Solar Power

Climate Action Protects the Middle Class

Last night in the State of the Union Address, President Obama laid out an agenda to protect and grow America’s middle class. From spurring innovation and creating high-skilled jobs here in the U.S. to protecting our homes and businesses, acting on climate change is crucial to achieving this vision.

Fueled by carbon pollution, climate change poses a serious threat to our economy. 2014 was the hottest year on record—and as temperatures and sea levels rise, so do insurance premiums, property taxes, and food prices. The S&P 500 recently said climate change will continue to affect financial performance worldwide.

And when climate disasters strike—like more frequent droughts, storms, fires, and floods—low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are the hardest hit. Climate action is crucial to helping reduce barriers to opportunity that keep people out of the middle class.

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

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Do You Know…About Green Power?

By Mollie Lemon

You probably know that carbon pollution is the biggest driver of climate change. But, did you know that one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from power plants? Power plants generate electricity for our homes, businesses, and workplaces. Did you know that green power, sourced from renewable resources including the sun and wind, produces electricity with little or no fossil-fuel based greenhouse gas emissions? And, did you know that green power is available to every single business, institution, and residential electricity consumer in the U.S.?

I’ve been working for EPA’s Green Power Partnership program since 2011, and buy green power for my own electricity use at home. I have many reasons for using green power – because I’m concerned about extreme weather events that are exacerbated by climate change, because I want my young cousins to be able to play outside in the summer, and because some of my favorite places I’ve visited in my travels over the years are under serious threat from climate change. Working at the EPA has shown me that changing the source of my electricity is one of the easiest and most impactful things I can do in the face of such threats.

The more than 1,500 organizations that participate in our Green Power Partnership also know about the benefits of using green power. Today, our Green Power Partners are collectively using more than 29 billion kilowatt-hours of green power every year. That’s equal to avoiding the annual carbon pollution from the electricity use of more than three million average American homes.

I continue to be impressed by the commitment of our partners to using green power, which helps keep our air clean and healthy. We recently released the first quarterly update of our Top Partner Rankings for 2014, which highlights the annual green power use of leading partners nationwide. Close to two-thirds of these organizations are using 100 percent green power, and nearly half are small businesses. And, every single one of them is helping to grow the market for clean energy resources in the U.S. and contributing to a healthier environment for all of us – including my cousins.

Check out our partner list to see if your local government, school, or favorite retailer is a Green Power Partner. If not, let them know how to become a partner and join us in taking action on climate change.

About the author:  Mollie Lemon joined EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation in Washington, DC in 2009, and is the communications director for the Green Power Partnership. She enjoys hiking, especially in the cool, clean mountain air of the nearby Shenandoah range.

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.

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Solar Company Complications

Construction work on the solar barn.

Construction work on the solar barn.

By Cyndy Kopitsky

With all of the solar panel company advertising, the information and talks at the EPA on solar power, and as a concerned citizen who tries to conserve energy and be a smart shopper, it makes perfect sense to explore solar power. At least, that is what my husband and I thought in the summer of 2010. Have you ever considered purchasing solar panels for your home?

We started this journey contacting several companies that serviced our area. They were quick to respond and we had three appointments to discuss the options and the costs. To our surprise, each company had a much different plan ranging from ‘your roof is good for the panels if you cut a few trees down” to “you cannot use your roof, there is too much shade even if you cut down the trees.”

After many shade reports, many site visits to our home and many phone conservations, we decided to trust and explore the company that said we could use our roof. The next move before construction began was to cut five trees that provided shading to the home in the hot summer months and privacy along the side of the house. I tried to convince myself that this sacrifice of cutting mature oak trees was to help save the earth, but somehow I still had regrets.

Within days after the trees were cut, the solar company’s senior engineer and three reps came to the house for the final inspection before we signed contracts. Within minutes after they were on the roof, my husband and I heard some loud voices that quickly escalated. We were presented immediately with the problem they were facing.

The roof was not strong enough and would NOT support the solar array!

All I could think of was those trees and all the birds that had to find new locations for their nests, all the wood that had to get cut, how we would have no privacy, how the house would be so hot, and how we killed perfectly beautiful, thriving trees for no reason!

