Posted in decarbonization, electrify everything, energy efficiency, home heating, no fossil fuels, solar

My Solar-Powered Frack-free Home

About our house

We wanted a frack-free, all electric, emissions-free home. So when we needed to move, we decided on a small house, a classic Philadelphia row-home offering about 1300 square feet of living space.

Getting into hot water

When we removed the gas hot water system, we replaced it with an on-demand electric system, with no storage tank. The main benefit is that water is only heated when needed. Another benefit is that this freed up space in the basement. 

[include research about calculating size]

Everyday needs

We replaced all the appliances with efficient electric ones – the fridge, the stove, the washer, the dryer, ceiling fans & double-pane windows. The fridge has a mere 10 cubic feet capacity, enough for the basics for our 2 person household, but not enough to stockpile! Though people with induction cooktops swear they don’t miss their gas stoves, we opted for a basic glass topped free-standing electric oven / range. The washer is a front loading machine; the electric dryer has heat pump technology and needs no venting to the outside; it drains water into the laundry sink, much like the washer does. The ceiling fans do a marvelous job circulating air the 9 months of the year when our windows are open; so much so that we haven’t missed air conditioning.

garage-wall
garage wall with electric panel, solar inverter, and EV charger

Oh, another feature of this smallish house is that it has a 2-car garage. Since the 2 of us share the one all-electric car, we have space for a variety of bikes in the second garage, adding to our multi-modal zero-carbon transportation options. How often does one get to show off a garage wall, complete with EV charger and solar inverter?

Wintertime needs

We also removed the gas boiler, which once pumped hot water thru the house via radiators. This too freed up space in the basement.

Insulated exterior wall using Ultra Touch denim insulation batting

We insulated the basement ceiling, for a warmer first floor. Since our rowhome has neighbors on both sides, we focused on reducing the drafts along the exterior walls. With new windows, and newly framed exterior walls, we added insulation to the exterior walls.

We’ve made the first floor living space so air tight that we often end up opening a window after a shower. There are plans to replace the non-functioning ventilation fan. And so far, have found that the inside temperature only drops by a couple of degrees overnight, even with the space heater off during the night. It seems humans create heat too, which can maintain the heat in a tight space. I’ve heard it to be equivalent of 100 Watts per person. For now, we plan to ride out the winter using space heaters. Next year, we’ll consider investing in a ductless mini-split system.

Powering it all with rooftop solar

Even before we made an offer on the house, we checked for interconnection issues on our electric utility, PECO’s map for interconnecting distributed energy resources (DER). This was in April 2017. The sellers disclosure gave no date for the roof, and the home inspection report stated that the roof was in fine condition, so we signed for it in June 2017. When we finally got a solar installer to assess how much solar this roof could hold, now November 2017, we were advised that we needed a new roof. Having never needed to replace a roof in all the houses we’ve lived in, we spent the winter finding a roofing company who would do the job. Finally, in May 2018, the roof was recovered with another layer. Another quote and another site visit by another solar developer and by July, we’d signed the contract. What were we getting?

In terms of equipment, we were getting 22 panels, each rated for 305 Watts, plus 22 optimizers, one inverter, one AC disconnect switch and one PV production meter. The optimizers, one for each panel, ensures that if one panel fails, or has cloud cover, the others keep on generating. 

The system would be 6,710 Watts (22 x 305), generating 7,811 kWh annually, averaging about 650 kWh monthly.

The fully installed system cost was $19,459, which works out to $2.90 per Watt (19459 / 6710).

We get a 30% Federal tax credit, meaning 30% of the system cost can be deducted in April 2019 when we submit our 2018 tax returns, a value of about $5,838. This means our out-of-pocket cost would be $13,621.

I remember when I bought another house, about 13 years ago. We got proposals from 2 different solar developers, both around $18,000 for a 2,000 Watt system, which translates to $9 per Watt. Compare this to the $2.90 per Watt we obtained today! Prices have indeed dropped.

People have asked, but prices will keep dropping, right? So we can wait a few more years to get a better price? Afraid not. Though prices for the equipment have gone down, a large portion of the cost is the installation, which is all local labor. We need to remain fair to the work force climbing ladders and walking on roofs in all weather.

Looking at a recent electric bill, our current electricity rate is $0.13517 per kWh, the sum of distribution, generation & transmission charges ($0.06710 + $0.06275 + $0.00532).

Our rooftop is expected to generate about 7,811 kWh annually. At our current electricity rate, this electricity would be valued at $1,056 annually (7811 x 0.13517). This is $1,056 that we won’t have to pay each year.

Assuming this system will remain on the roof for about 25 years, ignoring degradation of production and increasing electrical rates which could easily balance each other out, the electricity this system could generate would be 195,275 kWh (7811 x 25) and valued at at least $26,375 (1056 x 25).

