In mid-2012, we avid do-it-yourselfers, cast a lustful eye on photovoltaic solar for our home. We reasoned that the sun was there every day – why not capture it’s free, clean, and renewable energy? The thought enticed us not unlike Raphie in A Christmas Story.
Just like Raphie, was enticed by the Red Rider BB gun, but held at bay by the threats of shooting his eye out, we were enticed by shiny solar possibilities with the threats of failing and being made a laughing stock (at best) or becoming a pile of incinerated ash (at worst). Danger does lurk around every corner for the novice and/or the careless and extreme caution should be the rule. Being aware of this, we still decided the take the plunge and build the system ourselves. We began the build in January 2013. Six months later, we completed the project successfully and were up and running.
Here is a picture of our finished system in front our home. We built an on-ground system for ease of maintenance and the ability to rotate the frames and capture more solar energy at different times of the year.
Advantages of DIY Home Solar Power
By taking on the project ourselves we were able to:
Capture more electricity by designing (manually-driven) automated rotated frames which incorporate full tilt angle variation to track the sun all year
Have on-grid/off-grid capability with the flip of a switch
Capture free renewable energy and help keep the earth clean
By designing and building the system ourselves we estimate we saved over 70%. Our payback (with incentives included) is a mere 6.2 years. We realized that almost anyone, anywhere will benefit from photovoltaic solar energy. (See NASA charts at this link.)
We are delighted with our photovoltaic system and have written a book entitled DIY Photovoltaic Solar Power for Homeowners. In our book, we’ve included our detailed charts, wiring diagrams, parts lists, and energy analysis. We’re looking forward to sharing details of our system build and design in other blog posts.
Cliff hanger, right? We told you there was a gold mine in back of your local restaurant in part one of this subject series (here), and we waved somewhere toward the direction of using the “found energy” tied up in the carbon bonds of that wasted food for this and that. (We mentioned cooking with that energy, for example.)
So the question is: How? How can we make the energy which is potentially available in food waste into usable energy? Let’s see….
In the developing world, many things happen at the village or household scale. If we cook our own meals using wood that we’ve gone into the forest and gathered, that is a system that has a household scale. (And it would please Thoreau, eh? Wood fire warms you twice, he said.)
But virtually all our systems in the US are industrial scale (that is, Big), including our energy systems (consider those long electric lines on towers marching along the freeway) and this includes the scale at which we waste food. Studies (such as this NRDC study) show that not quite half the food we produce in the US is thrown away.
From the NRDC study:
“Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions. Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food….”
[Given the population of the US, ‘one in six Americans’ is about 50 million people.]
Now even given that almost all of our energy systems exist at an industrial scale, there are some circumstances where smaller scale energy production makes sense: a farm, a homestead; the kind of place you have now, or (since you are reading this) the kind of place you may want to have, someday soon. For those situations, a local energy system providing all or some of your energy may make sense.
And in planning for that local situation, your situation, one of the first things you need to consider is matching needs to energy sources. Wind can be a great source of (intermittent) electricity. Direct solar is also good for electricity (PV), for space heating and hot water. But cooking presents a modest challenge for those two common local energy sources. You can make a solar oven— it’s pretty easy, really— but (begging the forgiveness of the solar gods) most solar ovens are kind of bulky and clumsy, don’t you think?
So here’s a twist: how about using wasted food to supply all of your cooking needs, and to supplement your space heating, or even hot water supply?
And how can you do that? (Gee. Somehow biogas comes to mind….)
The short story is:
Start with a container. It doesn’t have to be strong, but it has to hold liquid, and gas at very modest pressures. The container can be steel, concrete, plastic or made of any other suitable material, with few exceptions. (Toxic stuff is not good; the biogas biology is sensitive.)
Get some organic material, of the kind we might use in making a compost pile. (Not woody stuff, but almost anything else. Food waste makes great biogas.)
Keep it wet, keep it warm, keep it pH-balanced, and very shortly, by a process that is natural, very ancient, and which may seem a bit magical (hey presto!) a burnable gas— biogas, made almost entirely from methane and carbon dioxide— will bubble out. (And just to clarify: methane is the main molecule in natural gas, the fossil fuel that is getting so much press nowadays because of fracking. Biogas gives you methane without the fracking. And it can even shrink your carbon footprint.)
There’s nothing else that’s essential, although lot’s more can be said about it. It really does not get any simpler for any kind of renewable energy use, except maybe standing in the sun to get warm, or burning wood. (Or eating. Definitely eating.)
