This winter, I’ve been corresponding with a Cuban colleague who works for Cuba Energia, an energy information center in Cuba. He tells me that the Government has decided to introduce modern, efficient induction cooking to the country by offering 125,000 units for sale to residents countrywide. So, why should we be interested in what Cuba is doing?
Cuba’s Sustainable Living Practices
People who live on islands tend to have a better handle on the concept of finite resources in general. But after the collapse of Soviet Union, their main trade ally, and due to the ever intensifying US blockade, Cubans had to learn how to produce basic requirements such as food, medicines, and energy, both locally and sustainably. In the spring of 2011 I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba with a group of energy professionals to see first-hand how they were managing these efforts. Read more about this in The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook.
Due to the hardships endured, the Cuban people were able to reduce their energy consumption by about 50 percent over a four year period. This was not necessarily an altruistic goal, but one of necessity, and ultimately an effort that brought the island nation together as a large community. They learned some hard lessons that the rest of us can use to our advantage. The Cuban government made efficient products available to everyone for free or at much reduced prices, including lights, refrigerators, pressure cookers, and bicycles. And now, possibly, induction cook stoves.
How Induction Cooking Works
Induction cook stoves have no heating element and so do not get hot. They work by generating a high frequency (20 to 60 kilohertz) electric current, and inducing a magnetic field into the cookware itself. The metallic cookware receiving this induced energy is essentially the second “conductor” in this electromagnetic “circuit”, and the internal resistance of the cookware is what creates the heat. The type of pots and pans you use will have an effect on efficiency, and only cookware with iron in it will work with today’s induction cook tops. If in doubt, check the pot or pan in question with a magnet. If it’s magnetic, it should work well with induction cooking.
Pros and Cons of Induction Cooking
The lack of a conventional and relatively inefficient heating element or burner makes kitchens safer and cooler. Users report faster heating times, and because the cookware itself becomes the source of heat for the food it contains, more even heating can be expected. Other benefits include easy to clean surfaces, precision temperature control, and very low temperature settings. If you use a pressure cooker, beware that using an induction cook top requires some modifications to your approach.
Induction cook stoves are still relatively expensive and so not yet very popular except in high end home and commercial kitchens. Finding good energy use information is difficult, as I’ve not yet seen any high quality studies on energy consumption comparisons; perhaps the first will come from Cuba. Anecdotal evidence from users suggests that they are quite fast at heating, but the induction elements have the same power requirements as conventional electric ranges. This combination suggests higher efficiency and lower cooking costs, but one older study indicates marginal efficiency improvements over conventional electric stoves (84% vs 74% energy transfer efficiency). Savings estimates may be further reduced due to standby loads that will vary with the type and brand. Commercial kitchens may enjoy the benefit of much reduced space cooling requirements, something no chef or restaurant accountant would complain about!
Possible Health Concerns
One concern that does not seem to be resolved yet is the potential health risk of stray magnetic fields which can occur if the pot does not completely cover the induction unit. The risk can range from interference with pacemakers to exceeding human EMF exposure limits.
I’ll be keeping in touch with Cuba Energia, and hope to report back in the future as to the outcome of Cuba’s efficient cooking program.
Paul Scheckel is the author of The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook, your guide to getting off the grid”.
Photo from Newsroom.Electrolux.com
1.3 billion people live without access to electricity. Of this, eighty percent reside in rural areas and are considered as individuals at the bottom of the pyramid (BoP). Day in and day out they rely on energy sources like kerosene, which is both expensive and harmful to use. They have been waiting for the electricity grid to arrive—and they’ll continue to wait for decades.
In the last five years, falling costs of solar technology have made solar economically viable without subsidies for off-grid communities. This market opportunity is driving entrepreneurs to quickly establish themselves in the space. As they continue to improve their product offering, distribution and after-sales networks for solar products, market demand too is growing. It’s becoming clearer every year that solar technology has the potential to leapfrog the electricity grid in many developing countries where electrification rates are still low.
How can businesses keep up with this potential solar growth? Hint: it’s all about the customer.
Solar Is Not Only About Lamps
The story of solar lights lighting up homes is popular because it’s powerful, easy to tell, and its impact simple to grasp. The price point for solar lights is also affordable for low-income communities and has one of the quickest payback periods for any investment. In a nutshell, it’s easy to only focus on solar lights when talking about solar for the energy poor.
