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Mind in North Austin | Page 2

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Solar Energy & the Sunflower State

1682093Happy Kansas Day! Kansas (a.k.a. the “sunflower state”) became the 34th state of the Union on January 29, 1861. As I celebrate the birthday of my beloved, native state, I’ve chosen to examine how Kansas is fairing on something also important and dear to me, solar energy.

Current State of Affairs
As Kansas was born in a time of struggle on the eve of civil war, the state’s solar industry is struggling yet steadily gaining ground. An American Council on Renewable Energy report clearly show solar photovoltaic (PV) installed capacity lagging far behind wind, biomass and hydro in the state at the end of 2012. There were only 0.5 MW of solar PV compared to over 2,700 MW of wind electric generating capacity. However, from 2010 to 2012 the growth, or change in installed PV capacity was more than +100% each year according to solar market trend data. This rapid growth is fueled by the fairly typical suite of renewable energy incentives. For solar and other renewable energy systems, Kansas offers net metering and property tax exemptions plus the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) mandates 20% of generation capacity be renewable energy by 2020.

Potential for Growth
Kansas has plenty of potential. When compared to Germany, the “Top Solar Power Country” in the world, this potential is very evident. Germany has only 40% more land area than Kansas. Germany has about 300,000 watts/person of solar PV capacity, while Kansas has less than 0.2 watts/person! However, Kansas can get more out of solar energy systems because of its location closer to the equator than Germany. And, after all the state song, “Home on the Range” does declare “. . . the skies are not cloudy all day.”

The frequent winds keep the skies clear for solar, but utility scale wind energy growth may be hindered by lack of transmission lines. However, the growth potential for distributed renewables like rooftop solar looks good. The state has set limits on renewable energy installations connected to individually-owned utilities, but they leave plenty of possible room for expansion. Residential installations can be as large as 25 kW and non-residential can have up to 200 kW. Overall renewable systems capacity must not exceed 1% of peak demand though. Additionally installers are pretty widely available. According to the Kansas Energy Information Network there are currently around 25 dealers/installers of solar energy in the state. Not bad for a state with less than 3 million people.

Though it looks like it could be a long road to Kansas really utilizing its solar resources, I’d like to think Kansans are up to the task. The state motto, “ad astra per aspera,” I’ve always heard translated as “to the stars through difficulties.” Statehood was a challenge, spreading solar is also, but both are worth the effort.

Why I Love Solar Energy

DSC03253cMy mission in life is making SHERA (Sustainable H2O,  Energy and Resources for All) reality. Solar energy absolutely aligns with my mission. I support solar as a PV (photovoltaic) solar panel owner and my constant presence at Solar Austin and CleanTX Foundation events. On this National “Shout Out For Solar” Day, let me tell you why I LOVE solar:

  1. Sustainable: “Sustain” means to support and allow something/someone to carry on. Both the sun and the equipment we use to harvest its energy carry on functioning for quite a while. Astrophysicists estimate the sun will continue shining for another 5 billion years. The solar panels on my roof have a 30-year warranty, so the manufacturer is pretty confident the panels will be making electricity from sunlight for at least that long. That sounds pretty sustainable to me.
  2. H2O: More solar means a more sustainable water supply. The panels and peripheral equipment require water to manufacture, but require almost no water for operation, or maintenance. We have hosed down our panels only once in the seven years they’ve set on our roof. Conventional power plants that combust fuel to make steam to drive turbines require massive amounts of water to operate.
  3. Energy: Solar is energy that’s environmentally and economically sustainable. The “fuel” is free. You don’t have to pay to turn on the sun. According to my contacts in the industry, PV environmental impacts aren’t too bad. For one thing, it takes about one year for a PV system to generate the energy required to make all of its components. Also, solar is versatile. Beyond electricity, the sun is great for various heating applications like water heating and greenhouse operations.
  4. Resource for All: The sun shines on everyone at some point in the day, or time of year everywhere on the planet. Access and availability of technology for harvesting solar energy is ever increasing. If you aren’t in a position to buy/lease a PV system and you r electric utility doesn’t have a solar array yet, you can still fund a piece of the action through investment platforms like Solar Mosaic. There’s even PV technology (Solar Orbs) so efficient it can even harvest reflected sunlight (i.e. moonlight).

