California Is Giving Free Solar Panels to the Poor

By: Brian Merchant

Rooftop solar. Image: Oast House

In California, polluting companies are paying to line the roofs of the disadvantaged with solar panels. It’s not charity, either, exactly—it’s public policy. Very good policy.

The San Francisco Chronicle explains how a new program arising from the state’s cap-and-trade law—in which companies must pay, per ton, for their carbon pollution—is delivering solar to the poor: “Run by Oakland nonprofit Grid Alternatives, the effort will install home solar arrays in disadvantaged neighborhoods, using $14.7 million raised through California’s cap-and-trade system for reining in greenhouse gas emissions.”

California is the best state in the country for solar; incentive programs, innovative companies, and progressive consumers have helped solar get a foothold there more than anywhere else. But the lion’s share of the solar went solely to the upper-middle classes and the wealthy, who could afford its steep upfront costs.

Grid Alternatives, which has been around for over a decade, has long sought to change that balance—and the cap and trade is providing the funds to give it some extra muscle. The nonprofit now plans on installing solar panels on 1,600 homes by the end of next year, for free. Anyone who lives in a neighborhood the state currently designates as disadvantaged, qualifies.

And yes, for free. Here’s the Chronicle again: “Most homeowners are asked to make small contributions for the installation, such as agreeing to feed the crew installing the array, or agreeing to help with the installation themselves. Otherwise, it’s free.” The system will save households between $400-1,000 dollars a year in electricity costs, as long as the sun is shining.

This is perhaps the best example of cap-and-trade I’ve seen in action. The policy is controversial on both sides of the aisle—on the right, because it’s perceived as a tax on business, on the left because the carbon credits could be traded to enrich corporations. But this, ideally, is how it’s supposed to work: Factories and fossil fuel plants pay for the damage they’re doing to the climate, and the credits go to repairing it. Here, the benefits go both to the environment—the clean energy means lower emissions—and to low income residents, who get a break on their electric bills.

It also has the advantage of boasting “good optics,” as the pundits like to say: It’s hard for even the steeliest-hearted, Randiest conservative to argue that taxing pollution to give the poor clean power is a bad idea (though I’m sure plenty will).

The Grid Alternative program is great, but it’s also a bit of a patchwork. Right now it sounds like it relies on donations from solar companies and volunteer labor. If it were streamlined, better-funded, expanded, and made permanent—especially as the cost of carbon rises under the cap and trade scheme—it would serve as a powerful tool to help mitigate climate change.


How Wind Power is Poised to go Big

Wind turbines have only a tenuous link to most Americans’ daily lives because wind farms generate less than 5 percent of all of the electricity produced today.

As reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change becomes more urgent, though, wind is expected to become one of the country’s largest sources of energy by midcentury. The U.S. Department of Energy has published two new maps that put that future in more concrete terms.

Projected growth of the wind industry over the next 35 years. Department of Energy

The first is part of a report released this spring showing how wind power could grow enough to generate 35 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050 — up from 10 percent in 2020 and 20 percent in 2030.

The map, called “Wind Vision,” shows how much wind power generating capacity each state had in 2000, 2010, and 2013, and Department of Energy estimates for each state’s wind capacity in 2020, 2030, and 2050.

The estimated growth is dramatic: The map shows total U.S. wind power capacity growing from about 40 gigawatts — enough power for about 10 million homes — in 2010 to more than 400 gigawatts in 2050. That would be enough to power nearly 100 million homes.

The map also shows how wind power generated in the U.S. is likely to change as much as it grows in the coming decades. That’s because offshore wind farms could produce an increasing amount of electricity in the U.S. beginning later this decade.

Offshore wind in the U.S. is a big deal because it doesn’t exist here today. Ground is expected to be broken on the nation’s first offshore wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island later this summer, in what will amount to a demonstration project that could test the viability of offshore wind in the U.S.

Energy Department estimates show that wind power in some states will come only from offshore wind turbines. Rhode Island, for example, is expected to generate about 2 gigawatts of wind power in 2050, all of it coming from twirling turbines in the open ocean.

Most coastal states are expected to generate wind from both offshore and onshore turbines. But there are exceptions: South Carolina, where the federal government is now drawing up plans for offshore wind development areas, is estimated to generate 8.5 gigawatts of electricity from wind, all of it offshore. Other states that could see wind farms exclusively offshore include Florida, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

The maps shows plenty of wind growth in states such as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi that produce little or no wind power today.

That leads into the next Energy Department map, “Unlocking Our Nation’s Wind Potential,” which was published this week along with a new report showing that there is wind power potential in nearly the entire U.S., most notably in places where the breeze was thought to be too calm to generate much electricity at all.

Those places represent a major chunk of the U.S., mainly in the South, shown in orange on the map.

The idea is this: The wind usually blows harder at higher altitudes, so taller wind turbines with blades longer than those most commonly manufactured today could capture the wind more effectively as it blows high above the loblolly pines and Southern magnolias in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, parts of the Ohio River Valley, and the calmer parts of California’s Central Valley.

