solar energy

New England Communities Ramp Up for Renewable Energy

At EPA, we’re constantly promoting sustainable development. Renewable energy is at the top of that list because it’s an upfront investment that improves the environment and saves money. It’s a win-win from every angle.

Recently, I was lucky enough to spend time driving through the tunnels of deep red maple trees and brilliant yellow birch leaves that mark New England in autumn. My purpose: see a sampling of the most impressive, innovative clean energy projects in New England. These solar, waste-to-energy and bio-mass projects are cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions, providing jobs and boosting local economies.

I’m proud to represent a region on the forefront of environmental and energy policy. Some of the projects I saw – including in New Bedford and Dennis, Mass. – were located on former landfills, making productive use of otherwise afflicted space. And the clean energy efforts in Burlington, Vt., are a reminder of what we all can achieve.

Photo of EPA Regional Administrator Curt Spalding and U.S. Congressman Bill Keating at a Dennis, MA solar installation.

EPA Regional Administrator Curt Spalding and U.S. Congressman Bill Keating at a Dennis, MA solar installation.

 

In the Massachusetts town of Dennis, on Cape Cod, I saw the launch of New England’s largest solar development – 22 megawatts of panels that will provide half the electricity used in Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. This project includes nine solar arrays, including seven sitting on capped landfills. Altogether, this project will reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of more than 2,700 passenger vehicles. It’s the latest piece in the state’s ambitious goal to create 1600 MW of solar energy by 2020.

Photo of solar panels in Dennis, MA.

Solar panels in Dennis, MA.

 

In Dartmouth, Mass., I stood at a city landfill where a new plant will turn food waste into energy. This bio-energy facility will be the first of its kind in the state: an anaerobic digester generating biogas for use at the Crapo Hill Landfill. The digester will initially accept up to 3,000 gallons a day, though it’s eventually expected to take 30,000 gallons. This plant was built in preparation for a state regulation that forbids commercial businesses over a certain size from discarding food waste in landfills.

In nearby New Bedford, I saw a former 12-acre landfill turned into one of the country’s most forward-thinking and innovative clean energy projects: 5,490 solar panels will create 2 MW of power, and will help meet the city’s goals of purchasing power from renewable sources. A $15 million Superfund cleanup allowed the city, working with other public and private groups, to reuse this property to produce clean, sustainable power. New Bedford’s investment installing solar panels around the city is a model for other towns and cities across the country. The trend is clear: What used to be a waste pit has become a source of energy for the city.

The highlight of my trip was a day in Burlington, Vt., once again in the forefront of environmental protection. As of this fall, Burlington became the first city in the country to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy. They set that goal in 2004, and met it as of September with a mix of hydroelectric, wind and a bit of bio-gas. It’s enough to give electricity to all 42,000 residents.

In addition to clear environmental benefits, Burlington will see financial advantages. The town won’t have any rate increases right now, and as the latest hydroelectric station is paid for over the next two decades, the city will see a savings. And Burlington’s energy prices are not tied to fossil fuels.

Burlington is the leader in a state that has set a goal of reaching 90 percent of energy — including heat, electricity and transportation — from renewable resources by 2050. It was wonderful to be in Burlington and see its success in leading the way, proof that it can be done.

These projects all represented the kind of innovative and practical investments we encourage at EPA. We have a moral obligation to reduce carbon pollution in this country, and in order to do that we have to lean more heavily on alternative sources of energy.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Village Green Project: What’s in our Air?

By Ronald Williams

What’s in our air? It’s made up of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and one percent other gases such as carbon dioxide.  An even smaller contribution comes from gaseous air pollutants such as ozone or carbon monoxide.  In addition to the gases, air contains tiny particles from both natural and man-made processes.

In the Village Green Project, my EPA colleagues and I are developing a community-based system that repeatedly measures select gases and particles so residents can monitor local air quality and know what’s in their air.

