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Zero Waste Zen Reveals Tragicomedy of Home Energy Audits 11.26.13
Despite NBN’s best effort to recycle everything we discard, the co-mingle can we leave at the curbside every other week disallows as many items as it allows. So, about a year ago NBN posted on this website plans to start a zero-waste recycling center in the basement of our New England offices. We got no further than a few dozen plastic shopping bags and a stack of bacon grease-soaked newspapers that were rolled tight for use in the fireplace this winter. The HR department at NBN got wind of the operation—quite literally—and the zero-waste facility was shut down. The smelly logs went into the trash and the bags into the co-mingle can left at the curbside every other week, even though we’re pretty sure they don’t get recycled. Hey, it all disappears when we chuck it into the green comingle can, so our conscience is clean.
But then, while taking half-full paint cans and a 10-year collection of old car fluids to the municipally sponsored one-day-a-year chemical waste recycling day, NBN made a life-changing discovery: Our city runs a Zero Waste facility. As we approached the entrance, NBN felt like a Somali refugee walking into a Whole Foods. Refuse of every conceivable chemical composition is stacked so neatly you expect to see price tags. At the bottom of a box the size of an ottoman a collection of computer mice mingled in collective comfort after a life of solitary service. Next to that a smaller box layered with discarded laserdiscs provided a more dignified demise to what where once treasured songs, favorite movies or maybe even a top secret or two.
At the entrance of the Zero-Waste facility an assortment of plastic bags of every conceivable closure configuration were obsessively arranged in testament to a half century of advancement in the food packaging industry. Elsewhere sat refrigerators, air conditioners, Styrofoam, every known computer device, TVs. All of the nasty stuff that man creates without thinking about how it will be un-created. Each had their own little barracks awaiting final orders from a small army of volunteers making damn sure those orders were environmentally friendly.
It was in the grasp of a Zero-Waste Zen that NBN approached a table piled high with brochures presided over by a middle-aged woman in down vest and blue jeans, the zipper for which was quite visibly at half-mast. She was signing people up for free home energy audits and on-the-spot rooftop solar panel potential assessments. NBN doesn’t want to dwell on the poor women’s wardrobe malfunction, particularly as the chances of finding any given member of our editorial staff in similar straits is about 50-50. But it did make it very difficult to take seriously the very serious business at hand. This wasn’t just another card table piled with brochures next to a sandwich-board sign getting knocked down by the wind every few minutes. This was the front line in the war against wasteful energy use. Ground-zero in the battle against global warming. The Normandy beachhead against the fossil fuel axis of evil. This woman was securing commitments worth thousands of dollars to local green industry contractors. Those commitments were being signed by green-minded residents pre-disposed to follow through, like the editorial staff at NBN. We stepped to the card-table completely unaware we were about to get a first-hand look into why those contractors, despite a doubling of gas prices in the past eight years, still struggle in what is still a cottage industry in this country.
The insight started with the 10 minutes it took the woman to input NBN’s address into her tablet for the solar energy assessment. Then another 15 minutes went to getting an appointment for the home energy audit. On Saturday mornings 25-minute time slots have become pretty precious to NBN. As she was trying to call up the address of the New England offices of NBN on Google Earth, the editorial staff was left searching the landscape for anything else to fix our eyes on other than the tablet inches away this poor woman’s fly. The whole scene had a comedic, tragic air to it. Worse, no sooner did we get home, than the phone started ringing with calls from the minions of the renewable energy contractor we’d obliged ourselves to looking for the information that didn’t make it past the tablet clutching woman at the card table. NBN felt a little like we’d just handed over our passport at a Yemeni border crossing. We were at the mercy of a lot of strangers who knew a lot about us, but exactly what we weren’t sure.
