Tag: energy

 I Speak For The Trees

[continued from Part 1]

After meeting with the contractor that Ameren dispatched to walk my property line and mark trees, he invited me to walk the line with him. I was glad I did. Not only did this give me an opportunity to recalibrate his understanding of easements, but it gave him a chance to come clean and admit that he had already marked a half dozen of my trees with orange spray paint — designating them for removal! These trees were nowhere near the easement, but he said that they look for trees that will become a problem in the next few years and remove them as a preventative measure. He was very reasonable, and agreed to cover up the paint so that Nelson Tree Service would not touch them. (If it were only that easy!)

In my second letter to Ray Wiesehan, I recounted all of this and included photographs of the trees that had been painted. I concluded by telling him:

I very much appreciate your time and attention in coordinating with me prior to the trimming activity. However, it will have all been a waste of time if this information is not communicated to the Nelson Tree Service crew who actually performs the work. I have erected four Private Property signs along my property line to aid the crew in determining where they are allowed to cut. I have done everything I can reasonably do to protect my property. Now it is my expectation that you will do the same.

It quickly became apparent that all of my work had been for naught. Despite my due diligence, there had been no coordination whatsoever on Ameren’s part. The showdown I had hoped to avoid occurred May 5, when Nelson Tree Service showed up with their Super-Axe-Hackers, ready to fell my beloved Truffula Trees. I explained the situation to their supervisor, Randy Jennings, and he was also a very reasonable gentleman, but his complete lack of concern for where his crew was cutting left me quite dismayed. I asked him if anyone had talked to him with regard to my property, or if he even had a map of the property lines. The answer, of course, was no, and obviously, without a map, easements have no meaning.

The irony is that Ameren’s own web site says, “Ameren may have to remove trees that we deem a high risk to electrical service … A contractor from Ameren will notify the homeowner regarding the need for removal.” This is nonsense. It is painfully clear that even if a homeowner goes out of her way to demand this kind of interaction, it probably won’t happen. No, the only way to protect your trees from Ameren’s hired vandals is to camp out in your yard and be ready to speak on their behalf.

 I Am The Lorax

I am not a fan of Ameren. Ever since I spent seven days without electricity in the throes of a St. Louis summer, there is very little that company can do to find favor with me. I’m sure I’m not alone. That incident in July 2006, where a half million residents lost power for days following some severe storms, actually gave Ameren enough of a black eye that they started to at least pretend that they cared about their customers. In response to the public outcry, Ameren launched an initiative to make their service more reliable. What they actually launched was a War on Trees.

I’ve always been a fan of trees. Spending your entire childhood right next to the woods surrounding a creek will do that to you. The value of a tree is difficult to quantify when you consider all of its benefits. Beyond the sheer beauty, there are the obvious environmental benefits, not to mention the financial benefits of a shade tree that makes your air conditioner more efficient. In our current house, I’ve discovered that the abatement of noise and visual nuisances is one of a tree’s most valuable functions. I’ve also discovered that unless you are willing to speak in defense of your trees, you are likely to lose them to people who do not care.

So let’s ignore for the moment that Ameren is a monopoly that acts as an agent of the government (which by itself is plenty of reason to despise them), and focus on just the impenetrable bureaucracy of a public utility. In March I received a notice in the mail from Ameren that they were once again beginning their quadrennial assault on our arboreal assets. In response, I fired off a letter to Ray Weisehan, “Onceler” of Vegetation Management, asking that he direct his chainsaw mercenaries (Nelson Tree Service) to carefully consult their maps before setting foot on my property so that they would know which trees were in the Ameren easement, and which trees to leave alone.

To my surprise, Ameren actually responded by dispatching a Jared Rielson from the Utilimap Corporation to walk my property line and mark the trees that should be targeted. One might expect that a contractor from a company called Utilimap would have consulted an actual map before performing his duties. One would be wrong. It also came as a surprise when I told him that Ameren’s easement extended a mere five feet on either side of their electrical lines, and not the ten feet that he had been led to believe. But the last surprise was on me when we finally walked the property together…

[continued in Part 2]

 Stop Draggin’ My Car Around

Last year I wrote about the state of the electric car market, so I wanted to revisit the topic and provide an update. I’m still planning to buy an electric car one day, so this is something I have been following pretty closely for years now. I previously wrote about how GM started advertising its electric hybrids in 1969, and given that a New York City taxi driver was jailed for speeding in his electric car in 1899, I think it’s important to note that electric cars are not a new technology by any means. Cars that run on batteries are as old as cars themselves. So, as I lamented last year, what is taking so long?

Well, the good news is if you live in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas or Washington, you can buy an all-electric Nissan Leaf today. Likewise, Chevy’s plug-in hybrid, the Volt, is available now (in somewhat limited numbers).

