Kids create street art that generates solar power

TakePart/Participant Media | Oct. 23, 2015

"Renaissance Gate" - Solar public art installation in Pittsburgh, Penn.

The “Renaissance Gate” is a solar public art installation in Pittsburgh, Penn. designed by youth in the city’s Homewood neighborhood. (Photo credit: Land Art Generation Initiative)

Pennsylvania’s coal industry may be in decline, but in one of Pittsburgh’s toughest neighborhoods, a solar project could become a symbol of a brighter future.

Since August, Homewood residents have walked through the Renaissance Gate—a public art and solar installation built and designed by local youths during a six-week summer camp—and seen the Western Pennsylvania sun power their cell phones and light up the community center next door.

“The idea of a ‘Renaissance Gate’ is a passageway through which visitors can walk from the old Homewood into a Homewood of the future—a place of prosperity and opportunity for those who call it home,” said Elizabeth Monoian, cofounder of the Pittsburgh-based Land Art Generation Initiative. The group sponsored an Art+Energy camp designed to teach young people about the social, political, environmental, and aesthetic aspects of energy production.

The 17 red, yellow, and orange solar panels are mounted atop the gate in a configuration mimicking the symmetry of a flower. The installation can produce enough electricity to power the lighting at the Homewood Renaissance Community Center through a hookup to its electrical meter. Two panels connected to a battery provide power for cell phone charging. The community center also receives a credit on its electricity bill by selling the energy that it doesn’t use to the local utility.

The 20 students enrolled in the camp learned about Western Pennsylvania’s deep roots in coal production and visited a local coal-fired power plant.

The Homewood Renaissance Association, which runs the community center, served as the link with the greater neighborhood community.

“All applauded the initiative to bringing solar energy to the neighborhood and loved that it was local kids leading the effort,” said Robert Ferry, LAGI’s other cofounder.

With only six weeks to complete the project, it was a race to the finish, according to Monoian, who said the team completed the detailed design drawings in the fourth week and sent them to a fabricator a week before the installation.

“We pulled it off, but it took some long nights and some good fortune,” she said.

Ferry said he hopes the Renaissance Gate will be a catalyst for the area’s transformation.

“Energy democracy is a critical issue that must be addressed in neighborhoods such as Homewood,” he said. “Why aren’t there more solar installations in neighborhoods that could benefit greatly from them? We hope that the impact goes beyond Homewood and Pittsburgh to ignite a conversation about both our visual landscape in all neighborhoods and in the usefulness of distributed energy systems for empowering historically disadvantaged communities.”

Tapping the sun to put more food on Africa’s table

TakePart | June 3, 2014

Sweet potato farmers in Mozambique. Photo by International Livestock Research Institute courtesy Creative Commons

Sweet potato farmers in Mozambique. Photo by International Livestock Research Institute courtesy Creative Commons

For farmers in Mozambique, every harvest is bittersweet. That’s because up to 40 percent of their crops can spoil, as there’s no way to keep them cool. It’s a common and costly problem in countries that lack reliable power grids—or have no access to electricity at all—and that can ill afford to throw away food.

Farmers can use diesel generators to refrigerate produce, but they’re expensive and cause pollution. What if they could tap carbon-free solar energy to power a device that chills newly harvested crops, thus extending their shelf life? Better yet, that device could be manufactured locally, creating jobs.

Rebound Technology of Boulder, Colo., is trying to do just that. Formed by two solar industry exiles, the start-up is developing a 3-D-printed heat exchanger and a membrane made from a Gore-Tex-like material that uses solar thermal heat to create refrigeration.

“If we can cool the products in the field, then that will be really beneficial. In Mozambique, crops are being harvested in 77 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Kevin Davis, Rebound’s cofounder and CEO. “By lowering the temp of that product you’re stunting some of the metabolic processes that lead to spoilage.”

Higher-quality produce could be sold for up to four times more than the price of fruits and vegetables that have not been chilled before being transported to market, Davis says. Because women are buying the food from farmers to sell at the markets in Mozambique, it would also help women small business owners, according to Koos Van Der Merwe, the co-owner of Mozambique Organicos, a farm that is partnering with Rebound to field-test the technology next year.

Here’s how it works: Salt is dissolved in warm water running through a 3-D-printed heat exchanger. The saltwater solution absorbs the heat from the warm water, which makes it colder. That dip in temperature chills another pool of water that the farmers dunk their produce into after harvesting. To ready the process for the next day, a membrane placed into the saltwater uses heat generated by a solar thermal panel to separate out the salt and water across the membrane.

As simple as it sounds, Rebound’s product—dubbed SunChill—has some way to go before it can be deployed to Mozambique farmers. With $1.4 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development—via “Powering Agriculture,” a new program aimed at fostering clean-tech solutions to boost agricultural productivity in developing countries—Davis and cofounder Russell Muren will spend the better part of the next year designing and testing the SunChill prototype.