After we adjusted to the disappointments and after much more research, we decided to build an above ground solar barn measuring 40 x 16 feet and 16 feet high. Winter approached soon thereafter and our priorities shifted to recovering from our house fire (another environmental story.) This followed with two more company opinions and money spent in vain on another “I can do this” solar company we hired to build the barn and install panels. At that point, we were finally ready for the state to inspect in the fall of 2012.

To our surprise, we failed the inspection for 32 points and were advised to remove all the panels and make the repairs. We refused to give up. Frustrated, over-invested, and still determined to save the earth, we looked for yet another company to save us.

It is now 2014 and our solar panels have been up and running since September 2013. We have been impressed with the utility savings and the carbon emissions reduced by going solar. My recommendation to you would be, if you’re considering solar, watch what you ask for!

About the Author: Cyndy Kopitsky works in the Clean Water Division as coordinator for the national Urban Waters Small Grant program. Her many personal interests include, caring for rescue parrots and macaws from unwanted homes. This includes baking “birdie breads”, preparing special hot birdie veggie dishes, and purchasing foraging toys. She loves to cook and bake (even for people), eat healthy foods, take many vitamin supplements, and she tries to respect to the environment with her life style choices.

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.

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Renewable Energy – An Energizing Reuse of Contaminated Lands

Photo Credit: Volkswagen Group of America

By Sara Rasmussen

As I turn the calendar page on another Earth Day, it’s nice to pause and take note of how far we’ve progressed. When I started working on the reuse of RCRA hazardous waste sites in the early 2000s, there was little focus on renewable power. In 2008, to encourage the reuse of contaminated properties for renewable energy production, EPA launched its RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative. Since then, scores of exciting renewable energy projects have been installed around the country on contaminated land, ranging from ground-mounted utility-scale systems to roof-top systems to smaller systems. Some provide energy for activities on the property, while others sell power back to the grid. Information on over 70 such projects is posted on EPA’s RE-Powering website.

What I like about these projects is that they are “win-win.” Renewable energy systems tend to be cleaner which helps protect our environment. At the same time, they productively reuse contaminated properties which brings economic development to a community, makes good use of existing infrastructure, and helps reduce pressure to develop nearby open space.

Photo Credit: Volkswagen Group of America

An impressive example is Volkswagen’s recent revitalization of the former “Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant” property. After the contamination was addressed through the RCRA corrective action program, Volkswagen built a state-of-the-art assembly plant. To help power the plant, a 33,000 solar panel array –Tennessee’s second largest—was installed, increasing the sustainability of the facility and helping it become the only automotive manufacturing plant with Platinum LEED certification.

These projects require vision and extensive collaboration between many different regulators and stakeholders, but are worth the effort. Volkswagen had the vision and willingness to install renewable energy at its facility. Likewise, the City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, the U.S. Army, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and EPA all came together to help make this happen. Appropriately, there was much to celebrate at the ribbon cutting ceremony this past February.

Others can develop successful projects too. EPA has many tools to help determine if renewable energy is viable for specific locations. These include interactive maps which identify sites with potential for various renewable energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass), site screening tools, and several other resources.

With all we’ve learned about how to make renewable energy projects successful, we can look forward to many more exiting projects in the future.

About the author: Sara Rasmussen has served as an analyst and as a manager in EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) program for over 20 years, focusing on the areas of solid and hazardous waste and contaminated land reuse.  In 2001, shortly after it was created, she became team leader for the RCRA Reuse and Brownfields Prevention Initiative. She has been working to facilitate the cleanup and beneficial reuse of contaminated RCRA Corrective Action sites ever since.

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.

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Evaluating Technologies for Greenhouse Gas Mitigation

To celebrate Earth Day and the Agency’s effort to expand the conversation on climate change, we are highlighting EPA climate change research with Science Matters articles this week.

Breaking Through? Evaluating Technologies for Greenhouse Gas Mitigation
EPA modelers develop innovative methods to assess low-carbon technologies.

Much of the energy we use to power our homes, cars, and industries is also the main source of greenhouse gases (GHG) responsible for global climate change. It follows then, that limiting emissions from the combustion of these energy sources could contribute toward a stable, sustainable environmental future.

Developing new “game changing” technologies and energy sources will be important to mitigate GHG emissions cost-effectively. But how can today’s decision makers identify technologies with true transformational potential for reducing global climate change over the long term?

EPA scientists and engineers are helping answer just that question. They are using sophisticated computer models to support decision makers by comparing potential mitigation technologies in terms of cost, environmental performance, economic impact, and more.