Here are three important components:

Ozone
Knowing daily changes in ozone concentrations is very important, especially to those with respiratory illnesses such as asthma.  Ozone is generally highest on sunny summer days, when sunlight fuels atmospheric chemistry and generates ozone from a mixture of emissions.   The Village Green monitor will report ozone many times during the course of the day, showing how ozone levels go up and down based upon air pollution emissions and sunlight.

Particulate Matter

Particulate matter. For a larger version, go to: http://1.usa.gov/14hbTWp

All of us are exposed to particulate matter from a wide variety of local and distant sources.  After being produced, particles can transport hundreds of miles.  We encounter it in our homes, in our cars, in our work places, and out in our yards.  Understanding how it changes in the environment on a day-by-day and even hour-by-hour basis will help local citizens be better informed about this pollutant, which has been associated with a wide variety of human health effects.

Black Carbon
There’s an old saying that ‘everyone complains about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.’ Now here’s our chance to learn about a pollutant that may affect our climate and is also important for health. Scientists now know that combustion products, such as black carbon, have the potential to influence climate change.  Black carbon is also a good indicator of emissions from fuel-burning, including from vehicles, forest fires, and smoking.  By monitoring black carbon levels in local air, the Village Green Project will help increase our understanding of links between local pollution sources and their impact on black carbon.

Even before the monitor is up and running, we’ve received regular inquiries about the Village Green Project from community groups, environmental scientists and those involved in air quality research.  Cleary, we’ve struck a nerve with citizens, and the desire of local communities to know what’s in their air and gain information about local air quality is ever-growing!

We expect the Village Green monitor will be operating this summer.  Stay tuned to this blog for more (and for our future web site) as we move forward.

About the Author: Ron Williams is an exposure science researcher who is studying how people are exposed to air pollutants and methods to measure personal exposure.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Region 2 Solar Project Team Visits MSW Landfills

Colleen Kokas (NJDEP), Sarah Gentile, and Fernando Rosado taking a SunEye reading

By EPA Region 2 Solar Team

Walking across an open field approaching a forested border near a bend in the Delaware River on an October morning, you might not be surprised to hear that we spotted an American eagle taking flight as we unknowingly approached him. But you might be surprised that our group, composed of federal and state scientists/engineers, along with local officials, was walking through the Harrison Avenue Landfill in Camden, NJ during a site visit to assess the feasibility of installing a solar energy system.

As part of on-going EPA efforts for siting solar energy projects on closed municipal landfills under the RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative, we recently teamed up with staff from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the New Jersey Department Environmental Protection’s Office of Sustainability and Green Energy to visit 10 closed municipal landfills located in North, Central, and South Jersey. We were offered vistas such as the skyline of New York City with migratory birds in the foreground from Linden Landfill; the Lower New York Harbor from Belford Landfill; and varied natural landscapes from the hilly northern suburbs to the forested Pine Barrens and coastal plain of southern New Jersey.

Although we were initially concerned with town reactions to EPA presence, local officials expressed great interest

Sarah Gentile, Colleen Kokas (NJDEP), Fernando Rosado, and John Koechley discussing the site with Jimmy Salasovich (NREL)

in landfill-based solar projects which seems to be part of a growing national trend. Towns openly embraced us and allowed us to begin our solar efforts on their landfills. As we departed from landfills, we committed to review the solar data and produce feasibility reports for our new local partners. We intend to deliver a meaningful solar feasibility reports and use EPA tools like the new release of “Best Practices for Siting Solar PV on MSW Landfills” document which will provide us with more technical considerations when installing these systems.

With thousands of closed landfills nationwide the potential to use this renewable technology in all regions and our current studies will lead to design and construction of solar array systems.

Spanish Edition

About the authors: The EPA Region 2 Solar Team consists of six members, all with varying disciplines, geology/hydrology, engineers, technical support, scientist, division chief. Note: all work on the R2 Landfill Solar initiative by the staff is done in addition to their regular functions. For more information, contact (212) 637- 4354 Vince Pitruzzello or (212) 637-4346 Fernando Rosado.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

The Palm-Sized Wonder that Brings Life to Village Green

By Vasu Kilaru and Gayle Hagler, Ph.D.