The bad news? Standby for sticker shock. These cars start in the mid-30s, with some variants topping $50K. And let’s not even talk about the Tesla Roadster‘s price tag of $100K each. I suppose if enough buy them, the prices on these unique vehicles will eventually come down. But I’m tired of waiting. Come on people, go out there and buy some electric cars, so I can afford one!

 Electric Cars Still Coming

A year ago I wrote about the electric car from Zenn Motors that was on the verge of becoming a reality. A year later, it doesn’t appear to be any closer to real, unfortunately. I’m pretty bummed about that, but I can’t say I’m surprised. The promise of an electric car has been made and broken my entire life. Please click the picture to see an ad from Hot Rod Magazine for an electric hybrid car that GM was promising. Also, please note the ad appeared in 1969!

So yeah, electric cars are coming. Just like the flying car, the personal jet-pack, and video phones. Those technologies have been on the horizon my entire life as well, and we are no closer to them today than we were during the Johnson administration. It’s not that I’ve given up hope completely. Nissan is now taking reservations for the Leaf, the Chevy Volt is right around the corner, and of course if you have the dough, you can always drop $100K on a Tesla. So the cars are around, but you still have to ask yourself the question, why has it taken so long?

 An Inconvenient Purpose

A few years ago some folks started asking the question, What Would Jesus Drive? I’m not sure how seriously the question was supposed to be taken, as it was part of a campaign to demonize SUVs and the gas-guzzling ways of the people who drive them, but author Richard Gasaway has recently offered his answer to this question, and I don’t think it matters what kind of car it is, as long as it is powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

His book, An Inconvenient Purpose, approaches the environmental movement from the unique perspective of Christians seeking to act as stewards of God’s creation. He calls for the perceived conflict on this issue between left and right to be ignored in favor of doing what is right for the planet and what is right in God’s eyes, regardless of one’s political affiliation. I think this is an important point, and one that does not receive much attention. The debate is always framed in the media as left versus right, and those on the right, who have not taken the time to educate themselves, assume (wrongly) that because Al Gore advocates it, it must be wrong.

The author does a great job in this book of appealing to this demographic, and laying out a case for stewardship that transcends politics. He covers all aspects of the movement, from pursuing alternative energy sources, to lessening our dependence on foreign energy for national security reasons, to the environmental impact of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. But he keeps coming back to hydrogen as the clean solution to our dirty addiction to oil — and that cleanliness is next to godliness.

My readers know that I frequently cover alternative energies, and that I’m a fan of electric cars. So, I may not share the author’s conviction that hydrogen fuel cells are the absolute best solution, but I found this point from the book to be very good:

People talk of the inefficiency in creating hydrogen, and all the energy that must be expended to generate hydrogen molecules. However, people don’t think twice about the inefficiency of creating electricity from start to finish. The electricity arriving at the normal house outlet often contains only a third of the energy content that orginated in the coal from which it started. Factor in the incandescent bulb inefficiencies of a typical house lamp plugged into that outlet and you’re at about five percent.

That is something to consider when criticizing an alternative energy — remove the beam from thine own eye before casting out the mote from thy brother’s eye. An Inconvenient Purpose carves out a well-defined niche for Christians in the environmental movement, and acknowledges their obligation to participate, it tackles the complicated issues involved in very accessible layman’s terms, all while offering an optimistic view of the future and the path we should all be following.

 Green vs Green

If you want to “go green” for environmental reasons, that’s great. If you want to do it for financial reasons, that’s great too, but what I’ve discovered is that it might be difficult to quantify exactly how much you are saving.

I’ve been waiting since last year to calculate the savings from our solar water heater. I put together a spreadsheet comparing electricity and natural gas usage over the 12-month period before the installation, and the the 12-month period after. What I can say is that our monthly electricity usage increased an average of 20% over that time, but our natural gas usage decreased by 31% — almost a third!

Those numbers are encouraging, however, it is difficult to put actual dollar amounts on them, and determine the cost savings overall. Since utility rates fluctuate in general, and have changed dramatically in the last two years in particular, it is hard to say whether a change in our monthly bill (either up or down) is a result of the system’s performance, or just arbitrary rate changes. The calculations are further complicated by the fact that we’ve chosen to lower our thermostat slightly from last summer so our air conditioner has been running more this year than last. So the “green vs green” challenge remains unsettled, but I will continue to monitor it and report whatever I find.

 The Electric Car Cometh, Maybe

I’ve written about electric cars before, but for a while now I’ve been following what I consider to be the most promising entry into this market. The current offering from Zenn Motors is little more than a glorified golf cart. Classified as a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV), with limited range, and a top speed of 30mph, it is intended to fill a fairly small niche market.

However, their new car, dubbed the City, has the potential to be a game changer. The reasons, as I see it, are the price point (in the mid 20Ks) and the powertrain, which relies on some groundbreaking technology from a company called EEStor. The company’s name rarely appears without the obligatory adjective ‘secretive’ and they don’t even appear to have a web site. But I guess when you claim to be developing a new ultracapacitor that will revolutionize energy storage on the planet, rendering batteries virtually obsolete, there is some incentive to play your cards close to your vest. Either because you have trade secrets you want to protect, or because it’s an elaborate hoax.

