Going solar…not going green…

8 02 2011

Solar not necessarily green, but useful in remote spots...

First off I need to get one pet peeve off my chest. Solar power is not inherently green.  I get a good laugh when I read that someone has festooned a couple tiny solar panels on their bike so they can run 7 unnecessary gadgets and then claims one of the benefits is reduced environmental impact. Typically the accompanying photo shows their bike parked outside a connivence store where they stopped for lunch or a snack break.

If you want to be green as a priority:

I’m not saying solar can’t be green…it just isn’t green on the scale of one tiny panel used to power an iPad when there is a large scale electrical grid 2′ away.  You can certainly build large scale solar power plants that make sense environmentally.  Trying to put solar panels on individual homes I’m not sure about, but I’m willing to give that level of solar project the benefit of the doubt. I’m not 100% sure it makes sense – worth a close look.  Patagonia put solar panels over their whole parking lot and only manage to supply 10% of the power their HQ needs.

My feeling is that we need to pool our resources to work on:

  1. making existing power plants cleaner [fossil fuels are not going anywhere for a long long time]
  2. start developing green power options on a large scale so they are cost efficient and environmental impact efficient
  3. take a hard look at smaller power generating situations [ie. small hydroelectric] and determine when it makes sense and when it’s just a “feel good” move

Let me reiterate buying a 2′ x 1′ solar panel at REI is bad for the environment. The toxic materials used to make it, the transportation cost and the fact you’ll probably buy two more gadgets so you can charge their batteries in your driveway to impress you friends all add up to a bad move for the environment.  If you want to be green start by reducing the stuff you consume and then reducing the impact of the stuff you consume [such as buying locally grown produce].

You may be thinking what a hypocrite I am given that my blog talks mostly about unnecessary stuff and doing unnecessary things.  I’d agree with you whole heartedly if I made lots of green claims about my lifestyle.  I don’t ride bikes because it’s good for the planet.  I ride bikes because I like doing that and it’s good for me.  Just so you don’t think I am some planet hating prick I should note that I actually do have what I consider a sensible green lifestyle plan.

My green plan:

  1. as a baseline I use the average middle class family in Canada’s environmental impact
  2. my goal is to keep my total lifecycle impacts below that baseline
  3. I balance my driving on long trips off against using bikes to get around town
  4. I don’t buy a lot of the typical consumer goods other folks do like – furniture, TVs, fashion clothes, big houses,etc…
  5. I use the energy/impact reduction to buy bikes and my outdoors gear
  6. gear I don’t use enough I sell so it can be fully utilized by someone else
  7. I spend a lot of time outdoors so I can actually gauge what’s happening in natural spaces
  8. I spend a lot of time outdoors so I care about damage to the environment more than a typical city dweller who takes one weekend camping trip a year
  9. I am choosing not to have kids – although I do have a cat, but she’s not breeding either…=-)
  10. I try to enjoy as much of the moments in my life as well as I can so that their inherent environmental impacts are at least well spent

Okay the funny thing that was just the preamble to what I wanted to post about…=-)

I’m keen on getting a portable solar setup together so that when I am working or camping away from the power grid I can run a laptop, stereo, fridge and lights.  I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, but the cost and complexity has been putting me off. As this Baja trip approached I wanted to go solar again since that was a major drag for me last year.  I had to keep hunting for power to run my laptop.  Since I was working on that trip like I will be on this trip [don’t let the beach front tent fool you this is no holiday] I need to use at least one charge of the laptop per day and sometimes two.  Hiking around town begging for power gets old fast.

