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Philadelphia Solar Love: City Council Commits to 20K Solar Roofs

Fri, 04/04/2014 - 3:12pm

If Philadelphia has its way, solar energy could be on its way to become as synonymous with the city as Rocky Balboa and the Liberty Bell. Recently, the city council unanimously passed a resolution aiming to install enough solar capacity to power 20,000 homes by the end of 2025 — an amount that will accelerate Mayor Nutter’s commitment to reach 57.8 MW of solar-generated electricity by 2021.

[Cross-posted from]

“On one hand it sounds rapid and dramatic — and it is, but if we look at the growth of solar around the country, it is very achievable if we put our minds to it,” said Elowyn Corby, a clean energy associate for PennEnvironment, the nonprofit organization that led the effort to get the resolution passed.

The 20,000-roof goal — which PennEnvironment is hoping to realize through a number of strategies, including a special low-interest loan for solar, tax credits and funding from federal and state sources — translates to an installed capacity of 120 MW. The organization zeroed in on that particular goal after consulting with a number of solar experts and individuals familiar with the range of policies and requirements needed to get the systems up and running within the city.

Many of the people Corby consulted told her that a 120 MW goal for Philadelphia solar was not as ambitious as the city could be, she said, but the organization felt it was important to make sure it set an amount that could be initially achieved as a way to create even more momentum for solar.

Though Pennsylvania is far from being a solar leader, the city of Philadelphia itself has established a strong foundation for sun-powered energy. Philadelphia has already installed between 8-9 MW of solar, Corby says, thanks to an early stimulus from a 2008 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy [PDF] to establish policies and receive technical assistance aimed at making solar cost-competitive with conventional electricity sources.

Since the 20,000 solar roofs resolution isn’t legally binding, PennEnvironment knows its work to reach the goal has been cut out for them.

“The biggest thing we need to do is demonstrate this is something that Philadelphians care about,” Corby said. “Things like this are much harder to do when you’re not able to demonstrate that the community is behind it — that solar is a communal vision and that people want to see it.”

PennEnvironment kickstarted its public outreach and community organizing by getting 850 residents to sign a petition for the 20,000 solar roofs goal over the course of one week. It’s also working with a coalition of partners, including PennFuture, Clean Air Council, Solar States and Community Energy to develop a working group with city council member Bobby Henon as a vehicle to coordinate its work over the next decade.

“This is just the start,” Corby said. “The resolution is a way to commit to a goal, and now we need to gather the whole community who cares about solar — and keep building.”

Philadelphia sunrise photo CC-licensed by PierTom on Flickr.

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Honda Launches a Net-Zero Energy Smart Home Project in California

Mon, 03/31/2014 - 9:43am

“Together, our homes and our cars produce about 44 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change,” reminds Honda VP of environmental business development Steve Center, in the video overview for its intriguing Smart Home project, which opened this week on the University of California, Davis campus.

Honda’s master plan is to slash that pollution by running on sunshine.

Whether the plan works or not depends on the U.C. Davis resident lucky enough to shack up in Honda’s “living laboratory” and put its zero-net goals to the test. Empowered by a 9.5 kw photovoltaic system feeding a 10kWh lithium-ion storage battery, which plugs into its complementary direct-current Fit EV, Honda’s net-zero energy Smart Home is a symbiotic experiment in green living — and driving. That may seem strange in Davis, nationally lauded for its bicycling ethos and politics, but U.C. Davis’ West Village is a zero-net paragon.

“What sets Honda Smart Home apart is that it integrates transportation into the home in a very sophisticated manner, while maintaining zero net energy performance,” Honda spokesperson Matt Sloustcher told SolarEnergy, after returning from a walk-through. “We will use the home as a living lab to evaluate new technologies and business opportunities at the intersection of transportation, energy and the environment.”

Honda claims the Smart Home/Fit EV team-up chops 11 tons of C02 emissions annually, and easily leapfrogs California’s zero-net residential construction goals, residing in faraway 2025. Its user-friendly digital home management system smooths the transition to clean(er) living by modulating consumption, especially during peak demand, while the Smart Home overall reportedly consumes less than half the juice of a “similarly sized home in the Davis area.” Checking that pleasing math will be its live-in resident, of course, as well as visiting researchers from U.C. Davis and Northern California’s utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E).

There are other bells and whistles, including a subterranean geothermal pump, carbon-reducing pozzolan in its concrete, LED lighting, passive design and more, although it has yet to nail down an Energy Star or LEED rating. But the realistic test of any optimistic Smart Home is how close it is to market, and how much it will cost homebuyers. SolarEnergy has queried Honda about these major sticking points, and will report back any update. Until then, cross your fingers for a zero-net present instead of a future.

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Infographic: How the World Celebrates Earth Hour

Fri, 03/28/2014 - 7:00am

Mark your calendars and set your alarms: Saturday, March 29 at 8:30PM local time marks the sixth annual International Earth Hour, a time when individuals, communities, companies and cities demonstrate their concern about the planet by turning off their lights for an hour and coming together for the planet.

Since Earth Hour’s launch in 2007 as a local event in Sydney, Australia, Earth Hour has expanded across the globe, with 2014 promising to be the biggest event yet. For 2014, the organizers have launched Earth Hour Blue, a global crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platform to engage people around the world in projects that bring environmental and social benefits to their communities.

Last year, hundreds of millions of people, in more than 7,000 cities, towns and municipalities, across 152 countries took part in Earth Hour. In advance of this year’s event, we’ve created a global map highlighting some of the events and impacts from Earth Hour 2013. (Click the image for a larger version.)



 This post originally appeared on


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Infographic: For World Water Day, Go Solar to Save Water

Wed, 03/19/2014 - 8:32am

When people think about going solar, they’re usually thinking about their pocketbooks, not the planet. That’s reasonable, of course, since homeowners save an average of $84 a month with solar.

And when people do think about saving the planet with their solar panels, they’re probably thinking more often about the incredible amounts of carbon pollution they’ll be avoiding by switching to clean energy.

But a lesser-known fact about solar is that it also saves lots of water, and on World Water Day — and one that’s happening in the midst of a devastating drought in the West — that’s an important fact to highlight.

The infographic below shows how our four of the most-common energy sources use water at every stage. In a nutshell, solar wins across the board.


So this World Water Day, go solar — for your pocketbook and for the planet!

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Minnesota Becomes First State to Put a Value on Home Solar Power

Mon, 03/17/2014 - 2:23pm

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted to become the first state in the nation to come up with a methodology for calculating the value of solar power generated by consumers — and not just how much that power is worth to the utility company and its customers, but to society and the environment as a whole.

[Editor's note: This article, by Kiley Kroh, originally appeared on ThinkProgress, and is reprinted with permission.

As solar energy in particular skyrockets in the U.S., placing a dollar value on that power has been challenging and is often ignored, which makes Minnesota’s effort an even bigger step. “Minnesota has really set itself apart by determining a methodology to calculate the true value of solar to the electricity grid — a value that should include the full range of benefits as well as the costs,” said Mari Hernandez, energy research associate at the Center for American Progress. “This decision could influence other states as they evaluate how to move forward with their own solar-related policies.”

Why do we need to find the ‘value of solar?’

When customers install a solar system on their homes, it doesn’t just provide them with a good feeling that they’re boosting clean energy and cutting back on the electricity they get from fossil fuels. It also provides a clear value to utility companies. Solar generates during peak hours, when a utility has to provide electricity to more people than at other times during the day and energy costs are at their highest. Solar panels actually feed excess energy back to the grid, helping to alleviate the pressure during peak demand. In addition, because less electricity is being transmitted to customers through transmission lines, it saves utilities on the wear and tear to the lines and cost of replacing them with new ones.

The tricky piece of the equation, however, is determining how much that excess solar power produced by customers and sold back to the grid is worth.

Why is Minnesota’s calculation special?