So we braced ourselves and returned a call from the home energy efficiency experts at Next Step Living. Two days later a cherubic-faced fellow is in the employee lounge at the offices of NBN detailing how we’re about to receive $2,000 worth of home improvements for $200. Yes, $200. Anybody in their right mind would run from this guy like he was a local newspaper reporter investigating…well any local newspaper reporter investigating anything. And it was with trepidation that Sean, Mario, and Neal were invited into, and given the complete run, of the offices a few weeks later. We crossed our fingers and said a little prayer as they took an electric saw to the outside walls of our attic to install a vent. We pretended not to notice all the items being pulled from our basement shelves to access and insulate the box beams sitting on the office foundation. We had to set up a window fan to blow outside some of the hopefully non-toxic insulation being blown inside our attic.
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As it turned out, the women at the Zero-Waste facility ended up signing NBN up for the deal of a lifetime. As fall is just now turning to winter, the offices feel warmer even as the thermostat is set at a brisk 60-degrees. We would never have gotten this great deal if it weren’t for the determined types that staff ridiculous looking card tables at Zero-Waste facilities no-body knows about. That’s what you call a serious, sad bottleneck folks. While BP and Ford bombard us with ads that are starting to trigger migraines, what could and should be a very lucrative industry in this county struggles in anonymity and absurdity.
These improvements should be made in every house in the country, instead it’s only a few really patient people benefiting from the really determined efforts of even fewer. But, then again, why bother with all the fuss and muss when you can just run up the thermostat. Or toss your paint cans in the co-mingle can at the curb. Nobody will notice.
_The Complete Idiots Guide to the Smart Grid 11.22.11
_Here’s a problem that the rest of the world—and certainly NBN—might envy: too much energy. This piece in the New York Times talks about Northwest Utilities’ problems storing all the excess energy created by the many wind turbines being put-up in the Pacific Northwest. Welcome to ground zero of the Smart Grid: Taking electricity from different sources, in different amounts at different times and channeling it to meet every customer's needs all the time. Under present conditions in this country that sounds like an impossible task that's foolish to pursue. But think about Northwest Utility's problem in the story above. Then go out for a drive and count the number of roofs you see hosting solar panels. Depending on where you live, that number is going to check in at about 1 in 20, or so. We completely fabricated that figure, but the chart above and a quick Google Earth spin around the country seems to bear us out. Now imagine every roof in the country has solar panels fixed to it. Could we see the problem of too much power popping up all over the country?
_For that we have to juggle a few numbers and given the number of variables involved, not the least of which is available sunlight, this may also seem futile. Let's do it anyway. According to this chart and a crude estimate of 170-200 watts per panel with direct sunlight, an American home in full family maintenance mode—water heater, air conditioner/heater, computer, oven, TV and a half dozen lightbulbs aglow—needs at least 30 panels in full sunlight to keep things going. That's 600 sq. ft. of solar panels. Those kinds of numbers suggest green energies could never replace fossil fuels.
East Hampton NY: Home Occupation Rate= 50 days/yr
_ But what about the house that just needs a refrigerator and TV or computer? And what about communities where second homes dominate, or with vacant office buildings? Plaster those with solar panels, and maybe a small wind turbine or two, and make that unused power available to the neighbor or housing development down the street. when you look at it that way, the scales start to tip back toward the promise of alternative energy, particularly solar. That’s the challenge of the Smart Grid: Collecting small amounts of electricity produced everywhere and getting it to where it’s needed, when it’s needed. That’s no small task and with zero profit potential to drive this mammoth infrastructure challenge, one has to wonder the wisdom of pursuing it. Why not just mine all the fossil fuels we can and expect, with some justification, that technologies yet-to-be-developed will find a solution. .
The Smart Grid: Power from everywhere going everywhere.
_ Let’s get back to the 19 homes that don’t have solar panels. If every single home has solar panels, and a little turbine fixed to it, we start to see an awful lot power generation potential in the highly developed areas where it’s most needed. Still, we're far from where these sources will produce too much electricity as is the problem with the wind turbines in the Northwest. If a building produces more solar power than it needs, can't that just be dumped into the existing rid without worrying how smart that grid is? Yes that would mean one building's electricity could go to power another, but it gets the county off fossil fuels. Once again we run into the same the problem: Do we invest in a future that most folks making that investment won’t live to enjoy? This is where global warming may well be the western world’s greatest accomplishment. It may well be that global warming forces our hand here.
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