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Top 5 New Smart Home Technologies

By Heather Logan

TOKYO, JAPAN – I’ve recently returned from an explorative journey to Japan as part of Panasonic’s eco press tour to discover the latest and greatest innovations to make your home easy to care for. Below are the top 5 technologies to come from Panasonic’s showcase center and Eco Ideas Home. This zero-emission smart house combines science and nature’s elements to make an intelligently designed home that is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Hydroponic Kitchen Counter Herb and Veggie Garden

From one side, it looks like a modern kitchen counter. On the other side, you can feed your family from your own hydroponic garden. Vegetable cultivation conditions are monitored on a 24-hour basis with smartphones or computers fitted with network cameras. This monitoring even allows growth records to be shared. Now everyone can have a green thumb.

Color Changing Rooms

This groundbreaking innovation from Panasonic uses LED technology to allow you to extract color from one object and impart it in another object instantly. With the use of color extraction tubes, you can change the look of a LED-equipped wall or furniture piece at a whim. The company is keeping mum as this technology is in development, but from what we’ve seen so far, this is painting of the future.

ECO NAVI Ventilation System and Air Conditioning

This hybrid air-conditioning system uses both natural and mechanical ventilation to maximize air temperature control and energy efficiency. The system detects people’s movements throughout the home to direct air where it is needed most.

The Wind Passage Tower can measure the differences in temperature between indoor and outdoor air to bring in cooler ground air in the summer and warmer air in the winter through an underground duct.

With sensors to detect any wastage of energy, now you don’t have to stress about a light being left on. Did I mention this works in harmony with their floor heating system? I’m feeling comfortable already.

Smart Home Energy Management System (SMARTHEMS)

Panasonic’s Smart Home Energy Management System (SMARTHEMS) will make you feel like you’re living in a smartphone app. It links all appliances and energy supplies into one central network. The program, which can be accessed by a TV or smart device, visualizes the energy, gas, and water consumption throughout the home. It acts as your personal energy consultant, displaying the progress made towards energy-saving targets and providing advice to support energy-saving activities.

If you live in a community with other smart homes, you can link your system to the Community Energy Management System (CEMS) for the town, as seen in the Fujisawa Smart Town in Japan. With CEMS, residents can share excess energy, respond to energy needs, and track community usage trends in an effort towards electricity conservation.

Energy Storage Cell for SMARTHEMS

This small, easy on the eyes energy storage cell from Panasonic uses high-capacity lithium-ion batteries to store electricity. It provides electricity at night from energy created from the home’s solar panels during the day and offers up to 3 days of energy independence during natural disasters.

These smart home technologies are demonstrative of a world where beauty, creativity, and innovation are bringing us back into balance with nature and a higher quality of living. To learn about more smart home technologies, follow my posts as I explore how sustainability and technology converge.

Related Posts by Heather Logan
Save the Seas with Your Diet
Shrimp Cocktail with a Side of Snared Endangered Species
How Religious Sites Are Using Eco-Technologies To Reflect Their Values 

Installing a Solar System: Yes You Can!

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Advertorial by SCGH

Be the change you wish to see in the world—Brandon can help.

ARIZONA – If you didn’t think you were ready for solar, think again. Brandon Cheshire, Owner & Chief Technical Officer at Arizona-based SunHarvest Solar, recently spoke with us about his own experience going solar and explained why now is the time to transition to the bright side.

Between the incentives, the savings, and the environmental benefits, an investment in a solar system is a smart one. Take it from Brandon: he doesn’t just do solar—he lives it.

Q: You founded SunHarvest Solar in 2009, but didn’t install a solar system until December 2011. What made you “go for it” and why is now the time for other people to do the same?

A: Initially, I was more focused on my customers than my own energy independence. But once I sat down and went through all the numbers, I was ecstatic that I could easily afford the products I had been raving about, and then a little upset with myself I hadn’t considered it sooner!