In one such effort, the results of which were recently presented in the journal Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy, EPA physical scientist Dan Loughlin and his research colleagues used an innovative modeling approach tapping the MARKet ALlocation (MARKAL) model to demonstrate a “breakthrough analysis” that researchers can use to identify technologies that can make a true difference in reducing GHG emissions.

MARKAL was created in the late 1970s by Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists to help partner researchers and others wade through the complex and far reaching differences and tradeoffs involved in making decisions and policies related to energy use. Over the next several decades, the model was improved and reworked to support new functionality, and to take advantage of increasing computational power. It is now one of several models that EPA’s own climate change researchers use.

“Breakthrough” in this case refers to a technology that can limit GHG emissions significantly and cost-effectively over the long haul, explains Loughlin. “We developed a methodology to examine the breakthrough potential of energy-related technologies, taking into account the complexities of the entire energy system.”

The researchers focused on MARKAL because of its comprehensive coverage of the energy system, from the importation, production, or manufacture of a particular energy source, right through its distribution and end use by a whole variety of interacting sectors.

“For example, using MARKAL we might ask ‘What would happen if the cost of solar photovoltaic technology goes down to 20 cents per kilowatt hour? Would it penetrate the market and yield significant reductions in GHG? Using MARKAL this way allows us to incorporate important multi-sectoral interactions in our analysis that would not be possible with less powerful tools,” says EPA engineer William Yelverton, who contributed to the breakthrough technology approach.

To demonstrate how such an approach could be used to support greenhouse gas mitigation decisions, Loughlin, Yelverton, and their EPA colleague Rebecca Dodder focused on a breakthrough analysis of utility-scale solar photovoltaics (PV). Their calculations suggest, for instance, that an 80% drop in the price of photovoltaics would lower the cost of cutting carbon dioxide emissions in the United States in half by $270 billion—potentially making it a technology breakthrough.

The research team plans to use this approach to evaluate and compare the breakthrough potential of additional energy technologies. In their paper, they and their coauthors write:

Fortunately, as a society, we have shown a great ability to innovate. Technology breakthroughs have led to putting humans on the moon and to downsizing electronics so that the smart phones in our pockets are more powerful than the supercomputers of several decades ago. Similar breakthroughs in low- and zero-carbon energy technologies will be needed to meet GHG mitigation goals identified as being necessary by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. This need raises important questions, such as ‘What constitutes a breakthrough?’ and ‘Where would breakthroughs be achieved most readily and most cost effectively?

Together, EPA researchers Loughlin, Yelverton, Dodder and their partners are working to answer those questions, and help provide the science and tools needed to address global climate change.

Learn More

EPA Climate Change Research

EPA Climate Change Methods, Models, Tools, and Databases

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

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Water, Wind, and Sun

By Neftali Hernandez Santiago

In Kansas City we briefly glimpsed spring before having another snowstorm come through the area.  There were a couple of patches of green before the white stuff covered everything again.  It got me thinking about diagrams in my old textbooks, the ones showing the cycle of photosynthesis and respiration.  As you know photosynthesis is the name we give to the process of converting light into energy that can be used to support plants which create their own food.  Nutrients, water and daily sunlight are almost enough to maintain their life styles.  Plants could be totally independent but they are not.  They also rely upon the wind, pollinators, and other animals to carry seeds and assist with propagation.

If someone asked me what the bare minimum for human beings to survive is, I would say food, water, shelter and clothing.  Thankfully, plants don’t only produce energy for themselves, but they share their transformed energy by producing wood, fibers and edible fruits to help us cover our very basic needs.  Plants do all these by utilizing the sun as their primary source of energy.

Our modern world, however, is full of needs beyond the basics.  Our society is maintained with many complex networks such as transportation, communications, energy supply, water and wastewater.  As part of our society we need energy to power our industries, cars, appliances, computers, tablets, and the heating or cooling of our homes.  But if we had to act like plants, just getting our needs met by the water, wind and sun, could we do it?

