Solar isn’t simple. Nothing revolutionary is.

But it works so simply, cleanly, evenly, sensibly that it’s hard imagining it as a revolutionary idea.

It’s like somebody telling you that you had to pay for air, but then realizing all you had to do was breathe.

The purest form of energy is coming straight from the sun; yet, as an alternative, we’ve been forking over tons of money for a dirtier version of the real thing.

But now solar energy is working its way into the mainstream, plugging into the grid, paying for itself as long as the sun shines, and becoming the best investment — financially and environmentally — a homeowner may ever make.

Four years ago, Ojai resident Mike Rubalcava went solar. He decked his roof out with 175-watt photovoltaic panels and tied into the Edison grid. His summertime electricity bill is $4; annually, it’s roughly $50. On average, he said, the panels generate about 75 percent of his electricity.

“I work from home as a film editor, so I have above-average electricity use,” said Rubalcava. “I’ve been able to write off a percentage of the system, and it has been huge savings overall.”

Implemented in 2007, the California Solar Initiative (CSI) offers cash rebates up to $4,500 for those choosing to go solar. The CSI holds a total budget of $2.1 billion between 2007 and 2016. Additionally, a 30 percent federal tax credit can be applied to all costs of labor as well as equipment costs for renewable energy systems. So for Rubalcava, whose system cost about $22,000 to install, which is close to industry standard for rooftop paneling, he ended up paying not quite $15,000. Paying in increments that he normally would for traditional electricity bills, in about two more years, Rubalcava’s system will be paid off and he will end up owning something that makes free electricity for as long as his roof is over his head.

“It’s a big investment but it was the right thing to do, and environmentally I felt like it needed to be done for our future and the community as a whole,” he said.

But money is a peculiar thing, and how people choose to spend it is certainly their prerogative. In terms of tangible investments, however, homeowners or commercial enterprises wasting money on what is referred to as “dirty electricity” has solar advocates shaking their heads.

“Let’s say you have a $200 per month electric bill, and over time there is a 4.5 percent inflation rate with electricity,” explained Abe Powell, president of Solforce Systems in Santa Barbara. “In 10 years, you pay about $29,000 to create pollution, and what do you have in the end? A carbon footprint of about a couple of thousand pounds of CO2.”

The iron is hot in the solar industry, said Powell, who has been in the business for 18 years. The solar portfolio is increasing throughout the region, he said, including multi-condo units, businesses, mansions and tract homes. With solar tax incentives as sexy as they have ever been, the government’s push for solar use has been the surprising wind behind the burgeoning sails of the industry.

“The government wants to give you money to make energy costs go down,” said Powell.

On April 12, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the renewable portfolio standard that requires all of California’s utilities to source 33 percent of their overall electricity generation from renewable resources such as solar by the year 2020.

“While reaching a 33 percent renewables portfolio standard will be an important milestone, it is really just a starting point — a floor, not a ceiling. With the amount of renewable resources coming online and prices dropping, I think 40 percent, at reasonable cost, is well within our grasp in the near future,” Brown wrote in a letter to the California Senate.

With California leading the country in the number of solar installations, utility companies like Edison have shifted heavily to renewable energies for its customers.

“We buy more renewable energies than any other utility in the country,” said Gary Barsely, manager of customer self-generation for Edison. With fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas becoming more expensive, the demand for alternative energies is sweeping the global market. Large companies are investing billions in solar factories, and product supply is bringing costs down, Barsely said, and Edison customers have been quick to respond.

“Economics of solar sort of depends on the customer and how much electricity they use,” he said. “So many buy it for economic reasons and the return, and others buy it for green reasons where return isn’t so great but they feel they are doing their part for the environment.”

According to Edison, Ventura County has more than 1,200 customers (1,152 residential, and 90 non-residential) that have applied for rebates under the CSI program — about $38.4 million in paid-out rebates — which will result in more than 7.9 megawatts of clean green solar energy. Simi Valley has the largest number of solar projects of any city in the county, with more than 190 residential and non-residential projects underway or installed.

And in Camarillo, the largest and oldest solar manufacturing site in the Americas has been operating since 1979. Solar World USA, with more than 250 employees in Camarillo, and about 1,000 employees in its sister branch in Hillsboro, Ore., produces a module every 12 seconds — about 500 megawatts of annual module manufacturing, equivalent to the production of one coal-fired power plant, said Ben Santarris, head of corporate communications and sustainability for the Americas.