There are so many diverse ways to go solar today that don’t require any money up front. There are great leasing and financing options available, but the best option is the purchase of your own solar system. Think about it this way: Buying a solar system can be like buying a car, only the solar system actually saves you money every day, doesn’t pollute the air, generates your electricity, requires almost zero maintenance, and will run for a guaranteed 25 years!

Everyone buys a car; why doesn’t everyone buy a solar system? Seems like a much better investment to me. Plus with what you save on energy, you can afford that car too! Now is the time, now will always be the time. The incentives are disappearing, and energy costs will continue to rise. There is a transition going on, why wait?

Q: Can you explain the incentives you’re referring to?

A: The state of Arizona is offering a one-time tax credit of $1,000 for installing a solar system.

Plus, the Federal government is offering a 30% tax credit, set to expire at the end of 2016. The Federal credit even includes additional home improvements to accommodate the solar system install—like a new roof, a new electrical panel upgrade, or even moving an air conditioner!

Utility companies also offer incentives. Arizona Public Service (APS) is currently offering a rebate incentive of $0.10/dc watt of solar installed, and Salt River Project (SRP) is currently offering a rebate incentive of $0.10. These incentives have already been reduced in just the past few weeks—don’t miss out!

Q: What are the steps involved in taking advantage of these local incentives and rebates?

A: The local incentives through the utility company require an application which can only be submitted after the engineering has been completed. It is a very simple process that we work through directly with the customer. Typically, we handle the entire process for our customers; we just require their authorization to submit paperwork on their behalf.

Clients can claim the tax credits when filing their taxes at the end of the installed year. We always advise our customers to verify that they have the appropriate tax liability to receive the tax credits.

Q: What are the costs involved in getting initial consultations and/or quotations?

A: SunHarvest offers truly free quotations. If any customer is genuinely interested, all they need to do is provide us with 1) Home address, and 2) Annual energy consumption in Kilowatt hours (Kwh) provided by utility company. We are very clear, honest, and transparent with our consultations and analyses. Every quotation comes with a financial return on investment (ROI) analyses, and shows you exactly what you can expect with either a purchased, financed, or leased solar system.

Q: What sort of ROI are you enjoying? And what can your customers expect?

A: Because I capitalized early when the utility rebates were higher, and benefited from being able to install the solar system myself, my solar system paid for itself within nine months! I will never worry about my energy costs again, and that is guaranteed for 25 years.

Our customers can expect to see a return on investment within five years, and an annual return of 16-20% over 20 years.

Q: How long did it take you to go solar?

A: It took me six weeks from start to finish. I had to wait a few weeks to get my reservation approved from APS, but they have since expedited the application process. We are now getting these systems installed within one month from the date customers sign the contract to go green with SunHarvest.

Q: How does your business reflect your confidence in solar technology and your commitment to a more sustainable future?

A: We truly practice what we preach here at SunHarvest. Both owners are committed to solar energy, sustainability, and ethical progress. Both owners have solar powered homes that will produce clean energy into the foreseeable future.

We have seen many companies come and go over the last four years, including the corporations that provided my solar education and cemented my commitment to the renewable industry. SunHarvest has never sought out capital or outside investment; we have just grown from within. No debt, no loans, no outside influence, or corporate meddling here. SunHarvest will continue to grow in a sustainable manner, continuing our altruistic agenda and promoting clean, green energy.

Q: Finally, can you explain your passion for conserving energy?

A: It comes down to what I value most in this life, and my ultimate mission to attain happiness versus wealth. I am fortunate to be able to make an honest living doing something I love, something that is beneficial to everyone, something that is admirable and virtuous, something my family can be proud of, and something that improves the quality of life for everyone involved.

Getting into the solar industry seemed like the most productive way I could harness my skills, benefit others, love what I do, and live up to my mantra: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” That is my real passion—a progressive voice and body, actively aggregating change for the better.


If you’re local to Arizona and are interested in going solar, get in touch with Brandon and learn more about SunHarvest Solar here.

To read more about the energy efficiency upgrades Brandon made to his now net zero home, check out his “9 Simple Steps to a Carbon Neutral Home.”