Currently the world human energy consumption during an entire year is 15 terawatts (10 to the 12th power watts give or take).  Each day, 89,000 terrawatts of solar radiation (energy) reaches the earth.  In a year, this totals almost 32.5 million terawatts.  Doing the math, 15 terawatts is a really, really, small percentage (in fact a decimal place with six zeros) of the energy the sun sends our way.  In fact, a professor at Stanford (Mark Z. Jacobsen) has put some numbers to it.  According to his calculations, we would need: 3.8 million (5-mega watts) wind turbines; 720,000 (0.75-mega watts) wave devices; 5,530 (100-mega watts) geothermal plants; 900 (1300-mega watts) hydro plants; 490,000 (1-mega watts) tidal turbines; 1.7 billion (3-kilo watts) roof PV systems; 40,000 (300-mega watts) solar PV plants; and 20 (300- mega watts) concentrated solar panels plants.  This sounds like a lot of Green (both figuratively and metaphorically) but lots of work is already being undertaken.

EPA has established the Green Power Partnership,  a voluntary program that encourages organizations to use green power as a way to reduce the environmental impacts associated with conventional electricity use. The Partnership currently has more than 1,400 Partner organizations voluntarily using billions of kilowatt-hours of green power annually.   The National Renewable Energy Lab, (part of the US Department of Energy) has as its goal, developing renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and practices and transferring knowledge and innovations to address both the nation’s energy and environmental goals.  They also have great GIS data and maps relating to solar radiation.

So, can we fulfill the energy needs of modern human civilization and improve our environment at the same time as we move forward as a civilization by being more like plants?  It may be a long way off, but the math says YES.  Plants have been doing a good job of converting sunlight into energy a lot longer than humans.  For them it is easy to be green.   If we continue to find new ways to be green ourselves, someday we might not find ourselves singing Kermit’s famous song.

About the Author: Neftali Hernandez grew up in Puerto Rico and is an Environmental Scientist with EPA Region 7′s Drinking Water Branch.  He is a member of EPA’s Water Emergency Response Group and has a bachelor of science degree in biology and a masters of science degree in environmental health from the University of Puerto Rico.

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.

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Energy Efficient Improvements to the Metropolitan Transit Authority

By Larry Siegel

I’ve long been interested in keeping abreast of news pertaining to developments in the area of energy efficiency, wind power, solar power and other forms of renewable energy. Towards that end I subscribe to various newsletters put out by organizations such as the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the Rocky Mountain Institute (which recently published a fascinating peer reviewed book “Reinventing Fire: Bold Solutions for the New Energy Era” that maps out a plan for running a 158%-bigger U.S. economy by 2050 without needing fossil fuels or nuclear power plants) and Greenjobs.com which reports on developments in the areas of solar, wind, alternative fuel sources such as biofuels, hydrogen and fuel cells.

Pursuing my interest in these areas I contacted the Metropolitan Transit Authority headquarters in New York to see what, if any, energy efficient improvements they are pursuing. I was pleasantly surprised to learn there is quite a lot going on – more than I can cover in one blog post. Here are some items worth noting:

  • Heating, cooling and ventilation upgrades to the equipment in Grand Central Station will save $3 million a year and reduce Metro-North Railroad’s annual carbon emissions by 10,000 tons.
  • Replacing incandescent bulbs with advanced technology light-emitting diodes (LEDs) will reduce electricity consumption by at least 1.04 megawatts per year, saving at least $500,000 annually.
  • Replacing vapor necklace lights on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge with high efficiency LEDs will reduce electricity costs by 73%. 832 lights at the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel were replaced with high-efficiency lighting, saving 500,000 kilowatts a year or $55,000 annually.
  • The Long Island Railroad is completing a train car wash facility in Babylon that will filter, recondition and reuse more than 70% of its wash water. In addition, solar power energy panels for the facility will save an estimated $6,700 a year on utility costs.

About the Author: Larry Siegel has worked as a writer of corporate policies and procedures and as a technical writer. He currently works as a Pesticide Community Outreach Specialist for the Pesticide and Toxic Substances Branch in Edison, NJ

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.

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Greening the Empire State Building

By Larry Siegel

King Kong would have been a big help on this project! Unfortunately, since the big guy wasn’t around it fell on Serious Materials, a Silicon Valley firm, to replace all 6,514 windows in the iconic Empire State Building.

Working at night so as not to disturb tenants and tourists in New York’s 102-story Art Deco landmark at Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street, workers used a high-tech process to remove every window from its frame and separate the glass. Renovating roughly 50 windows a night, they installed a clear, mylar-like plastic sheath in between the double panes, then filled the windows with an argon-krypton gas, resealed them and reinstalled them.

