Microgrids, solar and achieving energy independence

Comedian George Wallace often starts a joke with the line, "I be thinking."

I use the reference for two reasons. First, I saw Wallace in Vegas recently (and I totally recommend his show) and second, because I'd been thinking about teaming solar with fuel cells to create power producers on a small scale via energy-independent homes, commercial buildings and industrial scale operations.

The conclusion? The merger is possible. But more importantly, the query introduced me to the concept of microgrids and the Galvin Electricity Initiative.

I'd posed the question of fuel cell-solar viability to Al Weinrub, who penned the report, "Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California." Weinrub, coordinator of the San Francisco Bay Area Local Clean Energy Alliance, said quite a few people have been thinking in the direction of microgrids, which he defined as "islands of self-sufficient energy producers that are independent of the grid or possibly networked into the grid."

Galvin Electricity Initiative

And he said the group includes folks who want to create net-zero communities not dependent on the grid. He introduced me to the Galvin Electricity Initiative, founded by former Motorola Chairman and CEO Robert Galvin. The initiative addresses a revamped utility system incorporating microelectrity production. Galvin's proposal is meant to be a catalyst for transforming America’s electric grid to "ways that are profoundly beneficial to consumers, the environment and the economy."

"In these models, fuel cells can play a role, but there is little reason to go to fossil-based fuel cells," Weinrub said. "That would only prolong the use of fossil fuels."

He compared it to combined heat and power technology, "where ultimately it makes sense only if the source of heat is renewable fuel."

I believe Weinrub's response is perfect and gives me perspective on fuel cells, which can be fueled with natural gas.

Oil still in system

I'm a little awash in oil with my Alaska background so petroleum taints my world view.

It was big news up north when the cat train went up to Prudhoe Bay for the first time in the winter of 1968, followed by a collective "Holy (moly), there's work and they're paying $24 an hour" from the hundreds of un- or underemployed in the Alaska Interior. I was 10 in '71 but eventually worked in the oil patch one summer in Bismark, N.D. building concrete weights for a 48-inch diameter pipeline.

So I'm somewhat impressed by North Dakota's current performance in petroleum exports. Steve Everly of the Kansas City Star writes, "Perhaps within a year the state is expected to supply more oil for domestic use than the 1.1 million barrels a day that Saudi Arabia now exports to the United States."

Likewise, I'm intrigued by the Canada tar sands pipeline.

Bill McKibben would yell at me. I know, I know. But my perspective is a little old-fashioned. We used wood heat for six years back in very rural Fairbanks in the early 1970s during mom's Last Whole Earth Catalog phase. Eighteen cords a season is a lot to cut and split, believe me. I was disgusted by coal on a personal level as sub-bituminous sends dust everywhere and creates a haze in your house. But rich people had propane tanks. And I still marvel at running water. Melting snow is a pain and rainwater gets mosquito infested quick -- although the Aussies have perfected those systems.

Moving beyond fossil fuel

I ramble, but I guess I'm using this navel gazing to understand the feelings of my generation. It's tough to move on from burning whatever we could get our hands on.

At some point, solar panels on newly constructed homes will be commonplace. But I agree with multiple studies that call for added government support for renewables as right now, a 19.5-year return on investment is hard to justify by homeowners like myself. Although my co-worker just plunked down about $30,000 for a solar system on his home.

Growth is unsustainable

I was fascinated by Asher Miller's video "Who killed economic growth?" In it Miller, executive director of the Post Carbon Institute, says we've been seduced by cheap energy and the concept that constant growth fueled by industrialization is the way it should be. His contention is there are limits we've been ignoring and that change is coming to a screen near you quite soon.

People like Weinrub, Miller and McKibben are the visionaries who will prod at least a percentage of us in the right direction, and hopefully we'll be able to guide movement toward something that enables us to see the Sierra on a non-rainy day. Running in Valley air is really pretty nasty.