For related articles, see:

Solar: Powered by Community
SB 843: California Community Solar Increases Access
Four Steps to Becoming a Renewable Energy Resident
Solar Incentives for Los Angeles and San Diego Homeowners

© 2013 SCGH, LLC.

Solar: Powered by Community

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Guest post and photos by Solarize CT
November 2, 2012

FAIRFIELD, CONNECTICUT — When Stephanie Weiner, CEO of New England Smart Energy Group, found out that her town was selected to participate in the Solarize Connecticut pilot program, she could not have been more excited by the opportunity to help engage the rest of her local community in solar.

Stephanie immediately got on board, finding ways to communicate the benefits of the special discount solar program to friends, neighbors, and other Fairfield residents. “This is exactly the kind of program that will help us expand solar in our community and offer an excellent investment opportunity for our residents,” Stephanie said. “By tabling at local events, hosting Solarize Fairfield Workshops at the library, and putting up yard signs across town, we are helping Fairfield residents understand all that this program has to offer.”

Fairfield joined Durham, Portland, and Westport as the four pilot towns to launch Solarize Connecticut in partnership with the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA), The John Merck Fund, and SmartPower. The goal of the residential solar program is to bring together homeowners across a community to offer deep discounted prices for residential solar power.

Solarize does this by addressing many of the traditional barriers that homeowners face in going solar, the main one being high out-of-pocket costs. The program’s tiered pricing structure means that the total cost of solar comes down as the number of residents who sign up increases. In addition to this pricing structure, each town assumes responsibility for outreach, thereby reducing the marketing costs incurred by the installer. By selecting a preferred installer to do all installations for one community, the price has the potential to be substantially discounted to all participants. The program’s end date also requires and encourages homeowners to sign up if they want to take advantage of the program’s limited time discounts.

The four towns participating in the first phase of the Solarize Connecticut program were selected based on an ability to execute an effective outreach and community-based campaign. Eight weeks into the program, the towns have helped the program generate more than 40 signed solar contracts. Each of these signed contracts represents one more home reducing its dependence on fossil fuels and reducing its environmental impact. A Solarize Scoreboard on the program Web site breaks these contracts down by town and kW.

Durham currently leads the four towns in terms of signed solar contracts, thanks in large part to their effective grassroots marketing strategy. The town engaged the local High School’s Eco Club to build a Solarize Durham Thermometer that reflects the growth in town solar signups since the Solarize program began. The thermometer was put on display at the Town Green for the Durham Fair.

In addition, Durham hosted an information night welcoming local residents to learn more about the program and ask the town’s selected solar installer, BeFree Solar, any questions about the process of installing solar. The other three pilot towns have been just as proactive in hosting and tabling at a variety of events, all helping to drive solar signups and reduce the cost.

“This program builds on our efforts to drive down costs in the residential PV market here in Connecticut,” said Bryan Garcia, president and CEO of CEFIA. “Through our Clean Energy Communities, we will aggregate customer demand and continue to work toward developing a sustainable market that attracts private capital investment.”

The best practices and lessons learned from the four pilot towns will soon be applied to a second phase of the program in early 2013. Similarly modeled programs in Oregon and Massachusetts have also successfully delivered a lower cost to consumers. For more information about how you can reduce your environmental impact and save on solar, visit Sierra Club Green Home’s Solar Center.

For related articles, see:
Community Solar: Bringing People Together for Clean Energy
Clean, Renewable Energy Could Power U.S. by 2050
Sunny Forecast for Solar Power
Video: Affordable Solar Panels Can Save You Money

About Solarize CT: Solarize Connecticut (CT) is a program sponsored by the Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA) in partnership with SmartPower and The John Merck Fund with the goal of increasing residential solar power by making it more affordable throughout Connecticut and New England.  For more information about Solarize CT, click here.

© 2012 SCGH, LLC.

