Where do you work?
I work at the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a grassroots nonprofit organization whose mission is to make solar power accessible to people of all income levels.
What does your organization do?
At RREAL, we install solar heating systems onto the homes of low-income families qualifying for energy assistance. In Minnesota, and indeed across the country, hundreds of thousands of families depend on energy assistance to ensure they stay safe and warm through the cold winter months, collectively receiving tens of millions of dollars. Although energy assistance is a much-needed service, it does not offer a lasting solution.
Our Solar Assistance Program offers a permanent solution. Rather than paying families’ heating bills year after year, or even generation after generation in some cases, Solar Assistance creates lasting structural change by empowering families and fostering self-reliance.
Public energy assistance is a subsidy to the fossil-fuel industry. Solar Assistance is a solution to a persistent societal problem as well as a solution to a persistent environmental problem.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, RREAL is in the middle of 25 Solar Assistance installations, and we’re gearing up to move to a sustainable industrial park where we’ll begin manufacturing our own solar thermal collectors. This is going to be a huge leap forward for us, and it’ll help us empower many more families per year!
How do you get to work?
It depends. When we have solar-heating or solar-electric installations to conduct, we drive. It’s difficult to walk or bike anywhere in rural America unless you live and work right in town. When RREAL does hit the road, we do so in a biodiesel work truck. But soon, and weather permitting, I’ll be able to ride my bike to our new manufacturing facility, which is only about five miles away.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
My interest in energy policy began while living for three years in Japan, where I encountered many communities harvesting the energy of the sun for heating and power. Before leaving Japan, several friends and I organized a bicycling campaign to raise awareness about energy and international environmental issues. The cycling trip was called BEE (Bicycling for Everyone’s Earth), and we rode our bikes from the northern tip of Japan to the southern island of Kyushu. We were able to reach scores of Japanese schools, town halls, and civic groups. And the cycling campaign has become an annual event with Japanese and foreign riders traversing the country every summer to discuss environmental issues with the Japanese community.
Some years later, while going to graduate school on a shoestring, I sought out some eco-friendly ways to provide household heat during the cold Minnesota weather. I wanted to do so using solar, but the cost was prohibitive. Serendipitously, I caught word of someone throwing away a solar heating system because the new tenants considered it unsightly! I was there to catch it before it hit the ground and created a solar heating system for a fraction of the commercial cost. The next logical question was, why can’t we do this for other low-income families like mine?
Where do you think environmentalists and social-justice advocates can find common cause?
At RREAL, we take great pride in the fact that we’ve been able to address a social-justice issue — rural poverty — with an environmentally sound and appropriate technology. There are many such intersections, and in the big picture, all social-justice issues and environmental issues have similar root causes. There’s a tremendous amount of potential synergy between both arenas of change.
Do you see environmental ills disproportionately afflicting the communities where you live and work?
Absolutely. When energy crises strike our region, it’s invariably the low-income families that experience the greatest difficulty. Heating and power make up a much larger share of a low-income household’s income than a middle- or upper-income family’s. This disparity means that a small fluctuation in heating costs can make or break a family’s budget, with potentially dire consequences.
The emissions from fossil-fuel power plants have gravely affected Minnesota, with every single waterway under fish-consumption warnings because of mercury pollution — and there are more than 10,000 lakes here! For area Native peoples who traditionally consume a lot of fish and others who rely heavily on fish for their protein, this has had a significant impact.
How can the environmental movement cast a wider net culturally and become a bigger-tent issue politically?
How about a new high-school graduation requirement? Spend at least one service-learning semester abroad in an impoverished community with acute environmental ills. We are such an insular nation that to a large extent, our citizenry has no concept of how environmental issues disproportionately affect communities along class and ethnic lines.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Lawrence, Kan. I currently live in Backus, Minn.
How do you spend your free time? Read any good books lately?
I’m a solar nerd. I’m currently reading The Golden Thread: 2,500 Years of Solar Architecture & Design. When not working on solar projects, I like to canoe the river we live on and run through the woods with my dogs. Getting together with friends for music and reverie is also high on the list of priorities.
What’s your favorite meal?
Red beans and rice followed by some yerba maté — and about a million other veggie meals.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Too many to name, but the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota is certainly one of the more magical places on planet earth (but don’t tell your friends).
If you could institute by fiat one social or environmental reform, what would it be?
Public energy-assistance funds must be used for solar-heating systems for every household with a suitable site! (Solar power is very site-specific and not appropriate for all sites.)
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I don’t have a TV, but recently saw the entire season of Freaks and Geeks. There’s never been a better TV program! I have too many favorite movies to include them all; here are a few: Triplets of Belleville, Star Wars, and Trainspotting.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Go solar! It’s easier than you might think. Building your own solar heating system is well within the abilities of a huge percentage of society. If you don’t have the skill set yourself, someone you know does.
