Posts Tagged ‘Solar Technology’

A Low Impact Woodland Home

A hobbit's houseSimon Dale and his father in-law decided to build their home as inexpensively as possible. So they used natural material and what they could find to build home for Simon’s family of 4. According to Simon:

This building is one part of a low-impact or permaculture approach to life. This sort of life is about living in harmony with both the natural world and ourselves, doing things simply and using appropriate levels of technology. These sort of low cost, natural buildings have a place not only in their own sustainability, but also in their potential to provide affordable housing which allows people access to land and the opportunity to lead more simple, sustainable lives.

I’ve always been a fan of underground homes, and this is the perfect example of how locally sourced materials and ingenuity can make an affordable and livable home. Sadly, in the States, it would almost be impossible to get the necessary building permits and variances to build such a home. It would not meet code standards set in stone here in the Puget Sound. Still, it’s a great idea.


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In my previous article on this topic, Solar Power Northwest: Remodeling your home, I looked at the numbers behind solar power in the Northwest prompted by two articles in James Lupori’s Kenmore Undressed blog. Now we’re going to take a look at an actual home in the Brier neighborhood, via James’ latest article: Solar Energy – The Perfect Remodeling Project of the Future, Part 3.

Eric’s setup uses 18 panels that provide most of his daytime power needs. The article doesn’t mention if Eric uses Energy Star appliances, which would benefit him by letting him sell power back to the utilities reducing his total utility bill. That’s the smart way to go.

[Edit: In response to the question about how much this installation cost Eric, I don’t have hard numbers, but I estimate it was between $28,000 and $30,000.]

The next step in energy conservation would be Smart Grid aware appliances, heating systems and water heaters.

The Smart Grid, in a nutshell, turns power transmission and production from a centralized system to a distributed system that is self-aware and responds to the demands for power from homes and businesses. This is supported by Smart Grid-aware appliances and heating and cooling systems in your home. As demand spikes, your fridge goes to a longer cooling cycle to reduce it’s load on the grid, your water heater doesn’t reheat the water immediately , etcetera. Ideally, your home will be wired to manage its energy usage. Instead of a water heater, you’d have an on-demand tankless water heater so there’s no need to heat or even store 30+ gallons of water.

However, creating the Smart Grid will take time. Puget Sound Energy is looking into implementing Smart Grid Technology, but like most nascent technologies, there are multiple standards coalescing into a single one. Just another step towards our energy independence!

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Realtor James Lupori of the Kenmore Undressed blog has written two articles about the viability of solar power in the Northwest. He looks at the topic from the point of view of a remodeling project.

Based on his numbers, it will cost him approximately $1,600 to install one 13 square foot solar panel that will produce 205kw of power while the sun shines. This cost includes the actual installation of the panels. And that’s on the cheap end of installation. Normally the cost of installation ranges between $7/watt to $9/watt, so James is getting a good deal on installation.

Is it worth it? Well, yes.

Currently, solar power installations will payback their investment in about 20 years. The downside is that the average lifespan of current solar panels is only 25 years. Hopefully, when it comes time to replace them, the cost will have dropped significantly.

And as more and more units are installed, costs will drop. As newer solar cell technology is developed, the amount of power produced by solar panels will go up. Our current solar cell technology is only 17% to 20% efficient for most commercial solar panels. The highest efficiencies are around 40%, but at a much higher cost per panel.

So, how many square feet solar panels do you need to power your home? Take out your energy bills for the last twelve months and add together kWh on them for your yearly total. Then, divide your yearly kWh usage by 1.5. The resulting number will tell you how many square feet of solar panels you would need to power your home.

The obvious problem with solar power is that you only get power while the sun shines. So, if you really want to get off the grid, you’ll need to go multi-modal with your power generation. I’m a firm believer in multi-modal transportation and that applies to power generation as well.

In the Northwest we have a lot of wind, so wind turbines are a possibility. However, I strongly suggest that you seek out expert advice before going out a buying one. Some neighborhoods may ban them for the noise that they make. Also, you may not have enough wind in your area to for a turbine to work at all. But, if you’re lucky to live in a place where the wind blows consistently, it’s a worthwhile investment.

The Kenmore Undressed articles:

SOLAR ENERGY – The Perfect Remodeling Project of the Future, Part 1

SOLAR ENERGY – The Perfect Remodeling Project of the Future, Part 2

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In the GreenTech section of CNET news is a story about how the Solar Trust energy company has acquired the rights to Solar Millenium’s agreement with Southern California Edison and plans to offer a “turnkey solution” to thermal solar energy development:

Solar Trust’s strategy is to offer what it calls a “turnkey solution” to thermal solar energy development. It says it will be a company that can provide not only the design, development, construction, and installation of a thermal solar plant, but also the running and management of the plant once it’s functional.

A parabolic solar array unit.

A parabolic solar array unit.

These solar plants are different from from photovoltaic solar cells in that they use parabolic mirrors to concentrate sunlight on a working fluid. This fluid is heated up into steam or run through a heat exchanger to create steam, and then the steam is used through a traditional steam turbine to generate power.

What does this mean for the future of solar power? Well, if this new company succeeds in producing power to California residents, similar projects could be build in Eastern Washington State. So we’ll be keeping our eyes on how this develops.

Read the full story here.

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Since 2002, Michelle Kaufmann Designs and mkStudios, have been at the forefront of green and sustainable prefabricated house designs on the West Coast. Founded by it’s namesake, Michelle Kaufmann, it’s guiding principle is to provide a full service design/build architectural firm that uses off-site modular technology and  prepackaged green solutions as the means to create beautiful, eco-friendly homes and multi-family developments.

Both companies strive to show how Michelle’s five EcoPrinciples can be easily and elegantly incorporated into nearly everyone’s daily life. These EcoPrinciples are:

  • Smart design
  • Ecological materials
  • Energy efficiency
  • Water conservation
  • Healthy environment


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