Renewable Energy and Social Justice with Jeffrey Richardson

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By Courtney Hayden
June 7, 2012

With Social Justice and Renewable Energy for All

Jeffrey Richardson is impeccably dressed when I meet him, carrying a small black briefcase and wearing a broad smile. His speech is slow and deliberate, then bright and cascading with excitement when he speaks of his work.  He is a businessman, the CEO of Imani Energy, but he is also a product of the civil rights movement. He has never waned in his commitment to impoverished communities of color.

In fact, empowering disenfranchised communities of color is integral to Richardson’s vision of success. As a child, he watched his small neighborhood in Pittsburgh “come apart at the seams” in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and decades of injustice. His animated face grows still as he recalls the smell of burning buildings and the sound of National Guardsmen marching up his street. Richardson later left his neighborhood to pursue advanced education, which his parents assured him would be the key to his success.

Richardson earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, as well as a Masters in Philosophy from Ohio State University. His philosophy thesis focused on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the efficacy of nonviolence as a means for social change. Richardson then immediately began using his education to help communities with similar challenges to those of his own. Richardson worked on peace initiatives in Nicaragua, campaigned with Jobs for Peace, became the executive director of a housing campaign, fundraised with United Way, and worked on job development with the National Congress for Community Development.

In his search for equality, Richardson became increasingly environmentally conscious. Environmental concerns resonated with him, and he began to research the potential of renewable energy to create jobs and empower minority communities.  He watched those in power “literally sacrifice the future of the planet, whole countries” in order to preserve the status quo and maintain profits.  For Richardson, equality and environmental betterment became one and the same. He began to see renewable energy as a path to equality and opportunity for communities of color.

“The discussion of the green economy and its development is incomplete without the inclusion of low-income and people-of-color communities,” explains Richardson “This inclusion must encompass the vision, thinking, and full participation of these communities, as equals.”

Richardson founded Imani Energy to facilitate such open participation of communities across Los Angeles.  He partnered with nonprofits to facilitate training of new solar panel installers and salespersons from economically repressed areas.  He designed programs so that those living in economically depressed neighborhoods could have solar installed on their homes with no money down.  To ensure information was reaching community members, he began to actively visit community meetings across Los Angeles.

In communities where environmental issues are vying for attention among pressing concerns such as unemployment and violence, integrating renewable energy can seem difficult. Jeffrey Richardson, however, proves that it is more an issue of how one approaches sustainability, as sustainability, economic growth, and equality can work together.

 “We are at a pivotal moment in America” says Richardson, “We have to decide as a nation to embrace a new level of human development where we see ourselves as responsible stewards of the environment and architects of a new sustainable economy that is built upon equity, and social justice.”

Sierra Club Green Home is humbled by the work of leaders like Richardson, who have dedicated their lives to the fight for a healthy environment and a just world.

For related articles, see:
Sustainability and Social Justice: Melding in 2012?
Los Angeles Youth Plant Seeds of Sustainbility and Social Justice
Solar Company in France Empowers People with Disabilities


© 2012 SCGH, LLC.

Solar Incentives for Los Angeles and San Diego Homeowners

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By Susanne Green
May 5, 2012

LOS ANGELES— Homeowners ready to invest in solar energy have an array of rebates and incentives they can take advantage of, and these could not have come at a better time! With a nuclear power plant offline, homeowners in Los Angeles and San Diego counties have reason to worry about rolling blackouts this summer. Investing in solar can ease some of the strain on the grid.

For those considering a new solar array for their homes, Sierra Club Green Home presents this guide to the rebates and credits available in the Southern California region. The three basic rebate categories are:

  • California rebates available through Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), and Southern California Edison (SCE);
  • The 30% Federal Residential Tax Credit or the 30% Federal Business Energy Investment Credit; and
  • The accelerated depreciation for commercial solar installations in 2012, which amount to 50% of cost in the first year.

California Rebates Available through PG&E, SDG&E, and SCE

General Market California Solar Initiative – This program provides incentives for existing and new homes in three Southern California utilities’ territories. The rebate is based on the expected or actual performance of the installed solar system in dollars per watts. Rebate is funded upon completion of the installation and proof of interconnection.

Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) – This program aims to provide low-income single-family homeowners with access to photovoltaic systems without increasing monthly expenses. To qualify, applicants’ incomes must be less than or equal to 80% of the Area Median Income in the three utility territories (PG&E, SDG&E, and SCE).

Multi-Family Affordable Solar Homes (MASH) – This program is also specific to the region. It aims to provide low-income multiple-family homeowners with access to photovoltaic systems without increasing monthly expenses.

California Solar Initiative Solar Thermal Program – This program targets the displacement of electric and gas water heating systems with solar water heating. After a successful 18-month pilot program in San Diego, the Solar Thermal Program was implemented in full, and now provides up-front incentives of up to $1875 for qualifying systems.

Federal Rebates

Federal Residential Tax Credit (30%) – This credit, established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, was expanded in 2009 to an uncapped rebate that includes both the labor and equipment costs of solar systems installed through 2016. The credit applies, in addition to small wind and geothermal heat pumps, to both photovoltaic and solar thermal installations. Use IRS Form 5695, Residential Energy Credits.

Federal Business Energy Investment Credit (30%) – This credit applies to qualified solar installations for businesses through 2016. Use IRS Form 3468, Investment Credits.

Accelerated Business Depreciation – Under federal tax code, commercial renewable energy systems qualify for a five-year Modified Accelerated Cost-Recovery System (MACRS) depreciation schedule. For business solar installations placed in service in 2012, the accelerated depreciation amounts to 50% in 2012, with the remaining depreciation scheduled over the next four years.

Additional Options

In addition to these credits and rebates, a municipality may have negotiated discounted initial pricing on solar projects with specific solar installers.  In Los Angeles County, contact Open Neighborhoods Community Solar at (310) 893-3100 for more information. In San Diego, contact San Diego Gas and Electric at (800) 411-7343.

For people who have a shaded property, rent a home or apartment, or who are unsure about altering the aesthetics of their homes, membership in a solar cooperative is a good alternative. By pooling resources and buying panels as a group, a community can save money and give subscribers a lower cost than going at it alone. Get in contact with the Los Angeles community solar projects, or learn more about the solar garden in San Diego.

Here’s to a summer of more solar and fewer blackouts!

For related articles, see:
How Southern California Homeowners Can Prevent Blackouts
Community Solar: Bringing People Together for Clean Energy 

Susanne Green is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about green homes, purple hearts, and white elephants.  She is a finance professional who has travelled on foot through varied countries on six continents and now lives with her daughter in Southern California.  

© 2012 SCGH, LLC. All rights reserved.

Solar Company in France Empowers People with Disabilities

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By Susanne Green
April 23, 2012 

SAINTE-MARIE-AUX-MINES, FRANCE — Sometimes things turn out the way they are supposed to, and we at Sierra Club Green Home cannot help but notice. In this case, it is one solar company that is powered in equal parts by sustainability and social responsibility.

When Jean Viry-Babel, co-founder of Thousandsuns, had the concept to design a power source for the electricity-free beach houses that scatter the shores of England, he did not know it would lead to providing high-efficiency portable solar generators and panels used worldwide for disaster and recovery purposes, in addition to recreation.

Then it just so happened that ESAT (Etablissement ou Service d’Aide par le Travail) Les Tournesols, a French nonprofit that helps disabled people find work, was located in the vicinity of Thousandsuns’ factory in Alsace, France. When a company hires disabled workers in France, most of its employee wage taxes are waived, amounting to a savings of approximately 35% of the wage, according to Viry-Babel. So it seemed like a practical investment.

Thousandsuns France contacted ESAT in 2011 regarding hiring its production personnel through ESAT’s agency. Since production began in June 2011, disabled persons staffed through ESAT have assembled all of Thousandsuns’ Solarpods, a revolutionary product that in 2011 earned Thousandsuns the Franco-British Award for Innovation. The Solarpod ranges in size from the “Buddy,” a small device with enough power to recharge a cell phone, to the “Pro,” a larger 1,000 watt unit, which weighs about 33 pounds.

Some might call it serendipity, but when asked about how everything fell into place, Viry-Babel says, “That’s the whole point, the normality of it.”

