Friday, November 28, 2008

How Geothermal Heat Pumps Could Power the Future

By Michael Schirber, Special to LiveScience

A schematic of a typical geothermal heat pump with an additional hot water heater. Credit: Geo-Heat Center Editor's Note: Each Wednesday LiveScience examines the viability of emerging energy technologies — the power of the future.

The term "geothermal energy" might bring to mind hot springs and billows of steam rising from the soil, but you can get energy from the ground without moving to Iceland or Yellowstone. You just need a geothermal heat pump.

"We call anything below the ground geothermal," said John Lund, director of the Geo-Heat Center at the Oregon Institute of Technology.

This includes geothermal heating, in which hot underground water is used to heat a building, and geothermal power, in which steam from very hot underground rock (more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit) is used to drive an electric generator.

However, these hydrothermal resources are only available in select areas. A geothermal heat pump (sometimes called a ground source heat pump) can work anywhere.

"They are the fastest growing geothermal use in the world," Lund told LiveScience, with about 20 percent annual growth.

Refrigerate the outdoors

If you've ever touched the tubes on the back of a working refrigerator, you know that it is pulling heat from the inside and radiating it to the rest of the kitchen.

A heat pump is like a refrigerator run backwards. It pulls heat from outdoors (as if it were trying to cool the outside) and releases it indoors.

In both a fridge and a heat pump, a system of tubes circulates a refrigerant fluid that becomes hot when compressed and cold when expanded.

To heat a home, the hot compressed fluid is typically passed through a heat exchanger that warms the air that feeds into a duct system. This "spent" fluid is then cooled through expansion and brought into contact with a ground source, so it can "recharge" with heat.

Although pumping the fluid requires electricity, a geothermal heat pump is more efficient than any alternative heating system. In fact, current models can produce as much as 4 kilowatts of heat for every 1 kilowatt of electricity. This is because they are not generating heat, but rather moving it from the outside.

And some heat pumps can cool as well as heat a home. A valve controls the direction of the fluid, so that heat can flow in both directions.

Down to earth

Some people are familiar with heat pumps that exchange heat with the air outside. These sometimes get lukewarm reviews because they do not work well when the temperature drops below freezing — just when you need them the most.

Geothermal heat pumps overcome this problem by exchanging heat with the ground, which maintains a constant temperature between 45 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the location.

"You wouldn't notice the difference between a home with a geothermal heat pump and one with a gas furnace," Lund said.

There are a number of ways to pull heat from the ground.

The most popular is a vertical geothermal heat pump, in which holes are drilled 150 to 200 feet below the surface. Pipes installed in these holes circulate water (with a dash of anti-freeze) that brings up heat to warm the refrigerant fluid.

An alternative is the horizontal heat pump, where the water-filled pipes are laid about 6 feet deep over a wide area. Although less expensive, these systems require a lot of land to heat a moderate-size building.

For those who live near a body of water or who have their own water well, it is possible to use that water directly as the outside heat source.

Ground swell

The biggest drawback for geothermal heat pumps is that their initial cost can be several times that of traditional heating and cooling systems. The installation for a typical house can run from $6,000 to $13,000, according to ToolBase Services, a housing industry resource.

However, geothermal heat pumps can pay for themselves over time with reduced energy bills. A homeowner can save 30 to 70 percent on heating and 20 to 50 percent on cooling costs over conventional systems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This may be why their popularity is growing. The United States leads the way with close to a million geothermal heat pumps, mostly in the Midwest and East Coast. Another million units can be found throughout Europe and Canada.

"Maybe in Antarctica it wouldn't work, but everywhere else it does," Lund said.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

EPA moves to ease pollution rules

Matthew Blake 11/25/08 8:15 AM


The Environmental Protection Agency seems on the brink of issuing a new regulation that would make it easier for power plants to operate longer hours — and emit more pollution.

Under the proposed rule, power plants would be able to measure their rate of emissions on an hourly basis instead of their annual total output. As long as the hourly emissions stay at or below the plant’s established maximum, the plant would be treated as if it were operating cleanly — even if its total annual emissions increased as plant managers stepped up output.

Under the current policy, power plants that seek to operate longer must install pollution-control equipment. The proposed rule, expected to be finalized in the next two weeks, would increase the life span of older power plants without owners having to install costly new pollution-control equipment.

The rule, though, may be in conflict with a 2007 Supreme Court case, Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy Corp. In a 9-0 ruling, the justices decided that the Clean Air Act required Duke Energy to install pollution-control equipment if its annual pollution output increased. The court made clear that power plants must measure their pollution based on annual output, not an hourly rate.

