get a Home Energy Audit – If you really want to know where your home is losing energy, have someone come out and do a free Home Energy Audit. They will tell you exactly where your home is losing energy and how to fix it. This is probably the most cost-efficient tip we can give you!

Got more energy-saving hacks? Share them in the comments below. We want to hear what you do to cut your energy use and costs.

Bill Carswell in front of his UAH lab

Think Tank for Sustainable Energy Startups at UAH

“Alternative energy is the Internet of twenty years ago – It’s in its infant stage. We just have to create the pathways to make it grow and be available to everyone.” – Bill Carswell

Bill Carswell’s career has taken plenty of interesting twists and turns: he’s been involved in space research with NASA, border security around the world, and project management education at Emery Riddle. Before all else, Bill is a Scientist. He’s currently the Principal Research Scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the Executive Director of the Energy Huntsville Initiative.

Lab for Sustainable Energy Research at UAH

WHY ENERGY?

  • Renewable Energy is socially relevant.
  • Renewable Energy is technically challenging.
  • Renewable Energy is heavily funded.

WHY NOW?

“There’s a large cottage industry of startups trying to tap into this energy revolution that’s going on and the problem with energy is its really expensive. You can’t just start a garage business with an app – I mean, this stuff is expensive! I’m putting together a resource that entrepreneurs can use so they don’t have to buy all the energy infrastructure. They can just focus on the element they want to build a product or a business around.”

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Entrepreneurs creating sustainable products can borrow Bill’s lab, complete with equipment and resources – solar panels, generators, high-tech batteries, smart meters, and business automation system. Startups have access to Bill’s extensive network of experts from UAH, ALCSE, and Energy Huntsville. The scientist himself is available for questioning too. Test your product in the safety of the lab over the course of one year (seasons make a difference) to get ready for market. Finally, pitch the finished product to the company or military institution that will buy it.

Bill’s laboratory is a veritable mecca for mad scientists and mad-scientist wannabes.

An initial survey of the tiny fenced-off area tucked behind UAH’s NPR radio station reveals uneven terrain, faded signs, and decades-old solar panels. But don’t let the humble façade fool you; inside this little building is Bill’s energy lab, and it’s brimming with scientific discovery.

Let’s go see what’s happening……

Project: Commercial Building Automation System

Key Players: Johnson Controls, Dynetics, Huntsville Utilities, Aerojet, ALCSE

Purpose: Monitor a building’s energy use & move to backup source during peaks

building automation system

batteries

Project: Hybrid Generator & Battery System

Key Players: Aviation Research Developing & Engineering Center (AMRDEC), UAH Systems Engineers, Aerojet

Purpose: Use electricity generated from diesel fuel and generators as efficiently as possible.

(Batteries, load bank (building simulator) and graduated cylinder to measure fuel consumption with the generator.)

Project: Phase Change Solar Thermal Water Heater

Key Players: Aviation Research Developing & Engineering Center (AMRDEC), King Energy

Purpose: Find economical way to keep water heated longer

IMG_2125

e1c27182-8880-4f7f-abd5-26cf90a71a66

..Not a smart meter, but they’re some pretty sexy batteries…

Project: (Coming soon!) Smart Meter Student Penetration Contest

Key Players: UAH Cybersecurity Research Lab, ALCSE, Huntsville Utilities

Purpose: Protect smart energy from computer fraud

Project: (Coming soon!) Mobile Sustainability Demonstration Lab

Key Players: ALCSE and Others….

Purpose: Teach sustainable practice to community & train workers.

genearator

Drawings of a mad scientist, generator modified for laboratory use, and a generator efficiency curve developed from research

Have a sustainable product you need help with? Contact:

Bill Carswell, Ph.D.
256.679.2276
bill.carswell@energyhuntsville.com
www.energyhuntsville.com

 

Net Zero House

TVA’s Distributed Generation Integrated Value Report – What It Means

In October, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) released its Distributed Generation Integrated Value Report (DG-IV). Sounds great right? But what does it actually mean?

Why was this study done?

Good question and we’re glad you asked. TVA has operated a variety of distributed energy programs, mainly for solar, for the last few years. You may have heard of Green Power Providers or Generation Partners. Regardless, this study was completed to attempt an answer for one simple question.

How much money is distributed energy worth to TVA?

This question was brought to light because of three main factors, although many more exist.

  1. Solar, along with many other distributed generation technologies, has become much cheaper.
  2. TVA has traditionally paid above retail rate for distributed energy whereas many utilities pay retail or below.
  3. The market has repeatedly complained about TVA’s program structure. Why? Most solar companies express frustration at the low and arbitrary caps places on distributed energy which leads to the program only being open for a short amount of time. It’s hard to build a business, no matter how great the incentives, when you can only work for a few months a year.

What does this study say?

This study basically concludes that distributed energy, specifically solar, is worth 7.2 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) to TVA. Average retail rates in the TVA territory are about 10 cents per kWh and TVA is currently paying 10 cents per kWh.

So…

The study implies that solar is worth well less than what TVA currently pays for it. Almost 30% less.

How is that possible?

The best question you’ve asked! 7.2 cents per kWh doesn’t really tell the whole story. As you might imagine, there are a variety of things that must be factored in order to determine what solar or any other distributed generation is worth.

And here’s where the fun comes!

As they say, the devil is in the details.

What was factored in the 7.2 cents per kWh?

  • Not building new power plants
    • Ex. Not having to build a new natural gas plant or its related maintenance
  • Not having to buy fuel
    • Ex. If sun is available the fuel is free which offsets the amount of natural gas that must be purchased at that point in time.
  • Not paying environmental fees
    • Ex. Avoiding the need to purchase new scrubbers for a plant because energy is coming from a cleaner source.
    • Ex. Selling renewable energy credits on the open market
  • Fewer power lines
    • Ex. When energy production is placed near the site of consumption, less power lines are needed to carry large amount of power from one place to another.
  • Not losing energy during transmission
    • Ex. When energy is transmitted over long distances some of the energy is lost. However when energy production is places near the site of consumption there is less opportunity to lose energy.

What are some things that weren’t factored in the 7.2 cents per kWh?

  • Economic development
    • Ex. The benefits brought to TVA to and the regional economy from a thriving solar market. Increased market activity increased the demand for energy.
  • Customer satisfaction
    • Ex. The value of happy customers who prefer cleaner sources of energy.
  • Security enhancement
    • Ex. The value of reducing power outages due to backup sources placed throughout the Tennessee Valley.
  • Disaster recovery
    • Ex. The value of restoring power quicker due to the flexibility of distributed energy resources.
  • Carbon emissions
    • Ex. The value of cleaner sources of electricity should a cost on carbon emissions be adopted nationally.

Summing it all up

There are ton of ways to slice and dice this report as well as the methodology. Most simply, it’s a good start. But just a start. By leaving out so many possible value streams of distributed energy, solar is getting short changed. However this report is only a first step in determining a fair market value for distributed energy 24/7/365. Additional work will be needed to understand and compensate solar, and other distributed energy sources, for the full value they bring to TVA.

Also don’t forget that you don’t need to connect to TVA’s grid to go solar. You can self consume! And as battery technology continues to get cheaper, you may be able to start storing as well.

Go solar. Get a free solar survey.

To read the full DG-IV report for yourself, please visit: https://www.tva.gov/file_source/TVA/Site%20Content/Energy/Renewables/dgiv_document_october_2015-2.pdf