Are there any special challenges to hiring exclusively disabled personnel? Viry- Babel says that the instructions for assembly are all visual, and his production staff perfoms well and reliably.

“I have more difficulties with our non-disabled employees,” he says.

Disabilities among employees range from deafness and severe depression to Autism or Down syndrome. However, Thousandsuns France cannot hire individuals in wheelchairs because assembly on most products requires the employee to be standing.

Thousandsuns has adopted the strategic model of many major French companies (particularly in the environment and energy sectors): contributing to the challenges of sustainable development through corporate social responsibility (CSR). The goal is to collaborate with particular institutions and services to invest in human capital and promote corporate social responsibility. CSR often goes hand-in-hand with increasing a company’s bottom line.

Viry-Babel states that his company doesn’t broadcast its CSR strategy. However, distributors of Solarpod do market the product as a “bundled” socially responsible product. Extending beyond Thousandsuns’ hiring policy, the Solarpod is 98% recyclable, is nearly carbon neutral, and proudly wears the stamp “Made in France,” where there is relatively strong labor advocacy. And, of course, it’s solar.

But investing in human capital is about much more than profits or earning a “socially responsible” stamp. It can make a difference in the life of a person who may otherwise experience difficulty finding gainful employment.

Let us consider François, who began working at Thousandsuns France when it opened its doors for production last June. François began working at age 15. However, after experiencing severe lower back pain and social difficulties, followed by a period of drug addiction, finding employment was a problem for him.

“My back problems in addition to the scars left by the addiction to drugs did not permit me to resume any work,” says François. After 12 years of experience at ESAT, François was sent to Thousandsuns to complete two weeks of training under production manager Arnaud Gailleurd.

In less than one year François has participated in the completion of more than 2,000 Solarpods and is now supervisor of two other disabled employees.

“I thank [Thousandsuns] for giving me this chance and today entrusting me with so much responsibility,” says François.

It looks like this model is making a difference one person at a time at companies like Thousandsuns. Sierra Club Green Home applauds this company’s successful melding of sustainability and social justice.

For related articles, please see:
Los Angeles Youth Plant Seeds of Sustainbility and Social Justice
Clean, Renewable Energy Could Power U.S. by 2050 

Susanne Green is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about green homes, purple hearts, and white elephants.  She is a finance professional who has travelled on foot through varied countries on six continents and now lives with her daughter in Southern California.

© 2012 SCGH, LLC.

Clean, Renewable Energy Could Power U.S. by 2050

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By Max Havins
April 13, 2012 

SAN DIEGO, CA — Author and clean energy advocate Lovins has mapped a plan to completely eliminate U.S. consumption of oil, coal, and nuclear power by mid-century, all while boosting the U.S. GDP by more than 150 percent. Importantly, this can be achieved without having to push legislation through a gridlocked U.S. Congress.

This week, he outlined RMI’s roadmap at an event hosted by CleanTECH San Diego, the California Center for Sustainable Energy, and Xconomy, and attended by Sierra Club Green Home.

“We need a new fire,” Lovins told the group, which included clean tech companies and entrepreneurs from across Southern California.

Lovins pointed to the opportunities to improve “vehicle fitness,” creating lighter and stronger vehicles. With existing technologies and materials, like carbon fiber, cars could go 50 percent further on a tank of gas. A car getting 30 miles per gallon could be getting mileage comparable to a Prius.

Lovins also spoke about the big opportunities to reduce electricity demand. Efficiency improvements in buildings, together with a smarter power grid and increasingly affordable renewable power, would make us able to meet all of our electricity needs with clean energy—even during a summer in Texas.

All this might sound too ambitious or even impractical if not for the evidence at Lovins’ own home in Snowmass, Colorado. His house, built in 1984 and renovated in 2009, showcases the opportunities integrated design and passive solar heating present.