The petite 'electronics sandwich' at the heart of the Village Green system - an Arduino board on the bottom with layers of other accessory electronic boards stacked on top.

Welcome back to the Village Green Project, an ongoing EPA research, development and demonstration project to build a solar-powered station to measure air pollutants.

This innovative new measurement system must: collect and send data; use minimal power; monitor instrument performance; and have remote on-and-off capabilities for several components to match changing conditions (off for dark and cloudy days, and then on again when the sun starts to shine).

The team searched far and wide for an on-board computer that would serve as the “brains” of the Village Green System. The computer needed to run on very little power, be flexible enough to handle all of our requirements, and ideally work using a free, publically available (“open source”) computer program.

We discovered Arduino—a microcontroller that is essentially a simple computer with an accompanying free programming tool. A wide group of people, including artists, designers and hobbyists, are already using it to build electronics like homemade clocks or robots. It works perfectly for our needs because it uses very low power and can fit in your hand.

A number of accessory electronic items allow the small circuit board to meet the requirements of the system. For example, one accessory adds a timestamp to the data being collected so anyone viewing it can see the amount of air pollutants measured at a particular time and day. Another accessory links the Arduino board with a cellular modem (similar to the “data” port of a cellphone), which then sends recorded air pollution data to our on-line database. These accessories are electronic boards that stack on top of the main Arduino board, making what looks like an electronics sandwich.

With a free programming tool available to the Arduino-user community, we are developing a custom computer program for the Village Green System—nearly 800 lines of code and counting.

So far, so good! Recently, North Carolina experienced several days of cloudy, overcast weather. The trusty Arduino board successfully handled the decrease in power—turning off several instruments during that time and then efficiently restarting them once the sun came back out.

About the Authors: Gayle Hagler is an environmental engineer who studies air pollutant emissions and measurement technologies. Vasu Kilaru works in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He is currently working on the apps and sensors for air pollution initiative (ASAP) helping the Agency develop its strategic role and response to new sensor technology developments.

Note: Mention of trade names or commercial products do not constitute endorsement, certification or recommendation for use.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Village Green Project and Use of Sustainable Energy

By Ron Williams and Bill Mitchell

Watts up, everyone? Welcome back to the Village Green Project and learn about science as it happens at EPA! For those just joining us, EPA researchers in North Carolina are designing and building a low-cost air quality monitoring system from the ground up that can be provide local air quality data to a community.

One of our project goals is to design an air quality monitoring system that is fully self-powered and can operate for a long period of time using very little energy.

Our solution: solar power. We have identified a design that will include sustainable energy (solar power) and features that will allow the monitoring system to operate for long periods of time during the night and when it is cloudy.

One of the first things we had to do was determine how much power is needed to run a large number of environmental monitors and to transmit data from the system to our web site where we hope to make data available. Our first design shows that we will need 15 Watts to fully power all of the electrical parts (sensors, fans, control circuits, communication link).

We identified two highly efficient solar panels that we can use that are 26 inches by 41 inches in size. They are small enough for the monitor and can generate up to 60 Watts of power. The extra power that is generated can be stored in a battery for the solar cells to use when conditions are not favorable, like cloudy days. The rechargeable 12-volt battery is about the size of a car battery. This was good news as we wanted to avoid having a field of solar panels that would drive up the operating cost.

We think we worked it out on paper—now the challenge will be to see what happens when we piece it all together.  Stay tuned for more updates on our discovery process.

About the Authors: Ron Williams is an exposure science researcher who is studying how people are exposed to air pollutants and methods to measure personal exposure. Bill Mitchell is an electronics expert who provides support to a variety of air pollution research projects.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Energy Independence Day

By Steve Donohue

Seventeen years ago when my wife and I went house shopping, we looked for a home with large kitchen windows that would let the sun stream in because I knew this would help heat the house and save energy.

