All posts by Aubrey Patti

3 Solar Financing Options to Consider

Paying for your own energy sucks.

So why not just produce your own energy? Maybe you’re just considering ways to make your home or your community more energy efficient, and save some money. Either way, there are many different types of solar technology that create or save energy.

Small solar electric systems are becoming increasingly popular as a way to produce electricity for homes and businesses. Photovoltaic systems use sunlight to create energy. Excess energy can usually be sold back into the grid.

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Photo by: Mike Carter

Another ways to utilize solar power is a solar water heating system. Active systems have pumps that circulate water through plates exposed to sunlight on roofs and back into the home. Passive solar water heating systems are not as efficient, but can be more reliable and longer lasting. They work so that the water flows when warm water rises and colder water sinks into the tanks.

The cost of solar technology is also going down, due to investment and research by the government.

The Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative is a national effort to reduce the costs of solar to $0.06 per kilowatt hour,” said a DOE spokesperson. “Yet,  it does not make funding available for individual solar projects, instead it focuses on innovations that will help make solar cost-competitive, whether that be making advances in technology or reducing market barriers, compared to other forms of energy.”

A main concern about utilizing these technologies is the expense of installing them. The government offers programs to help make the costs of producing energy or becoming more energy efficient feasible. State incentives vary, but can be found through the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. Here are three federal incentives for implementing solar technologies in your home or community.

1: FHA PowerSaver Loan Program

This is a program that incentivizes energy-saving renovations to the home by offering borrowers low-cost loans. These loans include up to $25,000 to install solar panels, along with other energy-efficient improvements.

To participate, you must have a minimum credit score of 660, and a one-unit, owner-occupied principal residence. To apply, contact an FHA approved lender.

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Photo by: TEIA

2: Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit

The taxpayer may claim a 30% tax credit on expenditures of solar electric or solar water-heating property. These expenditures include labor costs, assembly and system installation and piping or wiring a system to the home.

This tax credit is decreasing gradually. It is a 30% tax credit for systems in place before 2020, 26% for systems placed between 2020 and 2021, and 22% for systems placed in 2021. The home served by the system does not have to be the taxpayer’s principal residence.

“I think that most importantly, there is certainty in it now,” said Doug Stingle, the development director for The Midwest Renewable Energy Association. ”The market knows what the rate is going to be in the next couple of years; some of that pressure has been relieved.”

3: USDA High Energy Cost Grant Program

This is a grant aimed for rural, local communities with expensive energy costs. Those who can apply include state and local governments, non-profits and for-profit businesses. Eligible areas must have an average household energy cost exceeding 275 percent of the national average, which is $0.33 per kilowatt hour.

The grants range from $50,000 to $3 million for activities including renewable energy facilities and other electricity generation facilities.

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Photo by: gambier20

Solar Installation Timeline

In a world of quick expiration dates and unreliable subsidies, the time it takes to install a solar system on your house matters. A lot of it depends on how quickly your local government gives permits, and the companies you decide to use. Here is a rough estimate of what to expect:

 

Pre-Work: Two months or less

This really depends on the customer. If applying for federal loans or grants, this amount of time varies. If you are on top of it, it could take much less time. You also need to pick a company and get estimates for the cost. When you finally sign the paperwork, the project becomes official.

 

Gathering Site Specific Data: Weeks One and Two

Various experts from the solar installation company come out to assess the job that must be done. Construction workers and engineers will survey the house and land surrounding it. Electricians may come in to update wiring and make sure the energy produced from the PV cells can be transferred into your house and onto the grid.

“So usually what you do is sign a customer for a contract for a certain system size,” said Dan Lezama, the owner of Sun Dollar Energy LLC, a solar installation company based in Raleigh, NC. This ‘system size’ means the actual number of panels you want on and around your house.

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Photo by: Takver

Designing the Project: Weeks Three and Four

The contractors and company design a feasible plan of what the PV cells will look like, and how to go about installing them. You must then look them over and approve of the plans. If you want to make changes, the designing process could go on much longer.

“We are a full service turnkey provider,” said Bethany Theede, the office manager of Yes Solar Solutions, a solar panel installing company. “ We design the system based on the consumer’s energy usage and we design the panels to be placed on the roof to get the most usage. South facing roofs are best.”

Permit Submission and Approval: Week Five

This depends on your local government, and how prepared you are to apply for a permit. Some governments take only a day, whereas others can take weeks, especially if the customer doesn’t apply properly.

 

Installation: Week Six

After you have the go ahead to install, you must then schedule the installation. It usually takes one or two days to properly assemble the PV cells on the building.