“Camarillo is the crucible for the American solar industry,” claimed Santarris.

“People in Ventura County are more motivated in environmentalism than any other region,” said John Bumgarner, Southern California regional sales manager for REC Solar Inc. In 2009, REC installed approximately 1,500 systems (nearly 1.65 megawatts) in Ventura County. In 2010, close to 1,900 systems (2.29 megawatts) were installed.

“Pretty exciting growth when we’re supposedly in the middle of a recession,” remarked Bumgarner. “This is happening at a time when companies are doing furloughs and layoffs, but still more systems are being installed. The time has come.”    

shane@vcreporter.com

 

Electric Cars

Back to the future, again! 

By Kit Stolz

Five years ago, in March of 2006, General Motors took back all the remaining electric test vehicles it had leased to consumers over the previous 10 years, assembled the few dozen remaining EV-1 cars in a parking lot in Burbank, and sent them to their destruction, despite weeks of protests outside the lot by electric car enthusiasts in Southern California.

The scene was recorded in Chris Paine’s hard-hitting documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? At the end of his film, Paine provided a scorecard for those people who wanted to find someone to blame for the failure of GM’s first electric car. He found car companies, oil companies, government bureaucrats and consumers all at fault for what happened to the EV-1, but at the same time said that the batteries that powered the car worked. The vehicle may not have been a commercial success, but despite doubters, its technology was proven successful.

Five years later, this judgment from outside the industry has been seconded by the industry itself, including General Motors. Rick Waggoner, who led the company through its struggles in the late l990s and into the 21st century, told Newsweek that the worst decision he made in his tenure was to kill the EV-1 while at the same time failing to invest in hybrid technology.

rThe company’s new version of an electric car, the Volt, debuted to flat-out raves from car experts last fall. Motor Trend named it the “Car of the Year.” A competitor, the all-electric Nissan Leaf, also won praise for its advanced technology, drivability and cost. More than 20 carmakers are bringing out or have already put on sale electric vehicles, from small manufacturers, such as Evolution Motors in Ojai, to brands known around the world, such as Porsche and Rolls-Royce.   

“It’s very gratifying to see electric cars back on the road,” said Paine, who has a new documentary – The Revenge of the Electric Car – debuting this month. “Some of the credit goes to the people who fought for this back in the l990s and helped convince car companies to get back into the game. If you’re going to drive a car, to have a percentage of them powered by renewable electrical energy is good for our health. It’s good for our health, it’s good for our national security, and it’s good for the environment.”

Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize-winning auto writer now with the Wall Street Journal, puts it more forcefully.

“The Volt is a work of genius,” he said. “And it’s not just the dollars and cents. It’s a huge morale boost for the entire company. GM was so demoralized, and now the Volt comes out and everybody, all up and down the line, can take pride in the company’s ability to build advanced vehicles.”

Chris Lopez, who handles Volt sales for Santa Paula Chevrolet, says that if GM didn’t insist that its dealers demonstrate every Volt delivered to the lot for six months to allow prospective buyers to see the car, then they wouldn’t be able to keep it in stock at all. Giving this reporter a test drive of the smooth, almost gliding vehicle, he said the dealership has sold 11 Volts since they were released last fall, and could have sold many more, judging from the long list of names on a reservation list.

 “If this vehicle wasn’t a ‘demo’ and wasn’t required to be kept on the lot for six months, it would already be gone,” he said. “Not all Chevy dealers are selling these cars. The technicians, the sales managers, the finance managers, we all had to be trained and certified before we could sell this vehicle. It’s a whole new vehicle, as much as it resembles other vehicles, with new technology.”

The Volt costs about $41,000, but gives the buyer – or the leaseholder – the right to a $7,500 federal income tax credit, bringing the costs in line with that of a fully loaded Toyota Prius. Leases start at $350 a month, depending on the down payment, with a minimum of $2,000 down. For $500 down, a buyer can reserve a car and order it according to his specifications.

Unlike the hybrid Prius, which was designed not to look like a conventional car, GM went to considerable lengths to disguise the newness of the Volt. The Volt looks pretty much like any other American sedan, if a bit bulkier and lower to the ground. Lopez points out that the car includes a mock grill in front, even though the small engine that powers the generator actually takes its airflow from under the car.