You Can Grow Your Own Ray
How do I find out if my site is suitable for solar, and how do I go about building my own system? — Louise Wickham, Wellington, New Zealand
Determining if your site is suitable for solar starts with assessing your solar resource. Essentially, you’re determining if enough sunlight strikes the proposed solar array location to make it worthwhile. We use a tool called a solar pathfinder to assess solar radiation at sites. This tool is available from SolarPathfinder and costs a couple hundred (U.S.) dollars. Otherwise, your local solar contractor should be able to determine that for you.
The type of solar power system that’s most readily built at home is a solar forced-air system. Check out “solar air heating” on the web for numerous schematics. Other solar-energy systems require much greater sophistication to produce.
I am a student living in a first-floor apartment in a very urban area. Should I try to persuade the building owner to install solar for the whole building? If the owner refuses, is there anything an individual apartment can do? — Sarah Glaser, San Diego, Calif.
Go for it. Approach your building owner. The worst he or she can say is “no.” The more specific details you can offer in terms of potential cost savings (San Diego would be a great place for a solar hot-water system), the more likely the owner is to listen. There are great resources out there on the internet for finding out more specifics.
Just because you live in an apartment doesn’t mean that you can’t use solar power. You could get (or make) a solar oven and cook awesome meals with the sun’s energy. People all around the world cook with solar ovens. Internationally, they’re especially effective in areas where desertification has made traditional cooking fuels like wood rare. Solar cookers are available all over the internet; check out the Solar Oven Society.
What was the focus of your graduate school work? How would you recommend someone get into the solar or wind-power industry? — Jesse Langdon, Shoreline, Wash.
My graduate work is in environmental studies policy and planning at Bemidji State University. If you’re interested in getting into the industry, it shouldn’t be difficult — the industry is booming. Finding a niche depends on what you want to do. The renewable-energy industry needs many skilled people: installers, manufacturers, renewable-energy advocates, community leaders and organizers, engineers, fund-raisers, lobbyists, etc. Start by setting up your own system — that’s always a good first step. Walk the talk, then talk the walk.
What do you install for people — solar water heaters or photovoltaic cells? Is the hot water used just for hot water or somehow to heat the house as well? — Timothy Hinkle, Middletown, Conn.
We install solar hot-water systems, solar electric systems, and solar forced-air systems. We’ve used solar liquid heat for space heating in in-floor radiant heat systems as well as potable hot-water loads.
Do you follow up regarding maintenance of the systems you install? — Polly Stout, Carey, Ohio
We offer lifetime maintenance for all Solar Assistance installations. If anything goes wrong, fails, wears out, etc., we’ll repair or replace. Our Solar Assistance installations are low maintenance, with very few moving parts — they have only an HVAC direct-current blower fan powered by a solar electric module.
For solar contracting installations, we offer maintenance contracts to the client.
What are your guidelines as to “low-income”? Do you do work in other states? — Jeri L. Holmes, Pomona, Calif.
In our service area, we define “low-income” using the same economic thresholds used by public energy-assistance programs. If a family qualifies for energy assistance, they qualify for our Solar Assistance program. The threshold varies depending on size of family and several other factors.
Currently, we don’t work outside of Minnesota. However, we do hope that our program expands or will be replicated to serve and empower families throughout the country.
Do you have any advice or information on starting a program like yours elsewhere? — Lavelle Ferris, Hamilton, Texas
First and foremost, I would encourage you to start a program. Use our program model if you wish, or tailor it to better suit your community’s needs. RREAL is planning to host a national symposium in 2008 on using solar heat for low-income energy-assistance programs. Please join us for that event.
I don’t qualify for “low-income,” but I feel very low-income. I am a single head of household with two daughters in college, and we literally live paycheck to paycheck worrying about home repairs and other unexpected expenses. Any advice for people like me? — Janet Lind, Tacoma, Wash.
I understand what you mean. It’s frustrating when the technology that we all realize is most appropriate is simply out of reach. If a society is to embrace clean and appropriate technologies, they must become universally accessible.
If done properly, solar heat should actually save you money. This won’t necessarily be the case with solar electricity. Essentially, you’ll be purchasing your fuel up-front, realizing that the cost of conventional heating fuels is only going to rise over time. But the capital outlay is often just too much.
In your case — and actually in everyone’s case — the emphasis should really be on energy efficiency and conservation. You can save more money and energy with simple energy-efficiency upgrades. It’s a more subtle statement, but a highly effective one. Try to reduce your energy consumption as much as possible using efficient lighting, low-flow faucet heads, power strips for phantom loads, window seals, and insulation. All of this will accomplish the same thing as a renewable-energy system. And when you can afford the solar water-heating system, it won’t have to be as large to meet your needs because your needs will have been reduced!