Those turbines would tower up to almost 500 feet above the ground — much taller than most wind turbines built today, which usually stand at about 260 feet.

In other words, come 2050, wind turbines could be almost as much a part of the view above Mississippi’s Natchez Trace Parkway as they are today all across West Texas.


UNplug solar controller aims to help you take your fridge off the grid

By: Derek Markham

© Solar Trap

Where’s the middle ground between having a small solar charger for your gadgets, and having a rooftop solar array capable of powering your entire house? The UNplug might know.

Solar energy is rapidly becoming a viable option for many homes and businesses, and every week seems to bring news of another new solar financing vehicle or a drop in prices, but it’s still out of reach of many of us, just in terms of the initial costs. I’d love to put solar on my house, but I’m not in a position just yet to make that financial commitment.

However, I do have a few solar chargers and gadgets that serve me well for charging small devices at home or in the woods, but they aren’t nearly big enough for the task of powering even some of my household needs. I’ve often pondered the idea of building a small standalone solar energy system that can provide clean electricity for at least some of my home’s needs, that wouldn’t take a major investment, and that could essentially be a small step toward having a more resilient homestead.

And I know I’m not the only one, because the internet is full of plans and articles and forums for building your own DIY solar system, so it’s clearly an idea whose time has come. Most of those plans, however, are often intended for off-grid and remote applications, and not integrating into an average grid-tied house, which is where so many of us could really use it. But a new crowdfunding campaign for a device that aims to bridge the divide could help people take that one step off the grid, starting with their fridge.

The UNplug solar controller was invented by Markus Löffler in response to his own power blackout experience, where several days without electricity meant a lot of spoiled food. Löffler, an entrepreneur and software engineer living in Altadena, California, developed the UNplug device to serve as a simple and inexpensive way to begin going solar, because it serves as the brain of a micro-solar system, starting as small as a single solar panel and a small battery bank.

According to Löffler, just the 100 million or so refrigerators, laptops, and modems running every day in the U.S. is responsible for adding some 33 billion pounds of CO2 to our atmosphere each year, so if we could start taking even some of those off the fossil fuel grid, it could begin to have a big positive effect:

“How can we save money and have a quick and positive impact on the environment? Here’s the answer:

By using the greenest energy source there is… solar. No moving parts, the power is just absorbed through solar panels. With this free energy, you turn your power needs “off the grid” during the most critical “peak” times in a day. Between 10am and 6pm when energy costs are the highest. At night UNplug automatically switches you back to the electricity grid.” – UNplug

During the day, UNplug feeds electricity from the solar panel into the appliances connected to it, and charges the battery bank, and then when the sun goes down, it seamlessly switches over those devices to using grid power. In the event of a blackout, UNplug then powers those same appliances from the battery bank, allowing certain crucial electricity needs to continue to be met during an outage.

The UNplug could allow homes to take at least some of their daily electrical loads off the grid, such as the fridge or other household devices, while also serving as an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) in the event of a power outage. The device doesn’t function all by itself, of course, and requires solar panels, batteries, an inverter, and other accessories, but according to Löffler’s campaign page, a small system could be set up for an additional $570 or so, on top of the cost of the UNplug, so the entire investment could be under $1000. (His shopping list is here.)

Find out more about Löffler’s projects at Solar Trap, or check out the UNplug crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.


Solar power road surface actually works

Credit: SolaRoad

By: Patrick Nelson

A Dutch solar power-generating road is making more electricity than expected.

Remember that road surface being tested in the Netherlands that acted as a giant solar panel converting solar energy into electricity? Well, guess what? It actually worked.

Six months into the test, the engineers say they’ve generated 3,000kwH of power from the 70-meter bike path test track. That’s enough power to run a one-person household for a year, and more than expected of the project, according to SolaRoad, the company behind the experiment.

Energy-neutral mobility

Data centers are heavy users of electricity, and SolaRoad’s better-than-expected electricity generation will be interesting news for those designing data centers.

SolaRoad’s road surface acts as a huge photovoltaic panel. Practical applications thought of thus far include street lighting, traffic systems, and electric vehicles.

Designers are keen on the idea of developing a system where electricity could be passed onto vehicles as they drive down the road, for example.

Glass and concrete construction

The project uses standard, off-the-shelf solar panels that the engineers have placed between layers of glass, silicon rubber, and concrete.

Those concrete modules consist of 2.5-by-3.5-meter slabs capped with 10-millimeter thick tempered glass. Crystalline silicon solar panels are located between the glass and concrete.


The researchers are delighted that the project worked, in part because of the technical challenges. The top layer had to absorb sunlight, unlike normal blacktop. But it also had to be long-term skid-resistant for the bicycle tires, unlike what you’d get with shiny glass.