Over the 25 year life of this system, it would generate 195,275 kWh, which is equivalent to an electric rate of $0.0698 per kWh (13621 / 195275). About half the rate that we’re currently paying. Turns out we’re both lowering, and locking in our electricity rate for a while.

Since we paid $13,621 for the system, and annual generation is worth $1,056, the system would pay back for itself in 12.9 years (13621 / 1056), after which, we’d have 12 years of free electricity. Return on investment would be 7.75% (1 / 12.9). So much better than money in the bank!

And the best deal? We can claim to reduce 5.5 metric tons of CO2e emissions each year, for at least 25 years.

So, invest in the local energy generation potential of your rooftop. Having lived in this all-electric house for the past 9 months, our electricity usage has been 6,000 kWh. I can say the experiment of living in a frack-free, emissions-free row-home is going well.

I’ll gladly answer your questions; please write me!

 

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Posted in ban plastics, electrify everything, no fossil fuels, solar, transit

We can do it!

Testimony at State of the Environment hearing held by Philadelphia Council’s Committee on the Environment, led by Council member Blondell Reynolds Brown, November 29 2018 by Meenal Raval / meenal.raval [at] gmail.com / @meenal19119. Video recording of the entire hearing found here, starting at 1:14:00


What is the most pressing environmental issue facing us? Some seem to think it’s litter. Or storm water. Or air quality. These are all symptoms of the global climate crisis and our addiction to fossil fuels. And, it seems, we have only 10-12 years to kick our habit!

Some say we, the public, haven’t shown enough outrage about the IPCC report, the report that alerts us to this 10-12 year timeline. Some say we, the environmental groups, are too polite and rational. So I’d like to state that we are indeed enraged, outraged, and yes, fearful, for all our futures; that people come to us, asking what we should be doing. So those of us leading the climate movement in Philadelphia, people like me, know we’re in this for the long haul. And that we need to remain calm and help solve the crisis we’ve gotten ourselves info. So…

Meenal offering testimony on 11/29/18

What are fossil fuels? Coal, Oil and Gas. I’d also like to list their derivatives — gasoline, diesel, and plastics.

How do we use fossil fuels? Most visible are our cars, trucks & buses — combusting gasoline and diesel. Not as visible is the equipment in our basements – the boilers, furnaces and water heaters. Also invisible are the distant power plants burning coal, oil and gas to generate electricity.

So, how do we get off fossil fuels? We decide to stop spending on anything that uses fossil fuels. We do this each time we make a decision, which is what you all do on a daily basis!

This means planning for every new car, truck & bus to be electric, starting today.

It means when the boiler goes out on that cold morning, everyone knows that that oil or gas boiler will be replaced with an electric option — whether for our homes, our schools, or our workplaces. The homeowner, the contractor, the utility — all of us need to be aware of, and repeat, this same message. Currently, contractors are insisting on gas options even when the decision maker asks about electric option.

And when the hot water tank springs a leak in the basement; the same. Opt for an electric option, whether it’s got a tank or an on-demand feature.

And when there’s talk of subsidizing a limping refinery or partnering to liquify natural gas, the decision is simple. We just say no.

It means planning for our municipally owned utility, PGW, to transition away from selling gas (another fossil fuel) to doing something else. Like what?  It could be installing geothermal projects. It could be air sealing and insulating all our buildings. It could be replacing all gas appliances with electric ones. We’ll find a way, together. Otherwise we’ll all be in deep water. Yup… a little climate humor.

Next up — Plastics. Though not directly contributing to our greenhouse gas emissions, most of the plastic we use and dispose of ends up in our air (most trash gets incinerated) or our water ways. From the Wissahickon Creek to the Schuylkill River to the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll find plastic choking off all life.

Though very useful for things like eyeglasses, we need to curtail the use-once and throw-away plastics — items like forks and spoons, take out containers, plastic bags, and yes, disposable water bottles. I hear Councilman Squilla wants to enact a plastic bag ban; so I’ll be working with him on that! 

You may ask how we’d fund this rapid scale effort? Each day I get alerts about another institution divesting — shifting funds invested in fossil fuel companies to clean energy companies. To issuing green bonds. To setting up a public bank. We can do all this in Philly~ 

This sounds like an insurmountable task, I realize. But I’m living proof that it can be done. I live in an all-electric house, with an electric bike and an electric car, all charged by the soon-to-be-installed-solar panels on my roof. All emitting zero greenhouse gases, so all emissions free. If only the bus I rode to get here was also electric…

Perhaps we need to create a new committee, say, the Committee on the Climate Crisis. This could parallel the House Select Committee at the Federal Level being led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with the Green New Deal.

Who wants to step up to this, the Committee on the Climate Crisis? We could work on one climate-related policy each week, to deliberate over and implement.