The Volt has a small gas motor that powers an electrical generator, allowing the car to be driven “continuously,” as Lopez puts it, far beyond the battery-powered range of 75 to 100 miles or so of most electric vehicles.

Nissan, which debuted its Leaf last fall, took a completely different approach toward its first electric vehicle, sticking with an all-electric, battery-powered drive train that restricts the range of the car. This choice reduces the overall cost and increases its eligibility for tax breaks, including a California state tax break of as much as $5,000.

The $34,000 Leaf can be purchased in California this year for as little as $21,5000, according to Steve Stephen, who handles Internet sales for the Team Nissan dealership in Oxnard.

He said the combination of Nissan’s marketing and the tax breaks approach to the marketing has generated demand “far exceeding our expectations.”

“They planned probably a little too cautiously for the roll-out,” he said. “We got so many orders, we can’t fill them all, and so we’ve had to put a hold on ordering. Now, with the earthquake in Japan, that has pushed deliveries back from seven months to closer to a year.”

But Stephen adds that the Leaf is just the first of Nissan’s planned line of electric vehicles, including a sports car and an SUV. Nissan is betting on electric cars in a big way, but according to Neil, other manufacturers – including Porsche – are going even further.

“Porsche has already said that all their vehicles will be at least a hybrid in the future,” said Neil. “What Porsche doesn’t know about cars hasn’t been thought of yet. These are the smartest car guys on the planet, and for them to be pursuing hybridization and electrification with such determination is a measure of how important this technology is going to be.”

According to Southern California Edison, which has been testing electrically powered fleet vehicles and charging stations for 20 years at a center in Pomona, Southern California will see at least 100,000 electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road by 2015.

Steve Powell, who manages the plug-in hybrid program for the utility, added that Edison wants customers thinking about plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles to consider the costs of charging cars as part of ownership because charging an electric can draw as much power as a house.

“If we know a customer is getting an electric vehicle, we can help with the installation process, to reduce homeowner costs, and we can also inspect the local infrastructure, to make sure we’re fully prepared,” Powell said. “But we’ve taken electric vehicles into our load planning for the grid, and don’t anticipate any changes for at least five years.”

Documentary maker Chris Paine puts it in perspective.

“I think Southern California is seeing the end of the era of gasoline-only cars,” he said, but added that he also likes bicycles as transportation. “I think more people would use bicycles for transportation if they felt safer on the roads. I want my next film to be about bikes.”

Dan Neil, whose column for the Wall Street Journal is called Rumbleseat, makes clear that he still loves vehicular transportation.

“The Porsche 918 hybrid is going to be amazing,” he said. “And Porsche is working on a race-car version with a flywheel energy storage system which is really lightning in a bottle. I like sports cars and I cannot tell you how I would debase myself to get in that car. I would wear a dress. I would suckle a weasel. I would do anything to drive that car.”  

 

Destination H2O conservation

How reusing greywater can save money and the planet 

by Michael Sullivan
michael@vcreporter.com

rAmericans are world-renowned for their consumptions habits. Be it our addiction to the latest gadgets, our obsession with stocked refrigerators and cabinets or our ability stockpile hoards of useless junk that eventually end up in the trash dump, we have embraced the status quo of whoever has the most in the end, wins. But that doesn’t translate well for our environment or our planet. And while some of our most despicable consumption habits lead to massive garbage piles, one of the worst habits we engage in on a daily basis, one that is so often overlooked, starts when we get up in the morning, periodically happens throughout the day and ends in front of the bathroom mirror at night. And no, it’s not applying make up or hair product. It’s our addiction to water.

The numbers can be startling. For one person to keep up the daily routine of maintaining appearances and clean homes, the water bill can really stack up. But this comes as no surprise to homeowners. The average American household, according to the American Water Works Association, uses around 127,400 gallons of water per year, which breaks down into 2,450 gallons a week or 350 gallons per day. On average, per person, daily indoor water use breaks down into roughly 70 gallons per day: 11.6 gallons for showers, 15 gallons for clothes washers, 1 gallon for dishwashers, 18.5 gallons for toilets, 1.2 gallons for baths, 9.5 gallons for leaks, 10.9 gallons for faucets, 1.6 gallons for other domestic uses. Add a standard-sized lawn and see a spike in the water bill by about 4,000 gallons a week.

