Category Archives: Energy

Do You Dream of Going Solar?

Fall is the time to start planning for a solar PV (electricity) installation for the coming year.

You can learn more about solar energy by taking a class at the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society (MRES). This organization also offers site assements. A preliminary site assessment can be done quickly using Google, but if your site looks promising, a more detailed assessment will be needed. MRES does this for $175 for homeowners.

You should also talk to one or more solar installers. If you live in Longfellow, you can contact the solar installer located right in our neighborhood: Applied Energy Innovations at 4000 Minnehaha Avenue (612-532-0384).*

In the past, property owners would have submitted the paperwork for their project to  the Xcel “Solar Rewards” program, which offered incentives and rebates for solar PV installations. Xcel is no longer accepting submissions for that program. Xcel’s website says that they will be “working with the MN Department of Commerce” to “interpret” the [heavily watered-down] energy bill that passed the 2013 legislative session before it takes any future action. I take that to mean ‘see how little action the state will force us to take and how little we will have to do to meet the letter of the law,’ but I’m cynical in that way.

The Center for Energy and Environment (CEE) is offering low-interest loans for homeowners of single-family, owner-occupied primary residences who want to install PV technology. Through their program, you can get a loan up to $20,000 at 5.001% APR for up to 10 years. There is no maximum income limit. The loan is secured by a mortgage on your property. The maximum system size you can install is 8kW. Contact Stephen Hines, loan officer for the energy program, for more info: 612-335-5851.

No room on your roof? Can’t afford a loan? You can still support solar power by investing in the community solar garden in the works on Lake Street, on the roof of Northern Sun. This project is selling “subscriptions,” allowing any Xcel customer to buy a portion of the solar installation and to reap the financial benefits from the power it produces with a reduction on their monthly energy bill. (Follow the link to learn more.)

The community solar garden concept isn’t new. There are solar gardens in other parts of the country and the Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association (Wright County) dedicated its first solar community project on September 9 of this year. Its project was unique in that it combined solar energy with battery storage so stored energy could be deployed when it was needed. (One of the greatest benefits of solar power is that peak production occurs in the middle of the day, which is also the time of highest demand, especially in the hot summer months. One of the greatest drawbacks, of course, is the fact that production decreases long before demand decreases. The battery system will begin to address that problem.)

Want to stay up-to-date on solar developments and other clean-energy opportunities? Subscribe to the CERT e-newsletter.

*I am not paid by any of the companies mentioned in this post, nor am I recommending any specific products or services. I am providing information.

Researchers Question Enbridge Oil Spill Risk Assessment Methods

Today is the last day to submit a rebuttal comment to Enbridge’s request before the PUC to increase the carrying capacity of one of its pipelines across northern Minnesota.

Yesterday the Vancouver Sun carried an interesting article about Enbridge’s faulty risk assessment methodology. It says that Enbridge does not use the standard risk assessment tool — the U.S. Oil Spill Risk Analysis model – and it appears to have drastically underestimated risks associated with its pipelines and oil transport project across British Columbia.

Researchers at Simon Fraser University issued a report after examining the risk assessment of the Northern Gateway megaproject, which includes a lengthy pipeline, a marine terminal and tankers.

In addition to its failure to use the standard risk assessment model, it was found that the model Enbridge does use had 28 deficiencies. The database it used to create its assessment significantly under-reports tanker incidents — by 38 to 96%. And researchers say Enbridge made no attempts to correct for under-reporting.

Enbridge assessed the risk of a marine tanker oil spill at 18%; the researchers concluded that the chance of a spill was between 93 and 99% (over the 30 to 50-year operating life of the project).

Enbridge estimated one oil spill every two years along its 1,160 kilometer pipeline, According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Tom Gunton, director of the School of Resource and Environmental Management at SFU, the researchers estimated up to 15 oil spills per year, based on Enbridge’s own pipeline spill records from 2002 to 2010.

Based on this news, I think it would be reasonable to say that for the safety of our communities and our water supply, the MN PUC – and any other governmental body making decisions on Enbridge projects – should conduct its own risk assessment or hire an independent firm to do so.

The Focus of Year 3: Learning and Political Action

So we’re two-plus years into this adventure. The first year we worked on energy usage and reducing our carbon footprint. The second year we worked on food production and food preservation. This year we’re focusing on learning more about the issues of sustainability from an academic and informational standpoint, and becoming involved in political action.