I don’t want to believe it’s a hoax, and neither do Zenn Motors, since they have purchased a significant stake in the company and the future of their own company is riding on this. I want to believe they can do everything they say they are going to do. And I, for one, will be among the first in line to buy one of these new cars, if they ever come to market. How can you resist a car with a top speed of 80mph and a 250 mile range that recharges in under 10 minutes, and never needs gas? All for about the same price as a conventional gas-guzzler? I want one. Will it ever be a reality? Only time will tell…

 Free Energy

Last summer when I wrote about our solar water heater installation, I was anxious to see how it would function during the winter. As an example, right now it is 10am, and 29 degrees outside, and the temperature sensor on the panels currently says 111 degrees. Overall, I have been surprised at the number of days that the system has come on, and it consistently pumps out water in excess of 100 degrees when it does run.

 Solatube Solar Attic Vents

Back in July, I wrote about having a solar water heater installed. About the same time, I also had solar-powered attic vents installed by an outfit called The Energy Savings Store, and I wanted to document my experience with them for the benefit of anyone else that might be considering their services.

Overall, I was not pleased. I arranged an initial site survey with them via email. Some critical information was left out of our exchange as I was not informed ahead of time that the survey by itself would cost me $350. Now, that money would have been applied to the cost of a photovoltaic (PV) system, had I chosen to purchase one, but since I decided not to, I essentially paid $350 for them to inspect my house and tell me things I already knew. Like I had air leaks around my exterior doors, and I could use some insulation in my basement and attic. Some people might find this information worth the money, but for me, it just felt like I had been scammed. Subsequently, I made the decision to install some kind of vent fans in my attic, and I thought I might be able to apply that $350 to the cost of the install and at least get something for my money. I should have asked about that in advance, however, because as it turns out, attic fans are not eligible for that discount.

I elected to have two Solatube fans installed to replace my two existing ridge-mounted vents. A local handyman was hired to do the actual install, and he mistakenly removed the vent above our hallway bathroom. This was a stupid mistake and with a little more attention to detail it could have been avoided. But to make things worse, he did a terrible job of resealing around the vent when he put it back, so a week later when the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through the midwest, it was raining in our bathroom, causing moderate damage to our bathroom ceiling. At roughly the same time, I noticed one of the two fans they installed was no longer working.

To their credit, they responded quickly to my report of the leak and fixed it the next day, and a replacement for the faulty fan was ordered and installed within a couple of weeks. But these issues did little to improve my initial feeling about the company, and my overall first impression of them is not good. The entire episode cost me well over a thousand dollars and my bathroom ceiling still isn’t fixed. I would not recommend anyone use The Energy Savings Store.

 Some Like It Hot

As I mentioned last month, we planned to install a solar water heater in our home this year. That plan has come to fruition. Installation was finalized last week, and we are now enjoying the warmth of the sun every time we take a bath or a shower. The work was performed by Missouri Solar Living (MSL), and overall I am pleased with the job they did installing our system. With the exception of one major issue we had with a local plumber that they subcontracted with (Finch Plumbing of Chesterfield, Missouri — I would not recommend them for anything), everything went off without a hitch.

If you are thinking about installing a solar water heater, here are a couple of considerations. First, be prepared to have a crew of 2-3 workmen walking through your house for an entire weekend or more. They will need access to your basement, attic, and possibly the walls in between. Second, the system will likely take up more space in your basement than your existing water heater. MSL’s system, for example, includes an 80-gallon electric water heater that is much bigger than our previous gas water heater. In addition, the system uses a 10-gallon drain-back tank that normally can be set on top of the water heater, but depending on the ceiling height in your basement, it may need to be placed somewhere else adjacent to it. This was the case with our installation, but MSL constructed a shelf for it to sit on so we didn’t lose any floor space. Another consideration is the PEX (polyethylene) tubing that is typically used for these installations. While it is a flexible tubing, it cannot be made to turn tight corners, so allow for extra plumbing space in the vicinity of the water heater.

Lastly, don’t forget about the IRS’s tax credit for alternative energy systems — to qualify, they have to be installed by December 31, 2008. I am anxious to see how much this will cut our monthly energy bills, and how efficient it will be in the winter. Stay tuned to this space for updates.

[Update: August 2, 2008 — I perhaps spoke too soon when I said that things went off without a hitch. As it turned out, there were a couple of issues. There was a small roof leak that they had to come back out to repair. Also, when the county inspector checked their work, the connections to the water heater had to be completely redone (in copper) and an expansion tank added (which is a recent addition to the code). They once again subcontracted this work with Finch plumbing, and they did a decent job on the rework (although my basement carpet is covered with solder slag which they didn’t bother cleaning up). I am confident that this has been a learning experience for all parties involved, so these mistakes will not likely be repeated.]

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