Progress Energy may be giving me another encouragement to move Off Grid

Today I got a letter in the mail from Progress Energy about their Energy Wise program where homeowners can voluntarily allow them to install equipment which would allow them to switch off some of our appliances (air conditioning/heater/water heater) during peak demand times. In exchange for this they are offering up to $75 yearly credit. The peak demand times vary by the appliance (heater/water heater was 6AM-9AM and a stretch in the evening 5PM-9PM I think) (air conditioning was about 1pm-6pm) Now, they say in the notice that it’s entirely voluntary and it would be switched off for 15 minutes at a time for no more than 4 hours. (This last part was not written clearly, does that mean no consecutive blocks of 15 minutes and the total would be no more than 4 hours, or is it possible that it could be consecutive blocks up to 4 hours(?)) I’m all for saving power. I’ve got a kill-a-watt meter and from time to time audit things around the house. We’ve tried to resist going to the air conditioning this year and last…. unplug the water heater when we’re away for long enough and really try to save where we can.

But, I don’t want to proverbially turn the keys over to the power company to switch things off when they think demand is too high. I’m sorry, that’s not their business. Their business is supply, I’ll take care of controlling my demand and if someone else doesn’t, then they’ll just have a high bill to pay won’t they?

Now, like I said, this is voluntary (for now) and there are limits on the peak hours they’ve defined. (And you can pick 2 calendar dates to opt out of the switching off and weekends aren’t covered….) I imagine the terms could easily change (and continued use means you agree to the changes just like with everything else these days.)

It kind of reminds me when Progress Energy wrote to us and gave us this great offer…. Our power bill ranged at that time from around 60 a month to 90 a month depending on the season and weather when we received an offer from them to never have a surprise in our power bill again by prorating our power bill we could pay the same amount every month. Their magic number that they had calculated for us was $92 a month for 12 months and then if it turned out our usage was different we could get an adjusted rate for the next 12 months (up or down). What was amazing to me is that their total was just a shade larger than our largest bill in the last 12 months had been….. nice racket in the power business isn’t it?

Well…. this has all had me thinking about the incentives to really go off grid. Who knows, at some point power companies may not make such things as shutting off your appliances in peak periods an option. It may sometime become a mandatory agreement. With all the power options these days for alternative energy, solar panels, geothermal heating, some people can take advantage of wind or microhydro power as well… it just makes me think that the massive power grids days may be numbered. I’d like to look at all the tax incentives and see if there’s any difference in claiming them if you’re connected to the grid or not, but the coming years may see an explosion in off-grid power installs!

Along these lines I saw that researchers at UC-Berkley I believe had come up with a material that could be as much as 10x cheaper than silicon for solarvoltaic panels. There are now several companies that are doing similar, cheaper approaches to photovoltaics I’m REALLY looking forward to seeing more of these become publicly available. (So far, one company I know of is/was under military contract and their products were not available for sale to the public.)

Oh… one other thought on progress energy’s energy wise program…. according to their Florida website they say most people that have joined say that they don’t even notice when the interruptions are. Personally…. I notice that “most people” aren’t home much during the day/evening…. I wonder if they polled people that work at/from home?

Is it time to trade in for a hybrid?

More fuel efficient cars are coming in all shapes and sizes now. Hybrid is a catch phrase that many dealers are pushing. Is it time to buy a hybrid though? The last time I did the math on the difference in cost (taking into account tax rebates for the hybrid). It didn’t make sense to spend the extra money unless gas went up to 8 dollars a gallon or I drove twice as much a year. (Or I kept it for 10-15 years.)

So, when does it make sense to buy a hybrid?

And what’s more how should you figure out. It’s funny, everybody says you save money with a hybrid, but until you sit down and do a comparison, you won’t know. i.e. it depends on your usage.

Start by tallying up your mileage for the year. Divide that by your miles per gallon to see how many gallons of fuel you bought over the year and do a rough cost estimate with the current gas prices. That’s how much you’re spending in a year on gasoline. Now compare the hybrids sticker price with a comparable car. Subtract any tax credits from the difference. Now compare this “premium” for the hybrid with your yearly fuel costs. Will it take a year to make up the difference? Three? My opinion is that if it’s four years or less, then it’s probably a worthwhile ROI. More than that and I think I’d hesitate.

