Sustainable Energy Superstar: Bronwen Murray

Meet Bronwen Murray: Journalist, Marketing Maven, and Sunshine Grabber. Bronwen lives in a solar-powered home.

SunsetHOME FACTS

  • FACT: Solar energy provides 100% electrical power
  • FACT: Solar system completed July 2015
  • FACT: System consists of 18 solar panels
  • FACT: 16 storage batteries
  • FACT: Average total installation costs: 20K
  • FACT: Home age: 100+ years
  • FACT: Square footage: 1200 square feet

 

I met Bronwen outside her family home, as the sun sank into the fields, creating a peachy glow from the front porch steps.

Bronwen is inspired by her 83-year-old Grandmother and beloved mentor to live sustainably. Her dedication is evidenced by the 18 solar panels on the roof of the small bungalow where she resides.

 

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“This is an over 100-year-old house. It belonged to my great grandmother. This is also the Humphrey farm which has been in my family for about seven generations.”

When the family discussed adding solar power, Bronwen resolved to maintain the integrity of the original home, with its rustic character and small footprint. At just 1200 square feet and one bedroom, it is the perfect size for a single woman.

“I like the idea of making something of what you already have.”

tankless water heater

One feature Bronwen added was an on-demand water heater. As faucets pull water into the house, the system very quickly heats it to the 140 degree range. It is powered by propane (think ubiquitous silver bullet-shaped tank hugging the ground).

 

As the panels draw solar into the home, the sunshine is converted into DC (direct current) electricity through a method called photovoltaics (PV).  An inverter changes the DC power into AC (alternating current).

 

And off it goes, into a box that Bronwen calls the “heart” of the system. That system ferries current where needed. Any unused energy is stored in big battery packs. During overcast, rainy time periods, the “brain” pulls power from the batteries. If necessary, the system can toggle over to Bronwen’s public electrical source.

“The ‘Midnight Classic’ system is really kind of like the brains of what makes this guy work.”

BronwenBrain (1)

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But that’s not all.  Inside her home, Bronwen uses energy-efficient appliances. She even purchased an energy efficient washer/dryer combination. But there was a downside: it took almost five hours to do one load of laundry. I’m not kidding.

Sometimes, convenience trumps sustainability.

“So I had to get rid of it and then this one didn’t fit in the space. So, it’s going back. Hopefully, something else is coming that will let me do laundry,” says Brownwen.

With the light from that magical orb long disappeared from the sky, we moved conversation indoors where we talked for several hours gathered around a very different kind of light.

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What is Bioenergy?

What is Bioenergy?

Bioenergy is energy that comes from renewable biological sources. These sources can be any form of organic matter that stores sunlight as chemical energy. Typical sources include manure, wood pulp, and sugarcane. Although, many more sources are available and currently being researched.

The oldest form of biofuel is wood, typically used for heat. Biofuel is just another name for bioenergy. The sources of biofuel (manure, wood pulp, etc) are called biomass, while the actual biofuel (or bioenergy) is the energy that is extracted from the biomass.

The great thing about bioenergy is that the biomass is typically a by-product of some other agricultural activity. While some crops (including corn, soybeans, and sugarcane) are being grown specifically for biofuel, in many cases are simply using byproducts and waste that would not otherwise be used. Rather than throwing wood pulp or manure on the ground to decompose, we are using that wood pulp to make fuel. The great thing about this is that there is little to no competition between the biofuel sources and needed food sources.

The methane gas that is produced by rotting garbage, human waste, excess crops, and even leftover vegetable oil can be converted to useable biofuel in the forms of ethanol and biodiesel. Not only can we produce fuel for vehicles but in some countries biogas has become a primary source of electricity.

In the US, the DOE is currently researching algae as a great source of bioenergy and biofuel. Oil extracted from algae is processed and converted to fuels that we could use to operate vehicles. Algae takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is good for the environment and can eventually reduce our reliance on non-renewable oil sources.

Biomass generates the same amount of energy as non-renewable sources, but because it is renewable it is easily replaced. Biomass creates net zero emissions as long as new plants are being grown to replace those that are being used.

But what about the price?

The DOE has been working to not only find new sources of biomass, but to reduce the cost of biofuels. The DOE reports that once biomass production reaches commercial levels the price will be equivalent to gasoline.

Are you Familiar with RideShare?

Everyone knows about carpooling, that’s been around for years, but what is RideShare?

