Clean Energy Tax Credits Bill Passes The Senate

After the 88-8 vote in the senate last Thursday, I am pleased to announce that we are one step closer to getting all of those fantastic renewable energy tax credits extended for 8 years. Considering that the last 3 attempts to get these tax credits extended have failed, I for one am a happy camper. Now, the bill will go to the house where it will face much scrutiny due to the fact that this bill has not identified a source of funding. The last three failed attempts suggested removing tax breaks for Big Oil and diverting those monies to finance the renewable energy incentives, but our special interest serving senators apparently did not like that idea.

Senator Cantwell and her co-sponsor, John Ensign, have argued that since the incentives would stimulate the economy, Congress should approve them without offsets. We will see what happens when this bill gets to the house, but chances are this argument will not sway them.

Here are some of the details of the proposed bill:
extend the investment tax credit for commercial solar power installations for 8 years
extend the residential solar investment tax credit for one year and remove the current $2000 credit cap
remove the exemption on utilities for claiming these tax credits
allow the tax credit to offset alternative minimum tax
extend incentives for energy efficiency improvements

For more information see the Solar Nation Writeup


Is Recycling Really Better For The Environment? Part 3: Aluminum

This is part 3 of our “Is Recycling Really Better For The Environment” series and today we are going to talk about recycling aluminum. In the previous two articles I have shown that although recycling is definitely a good thing, in some cases, as in the case of plastics, recycling actually increases plastic usage and plastic waste.

When it comes to aluminum, this is an entirely different story as aluminum is 100% recyclable and re-enters the product stream in approximately 6 weeks. Unlike plastics, who’s chemical bond weakens each time it is remelted, aluminum can be recycled an infinite number of times making it a true recycled material. So, by throwing your aluminum cans into the recycling bin, you are contributing to a process that conserves natural resources and saves money compared to manufacturing cans from virgin materials.

Recycling aluminum into new ingots to be used for manufacturing takes less than 5% of the energy it takes to manufacture aluminum from bauxite ore. It only requires melting down the recycled aluminum and removing impurities, which is much less energy intensive than mining bauxite and refining it into alumina to be used to create aluminum. In fact, for every pound of recycled aluminum the industry uses, it saves over 7.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity it saves 4.5 pounds of bauxite ore from being strip-mined. To put it in human terms, by recycling one aluminum can you can save enough energy to light a 25 Watt CFL bulb for over 14 hours.

Currently Americans are recycling approximately 45% of all aluminum beverage cans and 36% of aluminum found in containers and packaging. Fortunately, the largest concentration of domestic aluminum use falls in these markets, so the individual has much more control over the end results than manufacturing industries. Unfortunately, the demand for recovered aluminum is shrinking because of an increased use of plastics in beverage bottles over other packaging applications. Hopefully the demand for recovered aluminum will increase again because of the new CAFE mpg standards, which will require auto makers to use lighter materials to achieve higher efficiencies in their vehicles.

To answer the questions of whether recycling is better for the environment when it comes to aluminum, the answer is absolutely yes. However, it does not stop there, if you really want to make a difference, try to NOT buy plastic beverage containers and opt for the aluminum containers instead and then recycle the aluminum container. This will not only reduce the use of virgin aluminum, but it will reduce the use of oil that is used to produce the plastic container which ultimately ends up in a landfill regardless of whether or not you recycle it. Remember, aluminum is 100% recyclable and can be continually recycled an infinite number of times and plastic is not and will generally be recycled 1 or 2 times before it is discarded.

Stay tuned for Part 4: Glass, coming soon…

Possible Armed Conflict Over Arctic Oil

Apparently we are screwing up the earth with global warming enough so that once inaccessible areas of the Arctic will now be accessible to be exploited for oil. Scientist are predicting that global warming will leave the Arctic region almost entirely ice-free for many months at a time. Big oil companies are taking this claim very seriously, and not because of the negative environmental impacts, but because of the vast oil deposits that geologist believe are beneath the Arctic Ocean floor. With this new discovery, made possible by global warming, it now makes perfect sense why so many anti-global warming think tanks are funded by the likes of Exxon Mobile. More global warming = more oil from currently inaccessible places.