Sustainability-s-Earth01In January, I discovered Coursera, a free online university! Of course, I got carried away. I signed up for Energy 101, Intro to Sustainability, Climate Literacy, and Sustainability of Food Systems.

I just completed the Energy course and learned SO much from the lectures of Dr. Sam Shelton, retired professor from the Strategic Energy Institute. I knew next to nothing about the big picture of energy or, for that matter, the micro picture of oil, gas, biofuels and therms. This class covered energy at all levels and I learned some surprising things.

For example, I didn’t know that every unit of energy from different energy sources are not “equal.” When it comes to ethanol, that’s a real problem. It requires .8 units of fossil fuel (natural gas and coal) to produce 1 unit of corn ethanol, so even in the best of circumstances, we achieve only a 20% gain. But it gets worse. A gallon of ethanol produces only 2/3rds of the energy of a gallon of gasoline, so adding ethanol to gas actually reduces fuel efficiency. A car that would get 30 miles per gallon on gasoline, will get 28 miles per gallon with a 10% ethanol fuel blend. WHAT!? But it gets worse still because 40% of all corn grown in the US is used to create ethanol fuel. So we are taking farmland and water resources away from food production and this is having an impact on global hunger.

Lobbying at the State Capitol

Minnesota State Capitol


There is only so much an individual or a family can do to impact our carbon footprint. At a certain point, you need to join together with others to take bigger action at the policy and law level.

We have attended rallies and signed petitions in the past. Occasionally we would write to our representatives at the state and national level. This year we did something we’ve never done. We began attending hearings at the state capitol and we met with our legislators.

We attended the House Energy Policy Committee hearing on the 2013 Energy Omnibus Bill, which might have increased the renewable energy standard to 40% by 2030, and included a solar energy jobs act and a solar power cost reduction act. That was a fascinating meeting. I wish I had a play-sheet or someone sitting next to me who could have explained why legislators would say the things they did. For example:

  • There appeared to be a move to define hydro electricity coming to us from Canada as local renewable energy because the rain fell in Minnesota before it flowed to Canada.
  • There was concern that we were “rushing” to set new energy standards when, in fact, the standards we have were set like two or three decades ago!
  • And the supposedly pro-business party was very worried that farmers and businesses might install larger solar installations than they need and would then sell that electricity. That was anti-competitive, but buying power from a North Dakota coal-burning plant was not anti-competitive.

On Earth Day, I attended a Ways and Means committee meeting at the State Capitol to see what was in store for the energy bills. That was a lively meeting. I talked to my legislator later in the day and that was helpful in understanding some of the arguments being made. Or rather, I understood why the arguments didn’t make sense but were being made anyway.

The legislature kindly went into party caucus just as hundreds of people would have seated themselves to watch them debate the energy bills. How convenient. We had all taken time away from work to see our government in action and they spent an hour closed up in separate chambers. They didn’t hear the bill that day.

A Few Lessons I’ve Learned

  • In most cases it is absolutely clear who is with which party. This fact is really sad. Whoever says “they’re all the same,” has never attended a legislative hearing.
  • Committee meetings do not begin on time.
  • Meetings can change rooms without notice and without direction for where it will actually take place.
  • Eat before you go or bring your meal with you.
  • Expect to be there a long time.
  • Bring a guide, if you know one — someone who can explain the background.
  • Take notes. You’ll want to refer back to them to understand what has happened and, honestly, you’re going to hear some pretty unusual things.
  • It’s a lot more interesting than it is painful.
  • Go with friends.
  • You’ll want to do it more often.

Take Action Today: PUC Comment on Enbridge Pipeline Expansion

Immediate Action Needed: Enbridge Energy has filed a Certificate of Need permit with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to increase the capacity of its Line 67 pipeline by 26%. The PUC accepted public comments and Enbridge made a response. The PUC is now accepting rebuttal comments from the public UNTIL MAY 3.

Please review the information below and send your comments to: Comments ARE public and are available online.

Background: Enbridge Energy extracts and exports oil from Canada. (You can learn more about Enbridge, its pipelines and some safety concerns here and here.) It has more than five pipelines crossing northern Minnesota, including Line 2 (in the news recently because of an oil spill (see the De Smog Blog to learn more)), and Line 67, which carries diluted bitumen (DilBit/ tar sands oil). This is the first of its planned capacity increases to Line 67, although it is not currently operating at full capacity.

In its response to public comment, Enbridge has acknowledged the risks posed by oil and gas pipelines, including accidental oil and gas spills and air pollution. They have said that the pipelines “emit air pollutants as would any other machine.”