The proposed power-plant rule marks a final attempt by the Bush administration to radically revise the way environmental laws are applied, especially the Clean Air Act. Throughout his presidency, George W. Bush has sought to weaken the traditional regulatory authority of many federal agencies — like the Food and Drug Admin. and Consumer Product Safety Commission — to make them more friendly to business. This anti-regulatory stand has had perhaps its most sweeping effect on the EPA.

But the administration’s drive to weaken environment safeguards has gotten it into legal trouble. Since Bush took office in 2001, the EPA has issued 27 air-pollution regulations. Seventeen were either partly or entirely thrown out by the D.C. circuit court, which oversees cases involving federal regulation. One, the Duke Energy case, was reversed by the Supreme Court.

In many of the rulings, judges used caustic language in striking down the administration’s position. They lectured EPA officials on elementary legal principles, like the importance of carefully reading the language of a law. The agency has been compared to Humpty Dumpty and the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland.”

Not only judges have given the administration a tongue-lashing. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman, (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, have repeatedly charged that the EPA is undermining the spirit of the Clean Air Act, which passed in 1963 and was strengthened in 1977 and 1990.

Boxer and Waxman have vowed to fight the proposed power-plant regulation. They may well have an ally in the federal court system.

“EPA historically has great credibility in federal courts,” said E. Donald Elliot, who was the agency’s chief lawyer during the George H.W. Bush administration and is now in private practice. “But it has recently had a pretty abysmal record. It has lost the confidence of the courts.”

The easing of pollution controls on power plants stems from an interpretation of “new source review” rules outlined in the Clean Air Act. The law says that before an industry can create a new source of air pollution, the EPA must review it.

In this case, coal-fired power plants — 70 percent of which are between 27 and 57 years old — could install new equipment that would allow them to operate for longer periods of time. Increased operational hours would lead to more emissions of chemical compounds, like nitrogen oxide, that produce smog.

To avoid EPA review — likely to result in the plants having to install pollution-control equipment– the new regulation would measure pollution at an hourly rate.

“We’re changing the way we evaluate totals, not the amount of pollution put out by plants,” said Jonathan Shradar, an EPA spokesman.

But the change in how totals are evaluated could go against Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy Corp.

In that case, Duke Energy, which operates power plants in North and South Carolina, upgraded its plants to keep them running longer hours, resulting in more pollution emissions.

The company contended that it did not have to submit its plant modifications to the EPA for review because its hourly rate of emissions had stayed steady. In rejecting that argument, Justice David Souter wrote that the relevant Clean Air Act provisions “clearly do not define a major modification in terms of an increase in the hourly emissions rate.”

“Each of the thresholds,” Souter continued, “is described in tons per year.”

Environmental lawyers see no reason why the administration’s new power plant regulation would be judged any differently.

“This is the latest in a long line of EPA rules regarding coal-fired power plants that will be overturned,” predicted Jennifer Peterson, an attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project, which specializes in clean-air litigation.

One such rule is the 2006 D.C. circuit court decision, New York v. EPA. In that case, the court decided that the EPA misread a Clean Air Act provision that says “any physical change” in a power plant that increases pollutants requires the power plant to install pollution control equipment.

EPA said that the word “any” was superfluous and that the agency can decide when physical changes are big enough to merit regulation. The D.C. circuit court found EPA’s logical unfathomable.

“Only in a Humpty Dumpty world,” wrote Judge Judith Rogers, “would Congress be required to use superfluous words while an agency could ignore an expansive word that Congress did use. We decline to adopt such a world view.”

Shrader, the EPA spokesman, declined to go into why the new power plant rule would pass legal muster. He pointed out that the EPA is still working on the rule, and language has not been finalized.

EPA has not only lost 18 of 27 clean air court decisions, fully13 of those cases were rejected as contrary to the language of the Clean Air Act. At times, EPA’s defiance of the Clean Air Act has appeared to exasperate the court.

In overturning an EPA rule that allowed some power plants to exceed limits on mercury emissions, the court compared the EPA with the Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” The Queen disregarded laws and proclaimed “off with her head” before a verdict was issued.

In reversing EPA’s loosening of when industrial plants need to seek emission permits, the court implored EPA regulators to do three things: “(1) read the statute; (2) read the statute, (3) read the statute.”

“Repeated losses on plain language grounds,” wrote Waxman, the oversight chairman, in a letter to Stephen Johnson, the EPA administrator, “suggest a reckless determination to pursue the administration’s policy objectives regardless of legal limits.”

