Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Solar Power Case Study: An Old Idea With New Economics

During these wonderful sunny days in August, as I see my electric bills decline, I'm reminded of an article Whatcom Watch published for me last year. It is posted below for those who might want to consider using solar power themselves to save energy use and help protect the environment.

In late 2005, I attended a conference and exhibition at the Bellingham Ferry Terminal sponsored by Sustainable Connections and the Building Industry Association. One of the sessions focused on Solar Energy systems for homeowners as a means of saving on electric power costs and protecting the environment. A presentation by a local expert on renewable energy, Dana Brandt, particularly attracted my attention. Later, I contacted him for advice on the feasibility of installing a small Photovoltaic [PV] Solar Power generating system at my home.

Dana surveyed my home for potential sites that capture sunlight most of the day, and confirmed that my garage roof was a really good choice. The garage faces south and has a flat roof that gently slopes to the north, giving it a relatively unimpeded solar exposure during most of the day. This site also has the advantage of not significantly impacting views from any direction - an important consideration in maintaining good relationships with neighbors. Dana used a special instrument that allowed him to determine the maximum percentage of potentially available direct sunlight that could access a properly placed and angled array of solar panels, during all seasons of the year.

Costs & Feasibility

Based on this survey and the schematic he developed, Dana estimated the costs associated with a roof-mounted PV system with 1.52 kW generating capacity, assuming that all the generated DC power would be converted to AC power and fed back into the PSE grid through my electric meter. The system included 8 Sanyo PV Panels -each 3-feet by 4-feet, 4-inches- mounted side by side on adjustable aluminum frames, an assembly designed to withstand 200 mph winds. The total solar array surface area is 104 square feet and its length is 24 feet. The system uses a power inverter to convert DC power from the PV array to AC power, and a separate output meter to track both the total energy generated and instantaneous readouts. The entire system is hard-wired through my household electrical circuit breaker panel into my electric meter, a special type provided free by PSE [Puget Sound Energy] that is designed to track their net-metering system.

Based on my specific system design, Dana's proposal [December 2005] for the total installed cost of my PV system was $13,685 excluding any incentives. Using conservative estimating techniques to calculate payback, these were the results:

Taking into account the added resale value of my home, the PV system will payback in about 16 years. If I choose to ignore the increased value of the home as part of the payback, the payback becomes 25 years. The estimated life of the PV system itself is 30 years. Substantial increases in the cost of power will shorten this payback period.

The payback calculations included these incentives, tax credits and energy saving calculations that helped me to justify making this investment:

One-Time Incentives

Federal Income Tax Credit for Renewable Energy: $2,000
PSE Rebate [based on 1.52kW installed capacity]: $874
Washington State Sales Taxes are also waived as an additional incentive

Ongoing incentives:

PSE Net Metering [increases in proportion to rates]: $0.067807 per kWh
Washington State Production Incentive [9 years total]: $0.150 per kWh
Green Tags Certification Credits: $0.050 per kWh

For my historic rate of electrical usage, the PV system is expected to generate about 22% of my annual consumption, or about 1642 kWh per year. At peak production about 33% of my average needs will be produced. When I am not consuming power at the usual rate, my PV generated power sold to PSE may exceed the amount I buy from them.

Projected Annual Savings from Ongoing Incentives

PSE Net Metering: 1642 kWh/year X $0.007807/kWh = $111.34 per year
Washington State Incentive: 1642 kWh/year X $0.15/kWh = $246.30 per year
Green Tags Credits: 1642 kWh/year X $0.05/kWh = $82 per year
Total Estimated Savings from Ongoing Incentives [at current rates] = $439.64 per year

Because PSE charges more for power usage above 600 kWh per month, I will also almost always avoid having to pay for this more expensive power [$0.08484 per kWh]. This amounts to "peak shaving", which in this case saves me from having to use power that is 25% more expensive.

Most single-family homes use electric power at levels averaging between 15 kWh/day and 50 kWh/day, depending upon the number of people, appliances, lights and the intensity of use. My electric power use has averaged just over 20 kWh/day during the past 2 years [7347 kWh/year].

Installation and Commissioning

Based on the estimated economics, I decided to go ahead with the project and wrote Dana a check to procure the equipment and materials. These were delivered directly to my home and stored in the garage until the weather improved enough to begin installation. This relatively simple installation required 3 days, with most of the work done by Dana, with help from an experienced and licensed electrician he hired for one day. After completion, the PV system was tested, turned on and began to immediately generate power. Inspections by the City and PSE proved routine, and I first entered the power generation business during a sunny break!

