Coal is a Disease that Costs Us $60 Billion a Year

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*Last Modified: June 15th, 2014
coal minersI’ll say it up front: We are clearly biased toward renewable energy, particularly home solar systems. That much is obvious. Why we believe renewables are the future of energy is I hope equally obvious, but it can’t hurt to underline the reasons.

In just the recent two months, we’ve seen a series of disasters small and large that are a direct result of our continued reliance on dirty energy. Whether it’s coal ash fouling a North Carolina river or a little-known chemical used by the coal industry leaving 300,000 West Virginians without water, it’s clear that the price of dirty energy is much higher than we usually think.

Last week, clean energy visionary Jigar Shah — founder of SunEdison, founding CEO of the Carbon War Room, and more — detailed the healthcare costs of coal in a post on LinkedIn. The number is shocking: Shah writes that $60 billion of healthcare expenditures each year are directly attributable to mining, transporting and burning coal for energy.

That number is based on a 2009 report published by the National Academy of Sciences, so you can expect that number has shifted somewhat — according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, between 2009 and 2011 coal production increased by almost 20 million tons, though we’re still 90 million tons below the all-time high for coal production set in 2008.

Nonetheless, we’re paying a hefty price for coal. Shah lays out a short list of additional costs from coal production:

  • Fossil fuels cause an estimated 30,100 premature deaths each year, as well as more than 5.1 million lost workdays
  • Coal-fired power plants need lots of water for heating and cooling, with as much as 41 percent of fresh-water use going to cool coal, gas and nuclear power plants;
  • Pollution from power plants is a major cause of asthma in people of every age, with childhood asthma alone costing as much as $2 billion per year
  • In coal-mining areas of Appalachia, 60,000 cases of cancer are directly linked to “mountaintop removal” mining practices.

The good news, as Shah has it, is that regulations put in place by forceful protests by concerned Americans ensure that the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants will be too expensive to run in just six years.

But what will be the replacement for this dirty energy? The powers that represent the status quo would have our power come from slightly-less-dirty energy in the form of natural gas and oil, produced in ever more invasive, destructive and polluting ways — and ever closer to population centers nationwide.

Shah argues that there is a better way: “Replacing old coal plants with clean energy solutions would represent the largest wealth creation opportunity available in the USA — $50B per year. Even without a plan and wide support, in 2013, the solar industry created more jobs than the coal mining industry.”

And he points us to The Solutions Project, which we just reported about on SolarEnergy.net yesterday: Scientists at Stanford have begun an ambitious project to map out a path to 100 percent renewable energy for each and every state in the U.S.

The project has already unveiled a roadmap for California’s clean energy future, as well as for Washington State and New York, and it will be interesting to see what the maps look like for coal country and other areas that are more heavily invested in fossil fuels.

In the meantime, check out Jigar Shah’s entire post and learn how you can take action to get us off dirty coal at The Solutions Project website. And while you’re at it, go solar if you haven’t already!

Matthew Wheeland is the editor of SolarEnergy.net, a sister publication to One Block Off the Grid and .

Coal miners photo CC-licensed by the United Nations.

Infographic: What is the Summer Solstice All About?

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Today, June 21, is the Summer Solstice — the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere — and for sun- and solar-lovers like ourselves, it’s a cause to celebrate. The solar industry in North America is pulling out all the stops for this solstice, with a wide-ranging Put Solar On It campaign to encourage everyone to go solar. As much as we’re 100 percent behind going solar, we realized that not only did we not know all that much about the solstice itself, we also wanted to know more about how people around the world observe the solstice (in addition to putting solar panels on something, hopefully). So we put together for our edification and your enjoyment, the infographic below: The Summer Solstice. What does it mean, how people celebrate it, and does the longest day of the year make people happier?

summer solstic infographic

For Summer Solstice, the World Wants You to ‘Put Solar On It’

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put solar on itThe longest day of the year, Saturday’s Summer Solstice also marks a national day of action for Mosaic’s ongoing Put Solar On It campaign. Opportunities and activities abound, and there’s more where those are coming from.