Waxman added that he was “gravely concerned” about the proposed regulation to change how power plant pollution is measured. Meanwhile, Boxer, (D-Calif.) chairman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, said she will investigate EPA if the regulation is finalized.

Environmentalists who are veterans to battling EPA over air regulations say that the Bush administration is unique in its flouting of environmental law.

“I’ve never seen such a sheer volume of cases and such a dismal track record by the EPA in court,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “They’ve lost so many cases that you either have to conclude their lawyers are idiots or their polices are illegal. I’d go with the second.”

Elliot, the EPA’s counsel during the George H.W. Bush administration, also said that the number of court losses is without precedent.

“The administration has intentionally pushed the limits of its discretion,” Elliot said. “They do things that might make sense from a policy perspective but not from the language of the statute.”

The result, Elliot said, was that the “good reputation of EPA” has been lost in the D.C. court.

But while this Bush administration has not succeeded in changing the legal reading of the Clean Air Act, critics contend that its actions have had a strong effect on air pollution regulation.

“The failure to weaken rules should be celebrated,” said John Walke, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council who has litigated several cases against Bush’s EPA. “But the failure to carry out the Clean Air Act has enormous public-health consequences.”

Monday, November 24, 2008

Solar Panels Are Vanishing, Only to Reappear on the Internet

By KATE GALBRAITH

DESERT HOT SPRINGS, Calif. — Solar power, with its promise of emissions-free renewable energy, boasts a growing number of fans. Some of them, it turns out, are thieves.

Ken Martin Jr. lost 58 panels from the roof of an office building he owns in Santa Rosa, Calif. He estimated they would cost $75,000 to replace.

Solar panels were stolen from Jim and Shayna Powell’s roof in Palm Desert, Calif.
Just ask Glenda Hoffman, whose fury has not abated since 16 solar panels vanished from her roof in this sun-baked town in three separate burglaries in May, sometimes as she slept. She is ready if the criminals turn up again.

“I have a shotgun right next to the bed and a .22 under my pillow,” Ms. Hoffman said.

Police departments in California — the biggest market for solar power, with more than 33,000 installations — are seeing a rash of such burglaries, though nobody compiles overall statistics.

Investigators do not believe the thieves are acting out of concern for their carbon footprints. Rather, authorities assume that many panels make their way to unwitting homeowners, sometimes via the Internet.

Last November, someone tried to sell solar panels stolen from a toll road in Newport Beach for $100 each on eBay. Detectives from the local police department entered the bidding and won the panels, which were worth nearly $1,500 apiece, according to Sgt. Evan Sailor, a Newport Beach police spokesman.

When Nathan Tyrone Mitchell, a resident of Santa Monica, showed up to hand over the panels, the police greeted him with handcuffs.

Mr. Mitchell, who was charged with possession of stolen property, has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer, Charles Stoddard, said that his client had bought the panels from someone on Craigslist and then tried to resell them on eBay for a profit. “Our contention is that Mr. Mitchell is just an innocent purchaser who kind of got caught up in this thing,” Mr. Stoddard said.

In Contra Costa County, detectives accustomed to handling thefts of copper began to notice solar panels going missing in the last six months, according to Jimmy Lee, a spokesman for the county sheriff’s office.

This summer, an officer on patrol became suspicious when he spotted a man trying to sell solar panels to a home builder who had advertised on Craigslist that he was seeking panels. The officer confiscated the panels and, after detectives found that they matched panels stolen from a school, a California man was charged. Mr. Lee says that law enforcement agencies are investigating about a half-dozen other solar-panel thefts in his area.

“We were surprised and kind of caught off guard” by the solar thefts, said Mr. Lee, who recommends people engrave their driver’s license numbers onto their panels for better identification.

For Tom McCalmont, president of Regrid Power, a solar installation business near San Jose, the problem hit home in late June. His own headquarters was struck by thieves, who took more than $30,000 worth of panels from the roof.

The panels were disassembled expertly, he said, leading him to suspect that someone in the solar industry had done it. He urges clients to install video cameras and alarms for their solar arrays, and likens his own revamped security system to Fort Knox.

“This is the crime of the future,” Mr. McCalmont said.

After suffering a solar theft, some victims find unusual ways to protect their property. Ms. Hoffman, of Desert Hot Springs, could not sleep for several weeks during the string of thefts from her roof.

One night, she waited beside a nearby building and watched her house in an attempt to catch the thieves, causing a suspicious neighbor to call the police. She vows that if she ever catches the culprits, “they’re not going to leave walking” — especially if she feels threatened.

So far, with the losses still modest, homeowners’ insurance is processing the claims with little resistance. Ms. Hoffman’s insurer, State Farm, is paying $95,000 to replace her entire system. She plans to install an alarm, and possibly a video camera.