As an environmental scientist in EPA’s Office of Environmental Innovation in Philadelphia, I try to practice what I preach by doing everything I can to save energy at home. Many of my efforts are simple like switching to LED light bulbs and hanging my clothes to dry on the clothes line instead of wasting energy with a power-hogging dryer. Other efforts were a bit more complicated like crawling around in my attic to seal up drafts and add insulation. There were even some unexpected jobs too, like fixing the hole my son made by stepping through the ceiling while he was helping me. I knew these improvements would pay for themselves in no time and they did – reducing our power use by almost 50 percent.

In 2010, we decided to tackle the supply side of the equation by installing photovoltaic solar panels. This was not an easy decision. I wasn’t worried about the technology because I have a solar calculator from 1980 that still works fine, but the return on our investment was supposed to take five years, and by then I knew I would need some cash to replace my aging truck. On the plus side, our roof was new and the slope was just right for installing solar panels. After considering all factors, we decided to take the plunge and get full benefit of tax breaks, financing and rebates offered by Pennsylvania and the federal government. Also, it was nice to know in our own small way we were creating “green jobs” for a local contractor and a factory in Kentucky where the solar panels were manufactured.

A few days after the 4th of July in 2010 we had our own “energy” Independence Day. It has been great! We have had zero maintenance and we get credited for any electricity we don’t use that is sent out to the grid. In 2011, we generated 84 percent of our own electricity, spending less than $260 for power that year. Our goal is to have a net zero energy house in 2012 by swapping out our 17-year old refrigerator.

Sounds good right? Well almost. The market for clean power tanked and our payback is now more like 10 years. So, it looks like I’ll be keeping my old truck a little longer. In the mean time, I tell everyone my new truck is on the roof!

About the author: Steve Donohue has been an environmental scientist at EPA for over 20 years. Currently, he works in the Office of Environmental Innovation in Philadelphia where he is focused on greening EPA and other government facilities.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Science Wednesday: The Role for Science in International Development

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

What’s that, you say? International development is best left to experts in policy and economics? Well, think again because I believe that engineers and scientists have an important role to play.

While it’s easy for most of us to take our roads, electricity, schools, police forces, and food supplies for granted, there are still billions of people around the globe for whom these are not yet a reality.

Think about how much people’s lives—their health, education, safety, and well-being—would improve if they had the same level of infrastructure many of us probably take for granted. Transportation is faster and safer with paved roads; electricity improves education and healthcare, which, in turn, improves quality of life and people’s productivity, feeding tax revenues to the government to use in further improving infrastructure.

It’s positive feedback, spiraling upwards if we could only get it started!

This is what motivates me and the rest of my team. Over the past six years, we have been working to improve energy infrastructure in developing countries by building a better option for distributed energy generation: one that is renewable (uses solar energy), affordable, and can be made entirely with local materials, skills—and people.

image of solar panelsThe technology, which we call a Solar ORC, uses a solar thermal co-generation technique to simultaneously provide electricity and hot water in volumes required by typical rural institutions such as schools and clinics, allowing them to improve services, stretch their budgets, and avoid environmental degradation due to burning of fossil fuels. At the same time, local fabrication and dissemination of the technology provides good jobs and spurs the local economy.

In conjunction with our partners in southern Africa, we have already installed and tested several prototype systems, optimized for construction in Lesotho. Our most recent achievement is the initiation of our first full-scale system installation at a rural health clinic in Lesotho in 2009.

This type of work is challenging but also immensely rewarding. With each installation I am directly involved in improving the quality of infrastructure—and quality of life—for local people.

So to all of the young scientists and engineers out there wondering how you can make an impact on the world—think outside of the box and consider whether international development might have some challenges in store for you.

About the Author: Amy Mueller is a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-founder of STG International, a non-profit organization combining science and engineering with international development. STG’s work developing a novel solar energy technology is supported in part by an EPA People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Award research grant.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.