Those wishing to make rebuttal comments may want to highlight the actual impact of oil spills by pointing out the health impacts of (Exxon’s) Mayflower, AK, oil spill, and Enbridge’s responsibility for the 2010 pipeline rupture near Marshall, Michigan that resulted in 850,000 gallons of crude oil being spilled into the Kalmazoo river, which is still not cleaned up.  The National Transportation Safety Board issued a highly critical report on Enbridge as a result of that pipeline rupture.

Furthermore, while the pipeline itself may have limited emissions, the dirty oil it carries will have life-threatening consequences when it is burned. This oil is intended for foreign markets that have even fewer environmental precautions than the US and Canada.

Enbridge’s Convenient Climate Math

Enbridge submitted this statement, from Docket 12-590 Document 9: Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (provided by researcher Kathy Hollander.)

“Worldwide demand for crude oil is generally projected to grow over the next 25 years unless countries, including developing economies where the majority of the growth is projected to occur, take substantial steps to address climate change. But even if there is a worldwide decline in crude oil consumption, projections indicate that there will be an increase in consumption of crude oil from unconventional sources, primarily from the Canadian oil sands, over the next several decades (EIA 20 12; IEA 20.12)

“… Differences in oil sands production between … different scenarios give an indication of how substantial changes in worldwide policies and energy could impact oil sands production:

  • The Current Policies Scenario, which assumed no change from policies in place in mid-2010,
  • New Policies Scenario, which assumed that countries act on their announced policy commitments and plans to address climate change; and the
  • 450 Scenario, which sets out an energy pathway with the goal of limiting the global increase in temperature to 2°C by limiting concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to around 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide, 3.4 million barrels per day production.

“Although the different scenarios had substantial impacts on projections of total oil sands production in 2035, the projected consumption in each of these scenarios represents a substantial increase from 2011 consumption of approximately 1.6 million bpd (barrels per day) of oil-sands-derived crude oil (CAPP 2012).”

Never heard of these various Scenarios? Learn more here, here and here.

We more commonly hear about a carbon goal of 350 parts per million (ppm). That is the goal that leading climate scientists have agreed is the safe upper limit to avoid irreversible, runaway climate change. 450 ppm is the “goal” set in 2010 at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. That is the level of carbon they imagined we could reach while still giving ourselves a 50-50 chance of stabilizing the climate at a 2º increase in temp.

Here’s what has to say about that number 450.

“Science doesn’t actually know if 450 ppm and 2 degrees are the same thing, and no one knows how much change they would produce. Again, these were guesses for the point at which catastrophic damage would begin—they were more plausible, but still not based on actual experience. They also reflected guesses of what was politically possible to achieve. They were completely defensible, given the lack of data…

In the summer of 2007, though, with the rapid melt of Arctic ice, it became clear that we had already crossed serious thresholds. A number of other signs pointed in the same direction: the spike in methane emissions, likely from thawing permafrost; the melt of high-altitude glacier systems and perennial snowpack in Asia, Europe, South America and North America; the rapid and unexpected acidification of seawater. All of these implied the same thing: wherever the red line for danger was, we were already past it, even though the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was only 390 parts per million, and the temperature increase still a shade below 1 degree C.

“In early 2008, Jim Hansen and a team of researchers gave us a new number, verified for the first time by real-time observation (and also by reams of new paleo-climatic data). They said that 350 parts per million CO2 was the upper limit if we wished to have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” That number is unrefuted; indeed, a constant flow of additional evidence supports it from many directions. Just this week, for instance, oceanographers reported that long-term atmospheric levels above 360 ppm would doom coral reefs worldwide.

“It is, therefore, no longer possible to defend higher targets as a bulwark against catastrophic change. The Global Humanitarian Forum reported recently that climate change was already claiming 300,000 lives per year—that should qualify as catastrophic. A new Oxfam report makes very clear the degree of suffering caused by the warming we’ve already seen, and adds “Warming of 2 degrees C entails a devastating future for at least 600 million people,” almost all of them innocent of any role in causing this trouble. If the Arctic melts at less than one degree, then two degrees can’t be a real target. This is simply how science works. New information drives out the old.

“You could, logically, defend targets like 450 or 2 degrees C as the best we could hope for politically, especially if you add that they represent absolute upper limits that we must bounce back below as quickly as possible. But even that is politically problematic, because it implies—to policy makers and the general public—that we still have atmosphere left in which to put more carbon, and time to gradually adjust policies. We don’t—not with feedback loops like methane release starting to kick in with a vengeance.”