Not far from Ms. Hoffman, in the town of Palm Desert, Jim and Shayna Powell were devastated after thieves took 19 of their solar panels in June, causing their electricity bill to shoot from $3 to $300 just when they needed air-conditioning the most. “Of all the times of year to steal the panels,” Mr. Powell said in frustration.

Beyond California, solar-power markets are comparatively small, so thefts are still rare — but they are spreading. In the last 18 months, Oregon’s highway department has lost a few panels used to power portable traffic message boards.

In Minnesota, the Sauk River Watershed District has lost at least eight small panels, worth $250 each, in the last few years, according to Melissa Roelike, who coordinates the water quality monitoring program there.

In response, the district has taken steps to protect the panels, including putting them in trees and atop poles. Thieves promptly stole one such panel.

“Obviously, hoisting them 20 feet in the air on a metal pipe does not work,” Ms. Roelike said.

In Europe, where the solar industry is well-established, thievery is entrenched, and measures to ward it off have become standard, including alarm systems and hard-to-unscrew panels.

But in the United States, installers are just coming to grips with the need for alarms, video cameras and indelible engraving of serial numbers. Some people fancy simpler solutions.

Ken Martin Jr. lost 58 panels, which will cost $75,000 to replace, this spring from the roof of a half-empty office building in Santa Rosa, Calif., that he owns. He is considering slapping paint on some parts of his remaining panels — bright pink paint.

“At least if someone comes across them and they’re painted, they’ll know that’s my color,” he said.

Solar Panels Are Vanishing, Only to Reappear on the Internet



By KATE GALBRAITH

DESERT HOT SPRINGS, Calif. — Solar power, with its promise of emissions-free renewable energy, boasts a growing number of fans. Some of them, it turns out, are thieves.

Ken Martin Jr. lost 58 panels from the roof of an office building he owns in Santa Rosa, Calif. He estimated they would cost $75,000 to replace.

Solar panels were stolen from Jim and Shayna Powell’s roof in Palm Desert, Calif.
Just ask Glenda Hoffman, whose fury has not abated since 16 solar panels vanished from her roof in this sun-baked town in three separate burglaries in May, sometimes as she slept. She is ready if the criminals turn up again.

“I have a shotgun right next to the bed and a .22 under my pillow,” Ms. Hoffman said.

Police departments in California — the biggest market for solar power, with more than 33,000 installations — are seeing a rash of such burglaries, though nobody compiles overall statistics.

Investigators do not believe the thieves are acting out of concern for their carbon footprints. Rather, authorities assume that many panels make their way to unwitting homeowners, sometimes via the Internet.

Last November, someone tried to sell solar panels stolen from a toll road in Newport Beach for $100 each on eBay. Detectives from the local police department entered the bidding and won the panels, which were worth nearly $1,500 apiece, according to Sgt. Evan Sailor, a Newport Beach police spokesman.

When Nathan Tyrone Mitchell, a resident of Santa Monica, showed up to hand over the panels, the police greeted him with handcuffs.

Mr. Mitchell, who was charged with possession of stolen property, has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer, Charles Stoddard, said that his client had bought the panels from someone on Craigslist and then tried to resell them on eBay for a profit. “Our contention is that Mr. Mitchell is just an innocent purchaser who kind of got caught up in this thing,” Mr. Stoddard said.

In Contra Costa County, detectives accustomed to handling thefts of copper began to notice solar panels going missing in the last six months, according to Jimmy Lee, a spokesman for the county sheriff’s office.

This summer, an officer on patrol became suspicious when he spotted a man trying to sell solar panels to a home builder who had advertised on Craigslist that he was seeking panels. The officer confiscated the panels and, after detectives found that they matched panels stolen from a school, a California man was charged. Mr. Lee says that law enforcement agencies are investigating about a half-dozen other solar-panel thefts in his area.

“We were surprised and kind of caught off guard” by the solar thefts, said Mr. Lee, who recommends people engrave their driver’s license numbers onto their panels for better identification.

For Tom McCalmont, president of Regrid Power, a solar installation business near San Jose, the problem hit home in late June. His own headquarters was struck by thieves, who took more than $30,000 worth of panels from the roof.

The panels were disassembled expertly, he said, leading him to suspect that someone in the solar industry had done it. He urges clients to install video cameras and alarms for their solar arrays, and likens his own revamped security system to Fort Knox.

“This is the crime of the future,” Mr. McCalmont said.

After suffering a solar theft, some victims find unusual ways to protect their property. Ms. Hoffman, of Desert Hot Springs, could not sleep for several weeks during the string of thefts from her roof.