The physicians say we need to act. The scientists say we need to act. Yesterday, I was at a workshop with the Bar Association, and learned that even the lawyers say we need to act. Let’s focus on the task at hand. We can do it!


 

Posted in no fossil fuels, solar

Heating our Philadelphia row home without fossil fuels

As we gut a Philadelphia row home, we’re also making plans for it to become a frack-free house, a phrase popularized by the architecture firm Bright Common. This translates to: No gas appliances delivering fracked gas from Western Pennsylvania into our home. Everything that used gas will be replaced with electric options.

So far, we’ve happily removed the gas oven / range and the associated gas pipes out of the kitchen. For cooking, we’ve selected an electric stove. And already have other electric appliances to supplement this: toaster oven, microwave, induction cooktop and crockpot.

We’ve also begun removing the cast iron radiators in each room, along with the associated hot water pipes coming up from the boiler in the basement. 

For heating the house, we realize the row home design that abounds in Philadelphia means we are tucked in between two neighbors. The only heat loss would be from the exterior walls. We’re therefore building out the walls by 4” so that we can pack in insulation. Matus Windows, a local company with a good reputation, will replace the windows. After this, the exterior walls should be draft free.

We’ll still need a heating system. Looking at our options, we’d heard that mini-split ductless systems are the most efficient. So we called in a recommended HVAC company to advise us on this. They were fixed on one brand: Mitsubishi, and that’s what was priced for us, a 20,000 Btu system. They were unable to advise us how much electricity this would use. And we learned that our favorite thermostat, the programmable and self-learning Nest, would not be compatible.

What we did learn was that one outside compressor and 2 inside air handlers would do the job, offering us 2 zones to heat and cool. I’d hoped the compressor could stay in the garage or basement, spaces with the least temperature swings during the summer and winter, but was advised this was against the building codes in our area.

I’ve since learned that 12,000 Btu equals 1 ton. Also, that estimates vary on the area this would “condition”; from 400 – 500 sf, and up to 800 – 1000 sf. Most sites mention ductless mini-splits when discussing indoor cooling, but since we prefer to cool off with ceiling fans and have rarely used air conditioning, our focus is on using the mini-splits for wintertime heating.

Per one site (7 tips to get more from mini split heat pumps), we also learned to

  • plan for average lows, not record lows.
    • For Philadelphia, the mean minimum is 6.4F, with record low of -11F. We should plan for 6F.
  • plan on using space heaters during extreme cold spells.
    • We’ve got plenty of these from when we used a gas boiler to ramp up indoor heat in the mornings, and then, like task lighting, used space heaters in the specific rooms with people.
  • plan for outdoor compressor to draw air from indoor space.
    • This makes so much sense, since the interior air has less temperature fluctuation. The one installer we called advised us this isn’t to code. I’ll have to see what the next company says.
  • position interior air handler about 18” off floor
    • This too was a surprise. Most mini-split installations I’ve seen are mounted closer to the ceiling. But perhaps that’s because they were designed for cooling the space.
  • an actual example of a 3/4 ton (or 9,000 Btu) system suffices for a  1,500 sf home in Massachusetts, and uses about 1,500 kWh per year.
    • A system this size (9,000 Btu) should definitely work for our 650 sf row home in Philadelphia. Note that this is much smaller than the size recommended by the first HVAC company (20,000 Btu).
    • Assuming it will use proportionately less electricity, we estimate the annual usage to be 650 kWh per year.
  • select higher HSPF (heating season performance factor), which is measured in Btu / Wh.

The buying guide from Consumer Reports suggests we also consider noise levels and demand defrost options. The recommended noise level is about 7 decibels. The demand defrost option is to keep icicles from forming on the outdoor compressor fans, which sounds worthwhile.

My initial reason for asking annual electricity usage from the HVAC company was because we’re also planning to install rooftop solar. We wanted to know that the rooftop system would not only suffice for our lighting, electronics, cooking, and hot water needs, but also for our heating and cooling needs.

Chatting with Dara Bortman of Exact Solar (an area residential solar installer), I learned that there were solar mini split systems out there, powered by either DC from the panels or AC from the grid. The system I’ve got my mind set on is the unit by HotSpot, sold as an air conditioner, i.e. cooling needs.

This 35 SEER system cools by using 11,500 Btu per hour, or about 328 W (11,500 / 35).  Assuming we might only need cooling for 8 days, about 8 hours per day, the electricity used for the season would be

328 W x (8 days / season) x (8 hours / day) = 20,992 Wh, or 20.9 kWh per cooling season.

Of more interest to us is the heating season. This 10 HSPF system heats by using 13,000 Btu per hour, or about 1300 W (13,000 / 10).  Assuming we need heat for 5 months, 8 hours per day, the seasonal electricity usage would be

1300 W x (5 months / season) x (30 days / month) x (8 hours / day) = 1,560,000 Wh = 1560 kWh per season

Note that we had estimated 650 kWh per heating season, based on the Massachusetts example. It could be they like the house a little cooler. Or it could be we don’t really need to run a heating system for 8 hours per day. The other difference is that their 9,000 Btu Fujitsu system has an HSPF of 12.5, whereas the Hotspot’s HSPF is 10.0.