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Photo by: Chris Kantos

Inspection and Approval: Weeks Seven and Eight

The city will usually come out and make sure the PV cells are working properly. Your electric utility may also inspect and put in a new meter for you.

“The most time consuming thing is getting approval from the utility company and getting a building permit,” said Lezama. “It entirely depends on what town you’re in; some places you can get them in a day, sometimes in a week. The utility approval is usually a 2 week process.”

Deal or Dud? Energy Efficiency

Energy use in homes, buildings and industry accounts for two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Many people refuse to install energy efficient products due to the high initial cost, and uncertainty about how they will pay themselves back in the future. Total energy consumption has stayed the same despite the onset of these products.

“Total energy consumption from the residential sector is basically the same,” said James Berry, the Energy Information Administration’s household energy use expert. “But how energy is consumed in our homes has changed. Our heating and cooling has gotten more efficient, but we’ve added stuff to our homes.”

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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Residential Energy Consumption Survey

These “stuff” are the appliances that are growing in popularity. People may have many TVs or refrigerators. It seems the best way to fix this is to fix the appliances to use less energy. But will the high initial cost of these products pay off in the long run?

 

LED Bulbs – Deal

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Photo by: Jonathan Cohen

LEDs are “directional” light sources, unlike incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs, which emit light in all directions. Since LEDs can be aimed in a specific direction, it allows them to be much more efficient. To produce light, an electrical current passes through tiny light-emitting diodes (LEDs). In comparison, in CFL bulbs, an electric current interacts with gas, producing UV light.

LEDs do not burn out like typical light bulbs- the light being produced slowly depreciates. This is the main argument against LEDs- they will fade and change color over time.

LED bulbs are significantly more expensive than CFL bulbs or incandescent bulbs. However, they last up to 25 times longer than the traditional incandescent bulbs, and save 85% more energy. They’re also widespread, and can be found at almost every home improvement store.

 

 

Energy Star Appliances – Deal

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Photo by: MoneyBlogNewz

When you walk into an appliance store, there are usually a couple things with a big green energy star marking on them. Energy Star is a program led by the US Environmental Protection Agency. That covers appliances like clothes washer and dryers, refrigerators, air conditioning, insulation, light bulbs, televisions, ovens, and many more.

As time has gone on energy efficiency has gone up, with prices going down. However, this does not mean that you shouldn’t buy the most efficient technology available. Energy-Star products provide reliable energy-efficient products that have a short payback period. For example, a consumer can save as much as $260 dollars over 5 years on a new refrigerator, while emitting 8,200 less pounds of carbon.

Energy efficient appliances are also being widely bought and have consumer support.

“Right now mostly all appliances are rated energy efficient,” said Darryl Johnson, a worker in the appliance department of Home Depot. He said that there are other energy efficient options than Energy Star.

 

LEED-Certified Buildings – Dud

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Photo by: Fairfax County

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is the most widely used third party for green buildings. Building projects get ‘points’ based on how buildings address several sustainability issues. The number of points will get the building a LEED rating: Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

In theory, the LEED program should work, and in several cases it does. However, LEED designs do not always turn out the way they were expected to, making them unreliable. 25% of projects deviate worse from design projections. Follow ups and anticipations are frequently off.

LEED certification can also be misleading. For example, a building might install technology to get a LEED certification, but the technology goes unused. The energy used to install it and run it is actually more than the energy saved, making it seem like a green building, but actually not be.

FAQ: Energizing Waste

How much do we really waste?

In 2013, Americans produced about 254 million tons of municipal solid waste (aka garbage), and recycled about 34.3% of that. That is about 4.4 pounds of garbage per person, per day.

Overall, municipal solid waste is over 60% organic. After recyclables are sorted out of the waste, what is left usually rots in landfills.

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Photo: The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Is this a new thing?

The US began burning waste in 1885 and by the mid-20th century, hundreds of incinerators were built to burn waste.

In 1970, the Clean Air Act put new regulations on incinerators, which had been polluting air and water sources.

Still, the practice of burning solid waste grew in the 1980s with more than 15% of waste being burnt in the early 1990s. In the late 1990s, more regulation was put on incinerators to control for mercury and dioxin emissions, causing the shutdown of many incinerators.

How widespread is incinerating waste for electricity?

 In 2013, 86 facilities in the US burned municipal solid waste for energy recovery. These facilities processed over 28 million tons of garbage to produce 2,720 megawatts of power per year. That is about 12% of the total municipal solid waste in the US.

“Burning waste to create energy should be more widespread,” said Nina Luker, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Trash overflow can be controlled without to many harmful effects, and it seems to be the best option for what to do with our garbage.”

Is there a downside?