Each step of this installation was recorded by digital camera, and the supporting paperwork and documentation was handled quickly. I was pleased to pay Dana the balance due and ask for his assistance in writing up the project for publication. Four PSE personnel came for a final inspection and short tour of the system with Dana. Look for this PV installation to be a stop on the 2006 Sustainable Connections tour.

Pollution Avoidance: A Hidden Benefit

Another great benefit from using PV solar power is avoiding greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants from conventional power plants that burn fossil fuels. Dana estimates that a 1.52 KW PV system like mine typically saves the following pollution from occurring:

Carbon Dioxide [CO2]: 465.90 lbs/year or 13,977.0 lbs over 30 years

Nitrogen Oxides [NOX]: 0.90 lbs/yr or 27.03 lbs/30 yrs

Sulfur Dioxide [SO2]: 2.56 lb/yr or 76.75 lbs/30 yrs

Mercury [Hg]: 3.96 mg/yr or 118.8 mg/30 yrs

The actual pollution avoidance benefits we realize here in the Northwest are higher than these standard estimates because 80% of our energy normally comes from hydropower, which doesn't require burning fossil fuels. Therefore, only about 20% of these amounts derive from local power generation. But, because Bonneville Power doesn't scale back its hydropower generating ability, this avoids having to import energy produced from fossil fuels elsewhere, which means the actual pollution avoidance we experience in Washington is about 3.75 times the above the standard calculations above.

Conclusion: The New Energy Economics

The pollution avoidance realities outlined above have always been in existence, but were obscured by the benefits of low energy costs and an almost tacit acceptance of incremental environmental degradation. How easy it has been to ignore these impacts; almost like a frog in a pot of water, slowly being brought to a boil. Now that energy costs are rising rapidly, global warming is visibly happening and the economic gap between personal/family incomes and necessities is growing, we are suddenly able to see more clearly the impacts of continuing a 'business as usual' attitude toward how we live and use energy.

These national and global trends have directly led to some new economic realities that are now beginning to make sustainable practices more feasible and attractive. When an investment in a small PV energy system begins to pencil out, people will begin to notice, and some will be inclined to make similar investments. For example, the trend toward energy efficient appliances and vehicles is becoming more and more of a 'no-brainer'. Even with slightly higher first costs, these high efficiency machines and systems easily pay for themselves very quickly in reduced energy costs. More important, they continue to pay large dividends in avoided energy and pollution costs. Hopefully, these new economics will translate into more sustainable lifestyles as the preferred choice of many, not just a few.

Coupled with the new economics, more new high-tech and high efficiency devices are being developed to help curtail energy waste, but these are not -in themselves- the answer. There are no good substitutes for personal awareness, accepting responsibility and taking action. Consumption has its own limits, and its expensive consequences.

As Dana Brandt suggests, a great new 'take-away' message to offer is: "All you who care for the environment, and/or wish to be less dependent on foreign oil - the time has come that you can afford to do something about it. The confluence of an array of incentives and high energy prices makes solar power -and other highly energy efficient systems- accessible to nearly all of us"

Footnote: Two neighbors noticed the PV System installation and inquired what was happening. Both have subsequently asked Dana for proposals! Are there any others out there?

Waterfront Redevelopment: Mayoral Candidate Forum Responses

Here is additional information from my notes that I was unable to post earlier.

All Mayoral Candidates were asked to answer this question:
‘State briefly, your strongest argument on Waterfront Redevelopment for:
(a) Why it should proceed? [PRO] (b) Why it should not proceed? [CON]

Dan McShane:
Pro: Enormous opportunity, with public expectations for access to the water.

Con: Need to be careful and go slow in agreeing to a Master Plan that carries major funding challenges. City has abrogated its zoning responsibility. Is the Port’s plan worth the investment?

Doug Karlberg:
Pro: Should do it, because it is essential for our future -50 years or more..

Con: What is cleanup level? Port’s vision is being promoted like a machine. May disagree. Wants to keep a working waterfront. Too big. Fears local government will dismiss the public’s wishes, like Seattle did. Disliked legal challenge to public initiative.
Public input needs to be respected.

Seth Fleetwood:
Pro: Agrees this a rare opportunity. The Waterfront Futures Group report inspired him. Supports DOE’s Preferred Alternative for cleanup to fully meet State Model Toxics Control Act [MTCA] requirements, to exceed that level would have un-needed cost impacts that would outweigh any additional benefits

Con: Is it feasible? How will funding happen? Many details remain to be worked out. Inter-local Agreement binds Port and City, but need equitable partnership. Next Mayor and City Council will have to address these important decisions.