You might revisit your gas price estimate and ask yourself how much you expect that to change in the next couple of years (as that will effect your return on investment.) Also, consider if your driving patterns will be changing – will you be driving more, less or about the same in coming years.

After all of this, you should be able to answer the question if it’s really time for YOU to trade in your car for a hybrid car.

Conserving Heating Oil by weather proofing

We all want to save money on fuel oil and heating oil for our homes, even the home electric bills in the winter can be slightly scary. It’s a good thing to go through your house and evaluate where wasted heat and energy may be. Is the glazing on your windows old and flaking? Do you use blinds or curtains (curtains can cut heat transmission.) Newer energy efficient windows can be a good investment, of course, you don’t want to replace your windows in the middle of winter. Does your attic have enough insulation? Can more be added? It’s even possible to retrofit walls with sprayed in insulation. Most of the homes leakage though comes via the windows and doors so those are the biggest things to check. Proper weatherstripping can certainly help your heating oil and energy costs through the long cold winters, but you should also make sure you set your thermostat around 70 degrees or even 68 if possible and avoid the temptation to run it up into the upper 70s.

Waste Coffee Grounds Potential Biodiesel Source

THIS is exactly the kinds of thinking we need to be doing. I’ve said it for a long time that we need to find a way to make fuel out of the things that NO ONE wants and is plentiful. (Kudzu…) Add coffee grounds to the growing list of things that could be a biodiesel source. I know many people use spent coffee grounds as a fertilizer of sorts, but the article reports that they estimate that spent coffee grounds could contribute over 300 million gallons of biodiesel around the world (I assume annually.)

The conversion process taking the oils from the grounds and converting to a biodiesel was cheap, the excess solids can be used as compost and is more stable than traditional biodiesels. Waste coffee grounds contain as much as 20% oil.

DIY Vertical Axis Wind Turbine

This is a neat project. A site called hackaday posted this project. It’s essentially a homemade wind generator (generates electricity from wind.) It’s not one of those large windmill style turbines that you might have seen. This is a vertical design. They’ve sliced pvc pipe lengthwise in half to catch the wind. One advantage of a design like this is that it would work with wind from ANY direction. Their design drives a small DC motor. (DC motors can be used two directions…. hook up a current and get motion or supply motion and get current…)

This is one project that I may put on my to do list. It looks like it could be enough to keep a few batteries charged at least. I haven’t found an estimate of how much wind it would take to turn it. (That MAY be the real catch.)

Insulating around Power Outlets

I’ve been on my own personal campaign to tighten up air leakage around our house. Busy caulking windows and trying to find ways to blunt that cool air from getting in and the warm air from getting out.

This evening I was thinking about the power outlets. I’ve noticed that some of our outlets on the exterior walls are a bit drafty. Since you want to be careful around an electrical outlet I’ve been wondering about safe ways to insulate around the outlets. Fortunately I’ve found some very good tutorials on what to look for and how to do it.

Fortunately, as you can see from these instructions it is both cheap and really easy to do this. They make foam insulators that are sized to wall outlets with punches for either a light switch opening or outlet openings.

First you should cut off power to the outlet at your fuse or breaker box. Please do this, you never know when the screwdriver may slip and make things interesting in “short” order!

Then it’s as simple as taking the outlet cover off, pushing out the precut opening in the foam insert. Place it carefully to line up with the outlets and replace the outlet cover. Then you should be able to switch the power back on to the outlet and you’ll have a tighter insulated house!

Worlds Largest Solar Heating and Cooling System to be Installed in Fletcher, NC

I saw this on the news last night, it looks like Fletcher, North Carolina is going to be home to the worlds largest solar heating and cooling system. A company called Vanir Solar Construction is building the system. They were previously known as Appalachian Solar Energy before being bought by the Vanir Solar Construction company. The second largest system is installed in the Olympic Village in Beijing China.

Appalachian Energy started out in 2003 and operates a small hydroelectric dam in Madison County which powers around 600 homes. As I understand this solar install will be in the Fletcher Business Park.

Your friendly Neighborhood Nuclear Reactor

Wow! I just read this article over at the Guardian about miniature nuclear reactors that could power 20,000 homes, cost $25 million US dollars and essentially be buried underground, refueled every seven to ten years.

