Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Solar Thermal Isn’t Dead. It was Never Alive! The Sustainable Home Puzzle.

What will the sustainable home of the future look like? Will the solar space (the rooftops) be populated with evacuated tubes, PV, boxed and glazed, pool collectors, wind turbines, air conditioners or what exactly? Over recent years thanks to enormous efforts on the part of governments to further solar electricity (photovoltaics or PV) the cost is down and technology has advanced, so much so that we’re competing with PV for roof space almost every time we try to solar heat a pool in California! Consider these facts and try to connect the dots… Swimming pools represent a large thermal storage and pool owners don’t mind pool temperature fluctuation. Heat pumps can cool a home and dump that heat into a pool. Heat pumps can heat a home in winter and need a large thermal storage to draw energy from. Ground source heat pumps use energy stored in the ground but excavation and access is expensive and the ground isn’t all that warm. The warmer the heat pump’s source the higher the COP (the ratio of energy delivered to electricity used) Unglazed solar panels and storage tanks as the source for heat pumps have been tried and proven to be the lowest cost energy system at 5 municipal Aquatic Centers in Canada. If we can cool a PV panel we can improve its performance by as much as 20%. Solar thermal systems employing evacuated tubes require the use of glycols which cannot handle the high temperatures seen during overtemperature conditions. If a system is properly designed to handle the worst case mid summer heat wave no load condition it becomes ridiculously expensive and burdened with heat mitigation strategies that are difficult to failsafe. As a result most evacuated tube systems in North America are simply not functioning after 5 years. The jury is in and generally it’s a conclusive thumbs down to conventional high temperature solar thermal. Where do all these observations of reality lead us? First it’s important to understand that an unglazed solar panel like our Hot Sun Solar Collector is more efficient than an evacuated tube. At low temperatures where our technology is always applied, we can be over 100% efficient at collecting solar energy because our lack of insulation means we can be gaining heat from the air as well as the solar radiation. An evacuated tube on the other hand is only about 56% efficient due to the spaces between the tubes and the tubes themselves. Yes an evacuated tube retains that efficiency to high temperature differences but when heating cold water, much lower cost pool collectors are more efficient and when heating hot water we are always heating cold water up to hot. We don’t have to heat hot water. Its already hot. Taking all of these realities together combined with the fact that we want our sustainable home to be comfortable and we don’t want to live with compromise in comfort or convenience it becomes obvious that we need to use a swimming pool as the central thermal storage and heat dump. The pool is the source for the heat pump that cools and heats the house and hot water. Unglazed solar panels heat the pool keeping it from freezing. PV panels on the roof supply our electricity to charge our electric cars and provide our lighting and cooking. The pool heating collector space and the PV space must be combined because PV panels need cooling anyway. If you considered an evacuated tube or boxed and glazed collector solar hot water heater it would be applied to a smaller load because we’d already be heating up to pool temperature with heat exchange off the pool and directly off our pool solar. What’s left is such a small amount of energy why not just use the heat pump system? The electricity for it is coming from the PV system. Pool heating solar collectors from cold to warm and heat pump from warm to hot instead of high temperature solar collectors over the whole range. The economics of solar thermal all on its own just don’t fly. Already we have stopped seeing solar DHW pre-heaters installed along with PV on solar homes. The cost benefit wasn’t there and the existing systems weren’t even worth fixing. Solar thermal was never alive. If it was it was killed by outrageously optimistic numbers like 5 year payback when the truth was 80. In the solar business 15 year payback is really 45. 15 years is a 4 page calculation. 45 years is a simple ratio of annual energy saved vs system cost. That’s PV in BC but in California electricity is as much as 5 times more expensive at peak in summer and there’s twice as much sun and the government pays for at least half and as a result Elon Musk wants to lease the space on your roof from you in exchange for selling you that electricity cheaper than the power company. PV is here to stay. There are no moving parts. It lasts and it produces regardless of how much or when you use it. Excess is sold back to the grid to be used by others. The jury is in and the conclusion is unanimous. Humans love their PV systems. In a future world where we tackle climate change we won’t be burning fossil fuels locally. Centralized plants tied to the grid can be made cleaner through carbon scrubbing and sequestering and economies of scale in efficiency improvements. Low cost natural gas is a barrier toward moving closer to this Utopian vision. When we can burn fossil fuel at our homes for less than we can deliver energy from electricity via a heat pump that low cost fossil fuel is blocking progress. Policies that limit electricity production to clean sources also block progress. We need to move to an exclusive electricity based power distribution system. We need to take advantage of PV and PV cooling in turn heating our swimming pool which in turn heats and cools our homes. Applying this thinking in Northern climates and getting closer to zero energy means insulating the tops of our swimming pools and sealing that energy in. We need larger solar systems and we’re going to run short but luckily northern climates correspond to available hydroelectric generation capability and there seems to be ample natural gas available at low cost. The natural gas that is a so called bridge to an alternate energy future is the natural gas burned at a centralized electricity generating station. Canada has mothballed gas fired electricity plants that need to be added back into the mix as needed. A greater focus on energy efficiency is required and all things taken together mean it can be possible to reach zero energy living all over North America. Policy makers need to realize that burning fossil fuels at home is a roadblock to progress and policies must be crafted that don’t incentivize it. Policy makers in the sunbelt need to understand that their grand incentives for PV focus attention on one element of what should be a broader vision. People with swimming pools are not the rich and entitled. Swimming pools are just the storage tanks for the solar thermal component of their futuristic zero energy homes and finally solar thermal with unglazed collectors is not the poor cousin of the solar thermal industry to be dismissed as ineffective as it has been by the Canadian Solar Industries Association. It is the future of the solar thermal industry.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Commercial and Municipal Solar Opportunities

