Sunday, February 26, 2012

Solar Panels in Georgetown

“It was a no-brainer.”  Marc Mulzer is talking about the bargain he got on a solar array installed on his roof last week.  Mr. Mulzer is from Munich, where solar is a “huge, huge deal.”  The German city has pledged to use only renewable energy by 2025, and Mr. Mulzer estimates that every third house already sports photovoltaic panels.  The solar industry has been very robust in Germany, in spite of a rather unremarkable quantity of sunshine.  Last year almost half of all the solar installations in the world were in Germany.  When Mr. Mulzer came to Texas thirteen years ago he wanted to take advantage of our abundant sunshine but was discouraged by the high cost of panels and lack of financial incentives from the state.  This year he got lucky.

The city of Georgetown received $50,000 for solar incentives from a Department of Energy grant and was able to offer a few fortunate applicants a rebate of $2 per watt of photovoltaic capacity installed.  Mr. Mulzer’s system can produce 4 kilowatts, meaning he received an $8000 discount from the city on the price of his system.  His solar installer, Longhorn Solar, offered him another hefty rebate for being their first customer in the area.  Mr. Mulzer’s out of pocket cost will be only $3000 for a system that will provide almost half of all the electricity he needs for decades.  He also expects to take advantage of a $900 federal tax credit when he pays his income tax next year.  The solar panels will pay for themselves in about four years.

There are sixteen solar panels on the south-facing part of the Mulzer’s roof.  Any time the sun is shining each panel is producing about 250 watts of electricity.  That direct current travels to an inverter box on the side of the house where it is converted to alternating current for household use.  If the panels are generating more electricity than the house is using, the excess feeds into the electric grid where it can be used by other Georgetown customers.  When the panels are feeding the grid, the meter is running backwards.  At night when the sun is not shining, or anytime they are using more electricity than the panels can produce, the Mulzers will get their electricity from the grid like everybody else.  This is called a grid-connected system, and there are no batteries required.  Switching back and forth from solar to the grid is automatic; the Mulzers will never have to think about it.  With no moving parts and hail-resistant glass, the panels will be essentially maintenance free for 25 to 30 years.

Why should the city be interested in helping people buy solar panels?  The answer is peak demand.  On a hot summer afternoon when everybody turns on their air conditioners, wholesale electricity prices get very, very expensive.  During times of near brown-out, the wholesale price can be much higher than the retail price, so the city is losing money to keep the lights on.  If enough houses have solar panels cranking out electricity on those same hot afternoons, it’s like an extra power plant on the rooftops of the city.  This “distributed generation” means a lower peak demand on the coal and gas-fired power plants and less need for the city to shell out exorbitant sums for emergency power.

The grant that funded Mr. Mulzer’s panels has been used up, but Kathy Ragsdale, Conservation Services Director for Georgetown Utility Systems, is developing another in-house program of solar incentives that would not depend on federal grants.  Those new rebates are not yet available to city customers.  However, customers of Oncor can sign up for incentives immediately and be ready to generate their own solar electricity this summer.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Electronic Waste

People, Planet, Profit – the Triple Bottom Line

Behind the Goodwill Store at 3010 Williams Drive, Matt is taking donations.  He takes my old computer and stacks it on top of other discarded computers in a box 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall.  Matt says the Georgetown location fills up three of those boxes every day.

In almost every household in America is a Closet of Digital Purgatory, the place where unwanted computers, keyboards, monitors, and mice languish in neglect.  These things were expensive, and they still work, so we hesitate to discard them.  But it’s time for a new upgrade and the closet is full, so something has to go.

Globally, 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are discarded every year.  A typical computer monitor contains 4-8 pounds of lead; a flat panel monitor contains mercury.  Electronic waste can also contain other toxic substances such as cadmium, hexavalent chromium, beryllium, phthalates, and polybrominated fire retardants.  Fifteen states have banned landfill disposal of electronic waste.  (Texas is not yet one of them.)  Much e-waste is exported to places like Guiyu, China, which by 2006 had already imported 1.5 million tons for reprocessing, in violation of even Chinese regulations.  Mountains of e-waste also exist in Viet Nam, Ghana, India, and other less developed countries where desperately poor people are willing to melt circuit boards over open flames, exposing themselves and their children to poisonous lead fumes, and then throwing the leftover toxics into the water supply.

Since 2008, by law every computer manufacturer that wants to sell computers in Texas must provide free and convenient recycling for those computers once they are no longer useful.  Dell Computers teamed up with Goodwill Industries of Central Texas back in 2004, well before the law was passed, to keep old computers out of our landfills.  This collaboration is called Dell Reconnect.

All computers collected at any area Goodwill are sent to the Goodwill Computer Works facility at 1015 Norwood Park in north Austin.  Jeff Kendall, manager of the Computer Works program, says they receive 250 tons of equipment every month.  Step one is to sort out the best pieces for resale, which is always the preferred destination.  A skilled technician cleans away the dust and erases the hard drive to Department of Defense standards, so that not even an expert hacker can ever again access any of the previous owners’ photo albums or online purchases.  The technician upgrades the memory, installs a licensed Microsoft operating system, and some free office and antivirus software.  These refurbished computers sell for as low as $80 in the adjacent store with a 90 day warranty.  Flat screen monitors go for $30.  Kendall says they sell about five computers a day.  He would like to sell more because the proceeds help support Goodwill’s community service programs for the disabled and the unemployed.

Only about 20% of donated computers are resold.  The rest are dismantled for recycling, often by enthusiastic volunteers.  Kendall explains that it takes about 5 minutes to instruct a Boy Scout troop of eager 10 year olds to deconstruct a computer with a screwdriver.  Then stand back.  Cases go in one bin, circuit boards in another, copper wire in a third.  All hard drives are immediately turned over to a trained technician in a secure area where they are wiped clean or destroyed before leaving the facility.

After the unwanted computers are dismantled, Dell Computers is responsible for recycling the components.  The actual fate of the recycled materials is in the hands of Dell’s “Environmental Partners.”   Dell maintains a very strict, and public, Environmental Partner Performance Standard for electronics disposition, which mandates environmentally responsible recovery of heavy metals and prohibits dumping of toxic materials in developing countries.  Child and prison labor are also prohibited.  Jeff Kendall could not tell me who Dell’s Environmental Partners are because their identity is protected by a non-disclosure agreement.

Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment and Vice Chair for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, was instrumental in the passage of the law requiring computer companies to provide recycling to their customers.  She believes that Dell is the most environmentally responsible of the computer manufacturers, but she has been trying unsuccessfully since 2004 to find out the identity of the Environmental Partners.  In spite of the secrecy surrounding the Environmental Partners, in July 2011 Michael Dell and Lisa Jackson, administrator of the EPA, cosigned a document promoting the safe management of used electronics using methods that protect both workers and the environment.

Waste Management’s Hutto Recycling Center also collects discarded computers for the Reconnect program.  Texas Disposal Systems prefers that customers take their discarded computers directly to Goodwill collection stations.

Jeff Kendall:  Manager of ComputerWorks