Solar PV systems are pretty good now, and there’s so much potential for its future growth. The big question I ponder is this: How do we make solar even more sustainable? From my perspective, the ultimate sustainable PV system will mimic and integrate with the natural world. Green plant cells were the first to convert solar energy to materials and energy sources we can use. What can they teach us about creating new ways to harvest the sun’s energy?

Green Home Tour

4252936Now that the holiday frenzy is over and there’s time to breathe again, come on over for a virtual tour of my house.


My Roots in Sustainability

600590Over the holidays, I visited my family in Kansas. While there, I noticed that the origins of my life’s work in resource conservation lies in my family. My grandparents grew up in the Great Depression, which was also a time of severe drought in the Midwest. My parents were often on a tight budget in the 1970s/’80s and experienced the effects of oil embargo. Through their lives and stories, they taught me my earliest lessons in the wise use of our planet’s resources.

My maternal grandmother’s early life taught me about transportation and water use. Growing up her family of 15 didn’t have a car. They walked and carpooled with friends, or neighbors. She took the train to Kansas City for those extra-special shopping trip and events. I carpool, or use public transit every week. Due to extreme drought in the 1930s, she used to bathe with just one-inch-deep water in the tub. Though I usually shower, I turn off the water to apply soap, shampoo, etc.

My dad’s parents have never been big on throwing stuff out. They still use the same Christmas decorations they did when I was a kid. Much of their current dining/living furniture belonged to my uncle who died nearly 24 years ago. My son had a great time at their house playing with picture tiles my dad played with in the 1950′s! At my house, our dining/living furniture dates back to when my husband moved to Austin almost 13 years ago. My son sleeps on the same bed I did as a child.

At my parents’ home growing up, reuse/recycling and gardening were always a part of life. Our kitchen cabinets always harbored a healthy collection of butter tubs, cottage cheese/yogurt/ice cream containers for reuse in storing other stuff. In the garage, you’d always find certain corners, or large cardboard boxes for sorting recyclables: newspaper, magazines, glass (separated by color), aluminum/steel cans and so on. I currently keep our single-stream recycling and compost collection bins right at the center of all the action in our house – the kitchen. My dad’s backyard garden produced an abundant crop each spring and summer of a various fruits and vegetables like strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cantaloupe, sweet peas, tomatoes, lettuces, peppers, onions carrots, asparagus, cucumbers, zucchini . . . It was so much we gave some away, or froze/canned it. Now my home, of course, has a couple of organic herb and veggie garden beds in the backyard.

From these roots, I’ve grown a life and career around pollution prevention and resource conservation. I’ve now spent about 13 years in the profession. I’ve assisted many businesses and industries in becoming wiser in their use of our planet’s resources. I’ve branched out to include solar energy and an electric vehicle in my life.

I honestly hadn’t realized how deeply sustainable attitudes towards living ran in my family until recently. Perhaps all of us have that in our history. Have you looked at your family history to discover where the roots of our modern green living might lie?

KISS: Key to Sustainability

5330852Something to think about while you’re under the mistletoe this week of Christmas. When approaching the complex issue of sustainability, it’s best to keep it simple!

Sunshine & Clouds for Rooftop Solar

8387707Earlier this week at the Solar Austin Happy Hour, UT-Austin Assistant Professor of Public Affairs, Dr. Varun Rai, shared opportunities and uncertainties in the arena of distributed solar or solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on home and business rooftops. Here are a few insights I took away from his presentation.