Minnesota’s value of solar is particularly groundbreaking because the commission chose to look beyond the economic value of solar power to the utility and take into consideration the cost to society and the environment that comes from burning fossil fuels. The decision comes after “nearly two years of discussions among state officials, utility representatives and solar advocates,” prompted by a 2013 bill “requiring the state’s energy office to develop a formula that utilities may use to determine how it should compensate customers who generate electricity from solar panels,” Midwest Energy News reported.

In the end, at the urging of environmental groups and the state’s Department of Commerce, the commission voted to adopt the U.S. government’s social cost of carbon figure.

Put simply, the social cost of carbon is the government’s estimate of how much carbon emissions harm the economy — such as the cost to public health, agricultural output, sea-level rise and other damaging effects that stem from carbon pollution and climate change. Clean energy advocates argue that the cost of carbon doesn’t really get accounted for in the current energy economy; even when customers are compensated for generating solar power, that calculation typically doesn’t include the larger benefit that comes from decreasing the amount of carbon pollution that’s emitted into the atmosphere.

One of the dissenting votes in Minnesota’s decision came from Commissioner David Boyd, who argued that the government’s social cost of carbon figure hadn’t been adequately vetted. The U.S. government’s mid-range estimate for the cost of carbon in 2015 recently increased to $37 per ton of carbon dioxide, a number the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Institute for Policy Integrity argued was far too low in a report released Thursday.

As Jeff Spross explained on Climate Progress, estimates vary widely and “the relevant science has put together studies pegging the SCC at anything from $55 per ton, to $100 per ton, to as much as $900 per ton.”

While the social cost of carbon will likely be debated for some time, Minnesota’s decision to incorporate the federal government’s calculation is a significant milestone for states determining the true impact of clean energy.

How will it work?

“Investor-owned utilities will now have the voluntary option of applying to use the value-of-solar formula instead of the retail electricity rate when crediting customers for unused electricity they generate from solar panels,” according to Midwest Energy News.

Even though the new formula is optional, solar customers in Minnesota will be backed up by their current compensation structure, a policy called net metering. Hernandez notes that it’s worth pointing out the differences between this new voluntary tariff and the state’s current net metering policy. Through net metering, customers who generate their own renewable power, such as solar power, receive a credit for any excess electricity they produce beyond what they use on-site. Under a value of solar tariff — also considered a feed-in tariff — customers buy all of the electricity they use on-site from the utility, and then sell all of the solar power they produce to the utility. “Essentially, the state’s net metering policy values customer-generated renewable power used on-site and sent back to the grid at the retail electricity rate,” she explains, “while the voluntary tariff will be based on the state’s methodology, could eventually be set above or below the retail electricity rate, and would not differentiate between power used on-site or put back on the grid.” Rates under the new tariff structure in Minnesota will be set for a 25-year term and adjusted annually for inflation.

As solar establishes itself in several states across the U.S., clean energy advocates, consumers, and utilities are quickly finding themselves at odds over the value of solar power and how much it’s worth to all of the stakeholders involved, as well as to society and the environment as a whole. 43 states and the District of Columbia currently have net metering policies in place and several key solar states, such as Arizona and Colorado, have seenheated battles over the future of net metering. Last year, Arizona added what amounts to a $5 per month surcharge for solar customers and other states are considering similar measures.

Minnesota solar installation photo CC-licensed by Minnesota Solar Challenge on Flickr.

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Solar Jobs: Solar Leads the Nation in Creating Jobs

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 3:15pm

The last couple of weeks have seen a number of great stories published about the benefits that solar is bringing to the economy and the planet. Not only have we seen state rankings for solar potential from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a look back at the incredible solar boom of 2013, and a roadmap for reaching 100 percent renewables in every state by 2050 — we’ve also seen how veterans are benefiting from solar jobs in large numbers across the country.

A new report from Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) adds more good news to the stack, showing that last year, more than 260 projects created more than 78,600 clean energy and clean transportation jobs were announced in 2013. Over the past two years, since E2 has been tracking the data, clean energy and clean transportation has created more than 186,000 jobs in the U.S.

“Our report makes it clear. When we invest in clean energy and clean transportation, we put people to work in every corner of the country,” E2 Executive Director Judith Albert said in a statement. “Whether it’s a new wind farm in Iowa, an energy efficiency retrofit in Massachusetts, or a utility-scale solar array in Nevada, these projects require American ingenuity and labor. The sector is helping stimulate our economy.”

Through the report, solar shines as the biggest creator of new jobs: In total, solar more than 25,600 jobs in generation and manufacturing, far outstripping any other sector. Building energy efficiency claims over 12,500 jobs created in 2013, and public transportation, wind power and smart grid round out the top five job creators.

The chart below shows one of the regional breakouts for clean jobs in 2013 — in the Southeast, solar led the pack in job creation, but robust job growth also happened in energy efficiency, bioenergy and manufacturing.

Download the full report from E2, available here [PDF].

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SEIA Report Tracks Solar’s Incredible 2013, as the Boom Continues

Fri, 03/07/2014 - 6:51am

Quick! Close your eyes and picture the future. Is it solar-powered? If you said no, it’s time to unplug your reality television.

Here’s some brighter programming. Solar Energy Industries Association’s 2013 report on U.S. capacity installations is in (PDF), and it’s beyond safe to say that solar is on fire. Although it should come as a surprise to no one who has been paying attention to the sector, or our wider global energy picture, the photovoltaic year that was increased 40 percent over 2012, installed 4,751 megawatts and booked $13.7 billion in market value.

“The U.S. solar market showed the first real glimpse of its path toward mainstream status,” the SEIA report explains. “The combination of rapid customer adoption, grassroots support for solar, improved financing terms, and public market successes indicated clear gains for solar in the eyes of both the general population and the investment community.”

Predictably, half of that came from California, which is acting like a state that takes disruptive climate change quite seriously. It reigned above the rest with 2,745 MW, the only quadruple-digit winner of the bunch. Perhaps having installation leader SolarCity and efficiency leader Sunpower, whose stock grew 431 percent(!) last year in Cali’s backyard had a little something to do with that. Or it could be that historically progressive California has usually embraced the future as others have clung to the past. To wit, as SEIA’s 2013 report infographic notes, “half of all capacity ever added in California was installed in 2013.”

Other states are catching up, however. Last year, 100 percent of new electrical capacity installed in Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Missouri, Vermont and even gridlocked D.C. came thanks to solar. Arizona came behind California with 700 MW installed last year, which would likely have been higher were it not for a turf battle between utilities and net metering, as SolarEnergy has noted before.

Nationally speaking, however, America is statistically speeding up. In 2013, the sunshine industry accounted for 29 percent of all new electricity generation capacity, a notable increase from 10 percent in 2012, as costs further cratered 15 percent. SEIA forecasts 26 percent growth in photovoltaic installations for this year, mostly in the residential market. It all looks good on paper and in practice.

But no one should break out the party hats. Solar is literally in a death race with so-called natural gas, which accounted for a whopping 46 percent of new electrical generation capacity installed last year, taking first place in the competition for our new energy normal. As coal fades into memory, at least in America, solar is going to have to work even harder to persuade consumers, industry and especially government that it is the only true renewable energy in the global marketplace. Let’s get back to work.

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How L.A. is Implementing the Nation’s Largest Solar Feed-in Tariff

Mon, 03/03/2014 - 2:47pm

When it comes to rolling out solar across the rooftops, Los Angeles is the city to watch. With 100 MW of installed solar capacity to distribute among building owners who can sell back the energy to the grid, the city’s Department of Water and Power is currently implementing the largest solar feed-in tariff program in the U.S. How is the program progressing, and what sort of lessons has it learned that other cities can apply to their own initiatives?

[Editor's note: Cross-posted from]

A recently released evaluation of the first year of the feed-in tariff program (also known as Clean LA Solar) provides some insight. The study was commissioned by the Los Angeles Business Council Institute and conducted by UCLA’s Luskin Center for Public Affairs.