Selling solar hot water or large scale pool heating into municipal facilities has always been a very difficult task. City people have to protect the interests of their taxpayers at all times. They are under tremendous scrutiny and every snake oil salesman out there is trying to dig his claws into municipal coffers. Cities tend to hire engineering companies in order to distance themselves from the sensitive decision making. They also tender projects to several bidders in efforts to ensure fairness but its not like 3 people could bid on a solar hot water heater for a municipal Aquatic Center. Someone would have to specify the whole system up front and that engineering company would need valid experience in order to do that. What has happened is systems have been done under grant programs with the intent to demonstrate solar energy and these demonstrations have become the accepted norms. In this gold rush of free money we've seen what has happened in some jurisdictions which is the application of what we like to call "the tried and proven untrue technologies of yesteryear". Let's look at hot water first. Domestic solar hot water heating systems use evacuated tubes or boxed and glazed collectors. These small scale systems don't have good economics because they are small scale. The cost of tanks and controls and plumbing and roofing is high compared to the area of collector exposed to the sun and the collector choice is naturally an expensive one because if you're going to all this trouble you'll want something that delivers maximum bang, not maximum bang for the collector buck. When we start looking at larger scale systems like preheating showers for Aquatic Centers we start to see much lower fixed costs per collector area. Solar gets a lot more viable a lot quicker. What happened of course is that engineers specified the old school boxed and glazed or evacuated tube collectors. They didn't even consider unglazed collectors like Powerstrip. When we look at these performance curves we see that unglazed collectors are affected by wind and as we move right on the x axis (water getting warmer relative to air temperature) we see why engineers like the evacuated tubes and boxed and glazed collectors. They retain their efficiency into marginal weather conditions and into the higher end of the heating range. What engineers failed to recognize or perhaps never thought to even look at was the fact that most hot water heating is done at the low end of the temperature range when Powerstrips are even more efficient per area than the other types and on top of better efficiency they are far less expensive. Finally an engineer recognized this in Canada post rebate era. Yes the conservative government abandoned the Eco Energy program for Renewable Heat in 2010 and as a result Associated Engineering was tasked not with spending the City of Richmond's money as fast as possible in the safest way possible. Instead Charlie Smeenk PEng was tasked with spending the city's money with the best return on investment in mind. The money had to be spent with the taxpayer's best interests in mind. Charlie and I met early in the process and he was the one who pushed me toward the idea that we needed to plaster low cost unglazed collectors all over the Aquatic Center roof and move the cold water through them on their way to the boilers. The system has been installed for a year now and we've monitored it with our web based monitoring . The monitoring is not internet connected so the data is not always up to date and we've lost some data but we've still proven that we've displaced more energy here with this system than we would have with more expensive technology. We've also proven that cost effective solar hot water is possible. Its possible to deliver solar at $100/GJ That's $100 in capital cost up front in exchange for 1 GJ of annual energy production. If energy costs $10/GJ after boiler efficiency is included (which is close even with today's low natural gas prices) then its a simple ten year payback period. Others will brag that they are doing better than 10 years. They are incorrect. There's no way to do better than this kind of economics against cheap natural gas .......or is there. In the last few months the cities of Sechelt, Esquimalt, and Kimberley have installed our solar panels at their municipal facilities. Coral Engineering is the engineering company behind these projects and Scott Graham of Renew Energy is the solar dealer. They have gone one step further with all this. They are using the Powerstrips to heat a tank of water and that tank of water is the source for a heat pump. Heat pumps utilize low grade heat. Ground source heat pumps for example might take ground heat at 10C and use it so the ground cools down to 5 degrees. That 10C to 5C drop in ground temperature is converted through the heat pump to heating water at 60C or air at 20C or a pool at 29C. Heat pumps take low temperature energy and pump it up to a higher temperature for use. Solar needs to operate at low temperature in order to be able to take advantage of unglazed collector cost efficiency. Heat pumps are the means by which we can utilize that low grade heat. We've known this in the solar industry for decades but we've been distracted by grants for the tried and true conventional approaches. Yes natural gas is cheaper than electricity and we can just burn fuel at will in many places and that is a problem but as we move to a sustainable energy future we'll need to use more electricity and less natural gas for reasons I won't delve into here. For now these particular cities have relatively high natural gas costs allowing them to take advantage of the improvements and demonstrations we can make to their electricity based infrastructure. In the future we will see district heating systems and ground source heat pumps working with unglazed solar integrated into roof tops, under driveways, under roadways, collecting heat wherever we can and releasing heat at night as needed. Heat pumps on their own are often not very effective. Ramp up their source temperatures with solar panels and the numbers start to look much better. Our web based controls and monitoring systems are perfectly suited to help quantify and control systems like these on large and small scale. This is the future of solar heat. This is viable solar thermal application. As usual its a very difficult road given the bias and status quo that is in place and more significantly just the fact that the alternative energy of 2013 is being sold to us as natural gas. Cheap natural gas is not a stepping stone on the road to an alternative energy future. It is a stumbling block but we're starting to see some progress. Just barely.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Carbon Capture and Storage Viability?

