Guest Bloggers: Lucas Morrison, Ji Yoon Gook, Mackenzie Carlsen

Volunteer-based solar power organization SolarYpsi has been working with a trio of University of Michigan students studying environmental science. Lucas Morrison is a sophomore majoring in architecture, with a minor in sustainability, and is from Washington, D.C.. Freshman economics major Ji Yoon (Amie) Gook is from South Korea. Mackenzie (Mac) Carlsen is a sophomore planning to major in politics, philosophy and economics, who hails from Sacramento, Calif. The students share their views on conservation here.

Meet SolarYpsi
By, Lucas Morrison

Hello, I'm Lucas, a student at the University of Michigan.  Along with my partners Amie and Mackenzie, I'm here to discuss the local solar power organization, SolarYpsi.  The three of us formed a team for a project in one of our environmental science classes.  We were told to find an organization relating to issues we're interested in, and naturally we decided to find a group focusing their efforts on energy, perhaps the most important topic in environmental science today.  That's how we met Dave of SolarYpsi.

Dave is one of the many volunteers that SolarYpsi is composed of, and a local engineer for whom solar energy is a passion.  These volunteers organize efforts to design and implement solar power setups locally, as well as give presentations in order to educate the public about solar photovoltaic power.  SolarYpsi owes Metromode's sister publication, Ann Arbor-based Concentrate, many thanks for Concentrate's article on SolarYpsi from a few years back that propelled SolarYpsi from a tiny project to the national stage through Google.

You can read the history of SolarYpsi here, but in summary it started with a small $6,000 grant from the state of Michigan to put four 190-watt solar panels on the roof of the Ypsi Food Co-op.  There was never originally a goal to start an organization called SolarYpsi, it just happened organically.  Following the success of that first system, Jason Bing from Ann Arbor's EnHouse invited Dave to start giving lectures on solar power.  Over the years, these lectures have garnered much interest in the community and Dave has visited many groups to give his presentation.  Jason also alerted Corinne, the Ypsi Food Co-op manager, and Dave to the availability of other grants.  SolarYpsi started designing projects and writing grants and in 2008 won a pair of grants from the state of Michigan worth about $75,000.  That put solar panels on Ypsilanti's City Hall, the River Street Bakery, and more on the Ypsi Food Co-op.  

As the number of systems grew, Dave and others involved in SolarYpsi began to wonder if it was possible to consolidate all the data from the systems and make it readily available on the web.  By sheer luck, a friend of a friend introduced Dave to Nik Estep, a student at Eastern Michigan University.  Dave had come up with a way to pull data from the DTE utility meters and Nik came up with a way to turn those numbers into graphs, which can now be seen on This project would also not be possible without Steve Pierce from HDL.  HDL has hosted SolarYpsi from the beginning, even after one of their servers crashed when the SolarYpsi Google Ad video went live.  The website shot up from an average five hits a day, and hit a peak at 1,000 visitors in one day.

The topic we'll be writing about is energy.  Everything about it: how it is created, transported, used, and wasted.  Our next article will be all about how we take energy for granted, and why we are wasting far more than we should be.  Nobody expects people to stop using any of the many, many technologies that make our life so much more comfortable and convenient, but the energy cost of that convenience is far greater than most could imagine.  We want people to understand how wonderfully cheap our energy is, since the era of cheap fossil fuel power is beginning to grind to a halt.

Next we want to talk about solar photovoltaic power and dwell on the economics of it in today's market.  The Ypsi Food Co-op just purchased another 4 kw of solar panels for the roof of the store.  You can read about it here.  What is interesting is that SolarYpsi bought those panels for $0.78 per watt, which is about 1/5 of the price paid for the first solar panels back in 2005.  Granted, this was a closeout sale from Evergreen going bankrupt, but just this week there was another website selling solar panels for the same price.  Add to this the 30% federal tax credit that is still in place and the demand for renewable energy (RE) credits, we're convinced that solar power is economically viable in Michigan.  While we're sure there will be comments about "tax" dollars subsidizing solar, all forms of energy production are being subsidized in a way.  The subsidies are either direct, in the form of tax credits for renewable energy sources, or indirect, by allowing energy producers to continue polluting freely, causing local health problems and contributing to CO2 emissions, the source of climate change.  Both cost the government, both help energy companies.  But only one prepares us for the future.