It really is simple. Honestly. In fact, would you like some free plans for building any of four of the most common kinds of digesters? Then visit the free plans for biogas digesters page on the Complete Biogas website….
Of course, what you get out of your digester will be determined by what you put in. It has to be sized properly— and again, again, again, kept warm— but all else being equal, the more you feed it, the more gas will be produced.
Realizing this, you may well want to ask: How much food waste should I put in the digester? And what size should that digester be so that I can cook my meals, and get light in the evening?
And booyah, while we’re at it: How about the holy grail of biogas? Can I run my car on biogas?
Well, friends…. That’s all going to be discussed in the next blog… Keep reading.
“A biogas plant installed at a house in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Photo: S. Siva Saravanan” Or one might say: Feeding an ARTI-style digester with a floating gas holder.
Source: The Hindu (newspaper), “Cost effective green fuel for the kitchen”
There’s a gold mine out back of your local restaurant.
…Or at least that’s one way of looking at it. Of course, what I’m talking about is wasted food — the stuff you don’t eat from your plastic tray of super-sized this and that, the French fries that got a little too brown in the fryer, the stale burger buns. That stuff. It’s gold, really.
As my good friend Bob Hamburg of Dragon Husbandry once said:
“As for ‘waste disposal,’ we’ve got two mis-defined terms mashed together, resulting in an abominable oxymoron. In nature there is no such thing as waste. All residues serve as resources for further growth — there is nothing to be disposed of. Nothing is thrown away. Indeed, there is no ‘away.’ Everything must go somewhere. The misconception of ‘waste disposal’ must be superseded by a better understanding of ‘residue management.’”
Right on, Bob.
But hey, look at the stuff in that trash bin: It’s gooey. It’s gross, right? Who really wants that stuff, anyway? Well, maybe you will, when you see the whole picture.
Waking Up to Nature’s ‘Waste’ Management
It all grows out of standard ecology, the way the planet deals with energy and information (and the way we will, too, once our species gets past adolescence). Sunlight enters the atmosphere and makes green things grow: The largest usable bank account of stored solar energy on the whole planet is the set of green growing things, all the way from algae to giant sequoia. And a small fraction of that green riot is harvested to feed us and our animals.
Now in our (present, soon to be superceded; have faith) way of doing it, plant resources all go into factory-type buildings and come out as packages. Then, the packages are opened, we prepare food and eat it, and all that packaging trash is thrown away along with the food we don’t eat: more wasted food. We send it all to landfills or incinerators, go to sleep, wake up (sort of) and do it all again.
In nature’s way of doing it, just like Bob said, there is no “waste.” Ecological scientists talk about “trophic levels,” which in part is a way of saying that whatever one living thing leaves behind, another living thing uses as a source of energy. Plants consume sunlight, air and soil to produce green matter to feed vegetarians, such as cows or caterpillars. Vegetarians consume green matter to produce flesh to feed carnivores, such as wolves or people (or birds that eat caterpillars). And when anything once alive dies, then (if there is enough moisture available) the remains feed arthropods (little bugs), fungi, and a seething mass of microscopic life: nature’s compost pile.
This is the picture of the energy of life being shared among all living things, in a kind of sacred dance, happening all around us and unseen by most. The threads of the complex web of life are each connected to each — except where they are broken by the ignorant actions of man.
Stored Solar Energy
But hey. Too serious, right? Sure. But even still, that’s what we should maybe see when we look at that food behind the restaurant. Gooey? Well, that’s one way of seeing what’s there.
Yet maybe one of the wisest ways of seeing what’s there is to think about all that energy tied up in the carbon bonds of that food: the stored solar energy that can help you cook your own food, make great compost for your garden, and even heat your house, if you have enough of it.
How can this energy be put to use? Well that’s a story for part two.
Photo: Matt Steiman’s hand (Matt is Assistant Manager, Dickinson College Farm and Project Support, Dickinson College Biodiesel) pointing out a feature of the 3-year old EDPM plug-flow digester inside a greenhouse at the Dickinson College Organic Farm. Matt says: “We are making plenty of gas for cooking at the intern kitchen…. Currently we transfer gas from storage near the biogas digester to our kitchen using inner tubes that we fill from a manifold attached to our gas measuring drum. The 100-liter tubes are weighted at the kitchen and provide enough gas to cook a meal or two on our single Chinese burner.”
