Sorting Through the “Green” Stuff at MaLode

There is a lot to learn about making your home, business or lifestyle “Green”. Here at the River Center we have discovered that if you want to learn how to save money and reduce fossil fuel consumption most cost effectively, it pays to stop listening and start thinking. Yes, more information is good, but so much of it consists of confusing “infomercials” for a new kind of “Green Consumerism”.

Take energy for instance. In 2007 when we drew up our Greenhouse Gas Action Plan (GAP) we were aware that most folks associated solar energy with photovoltaic (PV) panels. In fact, our neighbor had recently installed a fancy new set of PV panels that made us, quite frankly, envious. We heard there were tax credits and good deals to be had, and dreams of PV panels began dancing in our heads.

Then we did the math. Once we ranked the sources of our greenhouse gas emissions in the GAP, we discovered that not only was our use of electricity comparatively low, it largely came from pre-existing hydroelectric sources which produced very little new greenhouse gas to operate. In fact, most of our greenhouse gases were coming out of the tailpipes of our vehicles, not from our electric pole. This led to the EcoBus and our fleet of vehicles powered by waste vegetable oil (WVO), a fuel that produces 80% less carbon emissions than conventional fossil fuel.

Furthermore, we discovered that after vehicle fuel, our next largest producer of greenhouse gases was the heating of hot water with the fossil fuel, propane. Alan Carrozza, our solar expert, then suggested that after insulation, solar hot water heating was our next logical energy investment and that it would be much more cost efficient than PV electricity.

This motivated our first solar water heater, a simple “passive” system that cost approximately $1500 and which produced 28,750 BTUs of energy daily. To compare this system to PV we convert BTUs, a measure of thermal energy, into to kilowatt-hours by multiplying by the factor .0002931, resulting in 8.43 kilowatts. An 8.4 KW photovoltaic system would cost approximately $1000 per kilowatt or $84,000. Bottom line, the solar hot water heater produces the same energy 56 times more cost efficiently than the PV panels!

Just for a point of reference, we asked our neighbor if they had installed a solar hot water heater since, like the average American homeowner, over 33% of their energy is used to heat water. Predictably, the answer was no.

How could this be? These folks are not dumb; on the contrary, they are very smart, idealistic, and trying to do the right thing. What we realized, however, was that they were just like us, at risk of becoming victims of “Green Consumerism”. Like other forms of consumerism, the green variety claims that if it costs a lot, is fashionable, and or looks green, it must be green. Clearly, this isn’t true. BP and its “beyond petroleum” advertising campaign are a great example of “green consumerism” and it is no coincidence that they are the largest seller of PV panels in the US, yet they don’t sell solar hot water heaters at all. Why? Less profit!

We learned several things from this experience. One is that the mantra, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is actually very logically sequenced. Unless we Reduce what we consume first, the Reuse and Recycle have a hard time reducing the net impact on the planet. As the video “The Story of Stuff” points out, the stuff we already produce would require 5 planet Earths to be sustainable. Furthermore, when we produce stuff, it is always “Toxins in, Toxins out” and those toxins always end up somewhere. Since toxins concentrate in biological systems, it turns out that human breast milk has the highest concentration of toxins of any food we consume. Wait a minute, can that be right? Check it out at www.storyofstuff.com. Once you do, you will probably agree that we should all take the advice of Daniel Goleman who proposes in his book, Ecological Intelligence, that we do the math and determine the total ecological cost of everything we buy, and let these numbers guide our purchases.

So what does this all mean at MaLode? No doubt it won’t surprise you that we now heat all our hot water at MaLode with solar energy. This requires three separate solar heaters of two basic types: active and passive. Each system “pre-heats” the water from the well with solar energy before it goes into a propane water heater. This ensures that the hot water is at the desired temperature and neither too cold (it is warmed up with propane to the target temperature), or too hot (it is cooled down by being mixed with more cold water). The passive system is best suited for a lower volume use such as the kitchens. Both types of system reduce propane use by approximately 70%.

We are particularly proud of the “active” system that powers the showers and which was designed by Alan Carrozza (pictured on the left) and completed last winter by our tenant, Cornelius (on the right). In this case an electronic brain senses the temperature in the solar hot water heating panels. If the temperature is higher than the water stored in the solar hot water reservoir tank, an electric pump is activated to circulate the water from the panels to the solar reservoir. This system can produce more hot water than the passive system, which is why we chose it for the showers where we encounter our highest volume of hot water use.

So ends another happy chapter at MaLode. We are excited about moving forward, albeit deliberately, toward energy independence and ecological sustainability. This season one of our guests suggested that we use a super efficient steam engine he has invented, which derives its energy from solar thermal panels, to turn an electric generator that would produce our electricity. Hmmm, Stay tuned. In the meantime, we look forward to your next visit and, by the way, use all the hot water you want. That is, if you can wring it out of the low flow showerheads donated to us by PG&E!

See you on the River,
Scott and the MaLode Crew

American River Rafters Support Solar Power

Archer School Students Write Letters to their Legislators

What better way to conclude your freshman year in high school than by rafting, hiking and camping on the historic and beautiful South Fork of the American River in Coloma, California? For five days this week, the Mother Lode River Center and Santa Barbara Adventure Company played host to seventy members of the freshman class of the Archer School for Girls. These intrepid adventurers tent camped on our beach, rafted two days, hiked another day and generally had the time of their lives! Spending an extended period outdoors helped them encounter the natural world while learning about themselves, bonding with their classmates, and expanding their ability to accomplish team challenges such as navigating a raft through Class III whitewater rapids.