To get a handle on its performance in the first year of the estimated 3-year program, Luskin Center researchers J.R. DeShazo and Alex Turek interviewed Clean LA Solar administrators, solar developers and property owners about their experiences during the initial two phases. LA’s Department of Water and Power is tasked with deploying 20 MW during each six-month phase to qualified applicants.

What’s been going on

Since its launch one year ago and allocation of 40 MW of rooftop solar capacity (via 20-year contracts to each participant), Clean LA Solar is on track to meet its 100 MW goal by 2016, according to the evaluation, and has accomplished the following:

  • Jobs: Generated 862 job-years (one year of one job) as determined by job-years created in the manufacturing of the solar system’s components (excluding the PV cells), installation, grid connection, operation and management, as well as the utility’s work to upgrade the grid’s network and administration of the feed-in tariff program
  • Sufficient public interest: Received 226 applications for its small project category (up to 3 MW installed capacity for each) and large project (between 30 kW to 150 kW) categories — an “adequate” number, according to DeShazo and Turek
  • Direct investment in the City of Los Angeles: Approximately $122 million from the solar industry (assuming that the average cost of installed solar watt is $3.05)
  • Avoided greenhouse gas emissions: Saved 2.145 billion pounds of CO2 when compared to a coal-generated power plant, or allocated enough renewable energy equivalent to removing 200,000 cars from Los Angeles roadways
  • Solar-powered homes: Allocated enough renewable energy to power approximately 8,640 homes in a year

“Although the first and second tranches [phases] were successful, this study highlights an opportunity to make the process more user-friendly and cost-efficient in the future,” said LA city councilmember Mitchell Englander.

What could be done better?

Researchers identified opportunities for improvement. These include:

  • Monitor pricing to keep smaller projects competitive: Due to economies of scale, current price offerings may not be attractive for smaller project developers if the cost of solar components, capital, or installation rise
  • Enable applications to be rolled over to the next phase: Allow building owner applicants to be automatically considered for the next phase (rather than making them apply all over again if a phase’s 20 MW allocation has already been distributed). This helps meet a common challenge among solar developers to continue working with building owners who will host solar systems on site through the Clean LA Solar program
  • Establish a standardized acceptance and rejection timeframe for applicants: Applicants reported unclear expectations as to how quickly they would hear from Clean LA Solar as to whether they were accepted or not
  • Communications: Applicants would be more likely to understand how to comply with codes and regulations if the city’s building and safety department could develop a Clean LA Solar guide for building owners/program participants. The goals and benefits of the program appear to be poorly understood by the public and the participants, which can hinder program participation
  • Building out programs: Clean LA Solar’s 20-year contract period is not long enough for solar developers to know whether or not it’s worth continued investment for a permanent presence in the city. Policymakers should build out or build upon the program so that companies can make plans to expand their local workforce

Clean energy advocates such as Environment California‘s Michelle Kinman says the program’s success so far is reason to start looking ahead on how the city can commit to an even larger goal of adding on 500 MW to the program to reach a 600 MW of total installed capacity by 2020.

“We want to start now on ramping it up,” said Kinman, clean energy advocate for the Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization. “It’s just scratching the roof of LA’s full power potential.”

Echoing the evaluation’s findings, Kinman said that the city needs to send a signal to developers of a continued and expanded commitment to solar, otherwise they may feel compelled to invest elsewhere.

Environment California is working with the LA Business Council and a coalition of other organizations to get the city to source 20 percent of its power — 1200 MW — from solar by 2020. The timing couldn’t be better, as Los Angeles is currently considering its future energy mix, thanks to a resolution passed last April which commits to being coal-free by 2025, two years ahead of a state mandate.

But while Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, local and state officials and an array of organizations and community leaders have endorsed the call, the city has yet to formally sign on.

“Rooftops of office buildings, warehouses and apartments within the Los Angeles basin are proving to be outstanding sites for solar power plants,” said Brad Cox, chairman of the LA Business Council Institute. “With about 10,000 acres of rooftops in Los Angeles, we think the sky is the limit for the [Clean Solar LA] solar FiT program.”

Los Angeles solar roof photo CC-licensed by Flickr user Eric Richardson.

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Tackling the Risks Solar Panels Pose for Firefighters

Wed, 02/26/2014 - 8:51am

This article, by Kristine Wong, is cross-posted from

Living in the face of the hot and gusty Santa Ana winds, Los Angeles residents have learned how to protect their homes from fire. But what many might not know is that without proper care and attention, one of these risks might just be sitting on their roof.

Now, the Los Angeles County Fire Department is warning homeowners that rooftop solar panels could put both firefighters and their homes at risk in the event of a blaze.

Thanks to research—and knowledge gained from emergency responses to fires involving solar paneled-structures—it’s becoming more clear on what exactly these risks are, and how they can be mitigated or prevented.

So just what are these risks (and some solutions) for homes and buildings with solar PV panels? And are fire departments, government regulators and the solar industry doing enough to prevent them?

“It’s only been about four years since this challenge was identified,” said Ken Willette of the Quincy, Mass.-based National Fire Protection Association, an independent nonprofit organization that has been developing the U.S.’s National Electrical Code since 1897.

Yet the topic had not gotten much attention from mainstream media until last fall, when a New Jersey warehouse burned for 29 hours because firefighters feared electrocution when coming into contact with the building’s rooftop 7,000-panel PV system. Late last month, New Jersey state legislators responded by passing a law requiring building owners to disclose to fire officials if such a system is in place. One- and two-family residences are exempt under the law.

In the past decade, firefighters had begun to encounter rooftop solar panels, but didn’t know much about how to handle them when the home or building was on fire, Willette said. So after receiving an increasing number of requests from firefighters for information on how to best protect themselves, the NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation got funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to undertake such a research project. Their report [PDF], issued in 2010, outlined not just the risks, but best practices for emergency response.

One year later, safety-testing group Underwriters Laboratories followed up with extensive lab research at their Northbrook, Ill. campus. The organization tested a range of materials on solar PV emergency fire response and issued a comprehensive report [PDF] released in 2011.

Risks and solutions identified by NFPA and UL were:

Electrical shock: Firefighters coming into contact with solar panels run a risk as the system is generating electricity from exposure from sunshine, streetlights or the lights used during nighttime emergency response vehicles. In sunlight, panels can generate anywhere from between 60 to 120 V of electricity, according to Matt Paiss, a fire engineer with the San Jose, Calif. Fire Department. That number is of course a lot lower during the nighttime, but the solar dangers for firefighters are very real around the clock.

“There’s a potentially lethal situation for firefighters, where anywhere from 40 milliamps (mA) to 240 mA of DC electric current can lock up the muscles and you can’t let go,” says Ken Boyce, UL’s manager and principal engineer for product safety. The current could be strong enough where the firefighter could jump back and fall off the roof, fall into a solar panel, or be strong enough past 240 mA to cause ventricular fibrillation and cause death. At 70 mA, electrical burns causing cell necrosis could come into play, according to UL. Even the amount of light generated from fighting a nighttime fire adjacent to a building with rooftop PV could generate electricity in the solar panels, Boyce added.

Fire-induced damage to the arrays can also create new circuit paths as well, the UL report found, that can flow along the system’s frame and racks, as well as through a building’s metal roofs, flashings and gutters.

Solutions: “The question is how to stop the panels from generating electricity,” said Willette. While one might think that simply shutting the system off will take care of the problem, it’s not that simple. Sometimes the firefighters don’t know a structure has rooftop PV panels beforehand—and even if the inverter can be located and switched off, the panels cannot be turned off, meaning that in most cases, electricity will still be generated.

Based on the complexity of this problem, Willette said that the NFPA is currently looking into how it can revise its electrical code to reflect requirements for improved labeling for first responders. But these changes would be limited in impact, as they’d only apply to new systems installed in the future.