But we have to recognize that solar lamps are just the starting point, and several years have gone by since the first wave of social enterprises selling solar lamps took off. In that time, affordable solar technology for off-grid communities has advanced far beyond just powering single LED lights at a minimum to providing homes with enough energy to switch on multiple lights, power a radio while also charging more than one phone, all at the same time. This is what a solar home system (SHS) does. While more expensive than a solar lamp, it becomes affordable with appropriate financing options in place. To illustrate, SHS sold by Uganda-based Fenix International costs $16 upfront for the unit, and then 40 cents a day to use. Those numbers are close to or maybe even under what the one billion plus living without electricity are already paying for kerosene, so switching to solar has truly become affordable for all.
Innovation in Solar Continues To Be Driven by What the Customers Want
The key takeaway from the evolution of solar technologies designed for off-grid communities is that major improvements in quality have heavily relied (and will continue to rely on) customer feedback. For example, in the early days when off-grid solar took the spotlight—which was just several years ago—many solar products were designed to look more like a traditional desk lamp with very basic interface, sometimes with nothing more than one power button to switch on the light. Soon enough, the design was improved to accommodate how customers actually use the light; some examples are a portable mode for external use, a charging-effectiveness indicator to know when the battery is fully charged and multiple light settings to fit various uses.
Another major added feature to solar lamps that was driven by customer feedback is the mobile phone charging capability. There are about 600 million mobile phone users globally that have no good way to charge their phones because they live in unelectrified areas. Many of them must pay transportation and charging costs to power their phones in unconventional ways, like with a car battery. It’s not surprising then that a solar lamp that can charge mobile phones would be in high demand. In fact, here are 5 reasons why the CEO of SunFunder thinks the off-grid solar revolution will be driven by cellphones, and they are still relevant.
Solar customers today have larger aspirations. Having experienced solar-powered lights and phone charging, they are now demanding solar power for larger appliances like television and refrigerators. A number of companies are undertaking the challenge of upgrading their products and pricing plans to meet these aspirations. SolarNow in Uganda is one such company. SolarNow’s modular approach allows customers to add DC LED television as an accessory to their solar home system packages, which start at 50W with a maximum capacity of 500W. This year, SolarNow expects to add a DC refrigerator to their product catalog. Coupled with a payment plan, SolarNow’s customers can now afford a modern, aspirational energy lifestyle (and even watch the World Cup this year!), which leads me to the last point.
End-User Financing Is the game-Changer for Off-Grid Solar
One of the main barriers for low-income communities to adopt solar technology is the upfront cost required. We’ve seen, however, how companies like Fenix International and SolarNow can remove this barrier by offering end-user financing plans, and there are many ways to do so.
Some solar companies partner with Savings and Credit Cooperatives (SACCOs) to sell products through their member networks and existing lending infrastructure. Other companies are innovating around end-user finance to integrate mobile money payments and remote control of systems; thus if a customer hasn’t paid via their cellphones, the system can be switched off remotely. These include Mera Gao Power, M-Kopa, Angaza Design and Off:Grid Electric.
With all these end-user financing systems in place, it is the companies that must bear the upfront cost burden, thereby increasing the need for working capital finance. Banks, however, are not reliable sources of finance due to the risk profile associated with off-grid solar businesses and the novelty of the space. Even if banks do offer loans to these businesses, they charge exorbitantly high interest rates. In fact, lack of access to finance is the number one barrier cited by off-grid solar companies in Lighting Global’s 2013 reportOverview of Off-Grid Lighting Market in Africa.
This lack of access to finance for off-grid solar businesses is why the company I work for, SunFunder, exists. We are a solar finance business connecting investors with high-impact solar projects benefiting low-income communities that live without electricity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. We provide much needed short-term working capital and inventory loans to off-grid solar companies, including Fenix International, SolarNow and Angaza Design. We can offer those businesses the customized debt financing solution they need by sourcing capital from two types of investors. The first type is the casual lender who makes loans as little as $10 on SunFunder.com and gets their $10 (or more) repaid in one year. The other type is the accredited or institutional investor that invests in larger sums with more complex terms, but earns back their principal with an interest return.
The market for solar is not only driven by a tremendous unelectrified population; existing solar customers are also aspiring for more products to achieve a modern energy lifestyle. It is up to the companies in the market to deliver to their customers, and up to the global community to ensure that the companies have the financial opportunity to. Together through SunFunder anyone can participate in unlocking solar finance to propel an off-grid solar revolution.
