US Government Policy: Fossil Fuels vs Renewable Energy

While renewable energy has made impressive strides in the US over the last couple of years, the reality is that we continue to live under a government that is actually not vested in seeing renewable energy take off, and continues to remain an avid supporter of fossil fuels. Our politicians go where the money is, and while there is great promise and potential in renewable energy, the killer profit is still in the oil, coal and gas industries.

image of Fossil Fuel emissions



The danger in this situation is that supporting fossil fuels not only hurts our environment, it creates a none-level playing field for the developing renewables industry. In addition to the fact that globally the fossil fuel industry gets subsidies of around $400 billion annually, while renewables get only around $60 billion, private investors also take cue from government policy. Wavering government support both in the US and Europe has made private investors wary of investing into renewable energy, because at the end of the day they want to realize maximum profits with minimal risks. From that perspective, the fossil fuel industry (movie FUEL), which continues to be heavily supported by governments worldwide, remains to be a highly attractive investment opportunity. This combined lack of investment and government support make it next to impossible for the renewable energy industry to become competitive with the heavily subsidized and more mature fossil fuel industry. And yet this is the miracle that the world expects the renewable energy industry to deliver.

Perhaps, the saddest part of the story is that the American public is often misled to believe that renewable energy is at best not viable, and at worst actually wastes taxpayer dollars and contributes to loss of jobs. Popular media outlets tend to emphasize problems and failures in the renewable energy sector, while giving very little air time to the industry’s many successes. If renewable energy is to have any real future in this country, the government needs to be on board, and the citizens need to be informed to demand action from the people in power who represent them.

US government supports fossil fuel industry

We castigate many countries like China for their polluting production practices and lax environmental laws, and yet without blinking an eye, the American government subsidizes the most polluting fossil fuel industry and completely lets it off the hook for a number of environmental costs, which include toxic waste in our water. A fossil fuel subsidy is any policy that lowers the cost of fossil fuel energy production, increases the price received by energy producers or lowers the price paid by energy consumers. Overall, subsidies to the domestic fossil fuel industry are estimated to be around $10 billion plus annually.

Subsidies currently in place include tax breaks and giveaways, loans at favorable rates, price controls, purchase requirements and more. It is important to note that the largest subsidies to fossil fuels are written into the U.S. Tax Code as permanent provisions. On the other hand, many subsidies for renewables are time-limited initiatives implemented through energy bills, all of which have expiration dates that limit their effectiveness in helping the renewables industry grow. It is no wonder that renewable energy cannot compete with fossil fuels, given such blatant favoritism for the latter in our government policy.



It begs the question why one of the wealthiest industries in the world needs such heavy subsidies? Last year, the three biggest U.S. oil companies took home more than $80 billion in profit. Whenever the price of oil goes up, and prices at the pump go up, and every American family’s budget is strained, the oil companies make a killing. Research shows that every time gas goes up by a penny, these companies usually pocket another $200 million in quarterly profits. Meanwhile, oil companies pay a lower tax rate than most other companies on their investments, partly because they are getting billions in tax giveaways every year.

President Obama’s efforts to decrease subsidies for fossil fuel companies have been shut down by the Republican – controlled – House. In his most recent call to cut subsidies to fossil fuel companies because they are perfectly able to stand on their own, Obama proposed the roughly $2 billion a year in tax breaks and subsidies for oil companies to be used as a source of revenue for clean energy development. The procedural vote of 51-47, which failed to reach the needed threshold of 60 in favor, killed the measure.

At the same time, “green” US companies have to struggle and get leftovers from the BIG-Oil table, and very promising innovations such as Electric Vehicles, Algae, Bio-Fuels, etc. are left in the dust.



Obama criticized for supporting domestic renewable energy industry

While the Obama administration has been particularly supportive of the renewable energies industry, providing it with generous subsidies and opportunities for growth and development as part of pursuing a diversified energy policy and creating more jobs in a struggling economy, the president has gotten slammed with criticism and negative press for his commitment to renewable energy. In fact, because of the 2012 presidential election, renewable energy has become a hot polarizing issue. The strings of bankruptcies declared by US solar manufacturers (many of whom were subsidized under the Obama administration), closing factories and lay-offs have been used by the Republicans as a beating stick against Obama every chance they get.