Firefighters also cover panels as a way to stop the generation of electricity in residential systems. “But if you’re talking about a commercial building or solar farm with tens, hundreds and possibly thousands of panels, reducing the electrical generation is impossible,” Willette said.

UL found that covering a PV panel with heavy, opaque and densely woven fabric can bring down the amount of electricity close to zero. In fact, any tarp where light can be seen coming through should not be used, the report advised. But care should be taken to not place wet tarps in contact with energized equipment as the tarps can then conduct electricity.

“It’s also incumbent upon firefighters to wear robust leather gloves,” Boyce said. UL’s study found that this material was effective in protecting the first responders from current, but only when dry.

Density of rooftop panels can be a hindrance: As a common tactic among firefighters to contain incidents is by opening a hole in the roof for ventilation, Willette said, the density of solar panels can make it impossible for firefighters to create that hole.

And if the firefighter is opening up the hole from below and doesn’t know that solar panels are installed on the roof, that creates another shock hazard, he added.

“It’s definitely enough electricity in the larger arrays or commercial systems to possibly cause cardiac arrest,” Willette said.

Solutions: As a result, the NFPA’s safety and national electrical codes have required that a minimum amount of clearance be present. In California, regulations require a three feet perimeter around the array for firefighter access.

Weight of panels: In already-compromised roofs such as during a fire, the additional weight could cause it to collapse, Los Angeles County Fire Department inspector Scott Miller told CBS Los Angeles. The panels can also release harmful chemicals when exposed to fire as well, he said.

Solutions: The only solution we discovered in the course of reporting this story is to install fewer solar panels — which isn’t really a solution.

Lack of communication/notification from home and building owners: Clear communication—whether through signage at the front of the building or diagrams showing where the system can be shut off—would help fire crews determine their emergency response plan as swiftly as possible.

Solutions: New Jersey’s law, signed in January by Gov. Chris Christie, requires buildings to post an emblem at their front entrance to notify firefighters.

Firefighters, in Part, Respond with Trainings

And as a result, some fire departments in the U.S. are taking action to train their personnel before it’s too late. Though it’s far from widespread, at least one evangelist and field expert, such as Paiss, trains departments across the country. Paiss released his own online series available on YouTube in 2011.

In the same year, UL also created a continuing education course based on its research. Students participate through 10 interactive lessons encompassing a range of topics including shock hazards, emergency disconnect and disruption techniques, shock from mechanically- and fire-disrupted PV, as well as tactical considerations for fire departments.

Yet training the first responders is presumably just one side of the coin. In the wake of New Jersey’s horrific warehouse fire, State Sen. Donald Norcross expressed dissatisfaction the solar industry, saying that it has not addressed fire risks through de-energizing activated solar panels during a fire, according to The Daily Journal.

Does the solar industry have solutions?

“We recognize that we need to do a better job as an industry educating first responders, especially firefighters, about solar panels,” Solar Energy Industries Association spokesperson Ken Johnson told The Atlantic Cities blog shortly after the New Jersey warehouse fire.

“We are working very closely with firefighters across the United States on the developments of codes and standards,” Johnson explained to Reuters in September. “After every incident, we learn from it and improve.”

It’s not clear just what progress has been made since then, as Johnson did not respond to after repeated requests for an update.

Yet new products that seek to fill the fire risk gaps are emerging. A new solar panel sensor and fuse developed in Germany at the request of the Munich fire department (after the first responders had to let a building covered with rooftop PV burn to the ground) could be just what firefighters need. Perched between two solar panels, the TOPInno company product senses when the temperature reaches a certain threshold. At that point, the fuse will break, TOPInno General Manager Raymond Huwaë told Triple Pundit.

“The moment the fuses are broken due to the heat, the voltage will go down to below 120V, which is the legal requirement to be able to use water to extinguish the flames,” he said.

The sensors/fuse product can also be turned off manually as well.

Boyce says though he sees momentum within the solar industry to address the fire risk issue, it’s currently in a transition period so that products being released in the marketplace will be in compliance with new regulations.

One bright spot is in California, where CalSEIA has been working with the state fire marshal on an interim solution to the UL 1703 fire code that regulates how a rooftop PV system impacts the fire classification rating of the roofing material below it. CalSEIA has also held a webinar on this topic for the solar industry to understand the code’s meaning, and how it can come into compliance, according to Executive Director Bernadette Del Chiaro.

“We just recently issued our first certification [under the UL 1703 fire code],” Boyce said, “so that’s exciting news for the code community. They’re excited to see this implemented with CalSEIA and others, and help them roll it out in the future.”

House fire photo CC-licensed by Wikimedia user Sylvain Pedneault.

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Coal is a Disease that Costs Us $60 Billion a Year

Tue, 02/25/2014 - 7:00am

I’ll say it up front: We are clearly biased toward renewable energy, particularly home solar systems. That much is obvious. Why we believe renewables are the future of energy is I hope equally obvious, but it can’t hurt to underline the reasons.

In just the last two months, we’ve seen a series of disasters small and large that are a direct result of our continued reliance on dirty energy. Whether it’s coal ash fouling a North Carolina river or a little-known chemical used by the coal industry leaving 300,000 West Virginians without water, it’s clear that the price of dirty energy is much higher than we usually think.

Last week, clean energy visionary Jigar Shah — founder of SunEdison, founding CEO of the Carbon War Room, and more — detailed the healthcare costs of coal in a post on LinkedIn. The number is shocking: Shah writes that $60 billion of healthcare expenditures each year are directly attributable to mining, transporting and burning coal for energy.

That number is based on a 2009 report published by the National Academy of Sciences, so you can expect that number has shifted somewhat — according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, between 2009 and 2011 coal production increased by almost 20 million tons, though we’re still 90 million tons below the all-time high for coal production set in 2008.

Nonetheless, we’re paying a hefty price for coal. Shah lays out a short list of additional costs from coal production:

  • Fossil fuels cause an estimated 30,100 premature deaths each year, as well as more than 5.1 million lost workdays
  • Coal-fired power plants need lots of water for heating and cooling, with as much as 41 percent of fresh-water use going to cool coal, gas and nuclear power plants;
  • Pollution from power plants is a major cause of asthma in people of every age, with childhood asthma alone costing as much as $2 billion per year
  • In coal-mining areas of Appalachia, 60,000 cases of cancer are directly linked to “mountaintop removal” mining practices.

The good news, as Shah has it, is that regulations put in place by forceful protests by concerned Americans ensure that the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants will be too expensive to run in just six years.

But what will be the replacement for this dirty energy? The powers that represent the status quo would have our power come from slightly-less-dirty energy in the form of natural gas and oil, produced in ever more invasive, destructive and polluting ways — and ever closer to population centers nationwide.

Shah argues that there is a better way: “Replacing old coal plants with clean energy solutions would represent the largest wealth creation opportunity available in the USA — $50B per year. Even without a plan and wide support, in 2013, the solar industry created more jobs than the coal mining industry.”

And he points us to The Solutions Project, which we just reported about on yesterday: Scientists at Stanford have begun an ambitious project to map out a path to 100 percent renewable energy for each and every state in the U.S.

The project has already unveiled a roadmap for California’s clean energy future, as well as for Washington State and New York, and it will be interesting to see what the maps look like for coal country and other areas that are more heavily invested in fossil fuels.

In the meantime, check out Jigar Shah’s entire post and learn how you can take action to get us off dirty coal at The Solutions Project website. And while you’re at it, go solar if you haven’t already!

Matthew Wheeland is the editor of, a sister publication to One Block Off the Grid and PURE Energies.

Coal miners photo CC-licensed by the United Nations.

The post Coal is a Disease that Costs Us $60 Billion a Year appeared first on One Block Off the Grid.