According to statistics, the US release the second highest amount of carbon emissions in the world, after China. A staggering 33% of the US carbon emissions that are released comes from transportation, with 60% of the transportation emissions coming from gasoline for cars and light trucks. This means that transportation is the second largest contributor of U.S greenhouse gas emissions after the electricity sector.
Since 1990 greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have increased by roughly 18%, which is largely due to an increasing demand for travel. Furthermore, the number of vehicles travelled by car and light trucks has increased by 35% from 1990 to 2012. Again, this is for a number of different reasons ranging from population growth, economic growth, urban sprawl and low fuel prices early on in this period.
Although efforts have already been increased to reduce the amount of carbon emissions created by transport, such as the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) taking coordinated steps to enable the production of a new generation of clean vehicles, through reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and improved fuel use from on-road vehicles and engines, from the smallest cars to the largest trucks, there is still a lot more that needs to be done if the US are ever going to achieve their goal of reducing carbon emission by 30% from 2005 levels, as announced by President Obama.
How to Reduce Transportation Emissions
Efforts should be increased to encourage more U.S. citizens to change their travel habits and make more eco-friendly choices. Whether it is public transport, car sharing or walking/running/biking whenever or wherever possible. It would be beneficial to introduce more incentives for Americans to actually travel in a more environmentally friendly way, such as the bike to work scheme that is being used in the UK. If UK businesses opt into the bike to work scheme, both employers and employees can benefit, including getting a bike for a discounted price, saving money on traveling costs, get more fit and healthy as well as significantly reducing their carbon footprint. If more American businesses had a scheme similar to this, it would all contribute to making the U.S a greener country.
Although it would be great if everyone could run, walk, bike everywhere and get public transport at any point of the day, in reality this is not at all possible for every U.S citizen. However, that doesn’t mean to say that people can’t travel in a more green way. 60 percent of transportation emissions come from gasoline for cars and light trucks, but this figure could significantly be reduced if more U.S citizens opted for ‘green’ cars. For example, a gasoline-powered car that gets 20mpg releases 20lbs of CO2 in comparison to a plug-in hybrid car that gets 100mpg releases just 4 lbs of CO2.
Buying a Green Car
One issue that might be raised from this point is the expense of buying a newer ‘greener’ car, which many U.S. citizens may not be able to afford. However, it could be argued that many green cars have been made to be affordable to a large target market. Alternatively, there is the option of car financing which again is something that many UK citizens have chosen to do in order to get the car they like as well as obtain a greener lifestyle. For example, Simon Gray at Credo Asset Finance, who offer car finance in Norwich, is delighted to see so many people seeing the benefits of car finance:
“We are delighted at the increasing interest in people coming to us for the best car finance deals around so that they can get the car they want at an affordable price for them. As ‘being green’ has become an increasing important issue for many consumers’ lifestyles, we have seen a growing interest in people opting for cars that are better for the environment.”
So, although strategies are already being put in place to reduce the amount of carbon emissions released by transport, perhaps America should introduce some more strategies to reduce transportation emissions even further in the U.S.
Photo Credit: Ian Sane
When I retired from my faculty position at the University of Maine in 2003, I resolved that one of my retirement projects would be to greatly reduce my carbon footprint by making my home and transportation more energy efficient, and reducing my consumption of fossil fuels. My wife, Lee, supported me in this undertaking, as we were very much aware of the terrible impacts on the environment of fossil fuel extraction, processing, and transport, and the pollution and climate change caused by the combustion of these fuels. Our fellow humans and other living things depend on this environment, and it our responsibility to avoid harmful impact to them. We didn’t dream at the time that ten years later we would be powering our home and our local transportation largely with solar energy.
We decided to spend a substantial part of our savings and retirement income on this effort to reduce our carbon footprint. We were greatly helped by the residential energy and clean transportation income tax credits provided by the federal government, and the rebates from Efficiency Maine for purchasing and installing equipment in our home to increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. I am hoping that this essay encourages readers to do some of the same things we did within their financial means.
As one’s geographic location and living situation have much to do with energy conservation, first I’ll tell you that I live at the end of a dead end, country road in Orono, Maine. Our closest neighbor is about a half-mile away. Our 2,200 square ft, single-story home sits near the top of a gentle slope at the head of a hay field, is sheltered by a forest on one side, and by a row of trees on the other side. Behind the house is our vegetable garden. We are fortunate in being only 3 miles by road to downtown Orono, a town of about 10,000 persons, and a mile further to the University of Maine, and only 6 miles to downtown Bangor, a small city of about 33,000 persons with good shopping areas and other amenities.