The Enbridge pipeline is dangerous. It is dangerous in its transport of a highly toxic product and it is dangerous in the effect that its product will have on our atmosphere. Please take time today, tomorrow or Friday to write a rebuttal.

Bill Could Allow Energy Companies to Substitute Dirty Biomass for Electricity Savings

Alan Muller, with Neighbors Against the Burner, posted an interesting notice in a Transition discussion group about House File 780 and Senate File 642. This is important information that was new to me so I asked for his permission to edit his post (for length) and repost it here.

An unwise bill would allow dirty biomass heating to substitute for electricity savings.
Continue reading

Emergency Preparedness and the Long Emergency

Preparedness Discussion Group

This group began in November 2012 after a few members watched the video Peak Prosperity and began talking about how to prepare for immediate emergencies and the “long emergency” of climate change. We aren’t showing the video to the group because it is too sales-oriented, but we do find information on the peak prosperity website to be useful, particularly the “What Should I Do?” list.

This is a complex, and emotionally challenging topic for many in the Transition movement. The majority of websites that discuss preparedness – and that sell preparedness products – have a distinctly militaristic and apocalyptic attitude. The peak prosperity site also has some of these discomfiting elements, but we encourage people to read the section on Community to understand that we are not advocating disregard for one’s neighbors. Chris Martensen uses an airline emergency as a metaphor: By taking steps to prepare ourselves, we are putting our own oxygen mask on first so that we can then assist the person next to us. We ARE in this together.

The group meets on the Third Tuesday of each month (various locations) from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. Topics include:

  • December 18, 2012: Water — How do we meet our personal need for water, and our food garden’s need for water, in the event of a short-term emergency or longer-term drought? How would our community/city provide safe drinking water if our water system were to be damaged or compromised by storm or flood or loss of electricity?
  • January 15, 2013: Heat – How do we heat ourselves in an emergency situation, such as being stuck in the car in a snowstorm or while camping? How do we heat our home in the event of a power outage (remember, gas furnaces use electric fans to move heat)? In the event we have no heat, how do we prevent cold-damage to our homes? What are the environmental consequences of different types of backup heat? How can we minimize that damage?
  • February 19, 2013: Electricity – What are your household’s critical electrical needs? In the event of a short-term power outage, what backup system do you have in place? What are the environmental consequences of different types of backup electricity? What alternatives do we have to the electrical grid should electricity become unreliable or too costly over the long term? What can we do as a community to bring improvements to our grid and our energy future?
  • March 19, 2013: Food 1 – How much food should one keep on hand in the home or in the car in case of short-term emergency such as a weather disaster? How does one’s food storage outlook change when considering the “long emergency,” when drought and weather instability may lead to crop losses and increased food prices? (What did our foremothers do to get through the winter?) What has been done on a governmental/ community level to store food in case of crop loss/food shortages?
  • April 15, 2013: Food 2 – What kinds of food should be in the “deep pantry?” What is the best balance of growing your own versus buying from local farmers versus buying from the store? What would a good food storage area look like?
  • May 21, 2013: Food 3 – What are the best methods for storing or preserving food? In what situations might one need a backup system for cooking food? For freezing food? What are the environmental consequences of different types of backup systems?
  • June 18, 2013: First Aid and Health – How prepared are you to handle a sprain, a broken bone, an infection or burn? Do you have adequate emergency supplies in your home and your car? Do you have a small kit on your bike? What health maintenance resources are available within the community? Who in your area understands  no-cost or low-cost natural health treatments?
  • July 16, 2013: Finances – If your home is destroyed by a tornado, will you be able to access your money and credit? Are important documents stored safely offsite? In the face of the long emergency, how might our financial system change? What constitutes real wealth?
  • August 20, 2013: Community – What does a resilient community look like and what steps can we take to help build resilience? How can we take what we’ve learned and share it? What institutions in our community can be a resource for preparedness? For example, if a tornado destroyed homes in this area, are there churches that would open their doors to those made homeless?

Baby It’s Cold Out There – but warm in here!

Solar Hot Air Panels Doing Their Job

I was initially uncertain about the value of buying solar hot air panels. The therms we were told the two panels would produce seemed like they would be too little to make a difference. But now that it’s down around 30 degrees, I’ve got to say, I’m loving it!