RideShare is a unique program offered by Enterprise that allows you to reduce not only the cost of carpooling, but reduces the wear and tear on your vehicle.

The program is simple, you get a group of at least seven people who need to get from Point A to Point B. One person coordinates and signs up for RideShare, then Enterprise provides a vehicle to match the size of your group. They offer vehicles that carry anywhere from 7 to 15 passengers. The price is based on the miles traveled and the vehicle rented, and can be split among all the passengers. And, don’t worry the coordinator doesn’t have to do all the driving – everyone can still take turns! Insurance is also provided as part of the rental fee.

I know you are thinking “but won’t this be more expensive than just a regular car pool? No. Not really, when you split the cost over more people, reduce the wear and tear, and miles used on your own vehicles, you will likely be saving money!

This is basically a long-term rental so you keep the vehicle as long as you are participating in the program, or you can pass it around the group to whomever is driving that week.

So, why is Energy Alabama talking about this anyway?

It’s simple really. When people share the ride, fewer vehicles are on the road. That means you are using less energy and less gas, and it means that you are saving money. It’s all about sustainable energy baby!

Ready to RideShare?

Let’s do it! Whether you are a company looking to set up a RideShare program, or an individual ready to make a change in your morning commute, all you have to do put your group together, and visit vanpool.com or contact Rideshare Rep, Kelli Davis at 205-824-8557 • Kelli.Davis@ehi.com

She’ll help you select a vehicle and turn your morning commute from a boring solo run to a fun community activity that gives you some cred in the sustainable energy community.

Sustainable Energy Superstar – Randy Buckner

For Randy Buckner renewable energy isn’t about saving the planet or “doing the right thing”, although he says that is definitely a part of it. For Randy, choosing alternative renewable energy sources is the smart thing to do from a financial perspective. Randy is a data man. He’s the type of guy that doesn’t just install solar and forget it. He wants to know exactly what installing solar means to his bottom line and he can tell you that in exactly 8.1 years (or less) his solar system will be making him money. For Randy, solar was an investment, one that is giving him 8.0% ROI.

Randy built his house from the ground up about five years ago, and in doing so he made choices that would make it a very energy-efficient home. Rather than the standard HVAC system he installed a horizontal closed loop geothermal system which takes the cool air from the ground and circulates that into the house, and not forcing the HVAC system to work overtime trying to cool extremely hot or heat extremely cool air. The air below ground is a constant 55° all year around resulting in less work and a more energy-efficient system.

Geothermal (or ground source) systems are more energy-efficient because they are heating warmer air in the winter and cooling cooler air in the summer (as compared to the outside temperature). The system involves two parts, the heat pump and the underground pipes. Since the warmer or cooler air is not having to be created, only transported, no fuel is burned.

Horizontal systems are great for people who have large amounts of land. A series of six pipes are laid horizontally below the frost line, requiring no drilling. The closed loop system recirculates the same water and antifreeze solution continually. This water solution absorbs the warmer (or cooler) air from the ground and transports it back into the home where it is then converted to air and distributed throughout the home.

It sounds complicated but it’s really simple –you have a more efficient system that isn’t having to work as hard. A system that isn’t having to work as hard equates to lower utility bills, and that’s the bottom line for Randy and his wife.

spray foam insulationIn addition to the geothermal system, Randy installed low-e windows throughout the home, and opted for LED lighting over traditional options. He also had spray-foam insulation installed throughout the house as it was being built. He didn’t stop at just the walls but made sure that the inside of the roof was also covered, and used the left-over shavings as added sound-proofing and insulation in the ceiling between the first and second floor. The house has two air-handling units –one for downstairs (which is their main living area) and a second for the upstairs, which is used only when the grandchildren come to visit. This, again helps improve energy efficiency and cuts their utility bills because they aren’t heating or cooling the upstairs when it’s not in use.

It seems like they invested quite a bit into energy efficiency, but really when building a new home that you intend to live in for the rest of your life these are affordable investments. Randy knew that he would get a solid return on investment in comfort, and dollars. And, because of this he had no trouble selling these budgetary upgrades to his wife.

It took Randy almost five years before he took the next step and installed solar. He says the delay was partially because their horse barn had to come first. However, once it was installed, giving him the perfect place to put his solar panels, he knew it was time. Of course, convincing his wife took a little doing. He had to show her the money, so to speak, and how it would pay off in the long-run.