Everyone wants solar energy, but economics have to be considered for most people to add or convert. Where do your systems stand today vs. average electric rates? — Grant Nally, Mulberry, Ark.
When most fossil fuels are heavily subsidized, the playing field is simply not fair. Nonetheless, solar heat is competitive with electric heat, liquid propane, and fuel oil, providing about a 15 percent return on investment per annum. Depending upon local incentives and so on, solar electricity is still not cost-effective — it will take 20 to 35 years to get payback on a solar electric system unless you are in a remote site without grid access, in which case solar electricity compares favorably with bringing in grid power.
The interesting component to cost comparisons is that they rarely reflect costs external to the commercial market. Such costs are not accounted for in conventional economics. Take, for example, a gallon of gas at the pump. The environmental costs (global warming, smog, etc.) and health costs (asthma, etc.) of burning a gallon of gas are not reflected in the $2.50 you pay. Much in the same way, the social benefits of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions are also not reflected in the costs of renewable energy.
I have a second home in rural Wisconsin on which I’d like to install solar panels. Since I’m there only every other weekend, I thought my rural electric co-op would jump at the chance to have my solar power excess provided back to the grid. They did not; they offered a buyback at less than a third of the kilowatt price that I pay to them. I was surprised to learn that electric co-ops are not held to the same buyback standards as other electric companies. Can you explain this shortsightedness, and do you have any suggestions? — Angie Mitchell, Chicago, Ill.
It’s unfortunate that your utility is not willing to pay you at a better rate for the surplus power that you would produce. Once our nation gets its energy priorities straight, this won’t be an issue.
Different states have different policies about grid-tied solar electric systems and what’s known as net-metering. For a great reference guide to what your state and other states offer, check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy. Click on your state for a detailed listing of your state’s incentives. Of course, I would always recommend contacting your state legislators with your concern on this issue. It helps if you get all of your friends to contact them too!
The good news is you live in a state that does offer net-metering (power buyback). Some states don’t even offer that. I believe Minnesota is one of the few states that pays its grid-tied solar-electric citizens the same rate that the customer pays for electricity.
Distributed generation of electricity is a democratizing force creating community and self-sufficiency with a clean technology. Even if your state doesn’t offer the greatest financial incentives, there are other incentives to go solar.
Will your solar heating products be available for sale to the general public? If not, which products can you recommend? — Cory Schulz, Minneapolis, Minn.
Our solar heating products are available to the public. And when the public purchases a solar heating installation or materials from us, they know that all profits generated from that sale go to our Solar Assistance program.
Having said that, there are hundreds of solar contracting businesses in the U.S. You can easily find a solar contracting service with significant experience in your neighborhood. Home Power Magazine (highly recommended!) has a great directory of solar contractors nationwide. If you live in Minneapolis, you might want to check out Innovative Power Systems.
Who or what are the main sources of funding for RREAL’s projects? — Polly Stout, Carey, Ohio
RREAL’s funding is entirely local — and also very meager. We welcome donations, and they are, of course, tax-deductible. We’re striving to do a great deal with very little, and it’s only because there is a committed core team composed mostly of volunteers that we’re able to do anything at all! With an operating budget of $70,000 this year — not all of which has been raised — we’re installing another 15 Solar Assistance systems.
We’re hoping that policymakers will soon see the practicality of our approach and financial sustainability will come our way.
Can solar panels really provide a household with power throughout the kind of winters you get in Minnesota? — Richard Douglas, London, U.K.
Actually, yes. The effectiveness of solar power is more a matter of site than latitude. Minnesota boasts a good year-round solar resource that truly is comparable to parts of some southern states. And snow cover in Minnesota during the winter actually increases the output of some systems.
The potential for solar is generally measured in terms of how many peak-sun hours a region gets. Peak-sun hours are partially a function of latitude and partially a function of regional climate (the number of cloudy days, atmospheric haze, etc.). Peak-sun hours are the equivalent number of hours per day when solar irradiance averages 1,000 watts per square meter. In most of Minnesota, we average about 4.3 peak-sun hours over the year. This number can also change depending on how you tilt your array. Tracking systems or adjustable solar arrays affect this number. Solar radiation data for a site near you (U.S. readers) is available through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory — an example of your tax dollars truly hard at work.
Whether or not solar will provide an adequate amount of power for a given household also depends greatly upon you. Energy consumption habits vary from house to house — some are energy hogs, others are conservationists. Are your walls well-insulated? Do you use fluorescent bulbs? Can you hang your laundry instead of using a drier? Taking energy-saving measures is the first step to moving toward solar.
Does solar work in Minnesota and northern latitudes? Absolutely. Is solar the only resource? Definitely not. Solar is part of a milieu of energy options. A diverse energy portfolio for a family, business community, or society is a healthy one. Solar is part of a bigger solution to the world’s energy needs.
