Monday, March 6, 2017

Sustainability Update: Electric Car with Backup Gas Generator

Our 2017 Chevy Volt
Lifetime MPGe: 96
We were in no hurry to replace our old Chevy Cavaliers--modest, reliable cars that suited us fine, even if car-lovers don't find much to celebrate about them. We had no car payments for years, and we loved that. James's car finally died for good when we were on a date in a snowstorm on Valentine's day.

When it did, we finally had an opportunity to buy a 2017 Chevy Volt (we vowed for an EV when the time came). We live in rural Indiana where there are few charging stations. With an all-electric range of 43 miles in the winter to 76 miles in the middle of summer, the Volt with its backup gas generator seemed the most practical option for us.

After one year, we have traveled 11,641 miles on about 21 gallons of gas. That's three fill-ups of the 7-gallon tank and mostly all-electric miles. In a year, we've traveled roughly 554 miles per gallon of gas. But of course, electricity also has an energy cost.

The handy metric for overall energy usage, MPGe (miles per gallon gasoline equivalent), is a measure of distance traveled per unit of energy consumed. MPGe combines the total miles and figures how much gas and how many kWh of energy were used to cover those miles. After all, setting our solar panels aside, electricity still has a carbon footprint (at least on cloudy days and at night for us). One gallon of gas is equivalent to roughly 33.7 kWh (EPA formulation).

Back when we only had one row of solar panels on the barn, 33.7 kWh was about the entire solar output on a good day. Now we have doubled our solar output, but still: a gloriously sunny day produces for us the equivalent of two gallons of gasoline. This should put the power of oil in perspective. No wonder we built our civilization on it--where else can we find that much bang for our buck? Alas, there are consequences.

Our lifetime MPGe so far on the Chevy Volt is hovering around 96. In pure EV mode, in town we get up to 150-160 MPGe, and our highway MPGe is around 100. This is one of several things that's counterintuitive when you're used to conventional cars: the car is actually more efficient when there's a lot of stopping and starting, and especially coasting (with the regen-on-demand feature). When using the gas/hybrid (the technology is apparently some kind of blend), our MPG is anywhere from 35-55, which brings down our average quickly, even though we rarely use it. Apparently this is why some green people aren't doing cartwheels over the Volt, but it's all in how you use it. If you avoid gas as much as possible, you can get respectable numbers.

In our case, we can still get decent numbers because my husband and I rarely drive. He works from home, commuting by foot from bedroom to office most days. The grocery store is five minutes away. I only work during the spring and fall. It used to be that I taught a class once a week that was ten minutes away. Now I teach two days a week further away, but in good weather, I can still make the round trip on a full charge. We carpool with my parents (our neighbors) to family events.

A 2015 Chevy catalogue advertised that Volt users who charge regularly go 900 miles between fill-ups. (The 2017 Volt is much-improved.)
The most we have gone in summer is 5848 miles on one tank of gas (recall, 7 gallon-tank).
This past winter, the gas engine kicked on whenever it was below freezing, giving us our lowest fill-up yet at 1085 miles. That's probably the most disappointing feature: in super cold weather, you can have a charge of 40+ miles but not use it because the gas engine overrides to keep the battery warm (and possibly other things). But lest we lose perspective, the Cavalier took us maybe 300 miles on a 12 gallon tank. The Volt is much better!

If this information is helpful, I'm glad. We are pleased with the Volt, though not thrilled with the winter performance.

There's also Apple Car Play for your iPhone, which is fun but a little buggy. (It's just such a step up from the 2004 Cavalier; we're easy to please.)

Hey, maybe next time we'll get a Tesla Model 3 at just $35,000.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Solar Power Update

August 2015:

Our panels have produced a total of about 3.2 megawatt-hours since we went online in April.

1298 kWh taken from our power provider (at night and on cloudy days),
2209 kWh pushed back (that's electricity we don't use that goes back to the grid).

We're still loving it. Thanks, Rectify Solar!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Heirloom Tomatoes and Sunflowers

These are ripe tomatoes! "Aunt Ruby's German Green" is a delightful heirloom I've been growing for the past four years. It tastes like a mild, yet flavorful beefsteak. You can get these seeds from Seed Savers Exchange your first year, then save the seeds year after year.

The inside is beefsteak-y and meaty. The tomatoes themselves are pretty hefty.

I love the variety of colors with heirloom tomatoes.

Saving seeds is easy. I'm letting three varieties ferment in mason jars today. (More when the varieties really start coming in--more than a dozen this year.) Today it was Halliday's Mortgage Lifter, Aunt Ruby's, and Noir Russe.
After a few days, I'll wash and drain the seeds, let them dry on coffee filters, and save them for next year.

Have a wonderful day!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

When Eco-Solutions Backfire

Two things to get off my chest: the EPA-regulated gas cans and DIY water-saving toilets. While I embrace the technologies that make sense ecologically, I can be absolutely devastated (I'm that sensitive) when the little solutions go wrong. I guess I'm just built this way emotionally, believing everything is either saving or destroying the world.