What It’s Like to Climb the World’s Second-Tallest Mountain

Wed, 02/12/2014 - 4:43pm

[Editor's note: When One Block Off the Grid CEO Zbigniew Barwicz climbed Mt. Aconcagua for charity last month, we blogged about some of his adventures. In this excerpt of a longer article originally published in Chatelaine Magazine, he tells more of the story to Sarah Treleaven.]

Last month, Zbig Barwicz climbed Argentina’s Aconcagua mountain to help raise funds for the David Suzuki Foundation. His amazing adventures (and incredible pictures!) are chronicled in his blog, Climb for DSF. Here, Barwicz explains what it’s really like to climb one of the world’s highest mountains.

I climbed Aconcagua — the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas and one of the Seven Summits. It’s close to 23,000 feet and I achieved it in a guided expedition over 20 days. I went with the Alpine Ascent International group and our guide had climbed Mount Everest twice. We also had a sherpa from Nepal. There were 10 climbers from Canada, the United States and Australia. It can be challenging to share a tent with two or three people you don’t know —  none of whom can take a shower for three weeks. You have to work together to build the camp and get things done. It can be pretty intense, but we didn’t have any major drama.

Every day is different. It took three days just to walk to the mountain and get to base camp. You’re drinking four or five litres of water a day and eating at least 3,000 calories. You have to be very disciplined about eating and drinking every hour Packing up or unpacking camp takes longer and longer the higher you get because the altitude makes you do everything slower….

Read the rest at Chatelaine Magazine.

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What are the Top 10 Solar Metro Areas in the U.S.?

Tue, 02/11/2014 - 6:34am

By Kristine Wong, originally published on our sister site,

With a solar system installed every four minutes in the U.S., keeping track of the bright spots on solar’s local landscape can be a tough job.

We wanted to know the answer to a simple (or simple-seeming) question: What are the hottest cities for solar in the U.S.? The first thing we found is that we were asking the wrong question — rather than individual cities, the metric we found is the installed solar capacity per capita of metropolitan areas (using cities as a unit is considered to be problematic, since large installations located near individual cities can skew the data). We were also curious know what common factors contributed to solar’s success, and what were the individual standout factors contributing to just one metro area alone?

Thankfully, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the federal government’s innovation center for renewable energy research, keeps a tally of just the data we were looking for. It’s accessible to the public on its Open PV Database.

So who’s winning the solar horse race? The table below spells it out. (Note: for clarity’s sake, we truncated the names of the Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the list below; we hope you get the gist of where we’re talking about…)


Rank Top 15 Solar Metro Areas by Installed Solar Capacity per Capita* Watts per capita 1 Fresno, Calif. 182.92 2 Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz. 84.76 3 Las Vegas, Nev. 77.62 4 Sacramento-Yolo, Calif. 76.27 5 San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, Calif. 62.99 6 San Diego, Calif. 51.34 7 Philadelphia, Penn., Wilmington, Del., Atlantic City, N.J. 51.11 8 New York City, Long Island, Northern New Jersey 35.96 9 Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County, Calif. 35.49 10 San Antonio, Texas 35.4

Data source: NREL Open PV Project

Ken Johnson, a spokesperson for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, D.C., noted that the estimates should be considered minimums for each metro area, since the NREL database only captures about two-thirds of the total installations.

Fresno, Calif.: the solar capital of the U.S.?

Johnson set the record straight. The more than twofold difference between No. 1 Fresno and No. 2 Phoenix, he said, had to do more with the peculiarities of the data, the size of the projects, and the Fresno area’s small population.

Since the area has more open space suitable for large-scale projects compared to others on the list, he said, many major solar projects (greater than 1 MW) have been installed in the Fresno metro area.

“When this is combined with Fresno’s relatively small population (just over a million in the metro area — roughly a quarter of the size of the Phoenix metro area), strong solar resources, proximity to thriving and mature solar economies (in San Francisco and Los Angeles), and strong state policy, it stands to reason that Fresno would be near the top of this list,” Johnson said.

Standout factors among the rest of the top 5

“Phoenix, Las Vegas and Sacramento to a lesser extent are situated near large swaths of open desert land, which tend to be prime locations for utility-scale solar projects,” Johnson said. “Northern California’s metro areas are ranked highly due to their strong distributed generation markets originating from strong state solar policies and solid solar resources.”

High local electricity costs also contributed to these standings, he added.

“San Francisco’s presence is driven primarily by its role as the headquarters for many of the country’s top players in the solar market,” he said. “Similarly, Phoenix plays a large role in the solar industry and sees much in the way of competition among companies.”

Residential solar

Though NREL’s installed capacity data does not distinguish between residential and non-residential installations, Johnson said that leaders for distributed generation solar are similar to the overall rankings.

With California as the runaway leader, the New York, Boston and Philadelphia metro areas are also leaders in installed distributed generation capacity — though “perhaps not in distributed generation capacity per capita,” Johnson said. “These areas have high electricity prices, fairly established markets (at least in New Jersey) and strong commitments to solar growth by state governments in Massachusetts, New York, and occasionally, New Jersey.”

Solar’s rising stars

Boston (currently ranked as the no. 8 by installed capacity per capita among major metropolitan areas) will grow, as a result of strong policy support in Massachusetts and the amount of companies moving into the area, Johnson predicted.

Due to its surging small utility market (1-5 MW), Johnson said he also likes North Carolina’s chances for increased installation capacity per capita.

“The Washington, D.C., area might be a place to watch as well — especially if proposed policy changes in Virginia come to fruition,” Johnson said.

The post What are the Top 10 Solar Metro Areas in the U.S.? appeared first on One Block Off the Grid.

Small-Scale Solar Has a Big Role to Play in the U.S. Energy Revolution

Sat, 02/08/2014 - 12:49pm

For all the talk in recent years about Germany’s Energiewende — the Teutonic moniker for that country’s bold bid to replace its aging nuclear reactor fleet with renewables and efficiency — America is in the midst of its own energy revolution, finds a new report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“A revolution is transforming how the U.S. produces, delivers, and consumes energy. The mix of supply is changing rapidly, with low-carbon sources gaining share, while consumption is declining, despite overall economic growth,” according to the 2014 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, commissioned by The Business Council for Sustainable Energy and released this week.

The report highlights the current big trends in energy efficiency, transportation and electricity generation and concludes that these have combined to put U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions “on a long-term downward trajectory.”

Among the key findings are that solar power’s contribution to the nation’s electricity portfolio is growing quickly and that small-scale solar electric systems have only just begun to unleash their “disruptive potential” upon the business-as-usual utility segment.

Fueled by falling prices for photovoltaic (PV) panels and solar-generated electricity, Bloomberg NEF forecasts that the record year for U.S. PV capacity additions in 2013 — including approximately 2,000 megawatts from centralized PV power plants and another some 2,000 megawatts from small-scale, distributed solar plants and rooftop systems — will repeat in record fashion in 2014.

“Prices of solar modules have declined by 99 percent since 1976 and by about 80 percent since 2008,” according to the data-rich report, which says that all-time-low solar electricity prices now have plummeted below 7 cents per kilowatt-hour for large-scale PV and helped to rally billions of dollars in investment for third-party-financed small-scale solar installations. Third-party financers, according to the report, raised $6.7 billion between 2008 and 2013 to build and lease small-scale solar systems — sized 1 MW in capacity and below — at U.S. homes and businesses.

Thanks in part to this expansion of innovative financing solutions that overcome the upfront cost barrier for many homeowners and business owners, “distributed generation emerged as a transformative phenomenon — if not yet in substance, then as a foreshadower of what’s to come,” said Bloomberg NEF.

Even though the vast majority of the country’s electricity continues to come from large-scale, centralized power plants, “the rise of distributed generation is ushering into the U.S. power industry new players and new business models, and testing the durability of old ones,” assessed the report, adding, “What lies ahead when it comes to distributed generation is more important than the current situation.”