What is the average overall winter heating energy consumption of the homes you are working on? What is the Btu output of the systems that you are installing? — Michael LeBeau, Duluth, Minn.
The average overall winter-heating energy consumption of the homes we are working on varies tremendously. Generally, the homes consume about 100 million to 130 million Btus per season. Most of the systems we employ for Solar Assistance installations are solar forced-air systems, which are simple and low-cost solar heating applications. The systems have an output of 7,500 Btus per square foot per hr at 0 degrees F outside air temperature and insolation of 1,000 watts per square meter. Annual production also varies depending upon site conditions and yearly weather patterns. However, we’ve estimated that a typical installation provides roughly 30 million to 50 million Btus.
Currently, we are conducting a study on the financial costs and social benefits of using solar heat for public energy-assistance programs. We’re hoping to determine the exact extent to which our program could meet the state’s growing energy-assistance needs and move the state toward Kyoto compliance. I’d be happy to send a copy when it’s published if you’re interested.
At RREAL, we were activists before techies; we started with what we thought was a good idea and have been learning the technical stuff along the way, with the help of some knowledgeable friends. We know that the Solar Assistance systems have been highly effective for some of the families using them — one family was able to remove their fuel-oil tank entirely.
Have you seen opportunities in rural areas where your work could actually become a profitable business? In other words, what creative business plans are out there to turn poor rural energy consumers into paying customers who will buy solar power? — Matthew Albrecht, Boston, Mass.
Interestingly, there are proposals in central Minnesota right now to create low-interest lending entities to provide solar power systems of all types to the rural poor. Nothing has manifested concretely yet, but it seems to be in the works.
One thing is for sure: the solar contracting industry is ripe for development, and opportunities for community-based solar installers are great.
We have seen the failure of thousands of build-your-own solar thermal systems over the years. In a freeze-thaw environment like Minnesota, shouldn’t you leave solar thermal manufacturing and installation to the professionals? — Kari Heinrich, Madison, Wis.
Indeed, solar will only succeed if it’s done properly. The collectors that we’ve been using for the past five years are not homemade. Although refurbishing of used collectors has taken place, all our collectors are SRCC (Solar Rating and Certification Corporation) certified, as appropriately required by Minnesota state law. Collectors we employ are made of timeless materials including metal and glass. Additionally, the majority of our Solar Assistance installations have been solar forced-air, for which the freeze-thaw factor is irrelevant.
Although we probably had more passion than professionalism when we began, we are now only a few steps away from North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners certification.
We are currently in the process of researching and developing our own thermal collector specifically geared for low-cost, widespread, easy installation in our Solar Assistance program. We have the help of experienced engineers and will submit our design to undergo the battery of tests required for SRCC certification. Manufacturing is slated to begin in November of 2007 and will reduce our per-family cost, enabling us to empower more families. Plus, we hope to offer this collector to the public as well in an effort to generate revenue and create a measure of financial self-sustainability within our organization. Collectors will be properly and professionally engineered, rated, tested and certified, and manufactured.
I am an urban-planning grad student currently interning at Habitat for Humanity, and I have to deal with a fairly conservative construction manager who is reluctant to try new or risky things. Do you think solar water-heating would be applicable in our situation? How can I justify this to a construction manager with an eye fixed on the bottom line? — Joe McNulty, Philadelphia, Pa.
You’re interning for a great organization, and I’m glad to see more and more green projects coming out of Habitat. I recommend that you locate other green Habitat projects across the country — they’re out there and growing in number. Use that as a reference. Also, you might explain that solar heat, when properly employed, is actually a great investment with an average of 15 percent ROI per annum. And with substantial tax credits available, the financials look even better. This makes solar heat competitive with most other heating methods.
I also recommend that you download RETScreen International’s clean-energy project software. RETScreen crunches numbers and provides wonderful data on clean energy projects big and small. The software will provide numbers specific to your site, region, and installation — giving you stats on energy output and savings, financial summaries, greenhouse-gas emissions, lifecycle costs, and more. And thanks to the Canadian government, it’s free.
Installing a solar hot-water system can be somewhat complicated; although volunteers can certainly assist in an installation, it’s best to have an experienced supervisor. You should be able to find a few solar contractors in the Philadelphia neighborhood.
Will the onset of higher average temperatures in certain parts of the world lend itself to the greater use — and, ultimately, wider acceptance — of solar power? — Greg Mash, Wilmington, N.C.
It’s difficult to say how global warming will affect the solar resource. Ironically, solar electric panels actually perform better when it is cold. Let’s hope it doesn’t take the calamity of global warming to convince society that it’s time for solar and the renewable revolution.
Do you ever have interns working with you? — Eva Fillion, Baltimore, Md.
Yes! C’mon down. We’re doing a batch of Solar Assistance installations this summer between July and October, and we will definitely be in need of assistance. We’ve got a full plate and a skeleton crew. Please consider interning with us.