The pair will meet with smallholder farmers in Mozambique this month to gather information for the design process. They’re also working with German collaborators to finalize the membrane’s design.

One challenge the company is still working out, Davis says, is the best way to get SunChill into the hands of small farmers, given the system’s expected $6,000 price tag. Rebound thinks it’s feasible for larger operations such as Mozambique Organicos or agricultural co-ops to purchase the equipment for use by a large group of farmers.

Van Der Merwe, who is about to start a business working with small farmers, says SunChill can fill a void. “I’m quickly running out of capacity to accommodate all small-scale production,” he says. “Being [that we supply] mostly produce for the local markets, we’re hoping that the SunChill technology can provide the answer to this need.”

View the original story here.

Los Angeles subway generates wind energy

TakePart | April 4, 2014

Los Angeles subway train

Los Angeles MTA subway train in tunnel

Here’s a next-gen idea that’ll blow you away: Using a specialized turbine during a 10-day period in August and September 2013, the Los Angeles Metro rail system was able to capture the wind power coming from passing subway cars—and turn it into renewable energy.

The 10-foot-wide wind turbine—custom-built for the project, which was initiated by Metro’s Environmental Compliance unit—generated an average of 77.7 kwH per day, an amount that could produce 28,000 kwH if projected over an entire year. That’s enough to power 12 homes in California during the same time period, or prevent the annual release of more than 17 tons of CO2 emissions from natural gas (and more than 30 tons of CO2 emissions generated from coal), according to Metro estimates.

“To our knowledge, Metro is the first transit agency to have implemented an actual test and have real data to report,” said Metro spokesperson Anna Chen. University students in India got permission to install a turbine in Delhi’s subway system last year, and a team of Korean designers floated the idea in 2010, but no results have been publicly released to date.

The turbine—known as MACE (multi-blade mass airflow collection equipment)—was designed by WWT Tunnel, a Pasadena, Calif.–based company that develops technology aimed at generating energy from previously unused sources.

It took a few months to design the equipment and several days for Metro to install the MACE unit, Chen said. Because Metro trains run for up to 20 hours a day and the subway system often undergoes repairs in the lull between operations, there was only a three- to four-hour window each day to install the unit without interrupting subway service.

The MACE turbine was placed on the base of a tunnel wall on Metro’s Red Line between the North Hollywood and Universal City stations and was removed after the pilot project was complete. The agency chose to install it at a middle section of the tunnel, where trains are estimated to run up to 70 miles per hour.

“It’s the best place to get the maximum amount of wind because as the train leaves the station, the wind pushes out before it, and then the train creates the drag,” Chen said.

MACE’s blades start spinning a minute before the train passes by and stop two minutes after the train passes. During the pilot, the unit made more than 1,070 revolutions per minute.

To make sure that the blades could safely operate once underground, Metro and WWT Tunnel conducted aboveground testing in which the turbine was run through a series of wind simulations.

“They wanted to make sure that nothing broke off if the blades spun at maximum speeds,” Chen said.

Metro anticipates that it can store any excess wind energy produced by the turbines for use during times of peak demand. Because the trains run on a regular schedule, the underground wind energy can be a more reliable source of renewables than solar or aboveground wind.

But Metro is not ready to regularly start spinning the blades yet. Using the data collected during the pilot, it will release a report later in the year that will analyze the feasibility of the idea, as well as the effectiveness of MACE turbines.

“We’ll be making recommendations on how we can implement this throughout the system as a whole,” Chen said.

View the original story here.

Photo of Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway train in tunnel via Wikimedia Commons

Virtual net metering grows, expands solar’s reach

SolarEnergy | January 22, 2014

mmunity-owner solar array. Photo courtesy Clean Energy Collective

A community-owned solar array.

When the clock ticked over to the year 2014, New Hampshire officially enabled residents to receive credit on their utility bills from solar energy — without a single solar panel placed on their roof.

Sound strange? A tweak in the state’s net metering laws has made it possible for apartment dwellers, renters, and business owners to buy their own solar panels (positioned as part of a larger array and located offsite) and receive credit for the generated energy. Known as virtual net metering, or community-owned solar, participants will get a credit on their bill if they consume less than their panels produce for the month.

New Hampshire is one of 11 entities — including California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont — where some sort of virtual net metering policy is in place. In some places, such as California, restrictions limit eligibility. California State Sen. Lois Wolk is reintroducing a bill that would enable renting residents and business owners to be eligible alongside the building owners who can currently install solar PV and implement virtual net metering at affordable housing complexes.