Burning waste creates ash, which will eventually go into landfills, and could potentially cause serious environmental problems. The ash is about 5-15% weight and volume of the original waste, so more could be stored. However, if the ash escapes, it would be very bad for air and water quality all around the landfill.

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Photo: David Clow

Is incinerating solid waste the only way to get energy from trash?

No! Landfills are the third-larges source of human-created methane in the United States. This methane is a very harmful green house gas, but is now being collected and used for energy. It can be used in internal combustion engines, turbines, micro turbines and fuel cells to create both electricity and thermal energy.

Is electricity generation from waste used internationally?

Yes. In fact, Sweden is one of the world’s biggest success stories, heating 950,000 homes with trash. The Swedes recycle 47% of their waste, use 52% to generate heat, and less than 1% of their garbage ends up in landfills. They have begun to import trash to continue meeting the heating plants’ needs. The Swedish municipal association estimates that 1 ton of imported garbage saves about 1,100 pounds of methane from decomposing in landfills.

“I think the Swedes’ method of recycling and energy creation is a step in the right direction,” said Natalie Briggs, a first year at UNC-CH. “Other contries should soon follow to ensure better energy conservation.”

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Photo: Elliott Brown

 

Energy Sources: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“Climate change is real, it is happening right now,” said Leonardo DiCaprio during his politically charged acceptance speech at the Oscars Sunday night.

Whether or not you believe in man-made climate change, there is no arguing that the energy landscape is changing – and quickly. Here’s what’s good, the bad, and the ugly about the main sources of energy in the United States today.

 

Coal:

The Good: The infrastructure is already in place. It is estimated that the United States alone produced about 900 million tons in 2015. The United States has five major regions that produce coal and in 2013, there were about 80,400 people employed in the coal industry. In other parts of the world, coal is just as important.

“It’s still one of the cheapest sources across many parts of the world,” said Brian Park, a US Energy Information Administration coal expert. “Some parts are still heavily dependent on coal.”

The Bad: The price of coal is projected to increase. Meanwhile, coal production is falling, with the amount of coal produced in 2015 10% lower than the amount produced in 2014, and the lowest level its been since 1986.

The Ugly: 65% of the coal mined in the US comes from surface or strip mines, which change landscapes and pollute rivers and water sources. The rest come from underground mines, which produce the potent greenhouse gas methane. In 2013, underground mines formed about 9% of total US methane emissions. Mining it isn’t even the worst part. In 2014, coal accounted for 76% of carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation. Coal combustion also emits sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and ash. All of these emissions have negative impacts on air quality and human health.

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Photo by: camilla.mc

 

Oil:

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Photo by: Eric Chan

The Good: The industry is developed, with petroleum products accounting for about 34% of the energy consumed worldwide. Petroleum can be used to make many different products, including gas, waxes, and asphalt.

The Bad: Oil prices are unreliable, because they are determined by global supply and demand. The supply of oil is largely determined by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), who have close to three-fourths of the estimated world crude oil reserves. These regions have a history of political instability, leading to price instability.

The Ugly: Mining for oil is notoriously dangerous for ecosystems, both in water and on land. Oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska or the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have disastrous consequences that take years to fix.

 

Natural Gas:

The Good: As of 2014, the US has a projected 389 trillion cubic feet of natural gas both onshore and offshore. Using this resource of natural gas drives down the price of energy.

“The one really big thing we’re seeing is that power generation is starting to come more and more from natural gas,” said Katherine Teller, a US Energy Information Administration expert. She attributes this to more coal plants being retired, and the increased supply of natural gas and efficiency of miners.

The Bad: Natural gas is concentrated in specific areas, and must be transported to many places. In more than half the states in the US, natural gas consumers depend on interstate pipeline systems for their natural gas supply. Natural gas is highly flammable, which makes transportation dangerous.

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Photo by: Tod Baker

The Ugly: Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is a highly disputed mining method of natural gas; fracking has been accused of wasting and contaminating water and causing small earthquakes. While it burns cleaner than most fossil fuels, natural gas is mainly methane and emits carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other polluting compounds. Natural gas leaks were the source of 29% of total US methane emissions and one of the largest man-made greenhouse gas disasters.

 

Nuclear:

The Good: Nuclear power plants are used more intensively than coal or natural gas, as they use more capacity to generate electricity than other power plants. In 2014 in the US, the nuclear share of electricity generating capacity was 9%, while the share of total electricity generation was 19%. Nuclear has been consistently maintaining a share of about 20% of total US electricity output since 1990.

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Photo by: Tobin

The Bad: Nuclear reactors and power plants are dangerous if strict safety protocols are not followed. As shown in the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents, hazards run high with nuclear energy.