Before describing the steps we took to make our transition from fossil fuel to solar energy, I must point out that our transition is not complete. Each year we have been taking one or two long trips by fossil-fuel-powered car or coach and/or airliner, and much of what we buy including most of our food (we garden-produce some) and even the energy-saving equipment we have installed in our home is produced and shipped using fossil-fuel energy. We can and will take further steps to reduce our carbon footprint, but life completely without fossil fuels may not be possible in our economy without full withdrawal from it, and a return to a pre-industrial revolution life style.
Here are the major steps in our transition (there were also smaller steps, too numerous to mention here):
• Early in the transition we reduced heating oil consumption with supplemental wood heating.
• We installed a solar domestic hot water system.
• We added more home insulation, and “sealed the cracks.”
• We installed a geothermal heat pump system for all home heating and cooling.
• We replaced our oldest all-gasoline car with a hybrid car with much lower gasoline consumption.
• We installed a solar electric (PV) array large enough for all home needs including the powering of the heat pump and an all-electric car.
• We replaced our next oldest all-gasoline car with an all-electric one with no gasoline consumption. We charge this car’s battery with solar energy, and now use it for almost all of our local transportation.
As I describe each of these steps, where feasible I will indicate the financial costs, and the number of years it will take to pay off these costs from increased efficiencies and reduction in fossil fuel purchases. Since we installed our new energy systems some of the prices have come down, and now low interest financing is available for some of them, making it possible for younger couples and others lacking our financial resources to take some of the steps we did. First, let me show you a diagram that explains how our new energy systems fit together.
We started in a small way well before retirement by reducing our heating oil consumption with supplemental wood heat, namely with a small wood stove in our living room, as many Mainers do. To distribute this heat to other parts of the house I installed an oscillating fan high on the living room wall, and directed its range to include both corridors leading to other parts of the house. By burning about one cord of oak wood a year, we reduced fuel oil consumption by about 20 percent, for a saving after fuel wood and electrical (fan) costs of about $350 per year, not to mention the comfort of a toasty warm living room. In recent years we have ceased using the wood stove because of the effects of old age on our ability to haul fuel wood.
We had been producing our domestic hot water by the same oil furnace/boiler that heated the house. In 2007 we further reduced fuel oil consumption by installing solar water heating arrays on our south-facing roof, at a net cost after a rebate of $8,395. However, despite the 80-gallon hot water storage tank, we haven’t had quite enough solar heated water to last through occasional periods of extended cloudiness or when multiple houseguests are taking hot showers the same time of day. Therefore, a small percentage of heating of domestic hot water continued to be by fuel oil. Nevertheless, the reduction of fuel oil purchases has been saving us about $875 per year, for a pay off period of about 10 years. We’re now more than half way through that period. Today it is possible to set up a 12-year loan at 2.99% interest for a similar installation for a monthly payment of $75, and a return on investment (R0I) of 10.4 percent.
At about the same time, we arranged for an energy audit of our then 35 year-old house to learn where we were losing most of our heat in winter, and then we went about sealing and insulating numerous places. In 2008, we installed about two feet depth of blown fiberglass over the ceiling of our home to increase the ceiling R value to 60. We could immediately feel the difference. In 2010, we installed three inches of foam insulation in the basement, from the underside of the ceiling and down the inside of the concrete foundation to 2-3 feet below the level of the exterior soil surface. The basement and the upstairs floors became noticeably warmer in winter. The cost of all this work after rebates was $2,407. I’ll not attempt calculation of the payback period for this expense due to the complications caused by our switch in 2009 from heating with oil to a geothermal heat pump, and starting in 2012 by the powering of the heat pump with electricity from our own solar panels.
In 2009 we replaced most of our remaining fuel oil usage with a geothermal system, namely, a heat pump in our basement, and heat exchange pipes outdoors and underground. Six-thousand feet of polyethylene pipe, coiled like a stretched out slinky into three 200 feet long, six foot deep trenches extend under the field in front of our house. By 2011, no surface evidence of the presence of these trenches could be seen. Two small electric pumps in the basement circulate an antifreeze solution in this closed system of pipes, and to the heat pump. In the heat pump, heat is extracted from the solution to heat the house in winter, and heat is added to the solution to cool the house in summer. By pumping the solution around the pipes, this heat is transferred from or to the ground in the respective seasons. At the heat pump, the heat is transferred to or from a forced air ventilation system, heating the house in winter, and cooling it in summer. The heating phase uses the solar energy stored in the ground during the warm time of year, so fundamentally this is a solar system. The system has supplied our entire house heating and cooling since installation.