“It’s not as attractive to investor-owned utilities that need to deliver returns,” said Paul Spencer, CEO and founder of Clean Energy Collective in Boulder, Colo., a company that is leading the way in setting up virtual net metering programs by negotiating deals with utilities and developing the solar projects needed to generate the energy.

Spencer’s company established the first such program in the U.S. in 2010 with Holy Cross Electric, a cooperative utility near El Jebel, a town outside Aspen. To reach that milestone, Clean Energy Collective had to wrestle with a number of challenges that had never been faced before, including satisfying security laws, federal tax laws, and developing software that enables participants’ energy credits to be directly applied directly to their utility bill.

Since then, Clean Energy Collective has brokered deals for virtual net metering with 14 other utilities in six states. At least one investor-owned utility — Xcel Energy — is part of the mix.

The key, Spencer said, is to negotiate a price for the energy that both the utilities and consumers can agree upon. And the utilities also benefit from the virtual net metering programs, he added, by helping them reach their state’s mandated renewable portfolio standard.

Expansion in Massachusetts

Recently, Clean Energy Collective announced plans to construct four solar arrays (in this context, also known as community solar gardens) in Massachusetts for virtual net metering programs. The solar gardens will be built in areas served by three of the state’s largest utilities.

In Massachusetts, as in other projects, the panels are available on a first-come, first-served basis. However, residents can only purchase solar panels with the capacity of generating 100 percent of their energy consumption.

Return on Investment?

With the average cost for a panel hovering around $750, and the first year’s return between 5.5 to 10 percent payback, Spencer estimates that buyers will break even anywhere from seven to 15 years on average, after taking inflation into account.

What happens if the owner of a solar panel has to move?

If one’s new home is located the same utility service area, the owner can just notify the utility. But if he or she is moving out of the area, it will have to be transferred to someone who lives in the area.

“It’s just like a car,” Spencer said. “You own it — so you can sell it for any price you want.”

Looking to the Future

As Clean Energy Collective currently has “active conversations” in play with over 135 utilities in 38 states, Spencer feels optimistic for the future growth of virtual net metering.

But he’s also realistic.

“All 50 states might be a challenge,” he says. “Some states are not a match for solar since there’s not a lot of sun, and the power prices are low.”

View the original story here.

Photo of community-solar array courtesy Clean Energy Collective

How Google is changing the renewables game

GreenBiz | April 24, 2013 | Original headline: How Google is changing the renewables game for Apple, Facebook

Nightfall over Google data center in Lenoir, N.C. The need to consume ever-increasing amounts of energy in their data centers — yet continue marching towards renewable energy goals — has been an ongoing challenge for Google and Apple.

Google has offset electricity needed for its centers through purchase power agreements that enable an equal amount of renewable energy to be created, yet has lamented that managing power sales and purchases on the wholesale market takes time away from its focus on building user products.

And despite Apple’s onsite generation of renewable energy, it has still had to supplement its need for renewables through buying off the grid and purchasing renewable energy certificates to offset the conventional portion, green IT experts say.

It’s a conundrum that has kept the Silicon Valley tech giants within the constraints of local utilities’ energy mix in states that don’t permit direct purchases of renewable energy.

Nowhere has this challenge been more evident than in North Carolina, an indirect access state that houses data centers for Google, Apple and Facebook as well as AT&T, Wipro and Disney. Compounding matters further is proposed legislation that would repeal the state’s renewable portfolio standard mandating that 12.5 percent of North Carolina’s energy mix come from renewable sources by 2021.

But things are looking up. Now, Google is trying to transform the local landscape in North Carolina by partnering with Duke Energy. The pair worked together to develop a mechanism which will enable companies of all sizes to directly purchase renewables through a new category dubbed “renewable energy tariffs.”

“The tariffs are creating a new class of service,” said Michael Terrell, who leads Google’s public policy efforts in energy and sustainability. “We think it will be a good framework for purchasing renewable energy,” he told GreenBiz.

Before the program can be launched, though, the new class and tariff structure needs to be approved by the North Carolina Utiltiies Commission. Duke Energy will make a regulatory filing asking for its adoption within the next three months.

Under the tariff, renewable energy will be sold at specific rates yet to be determined — higher than conventional sources, of course, but passed on only to those who choose to participate in the program.

“What we think is exciting is that it’s scaleable – it allows companies to buy large amounts of renewables … not every company can manage power on the wholesale market,” Terrell said.

Terrell said that he hopes the tariff will be in place by the end of the year.

Google’s announcement of the renewable energy tariff concept last Friday came on the same day it released plans to expand its Lenoir, N.C. data center with $600 million in investments. The possibility of accessing more renewable energy directly will come in handy for the company striving to reach a commitment it made in 2007 to become carbon neutral.

Implications for Apple, Facebook


The renewable energy tariff promises to boost Apple’s tally of renewable energy directly purchased for use at its data center in Maiden, N.C.

