How a small group of neighbors displayed environmental leadership while our elected leaders dithered in Copenhagen
The political cowardice expressed by world leaders at last months' UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, leaves many of us reeling in anger and disappointment.
Environmental leadership, clearly, is not present in the current group of world leaders, including President Obama. Such leadership, then, resides ultimately in the acts of individuals and activist groups. I am proud to offer one small example of such leadership - in the form of what my own cousin has done in collaboration with his Brooklyn, New York neighbors.
In Spring 2008 Mike Fram, a certified prosthetist by trade, became interested in improving energy efficiency at the Park Slope co-op he shared, and co-owned, with the 11 other tenants in one of Brooklyn's trendiest neighborhoods.
The tenants began looking at various options starting with the traditional: more insulation, new windows. They then inquired about going solar. Support among the tenants grew quickly.
The building's gas utility company, National Grid, provided a traditional efficiency assessment, and Mike asked how to bring solar energy into the mix.
The gas company had no solar expertise, but they referred the building to Quixotic Systems Inc., a leading solar and wind design and installation firm who, as recent as 2008, employed the ONLY certified engineer for Solar Thermal in New York City (http://www.quixotic-systems.com). They agreed to visit the building and do an assessment.
The tenants were eager to reduce their carbon-footprint, but they remained concerned that the costs would be 'prohibitive' as is often cautioned from utility industry supporters.
The building's treasurer, Robert Dascoli, worked closely with Quixotic Systems engineer to establish a reasonable estimate.
FROM PLANNING TO USING:
Here's what happened next, in Mike's words:
"Two engineers from the solar company, with enthusiasm up the wazoo, came and spent about 3 hours on the roof. They brought small solar collectors with them to track the sun and shadowing. They took measurements and showed us pictures of components . They came back about 3 weeks later with a detailed proposal including information on rebates and tax credits. Each person in the building got a copy - then we held a meeting and, after much discussion, we got 100% approval from the building."
The decision was made: The building would begin a gradual transition to solar power in two steps: first, a conversion for hot water followed by a separate system for electricity.
LET THERE BE WATER
The engineers began the installation, coming several times per week. The system took two months to install, and went online in March 2009.
The system does not completely replace the existing hot water system (they are working towards that), but instead provides the existing system with pre-heated water, reducing significantly the workload of the older carbon-emitting system.
THE RESULT: IS IT EFFICIENT?
A comparison of hot water use before and after the solar installation shows a significant reduction in energy used after the solar installation, as measured in "thermal units".
Mike provided the following to me, from his monthly bills:
Thermals Used: BEFORE vs. AFTER SOLAR
March through August: Comparing 2008 and 2009
Before Solar (Therms used )
After solar (Therms Used)
March 08 1039
March 09 764
April 08 304
April 09 232
May 08 304
May 09 232
June 08 95.5
June 09 43.5
July 08 95.5
July 09 43.5
August 08 115
August 08 71.0
Supply of hot water was not changed, despite using less energy. "We still have had all the hot water we ever need, year "round." said Mike.
IS IT EXPENSIVE TO START?
"The original cost of the solar hot water system to install was $64,000." said Mike.
As prohibitive as this cost may be for most people, the final cost ended up significantly less due to many incentives currently available such as government tax credits and rebates (see below).
Few people may be aware of just how significant these incentives are: The solar installers helped the tenants find and secure over $30,000 in Federal and State credits for this project - taking about 50% off the initial cost - which brought the final cost down to about $29,000 - split between the 12 owners of the co-op.
NOTE: The savings on the second phase of the project, the solar electrical system, was even more dramatic: the initial cost for the electrical system, $42,000, was brought down OVER 90% to an almost unheard of $3,000 through rebates and a range of tax credits.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE IN MONTHLY BILLS?
"The savings on our hot water bill is about 56% so far" said Mike.
GOING ELECTRIC - and frustrations with local government.
The relative ease of the hot-water process, however, was contrasted by the difficult bureaucratic burdens encountered by the tenants during the electrical system's installation. The plan was modest - supplying electricity for the common areas of the building such as the hallway, outside lights, and the laundry room, and the funds were secured.
But the tenants ran into a bureaucratic wall which has delayed the installation. "It has taken more than 8 months for the city and state energy agencies to give final approval for the electrical system" said Mike, referring specifically to theNew York State Energy Research and Development Authority
(NYSERDA) as holding up the process.
"I think it's important that people know that it is not easy to get these things approved and if our government is actually serious about alternative energy they better get their heads out of their asses. This has been the only source of frustration."
Richard Klein, the owner of Quixotic Systems (the installation firm for the building), concurred.
"In fact it's very hard to get solar installation done anywhere in New York, despite what some of the politicians say" he said.