The result? The windows are four times more insulated than the old ones and will save $410,000 a year in heating and air conditioning costs!

The massive project is part of a $550 million upgrade of the Empire State Building, which was constructed in 1931 and held the title of world’s tallest building until 1973, when the World Trade Center was completed.

A key component of the renovation is eight projects totaling $13.2 million that will cut the building’s energy costs by 38 percent by 2013 and pay for themselves in three years. Those projects, which include the window replacements, also will insulate radiators, install more efficient lighting controls and upgrade the building’s cold water and ventilation systems.

Anthony Malkin, manager of the Empire State building, points out that, “The least expensive source of energy is energy savings. Before you start putting solar panels and wind generators on buildings you have to look at energy efficiency. You get three to five times the bang for the buck per watt, for efficiency.”

In writing about the Empires State Building project, journalist Paul Rogers writes, “Energy efficiency renovations have enormous potential as a growing industry. Nationwide, 72 percent of all commercial building space in the United States is at least 20 years old. And 43 percent of the office space in New York City was built before 1945.”

As Ashley Katz, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C., points out, “Building green doesn’t have to cost a penny more than a conventional building. Most costs are recouped in a few years, and after that you are going to be just saving.”

About the Author: Larry Siegel has worked as a writer of corporate policies and procedures and as a technical writer. He currently works as a Pesticide Community Outreach Specialist for the Pesticide and Toxic Substances Branch in Edison, NJ

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.

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The Fun of Solar Imaging

This image of the Sun was taken by the author using a hydrogen alpha filter.

By Jim Haklar

A lot has been written about the benefits of solar power as a “green” source of energy.  But have you ever wondered what that source of energy actually looks like?  While we can’t look directly at the Sun without protection for our eyes, we can use special equipment to see the Sun in all its glory.

Astrophotography is one of my hobbies, and often on a clear day I’ll take my telescope and camera out at lunchtime and take pictures of the Sun.  I have special filters that allow me to see the different types of light that the Sun gives off.  One type of light is called “hydrogen alpha,” and with my hydrogen alpha filter the Sun really looks alive!  Just like all of us, the Sun goes through periods when it is more active and less active.  For the Sun, these periods come in 11- year cycles and scientists are predicting that in the current cycle the Sun will be most active next year.  But even now many solar features can be seen.

Loops of gas called prominences are present at the edge of the Sun; when prominences cross over the face of the Sun they look like ribbons and are called filaments.  Sometimes huge surface explosions called solar flares can also be seen, as well as sunspots.  The Sun is so big (over 800,000 miles across) that all of the features I’ve described are usually larger than the Earth.  Talk about solar power!

About the Author: Jim is an Environmental Engineer out of EPA’s Edison, New Jersey facility, where he manages PCB cleanups.  Over the last 27 years he has worked in a number of different programs within EPA, including Superfund, water management, and public affairs.   He has been an avid amateur astronomer for over 30 years.

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.

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Clean Energy from Landfills

By John Martin

When Mayor Bloomberg released the latest version of PlaNYC last month, the idea that got most of my attention was his proposal to turn the city’s landfills into electricity-producing solar plants. Although full implementation is still years away, this initiative could be a win-win for all New Yorkers.

We live in a crowded town. With an additional 1 million people expected to move here over the coming decades, every last inch will have to be put to productive use. While our 3,000 acres of shuttered landfills aren’t suitable for residential development, there are other ways to make good use of this land — fields of photovoltaic cells being one of them.

Under the city’s proposal, 250 of these acres would be leased to a private operator, who would install and run the plants. Although pricey at first, such an arrangement would be attractive to potential developers, since it would likely take just 10 years to recoup construction costs. If all goes as planned, the project could be enough to power as many as 50,000 homes.

One major advantage of this initiative is how clean solar energy is. Increased use of solar power would allow the city to reduce its dependence on its dirtiest plants, improving our air quality. Another advantage of this plan is that it reduces the need for transmission upgrades. The city’s closed landfills are close enough to residential areas that the need for new transmission lines would be minimal.

Finally, solar energy would provide electricity to New Yorkers when we need it most — during the hot, sunny days of summer. Having lived through the 2003 blackout and the July 2006 Queens power outage, a plan to help keep the air conditioners running through the summer is a plan that gets my support.

About the author: John Martin is a native New Yorker with a background in law and politics. He became an EPA press officer in 2010.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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.