Don Keenan:
Pro: Getting good information, community effort and best minds will build consensus to achieve this enormous opportunity, with 100-year horizon. Chance to make waterfront Bellingham’s front door. WWU and NOAA as tenants very beneficial and exciting. Potential as business incubator is possible with mixed-use zoning. Connects to downtown, parks and other people places.

Con: Need to overcome the fear that has been generated. Big space to cleanup and redevelop!

Dan Pike:
Pro: Waterfront redevelopment needs to go forward.

Con: Failure of leaders and local government to sell it better. Need to know level of adequate cleanup and how to retain a presence as a working waterfront. A large park is essential to economic development, but doesn’t have to be just on that site. What other tenants besides WWU and NOAA?

Gil Bernal:
Pro: Should do it. Great opportunity! Those who benefit should pay for it. Cleanup to DOE standards is OK. New jobs. What concessions are possible, particularly for public access? In Hawaii, all beaches are public.

Con: None. No downside.

Bob Ryan:
Pro: Waterfront redevelopment is the best opportunity since Bellingham was founded!

Con: Some hurdles remain: Public process in progress. City is responsible for infrastructure. Port responsible for cleanup and redevelopment. Financing options need to be known. Master Plan will define zoning. Economic benefits for City and Port. If Port wants more than City can provide, then development must pay its fair share. Olympia is an example of doing this sort of thing right.

My Comment: Remembering the Dundee Donut Shop

Years ago as a boy, I saw a catchy sign on the wall of a popular donut shop. It had a motto underneath, an illustration of two cartoon figures, each holding a large donut. One was smiling at a donut so fat that the hole was a mere dimple. The other bore a sour frown while contemplating a donut that looked more like a racing bike tire - all hole and very little donut. The accompanying motto said something like 'as through life you grow old, keep your eye on the donut and not the hole'.

I still remember the moral demonstrated so simply by that donut sign. One's viewpoint is strongly influenced by one's point of view. If one gets up every morning on the wrong side of the bed and decides to be grumpy and negative, that can become habit forming. We all have the power to decide which side of the bed we choose to get up from each morning. Folks who haven't learned this basic lesson are missing out on the real joys of life, and deserve to be the object of our sympathy.

This last question about Waterfront Redevelopment essentially asks the same question: is this a problem or an opportunity? I see it as such an opportunity that it would irresponsible NOT to pursue it vigorously, but also with care. So, that’s a reaction that begins with the opportunity side of the equation, but also does not forget much work needs to be done before committing to anything that unduly burdens anyone. In life, answers are rarely simple black or white, but many shades of the entire spectrum that lie in between. Please, let’s keep this in mind as the public process continues!

Note: I have decided to limit this blog to summarizing what my take was from the Mayoral candidate’s public statements and responses at this forum. Readers get to decide for themselves who got closer to the 'right' answers. One of these candidates will become our next Mayor, so it’s important to elect the one with an approach likely to build on achieving some version of the Vision the City has adopted from the Waterfront Futures Group recommendations.

But, that’s just my opinion!

No similar summary is planned for the other Primary races.

Last Night's Forum:Mayoral Candidates Opening Statements

Last night’s Candidate Forum at the County Council Chambers was a good one as Forums go. The format was appropriate, and offered candidates some choice in whether to speak only to their platforms or allow some audience questions. It also offered candidates some opportunity to both question their opponents and answer their opponent’s questions. I thought the format worked pretty well, because some unpredictability was introduced and it was hard for candidates to just gloss over some topics or simply run out the clock without addressing most issues in some limited way.

Our community owes its thanks for the League of Women Voters, KGMI Radio 790 and the Whatcom Independent for organizing and sponsoring this forum! It is in everyone’s best interest to be as informed as possible on issues, the candidates themselves, and where they stand on the issues.

Wow! I took a lot of notes but now need to figure out how to summarize 3 hours into the salient points I took away from this exercise. First, I’ll state up front that I do favor some candidates over others, but this synopsis will be as objective as possible in capturing my candid reactions while they are fresh in my mind.

So here goes my take on the Mayoral Candidates and their opening statements only: [Comments on responses to questions and closing statements may come later, time permitting]
Questions were asked in the same order from audience right to left. In future, it might be fairer to vary the order so that the same candidates did not always get the benefit of hearing everyone else’s statements.

Dan McShane: Took almost entire opening statement talking, about his accomplishments on the County Council and disparaging the City on subjects mostly centered on growth policy and Lake Whatcom. To hear Dan tell it, the City has done nothing right, and is mainly responsible for promoting sprawl and letting Lake Whatcom deteriorate. He also did have some proposals concerning establishing ‘new departments’ for neighborhoods and for Lake Whatcom, and changing some undefined City-wide ‘priorities, staff and budgets’. Very vague about details and how he was going to win Council support. One got the impression that Dan gets a lot of credit, but no blame. But, he was smooth and polished.