Unfortunately December has been busy with many work and fun things which has meant no progress on the solar front.  Wanting to make something positive happen I decided to buy a 75 amp hr deep cycle marine battery plus charger.  I have a small 1KW Honda generator from work.  So for this trip I’ll bring those items along and use the generator once a week to recharge the marine battery. That shouldn’t piss off anyone I’m camped near too much since it’s a very quiet generator and will only have to run for a few hours a week.  If grid power is not too inconvenient I may also skip the generator and find someplace to plug in my battery & charger once a week.  I’m willing to drink 6 beers in a bar if that’s what it takes to get more efficient cleaner power…=-)

My next move will be to get a truck portable solar pannel with stand and charging circuitry that I can hook up to my marine battery.  After that I need a high efficiency 12V fridge I can use while camping.  Not those cooltronic coolers, but an actual keep stuff frosty fridge.  I’ve seen them in Baja, but I need to track them make and model down.

So if you have any suggestions for:

  • a high efficiency truck portable solar panel
  • a robust stand I can put it on and angle towards sun
  • high efficiency electronics to get from panel to battery and keep it charged
  • a high efficiency fridge

I’m hoping the 75 amp hour battery will be enough for my needs, but it won’t be hard to tell if it isn’t. I also don’t know how much power I need on an average day from the panel to keep my battery charged enough to deal with my power use.  Given that 5′ x 2′ is probably as big a panel as I can cope with I’ll just get the best producing one I can afford and see what happens.

BTW – just so we are clear I am not suggesting in any way that using a laptop in the forest while listening to my iPod played over a stereo all run from a solar panel is green.  It’s not, but it’s convenient and I like it!


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21 responses

8 02 2011
Rob E.

Sounds like a good project, and a well thought-out post. I look forward to hearing how this works out for you. I agree that we tend to classify a lot of stuff as “green” based on the idea that any alternative to plugging into an outlet must be inherently better for the environment. Clearly not always the case. It seems like batteries also have a significant environmental toll, but almost every off-the-grid solution is going to have a battery (or several) in the mix. For me it’s about being self-sufficient. I’ve been toying with ideas for using my bike to charge my phone and computer. It’s completely unnecessary in an average work day, but for some extended, gps-heavy rides, it could be handy. For some overnight or longer rides, it could be invaluable. But it won’t be greener then my last overnight trip where I just left the computer at home and turned off the phone. And it won’t be greener then my short tours in my youth when there were no cell phones and “portable” computers wouldn’t have held a charge long enough to justify their considerable weight. I don’t even remember “green energy” being in my vocabulary back then, and yet it’s hard to argue that figuring out how to use a generator hub to keep my cell phone/gps charged up is more green than simply going without.
Doesn’t mean that I won’t try and make it work, though. But you’re right, it’s important to separate non-standard, creative energy options from energy that’s actually “cleaner.” If your goal is off-the-grid energy for fun, profit, convenience, that’s great as long as you know that’s what you’re doing. If your goal is environmentally-friendly energy, that takes a little more time, thought, and planning then just staying away from power outlets.

8 02 2011
Foraker

I mostly agree. A high percentage of the electricity we generate is lost in transmission. Because power plants of all kinds are cleaner, building smaller plants closer to where the power is used is more doable than ever, and will make a big difference in efficiency. Putting a few solar panels on a roof generally is not the most efficient way to go, but in the right circumstances if EVERYONE had a roof full of solar panels, it could be significant, if not sufficient, source of power. In hot and sunny climates, covering a parking lot with solar panels provides other benefits beyond just the power generated. Keeping the cars and asphalt cooler will help both last longer, for example. And considering the acres and acres of parking lots, it seems to make a lot of sense to cover them with solar panels. If our cities were built for bikes and walking we wouldn’t need so many acres of parking, but that’s an efficiency story not everyone wants to live. Best of luck.

8 02 2011
Doug

I don’t have any tips for you on solar panels. I just wanted to say I admire the fact that you think about this stuff and what you do impacts the world around you. Nobody can live a completely green life and take part in society as it is today. But if more people would think about it, we’d all be living on a much healthier planet.

8 02 2011
jill

Great post. Your sentiments echo mine.