Photos by Sameer Halai/SunFunder
Clergy in Path of Pipeline Urge President Obama
Reject Keystone XL on Moral Grounds
As court decision creates new obstacle, religious leaders voice opposition
SAN FRANCISCO – Faith leaders in the path of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline are joining colleagues across the country to urge President Barack Obama to reject the project in order to curb carbon emissions and protect God’s Creation.
“This is an issue of justice,” said Pastor Kyle Childress, whose Austin Heights Baptist Church lies 15 miles from the pipeline. “TransCanada is running over people, destroying God’s earth, and pouring out climate-changing carbon, all in the name of short-term profit – and expecting our communities to shoulder the burden.”
More than 150 clergy members have joined some 4,000 people of faith in signing a letter asking the president to stop the pipeline’s construction, adopt clean energy technologies and policies that will lead a global clean energy movement. Some of those faith leaders joined a telephone press conference today to mark the letter’s release.
“As people of faith, we share your conviction that we are commanded by God to care for our planet and that the failure to respond to the threat of climate change would betray our children and future generations,” the letter says, referring to the president’s State of the Union address.
The letter — penned by Interfaith Power & Light, a leading religious voice on climate change — coincides with the close of the State Department’s last public comment period before the Administration makes a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. It would carry oil from Canadian tar sands through the United States to refineries in Texas.
Last week, in a move that could further delay the beleaguered project, a Nebraska judge ruled the law giving the governor pipeline siting authority illegal. The judge also declared "null and void" the law's permission to TransCanada to claim landowner's property in the path of the pipeline on the basis of eminent domain, which is normally used by the government to take private property for public use.
"The people of Nebraska love their land and have made their voices clear: stop the TransCanada pipeline,” said Rev. Kim Morrow of First-Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. “We must protect the Ogallala Aquifer and the sensitive Sandhills region of our state. Our ranchers and farmers have been affronted by the bully tactics used to try to seize land that has been in their families for generations. This pipeline holds no benefits for Nebraska, and instead just risks jumping from the frying pan into the fire with climate change."
Clergy members across the country agree.
“As a man of faith, Obama should recognize this moment as an opportunity to protect God’s creation and shape his legacy around the long-term energy strategy of America,” said the Rev. Dr. Joel Hunter of Northland Church in Florida, one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing congregations. “This is a pivotal moment for the president.”
“People of faith have a responsibility to preserve God's gift of clean air, water and land,” added the Rev. Sally Bingham, president and founder of Interfaith Power & Light. “The Keystone Pipeline is too great a risk to that call to be gardeners. We were put in the garden to till and to keep. This dangerous pipeline jeopardizes the health of the garden and all living things. We find it sinful that financial gain is being considered more important than preserving the air, water and land for future generations. In other words, that money can trump moral responsibility.”
Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) is a national organization with 40 state affiliates reaching 15,000 congregations advocating for climate protection, clean energy, and stewardship of Creation.
Air-source heat pumps are not exactly new to the world of air conditioning and the HVAC industry, and they are very different from ground-source heat pumps (their respective names refer the source of the heat to be gained and used). What is new however is the surge of interest in using air source heat pumps for heating in addition to cooling. This is primarily due to advances in technology that make heat pumps effective for heating in very cold climates (down to -15F), while also delivering exceptionally efficient cooling performance.
An air source heat pump is a modern appliance that extracts heat from one place and moves (or pumps) it to another, much like a refrigerator removes heat from its interior and out into the kitchen. Moving heat is much more efficient than generating it, so heat pump heating is more efficient and costs less than half as much to operate compared to conventional electric heat. Because it’s a pump, it can move heat in both directions – from indoors to out, or outside to inside. The happy result is that very high-efficiency heating and air conditioning are available through this single, integrated heating/cooling appliance.
Heat delivery, use of interior wall space, and the ‘quality’ of heat is similar to a single, central, wall or floor-mounted gas heater. There is also a small, quiet, outside unit. During the past two years, my company (Shelter Analytics) has been focused primarily on delivering energy efficiency services to condominium associations. The quiet operation and low profile of air-source heat pumps have made them ideal for the close-living environment and space constraints of condo owners in addition to single family homes.