  1. Strategies for Deployment: The number of homes in a given neighborhood with solar panels isn’t just tied to income and education levels. Peer influence is a big factor. Buyers of PV systems choose to sign installation contracts much more quickly, if they talk with other PV owners (e.g. neighbors). The average buyer takes about nine months to sign an installation contract after they initially inquire into it. Their decision time can be reduced by about half if they confer with other people who already have a system on their roof. In contrast, those who lease a PV system typically take a lot less time than buyers to sign on the dotted line, usually a few months. This is because the overall cost of the system to the leaser is generally less. PV owners sharing their experience plus encouraging the lease of PV systems seem to be excellent ways to spread the sunshine of solar energy.
  2. Opportunities for Innovation: The cost of solar rooftop systems is coming down. The biggest opportunities for innovation and cost savings lie in the cost of everything else, but the panels themselves. The PV panels only account for about 20-40% of the total system cost. Research and development should focus on things like the panel racks/mounting methods, inverters (equipment that converts DC to AC electricity for grid) and design/installation approaches.
  3. Uncertainty for Utilities: Clouds of uncertainty seem yet to hang over distributed solar for the major U.S. electric utilities surveyed. They seem to be either view distributed solar as a cost rather than a benefit to their business, or were neutral on the subject. Dr. Rai also noted that the discussion on rates paid to utility customers with PV on their roofs is only “going to get more technical.” Some electric utilities – including Austin Energy – are now going to a complex formula to calculate the amount paid to PV customer/generators called the “value of solar tariff” (VOST). There is debate on how to do VOST and how it compares to a simpler approach called net metering. Net metering usually involves paying PV-owning customers a standard residential or commercial rate per kilowatt-hour for the excess electricity they produce.

We shall see what the New Year brings for solar. I’d say the future is mostly sunny.

For the Planet!

2013107In my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special, aliens use blood control to put billions of people worldwide teetering on the edge of rooftops and the Doctor challenges the alien leader to a sword duel for the planet. Like the Doctor we all need to take a stand for the planet. The real challenge is this: We’re using our limited resources on the Earth too fast to support our growing population and economic development. Yet many of us walk around like we’re under alien mind control not doing much about it.

But how can the average person make a real impact on this global threat? There are steps every human being is capable of taking. I am an early-adopter of many green living strategies even though I’m blood type A+ and should be susceptible to “alien control”. As an early-adopter, I’ve experienced the steps toward more sustainable living. Here are the steps as they occurred for me and how they can work for you:

  1. Get inspired. Find the Doctor in your life to inspire and motivate you. The major spark for me came from a “consumer conservation” course offered at my workplace. Beyond strategies to conserve energy, water and materials while saving money, the instructors shared green living strategies that worked for them at home and work. Look for people events and organizations that embrace green. Connect with people who are actually doing the kind of projects that capture your imagination and see how they make it work in real life. In the Austin area, is a great place to start.
  2. Get others on-board. The Doctor always has a companion, or two. Get a friend, co-worker, or family member on-board with you. I was so excited after the consumer conservation course, I
    shared the eco-projects I committed to tackling in the course with my husband. Through this sharing, my initial goals actually grew bigger and grander. I started with goals of buying wind energy and a hybrid car, and ended up with solar panels on my roof and an all-electric car! Share your dreams of a greener home and/or workplace. Other people may surprise you and help you achieve something even greater.
  3. Figure out how to make “green” work for you. The Doctor is always hatching crazy plans that seem impossible, but work. A fully electric car at first seemed out of reach. When we looked at our driving habits and found AustinEV, it became possible. Even when we had lead acid batteries in the car, it still was our primary vehicle
  4. Share results. The Doctor’s traveling companions eventually end up going back to “ordinary” lives, but they learned through their extraordinary experience with those around them. Our duplex transformed into a green home was on the Texas Solar Energy Society’s Austin Cool House Tour in 2010. We’ve shown our car at the Renewable Energy Roundup in Fredericksburg, TX multiple times and at several other events as well. Share what you do for the planet and help others get how they can do it, too.

There’s no big red button to push that will release us from walking around as though controlled by aliens. These four steps above are the best way I’ve found to build awareness and spur action on the sustainability issue. Let’s do it for the planet . . . and one another. We’re all on this rock hurtling through space together!


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