Our final blog article will cover what we can do.  Many small act of energy conservation do make a difference.  One simple example is home lighting. The incandescent light has served its purpose.  We converted from whale oil lamps to incandescent light bulbs over 100 years ago and it's time to change again.  One reason for the last change was that whale oil was becoming scarce.  While electric is not getting scarce, we are paying a price for all the coal we burn to light incandescents.  The typical incandescent light bulb converts about 10% of the incoming energy into light and the rest into heat.  If you don't believe us, turn on a 100-watt light bulb for ten minutes and try and unscrew it with your bare fingers.  Compact florescent lights (CFL) have had a colorful history.  There were stories claiming that CFL bulbs had the wrong color white light, that you had to bring in a HazMat unit if you dropped one, that they don't work with dimmers, and would not last long.  We hope to address all of those topics in that article. We'll also introduce you to the light emitting diodes (LED) lights, which are even better then CFLs and starting to become affordable.

Today SolarYpsi continues to design and install systems, while also adding existing solar installations to the web page.  Nik has figured out how to collect solar data from EnPhase inverters so they don't need to add any monitors at those locations.  SolarYpsi continues to give solar talks and has been answering a ton of emails and phone calls about solar power.  Someday it will incorporate and become an official non-profit organization, but for now, they're still having too much fun as a loose collection of friends trying to make Ypsilanti a "Solar Destination".

Hope you enjoy what we write this week and you all turn into mini-engineers and start seeing and fixing energy inefficiencies in the world and make it a better place for our kids.

Taking Fossil Fuels For Granted: What it Really Costs to Keep that TV Plugged In
By, Lucas Morrison

Our supply of energy makes our life comfortable and convenient.  Stop and take a look around you.  Try and picture your room without the things in it that run on electricity.  It's impossible.  We are never going to change our energy consumption habits.  But our energy comes from fossil fuels, which are a limited supply.  So eventually we will have to change our means for producing energy.  Nobody can place a date on when we'll run out of fossil fuels, but most estimates say that we will hit our peak of fuel consumption within the next few decades.  Fossil fuels are one of those things that we won't really appreciate until they're gone.  And it's easy to see why people don't appreciate the wonderful sources of energy that we're burning up. Because we have become so accustomed to quick, easy energy, we don't think about where it comes from.

Say you have a tub on the third floor of your house that you wish to fill with water, but the only working valve in your house is outside your basement.  You are forced to fill up five-gallon buckets and carry them upstairs to fill your tub, and you want 50 gallons in the tub.  A gallon weighs about 8.35 pounds, so let's say the bucket filled with five gallons weighs about 45 pounds total.  If you carry two full buckets a trip, you'll be carrying 90 pounds up three flights of stairs, worrying about the water sloshing around, which won't be fun.  Say that takes you five minutes round trip, and you have to make four more trips but each time you get a little more tired.  So say it takes you about half an hour total.  The average U.S. hourly wage is around $18, so the average person's time is worth $18 an hour.  So moving that water cost you $9 and a lot of physical effort.  Or you could've hired a neighborhood kid to do it for $15 and saved yourself the trouble.  So moving that water either cost you $9 and a bunch of physical work or $15 flat.  Let see how much it would've cost you to move that water thanks to fossil fuels.

You moved 90 pounds over five trips, so overall you moved 450 pounds, which is approximately 204 kilograms.  You moved the water up three flights, so if the average house story is 12 feet you raised the water by 36 feet total, or about 11 meters.  Potential energy = mass*gravity*change in height so by carrying those buckets up to the top floor of your house you added 204*9.8*11=about 22,000 joules of energy to those buckets.  That's the energy cost of raising the water up 11 meters.  The average one-horsepower pump can pump 50 gallons in one minute.  One horsepower is about 745.7 watts, and one watt is one joule per second, so 745.7w*60s= 44,742 joules.  That's the energy cost of a pump moving 50 gallons.  So overall your pump will have to produce about 66,750 joules to move 50 gallons up three stories, which seems like a lot.  But the average price of a kilowatt-hour in the US is a mere $.12, and a kwH is 3,600,000 joules.  So the 66,750 joules for you to pump all that water would cost you a fifth of a cent.  The labor costs you $9 and a physical effort, hiring someone, costs you $15, while using a pump costs you $0.002 dollars.  That's how cheap our supply of energy is, and that's how convenient it makes our lives.