That’s because every day is one of action for the accelerating solar industry, which is going mainstream on Wall Street and Main Street with light speed. To date, Mosaic has plugged smart investors into solar projects to the tune of millions of dollars raised and kilowatts generated. But its newly launched organizing and funding platform Mosaic Places — which is being championed during the Day of Action by everyone from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the National Wildlife Foundation to Green for All and REVERB — is but one of many ways citizens, homeowners and more can get directly involved in the Put Solar On It awareness blitz. Here’s a handy roundup:

  • Social media campaigns are primed for takeoff, starting at Twitter with the #PutSolarOnIt hashtag. Climate Reality’s Put Solar On It splash page also directs interested parties and their funding toward Mosaic Spaces, and offers readers places to email the President, request solar presentations and share photos on Twitter. Solar Energy Industries Association is thinking along the same lines on Facebook with its viral I Like Solar campaign, which allows users to solarize their profiles to accelerate awareness. Expect much more internet activism during the national day of action from Vote Solar, The Solutions Project, the League of Conservation Voters, 350.org, Alliance for Climate Education and more.
  • Old-school outreach is also happening outside of the internet, for those who like to press the flesh. The World Wildlife Foundation will be evangelizing the Put Solar On It campaign at a booth during Chicago’s Green Music Festival. Organizing For America chapters nationwide will also be staging meetups, teach-ins and more to spread the good word, as will Environment America, whose national chapters will stage outreach events as well as social media marketing. Interfaith Power & Light will be evangelizing solar to its various congregations, as well as creating a Put Solar On It photo album on Facebook.
  • Sierra Club is launching events across the country, celebrating photovoltaic installations on hospital, churches and offices in Honolulu and Tennessee. It’s also hosting a picnic in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the Summer Solstice, as well as the Community Renewables Energy Act, which opened solar access to local tenants and renters.
  • The Solar Foundation is hosting a Summer Solstice party in Washington D.C. as well. It’s a yellow-carpet event that includes a speech from Mosaic’s Billy Parish, the Solar Foundation Awards, refreshments, activities and much more. Can’t make it? Start your own house party and get the community involved. The cleantech future will thank you.

That’s the rundown of what’s happening tomorrow for solar. What will you do to put solar on it?

Testimonial – John Martin’s Story

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“Going solar has been everything I hoped for and more.” Read John Martin’s solar story.

John Martin had been thinking about going solar since 1970, but didn’t find it economically viable until recently. He finally installed panels in May 2010, and hasn’t looked back since. Here’s what he had to say about his decision to go solar and experience with :


“The group pricing provided by was the clincher. You helped save me money by securing a great price with a much smaller out-of-pocket expense.

The communication factor was also good — everyone was very articulate and knew their subject. This helped instill a sense of confidence that I was dealing with a very good organization. The first person I spoke with made a very clear and strong case why I should proceed with . I was very impressed with him, and based on that phone conversation I went from being a skeptic to a fan.

Going solar has been everything I hoped for and more. I had never heard of either or the selected installer, The Solar Center, but every step of the way I felt great. My job was basically just showing up, which is exactly the way I like it! I just had to watch the process…very little was asked of me.

And my installer was brilliant. Every time someone came to the house, I was very impressed. Everything they promised happened the way they said it would.

Going solar, well it’s been beautiful — way beyond worth it. Not just because of savings, but because knowing overall, I’m being more environmentally responsible.

In terms of savings, as you know, the weather this winter was more acclimate than usual; I’d go back and forth from having a snow covered rooftop to a clear one. Still, my normal electric bills dropped by 30% in the dead of winter.

Yesterday, I produced 52kw of energy because the sun was shining and I didn’t have the air conditioning on. It’s brilliant. I’m really looking forward to knocking it out of the park this month and seeing how much energy I produce outright with the perfect combination of more light and not running my AC or heater because of the milder weather.

Another benefit, which I had not counted on…the solar panels themselves also present tremendous insulation value. I have an office in the loft of my house, and in the summer months, I have to have a fan running up there in addition to blasting the AC. Since going solar, I haven’t had to run the fan once; I also think the panels helped keep the house warmer this past winter.

I haven’t begun to propagandize about going solar yet, but I know that will change within the next couple months when I’ll be producing large amounts of energy and not using very much in return.

Although I may be the only person in River Vale who has gone solar, neighbors have asked about it. And people keep complementing me on taking such a giant leap. What I have to say about that is yes, going solar is a commitment. But once you commit to doing it, every step along the way is worth it.”


Testimonial – Sue Okerson’s Story

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“We just got our taxes done and wow…we are getting a huge refund due to installing solar panels!” Read Sue Okerson’s solar story.

Snow-filled winters didn’t stop Jim and Sue Okerson from installing solar panels on their Denver home back in March 2010. One year later, Sue is still thrilled about the decision and talks about solar “any chance she gets.” Here’s what she had to say…


I couldn’t be happier with my experience going solar. When we installed our panels back in 2010, our first electric bill came out to $9. One year later, we’re still saving money — even in the dead of winter!