8 02 2011
alang

@Rob E. – i too have been thinking of powering some stuff with my generator hub. my next step is to put together a simple AA charger for the purpose of GPS and phone charging (i have a little aa-powered charger for the phone).
is it green? nah, not really. i could just bring my existing charger with me for tours and charge at outlets along the way. plus there is the parts i need and their impacts. a tad better than buying more AA’s in gas stations, though.
is it convenient? since in don’t really need to worry about finding power on a tour, i would say yes (as long as i can put together a reliable one).
is it worth the effort? now that there are off the shelf versions like the dahon, i would say it depends on the person. i like doing that stuff and have fun. the parts will probably be less than $20usd. but the time…oh the time.

right now i am working on generator lights: http://www.flickr.com/photos/40010668@N06/sets/72157625702160192/
but will get the aa charger going in time for summer touring, hopefully.

@Vik – another excellent and well thought out post!

8 02 2011
David

I guess after reading your article, I would have to agree with you that solar power doesn’t necessarily equal green. As for not having kids, that’s your choice. That ship has already sailed for me (twice). As for your solar powered camping project, you must not have any friends in the VW camper community. We have been using solar and other power equipment for years. I suggest you check out http://www.gowesty.com. They sell one of the best 12v refrigerators on the market. They also have a solar charger kit with everything you need to charge your battery. Be warned, both of these are high ticket items. Expect to spend $$$$

8 02 2011
john

As an engineer I agree with your logic.

EFFICIENCY and load REDUCTION are the “greenest” options. Increasing CAPACITY is not necessarilly “green”.

Also, “grids”are not evil. Grids are efficient…. look at the grid called the internet as an example!

One thing though… I would like to see each home not only be a consumer of power but also a “producer”. Even if it is just a small amount. I think a DECENTRALIZED method of production is best… i.e. where each home PRODUCES as well as consumes even if it is only a small amount, Kind of an “open source” grid if you will.

A beef I have with power companies though is that even if consumer efficiency increases they will STILL raise their rates to maintain the cash flow they are used too!! So you get penalized to be efficient it seems!

8 02 2011
schvin

have been enjoying your blog for awhile – this post was especially good.

thought you might find this (free) e-book interesting if you have not seen it, i found it fascinating and a very good starting point for lots of areas to dig into… very level-headed and founded, and well-explained. mackay goes into a lot of energy trends and issues.

http://www.withouthotair.com/

8 02 2011
bikeboy999

Talking about green by using batteries and their rated efficiency. I picked up a really sophisticated battery charger last week. I have previously been using the chargers that came with the batteries. The MaHa C9000 has four modes of operation. The first is to charge, second to discharge, third to break-in new or older batteries that have been sitting for a while and lastly to analyze. I used the charge mode to re-charge eight older batteries which according to the green lights on the wall charger said they were full. The C9000 analyzed and said DONE and the capacity was 400-500mAh, the eight are rated on package as 2500. I then ran break-in and got the batteries back to 90% rated capacity. So not only will I not have to buy non-rechargeable batteries, the ones I have will power their applications longer. Just another wake up to all of us using rechargeable batteries that there is proper methods for them also.

B

PS the process is slow but worthwhile.

8 02 2011
Brian

Haha! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to tell all my hippie friends to “have one less kid” in their search for their ever-lessening global footprint.

9 02 2011
Randobarf

I agree about the babies. Those little bastards have the carbon footprint of a tarsand mine. I don’t use solar panels on my bike, for just the reasons you outlined.

Ian Soutar, your neighbor in Viktoria is running a house with four solar panels and a set of nickel-iron batteries (40 year lifespan):

http://www.microsec.net/

Marcelo da Luz is running his car with solar panels:

http://www.xof1.com/

Marcelo and I crossed paths when he was tootling around up north. He is a very space-age guy.

10 02 2011
thelazyrando

@B – thanks for the reminder I keep meaning to get a techy battery charger, but never get around to it…I have some old batteries that could probably be revived if I did.

@Brian – I’m not out to eliminate babies, but it is the one obvious way to reduce environmental impacts…=-)

10 02 2011
thelazyrando

@John – I’m with you on home power generation “IF” the cost and total lifecycle energy equation makes sense. I need to run down the total energy req’d to acquire raw materials, process them, build panels and transport energy for a solar panel, controller and battery.