Single or multi-head air source heat pumps are also called “mini-splits” or “ductless” air-conditioning and heating units. They are different from central heating and cooling systems because there is no duct-work for heating or cooling distribution. A single outdoor unit serves one or more indoor units which deliver conditioned air directly to the space (or zone) in which they live.
Currently, only single head systems (one indoor heat delivery unit) are available for cold climate heating, limiting their use to small dwellings, large rooms, or homes with open floor plans. Of course, a more efficient building envelope (good insulation and minimum air leakage) makes any heating system more effective. In fact, an efficient home equipped with solar panels and an air source heat pump can use solar energy for active heating and cooling. By late 2014, “multi-head” cold-climate heat pumps will be available offering greater flexibility. To be clear, multi-head systems are currently available that provide efficient heating and cooling in moderate climates where temperatures are consistently above the 0F mark.
The magic of a heat pump happens when a refrigerant (typically R-410A), is circulated through a copper tube within a closed loop between indoor and outdoor units. When the refrigerant is compressed, it becomes colder and able to absorb heat. As it warms, it changes phase from liquid to gas, ready to be compressed and cooled again. Smart controls tell the heat pump which direction to work, so that heat can be absorbed from, and delivered to, the right place (indoors or out) depending on your desired indoor temperature.
Ducts in a typical home are generally leaky and uninsulated. Efficiency gains with a heat pump are increased because there are no ducts through which conditioned air must travel. Additionally, ducted systems are difficult to split into zones, but a single or multi-head heat pump allows you to condition only the room, or rooms, desired.
There are currently only two cold-climate heat pumps available in the U.S. they are the Mitsubishi M-series and Fujitsu RLS2H, but more are likely on the way. It will be important to size units appropriately for your home and climate by having a heating contractor determine the heat load of your home.
For more energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions for your home, please read The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook: Your Guide to Getting Off the Grid by Paul Scheckel.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS featured Chapter 5 of Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy ("Winter Gardening throughout the Ages") on its web site in early January of this year, which I will summarize today as part of the series of summations of the chapters of Let It Shine.
The use of solar heat for gardening began in ancient Rome. Once the Romans discovered making clear glass, they began to use it to trap solar heat inside cold frames and greenhouses to grow vegetables out of season or exotics from hotter climates in Rome’s temperate clime. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the use of transparent glass all but disappeared. Glass was not used again to trap solar heat until the wealthy citizens living in northern Europe during the Age of Discovery, like their affluent Roman predecessors, wanted to enjoy oranges and other fruits from exotic areas such as the newly explored and settled regions of Asia and the Americas or, specific to northern Europe, grow vineyards as did their southern European neighbors. They faced their greenhouses south to optimize solar heat collection.
Solar heat trapping for gardening became even more popular with the advent of the Little Ice Age which made it even more urgent in northern Europe to trap solar heat to allow for the successful growing of non-native plants under abnormally cold conditions. In winter, canvas curtains, rolled up above the south-facing windows were pulled down at night to insulate the greenhouse. Solar heat for horticulture was so valued that the best minds of the period studied the best sun angles and the optimum materials to capture as much sun heat as possible during winter and then attached plants to these sloping walls. Sometimes a greenhouse was attached to the south-side of home’s living room or library, transforming the “dull interior” into a “vibrant” and warm space where people would congregate. On sunny winter days the doors separating the greenhouse from the home were opened to allow sun-warmed air to circulate freely into the formerly chilly interior.
Scandinavians led the movement of green roofs to keep the interiors warm during their prolonged winters. They became the rage in London where city folk could find peace and quiet in the florid world above the hustle-and-bustle of the metropolis.
It is funny that there is still a disconnect between those people who are “environmentalists” and those who do not think that protecting the environment is important. After all, if we want to keep living on this earth, and keep it the way it is, shouldn’t we all technically be environmentalists?
In recent years, there has been an increased awareness surrounding the need to reduce our carbon footprint, and many more people are now trying to do their part. However, there are still a lot of people who are stuck without knowing exactly what they can do to help. And even more who are struggling against their own desires, versus what is best for the planet. But setting aside your ego, and letting go of your luxuries does not have to be as dramatic as it sounds. Here are a few of the things that you can give up that are hurting the environment.
Driving to Work Every Day
Or simply driving everywhere for that matter. As a society, we have become overly reliant on our cars, and it is not only affecting the environment but also our general health. If you can share a ride with someone else, do it. If you can take public transport instead of driving, do it. If you can walk or cycle somewhere, definitely do it.