Gas and Mowing/Farm Equipment

There's so much literature about the politics of lawns
right now. This book has been with me for a while.
Living out here, even though a good ten acres of my grasses are in conservation programs and go un-mowed below 12 inches (and only then once a year if deemed necessary for maintenance reasons), I still have complex feelings about the few acres of non-garden yard that remains. I came here from the city in the Arizona desert, where xeriscaping was the unequivocal answer, both from a water and an emissions perspective. It's not that simple out here. It's not a super easy matter to replace one ground cover with another. Anyway, I wrestle. I read books about lawn alternatives. I re-read books. I stress. In the meantime, I mow.

These spouts are terrible
Now, we inherited a few old gas cans with the property that work fine. However, a year and half ago we had to buy a new one. If you've bought a gas can in recent years, you've seen the new spouts from hell. They were designed to prevent fumes leaking and spilling, and yet, hands down, they are an environmental disaster. Maybe they work for some people, but I've not met any of them. Since I got the faulty EPA can, I've spilled gallons! I've spilled more gas than in the previous years of my entire life combined. Gasoline pooled on my mower, on my clothes, on my barn floor. I'm sensitive enough that it made me feel like giving up altogether. If you can't fill your mower without accidents like those, how can you ever feel you're doing the right thing out here?

It's not just me. Here's a news report detailing the problem, and here's a handy show detailing the solution. (E-Z Spout, a simple spout you can retrofit your gas can with and finally stop spilling f-ing gasoline!)

I'm such a fan of the Environmental Protection Agency in general. I've sent letters to my local power co-op asking them to lay off in their editorials claiming the EPA is directly responsible for higher electric bills. (Electric companies have had decades to comply with regulations and transition to clean energy, but they dragged their feet and now are blaming the agency that warned they will charge them for polluting.) That said, we have to acknowledge a regulatory disaster when it's staring us in the face, and these gas cans are such ammunition for the anti-regulatory folks out there. The story, roughly, is that California came up with these gas spouts, and the federal agency (too) swiftly adopted them. Gas can manufacturers did not have time to make ones that aren't terribly faulty, so the eco-solution backfired.

So: I bought the EZ-Spout, modified my gas can, and now I don't want to cry when I fill up my mower. The larger mowing questions will be addressed in time. In the meantime, suffice it to say that rural living does not carry the same solutions that urban and suburban living does.

The Dual-Flush Toilet Modifier

Then there's this guy: a flush apparatus I ordered from amazon a few years ago. You don't have to replace your whole toilet--just modify it with this affordable kit. When you're finished installing, you can use a little water or a lot, whichever is necessary. Sounds great.

Except it's faulty. The chain and floater thing-y don't always return to the right place. It can be fixed by jiggling the handle and listening for the water to stop flowing. But if a guest comes over and you forget to tell them about it (or if they don't have the feel for it), water will continuously run. The tank never fills; water just runs through the tank and toilet. Just as with the EPA gas can, the purpose is mightily defeated. More water is wasted in one flush than ever before.

I failed to find the link for the product I bought ( seems to be defunct). A new internet search revealed some more advanced looking kits from different manufacturers. It's possible that I just ordered a cheap kit, and am paying (over-paying) for the mistake. 

We use well water out here. Our issues are different from those on city water, but we all need to conserve water. This problem remains unsolved; we're just vigilant about listening after a flush. 

So really just a plea: to the problem-solvers out there, make sure your solutions actually work. We're depending on you.

(This piece is also on Medium.)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Solar Power Works!

We've had solar up and running for just about a month, and we've generated a total of 844 kilowatt-hours of electricity--enough to run a refrigerator for six months (or charge a mobile phone for 26 years, but let's stick with the fridge, a real energy hog).

There's a handy app on my phone that I refer to, oh, fifteen times a day, that monitors our system's solar output. That's enphase or My Enlighten, the dashboard from the computer screenshot above.

I'm still waiting for Hendricks Power's app that reflects our usage to be correct (right now, it combines readings from usage and energy we send back to the grid to say that we're using a ton!).

Solar is contagious. It's almost perverse: after my dad spent a few weeks working with Rectify on ladders precariously placed along my barn, he decided to install a system of his own! It's a long-term investment, and he's twenty-two years older than I am, but I believe that part of him that dreamed of an electric car back in the '70s couldn't resist.

Here's our physical meter, showing that we've used a total of 486 kW from Hendricks Power (FWD, to the left of the number), and we've pushed back more: 579 kW (RVS). You can't not love that sight!

Phil Teague from Rectify Solar LLC continues to be extremely helpful. He's now educating us on SRECs, Solar Renewable Energy Certificate markets, and will be installing a special meter for trading these SRECs. From the SREC Trade website:
In SREC state markets, the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires electricity suppliers to secure a portion of their electricity from solar generators. The SREC program provides a means for Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) to be created for every megawatt-hour of solar electricity created.
In my limited understanding, a company from Ohio can purchase "green cred" from us in Indiana to satisfy requirements that they're offsetting their carbon emissions. (Like Cap & Trade?) The market fluctuates, and there is no guarantee that there will be SRECs from year to year. But anything we can do to pay off the investment makes it worth our while, and increases the likelihood that we can double the size of our system when we get the 30% federal rebate at tax time.