No moving parts, not weapons grade fuel, according to the article a Chernobyl style leakage is “impossible”. This is apparently technology from Los Alamos laboratories and the United States government has licensed the technology to a New Mexico based company called Hyperion. They say they currently have more than 100 orders and have plans to up their production potential. They’ve got a six year backlog.

This box could be delivered on a truck, “smaller than a garden shed” is how the Guardian has billed it. Mass production is expected within about 5 years. The units would be encased in concrete.

Other companies are known to be designing micro-reactors. Toshiba has been testing 200KW reactors measuring roughly six metres by two metres. Designed to fuel smaller numbers of homes for longer, they could power a single building for up to 40 years.

Plasma Gasification Plant will be First in US

The county of St. Lucie, Florida will be home to the first plasma gasification plant in the US. They’ve contracted with Geoplasma to construct the plant which will use plasma to rip apart 1500 tons of garbage each day. From what I recall reading before the primary byproduct is an obsidian like residue. The process also powers turbines which creates electricity. I’m not quite sure that the whole process creates energy though…. I would be interested in hearing the complete process and get the numbers of power input to output from the whole process.

I do also wonder about whether or not it makes sense to vaporize pretty much ANY trash. Recycling helps us reclaim some scarce materials for reuse, this would obliterate them at the molecular level.

IF, the input material is chosen wisely and they really are cleaner than incenerators and the energy equation isn’t too great a loss, these kinds of plants could dramatically help our trash problems.

Think about the tons of garbage that are dumped in landfills each year. If we could actually reclaim some energy out of them through a process that was relatively clean, that would be fantastic. There’s a certain amount of brilliance in taking something that everybody wants to get rid of and making it a valuable input to make something everybody wants.

I’ll be interested to hear more about this process and more analysis of the net energy usage as well as how clean it is.

Gas Under $2 in the Asheville Area

I haven’t looked around too much, but saw a price of $1.98 at the Woodland Hills (19/23 New Stock Road Exit) Ingles. (The other gas station there has it cheaper with a car wash.)

This is the first time I’ve seen the price under $2 in I don’t know when.

Here’s hoping we see $1.50 gas by Christmas. (Of course, I’d take it if it were lower too.)

We can’t let the lower prices though make us lax with our gas saving habits and the true need for more domestic production and development of alternatives! So, keep using gasoline carefully and let’s keep looking at alternatives and domestic production so we can stop sending so much money to the parts of the world that don’t have our best interests at heart.

21st Century Version of the Barbary Coast Pirates?

Pirates raiding ships have been in the news off and on in recent years. It’s been steady, but nothing really high profile. It’s probably passed underneath many peoples radar. This week though, the price of gas climbed $1 a barrel on news that a large oil tanker had been captured by Somali based pirates. After reading that linked article. It sounds as though, we’re seeing something not too different from the Barbary Coast Pirates of old (first overseas expedition of the US Marines (”To the shores of Tripoli”…))

Now, if this had happened in August or so, we probably would have seen the price of oil go up $10 a barrel or more. I’m thinking that this problem has gained enough prominence though we may see concerted international action. Could this be one of the first major foreign policy tests of a Barack Obama administration? Or something that the Bush administration attempts to address before leaving office? Or is it something that we leave hands off for the foreseeable future? I know we’re not the worlds policemen, but when international waters are threatened by basic “highway robbery”, shoiuldn’t the powerful nations put together a solution (as opposed to recommending ships hire private security.)

The BoGo light

I thought this was an interesting flashlight – basically it’s designed to be a utility light for those places that don’t ordinarily have an abundance of lighting choices, but it looks like it would make a great emergency, utility light here as well. The idea is that it’s solar chargable, has LED lights for the lighting source, can run in low/medium/high beam mode. When you buy one, they give one through their affiliate organizations to places that need them. The batteries charge in 8-10 hours of full sun, there’s an auto switch off when the batteries are almost flat, niteglow strip to find it easily in the dark, there is a mechanism to switch it off in sunlight (meaning that they could be used as a trail or path light as well.

All in all, it looks rugged, has a carabineer clip and looks like a really well designed product.