The Ugly: Nuclear power creates large amounts of radioactive waste that remain dangerous to human health for thousands of years. This makes disposal difficult, as waste must be stored safely. In addition, mining and refining uranium, and creating reactor fuel, requires large amounts of energy.

 

Renewable and Alternative Energies:

The Good: There are many different types of renewable energy sources. The main five are biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind and solar. This makes energy more reliable, because if one type fails, there are many others to count on. In addition, non-biomass renewable sources do not directly emit greenhouse gases, making them good for the environment. In 2014, about 13% of US electricity was generated from renewable sources, a number that is expected to grow.

The Bad: Renewables may not always be available depending on weather patterns. Cloudy days reduce solar installation generation, less windy days reduce wind power generation and hydropower is affected by droughts. Storage technologies are being developed to account for this, but they’ve got a long way to go.

The Ugly: The aesthetics of different types of renewables have been widely resisted. Many communities do not want to look at windmills or solar panels in their backyards. Hydropower dams may damage ecology and affect flow of rivers. Some wind turbines cause bird and bat deaths.

 

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Photo by: Mariano Mantel

5 Student’s Opinions On Energy-Efficiency Regulations

The Obama administration and EPA put forward many different solutions to environmental issues in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. Many of these solutions center around energy efficiency. While environmentalists parade these regulations, many were left shaking their heads. The Supreme Court is reviewing the constitutionality of these federal actions. Five students gave their opinions on whether the government has the right to regulate energy efficiency and promote energy efficient products.

Energy-Efficient Policies and Regulations

The boundaries of power of the United States government are constantly being pushed. As technology advances, it is becoming increasingly easier to use energy efficiently. The government has the power and is justified to promote energy efficiency.

There are multiple ways the government can “nudge” citizens in efficient directions. Experts believe internalizing energy costs, changing the tax structure, and informing the public could all help. The government is implementing some measures to increase energy efficiency despite opposition.

The Senate struck down an energy bill in 2014. It was meant to provide mandates that would improve building efficiency. If passed, it would have been the first major energy legislation since 2007.

President Obama responded to the bill’s failure by promoting the Better Buildings Challenge. This initiative commits participants to cutting energy usage by 20% by 2020. Companies such as Wal-Mart, General Mills, Volvo, and Wholefoods pledged to reach this goal.

Obama also pushed for eco-friendly legislation, an on-going battle that continues in the bipartisan government.

“President Obama is committed to taking responsible steps to address climate change, promote clean energy and energy efficiency, drive innovation, and ensure a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations,” the Obama Administration released in a press statement in August 2015. This press statement went on to outline what his steps entail.

His policies promote the implementation of energy-efficient technologies in low-income housing. They toughen mileage rules on cars and trucks. Energy-efficient standards for appliances were strengthened and new loans boosted green energy sources.

Most recently, the Obama administration halted new leases for coal mining on federal lands. The EPA has also released new regulation to stem carbon pollution from power plants.

These regulations have hit home in some states more than others.

Democrat presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have expressed their agreement with these policies.

Not everyone is as happy though. “The president’s policies have already ravaged coal country, destroying jobs and people’s way of life, and this will increase that suffering,” House Speaker Paul Ryan responded to the new coal policy.

Critics state that regulation and policy reform is not necessary. The cost of energy itself should provide incentive for choosing energy efficient options. However, many believe efficiency must be regulated because people won’t always make the smartest choice.

The Supreme Court will assess one of the Obama administration regulations for constitutionality. The regulation deals with electrical grid operators paying customers to reduce consumption at peak times. The judges will come out with their decision by June 2016.

 

 

Citations

Obama Steers Climate Battle “Upstream” With New Coal Policy

National Journal: Web Edition Articles (USA) – January 15, 2016

The Experts: How Should Governments Encourage Energy Conservation?

The Wall Street Journal- April 17, 2013 10:31 a.m. ET

FACT SHEET: President Obama Announces New Actions to Bring Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency to Households across the Country

The White House: Office of the Press Secretary – August 24, 2015

Energy Efficiency: Markets or Mandates?

September 1, 2014 – The Sallan Foundation

Obama push keeps energy efficiency moving

TODAY – May 14, 2014

Find Policies & Incentives by State

NC Clean Energy Technology Center

Who Are You Calling Irrational?

June 1, 2015 – U.S. News and World Report

Supreme Court to review U.S. electricity market efficiency rule

May 4, 2015 – Reuters

National Energy Policy

American Council for an Energy- Efficient Economy

Four reasons to be wary of energy-efficiency mandates

May 1, 2015 – Brookings