"The main obstacles are economic", Klein said, citing specifically high labor costs and costly regulatory thresholds. Taken together, "the costs for solar installation in NY may be higher than any other city in the U.S." he said.
"Despite these hurdles" Klein continued, "what the Frams and their neighbors did is pretty unique. I don't know of any other residence in Park Slope that has such a system. It's a bit of a prototype. Most residential solar installations are either electric or hot water. This building is installing both."
I asked Klein if the growing public awareness about global warming, including media coverage of the Copenhagen conference, was having an effect on his solar installation business - perhaps business was booming as increasingly concerned citizens turned to Solar to lessen their personal carbon-footprint and help fight climate change.
Klein admitted there is, of late, a small surge in demand. "Usually at this time of year business would be dead", citing the cold weather and bigger cloud cover. "But this year we're busy - right now we have 3 or 4 projects in process". He speculated that the use of Federal stimulus funds, dedicated to community oriented development including the promotion of renewable energy, was the major factor in this year's rise in business.
"But we'd like to see more. I wish we had more residential buildings willing to be more progressive in changing their energy consumption habits like the Frams did."
THE REAL BOTTOM LINE
As of this writing, all the residents of this 12-apartment co-op now meet significant portions of their domestic energy consumption through the miraculous human scientific capability now available - which allows for the capture, storage, and future consumer use of heat originally produced 93 million miles away on the Sun, with minimal carbon waste by-product. Beam me up, Cousin.
"We consider this a success both financially and ethically." he told me. "We are all enjoying that we are lessening our carbon footprint."
A TIME OF ENERGY TRANSITION: WHO WILL LEAD?
Mike's story from Brooklyn shows how New York - indeed the entire United States and the world - is in a period of energy transition. Even during the brief period of writing this article, New York City announced a series of new initiatives (cited below) designed to address some of the very obstacles to going solar as cited in this article.
Many New Yorkers hope the initiatives announced on November 29 by New York Mayor Bloomberg reflect a growing genuine desire by government officials to take bold steps - leadership - which will increase the ability of its well-meaning citizens, like my cousin Mike, to take part in the inevitable transition to clean energy.
I work with, and around, many "activist' types. As a journalist I choose to cover "humanitarian" stories including war and peace issues, human rights, and environmental issues. There is no shortage of people who proudly proclaim their activism on everything from tee-shirts to bumper stickers to a 140-word Twitter-gripe.
But my cousin Mike...a dedicated husband, father of two, and community minded citizen, is in fact an environmental activist leader.
To my mind, he is the type of leader whose priorities and commitment to change stands in sharp contrast to the lofty rhetoric and displays of international horse-before-the cart medals of heroism currently masquerading as global leadership in Copenhagen.
Awesome work, Cuz.
NOTES: 1) A comprehensive data base of available tax credits, rebates, and other financial incentives available for the installation of renewable energy (including solar) is available from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) at:
2) Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced in November a series of new initiatives designed to ease the bureaucratic hurdles (as mentioned in this article), and to lower the costs of renewable energy installations in New York City. This includes 1) the creation of a "solar zone" within city boundaries and 2) a new solar thermal grant program. For details see:www.nycedc.com/solarthermal. (Editor's Note: You must cut and paste this URL in a new tab or window for it to work)
Don Lieber has written for the United Nations, The Associated Press, The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Mothering Magazine, and others publications. donlieber.blogspot.com
FUN FACTS ABOUT SOLAR ENERGY
1. In approximately 1 hour (depending upon the season) the sunlight that strikes the earth provides enough energy to power the entire globe for a year.
2. A recently released Global Solar Report Card gives Germany the highest mark (A-) of any nation for solar-friendly policies. The U.S. received a C+. (Note: California, judged separately, received a B-, the second highest grade of all.) Canada, the U.K. and China received "D"s. http://www.globalgreen.org
3. Drink solar beer! Sierra Nevada Breweries of California, and Lucky Lab Breweries of Portland Oregon are two breweries whose "solar' beer I have personally tasted. Indeed, they are reporting reductions in their energy bills as a result. This author interviewed several pints of Lucky Lab"s "Solar Flare Ale" for this article.
4. A farmer in rural China used 66 empty beer bottles too create a solar water heating system for his grandmother. (Below).
"I invented this for my mother. I wanted her to shower comfortably," says Ma Yanjun, of Qiqiao village, Shaanxi province. (source:http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_2360667.html)
5. A research team in Toronto has announced the creation of solar-nanotechnology. You may soon be able to spray a gas onto your necktie which will power your iPod.
6. www.planetwize.com has recently released a smoking compilation (pun intended) of music which will help promote solar power in the poorest nations on Earth.