Right now I'm doing my best to help. I'm working on guiding the 39 cities and counties to install energy saving projects. I administer stimulus energy efficiency grants, and it's been a long haul from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009. The retrofit projects are lighting, pumps, ACs and other stuff, but all are big on energy savings. I'll be done on most of them by March.

Going net-zero

Many of these cities want to install solar, so in my free time I'm trying to find out ways to do that cheaply. Their big expenses (most of these communities are rather small) are pumping for water and waste water. For instance, Pump No. 8 in one Merced County town runs 24 hours a day during the hot season and costs upwards of $58,000 per month.

Such spiraling costs create incentive as does California's requirement that energy suppliers provide a third of their electricity through renewables by 2020.

Maybe a San Joaquin Valley city will go net-zero. Progressive Firebaugh, perhaps? Santa Monica is pushing in that direction. Cities in Norway and Germany reportedly have reached the threshold.

We'll see how it works out.

World Environment Day is Sunday; give Mother Earth a hand

The weekend approaches and with it an event I've never paid any attention to.

But maybe I should. World Environment Day (Sunday, June 5) sounds pretty interesting. What better time to address the needs of Mother Earth?

Sure is a heck of a lot better than humming the words to Rebecca Black's viral video: "Friday, Friday, Friday; Everybody's lookin' forward to the weekend ..." But I digress.

The U.S. Environmental  Protection Agency sent out an alert that it's celebrating World Environment Day with the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture and the White House Council on Environmental Quality. All of them are partners in something else I've never heard of called America’s Great Outdoors initiative.

The initiative's theme this year is "Forests: Nature at Your Service." Not bad. The intent is to get people to spend the weekend enjoying national parks and forests, wildlife refuges and cultural and historic sites -- as well as neighborhoods and city parks, community gardens and school yards.

“Forests are one of our world’s greatest treasures, bringing us natural beauty, clean air and a place our cherished wildlife can call home,” EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson says in a statement.

Of course, this comes straight on the heels of the news that carbon dioxide emissions reached a record 30.6 gigatons (giga is billion) in 2010, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist, says the situation "represent(s) a serious setback to our hopes of limiting the global rise in temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.”

A friend of mine, Wade Erickson, spent several days last month driving up the Alaska-Canada Highway and passing through some of the most beautiful and undisturbed country in North America. He made video posts along the way, posting them on And while I remember the grueling hours behind the wheel, the scenery brought back memories.

The boreal forest is gnarled and nasty, something out of a cautionary fairy tale.  Yet to me, it's paradise. Mushy tundra. Were-mosquitoes. Moose. Rabbits. Bent alder. Streams you can safely drink from. Kluane Lake is surreal. Color reveals itself in a canvas of tiny flowers. Birds flit everywhere.

There's a hot springs outside Whitehorse that's worth the dip even in the dead of winter.

Wade and his brother Paul love the outdoors and like me tend to feel more at home outside than on the couch. I grew up in rural Alaska -- Fairbanks, Kodiak Island and Valdez. But I must admit preferring the big city of Anchorage as I got older.

Much of this is under atmospheric assault. In Alaska, we like warm winters. The statement in Fairbanks, "It was below 20 below only a couple weeks this winter," meant you were living in the tropics.

But in reality, this ain't a good thing. "We now seem to be nearing tipping points past which truly cataclysmic damage would be inevitable," writes climate activist and author Bill McKibben. "The only good news is that we are now also beginning to see some political drive for real change."

McKibben's pushing the envelope with the a group he founded,, and through activism. I've begun to view him as a seer, taking in what he says and trying to adapt to a new way of looking at energy, life and particulate-laden air.

So, Sunday. Give going outside a shot. Hang out in a park. Go see the massive General Sherman Tree in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. For me it's an hour away. So there.

World Environment Day was launched in 1972 back when I was 11. Must have missed that press release. Now it's celebrated, or at least observed in some way, in 80 nations.