One such bankrupt solar company – Solyndra – which once used to be Obama’s poster child for American renewable energy industry success, has gotten the most bad press. The company has been investigated by a Congressional Republican Committee, and has publicly become synonymous with government waste. On his campaign trail, Mitt Romney paid a secret visit to Solyndra’s headquarters and gave a talk there accusing Obama of cronyism and misusing the taxpayers’ money to fund failing enterprises of the President’s friends. Overall, Republicans attack Obama’s energy policy, accusing it of contributing to high gas prices and stunting domestic oil development.

The truth is that a large part of American political class, which essentially includes the entire G.O.P., is deeply invested in the fossil fuel industry and derives massive profits from continuing their support. As a result, this political class is actively hostile to alternatives, using both direct political power, as well as indirect media influence to ensure that subsidies to the fossil fuel industry remain intact, while renewable energy lags behind as an “unrealistic” alternative. What we as citizens need to know is that while today our tax dollars go towards making more money for oil, gas and coal companies, our children will be paying a hefty price by having to deal with the grave environmental consequences of our decisions.

Facts about Solyndra Bankruptcy Case

Solyndra Inc. is back in the news and is now a hot political issue in the presidential election, sharply dividing Democrats and Republicans on the issue of wasteful spending, energy policy and the direction of economic policy. To understand this political debate and its implications for US energy policy, it is important to know the basic facts about Solyndra’s case.



Brief history of Solyndra Inc.

Solyndra Inc. was founded in Silicon Valley in 2004, producing specialized cylindrical solar panels for commercial rooftops. The company came up with an innovative technology of building solar panels without polysilicon. The idea behind this innovation was that due to exorbitant polysilicon prices, solar panels that were built without it would have a major advantage in the market. The other projected benefit of these solar panels was that they were supposed to be cheaper to install than their competitors.

Since the company seemed to have a promising future, in 2005 it was invited to apply for a government-guaranteed loan under the Energy Policy Act that was enacted that same year. This law was backed by bipartisan support under the the Bush administration and was designed to support innovative renewable energy technologies. In 2008, the Department of Energy started reviewing Solyndra’s application and in March 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced a $535 million conditional loan guarantee to Solyndra Inc. The loan was formally announced in September 2009, and was funded with stimulus money; the problem was that by that point Solyndra was already in deep financial trouble that eventually lead down the road to Solyndra’s bankruptcy.

Why Solyndra went bankrupt

There were a number of factors that converged together causing Solyndra’s collapse. The reality is that none of these factors could have been foreseen or prevented, given the nature of the company’s product.  The first factor was that in February of 2008 the price of polysilicon began to fall sharply, taking away Solyndra’s solar panels’ advantage in the market place.



The second factor was a dramatic collapse in the price of solar panels that took place in 2011 and can in large part be attributed to the fact the Chinese solar panel manufacturers started to squeeze out American solar panel manufacturers, like Solyndra, out of the market. The company’s solar panels were relatively expensive from the start, but cheap solar panels from China made Solyndra’s prices super uncompetitive, and the company did not have enough large commercial clients to create the necessary economies of scale.

Another contributing factor was that natural gas prices also fell during the same time period, which made investments into a comparatively more risky and expensive solar industry a lot less attractive. This in turn contributed to the fact that the firms’ executives failed to raise required additional capital that would have kept the company afloat. Solyndra filed for bankruptcy in September of 2011, was forced to shut down its Fremont factory and fired around 1,100 workers.

Grounds for a Congressional investigation and subsequent scandal

image of Obama visiting Solyndra before bankruptcy A Republican Congressional committee has been investigating the loan allocated to Solyndra Inc. since 2010. Internal administration emails that have been released show the the White House was warned on numerous occasions and from numerous trusted sources in the venture capital world the Solyndra was in trouble and will likely go under. Despite these warnings, the administration pressed on with the loan and internal administration emails reveal that the Energy Department asked Solyndra to delay layoffs until after 2010 midterm elections.

In December 2010, the firm failed to make a payment on its federal loan, thereby violating its terms. Despite this, the administration continued to financially support the struggling company, keeping it afloat. In February 2011, the Department of Energy restructured Solyndra’s loan, and found new investors, who gave the company an additional $75 million in financing. One of Solyndra’s largest investors was a major Obama supporter and financial bundler, George Kaiser. To be sure, the company had a number of key Republican investors as well. These actions by the White House came to be considered as misguided management of funds, and Mitt Romney went as far as accusing President Obama of cronyism and handing out money to his friend’s businesses.



Related Article: Solar metal roofing – roof-integrated thin-film PV panels

Solar Thermal Mass Windows – Free Passive Solar Heat



Although winter is finally over, it is still somewhat cold outside and we have to turn on the heat. Recently, I have found a very interesting product which can be used by anyone to heat their home or apartment for free. Even if you rent, you can do it without getting the land lord involved. The only things you’ll need are south-facing windows and a thermal mass solar window.