Seamlessly integrated into these activities were challenge course group games that heightened their awareness of their surroundings and also promoted connection to each other and the natural world. Campfires, facilitated sing-alongs, quiet time by the ever changing river- all these elements combined to make the experience something the students will remember fondly and benefit from for the rest of their lives.

This season the students also had the advantage of encountering the new Sustainable Practices Program at the River Center. For instance, each time they left the river center in Mother Lode’s new EcoBus, the fuel powering their journey was ecologically responsible 100% waste vegetable oil which reduced their carbon footprint by 80% when compared to the use of petrochemicals. The hot water they used in the kitchen was heated by our new solar panels. The Solar Energy Exploratorium was open for those interested and during their visit “PLUGRIN” the electric car made its debut demonstrating the potential for a true zero emissions vehicle.

On the their next to last day, blushing with the success of running “Troublemaker”, the largest rapid on the exciting Chili Bar Run, they had the opportunity to exercise their environmental muscle as well. One of their guides explained the importance of supporting the investment tax credit for solar power by writing a letter to their legislator. They enthusiastically wrote eloquent and well informed letters that Mother Lode will forward to Governor Schwarzenneger, President Bush, Senators Reid, Boxer and Feinstein and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as well as the three candidates for President. By requesting a reply, these letters will allow each of them to discover where their political leaders stand and make each of them aware of their power to change the world in positive ways.

Experience, Connection, Observation, Stewardship- this is “ECOS” and for over thirty years this has been the Mother Lode Way. These Archer School students had a great opportunity to encounter and complete the full circle. We are pleased to have been a part of their world and we look forward to collaborating with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company to bring similar experiences to other students from the Los Angeles area in the future.

Photovoltaic Solar Green Energy to Power the SEE

Solar Energy Exploratorium Heats Up

Today we added PV (photovoltaics) to the Solar Energy Exploratorium! Notice the two new PV panels located just above the solar hot water heater that Greg and Charlie are standing next to. As we mentioned last week in this blog, the thermal hot water heater pictured here is capable of pumping out 28,750 BTUs of solar energy and we are pleased to report it is now successfully heating the water for both our kitchens and guide shower.

The addition of the photovoltaic (PV) panels is to provide electricity for the SEE. This PV system is linked to a highly efficient electrolyte “gel” based battery. The set-up has the advantage of being fully portable and truly being “off the grid” from the moment it is plugged in. Unlike a “grid linked system” that depends on external power, this system has no need to be connected to PG&E; to provide electricity,

We will use the PV/battery system to power the SEE’s computer that will allow our students to do such things as: Estimate the carbon footprint of their home, school or community; Explore educational websites such as the National Alternative Energy Lab; Fire off emails supporting their favorite solar power legislative initiatives; etc!

Needless to say, the excitement has been building around here as the UPS driver delivers new solar toys for the SEE almost every day. Our “hybrid” solar oven is a particularly interesting addition because it combines direct thermal solar heat concentrated by reflective surfaces with electrically generated heat. We can now run the electrical portion of it with our PV / battery system and be entirely solared powered even on cloudy days.

Our solar race cars have also arrived and are quite a hit with the guides who are, after all, just kids at heart. The photovoltaic cell powered image projectors are quite mesmerizing and remind some of us of the Avalon Ballroom during its glory days. We have also been busy using our new planetarium to demonstrate the effects of the seasons, the longitude of ones location, and the degree to which your solar panel faces south to estimate solar energy yields. So far our calculations reveal that based upon our latitude and weather, Californians can replace an average of 73% of their hot water heating energy with thermal solar water heaters. We can also demonstrate that a seemingly very small area of concentrating solar arrays or PV panels located in Nevada would provide enough energy for all the electrical needs of the USA. This is fun stuff!

Today we had confirmation of another exciting development. Soon we will be using our new PV panels to recharge a full size, for real, solar car! This four passenger car is entirely electrically driven, has highway capability, and has the very appropriate California license plate “PLUGRIN”. We anticipate using the car to give our students rides on the property to demonstrate that powering a car with the sun really does work. I will make a special trip to Santa Barbara to pick up the car, which is generously being loaned by the famous solar energy enthusiast Dorothy Pierce. Thanks Nana!

Speaking of solar enthusiasts and heros, none of our solar projects would be possible without the expertise and generosity of Allen Carrozza, our solar guru who has loaned us all of the solar panels for educational purposes. Allen loves to share his vast knowledge of solar technology with others and is looking forward helping the River Center spread the word about solar power as part of the Sustainable Practices Institute. We also thank Daneille Fisher and the folks at Grange on Green for their support.

By the way, if you are a schoolteacher, keep in mind that students aren’t the only ones that will benefit from our programs. We plan to “teach the teachers” about solar power too. If you would like to “bring on home” the solar energy buzz to your own classroom, what better place to attend a seminar than here on the American River where you can combine your learning with whitewater rafting, camping and other forms of recreation such as petting Charlie the River Dog.

Warm Solar Greetings from the American River,

Scott, Allen, Greg, Daneille and Charlie the River Dog