Ethanol from Algae gets a boost

Dow chemical has given some backing to a startup, algenolbiofuels, that has a process to create ethanol as a byproduct of algae. This process apparently uses genetically modified cyanobacteria to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol. Their goal is 100,000 gallons of ethanol per year. (Seems a bit small actually….) I would hope that the genetically altered algea cannot find a way back out into the wild. The bioreactor apparently is a container with saltwater that has been pumped in from the sea.

The demonstration plant will be in Freeport, Texas.

According to Technology Review, these bacteria do create small amounts of ethanol naturally. In the wild though, it has to be in a dark environment (or anaerobic). Apparently this method doesn’t require the “harvesting” of the algea in order to obtain the ethanol. The harvesting of algae has proven a challenge in complexity (and price) for other algae-ethanol startups.

They say that they expect to be able to produce ethanol for $1.25 per gallon and as a side benefit for each gallon of ethanol produced they have a byproduct of fresh water (remember salt water was one necessary part going into this process.)

In some parts of the world this really could solve multiple problems – fuel availability and more importantly fresh water availability. It would be interesting to see this process compared against other desalination processes.


Today I saw this story about a startup that claims to have a process that can generate as much as 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year using algae microorganisms. The company is Joule Biotechnologies and they’re based in Cambrige, MA. With this process genetically engineered algae microorganisms use energy from the sun, consume carbon dioxide and water and create ethanol or other hydrocarbon. Their plans are a pilot project in the Southwest next year with commercial quantities available by 2010 and large scale by 2011. According to the article production on this scale and this method could provide competitive prices even if oil is selling as low as $50 per barrel. (Currently in the 60-70/barrel range.)

They go out of their way to clarify that this is not algae that they are using, but genetically engineered micro-organisms. The product does not have to be refined, and the micro-organisms don’t have to be harvested to obtain the fuel. (Certainly good news for the algae micro-organisms…..)

Bloom Energy – the Bloom Box Energy Server

Alternative Energy is a booming area right now, there is a great deal of interest in new and different ways to provide energy. Really, there should be. It’s nothing less than a national security issue when we have so much of our energy needs imported from overseas. Imported from places that don’t have our best interests at heart. That’s why a new launch of something like Bloom Energy’s new fuel cell approach get’s so much buzz. This week they introduced us to the concept of the energy server. Which is, I think a clever way to market their new offering.

Bloom Energy had been teasing the world with a countdown to the launch of their new product. The bloom box, or bloom energy server takes up about the size of a parking space and can generate 100kW of power. Day and night. It’s a fuel cell and if you need more capacity you simply add another unit, or another or another. 100kW they describe as enough power to supply about 100 houses or a small office building. Of course, your coverage will vary depending on actual consumption.

It’s not a cheap box mind you, but the companies that have tried out the units they claim to be saving on their power costs. Companies like Ebay, Google, Coca-Cola, Fedex are among those that have been trying out the device. Google I would imagine (along with any other companies needing data center space) has more of a reason to look for cheap electricity. Power costs are high when you run a datacenter of hundreds of computers. Finding a cheaper way to power them will translate into more money for companies like Google.

What’s further exciting is the promise that within a few years, they will have a device about the size of a brick that you could purchase for what they estimate will be around $3000 that would be enough to power the average house. Again, your mileage will vary. Some houses consume more electricity, some less. Still, the promising of combining multiple units means that you have flexibility to scale up your “energy servers”.

In some ways this could make it more possible to truly be off grid, although I think the availability of the grid is probably an important thing. This winter we lost power to a large snowstorm and were without power about 3-4 days. Heat is our main problem with winter power outages because we need electricity for most of our heating options. A generator is relatively cheap, but impractical to keep running for the amount of time that we need heat. Devices like this could mean that we would never notice an outage from a major storm.

There are lots of other reasons to envision keeping the grid even if more and more houses are their own energy production plants. There will always be times that you will use a bit more power than you expect and for those times you can draw power back from the grid. For that matter, there are also times that you use less power and THAT can be SOLD back to the power company. For our national security I see many advantages to a more diversified power generation structure like these devices could produce.

You should realize though that these energy servers do consume something to create energy. Biofuel is possible, but the more likely fuel at the present is Natural Gas. These fuels will combine with oxygen within the fuel cell to generate electricity. The fuel cell itself is made from one of the more abundant substances you could think of…. sand.