Solar mass thermal windows

As you can see from the image above these windows measure 72 degrees F, while outside temperature that day was 22 degrees, with a 27 F high. (Historic weather data).

The 50 degree difference in temperature is the free heat that enters your home and stays. Here is how the Solar Thermal Mass windows work in a nut shell: it as a 2 inches thick air and water-tight container filled with special liquid that collects and stores solar thermal energy. Special chemicals added to the liquid prevent stain deposits on the inner walls if the unit. In the picture above, these units are used as building blocks, and cover almost half of the south-facing wall.

In the winter, when the sun is low, these windows collect solar heat since the sun hits them directly. In the summer, the sun is much higher and with appropriate shading, these thermal mass windows keep the home well insulated without collecting any heat. Additionally, a special low emittance and high solar gain argon filled window unit is installed just outside the thermal windows, so they are not directly exposed to the outside temperature.




How to heat your existing house for free

The picture above was taken in a new construction house, but for most people the interesting question is how to use these thermal mass windows in an existing home or apartment?

My plan was simple: I have 6 large windows that face south and an unheated balcony, which cannot be used in the winter because it is too cold there. In the heated living space, we have new double pane Low-E windows installed, which are much more efficient than the original single-pane wood windows from the 50′s. I am going to build an enclosure in which I can stack 4-6 thermal mass solar window units, and have them up in the window during the winter months, and take them out in the summer.

This will not be as efficient as the one in the new construction home above, but it will certainly help reduce my heating bill and carbon footprint.

As for the balcony, I first need to replace all the single-pane glazing and then I can stack the thermal mass windows all along the bottom of the windows. I’ll build special shelves to make the process of putting them up for the winter, and removing them in the summer, easier.

Traditional Sash Windows – Thermal Performance Solution

Here is how to make your traditional sash windows more energy efficient…

Sash Windows Traditional vertical sliding sash windows, are based on a simple design of two of sliding glass panels (top and bottom sashes) and have been part of the UK’s architectural heritage for over three hundred years. The sash window originates from 17th century England, where the first prototype, the single hung sash window, was created by Robert Hooke, an inventor who specialized in mechanics and architecture. The first type was more basic than those created nowadays and can still be seen in some historic buildings, predominantly of aristocratic ownership.

Solutions

Instead of replacing traditional sash windows, there are multiple reasons why owners should opt for restoring them to their initial appearance and at the same time optimize their thermal performance.

Sash Window Repair

It is best for the restoration process to be carried out by specialized companies and it should always be adapted to the specific type of sash windows and its particular deficiencies. Common sash window repair works (http://www.sashwindows.co.uk/services/sash-window-repairs.html) include: replacing sections of the box frame (normally the lower section of pulley stiles), lower sections of outer linings, bottom rails and window sills and replacing missing puttying and repainting. Using traditional carpentry and joinery methods with advanced modern epoxy resins ensures a permanent repair. This process does not alter their original appearance but instead, mends the alterations brought to it by time and natural phenomena.



Sash Window Draught Proofing

This is also a very effective process, and if done correctly, it maximizes heat retention in the home and minimizes heat and energy loss. Sash window draught proofing is less known perhaps, yet once a sash window has been overhauled and draught correctly, even old sash windows can equal or surpass modern ones in terms of energy efficiency.

In this process, the staff beads and parting beads are replaced with new beadings with a draught proofing material permanently machined into the beads, top and bottom sash re-fitted and also fitted with a draught proofing material (usually a brush pile).

Sash Window Draught proofing

Sash Window Draught proofing

weight to the correct counter balance ensuring the sash close with a minimum gap.

Resources:

Find more green Home Improvement Ideas at http://greenhomeideas.blogspot.com – Green Home Ideas blog.

Solar Decathlon 2009

It was a great Columbus Day weekend in Washington DC, and Solar Decathlon was making waves on the news… Well, actually it did not. Not even bigger green sites and blogs covered this truly green event. Probably there were much more important things happening in our capital – like Obama’s newly “adopted” dogs :).

So I’ll let the big guys do their things, while I tell you about the event, which so many people waited 2+ years for, and worked so hard to make it happen – ladies and gentlemen – Solar Decathlon 2009!