Anyway, according to the website, a U.S. based oil exploration company Arctic Oil & Gas Corp. has laid claims to the Arctic Ocean’s undersea oil. This alleged claim came as a bit of a surprise to the Canadian government as well as Russia considering that the Arctic’s petroleum deposits are considered the “common heritage of mankind.” The US oil company claims that this region requires a private company to act as the lead manager in the extraction of this undersea oil. Arctic Oil & Gas Corp’s claims have been dismissed by the Canadian government as having “no force in law, and experts believe that this bold move may cause some disruption in the exploitation of these vast deposits.

In a recent report by the European Union’s top foreign policy officials, it was pointed out that there could be some international struggle over this Arctic region. Also, Borgerson, from the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that “The United States should not underestimate Canadian passions on this issue,” and “Unless Washington leads the way toward a multilateral diplomatic solution, the Arctic could descend into armed conflict.”

The question is, will this 400 billion barrel oil deposit be able to stop peak oil? This is very doubtful considering that every day that goes by, the demand for oil increases and the supply simply cannot keep up. In my opinion, we should not look at this discovery as a solution to our current energy problems and instead, continue to research better and more efficient ways to power our planet.


Algae Biofuel No Longer a Pipe Dream

In the past, we have talked a lot about corn ethanol and the fact that it is actually worse for the environment than just using gasoline. Unfortunately, the average person believes that corn ethanol and commercial biodiesel is a good thing, but of course if you really research it, it is not. Because of this common misconception, the most recent energy bill was stripped of significant alternative energy provisions in favor of biofuel subsidies. This has hurt the environment in more ways than one and quite honestly I was a bit upset.

Now in the midst of this large biofuel push, I had heard about algae and how it can be used to produce biodiesel as well as ethanol with little to no harm to the environment. Considering that when I first heard about it, it was still being tested, so in my mind this was still a bit of a pipe dream and I didn’t think we would see this technology commercially for another 5 to 10 years. However, PetroSun’s most recent press release announced the actual commencement of operations of the first algae-to-biofuel plant. This comes as a bit of a surprise, but a very nice one considering the huge environmental benefits of microalgae biofuel over typical corn, soy and sunflower biofuels. Here are just some of the fact about microalgae biofuel for you to think about:

* MicroAlgae produces 30-100 times more oil per acre than corn and soybeans
* MicroAlgae biofuel contains NO sulfur
* MicroAlgae biofuel is non-toxic
* MicroAlgae biofuel is highly biodegradable
* MicroAlgae biofuel can be used in existing engines (without modifications)
* MicroAlgae biofuel can be mixed with conventional petroleum at any ratio. As a result, this biofuel can use existing distribution infrastructure.

I honestly cannot find anything negative about this microalgae biofuel. It’s the cleanest fuel I have ever seen and the only waste product (not really) from it is biomass after the algae has been pressed for its oil. This biomass can either be used as a protein supplement in cow feed or it can be fermented into ethanol. Not only that, but PetroSun is also finding new ways to use the waste heat and CO2 from industrial smoke stacks to help grow this algae, sequestering the excess CO2.

Until I find out otherwise, MicroAlgae gets two thumbs up from me and a big seal of approval!

Green LEED Buildings Getting Top Dollar And High Occupancy

The U.S Green Building Council has a green building rating system called LEED which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  As a LEED accredited professional (LEED AP) I am always spreading the word about the benefits of building green and attempting to achieve LEED certification. The reason I favor LEED over just “building green,” is because LEED is a fully comprehensive sustainable building rating system which covers every area of sustainability in the built environment. LEED is not just about choosing recycled products or slapping some solar panels on the roof, it is about designing and constructing sustainable buildings in a fashion that minimizes its effect on the environment as a whole.

Unfortunately many individuals do not see the value in achieving LEED certification and believe that the added cost does not justify the means. Even many architects think that LEED is just an added expense, of which the only result is a fancy plaque to hang on the wall. Nothing could be further from the truth, not only is LEED a ranking system that forces building to meet a minimum environmental standard, but it also contributes to the owners pocket book as well. LEED certified buildings are currently receiving federal subsidies which offset the cost of the required energy system commissioning and processing fees. In my opinion this makes the entire LEED process well worth it, but many are still not convinced… until now.

Needless to say, after reading the recent findings from the CoStar Study, I see no reason why anyone would not want to attempt LEED certification. At least one thing is for sure, LEED will be a much easier sell from here on out.