About a year ago Randy installed his 20 kW solar PV array –a 6-string, grid-tied system. Being grid tied allows the Buckners to sell their energy to the grid, and buy back what they need. He said their system produces about 60% of what their home typically uses, but because they sell at a slightly higher rate than they buy at it works out nicely.

invertersThe 6-string system is connected to 3 inverters (2 strings per inverter), with 12-13 panels per string. They are grid-tied through the TVA Green Power Providers program. Through this program they are paid a rate of .04 cents over retail for the first ten years, then after that they are paid the standard retail rate. They have two meters on the side of their home, one measuring what they are using, and the other measuring what they are selling.

Their utility bills now shows line items for what they use, as well as what is purchased by TVA, resulting in a net amount that they either owe or are owed. Additionally, they get a check each month from the Green Power Provider for the difference in the two rates. When they combine that amount with the tax credit they received and the ability to depreciate the system as part of their attached business, the savings are astounding. Basically, they received over half of their investment back in the first year just from those savings.

As mentioned, Randy is all about the numbers. He even took the time to sit me down and show me the data. He has a software package that came with his solar system (a package that most people probably don’t use) which constantly shows the energy created, hour by hour. He keeps this data and updates his own spreadsheets on a regular basis so that he knows exactly what his system is doing. If there’s a change or it seems his system may not be working just right, he knows it. He can also tell you exactly the amount he’s getting paid on a day-to-day basis, and this is how he knows exactly when he can expect to start seeing profits from his system.

I asked Randy why it wouldn’t be better to be off-the-grid, that way if the power goes out they’d still have power. He pointed to the financial side of the equation as the answer. Not only would he have to invest in batteries for storage of the power, this way he will eventually not only be providing his own power but he will be getting paid to do so.

 

North Alabama’s Only Renewable Energy Degree is at ACECET

ACECETCalhoun Community College is home to Alabama’s first and only renewable energy degree as well as a number of certification courses. Not only is this the first in the state it is one of only a few in the country.

The program, which was funded by a $3.47M Department of Labor grant in 2010, offers a renewable energy curriculum with a 2 year technical degree in renewable energy. Jerry Adams led the project which involved completely retrofitting an existing campus building. This involved tearing the existing building down the bones, but Jerry was happy to report that in doing so less than 20% of the removed materials went to the landfill. Most were recycled for other uses. The cement was sent to a company that breaks it down and recycles it, the asphalt shingles were recycled for road use. All of this along with the energy-efficiency improvements lead to the ACECET building becoming one of the first commercial buildings in the state to be LEED Platinum certified.

Jerry Adams showed me around the building, which is designed to be energy efficient with LED lighting on sensors throughout, a 3-phase 24 KW solar photo-voltaic grid-tied solar system that provides about 80% of the 11,000 square ft. building’s energy needs. Water collection units provide the non-potable water for the building (toilets, lawn watering, etc). One of the most extensive geothermal arrays in the Southeast powers the HVAC systems in the labs, and solar thermal units are used to heat the water for the building. Adams pointed out that “it’s all about teaching and learning tools for the students.”

ACECET is setting standards both at home and abroad as it serves as the standard for future programs across the country. I asked Jerry if the facilities people at Calhoun are taking notice and making changes across campus based on the program. His response was that they “have attended many of our classes and what they are learning from the ACECET experience is being reflected in energy savings with the other buildings on campus.”

solar thermal systemThe focus of the program is teaching renewable energy in a way that the students can put it to work in either the electrical field or the HVAC field, both of which are ripe for opportunities throughout the country. The program has seen over 100 students graduate so far, and expects another 50-60 in the fall. Short term (1 day or 1 week) classes are available that lead to certification, as well as BPI analyst building classes, and energy code classes.

I spoke with Shelton Wright, a current student of the ACECET program, and asked him to share his thoughts. He told me that he chose the Calhoun ACECET program because “They have a great program with excellent resources. The facilities are fantastic, with everything from PV panels, solar thermal panels, wind energy, and even hydrogen fuel cells and biodiesel. The labs are full of hands-on learning and the instructors are very knowledgeable and enjoy teaching.”

Shelton feels that the ACECET program is giving him the knowledge he needs for a career in the future. Students who have graduated from the program are now working across the country and across the world. Jerry Adams said that they have students working both locally and as far as Nicaragua improving energy efficiency across the globe.