But what is the cost of that energy in terms of resources?  For the electrical company to produce 66,750 joules, it would have to burn a certain amount of coal.  But there is also a ~7% transmission loss of energy from power plant to home, so really the electrical company must produce around 71,500 joules.  Burning a ton of coal releases about 6,150 kwH of thermal energy, but capturing that energy has an efficiency rate of a mere 40%, so a ton of coal produces 2,460 kwH of electrical energy.  There are 2,000 pounds in a ton, so a pound of coal produces 1.23 kwH.  71,500/3,600,000 = ~.02 kwH so for you to pump that water up to the third floor of your house the electrical company had to burn about 1/100 of a pound of coal.  It doesn't seem like a lot, demonstrating how awesome of a fuel source fossil fuels are.  Yet we take them for granted.

Back when TVs were relatively new, you couldn't turn them on instantly.  There was a bit of a warm-up period where you had to wait.  Obviously people found this annoying because nowadays our TVs turn on instantly.  But the cost of that is feeding them constant energy, so they are never completely 'cold'.  This stream of energy is called a phantom load, and most electronics carry one.  The average phantom load for a TV is about 6.5 watts, so your television is constantly running at 6.5 watts.  6.5 watts means 6.5 joules per second, so in a day your TV uses 6.5*60*60*24 = 561,600 joules each day just sitting turned off.  Over the course of the year, your television will use 204,984,000 joules doing absolutely nothing.  This amounts to 56.94 kwH.  Coupled with the electrical transmission loss and the efficiency of burning coal, that means you burn about 50 pounds of coal each year just for the convenience of having your TV turn on the instant you press the button.  If you have three TVs in your house, that's 150 pounds a year.  

We are a society dependent on massive amounts of energy, and we are quickly burning up our main source of it.  It is inevitable that change is coming. The question is simply a matter of when.

What's Hot in Solar Technology
By, Mackenzie (Mac) Carlsen

Interest in renewable energy has never been higher. Cheap oil and gas supplies are almost gone. Many new energy technologies offer compelling alternatives to fossil fuels. Now that solar panels are more affordable, more people are becoming convinced that solar power makes sense.
Solar power technology has come a long way. Twenty years ago solar technology was too expensive to feed our continent's ravenous power appetite. Much has changed.  Due to a combination of overproduction in China and falling demand from European countries, the price of photovoltaic solar cells has fallen sharply. In Michigan, the average return on investment (ROI) has fallen to about 10 years or less. Given that solar panels last about 30 years, we get about 20 years of pure profit.  And homeowners can still get a 30% federal tax credit for installing solar panels, an investment which also enhances  property value.

Solar power technology has itself become both easier to use and more energy efficient. Some situations and locations still rely on battery storage systems.  However, batteries are becoming less desirable because they create waste disposal problems and are overall less efficient than other power storage options.  Storing energy in the existing power grid of your community is an easy and direct way for homemade power to immediately lower your electric bill. Excess solar power from a home goes back out to the grid and is used for local power needs while the home that made the power gets credit. Grid-tied solar energy systems also reduce the demand for power from coal plants.

Another recently developed solar power technology is called Solar Hot Water (SHW).  For those of you imagining an outdoor water tank and shower head, this is entirely different!  SHW uses water pipe circuits to transfer energy, without the need for electronics. SHW captures about 50% of available energy from the sun, as opposed to about 15% from photovoltaic cells. SHW is simple to install, using basic plumbing hardware between panels, to a holding tank, and finally through walls and flooring. Radiant heat for the winter is provided from SHW collected during the summer.

Solar Ypsi was founded to help people understand how solar energy works, and how communities can pool their talents to implement solar projects while learning new skills.  The old adage, think globally, act locally, is very applicable to solar energy. Solar Ypsi's small solar projects have had the same (or more) educational impact as larger projects. Combining work and fun, these projects are steps toward the vibrant future we want.