In reference to the recent and ongoing disputes over net energy metering services for solar-powered utility customers in states like Arizona, California, Colorado and Hawaii, the report said that the “intense regulatory battles that played out across the country in 2013 over the relative costs and benefits of distributed PV” are a testament to how serious of a threat of small-scale solar has become.

Solar panel photo CC-licensed by Flickr user Chandra Marsono.

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Colorado Gives the Public a Say on Net Metering, and You Can Help

Fri, 01/31/2014 - 11:01am

[Editor's note: This is a guest post from Annie Lappé of Vote Solar; it originally appeared on the Vote Solar blog and is reprinted with permission.]

Thanks to a tremendous outpouring of public solar support, yesterday the Colorado’s Public Utility Commission agreed to pull Xcel’s attacks on net metering out of the utility’s Renewable Energy Standard compliance plan and conduct a new, separate process to take a good look at this critically important solar program.

Net metering gives solar customers full retail credit on their energy bills for the excess power they contribute to the grid for the utility to resell nearby. Xcel issued a proposal to weaken the popular solar program as part of its 2014 Renewable Energy Standard Compliance Plan docket (Docket No. 13A-0836E). Today’s PUC decision removes all issues related to net metering to a new docket that will allow a more thorough discussion of the value and design of Colorado’s net metering program.

See what Colorado stakeholders – from veterans and the faith community to breweries and environmental groups – had to say in support of the decision here.

This is good progress, but the fight isn’t over. Xcel is already making moves to make sure they hold all the cards in this new process. Vote Solar will be working hard to counter their influence, and to make sure that the process established by the PUC is fair, open and transparent.

Specifically we are asking the PUC to consider the the following five recommendations in establishing and overseeing a process to evaluate net metering:

  1. Establish an informal workshop process instead of a litigated docket process. This is because in a litigated docket the parties are hamstrung by the discovery process, and cannot engage in a meaningful back and forth throughout the process.
  2. Engage the services of an independent facilitator with expertise in the area of renewable resources, and in particular distributed solar resources, to promote a collaborative dialogue and facilitate the sharing of information.
  3. Adopt the benefit/cost list in the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) ELab Report as a comprehensive list of costs/benefits that should be considered. Further we believe the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s (IREC) A REGULATOR’S GUIDEBOOK: Calculating the Benefits and Costs of Distributed Solar Generation provides a great framework for calculating the list of costs and benefits presented by RMI.
  4. Focus on generator exports, as opposed to generation used onsite, as a basis for determining the cost and/or benefits of net metering.
  5. Clearly identify the intended outcomes of the process at the outset, e.g., how the results will be used. In this last regard, we recommend that a new docket begin with an informal meeting to discuss the goals of the PUC and the stakeholders.

Yesterday, when the Commissioners were discussing the scope and process for the investigation they specifically noted how interested they are in hearing from the public on this issue. Let’s not disappoint them.

If you live in Colorado, it’s more important than ever that you speak up for solar in person at next week’s Public Hearing:

RSVP & Details Here.

  • WHEN: February 3 from 4:30 p.m. until no later than 7:30 p.m.
  • WHERE: Public Utilities Commission Hearing Room, 1560 Broadway, Suite 250 Denver, Colorado.
  • WHAT: Come and speak out in support of Colorado’s net metering policy. Please thank the PUC and the Colorado Energy Office for their leadership thus far – and let them know that you won’t stand for anti-solar, anti-consumer shenanigans in the interest of protecting utility profits.

And if you can’t make it in person, we’ve made it easy for you to send in a comment through the Commission’s website. Click here to send an email.

Rooftop solar delivers tremendous ratepayer and societal benefits to Colorado. And our mission is to make sure the PUC considers this full range of benefits as part of their deeper investigation into net metering. We will keep you posted!

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Summiting for Suzuki: Zbig Finishes Mt. Aconcagua Climb

Tue, 01/21/2014 - 1:05pm

Although the time flew for us down here closer to sea level, the journey of a lifetime has wrapped up for our CEO, Zbigniew Barwicz, as he summited and then descended Mt. Aconcagua, the world’s second-tallest peak at 22,841 feet, as a fundraiser for for the David Suzuki Foundation, one of Canada’s most respected environmental groups.

Zbig has filed regular posts and photos from the mountain on, and although the posts got shorter as the climb and the incredible cold took its toll on Zbig and his equipment, check out this photo from Aconcagua:

And here’s one of Zbig himself at the summit. He writes: ” I felt on top of the world being on top of the world … check out my scarf – see what I mean about those Aconcagua winds??”

Earlier on his journey, he wrote about the winds, which reached 60-plus kilometers per hour (37 miles per hour), which is halfway to hurricane-force winds.

On the day he and his team summited the mountain, Zbig wrote: “We got to the summit yesterday at about 2:30 pm. Weather was beautiful all day – conditions were absolutely perfect….

And after 11 hours it was back to Camp 4 for soup and some rice. My devices all died because of the cold.”

Though he had a solar charger for his satellite phone and iPhone, here’s what was probably Zbig’s most important tool:

As mentioned above, the climb was a fundraiser for the David Suzuki Foundation, and all the funds that Zbig is helping to raise will go to combat climate change. Please consider donating to support the Suzuki Foundation — and if you donations by January 24, our parent company, PURE Energies, will match your donation dollar for dollar!

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The View from 17,000 Feet: Aconcagua Climb, Day 11

Fri, 01/10/2014 - 9:27am

The Andes, from 17,000 feet.

[Editor's note: This is the latest post from our CEO, Zbigniew Barwicz, who is currently climbing Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, as a fundraiser for the David Suzuki Foundation. 1BOG's parent company, PURE Energies, is matching all donations to the climb through January 21.]

After a CRAZY windy night with the Aconcagua classic of 60+km/h winds at -10c. (brrrr!), we made our first carry of equipment to Camp 3 (19,200 feet).

The views here are impressive even without clouds below us. In the mountains clouds are beautiful because they typically create a nice fluffy mattress around 10-12000 feet. But Aconcagua is so dry so you often have no clouds at all this time of year.

We had a great spaghetti dinner and tomorrow will be moving to Camp 3 with all our gear/supplies. After that there will there will be a rest day to try to acclimatize to 20,000feet. Past that point your body really does not operate well at all, so we will make a jump to Camp 4 for a night and try to Summit and come back.

We will need a window of 3 days of decent weather. This week, since Tuesday, nobody has been trying to summit because the winds are crazy up there – 120+ km/h. Apparently weather is supposed to improve in the window when we hope to be ready. We’ll see…

The solar cell is charging the Extreme Monkey battery, which keeps my satellite phone charged (working here as a modem) and also the iridium access point (wifi) and my iPhone. All this for under under $2,000 instead of $25,000 10 years ago! Gotta love technology!


We eat typically hot only for dinner but get hot drinks in the morning too. But during rest days we eat and drink all day to build up and store energy. Here’s an example of a hot lunch – quesadillas with salsa. Mmmm good!


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Climbing Aconcagua for the Earth: 1BOG CEO Takes on the World’s 2nd-Tallest Peak

Fri, 01/03/2014 - 11:13am

We’re pleased to announce that Zbigniew Barwicz, the CEO of One Block off the Grid, as well as our parent company, PURE Energies, has just kicked off a three-week journey to climb to the top of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. Aconcagua, at 22,841 feet, is the tallest mountain in the Americas and second only to Mt. Everest for total height. (You can see it way off in the distance there in the photo to the left.)

The climb is a fundraiser for the David Suzuki Foundation, one of Canada’s most respected environmental groups, and the funds that Zbig is helping to raise will go to combat climate change. All donations made by January 24 will be matched dollar for dollar by PURE Energies.

Zbig has already started his journey, and is regularly blogging and tweeting details and pictures.