Subsequently, we connected the heat pump to our domestic hot water system to use waste heat from the machine’s operation to supplement water heating. Since this system went into operation in August 2009, we have used only about 50 gallons of fuel oil per year for backup hot water heating during cloudy periods, and when we have multiple overnight houseguests. The net cost after a rebate and a federal tax credit for the geothermal heat pump system was $25,495. The replacement of oil house heating and the augmentation of hot water heating replaced about $2,900 worth of fuel oil per year, for a payback period of just under nine years. Since we installed our geothermal heat pump, much less costly ductless mini-split air-based heat pumps have become practical for supplemental heating/cooling in this climate. They are mounted on outside walls, and are effective for heating and cooling home spaces similar to those that would be heated by an outside wall-mounted propane heater. They are electrically powered, much more energy efficient and cheaper to run than propane heaters, but not as efficient in BTU per dollar in our cold winter as geothermal systems.
Although our heat pump system nearly ended our fuel oil purchases, it increased our usage of electricity by about $1,000 per year, and that leads me to the next part of the story. Most of the electricity we had been purchasing from the power company had been produced by fossil fuels, negatively impacting the environment. In 2012 we were able to further reduce our carbon footprint by installing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to produce our own electricity, and by that September we were on line. We installed a 9.36 Kw PV array of 39 panels. Based on our history of electric usage we calculated this array would be enough for all our household needs including the heat pump plus the charging of an all-electric car for 7000 miles of local travel per year. As our south-facing roof was inadequate for this size array, and was already partially occupied by solar hot water panels, we installed a freestanding PV array in the field below our house. The entire cost of this installation was $28,790 after a rebate and tax credit. Based on our predicted electricity usage, and current power company rates (equivalent $2400 in annual electric savings), it will take us 12 years to recoup these funds. If power company rates go up, as seems likely, the time will be shortened. Today it is possible to set up a 12-year loan at 2.99% interest for a similar installation for a monthly payment of about $240, and a return on investment (R0I) of 7.8 percent. Maine is presently lacking a rebate for solar PV installations. If it is returned, these figures will improve.
Producing one’s own solar electricity is complicated by the fact that the sun doesn’t always shine. There are two ways of handling this problem. The first is to install a bank of large and expensive storage batteries in one’s basement to charge up when the sun shines, and to draw electricity from them when the sun is not shining. This is the only option when one’s house is in a remote location off the electrical grid. A more practical and much less costly solution is the one we use. Our solar array is connected to the grid power line just below our house, and thus we cogenerate electricity with the power company. We meter our solar electricity output to the grid, and separately meter the electricity we draw from the grid at our house. When we produce more kilowatt-hours (KWH) than we use, as in April through October, the power company credits us for the excess KWH. When we use more than we produce, as in November-March, we use up our credits. Our goal was to make our solar array barely large enough so that over the year we would wind up not having to buy electricity from the power company. In its first year of operation, the array produced 12,000 KWH of electricity, and is well on its way to producing about the same amount in this second year of operation. With the recent addition of an electric car, we will need another year of experience to see how close we have come to our goal.
The final part of my story deals with my concern over the use of fossil fuel by our two cars. I should explain that with our busy lives, and Lee’s and my involvements in different community projects and other volunteer work we have felt a need for separate cars. At our rural location, public transportation is inadequate to get us where we need to go in a timely manner. In 2010, we owned 1987 and 2002 Toyota Corollas, both getting 30-35 miles per gallon (mpg). The 1987 car was ready to junk and recycle, so in 2010 we replaced it with a new Toyota Prius. With this hybrid car, we have since achieved the following approximate average numbers of mpg of regular gasoline: winter local 45 mpg, highway 55 mpg; summer local 52 mpg, highway 57 mpg. Spring and fall have yielded intermediate values. Like all vehicles powered entirely or in part by gasoline, mpg is determined by many factors including driving style. It takes practice, but we have found that slow acceleration, coasting to stops (when traffic allows), timing traffic lights to avoid full stops (when traffic allows), and consistently staying within posted speed limits considerably increase mpg. Unfortunately, this is not the predominant driving style in our area and elsewhere. Since buying the Prius, we have purchased about 850 fewer gallons of gasoline than we would have purchased for the old Corolla, saving about $3,000, and emitting much less carbon and other pollutants to the atmosphere. By the end of 2015, we will have recouped the increased purchase price of a new Prius over a new Corolla by reduction in gasoline purchases (assuming similar mileage driven).