Located in the Rocky Mountains (20 minutes north of Aspen), Lovins’ home needs no furnace—even in the winter. In fact, it is famous for growing bananas and other tropical fruit. It has a greenhouse that absorbs heat from the sun in the summer and stores that thermal energy to help heat the home through the cold Colorado winters. Lovins uses the home to demonstrate cutting-edge green building technologies, as well as many that are affordable and cost-effective today. Meanwhile, he pays a monthly electricity bill of $5.

The house stands as one small example of a much bigger economic and environmental opportunity. Lovins and RMI are working to turn small examples into the big changes that lead to the $5 trillion of economic benefit they see in the coming decades. Their Superefficient Housing Initiative, for example, includes collaborations and competitions to design and retrofit homes to realize energy savings far beyond incremental improvements on today’s building energy codes.

With each step towards a clean energy economy—without oil, coal, or nuclear power—the U.S. can turn RMI’s vision into reality. As Lovins told CleanTECH San Diego CEO Jim Waring on Wednesday, the big changes will be a result of millions of individual decisions. Much like past transformations with computers and mobile phones, he noted, before long the changes will be everywhere.

For related article, see:
Passive Solar Heating


© 2012 SCGH, LLC.

Community Solar: Bringing People Together for Clean Energy

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By Debbie Van Der Hyde

Just don’t see solar panels fitting on your roof? They can still be installed into your energy future, thanks to community solar programs.

“Community solar is a way for multiple individuals to share in the benefits of a single solar installation,” explains a publication from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Instead of investing in a private solar energy system, people can pool their resources to develop a large-scale solar energy project for the benefit of a group or neighborhood.

Community solar projects remove common barriers to using solar as a renewable resource, including customer inertia due to the potential complexity of choosing photovoltaic panels, finding a vendor, and acquiring permits. Community solar also allows apartment and condo dwellers, as well as homeowners who live in shaded areas, to participate in domestic energy generation.

However, the biggest benefit for most people is cost savings. Private solar installations can be costly (although the price is decreasing) and community solar offers an alternative for Sierra Club Green Home readers to participate without investing a significant amount of money upfront. Instead, participants typically pay for shares into the program and qualify for net-metering savings to match.

The concept is quickly gaining momentum across the nation as people experiment with different business models to bring solar energy systems to their cities and towns. One innovative approach comes from Solar Mosaic, a financing platform that connects investors to solar projects in their communities.

“We utilize ‘crowdfunding’ to democratize the financial and environmental benefits of solar…everyone [can] take part in the solar rooftop revolution,” says Billy Parish, president and co-founder of Solar Mosaic.

One of the organization’s recently funded projects, The Asian Resource Center, is expected to save more than $100,000 over its 20-year lease, which they can reinvest in programs that provide low-income housing in Oakland, CA.

To build awareness, Solar Mosaic also organized Community Solar Day on November 20, 2011.

“We partnered with 20 organizations, [including Sierra Club], to hold a day of action for people to kick start their community solar projects,” Parish says.

The efforts included an online toolkit, small community solar grants, and a page to help people make local connections. Approximately 127 communities from around the world participated, and Solar Mosaic awarded two community solar grants—one in India, the other in Minneapolis. Plans are being made now for Community Solar Day 2012.

Other community solar models include:

  • Volunteer-led efforts, such as the successful grassroots campaigns in Portland, OR, as described in The Solarize Guidebook;
  • Utility-sponsored efforts that are funded by grants or other means.

A successful example of this utility approach comes from Seattle which, despite its rainy reputation, was designated a Solar America Community (one of 25 across the nation) by the US Department of Energy in 2008. On March 21, Seattle City Light unveiled a 24-kilowatt community solar project: three new solar picnic shelters located at Seattle’s Jefferson Park.

“Given the growing interest in community solar, this was a great opportunity for a legacy project that also provides our customers with more choice in conservation and renewable energy programs,” says Jack Brautigam, renewable energy program manager for Seattle City Light.

According to Brautigam, the utility could have chosen any site within its service territory for the project. However, in the spirit of community solar, Seattle City Light wanted to make the project as accessible as possible (hence the public park). The photovoltaic panels, manufactured by Silicon Energy in Washington, are translucent and serve as the roofs of the shelters, allowing the sun to shine through.