I had an argument with my friend over the viability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) at a dinner party Saturday night. To avoid public humiliation we'll give my friend the fake name Thor because nobody could really have that name. Thor has a phD in Chemistry. He's sensible and intelligent but he took the position that CCS is a farce and I immediately took the position that its only a few dollars a GJ and the only reason we aren't seeing it is cost. Thor is right and I am wrong but Thor is still wrong and I am still right because if I wasn't I'd have lost the argument. The biggest hurdle we all face in this battle and many others is the fact that reality is complex. So complicated is the world that we need to defer to scientists and engineers who make studying these things their life's work. Thor dismissed Carbon Capture and Storage as a farce based on what a rich guy he knows said. And I was too quick to take offense to that and react with my claim that the only reason we aren't capturing carbon is cost. Truth is I don't know much about CCS. Turns out after only 15 minutes of research on my part Sunday morning that there's a little truth to what Thor was saying and there's a lot of truth to what I was saying. Or maybe its the other way around? Its not straightforward. There are no published viability numbers and that means the numbers aren't pretty. I was quite wrong to think it was just a matter of a couple of dollars per GJ stopping us from localized CCS and an electric car future full of easy transportation solutions. Thor was also wrong that CCS isn't part of the broad base of solutions that will be needed moving forward. Its real. It works sometimes in certain situations and the mitigation effects can be fantastic but not anywhere and everywhere. You need to be careful where you store the CO2 and how. The viability of the site itself is crucial to the success of projects case by case. Just do your own search on carbon capture viability, cost, economics, whatever and you'll soon see that this is a huge field. Oil companies are involved. The Weyburn oil fields in Saskatchewan are semi depleted so to extract more oil (enhanced oil recovery) Cenovus have started injecting CO2 and it has greatly enhanced oil production. They are actually piping CO2 from the US to this facility and buying the CO2. Storing it in exhausted oil fields is one of the safest and easiest methods it turns out and there is no cost in this one case because it enhances oil production. There are many other examples of major investments in CCS going on worldwide. The ocean storage option has to be done at low depths (pressure resistance to absorption) and there are lots of issues. In some schemes CO2 leakage and re-emission is a problem that is being studied and has been for 20 years. 1700 people were asphixiated in Cameroon in 1986 when naturally sequestered Co2 rose up from a lake after a volcanic event. Mechanical sequestering does cost energy. One case I just read about said sequestering reduced overall capacity of one coal plant 25%. That doesn't make the coal plant useless. That does raise the cost and reduce the capacity. That was my point in our little debate. There is a cost associated with carbon capture and few are going to pay that cost if we don't have to. The lack of a carbon cost or proper regulation greatly restricts adoption of all things clean tech. How can we compete against free?