The CoStar study analyzed about 1,300 Energy Star and LEED certified commercial buildings representing approximately 351 million square feet. The green buildings were compared to the non-green buildings of similar size, location, class, tenancy, and year built characteristics to deduce the economic case for green buildings. Compared to non-green buildings, LEED buildings command a remarkable $171 more per square foot, while Energy Star buildings are selling for an average of $61 more per square foot. The study also shows that Energy star buildings are achieving an additional $2.38 per square foot for rent premiums, while LEED buildings command rent premiums of $11.24 more per square foot.Not only that, but the occupancy rates are higher in both as well. In particular, Energy Star buildings have seen 3.6% higher occupancy rates, while LEED buildings are seeing 3.8% higher occupancy rates. These results are solid indicators of the future of the built environment and should pretty much silence the “initial cost” debate.

I believe Andrew Florance, president and CEO of CoStar, summed up the study results best when he said,“The information we’ve discovered is very compelling. Green buildings are clearly achieving higher rents and higher occupancy, they have lower operating costs, and they’re achieving higher sale prices.”
This combined with the fact that the supply is no where near catching up with the demand for green buildings, we should continue to see these types of numbers for quite a while. Also, LEED certification is becoming a component of class A buildings, which means that non LEED buildings will begin falling into class B status, reducing their overall value. In other words, if you are building today, without LEED, you are building in obsolescence.


Yet Another Bottled Water Ban - This Time Seattle

According to a recent story in The Seattle Times, it looks like the city of Seattle will be following San Fransisco’s lead by no longer purchasing any bottled water for city employees.

Now, of course the city cannot stop employees from bringing their own bottled water, but why would they need to, Seattle has one of the best municipal water supplies in the country. Not only that, but at a fraction of a penny for each gallon of city tap water, it is a steal compared to $8 per gallon of store bought bottled water. Officials believe that the city will save over $58,000 per year by no longer buying bottled water.

In my opinion this is a great step and I hope all American cities will begin doing this. I have always said that tap water is just fine and if you live somewhere where are worried about your tap water, then buy a good water filtration system and be done with it. A one time investment in a good water filter will cost less than continually buying bottled water on a weekly basis. Not only that, but as pointed out in the executive order signed by Mayor Nickels of Seattle, over 17 million barrels of oil are used to create plastic bottles for U.S. bottled water consumers. That is not to mention the energy used to bottle, package and ship these awful things across the U.S. and the fact that only one in every ten bottles are even recycled.

Earth Hour 2008 Is Comming

Coming up towards the end of this month is something called “Earth Hour.” What started as a regional event that took place in Australia last year how now become a global phenomena. Countries and cities from all across the globe are joining together to turn off their lights in unison for one hour.

Earth Hour is not just about cutting back your emissions for one hour. It’s about taking a stand and thinking ahead about what you, your neighbors and your city can do to help to stop global warming. This is an entirely volunteer thing and no one is required to do this, but I urge you, on March 29, 2008 at 8pm central time, join us and turn off your lights for one hour.

not only can you turn your lights off for one hour, but go ahead and make a pledge to do something, anything around your home to save electricity and money. If you are not sure what to do, check out our “Stop Global Warming” page to see all of the different things you can do to make a difference.

New Electrode Makes Hydrogen Electrolysis 10 Times Faster

There is a lot of buzz lately about a hydrogen economy. I have always been a bit of a skeptic about this hydrogen economy, because although hydrogen is a clean burning energy carrier, it is currently produced in a pretty dirty way. Over 85% of the world’s hydrogen is produced by using natural gas in a process called steam reformation. Unfortunately this process is not very green, in fact, for each pound of hydrogen this process makes, it produces 4 pounds of greenhouse gases in the form of carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2). So, the idea of switching an entire economy from one dirty energy carrier (oil) to a little less dirty energy carrier (hydrogen) does not make too much sense to me.

Now the idea of the hydrogen economy is to produce all hydrogen using renewable energy sources, which in theory sounds great. However, typical electrolysis is an expensive, slow, and somewhat inefficient process and this is precisely why steam reformation is the process of choice for producing hydrogen. Simply put, it is cheaper and faster than electrolysis, but in no way is it greener or cleaner.

Until now the electrodes used in the electrolysis process were made of precious metal catalyst materials making them too expensive to compete with steam reformation. A company called Quantum Sphere, Inc. has found a way around this little problem by using an alkaline electrolysis process, which eliminates the need for precious metal catalysts. In alkaline electrolysis, nickel is the ideal catalyst because it can easily be produced at the nano scale and it is far less costly than platinum. The company has also invented a technique, using nano technology, to increase the catalytic surface area of each electrode, giving them 2,000 times more surface area than its predecessors.