Our biggest problem when starting this journey was not truly understanding the cost. When we first considered going solar, my husband Jim was really hesitant. His main worry was price. You hear how expensive solar installations are — would it be worth it? Was the cost benefit advantage really there?Sue.s house 1

Once we got to meet the folks from , that all changed. When they explained breakdown of costs, how rebates would factor in, and the financing options available, Jim and I were both sold. What’s more, now my husband is our solar system’s biggest fan, telling his family in New Jersey that they’ve got to go solar!

Our neighbors’ reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. For example, an older couple across the street have what must be one of the first solar installations to have ever come on the market. It’s from the 70s, and has been been offline for years. But now that we’ve gone solar and they’ve seen how happy we are with the results, they say they’re going to have to get back on the solar grid again.

Living in snow has not been a problem whatsoever. Our latest electricity bill (for March 2011) was $12.00! On top of that, we just got our taxes done and wow…we are getting a HUGE refund due to installing solar panels!  All in all, this has been an amazing experience.


Time for the World to Go Football-Crazy During the Solar World Cup

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brazil solar stadiumToday is kickoff for the World Cup 2014, the start of 31 days of madness as the world’s most popular sport has its biggest event of the past four years.

We’re working on a couple of stories about solar and the World Cup that we’ll run over the course of the next month, but in honor of kickoff of this world-spanning event, below is a short look at how FIFA is working to make this event more environmentally friendly.

Before we start, let’s put the caveat out there that any event that requires hundreds of thousands of travelers to drive, fly or float thousands of miles is going to have an enormous carbon footprint. Not to mention even the waste generated by the event….

Putting that aside as much as we can, let’s talk about the environmental — and particularly the solar — upside to the World Cup.

Brazil Hosts The Most Solar World Cup Yet

While Brazil as a whole is not yet a solar powerhouse, a new report from Greentech Media lists the country as perhaps the most promising solar market in Latin America. GTM’s Latin America PV Playbook predicts that 2014 will double Brazil’s solar capacity — from 38.6 megawatts in 2013 to 72.6 MW this year.

A staggeringly huge chunk of that new generation is coming from solar-powered football stadiums. The British NGO Practical Action has put out a short report detailing just how much solar energy the World Cup can generate: 5.4 MW across four stadiums.

As Practical Action puts it, the 2014 World Cup will generate more solar energy than any previous World Cup, as well as more solar energy than many of the countries competing in the World Cup.

The chart below, from Practical Action’s double-duty World Cup bracket and energy poverty fact sheet [PDF], spells out the discrepancy between what’s happening in Brazil compared to the energy situation in many of the players’ home countries. (Click image for a larger version.)

 

 solar world cup 2

 

Beyond the solar power running much of the matches during the World Cup, FIFA is working with the Brazilian government to try to reduce impacts wherever possible. Two weeks ago, the Brazilian Environment Minister, Izabella Teixeira, said that the World Cup would open “having offset 100 percent of its direct emissions.”

Other projects underway include earning LEED certification as green buildings for those solar-powered stadiums as well as “train[ing] garbage collectors on recycling and set up stalls to sell locally produced organic food in host cities,” according to a report from Agence France-Presse.

One way FIFA is helping to reduce the Cup’s footprint is through encouraging corporate sponsors to help shoulder the bill. And one of the firms that has stepped up is Yingli Green Energy, the China-based solar panel manufacturer (as well as the provider of much of the solar panels for those solar stadiums). In addition to providing those systems, Yingli is pledging to be carbon neutral for all its activities at the World Cup, offsetting the emissions of all its events, travel and lodging by investing in clean energy projects in Brazil.

It’s great that solar power is getting such a spotlight during the World Cup, but all of these efforts are a mere drop in the bucket for the overall impacts — immediate and long-term — of the event in Brazil. So we plan to spend the next month enjoying the spectacle and excitement, but also committing to push for real energy change, at home and around the world. (Go solar today!)

New Los Angeles PACE Financing Offers Even More Reasons to Go Solar

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los angeles city hallAfter a bumpy start, Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing has again picked up steam as public-private option for homeowners looking to solarize. Last month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted for PACE financing for 42 cities, clearing the way for Renovate America‘s HERO program and other energy retrofit financiers to clean up their carbon footprint. This month, Connecticut securitized a PACE portfolio worth a cool $30 million.

[This post originally appeared on SolarEnergy.net.]

So far, 80 percent of the U.S. has enabled PACE, and the rest probably isn’t far behind.

That’s because PACE is a rather simple solar bond that mostly copies the historical industry model for loans. Participating municipal governments or finance companies offer investors PACE bonds backed by consumer and business loans, collateralized in turn by annual property tax assessments, and then everyone lets the sunshine in. Financing for rooftop solar systems and power purchase agreements is repaid over a standard 20-year period, unless the property changes hands before that, in which case the loan stays attached to the property rather than the owner.