Seattle City Light received a $300,000 grant from the Department of Energy to develop the customer-supported community solar installation, which the utility matched in program expenditures to plan, design, and market.

To date, Seattle City Light has sold more than 400 of the 500 units to customers for $600 per unit (with a max of two units per customer), in return for Washington state production incentives and energy credits on participating customers’ power bills.

“Revenues from customers participating in the initial project will be used to plan and build a second project, serving as a revolving funding mechanism,” Brautigam says.

In the second phase, Brautigam adds that Seattle City Light plans to install an educational interface near the picnic shelters to help people learn more about the viability of solar energy.

We at Sierra Club Green Home are truly heartened to see these community models that make solar energy more practical and accessible.

For related articles, see:
New Windows Generate Solar Power
Solar Roadways: Energy and Transportation Solution in One 

© 2012 SCGH, LLC. 

Triple Benefits of Solar-Powered EV Chargers

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By Erika F. Washington
December 19, 2011

With the interest steadily growing for alternative fuel options for vehicles, more and more consumers are turning to flex fuel or electric-powered vehicles (EV). Issues still remain, however, with purchasing an EV. Some areas have few, if any, spaces for drivers to plug and recharge their cars.

REC Solar and General Electric (GE) are working together to create more of GE’s WattStations to make the transition easier for consumers ready to purchase an EV.

“With expectations of one million EVs entering America’s roadways by 2016, the need to establish a sustainable EV infrastructure is here today,” says Lee Johnson, CEO of REC Solar.

Besides adding economic benefits to owning an EV, solar-powered charging offers environmental and energy-saving benefits.

GE designed its WattStation to help accelerate the adoption of plug-in EVs by significantly decreasing the time needed for charging. It delivers a full charge in only four to eight hours, while standard overnight charging can take 12 to 14 hours, a negative for many would-be EV purchasers. Its smart, grid-enabled technology also could help utility companies manage the impact of EVs on the local and regional grids.

As a distributor of the GE WattStation, REC Solar will make it easier for its thousands of commercial, government, and residential customers to incorporate EV charging capabilities. REC Solar specializes in state-of-the-art solar technology with a vision to make solar electricity a part of the mainstream energy supply.

REC Solar and GE also are looking at a future transportation system free of fossil fuels. The partners  seek to create an end-to-end solar EV charging system that will enable cars to run literally on sunshine.

With a cost around $2,000, EV owners can have a WattStation installed in their garage.

“Actual installation only takes a couple hours, but the big advantage is that it significantly cuts your charge time—basically in half,” says REC’s Cary Hayes.

The ultra-sustainable intersection of solar and EV industries means greater reduction of greenhouse gases and independence from fossil fuels. At the same time, the marriage of the two delivers economic benefits to drivers. The cost of driving a solar-charged EV may be 66 percent less than a gas-powered car, according to a recent study by Green Tech Media Research, an online media company.

GE says it is dedicated to innovations in energy, health, transportation, and infrastructure. With operations in more than 100 countries, the company’s goal is to provide integrated product and service solutions in all areas of the energy industry, including renewable resources such as water, wind, solar and biogas, as well as other alternative fuels and new grid modernization technologies to meet 21st century energy needs.

Incorporating solar energy into EV use will help to ease the demand on electrical grids by a sharp increase of EV chargers. And solar energy itself contributes to a cleaner environment.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.

Solar Carport for Shelter and Energy

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By Victoria Lanier

DALLAS — The University of Texas (UT) is known for developing innovative treatments to save lives, and now is using an innovative solar carport to help save the planet.

UT Southwestern Medical Center recently added a solar carport to both protect cars from the elements and generate electricity for nearby buildings. It helps the campus reduce its energy bill and also serves as a charging station for electric vehicles.

It also makes a big difference in UT’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. The university estimates that it saves them more than 400,000 kilowatt-hours, which is the equivalent of taking the carbon output of 56 passenger vehicles off the road.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC. 








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