What Kind of "LEDing" Choices Should You Make Environmentally?
By, Ji Yoon (Amie) Gook

As an international student who has lived in different countries (I have lived in Indonesia, too, from grade 9 to grade 12), I was especially interested about the methods of energy conservation that are popular in the U.S. but are not known in developing countries. Based on my experience in alternative energy at the University of Michigan, I've decided to do research about energy conservation and write a blog about it with the help from Solar Ypsi.
Most would agree that there are very few, if any, people out there who consciously waste energy.  With the energy crisis and climate change becoming more and more frequent topics of discussion, many people are eager to make changes to their habits in order to do their part.  Unfortunately, many of the actions people take in order to "go green" have less of an impact than they would like to think, and there are many methods which can actually do a lot that people are unaware of. We're here to educate people on changes they can make that will help them reduce their energy consumption.

People often get caught up trying to make decisions based on what they think is better for the environment that are less important than they think.  For example, if you walk into a grocery store, you may see somebody standing in the party goods aisle, trying to decide which cups to buy.  That person may be mulling over whether plastic cups or paper cups are better for the environment, finally deciding on paper cups based on the reasoning that they seem more "natural" and thus better for the environment.  In reality, producing paper cups consumes just as much energy and produces just as many carbon emissions as producing plastic cups, rendering the decision that that individual made, which they may think of as "doing their part", entirely moot.

So how do you know when choices you make are actually beneficial towards our environment?  You have to look at things in the long run, and consider all the factors that go into that choice.  Buying a hybrid car may give you a sense of pride because your car no longer contributes to carbon emissions, but if you think about it, the electricity that powers your car has to come from somewhere, and it is likely coming from your local coal plant.  Driving a hybrid just moves the fuel consumption from your car's exhaust down the road to the coal plant's exhaust, and most likely produces just as many emissions (Not that we think hybrid cars are a bad concept at all. They are actually a bit more energy efficient; they mitigate smog problems in neighborhoods, and they drive automotive companies to develop new renewable technologies.).

Many of the changes you can make to reduce your energy consumption are right in your home.  Get up right now and check every light bulb in your house.  How many of those were incandescent?  Say you counted 10.  An incandescent bulb, what most would call "a normal bulb", runs at 60 watts and consumes on average 100 kilowatt-hours a year, so your 10 incandescent bulbs consume 1,000 kwH each year.  If you replaced those all with CFLs (compact fluorescent light), commonly known simply as fluorescent bulbs, which run at 15 watts and consume an average 25 kwH a year, your bulbs would only consume 250 kwH a year.  And if you used LED lights, running at only 6 watts, consuming around 10 kwH a year, those ten bulbs would only use 100 kwH each year.  From 1,000 to 250 to 100.  With the average price of a kwH being around $.12, you'd save $90 with the CFLs, while using a quarter of the energy, and $108 with the LEDs, while using only a tenth of the energy.  And that's only for 10 light bulbs.  These energy-efficient bulbs also last longer.  An average incandescent bulb only lasts 1,200 hours, while a CFL lasts 8,000 and an LED 50,000.  While LEDs are bright, CFLs are capable of producing the familiar warm light of incandescent bulbs, and contain miniscule amounts of mercury when broken (it's like dropping a thermometer).

Another easy home improvement that can drastically reduce energy consumption is proper insulation.  Many homes are not as well insulated as one would think, and small cracks or leaks in the insulation add up.  A study added the many small leaks in an average home's insulation, and found that the result added up to the equivalent of having a 3x3 ft. hole in the side of your house in terms of energy lost.  One of the weakest spot in most homes is the sill plate, a board laid horizontally over the building's foundation.  The small leak around the entire perimeter of a house adds up to a significant amount.  More careful planning and construction techniques could lead to far less energy loss.

If you really want to "go green", one of the most important things you can do to is to spread the word about what's actually beneficial, and volunteer or support organizations supporting the use and development of renewable technologies.  Little things like turning the lights off when you leave a room and taking shorter showers may add up, but the biggest way to make a difference is to lead others.

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