First implemented in progressive Berkeley, PACE has evolved to the most of the nation, even the often gridlocked District of Columbia. Despite its fits and starts, PACE’s slicing and dicing of solarization’s upfront costs over 20 years of has a distinctly bipartisan appeal.

“PACE has several benefits with respect to solar energy,” SEIA spokesperson Ken Johnson told SolarEnergy. “In some areas, it helps meet the high demand for solar consumer financing. In particular, the long-term financing aspect is crucial to eliminating the up-front cost barrier to solar energy projects. Just as importantly, PACE can increase property values and save consumers money by reducing energy costs. It’s a win-win in most cases.”

The cases where PACE have not been win-win have varied from Berkeley, which pulled the financing mechanism, to government-backstopped lenders like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who were directed by underwriters at the Federal Housing Finance Agency (PDF) to “take appropriate action to avoid purchasing new or refinanced loans that were encumbered by this retrofit lending program.” This week, however, New Hampshire votes on House Bill 532 to increase the cap on PACE loans from $60,000 to as much as $1 million. The kinks are still being worked out, even as momentum increases.

“We actually feel like this program is taking off very quickly,” HERO spokesperson Severn Williams told Solar Energy. “We’re seeing more and more cities and counties join. Within the last month, HERO has launched in 42 cities within Los Angeles County alone, plus the City of San Jose and dozens of other smaller cities throughout the state. Eligibility for HERO is based primarily on available equity in a home, not on the homeowner’s FICO credit score, which means that, for some homeowners, HERO may be their only avenue for accessing affordable financing for energy- and water-saving improvements.”

“We think our record speaks for itself,” Williams added, noting that HERO is “currently financing 95 percent of all residential PACE projects. We’re active in 150 jurisdictions, more than 10,000 property owners have taken advantage of the program and we’ve financed more than $200 million in improvements, creating more than 2,100 jobs in the process. And we did all of this in just 2.5 years.”

Los Angeles City Hall photo CC-licensed by refractionless on Flickr.

Distributed Solar Thrives Online In Deregulated Electricity Markets

Solar Industry

The significance of comparison shopping is in the wonders it’s working in shaping the online energy marketplace. Online energy marketplaces may encourage homeowners to think more about solar in deregulated markets. Chris Stern, VP and co-founder of Pure Energies makes the comparison between the electrical grid and the phone conglomerate that had a monopoly on the landline business in the 80s: Today, there are much smaller telecommunications companies, and most households have more than one cell phone. Stern says, “When the day comes that we have low-cost energy storage, the grid will basically disappear.” Read more: http://www.solarindustrymag.com/e107_plugins/content/content.php?content.14199

Infographic: What the Connected Home Can Do for You

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Who says we’re not living in the future — even if we don’t have jetpacks or food-pellets? The infographic below offers a look at connected home technologies — some of the most futuristic tools available on the market today — and how they can improve the energy efficiency, comfort and convenience of your home.

connected home infographic

What the Connected Home Can Do for You

The central premise of connected-home platforms is that you should be able to control any and all essential features of your home from your smartphone. Whether it’s lights, thermostats, locks, doors and windows, security systems, music and entertainment, or even your rooftop solar system, a connected home puts the controls in the palm ofyour hand.

In the U.S., 22 percent of the energy consumed each year goes to lighting alone

Smart lighting technology: Using automated home solutions, homeowners can turn on and off tights from outside the home and inside the home — clap on, clap off!

Lighting, security & entertainment systems account for 58 percent of the U.S. home automation market.

Does the sun beat down on your home at the peak of a hot summer day? Automated shading can ensure your home stays cooler when the sun is shining. In general, smart shading is combined with smart lighting to ensure they work in unison.

About 1/3 of a home’s total heat loss usually occurs through windows and doors simply by letting too much or too little heat into the home.

Solar energy management: Not only can the right connected-home platform give you real-time information about just how much energy your rooftop solar panels are producing — as well as comparing that to your home’s current energy use — but as more homes plug into the benefits of solar, these systems will allow the electric utility to maximize energy efficiency during times of peak demand — saving homeowners money and reducing the strain on the electric grid.

Savings with smart glass: Smart glass or smart windows can save costs for heating, air-conditioning and lighting and avoid the cost of installing and maintaining motorized light screens or blinds or curtains. View, a Silicon Valley-based glass manufacturer, estimates that its smart windows could cut power use for lighting, heating and cooling systems by 20 percent over a 12-month period.