It had to repel dirt in order to keep the sun shining in, but could not break even if a service truck drove on it. Glass is obviously dangerous and could injure someone if it broke.

The skid resistance was addressed with a coating for the glass

Roof tops

In a 2,543-comment Reddit debate over the news of the successful test, Reddit user Imposterpill sarcastically comments: “I have an idea…why don’t we put solar cells on our roofs?”

Good point. Why roads, one might ask? What’s wrong with roofs?

Well, the engineers have an answer for that comedian:

Total electricity consumption in the Netherlands is around 110,000 GWh, and that keeps going up. That number, taking into account the small size of the country and the limited number of roofs available, means that even if all suitable roofs were equipped with solar panels, they would only supply a quarter of Dutch power consumption.

The same limits might apply in a data center. One day data center designers may want to look at surrounding infrastructure for panel placement. In other words, the roadway.

Yield issues

Surprisingly, the wise-crackers at Reddit haven’t posed the question – what happens when there’s a traffic jam? The cars on the road will surely block the sunlight and reduce yield. Well, the engineers do acknowledge that as a potential problem, and they say that they are looking into it as part of the pilot study.

Another Reddit user suggests placing the solar panels over the road instead of on it. However, in true Reddit-user logic, BloodBride disagrees and says:

“Solar panels OVER the road increase the amount of drunk people throwing traffic cones up there. Traffic cones ON a road invariably just get stolen, worn as hats and taken home.”

And that’s problem solving.


Should I source my home power from renewable energy?

Grist / Shutterstock

By: Ask Umbra

Q. Got an email from a company called Arcadia Power. They say they can source my energy such that it comes from renewables, then pay my energy bill for me. Can they do this? Is my money safe with them? Won’t my municipally owned power company be upset? I would love to make the switch, but I want to be sure this is legit. 

Margarita M.
San Antonio

A. Dearest Margarita,

Kudos for setting a prime example in savvy consumerism. If everybody applied this scrutiny to every product promising miracle weight loss, get-rich-quick results, or the kind of unmentionable claims that populate my spam folder, we’d all be happier (and have a few more bucks in our pockets). In fact, from now on, let’s all take a step back and ask ourselves, “Wait, they’re doing what with my money?” before whipping out our wallets.

The offer you received is what’s called a renewable energy certificate (REC), aka green tag. And to answer your first question — can they source your power from renewables? — well, not exactly. But RECs are indeed a totally legit way to support the development of greener, cleaner energy. Let me explain.

All electricity, whether it comes from a solar panel, hydroelectric dam, nuclear power plant, or coal, looks exactly the same once it gets dumped into our national energy supply, aka the grid. (For a refresher on that vast, complicated system, head over here.) Which sources supply the juice for your particular house varies by location – up here in Seattle, for example, it’s primarily hydropower, while Texas’s number-one source is natural gas.

Now, REC providers don’t actually change where your electricity comes from. Instead, they pay a third company — a wind farm in North Dakota, say — to generate electricity. (In this particular case, you say that Arcadia will pay your electric bill, which is true, but the company then charges you what your regular utility does, plus a little extra to cover the RECs.)

Confused? Here’s a handy explainer. Or, if you prefer, just assume that, while the actual electricity flowing through your house comes from the same place, by buying those RECs, you “own” the environmental benefits of that clean energy from North Dakota.

Granted, this is all a bit confusing. But it’s a nifty system for several reasons. For one, it lets you financially support green energy projects even if you don’t have them in your neck of the woods. It helps make the overall energy mix in the grid cleaner. And it allows you to completely offset your personal electricity footprint by replacing any carbon-emitting power you suck from the grid with new electricity derived from renewable sources.

Naturally, Margarita, you want to be sure that your REC provider is on the up and up — in other words, that your hard-earned cash is truly funding a green energy project and not, say, a pony for the executive’s kid. Enter the importance of third-party verification. The one major player here is the Center for Resource Solution’s Green-e energy program, which makes sure a given REC is worth its salt (among other things, it makes sure RECs fund new energy projects on the voluntary market and produce the amount of green juice they say they do).

Now to your offer from Arcadia Power. If you check the Green-e website, you’ll notice they’re not listed as certified. So I called the company to find out why not. Good news: According to company cofounder Kiran Bhatraju, it won’t be that way for long. “We buy a Green-e certified product right now, and we’re in the process of becoming a Green-e certified company,” he said. “As a two-year-old company, it takes a bit of wrangling.” It’s up to you whether you want to wait for that official word to come through before buying.

Interested in putting some dollars toward clean energy development? Some of you will have this option directly through your local electric company, and signing up that way is great because it sends the clear message that you want windier, sunnier power in your area. Some of you won’t, but the beauty of RECs is that they’re available to all. You can find choices both local and far-flung by searching the EPA’s Green Power Locator. Note that not all the options come with Green-e certification, though, so be sure to check them out carefully. The old journalism motto — “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” — applies just as nicely to shopping, you know.

Caveat emptorially,