One night, she waited beside a nearby building and watched her house in an attempt to catch the thieves, causing a suspicious neighbor to call the police. She vows that if she ever catches the culprits, “they’re not going to leave walking” — especially if she feels threatened.

So far, with the losses still modest, homeowners’ insurance is processing the claims with little resistance. Ms. Hoffman’s insurer, State Farm, is paying $95,000 to replace her entire system. She plans to install an alarm, and possibly a video camera.

Not far from Ms. Hoffman, in the town of Palm Desert, Jim and Shayna Powell were devastated after thieves took 19 of their solar panels in June, causing their electricity bill to shoot from $3 to $300 just when they needed air-conditioning the most. “Of all the times of year to steal the panels,” Mr. Powell said in frustration.

Beyond California, solar-power markets are comparatively small, so thefts are still rare — but they are spreading. In the last 18 months, Oregon’s highway department has lost a few panels used to power portable traffic message boards.

In Minnesota, the Sauk River Watershed District has lost at least eight small panels, worth $250 each, in the last few years, according to Melissa Roelike, who coordinates the water quality monitoring program there.

In response, the district has taken steps to protect the panels, including putting them in trees and atop poles. Thieves promptly stole one such panel.

“Obviously, hoisting them 20 feet in the air on a metal pipe does not work,” Ms. Roelike said.

In Europe, where the solar industry is well-established, thievery is entrenched, and measures to ward it off have become standard, including alarm systems and hard-to-unscrew panels.

But in the United States, installers are just coming to grips with the need for alarms, video cameras and indelible engraving of serial numbers. Some people fancy simpler solutions.

Ken Martin Jr. lost 58 panels, which will cost $75,000 to replace, this spring from the roof of a half-empty office building in Santa Rosa, Calif., that he owns. He is considering slapping paint on some parts of his remaining panels — bright pink paint.

“At least if someone comes across them and they’re painted, they’ll know that’s my color,” he said.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Solar panels on graves give power to Spanish town

Solar panels sit on top of niches at the Santa Coloma de Gramenet cemetery, outside Barcelona, Spain,

Santa Coloma de Gramenet, a gritty, working-class town outside Barcelona, has placed a sea of solar panels atop mausoleums at its cemetery, transforming a place of perpetual rest into one buzzing with renewable energy.

Flat, open and sun-drenched land is so scarce in Santa Coloma that the graveyard was just about the only viable spot to move ahead with its solar energy program.

The power the 462 panels produces — equivalent to the yearly use by 60 homes — flows into the local energy grid for normal consumption and is one community's odd nod to the fight against global warming.

"The best tribute we can pay to our ancestors, whatever your religion may be, is to generate clean energy for new generations. That is our leitmotif," said Esteve Serret, director Conste-Live Energy, a Spanish company that runs the cemetery in Santa Coloma and also works in renewable energy.

In row after row of gleaming, blue-gray, the panels rest on mausoleums holding five layers of coffins, many of them marked with bouquets of fake flowers. The panels face almost due south, which is good for soaking up sunshine, and started working on Wednesday — the culmination of a project that began three years ago.

The concept emerged as a way to utilize an ideal stretch of land in a town that wants solar energy but is so densely built-up — Santa Coloma's population of 124,000 is crammed into four square kilometers (1.5 square miles) — it had virtually no place to generate it.

At first, parking solar panels on coffins was a tough sell, said Antoni Fogue, a city council member who was a driving force behind the plan.

"Let's say we heard things like, 'they're crazy. Who do they think they are? What a lack of respect!' "Fogue said in a telephone interview.

But town hall and cemetery officials waged a public-awareness campaign to explain the worthiness of the project, and the painstaking care with which it would be carried out. Eventually it worked, Fogue said.

The panels were erected at a low angle so as to be as unobtrusive as possible.

"There has not been any problem whatsoever because people who go to the cemetery see that nothing has changed," Fogue said. "This installation is compatible with respect for the deceased and for the families of the deceased."

The cemetery hold the remains of about 57,000 people and the solar panels cover less than 5 percent of the total surface area. They cost 720,000 euros ($900,000) to install and each year will keep about 62 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, Serret said.

The community's leaders hope to erect more panels and triple the electricity output, Fogue said. Before this, the town had four other solar parks — atop buildings and such — but the cemetery is by far the biggest.

He said he has heard of cemeteries elsewhere in Spain with solar panels on the roofs of their office buildings, but not on above-ground graves.

HVAC boot cleared of Asbestos in Los Angeles

http://www.ewastedisposal.net