Other technologies also aim to make your windows smarter: MIT’s Mobile Experience Lab has created a Dynamic Facade that controls privacy, the degree of sunlight and thermal performance.

Electric Vehicles: The future of transportation is electric, and there are a number of ways a connected home can inte-grate your EV into your routine. For instance, energy management applications help EV owners manage electricity usage by waiting until your car is close to home to automatically turn up the home’s heat or air conditioning, or by waiting to charge your car until late at night when electricity rates are lowest.

We’re only at the beginning of the age of the connected home, but as these examples show, the future is here today.

What’s Possible with a Connected Home Today?

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connected home - snapshotWe have been watching over the past year or so as interest in, and demand for, connected home technologies have started take off.

[Editor's note: For more on the connected home, see our infographic: "What The Connected Home Can Do For You"]

Although home energy management (HEM) and connected-home technologies have been around for years, public awareness really ramped up with the launch of the Nest learning thermostat in 2011. Designed with an eye toward consumers and marketed with the flair only Apple alum could achieve, Nest brought a new level of awareness to smart home devices.

To date, however, Nest has made more of an impact on imagination than on the market: Despite Nest’s much-hyped $3.2 billion acquisition by Google earlier this year, the company has sold about 1 million thermostats in the past three years — less than 1 percent of the number of U.S. households.

That’s not to say that there’s no market for the connected home. On the contrary, there is an ever-growing roster of products to manage your home energy use, and companies offering a menu of services to their customers. And Juniper Research, a UK-based market-analysis firm, recently published a market forecast for the next five years of smart home technology, and predicts that globally $72 billion will be spent by 2018 on connected home services and equipment — largely spent on the entertainment side of the market.

Jonathan Collins, an analyst at ABI Research, explained that although the market for home automation technology has been around for more than a decade, in the early days the technology was out of reach of almost all homeowners.

“It used to be a high-end, extremely luxury market — think MTV Cribs,” Collins said. “And then it was DIY at the other end, which made it lower-cost, but posed just as high a barrier” because of the technological savvy DIYers needed to install home automation technology in the early 2000s.

That’s been changing as internet connectivity has increased and accelerated. With the rise of cloud-based service providers like Tendril, AlertMe, Alarm.com, EnergyAware (makers of Neurio, which we profiled last year), and many others, have made it easier to connect various products and services for more comprehensive management of your home.

There is an ever-growing laundry list of connected-home technologies on the market, but according to Collins, it started with entertainment — think of multi-room music systems like the Sonos. As the technologies have evolved, home automation now reaches every room of the home. Here are some of the many other services that home automation technology provides:

Security:

  • Controlling locks on doors and windows
  • Managing lighting throughout the home
  • Fire and carbon monoxide detectors
  • Motion detectors

Energy:

  • Smart thermostats
  • Intelligent lighting
  • Windowshades
  • Solar panels

As the market grows, so does the number of companies offering home automation as a service. Across a number of industries — telecommunications, retailers and home security, to name just three — companies are using their existing relationships with their customers to expand the products and services they provide.

Among the firms dipping their toes into the home automation market across these industries are Comcast, AT&T, Lowe’s, Staples, ADT, Honeywell and many others. And while the products and services vary, these solutions at the core offer remote control by way of your smartphone for any or all of these aspects of the home.

“Energy efficiency and security plays have been the first avenue for service providers to try to entice new consumers,” explained Nitin Bhas, Principal Analyst at Juniper. “Cost-saving and peace-of-mind make for an attractive proposition, but most current systems still require active participation (and therefore effort) on the part of the consumer. When we start to see more intelligent systems, I believe the market will really begin to take off. In terms of the connected home market as a whole however, entertainment services are currently leading the way.”

Convenience and simplicity are the watchwords for many of the most popular connected home offerings so far — energy efficiency and cost savings are only starting to make an appearance in the benefits of home automation. Smart thermostats like the Nest are certainly raising awareness of this aspect of home automation, and as smart, responsive lighting takes a bigger role in the market and homeowners can monitor their solar panels in real-time, the connection between home automation and energy- and cost-savings will become more apparent.

That’s already the case to a bigger extent in Europe, Collins from ABI Research explained. In the United Kingdom, British Gas launched its Hive Active Heating solution in September 2013 and already claims 50,000 homes as subscribers. Across Europe, Colliins said that energy management figures much more broadly in home automation than it currently does in the U.S., partly because of utilities like British Gas that are promoting the technologies.

“If you’re getting your home control or smart-home starter kit from your cable company, you’re going to link it to your TV behavior,” Collins said. “If you get it from your energy company, you’re going to look at it from an energy use perspective.”