My concerns are

  • Noise – the indoor noise level is stated to be 26 dB at the low setting, while 7.6 dB is recommended. Would this feel too loud?
  • Placement of compressor – I would like the heat exchanger to be in the basement,  not outside in extreme temperatures. If it must be outside, we’re thinking of mounting it over the garage door, with the 3 panels above as a protective awning.
  • Circuit load – Could I have the heat going, while making tea or taking a shower on a cold morning? Without blowing a fuse? The stove is rated for 30 Amps, the tankless hot water system at 60 Amps, and the mini-split heating system at 5.3 Amps. All together, about 95 Amps. Well within the 100 Amp panel in the garage.
  • Thermostat – It’s unclear how the setback thermostat works for this. I plan to keep the house cool at night, and expect a thermostat to warm up the house before I wake up.

Thoughts?

Posted in banking, clean renewable energy, divest, no fossil fuels, pipelines, solar, transition

Marcellus Shale – A Blessing or a Curse?

Our state has been blessed, some say. Possibly cursed, say some others. I’m talking about the abundant gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale. Cursed because of issues during Extraction, Transportation & Consumption.

Extraction is also known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. When chemicals are forced into the ground, they contaminate the water table, affecting the well water of rural townships. As the gas is forced out & captured, there are leaks. Leaks that affect the local air quality and detrimental to the health & property values. The same methane leaks are an important contributor to climate change, worse even than carbon dioxide. 

Transportation of fracked gas is typically by pipelines. Pipelines that are known to leak or explode, with cleanup expenses left to the taxpayers. Rights for these pipelines, going thru wetlands, woodlands and private property, are gained via eminent domain in the name of public utility.  but are really for private gain by fossil fuel companies. Permit applications are shoddy, and fragmented construction begins in communities with the least resistance. Communities are not compensated for the devastation, nor the liability.

There are several pipeline developments, all headed to or through the greater Philadelphia area – the Mariner East 2 pipeline slated to carry fracked gas liquids from west to east, ending up in nearby Delaware County, and destined for export, to be made into plastic bags in Europe. How does this qualify the pipeline builders to claim in the courts that they’re a public utility? 

Then there’s the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline destined to travel north to south, going through farmland in Lancaster County. And the PennEast pipeline thru Bucks County into New Jersey. And smaller segments across the Delaware River (which supplies the drinking water for 15M people), and into the Pinelands in South Jersey.

gas burning from a kitchen gas stove

Which leads us to …Consumption. The pipeline going thru the Pinelands is headed to a gas power plant, where the fracked gas will be burned to generate electricity. Much like the SEPTA gas plant locally in Nicetown that 350 Philly and others are fighting. Advertised as clean burning at point of ignition, the industry ignores the devastation left in its wake. 

Once you realize that natural gas is the same as methane, and that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide (86 times), you’ll agree, it’s no longer clean burning.

Who’s doing this extraction, transportation & building up the large scale demand for fracked gas? The same companies behind the Dakota Access Pipeline:  

Sunoco Logistics, Williams Company, Energy Transfer Partners

Who’s funding these companies?

Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citibank, Citizens Bank, HBSC Bank, TD Bank

And many of us thru our personal accounts, our investments and our retirement plans.

It’s time to #divest and #reinvest all of our funds into clean energy from #solar and #wind, and leave the Marcellus Shale reserves resting safely underground.


Initially presented at Indivisible NW Philly meeting on March 12 2017.

Posted in clean renewable energy, solar, solutions

We went solar – You can too!

Originally published on the Northwest Philly Solar Co-op site, here.

Months ago, we learned of DC SUN, a neighborhood solar co-op in Washington DC. Some of us met with Anya Schoolman, their founder, and decided to bring their model to our neighborhood of Northwest Philadelphia.
See this early video to understand how DC SUN helps neighbors negotiate with utilities, contractors and the government to get solar energy installed on residential rooftops.
Looks like the solar co-op can not only assist with bulk buying, i..e a volume discount from the installer, but other ways to help with the installation costs, such as…
  1. the DC Rebate program, basically a subsidy from utility funds, now called Affordable Solar
  2. the Federal tax credit for renewable energy
  3. option to sell the green value of clean energy, or SRECS (solar renewable energy credits), earning the household about $900 per year
  4. option to lease the system, where the household pays 1/3 less than the utility rate for 25 years.

If you or your organization is in the vicinity of Northwest Philadelphia, come join us!