Friday, March 23, 2012

CO2 from natural gas is not 50% compared to coal

RE:March 23 "Gas industry tackles issues on "fracking" Financial Post

Travis Davies of CAPP states that natural gas burns 50% cleaner than coal. What do we mean by cleaner? The reference is to carbon emissions. The article goes on to say ... AND natural gas emits less nitrous oxides and sulphurous oxides. Perhaps if the SO's and the NO's are included with the carbon and the shorter term pollutive effects are combined with the longer term CO2 effects them somehow we could say the overall effect of burning natural gas vs coal is 50% cleaner but this is all very misleading. There's more to it than just burning. Yes natural gas burns cleaner in terms of pollutants that exist in the atmosphere for less than 2 years but the reference and the bigger concern is the CO2. Natural gas is not 50% less carbon intense than coal even just in terms of burning it. The number is much higher and depends on the usage. Natural gas doesn't burn as hot so more energy from natural gas is needed to produce electricity compared to coal for example. When natural gas is converted to liquid natural gas and transported the carbon footprint jumps even further. The article talks about the lack of regulation in the natural gas extraction industry. Its the lack of enforced regulations that lead to sloppy practices where methane leaks from well heads especially between the fracking and extraction processes and some studies have indicated the possibility that when this effect is included in equivalent CO2 terms with transportation effects never mind LNG compression that in fact the case can be made that natural gas from fracking is no less carbon intense than coal. The loosely used fraction of 50% is very irresponsible. Its really a key number because if we truly could reduce carbon emissions by 50% using natural gas vs coal then we'd be very motivated to move forward in a mad rush to exploit this resource...sort of like we are in the western provinces with no pressure to enforce or improve regulations. If low cost natural gas is going to delay the movement toward a renewable energy future then let's at least stop pretending that the need for monitoring and enforceable regulations in this industry are not critical. You don't have to leak much methane from a wellhead before you negate all the equivalent CO2 benefits of natural gas vs coal or oil sands oil.

OIl and Gas subsidies do so exist!

March 23, 2012
Re: Oil and gas industry does not receive federal subsidies by Tom Huffaker of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

I checked the facts in this article and found that the Greenpeace sponsored report being dis-credited is in fact a report on the economic effect of subsidies not on the existence of subsidies. 63 subsidies in total in the form of tax breaks and reduced royalties are mostly intended to increase exploration and development . The Canadian federal gov't provided 1.38 billion and provinces shared the balance of the total of 2.84 billion last year. There is no disputing these facts in either competing report. The study Mr Huffaker quotes that supposedly debunks the Greenpeace sponsored report argues the effect of subsidies not the existence of the subsidies. The CAPP is consistently guilty of mis-stating the facts about the effects of our continued overusage of fossil fuels and why? There is no threat from renewables, not with natural gas prices at all time lows. If the fossil fuel industries truly want to be more transparent they first need to stop pretending that the issues don't exist. Its not their fault we're burning up the planet. Its a collective problem and we need to work together to right the ship for the next generations. Let's stop pretending oil and gas exploration isn't subsidized by government in an attempt to keep fossil fuel costs down so we can all enjoy the benefits of burning up the planet today in exchange for frying our children tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Natural gas presents BC with challenges, opportunities
Vancouver Sun March 6, 2012-03-06

The newspaper’s article points out that if the US uses coal to power its LNG compression activities it will defeat the exercise. What exercise? The movement away from fossil fuels to reduce our carbon footprint? This exercise is economic not environmental. There is in fact a carbon advantage to LNG extracted from shale fields with hydraulic fracking, compressed and exported as long as we pretend the carbon equivalent of the methane leakage at well heads is minimized. (Howarth et al Cornell University). There is no reason to believe anyone is too worried that a few billion tons of pure invisible odourless methane leaking from well heads is worth regulating or policing too closely as we try to compete with Qatar and now the US in the rush to satisfy China’s current need for LNG. Its human nature to sell ourselves on the idea that all this newfound LNG is an environmental savior compared to coal fired electricity. Let’s pretend natural gas is not a fossil fuel and extracting, compressing, transporting, and burning it are somehow transitioning ourselves to an alternate energy future. The alternate energy goals of the future that will allow our children to play outdoors are contingent upon our willingness to pay a price, make an investment, and the economics of natural gas should be seen for what they are, a stumbling block, on the road to the future we all agree we want. Cheap natural gas is taking away a big chunk of the investment in the future of renewable energy with very little if any benefit in terms of carbon.

The newspaper’s view is also that SITE C makes even more sense given the fact we need more clean hydro electricity to compress all this natural gas but in fact all the water from SITE C will be used up in the fracking process as we try to extract more and more natural gas from shale fields.