For instance, on New Year’s day, when his team of climbers was halfway to the first base camp at Plaza Argentina — which is at 13,800 feet of elevation — Zbig wrote:

I’m noticing the air. We did ten miles today and reached 9,300 feet (just under 3000 meters), so oxygen is harder to come by. But also because the air is just so clean and pure. Different stuff than what I breathe in at home.

New Year’s Eve was something else! Three kilometers / almost 2 miles above sea level, far from roads, buildings, offices, and electricity. Surrounded by mountains, mules, climbers and arrieros/mulers. A whole different world. We dined well! The arrieros made us a fabulous feast. This is definitely a New Year’s I won’t forget!

We’ll be following Zbig’s progress closely, and you can read more from him throughout his trek at And remember: Every dollar you donate by January 21 will be matched, dollar for dollar, by PURE Energies to make an even bigger contribution to the fight against climate change.

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Solar Everywhere, Dec. 2013: Refugee Shelters, Ugly Dresses & More

Tue, 12/31/2013 - 12:40pm

[Author's note: This post originally appeared on, one of our sister sites. We publish a Solar Everywhere rundown each month on]

It’s the end of the year, and the news cycle slows down significantly as the year winds down. But even though the news is stocked full of year-end lists, there have also been a good number of interesting solar tidbits — enough to flesh out one last Solar Everywhere for 2013. Read on to see how we’re winding the year down with solar in unexpected place.

Solar for smokers: Leave it to France to use solar power to help with the problem of smoking bans. Over at the Energy Collective, Boyd Arnold writes about how the French government is helping smokers cope with a ban on indoor smoking: outdoor solar parasols. Boyd writes: “Their solar-powered parasols create heat from the solar power for those under the parasol, and absorbs the cigarettes. This dual function provides a seamless integration of solar innovation while catering to the needs of smokers and government policy.” The parasols also relieve restaurants and bars of the need to rely on gas-powered heaters to keep smokers warm during the winter months.

Solar tents: In the first — and sillier — of two stories this month about solar-powered habitats, Inhabitat points us to Bang Bang Tents, which are designed to help make festival-going or car-camping a little more electrified. The four-person tents “come equipped with a solar panel that can be slid into a pouch on the exterior of the tent. The 5W solar panel trickle charges a lithium battery bank that has a USB charging adapter and can charge most low voltage devices. Use the solar panel and battery backup to charge cameras, phones, or computers or use them to run speakers and LED lights.” At £249.95 (US$415), they’re not cheap, but would certainly help you stand out at the campground.

Solar shelters: We often say that solar is a force for good in the world — but usually that’s because solar homeowers save money and reduce their emissions. IKEA, however, has developed flat-pack, solar-powered shelters for use by refugees. The shelters are everything you’d expect from IKEA: quickly assembled, spacious, cleanly designed — and are also powered by the sun. After six months of lobbying, IKEA has gotten the Lebanese government toapprove a test run of the shelters for refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and suffering in the intense Lebanese winter.

Solar lights overseas: Putting the sun to work at night is in some ways the holy grail of the solar boom, since it means the development of affordable, reliable battery technologies. One of the earliest places that solar batteries have taken off is in the solar lights market, and two companies this month helped bring light to regions that desperately needed it. First, the Estonian nonprofit Andakidz sent a team of engineers to the Philippines to provide solar lights to villages devastated and left powerless first by an earthquake and then three weeks later by Typhoon Haiyan.

Second, Panasonic has committed to sending 100,000 of the company’s solar lanterns to regions without electricity, and engaged the public and 11 artists from around the world to design paper solar lantern covers as a way of spreading the word about how solar can help meet some of people’s most basic needs.

Solar scooters: Solar Tribune offers us a brief glimpse at a new solar-powered charging station for electric scooters, from Current Motor, a Michigan-based scooter manufacturer. The company’s Super Scooters can run for 50 miles on a charge, and are then recharged in about six hours by a solar-powered charging station.

Solar clothing: Last but certainly not least, Grist points us to a new fashion item that incorporate solar panels into the design, for better or worse. The new prototype Wearable Solar outfits, are the result of a collaboration between Dutch professor Christiaan Holland, fashion designer Pauline van Dongen and solar expert Gert Jan Jongerden. Grist’s Holly Richmond explains that the outfits are supposed to be able to charge a phone in two hours of wearing, but nails the description: “Unfortunately, the clothes are — how do we say this nicely? — really ugly.”

Here’s looking ahead to a solar-filled 2014 — thanks for reading!

The post Solar Everywhere, Dec. 2013: Refugee Shelters, Ugly Dresses & More appeared first on One Block Off the Grid.

Why We Need Solar: 45 of the Biggest Fossil Fuel Disasters in 2013

Mon, 12/30/2013 - 8:12am

[Editor's Note: This article, by Emily Atkin, originally appeared on ThinkProgress, and is reprinted with permission.

While coal, oil, and gas are an integral part of everyday life around the world, 2013 brought a stark reminder of the inherent risk that comes with a fossil-fuel dependent world, with numerous pipeline spills, explosions, derailments, landslides, and the death of 20 coal miners in the U.S. alone.

Despite all this, our addiction to fossil fuels will be a tough habit to break. The federal Energy Information Administration in July projected that fossil fuel use will soar across the world in the come decades. Coal — the dirtiest fossil fuel in terms of carbon emissions — is projected to increase by 2.3 percent in coming years. And in December, the EIA said that global demand for oil would be even higher than it had projected, for both this year and next.

Here is a look back at some of the fossil fuel disasters that made headlines in 2013, along with several others that went largely unnoticed.


In this photo taken Saturday, July 27, 2013, a cleaning vessel clears the oil after about 50 tons of crude oil that was leak from a pipe spilled into the sea off Rayong province, eastern Thailand.

CREDIT: AP Photo/The Nation-Atchara

March 29: An ExxonMobil pipeline carrying Canadian Wabasca heavy crude from the Athabasca oil sands ruptures and spills thousands of barrels of oil in Mayflower, Arkansas. The ruptured pipeline gushed 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude into a residential street and forced the evacuation of 22 homes. Exxon was hit with a paltry $2.6 million fine by federal pipeline safety regulators for the incident in November — just 1/3000th of its third quarter profits.

May 20: Underground tar sands leaks start popping up in Alberta, Canada, and do not stop for at least five months. In September the company responsible was ordered to drain a lake so that contamination on the lake's bottom can be cleaned up. As of September 11, the leaks had spilled more than 403,900 gallons — or about 9,617 barrels — of oily bitumen into the surrounding boreal forest and muskeg, the acidic, marshy soil found in the forest.


// ]]>

July 30: About 50 tons of oil spills into the sea off Rayong province of Thailand from a leak in the pipeline operated by PTT Global Chemical Plc. It was the fourth major oil spill in the country's history.

August 13: An ethane and propane pipeline belonging to Tesoro Corp. running beneath an Illinois cornfield ruptures and explodes. Residents heard a massive blast and then saw flames shooting 300 feet into the air, visible for 20 miles.

September 29: A North Dakota farmer winds up discovering the largest onshore oil spill in U.S. history, the size of seven football fields. At least 20,600 barrels of oil leaked from a Tesoro Corp-owned pipeline onto the Jensens' land, and it went unreported to North Dakotans for more than a week. An AP investigation later discovered that nearly 300 oil spills and 750 "oil field incidents" had gone unreported to the public since January 2012.

October 7: An Oil and Natural Gas Corp. pipeline that carries crude from the offshore Mumbai High fields to India ruptures and spills at an onshore facility, but oil winds up flowing into the Arabian sea because of rainfall.

October 9: A natural gas pipeline explodes in northwest Oklahoma, sparking a large fire and prompting evacuations. No injuries or deaths were reported.

October 30: 17,000 gallons of crude oil spill from an eight-inch pipeline owned by Koch Pipeline Company in Texas. The spill impacted a rural area and two livestock ponds near Smithville and was discovered on a routine aerial inspection.