By November 2013, we were ready to replace our second old Corolla, for the final big step in our energy system. We were burning about 300 gallons of gasoline a year in our 2002 Toyota Corolla and 2010 Toyota (hybrid) Prius, combined. We sold the Corolla, purchased a new all-electric Nissan Leaf, and installed a 240v charging station for the Leaf in our garage. We now plan our local trips to minimize use of the Prius for local travel, and have been able to use the Leaf for over 90 percent of these short trips. The Leaf’s average range between charges is only about 95 miles, about 20 percent more in summer and less in winter. Apart from that limitation, it is a silent joy to use, much simpler and cheaper to run than a gasoline powered vehicle as it has no exhaust system, no gas tank and tank fill-ups, no engine oil to change or cooling water to monitor, and is easy and quick to plug in for battery charges. A total charge at our station takes 2-3 hours, which we typically do overnight. At a quick charge station it takes only about a half hour, but such repeated quick charges sacrifice battery life.
Given the range limitation of today’s all-electric cars, and the absence of quick-charge stations at convenient locations along most of the US highway system, these cars are not for everyone. Location of residence is an important consideration. They are most practical for use where most trips are short, as for well-placed rural locations like ours. A large majority of our local trips for shopping and other activities are within 10 miles of home, with some up to 25 miles from home. These cars are also practical for persons with short daily commutes by car to work. Longer commutes are possible if a charging station is available at the destination, as is provided by some industrial and commercial employers. The availability of a second family car that can run on gasoline for the occasional longer trip adds additional practicality to all-electric car ownership. We still need to use our Prius hybrid for those trips.
Since the November 2013 purchase of the Leaf, and as of August 2014 we have bought only about 75 gallons of fuel for the Prius to cover our three trips to Massachusetts and the occasional use of our two cars simultaneously for local trips. The cost of the new Nissan Leaf plus charging station, after subtracting the sale proceeds of the old Corolla, and receipt of a federal tax credit was $25,804 or about the same cost of a new Prius. But the zero-emission Leaf is far superior economically because it is much less costly to run per mile.
I hope that all of the above encourages readers of this article to take some of the same steps we have taken to reduce their negative impacts on the environment. Each reader has unique considerations in deciding which steps to take. Any of the steps will help to reduce the terrible impacts on the earth and fellow human beings of fossil fuel extraction and use. As mentioned earlier, younger persons than ourselves, and others who lack the money up front for some of these steps, can now obtain low interest loans for some of the home improvements including solar, and can obtain no- or low-cost financing for hybrid and electric car purchases. Solar array rentals have become a popular approach for going solar, but the jury is still out regarding whether rental or financing is more cost-effective.
I would be happy to discuss how you, too, can reduce your carbon footprint. I can be reached at 207-866-4785 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am not associated with any manufacturers, vendors or installers of these products, and have nothing material to gain from sharing my experiences with you, and discussing how you may be able to take some of the same steps that Lee and I have taken.
Farmers and landowners want to lower fuel and feed costs, explore feed and fertilizer co-products, be more self-sufficient, and rely less of fossil fuels. Biomass grass crops can be established on marginal lands and processed as a fuel replacement for heating oil or propane, or as an addition to wood chips or pellets.
There are four main models for implementing grass energy on a farm. The models differ from each other in where the grass is grown and processed. Two are closed-loop models, in which the grass is grown and processed on-site, and the others are variations of processing the grass in a central facility and distributing production of the feedstock among regional farms.
Grass fuel can occur as bales that get chopped just prior to combustion or densified fuels like pellets, cubes, or briquettes. The densified fuels are made using machinery that applies high temperature and pressure to the chopped feedstock, pressing it into the desired shape. A series of dies and knives are responsible for cutting the fuel into its desired shape. Each of the four grass energy models, described below, produce one or two of these types of fuel.
