Renewable Energy Inroads

I’m all for making the planet less dependent on fossil fuels, if for no other reason than they represent a finite resource. Renewable energy offers to replace the finite resources we use now with something we can harvest forever. The problem is that many renewable energy sources are really quite dirty. For example, the solar cell that adorns your roof may be killing people in China. In my opinion, we really don’t need to clean up our part of the planet by making China’s part of the planet even dirtier. In the long run, we won’t benefit by that strategy. Just think of all the really interesting poisoned toys China will send our way—toys poisoned by our own toxic waste. The toxins we generate in other countries tend to come back to haunt us.

It was with mixed feelings that I recently read that solar energy will become a major energy source within 15 years. The reasons for the increase in usage are many, but the basic reason is that solar is becoming less expensive to install and maintain. The costs of the solar panels and their installation has gone down considerably, so it’s possible that solar power might actually become less expensive than using fossil fuels at some point. Of course, the savings assume that you’re not storing excess power in batteries. Adding batteries to the picture greatly increases costs and makes solar quite expensive indeed.

There is one benefit to solar energy that many people don’t think about. If the solar panels appear on people’s rooftops in a decentralized configuration, the ability of terrorists to disrupt the electrical system is greatly diminished. A decentralized setup also reduces costs associated with power transmission and could actually do things like reduce cooling costs in summer. Of course, the utilities aren’t crazy about decentralized solar because it cuts into their profits, but the fact of the matter is that we need a better setup than the one we do now. Our system is so fragile right now that I’m often surprised a storm or other simply cause doesn’t knock out major sections of the country.

The bottom line for me is that we really do need to reduce our power usage and embrace renewable energy sources. However, we need non-polluting renewable energy sources or at least sources that pollute less than the ones we have now. I last tackled this topic in More People Noticing that Green Technology Really Isn’t. The fact is, nothing has changed in the technology, but the need to address the technology shortfalls has just become greater. Before a technology that pollutes our planet quite a lot becomes entrenched, we need to come up with answers to deal with the pollution—preferably a better technology.

What are your thoughts on renewable energy? What forms do you feel pollute the least and provide the greatest benefit to people as a whole? Do you see renewable energy becoming the only power source at some point? Let me know your thoughts on these and other energy concerns at


A New Type of Solar Panel

One of the things that has always caused me problems with solar panels is that they’re a limited technology here in the Midwest, unless you want yet another surface to clear of snow in the winter. In addition, finding places to put the solar arrays is problematic. Once you do find a place to put them, the installation itself is normally an eyesore. So, even though you’re getting power from the sun, you’re paying a relatively high cost for it in more than just monetary ways. Which is why this new solar panel that doubles as windows for the house is intriguing. You can find a quick overview of the technology in the ComputerWorld article entitled, Transparent solar cells could turn windows into generators. The MIT Technology Review article, A New Solar Material Shows Its Potential, provides a little more depth.

The main material used in this new solar panel is perovskite. There aren’t any panel that you can buy today with this material, but it does have a lot of promise. Even if this particular material doesn’t work out because it’s too fragile, a composite with the material or a material with some of the same characteristics could produce solar panels that double as window panes. Because window panes are vertical, rather than at an angle, they won’t suffer from many of the environmental issues that current solar panels do. You won’t see them as something separate from the house and it’s less likely that they’ll be damaged because the house partially protects the windows. Because the windows won’t angle to precisely match the angle of the sun, these solar panels are unlikely to be as efficient as standard solar panels.

Perovskite is a kind of rare earth mineral. Actually, the term encompasses a number of rare earth minerals that exhibit a particular structure. These minerals are somewhat common in a number of locations worldwide. Of course, mining perovskite will still incur the environmental damage I discussed in my A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution and A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution (Part 2) posts. It’s important to realize that this technology reflects a small, but important, step forward.

Several of the articles that appear online indicate that this new technology should be a lot less expensive than current solar panel technology and more aesthetically appealing as well. These two factors bode well for this technology. People won’t use green technologies that cost more than current technologies to use and few people are willing to put up with unappealing yard ornaments. If the people working with this technology succeed, your next window upgrade could provide power to your house as well.

The one thing that concerned me about this technology is whether it would look like standard windows. From what I gathered in reading various articles, the panes can be tinted, just like standard panes. In addition, it’ll be possible to sandwich the panes with inert gasses, such as argon, to produce windows with high emissivity values, which means they should work great in colder climates.