Solar Decathlon 2009 at the Mall in Washington, DC



 

This was our first Solar Decathlon, but certainly not the last. Since we were sponsors of Team Boston Solar Home, most of my coverage will be focused on it. However, there were many great solar homes this year: Team California and Team Germany were battling for first place (you can see Team Germany solar home in the picture above – a black house, second from the right).

As I wandered through the Mall, looking at these homes and being hesitant to stand in line to see very similar interior set-ups, my main focus was on the outside. Solar technologies, energy efficiency and exterior design were my main concern, as these factors make a true solar home, while the inside can always be remodeled.

Team Boston Solar Home:



 

As a future architecture student, and a “construction worker” now, I look at these houses with a slightly different perspective than most people. For me, the ease of construction, highest energy efficiency and reasonable cost are the most important things, followed by a nice design. Unfortunately, many of the innovative approaches used for this competition are not accessible to the masses, and remain to be a privilege for the most extravagant home buyers with deep pockets. While I have no problem with it in general, in my opinion, the purpose of a Solar Decathlon is to move innovative green building technologies into the mass housing market, so that such technologies would actually make a major difference in improving the environment and reducing CO2 emissions.

Team Boston solar home at the Solar Village in Washington DC



 

It is expected of all these homes to be super insulated and have solar PV panels on their roofs. I was interested in innovative new approaches at achieving maximum effect (energy efficiency or energy generation) using the least expensive methods. In this regard, the Boston Solar home has (had) great potential, if not for the massive glass array on the northern side of the house. All these windows and doors will let all the heat escape in the winter, which makes it that much less efficient. This is a fixable situation however – just remove most windows and put a wall there :)

Despite potential heat loss, the liquid-filled glass units on the southern side of the house will collect tremendous amounts of solar heat and store it, making it much easier to heat this house. Find out more about these liquid-filled solar thermal windows and wall panels.

In addition to solar thermal wall panels, Boston solar home has about 6.4 KW solar pv system on the roof and a solar thermal hot water heater, for heating and domestic use. There are many other new and innovative design features used by BAC (Boston Architectural College) and Tufts University students in the construction of this home – too many to list here. You may check out the project’s website – www.livecurio.us.

Team Spain solar home:

Another solar home that attracted my attention was the one build by Team Spain (which for some reason was doing VERY poorly in this competition).

Team Spain solar home: Rotating solar panels array and solar PV cells built into walls.

Apparently, these bi-pv cells are very good at capturing indirect sunlight and help the house generate the most electricity it possibly can.

Team Spain used a very interesting (in my opinion) approach at capturing ALL available solar energy with their powerful solar PV array. This roof mounted array can rotate at the center, following the sun going across the sky, thus always keeping the most efficient angle of the PV panel to the sun. It is basically a gigantic solar tracking system, which is however complicated and expensive to implement, making this house not as competitive in terms of costs and ease of building.

Additionally, the glass walls of this home have integrated solar PV cells, which capture even more solar energy. It is a good idea, but an overkill in my opinion, as the roof mounted solar system should be more than sufficient and, unless they used “dummy” cells on east, west and north sides of the house, it is a waste of solar capacity, as the sun will barely or never hit those solar cells.

Building-integrated solar panels mounted on glass walls.

Cornell University Solar Home:

Another interesting design, which for some reason reminded me of the Water World movie was a solar home built by Cornell University students. It featured three round “rooms” connected to each other, and a large solar PV system, which for some reason was mounted flat to the ground.

Cornell University solar home - round steel frame with flat, roof mounted solar panels.

It may not be the best designed house (in terms of competition rankings), and round rooms make it ever more difficult to build, but the steel frame and a VERY cool vintage design made it very attractive. As I was writing this, Cornell’s solar home was in 6th overall place, with a few more contests to go. You can view current team rankings here: http://www.solardecathlon.org/scoring/

As a side note, as of Oct. 13th, Team Boston solar home is in 12th position and Team Spain is in 18th place, while 1st place belongs to Team California.

Let the best solar house win!

The Solar Decathlon will continue for another week or so, and there are a lot of contests left in which either team can pull forward dramatically. Therefore, I will not even try to predict the winner. All houses presented in the Solar Village this year were very well designed and built, and the green building technologies used in them will in the (hopefully) near future migrate into traditional construction markets and help home and building owners reduce the overall energy use and make our environment better. This competition is also an inspiration for the new wave of architects who will be literally building our future homes and infrastructure, and as you can see, they all have great ideas. I will continue to cover the Solar Decathlon 2009 in future posts, and soon you will be able to review the IB flat roof installation which we did on the Curio Home – look forward to seeing it soon on our cool roofing blog.