And yes, we have noticed this new Tesla battery--home storage of solar energy. How cool is that? (They really know how to market to folks like us--its design is consistent with Apple products, for which we are total suckers, and the message is "you, consumer, can change the world!" I know: It's complicated. Energy is a utility. Consumerism isn't the answer. I get it. But can I resist the allure? Can't I declare progressive values for the world at large and indulge in neat gadgets for my home? Puh-lease? I'll feed my potatoes worm compost. I'll pull weeds every day. Pretty please?)

This is a learning process. I'm still gathering data on how Hendricks Power compensates us, and plan to report on that soon. (For anyone interested in rural electrical co-ops and net metering plans.) So far I'll only say this: the rates they post on their net metering page don't seem entirely thought out, or rather, the experience with residential solar we bring to the table might add insight.

The bottom line is, solar is worth it. Funny to use a cliché like "bottom line," which is an accounting metaphor, when what makes it worth it for me is not about the money at all. I'm trying to satisfy a vision I had for this place--before I even knew this place would be in Indiana. I dreamed of working on a plot of land that I could be proud of--not free of guilt (because it's quite possible that being human on this planet today comes with automatic and unredeemable guilt), but proud of. As my husband James says, it's always a work-in-progress.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Solar Panels!

After months of anticipation, the solar panels are finally lining up along the roof of the barn. We have yet to turn the system on; there's still some wiring to be done and a few panels left.

Chicken Coop, Barn, and Solar Panels: A Dream Come True

I look at the farm journal from when we first got here, where I fantasized about one day having solar power on the barn, and I'm pinching myself that we're realizing that dream just five years after moving in. (I'm stating the obvious when I say there are financial benefits to not having kids....)

The last day the south-facing barn roof is white.
Phil and Kent, of Rectify Solar, work on the first panel.

Dad, Phil, and Kent preparing for the first panel install. 

It's precarious up there. Makes me nervous!
This is a 5kW system, which is estimated to serve about half of our electrical needs. Remarkably, this will convert energy from the sun into electricity, which will power our home: our appliances, our geothermal heating and cooling, our hot water needs, our computers, etc. We hope to double the system soon. The delay there is simply a matter of cost. We think the second half will be less expensive, since the wiring and much of the legwork will be done. Plus, my dad has been heroically working his butt off out there!

Dad and Phil

That's me and my solar!

Andalay Panels

These are Andalay panels, designed in a modular fashion and meant to be easier to connect and install. Phil Teague at Rectify Solar is a fan. The technology (as far as I understand it) seems innovative. We will have to wait and see. One thing is certain: our barn is trickier than a typical home roof, so the half-hour install featured on the website is far from our reality.

How soon the system will pay itself off is a huge question mark. We've seen wide-ranging estimates, and of course there are huge variables (the cost of fossil-fuel-produced electricity varies over time). Our rural electric cooperative has different rates and requirements for net metering than other electrical companies in the state (and Indiana is hardly a progressive state when it comes to solar: while we will have the Federal tax incentive of 30%, there are no state incentives!). Hendricks Power's rates seem to punish energy producers like residential solar customers by requiring not only a flat fee to cover grid maintenance (we agree that some contribution to grid upkeep is fair, although $34 a month seems steep) but also higher prices per kilowatt of energy we buy from them. (Higher than non-producers--regular customers--pay.) We're not sure how it will all pan out in practice, though.

Fortunately for our sanity, our motivations for doing this are not financial. That being said, if we end up being too severely penalized by the complicated rates, we will be tempted to go off-grid, considering battery-options (a further expense, but something to keep in mind on principle). Who knows?

I can't provide an estimate here for when the system will pay itself off. Once we go live, I will monitor the data closely and report soon.

More to follow!

At day's end.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Goals for the Farm in 2015

This year should bring two big changes to the land.

We intend to put a 5kW solar panel system on our barn to serve at least half of our electrical needs. We're waiting to find out what will happen with the bill introduced in the Indiana legislature to eliminate net metering, but the drastic reduction in our return on investment does nothing to dampen our enthusiasm for solar. It was estimated to take 18 years for our solar to pay itself off. Now it might take 28. It's unclear. But I've wanted this for a long time. I'm determined it will happen.

The native warm grasses field may have to be re-planted. Our wildflowers thrived in the first couple years, but it became clear that the native grasses--with their deep root systems to anchor the soil--have not established themselves. This has been devastating, and I'm still sorting through what can be done. At the very least, we'll be doing real work on the field this spring and summer.
What hurts, besides the cost (not insignificant): with a project this size, chemicals cannot be avoided. I can elaborate on this later, but I have gone over this with conservation and habitat folks repeatedly. Sometimes it's hard to take the long view.

To be continued.