Our green technologies still create way too much pollution, but it appears that we’re making progress. Let me know your thoughts about these new windows at


A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution

I’ve discussed various methods of saving money while consuming less electricity (thereby reducing the amount of pollution that a typical home generates locally) several times in the past. The two most popular posts on the issue are CFLs for Free and More on CFL Usage. It’s true, using Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) reduces local use of electricity, reducing local pollution and saving money. However, no one has proven they really are greener than using incandescent bulbs after examining all of the evidence. The problem is production. Producing a lightbulb of any sort also creates pollution.

Looking at a CFL, you have the glass, which possesses the same ability to pollute (and at about the same amount) as an incandescent bulb. There is also the mercury contained within a CFL, but burning an incandescent bulb actually outputs more mercury into the environment when you rely on coal fired electrical plants. On the other hand, if the electrical source is nuclear, wind, solar, or natural gas powered, then CFLs are a definite loser when it comes to mercury. You must also consider the wiring within the bulb and the base used to screw it into a light socket. Both of these items pollute, but generally at the same or a reduced amount as an incandescent bulb.

However, none of the articles I’ve ever read consider another important issue. CFLs contain electronics. Producing those electronics creates an enormous amount of pollution. Organizations such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) will tell you that electronics are hardly clean and they do produce some extremely toxic side effects. Plus, the devices continue to pollute after we’re done with them. Because of the strict environmental laws in the United States, much of the most toxic production is now performed in China or Mexico.

Unfortunately, the production pollution is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of these devices also require the use of rare earths, which produce pollution so toxic that all of the mines in America were shut down until it was discovered that we needed one for strategic purposes. (The last mine, the Mountain Pass rare earth mine, was closed in 2002 after a series of radioactive tailing spills.) So, we’re opening (actually, reopening) one of these pollution super sites in the making in order to keep China from having a monopoly.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that green technology isn’t very green. In fact, what we’re really doing in many cases is moving the pollution to someone else’s yard instead of our own. Even so, after reading about the topic intensely, it appears that CFLs are still a good idea and that they do, in fact, reduce the overall pollution of the planet. The lesson though is that it’s important to embrace green technologies with the idea that they aren’t really green and then discuss just where the pollution goes after you start using them. For example, ethanol production will remain a major pollution producer (not a pollution solution) in my book because it really does cause significant damage to the planet. What ethanol does is move the pollution to someone else’s doorstep—making it the worst sort of pollution.

There are also significant questions about both solar and wind power. In both cases, you have pollution created by electronics production and the use of rare earths. Additional pollution is caused when these two forms of power actually reduce the efficiency of power plants that are needed when solar or wind sources are unavailable.

This brings me to new technologies. Scientists are experimenting with all sorts of new ways to produce energy that is cleaner. Recently I read about an artificial leaf that produces power using photosynthesis—the same technique used by plants. However, like many other techniques for producing power, this one relies on electronics and will therefore contribute to pollution somewhere. The issue is whether the pollution is less than other techniques of producing power now. This technology has promise because it appears that it uses less silicon than solar panels. In addition, it’s less expensive than solar energy and there is the potential to reduce costs more. The part that intrigues me most about this particular new technology is that its output is easily stored in a form that doesn’t require constant replacement of batteries. The output is hydrogen and oxygen, both of which can be stored using tanks and then released as needed. The combination of lower cost and low-technology energy storage could make this new method a much better deal than wind or solar power.

People keep looking at the technologies we have now as an end point. Yes, they are an end point, but one that is at the beginning of the route needed to produce truly clean energy, not the end of the road. Many scientists suggest now that the existing clean energy sources actually produce more pollution than the fossil fuel sources they’re designed to replace—we need to do better. The artificial leaf is an example of the kind of technology we could see in the future. Yes, it still pollutes, but possibly at a much lower level than anything to date and it doesn’t require anything special to use it.

What is your take on green technology and pollution? Have you considered issues such as the pollution generated during production and post usage, and the overall effect of using a technology on the system as a whole? Let me know your thoughts on the matter at


Green Doesn’t Mean Pollution Free

There is a misconception about green technologies that I hear more and more often. The idea that a green technology is necessarily pollution free simply isn’t correct. I’ve been giving the notion a great deal of thought and haven’t been able to come up with a single green technology that is free of pollution of some sort. In fact, I have come to wonder whether some supposedly green technologies may actually produce more pollution than the technologies they’re supposed to replace. Yes, I realize that this is a radical position, but hear me out before you make a decision for yourself (and I would welcome discussion on this particular issue).