@David – I love the Go Westy site….lots of great VW porn and camperization ideas…=-)

11 02 2011
john

Vik….. look into “grid tie” systems… thats the way to go. Start small…. just enough to maybe slow down your meter. Forget abt batteries all togther

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grid_tie_inverter

12 02 2011
Mike McArthur

Why not go green when sourcing a bike frame? Instead of using frames made in coal-powered factories, why not choose something that has travelled less distance and was made with methods powered by hydro-electricity? A quick LCA for frames using PNW-smelted aluminum with their high-recycled content shows considerably less footprint than the asian alternatives. Swap out the Surly for a Devinci and the Nomad for a Turner and you’ll be voting for cleaner tech.

12 02 2011
thelazyrando

@Mike – sure that makes sense if that’s your goal…my goal isn’t to be uber green…if it was I wouldn’t have 10 bikes!

13 02 2011
Derek

Haha with you all the way. Great post

14 02 2011
pacpost

Hi Vik,

May I kindly suggest that your ‘environmentalist life cycle analysis friend’ go back to school, if indeed she ever went to school. For someone in that field to be expounding such myths is frightening.

From Scientific American, an article published three years ago:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=solar-cells-prove-cleaner-way-to-produce-power

“Even taking into account the low efficiency of thin-film solar cells or the energy needed to purify silicon for the other types of PV, all proved to entail significantly fewer emissions in their entire life cycle than the fossil fuels needed to produce an equivalent amount of electricity.

In fact, most of their dirty side derived from the indirect emissions of the coal-burning power plants or other fossil fuels used to generate the electricity for PV manufacturing facilities.

These four types of solar cells pay back the energy involved in their manufacture in one to three years, according to an earlier analysis by the same team.”

Considering that PV efficiency continues to improve (as does the manufacturing efficiency of PV panels), these figures have only gotten better in the three years since.

To a couple of the points you made:

– “fossil fuels are not going anywhere for a long long time” Please define long long time. And which fossil fuels are you talking about. Regarding oil, more and more analysts, governments and geologists are coming to a consensus that we have reached peak oil production rates (despite the 2008 price spikes, worldwide oil production hasn’t managed to beat the 2005 peak). For more, see gregor.us

– “start developing green power options on a large scale so they are cost efficient and environmental impact efficient” Wind power was the number one source of new power installations in Europe from 2007 to 2010. This included natural gas, coal and nuclear. In the U.S., wind power was the number one source of new power installations in 2008 and 2009. 2010 was a bad year for wind in the U.S., for largely regulatory reasons.

Wind power is now cheaper than coal in some cases:

http://www.grist.org/article/2011-02-07-report-wind-power-now-competitive-with-coal-in-some-regions

Vik, please do some research on what is going on in the greentech/cleantech field before regurgitating myths and bad info. You have a great site otherwise. If you’d like to know more, you have my email.

Cheers

14 02 2011
thelazyrando

First off thanks for the detailed reply. None of us are experts at everything so it’s good to consider multiple viewpoints and take on board the best parts of the discussion.

“May I kindly suggest that your ‘environmentalist life cycle analysis friend’ go back to school, if indeed she ever went to school. For someone in that field to be expounding such myths is frightening.”

My friend works in the wood industry and has a M.Eng and LCA training. She commented to me over dinner when I asked about the subject. Let’s not get vitriolic about things.

“From Scientific American, an article published three years ago:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=solar-cells-prove-cleaner-way-to-produce-power

Considering that PV efficiency continues to improve (as does the manufacturing efficiency of PV panels), these figures have only gotten better in the three years since.”

Thanks for that link.

To a couple of the points you made:

– “fossil fuels are not going anywhere for a long long time” Please define long long time. And which fossil fuels are you talking about. Regarding oil, more and more analysts, governments and geologists are coming to a consensus that we have reached peak oil production rates (despite the 2008 price spikes, worldwide oil production hasn’t managed to beat the 2005 peak). For more, see gregor.us

By fossil fuels I am talking about oil, coal, natural gas. Looking around the US or W.Eur fossil fuels power our lives at the moment. What I was referring to was the fact that moving to other sources is a great, but that will take a long time and we should continue to work on reducing impacts from the existing fossil fuel power generation systems since they are not going anywhere fast.