Switchgrass growing at the University of Vermont Horticulture Farm in South Burlington, Vermont. Credit: Vermont Bioenergy Initiative
Closed Loop-No Processing: Grass fuel is grown on-site where it will be processed for heating fuel. The grass is harvested as usual, and stored and burned as bales. This requires a specific heating appliance designed to burn whole bales and significant storage space for the bales. While it is not economical to transport bales over great distances, this model can work among neighbors. For example, a school or prison with this heating system can contract with a neighboring farmer to produce the fuel bales.
Small-scale On-Farm Processing: Grass is grown on-site where it will be processed. Stored bales are chopped in a hammermill and the grass is put through a small pelletizer or briquetter. The processing equipment can be stationary on the farm or mobile, moving between multiple farms. The pellet or briquette fuel can be used on the farm, such as in a biomass-heated greenhouse or chicken house, or it can be sold to neighboring users. The fuel produced is only suitable for commercial and industrial applications, and will not work well in residential heating appliances.
Regional Processing: Grass is grown within a 50-mile radius of a central processing facility that converts bales of grass from multiple farmers into briquettes. The processing facility should be co-located with a large heat load, such as a medium to large school or hospital, or even several buildings that will all be using grass fuel.
Consumer Pellet Market: Grass is grown by contracted farmers within a 50-mile radius of the pellet mill. The mill produces standard pellets for the residential and small commercial markets.
From the farmer’s perspective, all four models described above involve growing the grass. The difference lies in whether the farmer will be contracting with a centralized processor or doing their own processing, and in the latter case, whether they plan to use the fuel on-site or market it to other customers. The key to success for these models is to match the fuel produced to the needs of the user. For example, Vermont Technical College in Randolph, Vermont, heats part of the campus with a pellet boiler, so the school’s farm operation uses a mobile pelletizer to process grass from their fields into pellet fuel.
Much is known in the northeast Unites States about growing grass and a number of variety trials conducted around the region have pointed to certain species, like switchgrass, giant miscanthus and reed canary grass, as options that are highly productive and do well in this region. Grass stands are currently planted at the University of Vermont Horticulture Farm in Burlington and Vermont Technical College, and on several private farms like Borderview Farm in Alburgh and Meach Cove Farms in Shelburne. A collection of reports and guidelines for growing grass in the northeast is provided by the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative.
A key aspect of grass energy development is to install grass-fueled heating appliances on farms and in schools or other municipal buildings, institutions and commercial settings while also producing grass fuel. For these institutional and small commercial heating systems, grass pellets, briquettes, and whole bales could be used for fuel. Depending on the type of system installed, the processing equipment should produce whole bales, pellets or briquettes to match the fuel needs. Mobile pelletizers and briquetters, like the one in development by Shelburne, Vermont-based Renewable Energy Resources, could be a good match, or in the case of whole bales, standard grass harvesting equipment would be used to produce fuel.
Switchgrass being harvested at Meach Cove Farm in Shelburne, Vermont. Credit: Vermont Bioenergy Initiative
While growing the crop and producing the fuel can be relatively straightforward, there are not currently extensive markets for the fuel. This presents a chicken-and-egg problem for the farmer and their potential customers. Farmers are hesitant to grow a crop with an uncertain market, and building owners and municipalities are not likely to install a heating system for which they can’t find a reliable fuel source. Close cooperation between fuel suppliers and customers is important, and long-term contracts can help build confidence between partners.
There are also alternative markets for grass crops that can be used in the interim while a fuel market is established. These alternatives include fiber for paper products, animal bedding, compost for mushroom growers, resin in particle board, absorbents for environmental clean-up, and dairy rations. Additionally, the fields themselves have value as wildlife habitat and stream buffers that prevent erosion and remove nitrogen and phosphorous from farm run-off. These alternative uses for grass are discussed in more detail in the report, “Grass Energy in Vermont and Northeast.”
Miscanthus in its second year at Meach Cove Farm in Shelburne, Vermont. Credit: Vermont Bioenergy Initiative
An important consideration for growers is the economic feasibility of growing grass for fuel or alternative markets. Dr. Sid Bosworth, researcher and professor at the University of Vermont School of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has developed a grass energy cost estimator to determine the per-ton cost of production, located on his website. By comparing the cost of production to market prices, a grower can determine whether producing and selling grass fuel makes financial sense.
Considering additional benefits to the farm can be helpful, too. For example, using grass to help clean up runoff from the farm, thereby helping to clean up local waterways, can be a valuable marketing asset. Improving wildlife habitat with grass crops, conserving open land, and utilizing marginal soils are additional benefits. It’s hard to put a dollar value on land stewardship, but these are services to both the longevity of a farming operation and to the greater community.