I’ll start with the simplest green technology that I could come up with. Years ago my wife gave up her drier for a clothesline. Not only do our clothes last longer and smell better, but she gained some important space in the laundry room, our costs for drying the clothes are smaller, and using a clothesline is definitely green. However, is a clothesline pollution free? It isn’t for several reasons.


  • The clothesline we use is plastic covered metal wire, which means that manufacturing it generated several kinds of industrial waste and hydrocarbons.
  • The hooks used to support the clothesline are made of metal, which means yet more industrial waste.
  • The posts used to support the hooks are made of treated lumber, so they contain toxic chemicals.
  • The posts are also painted, which means more toxic chemicals, along with industrial waste and potential hydrocarbons.

Using the sun to dry your clothing is a green technology. There are few continuing pollution sources when using this approach, yet, it can be easily argued that the clothesline will eventually require replacement, as will the posts and the hooks. The posts will last longer if I continue to paint them, but that means continued pollution in the form of toxic chemicals as well. So, this green approach to drying clothing does generate a small amount of pollution—it isn’t pollution free as advocates would have you believe. (However, it is demonstrably better than using a drier.)

After thinking this issue through for a while, I did come up with some ways to reduce the pollution generated by drying clothing outside, but never have created a solution that is completely pollution free and still provides the desired result. Here are some of the changes I considered:


  • Use black locust posts and cross beams that require no painting and are naturally resistant to decay.
  • Use natural fiber clotheslines that don’t generate as many pollutants during production.
  • Avoid the use of hooks by tying the clotheslines directly to the cross beams.

Even with these changes, however, the simple act of drying clothing generates pollution. For example, I have no source of natural fiber strong enough to support the clothes on my property and even if I did, I have no way of turning the fibers into clotheslines. In short, drying clothing generates some amount of pollution in the form of industrial waste even with the best planning. I’ve been able to use this same approach to consider the pollution generated by burning wood instead of propane to heat the house (despite my replacement of the trees I burn to maintain the size of the woods) and other ways we try to be green. Humans simply generate pollution for every given activity no matter how benign or well considered.

So, now you need to consider how this information translates into other green technologies. When you look carefully at my arguments against calling a green technology pollution free (as has been done in the hype generated in the news lately), you quickly see that many green technologies generate considerable pollution. Most of the articles I read on the topic are woefully inadequate and some are downright inaccurate. For example, I read an article from Scientific American that tries to paint solar cells as relatively pollution free. The article does consider the burden of fossil fuels used to construct the solar cells, but doesn’t consider the content of the cells themselves. For example, when you talk about the silicon used to create a solar cell, you must consider the heavy metals used to dope the silicon in order to make it into a semiconductor.

Unfortunately, while I do know that toxic industrial waste is produced when creating solar cells, there is a terrible lack of material on just how much. It’s a dark secret that you won’t read about anywhere. The article also doesn’t consider the emissions produced by the manufacture of plastic housings and metal castings used for solar panels. So, while using a solar panel does reduce locally produced pollution, I have to wonder whether the technology doesn’t simply move the pollution to another location—the place of manufacture. It makes me wonder whether our grandchildren might not consider solar technology as an ill conceived maneuver designed to make everyone feel better at the expense of toxic output that is even worse than the technology it replaced. In fact, I have read an article or two about this particular issue already—we may be making some places in China uninhabitable in order to clean up our own country.

Of course, these are simply musings of mine that I’m choosing the share with you. My point is that we need to consider the potential ramifications of theoretically green technologies that we embrace and consider the full cost of each. There are many technologies, such as the use of ethanol in gasoline, that many people have already questioned as being reckless. You can find a lot of articles questioning the use of ethanol in places such as the New York Times, Scientific American, and Environmental Working Group that say ethanol is a wash at best and potentially worse than simply using unadulterated gasoline from a health perspective. I have an open mind when it comes to green technologies, but I’m also cautious in saying that we’re making progress because so far, I’m not seeing much real progress. Let me know your thoughts on the green revolution at


CFLs for Free

If you haven’t heard about the Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) by now, then you haven’t been paying much attention. They’re talked about on billboards, the television, radio, magazines, and in stores. In fact, it seems as if you can’t escape the CFL. Yet, many people are still buying the old incandescent bulbs created many years ago by Edison. Yes, incandescent bulbs were a marvel at the time, but today they’re costing you money.