I would add that as the US and W.Eur see declining population and less developed parts of the globe that are growing in population are where we should look to see what will be driving environmental impacts like global warming. Having just spent a month in Mexico I can tell you that their fossil fuel use is rampant and without nearly the efficient nor green technologies that are being used in the US or W. Eur.

Finally as oil costs go up there are huge reserves [ie. oil sands in Canada] that will become financially viable so the supply in our lifetime, in any case, looks solid. That’s not to say we should use it, but looking at our history of resource use we tend to keep rolling when something is available.

So as I said in my post I think it makes a lot of sense to put effort into making fossil fuel power generation greener since it’s not going anywhere. No point in arguing this, but I’m happy to discuss this again with you in 2020 and we’ll see what’s happened.

- “start developing green power options on a large scale so they are cost efficient and environmental impact efficient” Wind power was the number one source of new power installations in Europe from 2007 to 2010. This included natural gas, coal and nuclear. In the U.S., wind power was the number one source of new power installations in 2008 and 2009. 2010 was a bad year for wind in the U.S., for largely regulatory reasons.

That’s great! Wind, solar, hydro…if it makes sense when evaluated against the specific situation of the area in question awesome.

Vik, please do some research on what is going on in the greentech/cleantech field before regurgitating myths and bad info. You have a great site otherwise. If you’d like to know more, you have my email.

While I take your point – I have to note that you are tweaked about a casual reference to something I am clearly not a subject matter expert in and which I said I could not confirm which forms a small part of the post. I didn’t suggest the comment about LCA of solar panels was something I had studied in depth. I made sure to put the comment into perspective so people could evaluate it on their own. I have deleted that specific comment.

I don’t feel like the other points made in my post are erroneous or misleading.

15 02 2011
pacpost

Hi Vik,

My apologies for the aggressive tone of my comment, and thank you for your full reply.

I’ve worked in the clean energy/renewable energy industry (pick the term you prefer) for most of the past decade, in some form or other. Since the beginning, I’ve had to deal with a slew of myths such as the one regarding Solar PV and its poor LCA record. To hear it coming from someone working in the environmental field was disappointing.

I agree that making the switch from one set of energy sources to another has always been a multi-decade process, and will remain so. What I aimed to point out is that we are well on the way towards such a change. Worldwide, we now have 200 GW of wind installed (solar PV is around 30 GW or so). What’s most impressive about this is that growth rates for wind power actually increased as the industry matured this past decade. Forecasts call for 2000 GW by 2020. For perspective, the world had 4000 GW of installed generating capacity in 2006.

Regarding oil in Mexico and Canada. Just visited Mexico for the first time last week. Unbelievable traffic jams. That country is in for a rude awakening, though. Its domestic oil production continues to drop, and the government is finally looking to end oil subsidies. It will be interesting to see what happens as gasoline prices rise more dramatically in the coming years. As for Canada, don’t fall for the old tar sands myth. Our oil production has gone sideways for the past five years, despite the jump in oil prices.

For more on both Mexico and Canada, see here:

http://gregor.us/oil/happy-new-year-from-the-north-sea-or-secrecy-by-complexity/

Yes, I did focus on a few points of your wide-ranging post, but I felt it was worthwhile to correct a couple of mistakes. I should have chosen a more diplomatic tone.

By the way, recent research has shown the “buy locally grown food” story to have some holes of its own. ;-)

16 02 2011
doug d

Home Power Magazine is a good source for info on both freezers and PV panels.
I am not wanting to get into the debate about what shade of green what form of energy is (I like that PV is quieter than a generator), there is an article at http://homepower.com/view/?file=HP127_pg32_Sanchez on the energy payback of PV panels.

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