Despite Apple’s claim last month that its data centers are powered by 100 percent renewable energy, experts say that based on the information the company has released, it does buy conventional power off the grid in North Carolina (comprised mainly of coal and nuclear power in 2013, according to a Duke Energy report filed to the state’s utilities commission) to supplement what it cannot supply on its own from its 20 MW solar array and 10 MW fuel cell installation at the Maiden data center.

According to Brad Brech, a data center energy efficiency expert and board member of the Portland-based Green Grid, Apple fell short of its claim.

“Assuming that the facility runs the fuel cells at their rated capacity, they will be running their data center at its average operational load in 2012 on 85 percent renewable energy. On a sunny day, the facility will be running on 100 percent renewable energy for eight to 10 hours because the 20 MW solar farm is feeding the grid during that time period, increasing the percentage of the time the data center runs on renewable energy to 91.3 percent of the day,” Brech told GreenBiz. “On a rainy day, it will be 85 percent.”

Brech used Apple’s reported figure of the Maiden data center’s total consumption of 104,000 MWh in 2012 as a basis for his calculations, which he said on average requires 11.8 MW of generation capacity.

“With the current renewable energy generation and energy storage technologies, it is extremely difficult to run a facility that uses large amounts of electricity on renewable energy 24 hours per day, seven days per week,” Brech added. “Most renewable energy generation sources for electricity are intermittent and then are no economical, large scale energy storage technologies available to store electricity for release when the renewable sources are not generating.”

Gary Cook, an IT analyst for Greenpeace, also weighed in. “Apple is otherwise buying renewable energy credits to allow it to claim that all of the electricity it buys is renewable energy,” he told GreenBiz. “It’s not clear how much of Apple’s 100 percent renewable energy claim is being supported by REC purchases. … Technically speaking, if Apple used the current standard for reporting greenhouse gas emissions, Apple would have to use Duke’s grid mix.”

“Given that they expect the Maiden facility to grow and its electricity use increase it will be difficult to achieve 100 percent renewable energy use and assure the reliable operation of the facility,” Brech concluded. “The reality is that all users of renewable energy, whether they are residential or commercial, depend on grid-generated electricity for some part of the day.”

Apple did not make a spokesperson available to respond.


The social media company runs a data center in Forest City, N.C., operates another in Prineville, Ore., is building a third in Lulea, Sweden and recently announced plans for a fourth near Des Moines, Iowa. While it has not been as aggressive as Google or Apple in the renewables market so far, it has a goal to reach 25 percent use of renewable energy at its data centers and facilities by 2015. And it’s planning to tap into renewable energy sources for its data centers in Sweden and Iowa, according to Reuters.

If Duke Energy’s regulatory filing to the North Carolina Utilities Commission to establish renewable energy tariffs is approved, Facebook will also have the opportunity to increase its use of renewables in Forest City.

Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks told GreenBiz that he didn’t know whether Facebook or Apple has expressed interest in participating in the renewable energy tariff program.

GigaOM‘s Katie Fehrenbacher reported last summer that Facebook’s head of energy efficiency and sustainability Bill Weihl expressed interest in purchasing renewable energy through an industry trade association which would “influence utilities’ grid choices through the group purchasing of clean power,” the article read.

How the renewable tariff program would work

Google and Duke Energy still have yet to hammer out much of the details of the renewable tariff program, which is a separate initiative from the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

The program will initially focus on large commercial and industrial companies as customers, according to Google.

“They have fairly predictable energy loads and it’s consistent, which makes it easy to design a rate that will meet their needs,” said Brooks, who added that Duke Energy had been discussing the tariff program with Google in detail for the last several months. General discussion about the idea began when Google first asked Duke Energy for a renewables rate during initial discussions about expanding its Lenoir data center, according to Brooks.

To start, the customer will decide if they want to offset some or all of its energy consumption, then the utility will match the customer with a project in the region that has a third party purchase agreement, Brooks said.

In addition to the utility going out and identifying renewable project sources, projects can approach the utility and come in under the tariff, he continued.

While Brooks could not project the level of demand in North Carolina for directly purchased renewables, he said he sees a potential for long-term growth of renewable energy sources.

“We’ve seen renewable energy projects bloom in the state over the last few years, and we’ve seen a great interest in solar energy companies, wind and even biomass and other forms of methane gas projects too. Solar in particular has really boomed in the past few years, and we’ve seen costs come down for those technologies,” Brooks said.

Terrell said that Google has been speaking to other utilities about the renewable energy tariff proposal. According to Brooks, the idea to offer renewable energy rates to various customer classes is fairly new but not entirely unique. Dominion Virginia Power, he said, provides a similar offering.

“It’s [an idea] that utilities are exploring in different ways,” he said.

View the original story.

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