A CFL is basically a fluorescent tube light put into a compact form. They consume considerably less energy than incandescent bulbs and last longer too. When I talk to people about CFLs, the biggest complaint I hear is that they cost so much money to buy. (The second biggest is that CFLs output harsh light or that the bulbs have a short life expectancy, neither of which is true any longer.) Of course, the expense is a legitimate complaint—one that I plan to address in this post.

Rebecca and I have switched our entire house to CFLs. When we first moved into our home, our average monthly bill was over $120.00 a month. Today, due to a number of energy saving techniques, we often get by for $50.00 a month despite a lot of price increases over the years. CFLs are a big part of that savings.

There are some tricks you can use to make the changeover a lot more palatable. Start by investing in high quality CFLs. Avoid the cheap Chinese knockoffsget a good bulb from GE or Sylvania, even though the initial cost is higher. Track the amount the bulb saves you each month. You can do that quite simply by checking your bill for a reduction or you can do things more scientifically. Keep a log of how long you use the bulb each day for a monththis represents the hours you use the bulb, then use this equation:


Savings = ((Bulb Watts / 1000) * Hours) * KWH Rate

Let’s say that you replace a 100 watt bulb with a CFL equivalent and you use the bulb for 4 hours each evening for a 30 day month. Your KWH rate (available from your electric bill) is $0.12. The new bulb takes only 26 watts. The original cost of using that bulb is:


((100 / 1000) * 120) * 0.12 or $1.44 per month

The cost of the new bulb is:


((26 / 1000) * 120) * 0.12 or $0.37 per month

Your savings are $1.07 per month from just that one bulb. OK, you can pocket that $1.07 and buy half a cup of coffee with it, or you can put it aside. In one year you’ll save enough money to buy a 12 pack of 100 watt CFL replacements for free (at least, you will if you shop smart).  Now you can replace 12 incandescent bulbs and it won’t cost anything.

Here’s the payoff. Each of those replacements will also save on your electric bill. If you use each of those bulbs for the same amount of time each day, your savings increase to $13.91 each month, which means that you can buy the next package of CFLs in a month and end up with around $1.47 in change.

As you get new bulbs that haven’t cost you a penny because you would have spent that money on incandescent bulbs anyway, you can quickly replace all of those incandescent bulbs with CFLs that last longer, produce the same quality of light, and reduce your electric bill.

Now you can move onto other things. Start with a programmable thermostat. You’ll find that it saves you money each month as well. If you use your CFL savings to buy the thermostat, it won’t cost you anything. You can extend this to weather stripping and all kinds of other energy saving additionseach of which provides a payoff—an incentive for using it.

It took us about 5 years to replace everything we could in our house that would readily provide a payoff and achieve that energy savings that I talked about earlier. Now, we’re pocketing that extra money. The cost savings will help keep our costs low (and in this economy, who can afford to turn away extra cash).

Eventually, we’ll look at other technologies to reduce our carbon footprint. There are many technologies now that we’ve looked at carefully that don’t actually put any money in your pocket. For example, we looked at windmill technology. By the time you pay for your own personal windmill, not to mention batteries, inverter, and other requirements, you’ll have to wait way too long for payback. Hopefully, this technology will improve with time. The same problem occurs with solar power and some other promising technologiesthey have no payoff right now (they don’t put money in your pocket).

The next technology that does look promising is solar heated hot water. Right now you still have to replace the system before you get a payoff (the longest lasting setup I could find is about five yearsnot long enough for payoff), but I think this is going to change in the near future. As the reliability of these systems improve and more people use them, but the cost will come down and there will be a payoff for those of us who have to be concerned about payoff.

There are also some changes we’ll make simply because we have to, even if there isn’t a payoff. For example, we’re going to have to replace our windows at some point. The old wooden windows are literally rotting in place. When we do make a replacement, we’ll look into buying a higher quality window that will at least partially pay back its installation cost in reduced energy costs. What I’ll try to do is balance the expected energy savings against the additional cost to find that magic point where I get a payback of a sort (the windows won’t ever pay for themselves, but the energy savings will ultimately make the windows less expensive than if I had bought cheaper windows).

Do you often find that the people selling energy saving devices miss the point? I find that the brochures stop short of telling people what the payoff is and how to obtain the devices without spending anything. There is usually some message about doing the planet some good and saving it for our children. These are certainly laudable goals, but the question that concerns me most is, “What’s in it for me?” In our case, it has turned out to be about $70.00 per monthwell worth the effort involved.  Let me know your thoughts on using energy saving devices at