Overheating or Supercooling Your House
Far too many of us are overcompensating with our temperature control and we do not even realize that we are doing it. Have you ever glanced at your utility bill and been taken aback by just how high it is? By saving the environment, you could save yourself a lot of money and stress at the same time. All you have to do is to install a smart thermostat that allows you to program it to switch off when you are out of the house all day or sleeping. Some companies like Vivint or ADT allow you to program the utility controls to fit perfectly around your schedule.
Conventional Light Bulbs
You can save an astonishing amount of money by replacing your regular light bulbs with energy efficient alternatives. They do not have to be replaced nearly as often, and they use a fraction of the energy. Buy it for the environment; keep it for the cost benefits.
If you want to keep in shape, you might be tempted by the convenience of exercise machines. And while it is important to keep healthy, there are many other, cheaper and more eco-friendly ways to work out. If you cannot go for a walk or run outside — perhaps it is cold or dark — think about other activities you can do without this sort of equipment. Things like dancing, yoga, or even winter sports like skiing or snowboarding are all effective ways to keep in shape.
So all the rest of this list is child’s play. It is easy to give up driving quite so much, or running on a treadmill, but if you really want to have an impact on the environment, you have to go to extremes. The best way to save energy is to generate your own. Solar power was once seen as clunky and expensive, but so many developments have improved the industry, it is now easy, cheap and efficient to install solar power in your home—if you can. Look into options for your property as soon as possible. You might not like how the panels look, but set aside your ego and you will be glad that you made the switch.
It used to be that one needed to be a homeowner and have money to install solar panels to participate in the global shift to solar from coal. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Thanks to a number of new clean energy crowdfunding websites, anyone can now participate in the solar energy transformation by investing their money in solar projects located in the U.S. and abroad. Some investment platforms even offer returns on investment, making it a smart way for people to earn green by going green. Here are a few companies driving the crowdfunding movement that’s poised to accelerate the growth of solar globally:
Mosaic is disrupting the way solar in the U.S. gets financed. The company’s crowdfunding platform allows both accredited and non-accredited investors to finance small-scale solar projects across America. Through these projects, the Mosaic community has placed solar panels on bee farms, charter schools, convention centers, and military housing across the country. Currently Mosaic’s investments are limited to residents of California or accredited investors who are residents of the United States.
RE-volv has a revolving solar energy fund called the Solar Seed Fund that finances community-based solar energy systems for nonprofits and cooperatives in the U.S. For example, a community center leases solar equipment from RE-volv for 20 years, during which time the cost of the solar installation, plus a small fee, is recouped by RE-volv. RE-volv continually reinvests this money back into the Solar Seed Fund to serve more communities with solar energy. This allows RE-volv to finance 3 to 5 additional solar energy projects from the proceeds of every project we finance. You can contribute to the Solar Seed Fund by donating here.
CollectiveSun is a hybrid between Mosaic and RE-volv. It offers secure investments in solar with great returns for investors, but the solar projects it finances help 501©3 nonprofits switch to solar to save on energy expenses, stimulate engagement with members, and support their missions. Check out CollectiveSun’s projects to see all the nonprofits you can help today with a solar investment.
1.3 billion people live without electricity. Life without electricity means they rely on kerosene lamps for lighting at home, which are expensive to refuel and emit toxic fumes when in use. It means children can’t study or do homework at night because of inadequate lighting. It also means people have to use car batteries or walk miles to a charging station to charge their cellphones. However, solar technology costs have lowered drastically in the last 5 years that it is now affordable for low-income communities in developing countries. On SunFunder, anyone anywhere in the world can invest in a solar project in countries like the Philippines, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia and get repaid in about a year. If you’re looking to help the global poor with solar, investing in a SunFunder project is the right choice.
Bonus: SolarCity (coming soon)
SolarCity offers solar-power systems for homes, businesses and other organizations, designing and installing custom-built arrangements. Last week it just announced a plan that allows individual investors to buy debt investment products similar to bonds to participate in the company’s growth. Instead of being backed by SolarCity, these securities would offer returns backed by solar projects and contracts the company has with customers who have panels installed on their roof. Investors will be able to buy and sell these debt investments on SolarCity’s new investment platform that will be launched later this year.
So what are you waiting for? Let 2014 be the year you participate in the solar revolution around the world!
Photo by Fotolia/Shin 28.