November 14: A Chevron natural gas pipeline explodes in Milford, Texas, causing the town of 700 people to evacuate. The flames could reportedly be seen for miles.

November 22: An oil pipeline explodes in Qingdao, China, killing 62 and setting ocean on fire. The underground pipeline's explosion opened a hole in the road that swallowed at least one truck, according to Reuters, and oil seeped into utility pipes under Qingdao.

November 29: A 30-inch gas gas pipeline in a rural area of western Missouri ruptures and explodes, sending a 300 foot high fireball into the air.

Coal Mines

February 11 An explosion in a coal mine in northern Russia kills at least 17 miners in a shaft saturated with methane gas. Rescue workers said 23 people had been in the shaft at the time. The blast occurred about 2,500 feet underground.

February 13: Very large landslide hits a colliery in Northern England. No injuries, but Dave Petley, a geology professor at Durham University, said it "may well be the largest and most significant landslide in the UK for a decade or more."

February 13: A 28-year-old mining machine operator was killed when he was pinned between the tail of the remote controlled continuous mining machine and the coal rib in an underground mine in Illinois. Timothy Chamness had only been a mine machine operator for 6 months when the incident occurred.

February 14: A landslide hits the Phillippines' largest open coal mining pit, burying at least 13 workers and killing at least 7. The accident was the third to occur in mining sites in the country over the last six months.

February 19: A large rock cliff collapses on top of a coal mine in southern China, burying and killing five people, including two children. An estimated 5,000 cubic metres of rock fell on Yudong village in Kaili, in the country's Guizhou province.

March 13: A 63-year-old man with 40 years of mining experience was killed underground when he was struck by a large piece of roof rock. The rock that fell was approximately 6 feet long by 5.5 feet wide and about 5 inches thick.

March 29 and April 1: The Babao Coal mine explosions kill 53 people in China. The coal mine company responsible, Tonghua Mining (Group) Co. Ltd., was later found to have concealed the death toll in the incidents, additionally concealing deaths of six workers in five accidents in 2012.

May 11: Illegal mining causes an explosion in a Chinese coal mine that killed 28 and left 18 injured. China orders production suspension at all coal mines in the southwestern province of Sichuan, China's 16th-biggest coal producing province, after the blast.

July 16: A landslide at a coal mine in Bulgaria claims the lives of two people who were discovered underneath 50 meters of land mass. It was the fourth major landslide in the Oranovo mine in the past eight years.

August 10: Seven people in India are killed after a landslide in a coal mine in the Sundergarh district of Odisha. The incident occurred while people from nearby villages were collecting coal from the "over-burdened" dump yard located near the mining area.

November 23: While working inside a coal mine in Ohio, a 32-year-old man was killed when he was struck by high pressure hydraulic fluid after a valve broke. Ryan Lashley had worked at The Century Mine, which was the site of another near-fatal accident that month.

November 27: A coal mine in northern China's Shanxi Province is hit with a landslide that buried several excavators and kills two people.

December 4: Gas explodes in a coal mine early in eastern China's Jiangxi province, killing at least six workers.

Offshore and Onshore Rigs

January 22: A Devon Energy natural gas rig in Utah catches fire, causing evacuations for half a mile radius of the rig. No injuries are reported.

July 7: A hydraulic fracturing operation at a gas well drilling pad in West Virginia explodes and injures seven people, four with potentially life-threatening burns. The explosion occurred while workers were pumping water down a well, part of the hydraulic fracturing process for recovering gas trapped in shale rock. The tanks that recover the water and chemical mixture after they return to the surface are what reportedly exploded.

July 27: BP's Hercules 265 offshore gas rig in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana explodes, enveloping the rig in a cloud of gas and a thin sheen of gas in the water. After spewing gas for more than a day, the rig finally "bridged over," meaning small pieces of sediment and sand blocked more gas from escaping.

August 20: A gas rig belonging to the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan exploded in the Caspian sea while workers were carrying out exploratory drilling, when it hit a pocket of gas at unexpectedly high pressure.

August 28: A "well-control incident" at an oil drilling rig in rural south Texas causes an "intense" explosion after workers were drilling horizontally into the Eagle Ford Shale, causing homes to be evacuated. No injuries reported.

Train Derailments

March 27: A Canadian Pacific Railway train derails, spilling 30,000 gallons of tar sands oil in western Minnesota. Reuters called it "the first major spill of the modern North American crude-by-rail transit boom."

July 6: A unit, 74-car freight train carrying Bakken formation crude oil derails in Lac-Megantic, Canada, causing an incredibly tragic fire and explosion. Forty-two people were pronounced dead, 30 buildings downtown destroyed. Emergency responders describe a "war zone." 2,000 people evacuated because of toxic fumes, explosions, and fires.

July 18: 24 cars of a 150-car coal train derail in Virginia, spilling more than a thousand tons of coal along the roadside.

October 19: A train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derails west of Alberta, Canada, causing an explosion and fire. No injuries were reported. Nine of the derailed cars were carrying liquefied petroleum gas and four carried crude. The crude oil cars were intact and kept away from the fires with no indications of any leaks.

November 8: A 90-car train carrying North Dakota crude derails and explodes in a rural area of western Alabama. Flames spewed into the air on a Friday, only finally dying down by Sunday, in what the Huffington Post called "the most dramatic U.S. accident since the oil-by-rail boom began."

December 9: 19 cars of a coal train near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway derail, spilling coal onto the ground. The train had four locomotives with 103 cars, each carrying about 75 tons of coal. The train was headed from a mine in Carbon County, Utah, to a utility company in Mojave, California.

Railway cars carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec derail, causing explosions.

CREDIT: AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson

Power Plants and Refineries

April 4: Federal safety officials eventually make Georgia Power pay $119,000 in penalties after an explosion at one of its coal plants. The blast injured two people and was caused by a buildup of hydrogen and air inside a generator.

April 5: Residents near an ExxonMobil refinery begin to smell "burning tires and oil" after the refinery leaked condensate water that accumulated while the company was flaring gas. Through the leak, ExxonMobil announced that it had released 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and 10 pounds of benzene. According to readings at the spill site, the refinery measured 160 parts per million of hydrogen sulfide and 2 parts per million of benzene in the air.

August 8 and 15: 15,000 liters of oil spills into local streams in Cuba, after two separate instances at the Sergio Soto Refinery. The oil spill was the result of a negligent operator who failed to properly secure the residuals trap used to contain the hydrocarbon. While some of the oil was able to be contained, much of it was pushed upstream because of strong rainfall following the spill.

August 28: Approximately 20 gallons of partially refined petroleum from a New Jersey refinery spills into the Delaware River, after a leak in a heat exchanger that is part of the refinery's crude oil processing unit. The spill was reported two hours after workers discovered it, when they realized it was going into the river.

September 10: An explosion at the Deely 1 coal power unit in Pennsylvania caused cascade housing damage. The explosion happened after coal dust in a silo caught fire.


January 27: A barge carrying 668,000 gallons of light crude oil on the Mississippi River crashed into a railroad bridge. An 80,000 gallon tank on the vessel was damaged, spilling oil into the waterway, which prompted officials to close the river for eight miles in either direction.

September 15: Fuel tanks explode at Virgin Islands gas station, resulting in a huge blast and a fire and causing two injuries. The St. Thomas community of Bovoni was evacuated and traffic was diverted after the explosion.

October 1: An underground fuel reservoir explodes on a Czech Lukoil petrol station on a highway in Prague, killing one person and injuring two.

November 23: Five are hurt after a gas tank near a drilling rig explodes in Wyoming.

December 14: Thousands of gallons of gasoline spill into a harbor in southern Alaska on Saturday after a pump used to funnel fuel into boats is accidentally severed. The 5,500 gallon spill occurred in the small village of the village of Kake, whose residents rely on fish and subsistence to get by.

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