Doug Karlberg: Also spoke the entire time, with one notable positive about the City being about kids. He is against gentrification, because it reduces affordability. Wants to avoid what Sausalito, CA turned into, and prefers Skagit County as a model because it encourages economic development and discourages expensive condos. Feels trust in government is broken and wants greater citizen involvement, better goals & objectives. Came off mostly negative.

Seth Fleetwood: Seth performed the best I’ve ever seen him, but also spoke the entire time without reading notes. He came off as confident in his understandings, clear and succinct about identifying some main problems, and natural and engaged in his delivery. His theme was to protect what we have, citing growth as the number one problem facing the City now, among many other issues. Being a native son seemed to give him a slightly different history and perspective. Cited some positive actions, like the Growth Forum, he has initiated to help address growth and Lake Whatcom and allow our community to grow well. Some growth will need to happen but we get to decide how it happens. Believes in sustainability, preserving strong neighborhoods, and a positive community vision supported by leadership to make it happen. Came off as positive, collaborative and reasonable.

Don Keenan: Don read a thoughtful and fairly comprehensive prepared statement that seemed very natural, yet filled with some pretty focused information. His delivery seemed calm, sincere and measured to fit in as much as he could. His theme was to address needs first, then wants, while maintaining popular services like the Library, Greenways, and continuing downtown revitalization. He knows a lot about these things from his 7 years as Deputy Administrator. Lake Whatcom was a special focus with funding, collaboration, incentives, preservation, further density reduction, changing habits and enforcement as main elements. Open government, making planning & permitting more efficient, neighborhoods, compact urban growth and economic development were all important themes in his message. He believes that Waterfront Redevelopment is a great opportunity that must be pursued with careful attention to fiscal feasibility. It was a positive, ambitious message delivered with enthusiasm.

Dan Pike: Dan was the only candidate to allow time to answer questions from the audience, but only after he had made an opening statement. First, he slightly attacked Keenan’s comment about the current low employment situation still being insufficient to provide affordable homes for residents. Then he cited Lake Whatcom, Waterfront Redevelopment, Neighborhoods and Downtown revitalization as keys issues. He then took two questions, both from current County Planning Commissioners:
1) Dave Pros [Lake Samish] asked if the TDR program was viable, and whether urban villages could happen and accommodate infill. Pike answered that both concepts were flawed; that both needed receiving areas to make them work. Concepts are OK, but first City needs to fix its Zoning Codes to get predictability for City, citizens and developers. Design-based zoning was suggested.
2) 2) John Lesow [Point Roberts] asked how the City should go about alleviating its transportation Level of Service problem. Pike answered transportation is about a system, not just cars. Time then ran out.

Gil Bernal: Gil got a laugh when he asked if the audience needed a stretch. He cited FDR as saying be sincere, be short, and be seated. He cited family facts, military experience, his experience as firefighter, EMT and police officer. He stands for many good ideas and is now having a learning experience. Cautioned against spending what we don’t have, citing growing up in a mining town with cyclical economy. Believes clean water is imperative. Wants more excitement about these elections and a big turnout. Feels the waterfront redevelopment is an amazing opportunity, but cautious about cost impacts to City. Supports ‘less management’. Likes getting out to citizens, with slogan ‘what can I do for you?’ Buoyant personality, with little expectation for election, but enjoying it anyway!

Bob Ryan: Bob seemed at ease, succinct as usual, knowledgeable and comfortable with the issues, as he should be with his almost 12 years of service on the City Council, and in other local and regional capacities. His opening remark said much in few words; ‘We must have been doing something right with all the top 10 lists we’re on, but there’s always room for improvement’. Or something like that. He said our biggest issue is growth – in all its facets. Cited the need for greater density in the City and UGA and its relationship to property values. Now, the economic incentives are to promote sprawl, not prevent it, partly because there are enough 5-acre lots vested in the unincorporated County to take all the projected growth for the next 20 years! Cited the need for better mechanisms to achieve the results we claim to want. GMA is good, but making it work is not a short and easy job, but a long and hard one. Four main points: 1) The location of population centers needs long-range planning; does our vision fit this? 2) Millions have been spent on protecting Lake Whatcom, but it’s not working yet. TDRs, acquisition OK, but stormwater is biggest problem and needs addressing. 3) Neighborhood character needs to be sustained and plans updated. 4) Emergency management needs an integrated, countywide system that also enables cities to do what they need to do. Ryan has taken incident management training and is certified in EM in Washington State. He was the only candidate to emphasize the importance of Emergency Management in today’s reality.