Ken Wright
604 298 7095

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Low Cost Natural Gas

The following piece was actually published in a newspaper. I'm learning to tone down the rhetoric.

FP Letters: ‘Low cost energy is Achilles’ heel of sustainability movement’

Special to Financial Post Feb 14, 2012 – 11:20 AM ET

Low electricity prices and extremely low natural gas prices in Canada mean that the majority of even the most viable clean tech solutions available to Canadians are not very attractive economically. In BC for example, a standard 6 square meter solar hot water heating appliance with 100 gallons of storage for a typical home costs 70 to 100 times more than the energy it is expected to deliver annually in natural gas dollars. There’s no better way to reduce hot water energy use in the home aside from reducing hot water use through conservation.

It’s not easy to find a sustainable appetite for many clean tech solutions like this. The low cost of energy is the Achilles’ heel of the sustainability movement.

The mistake has always been to try to do too much too soon. Converting Canada’s electricity grid to 100% renewable is a lofty goal that feels like a great idea but we have barely begun applying cost effective clean tech solutions appropriately. By starting the process aiming at 100% renewable electricity we automatically force ourselves into the most expensive solutions.

Instead we need to create a political climate where the financial incentive to pursue clean-tech initiatives exists starting with the most cost effective. Then we need to support development efforts along with demonstrating and quantifying competing technologies. As an example consider that only 2% of all public pools are solar heated yet this is one of the most proven and cost effective solar energy schemes available. In so many ways we have not yet begun. The major reason we have yet to begin is the low cost of fossil fuel and electricity in Canada. When we jump too quickly toward a bold far reaching solution we miss out on the low hanging fruit like solar swimming pool heating.

Ontario’s FIT for PV (photovoltaics) systems is a big success. Ontario Hydro pays $0.80/kwhr for electricity generated with PV. Electricity consumed normally costs $0.08/kwhr. This ten fold cost imbalance on the shoulders of ratepayers and taxpayers indirectly creates an economic climate where the energy from a PV system covers the mortgaged capital cost of the installation. It’s a wonderful program and a big success but compared to the cheap electricity its quite a costly endeavor.

Ontario slipped the program through the same way BC established a small carbon tax but these were challenging political tasks and now that we have an ongoing recession, there is even less appetite for this kind of energy policy elsewhere in the country.

In fact BC’s new energy policy relieves BC Hydro of the requirement to be self sufficient. Through simple regulation premier Christy Clark has assured British Columbians of lower cost electricity and ensured more jobs in the fracking and LNG industries. More natural gas to Asia does mean less coal burned globally but this works against Canada’s own goals toward energy sustainability. The focus politically is on jobs and the economy and a sustainable energy policy is taking its usual seat at the back of the bus.

The obvious first step is to level the playing field somewhat by addressing the fact that fossil fuels have the environment as a free dumping ground for their pollutants. A carbon tax would be very helpful of course and many have tried including Stephan Dion, leader of the federal liberal party, just before his political demise.

A far easier sell to the public would be the removal of subsidies for oil and gas exploration. This would create volatility in the energy marketplace. Energy price volatility is what the sustainability movement needs. Clean tech solutions are not volatile. They are an insurance policy against volatility. When a home is built sustainably it is sustainable for 100 years and conversely if it is built without sustainability in mind, its likely to stay that way for 100 years.

When we include some longer term thinking with some volatility we have a formula for a much quicker uptake of all things clean tech. Energy price volatility creates enormous long term financial incentive for a sustainable building approach. The reason Germany has a stronger clean tech industry is their electricity is ten times more expensive. Financial reality has provided the necessary motivation for energy consciousness and a culture of sustainability. A carbon tax bringing our electricity costs up to theirs would not go over well here. The risk that energy prices could go much higher could serve the same purpose.

We all want to act sustainably but with gasoline less expensive than bottled water, how can we blame anyone for drinking it up. Step one is to recognize the realities of the marketplace and come up with a realistic approach to energy policy that factors in the environment as well as our collective sustainability goals. We could all do our part by trying to get past the notion that the luxury of cheap energy is somehow a birthright of all Canadians. Then it would be OK for politicians to resist the oil and gas company lobbyists who fund politics in Canada in exchange for their subsidies. Without oil and gas exploration subsidies the resultant energy price volatility would do as much for the clean tech industry as energy prices that actually reflected their effects on the planet.

Ken Wright is President of Burnaby, BC-based Hot Sun Industries Ltd, a manufacturer of solar thermal technology

Posted in: Energy, Your Energy Tags: clean energy, Hot Sun Industries, Ken Wright