Photo by Fotolia/nspooner
We finally witness a piece of legislation that makes it through Congress, which was not only agreed upon by both parties, but was also applauded by our president; and it might actually turn out to be effective. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is an amendment and re-authorization of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which supported the nation’s primary programs and investments in employment services, workforce development, adult education and vocational rehabilitation activities. The new legislation is the product of a bipartisan, bicameral negotiation between the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and House Committee.
Bogged down by bureaucracy and innumerable, confusing programs, the previous federal job training system attempted to help individuals learn the skills needed to make themselves more viable on the job market, but it was clearly not working very well; every year $18 Billion tax dollars were spent on job-training programs, but only a fraction of the workers completing the training obtained jobs and barely 50% of the people who went through the federal job training programs completed with the actual skills they needed for the jobs they were seeking. Since 2003 attempts to reauthorize the legislation were undertaken in both the House and Senate, which culminated to an act which should help fix our broken job-training system.
The Job Crisis
Why is it broken, you may ask? Well, despite college enrollments increasing by 11% over the last decade, secondary education tuition costs have skyrocketed, landing the 2 million students who graduate every year an average $26,000 in debt. Federal loans now total $1.2 trillion, which is even higher than credit card debt. And each year, tuition prices sneak upwards.
So now we have massively indebted college graduates also desperately searching for a job along with the other 9.5 million Americans out of work. Currently the unemployment rate stands at 6.1% and more than 20 million Americans have been either out of work or underemployed since 2009.
However, we have 4.6 million job openings that are not being filled. In manufacturing alone, the backbone of middle-class opportunity, as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled. These “blue collar” jobs, now called “blue tech” jobs, can earn you $60,000 a year or more! From 2016 to 2002, job openings in manufacturing, production, installation, maintenance and repair are projected to outstrip the supply of available workers three-to-one. Despite all this incentive, the Wall Street Journal reports that 33% of small-business owners and chief executives could not find qualified applicants and therefore had unfilled job openings in June.
And the cause of the symptomatic unemployment and underemployment is found in the infamous skills gap. While these numbers may quantify the issue, they fail to capture the frustration of millions of Americans, many of them armed with multiple diplomas, failing to achieve that steady paycheck or make ends meet.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: A Solution?
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act takes many provisions to streamline and modernize the maze that was federal job-training programs so that workers can access the right training, immediately. These include:
Ensuring pragmatic accessibility of one-stop centers and training providers
Enhancing the flexibility of funds
Setting common performance indicators for all core programs under the bill.
In addition, the act eliminates 15 ineffective programs and prevents the creation of more bureaucracy or useless duplicative programs. It supports transitions to postsecondary education, training or employment and requires evaluation and research into adult education activities.
Next, as Georgetown University’s 2013 report on college majors insightfully put it, not all college degrees are created equal. In fact, recent college graduates bear the greatest unemployment risk at an overall 7.9% unemployment rate. More than 36% of college graduates are not working in their chosen profession and many of them have been forced to accept minimum wage jobs. But the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is a way to provide funding for skills training and help relieve the over-saturation of certain job markets.
President Obama applauded the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity act and said he was thrilled by the vote that would “help ensure that our workers can earn the skills employers are looking for right now and that American businesses have the talent pool it takes to compete and win in our global economy.”
What We Still Need to Work On
The Act should help Americans tap into the millions of unfilled jobs, especially in the manufacturing industry. However, the Act appears to be overlooking a huge job market: the sustainable job market. In June the EPA proposed the Clean Power Plan, which could provide some serious stimulus for our stalling economy. The solar industry alone is expected to create 22,000 jobs while the hydroelectric industry requires 700,000 jobs to reach a new capacity of 23,000 -60,000 MW. Furthermore, 8 million jobs in the construction, manufacturing and natural resources industries will be created by 2018. They will require workers having basic math skills and computer abilities and eventually having received various forms of vocational training such as solar training or technical training.
Finally, through this act we are witnessing greater public encouragement of skill training as well an expansion of funding for college aid and vocational training. But as Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” said, “Many of the best opportunities that exist today require a skill, not a diploma”. To fill the skills gap we will also need to remove the stigma surrounding vocational education and understand that real, well-paid, skill specific jobs are out there for the taking; all we need is a qualified workforce.