Herbert Bormann in Redesigning the American Lawn says caring for the yard is about one- to two-thirds of the total water used in a typical household.

But our water consumption goes well beyond our daily regular routines. In a report done by National Geographic, using its Water Footprint Calculator, 1,800 gallons of water are used to produce one pound of beef; raising and processing poultry requires about 470 gallons per pound; it takes around 576 gallons of water to produce a pound of pork; and one gallon of milk takes 880 gallons of water. If those numbers aren’t overwhelming enough, there are some other surprising statistics. A gallon of gasoline, for instance, requires nearly 13 gallons of water to produce, and the average American depends on around 670 gallons of water daily just for electricity production.
It’s clear our water addiction is widespread, but is it problematic?

According to Art Ludwig, yes, it’s a huge problem.

“We’re screwed,” said Ludwig. “Something like 20 percent of our food is currently grown with fossil water — water that, once used, is gone forever. This water is going to be gone within our lifetimes. If the Sierra snowpack is also lessened due to climate disruption, we’re going to not be able to grow nearly as much food.”

Ludwig of Santa Barbara has dedicated the last 30 years of his life to the art of “integrated design,” which is an eco-friendly sustainable method of construction and living. Throughout his career, however, one of his main focuses has been water and conservation through the reuse of greywater. He authored the books Water Storage, Principles of Ecological Design and Create an Oasis with Greywater. (Greywater is any wash water that has been used in the home, except water from toilets. Dish, shower, sink and laundry water comprise 50 percent to 80 percent of residential “waste” water. This may be reused for other purposes, especially landscape irrigation.)

“I was naturally drawn to greywater because it is a keystone system that connects more to every other ecological system in the house and to natural cycles,” he said.

With thousands of gallons of potable water going to each of our lawns and gardens every week, Ludwig said that greywater could be used instead, given that plants thrive on used water containing small bits of compost.

“Unlike a lot of ecological stopgap measures, grey water reuse is a part of the fundamental solution to many ecological problems and will probably remain essentially unchanged in the distant future,” he states on his website Oasisdesign.net.

The benefits of greywater recycling include:

Lower fresh water use, less strain on failing septic tanks or treatment plants, better treatment (topsoil is many times more effective than subsoil or treatment plant), less energy and chemical use, groundwater recharge, plant growth, reclamation of otherwise wasted nutrients, and increased awareness of and sensitivity to natural cycles.

As simple as it sounds — taking shower and dish water and diverting it to our yards —even California, known for its uber-eco-friendly policies, took some time to rewrite the rules on the reuse of residential greywater, which had previously been illegal But in July 2009, the California Building Standards Commission approved new standards for the legal installation of simple laundry and single-fixture systems without a permit. As Ludwig put it, it was the dawn of a new era.

“For the first time, licensed professionals can legally help with the 1.7 million existing greywater systems in the state,” he stated in 2009.

In January 2010, Ventura County developed a standard plan on greywater reuse. Jim MacDonald, director of the Ventura County Building and Safety Division, discussed the new laundry greywater disposal system.

“This simple system can be installed on the site of a single-family home to distribute greywater from a clothes washer to the landscaping. By following 12 simple rules outlined in the revised regulations, [this system] can be installed without having to go to the city or county and get a plumbing permit,” MacDonald stated in an article for Eye on the Environment. The plan can be found at www.iccventura.org.

Continuing the status quo would be to keep watching hundreds of gallons go down the drain every day. For many people, it may just be a question of safety. Reusing greywater requires a change in thinking.

“There are eight million greywater systems in the U.S. with 22 million users,” Ludwig states on his website. “In 60 years, [there have] been one billion system users, years of exposure, yet there has not been one documented case of greywater-transmitted illness.”

So what will it take to shift gears — perhaps a fiscal crisis in the family or an eco-emergency like severe water rationing? Whatever the case may be, Ludwig’s sheer determination and commitment to change the way we, as Americans, do things is evident in his many published articles and books. But in the scheme of things, Ludwig said all of our consumption habits have to change.

“We’re going to have to reduce our consumption and impacts in every category by 80 to 90 percent. This is only possible with a culture of conservation, and integrated, context-specific design,” said Ludwig. For more on integrated design, reusing greywater and the installation of such systems, go to oasisdesign.net.