QSI has demonstrated that by using a blend of their nickel and iron catalyst materials, they can achieved electrolysis efficiencies exceeding 85%, while achieving production increases of ten-fold over all other previously published data. Keep in mind that electrolysis is a pollution free, non CO2 emitting process. At $1.14 to $4.09 per pound of hydrogen, this drastic improvement in electrolysis efficiency now makes hydrogen an economically and commercially viable replacement for our current fossil fuel economy. With efficiencies like these, we may just see compact electrolysis units inside future automobiles, producing on-demand hydrogen to power on board fuel cells.

Solar Power Paint Is 2.5 Years Away

According to a UK scientist Dr. Dave Worsley, commercial panels of architectural steel, painted with special solar-power paint capable of generating electricity should be available in as little as two and a half years. Dr Worsley and Dr Trystan Watson of Swansea University have developed a new paint based on dye-sensitized solar cells. This new solar paint is a result of previous research into different ways of preventing metal buildings from degrading due to the elements. Dr. Worsley describes the idea as “a collision between two existing technologies – one for generating electricity and one for applying paint to steel.”

The paint works by giving energy boosts to free electrons causing them to jump from dyed titanium dioxide into a layer of electrolyte. This causes excess energy to flow into the collecting circuit before the electrons jump back into the dyed titanium dioxide pigment. This process, unlike typical silicon based photovoltaic cells, where the suns energy is absorbed, is less efficient, however this also means that expensive solar grade silicon is not needed thereby lowering the cost.

These solar cells are allied in separate layers directly onto the metal substrate. The first layer applied to the steel panels is a typical paint layer used as a base. Next, the layer of electrolytes and then the titanium dioxide dye layer is applied. Finally, a clear coat is applied to protect the paint and metal from the elements. Scientists are still working on this application and hope to use typical manufacturing paint rollers to apply this solar power paint to steel at up to 40 square meters per minute.

Michael Gratzel, one of the original developers of this revolutionary paint product, insists that these are very rugged systems able to survive for very long periods of time. Currently these cells are being tested outside in Japan where they have been fully functional for over 4 years and have not lost any efficiency in that amount of time. Typical solar panels are generally warranted for 20-30 years depending on the manufacturer, and will see some degradation over this period of time. If this new solar paint can show this type of life cycle at lower cost, we could be looking at one of the most significant environmental breakthroughs adding over 4,500 gigawatts to the existing grid. This is about one third of the generating capacity of the entire world, although Hank over at EcoGeek thinks that this was a typo and the real number is 4,500 gigawatt-hours, which would pretty much take care of the entire world.

Via NewScience

Green Still Pulling In Green In Midst Of Recession

According to a recent article over at Newsweek, green homes are very hot right now, despite what is going on in the real estate market. While typical homes drop in value, energy efficient, environmentally friendly homes are not only retaining their value, they are now in demand and are selling at premium prices. The National Association of Home Builders, released some survey results showing that the average home buyer was willing to spend an additional $8,964 on a green home, if it would in fact save them money on their utility cost.

Unfortunately, the average person knows very little about green building, and that is probably because it is such a broad topic which covers many different facets. When thinking of the term “green”, most people instantly picture huge solar panel arrays and wind turbines.  However, true green building techniques are executed well before these types of expensive additions. From site selection, building placement, energy efficiency and indoor air quality, real green building starts before the ground is even broken. It is only after these green building techniques are put in place that is it cost effective to start adding alternative energy sources. My rule of thumb is every dollar spent in energy efficiency will save four dollars on alternative energy.

Architects(me:-) and builders are working very hard to educate consumers about which products and techniques will give them the biggest bang for their buck. In the meantime, organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council and Energy Star are offering certification programs to help rate the greenness of these homes. These certificates will allow home owners to receive additional tax breaks from the Federal government, and in some cases, they will be eligible to receive state tax breaks.  Green building advocates are hoping that these certificate programs will become widely accepted, like Consumer Reports, and create higher resale values for the home owners.

This shift toward green building just might turn around this broken industry and many smaller builders will attest that their numbers are supper hot. Unfortunately, most of the larger builders are still only scraping the surface, doing just enough to get by.  However, as this market shifts, I believe that larger builders will be following suit. The simple fact is that people are becoming educated and they know that this “green stuff” means more money stays in their pockets, regardless of their political or environmental views.