I work in a second floor home office. The stairwell door is kept closed from the cat and hot air vents are closed to keep heat in the main areas of the house for our roommates. The general house thermostat is set at 57 to 62 degrees F and the second floor would get very cool. I used to wear gloves and kept a blanket to cover my legs.

Then we installed 2 solar hot air collectors. There is a box on the wall in my office that shows me the heat that is available in the solar panels and the air temp indoors on the second floor. On a sunny winter day when it’s below zero, I’ve seen as much as 120 degrees of heat in the panels! Today has been partly cloudy and the fan has kicked in a few times, bringing the office to 65 degrees.

I work on the phone a lot and the fan noise is noticeable but not usually a problem (even though the fan is located directly behind my chair.)

People have asked how much it has reduced our heating bills. I can’t answer that question. We didn’t have any vents on the outside walls on the second floor so the solar installers couldn’t hook into the regular heating system. The space is 480 sf and has only one cold air return (and a stairwell). I’m not sure how well the heat upstairs gets circulated around the house. My hope is that less gas heating on this floor means more heat stays in the basement and first floor, reducing our gas use.

What I can say is how much of a difference it has made in my comfort while working — no more cold hands or blankets. The 2nd floor is reasonably well insulated so the warmth stays on into the evening. Often the fan kicks on in the morning by 8:00 am so it’s warming as I rise.

Alternative energy sources for heating is a real problem for Minnesota homes. To provide us with natural gas for heat, people living in other states have to live with the risks of fracking. It’s not a fair trade-off but there haven’t been a lot of options. Solar hot air collectors are one part of the solution.

Tuesday, Nov 27, Take Action for the Climate

The Environmental Quality Board is holding public meetings across the state of Minnesota to gather input for the statewide Environmental Congress in March. Tuesday, November 27, is the only date of a meeting in the Twin Cities. It will be held at Normandale Community College from 6:30 – 9:00 p.m.

This is a critical opportunity to deliver a clear message to state leaders about the need for  immediate action on the climate. Luckily for Minnesotans, we can make one simple request:  “Implement the Next Generation Energy Act.” Signed into law in 2007 by Governor Pawlenty (R), this Act is quite possibly the most progressive climate change legislation in the nation but it has been languishing, unimplemented. We need the current Administration and legislature to move this forward.

Key Points of the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007

1. Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions:

  • Relative to 2005 base levels, the state must cut greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2015, 30 percent by 2025 and  80 percent by 2050.
  • The state must derive 25% of its total energy from renewable power sources by 2025 (“25 by 25″).
  • No large fossil fuel-fired power plant can be built in Minnesota.
  • No utility can import electricity from a large fossil fuel-fired power plant built in another state that was not operating on Jan. 1, 2007.

2. Energy conservation: The law contains a five-part conservation and efficiency strategy, including establishing a statewide energy conservation goal of 1.5 percent of annual retail electric and gas sales.

3. Community-based energy development: The law overhauls the state’s existing energy development statutes.

An added benefit to implementing this existing law is that such significant changes in our energy infrastructure will create a large number of new jobs. Job creation is Governor Dayton’s primary focus so this message should be well received.

“Implement the Next Generation Energy Act!”

Spread the message. This soundbite must be repeated consistently to our elected officials at this and other Citizen Forums scheduled around the state:

  • Rochester: Wood Lake Meeting Center, Nov. 27, 9:30 a.m. – 12 noon
  • Duluth: Lake Superior College, Nov. 28, 5:30 – 8:00 p.m.
  • Worthington: Worthington High School, Dec 10 – 3:30 – 6:00 p.m.
  • St. Cloud: Stearns County Service Center, Dec 12 – 5:30 – 8:00 p.m.
  • Moorhead: Minnesota State University, Dec 14 – 3:00 – 5:30 p.m.

We’re on the Mpls/St Paul Home Tour

Oops! I should have posted this on Friday but it’s not too late. Our house is on the Minneapolis/St. Paul Home Tour. The Tour continues on Sunday, April 289 from noon to 5 pm. A representative from Innovative Power Systems, our solar installer, will be on hand from approximately noon to 2 pm. The builder who did our second floor addition will also be here for part of the day.

We are house #31. Stop in and see our solar PV and heat systems. I’ll be happy to answer any questions. And my husband is stationed in the basement by the worm bin where he can talk about vermiculture, composting and home brewing. Our greeter, Annette, is knowledgeable about recycling and waste management so feel free to talk to her about where the City of Minneapolis is going with its new recycling programs.

Hope to see you on Sunday!