Bust of Pyrrhus, or Pyrros, King of Epirus (319/318 BCE–272 BCE)
Today I give homage to King Pyrrhus of ancient Epirus. It was his single-mindedness as a general that eventually gave the name to our SoCal ecosystem.
King Pyrrhus led his army into battle at Asculum against the army of Rome in 279 BC. Pyrrhus won, but is said to have remarked, “One more victory against the Romans and we will be ruined.” This is the source of the term “Pyrrhic Victory” – a victory so costly that it destroys the victor.
Such is the Southern California ecosystem. Plants grow in our canyons and on our rough, undeveloped hillsides … and those plants are called fuel. That fuel will burn; it’s only a matter of when. The worst fires will be driven by winds blowing from the east to the west, which are unusual and called Santa Ana winds.
This last week, an unseasonal fire started, driven by Santa Ana winds from the desert. Our prevailing wind is from the ocean – a wet wind, obviously. However, when the winds turn around and blow from the east, they are blowing from the hot, dry desert, and that scorched wind sucks whatever moisture might remain in the brown hills. One spark, and fire starts. With a 40 – 70 MPH wind driving the fire (Santa Anas can be nasty), the fire department literally can do nothing but get out of the way and try to protect homes in the path of the fire.
Wind gusts can go over 100 MPH. Embers can get in the wind, causing the fire to jump as much as a 1/2 mile at a time. Santa Anas are scary when the sparks fly.
We have a Pyrrhic Ecosystem. It will burn.
The current fire, which is called the Springs fire, is still burning. It has already burned from Camarillo to the ocean. The size of the burn is 28,000 acres. That’s 44 square miles. That’s well over twice the size of Manhattan in New York City. And this huge area was completely burned in about 2 days.
Here’s a great map from Discovery magazine showing the burned area in red:
Luckily, as of this writing the fire is now 60% contained, and this weekend saw much cooler temperatures, the wind slacking considerably … there was even a little rain in our neighborhood on Sunday. This fire’s worst days are over, it appears. It should be contained relatively quickly now.
This fire is a long way from my home, fortunately. It’s about 30 miles away as the crow flies … and, importantly, it’s far downwind from us as well. The fire area is about due southwest of us, so we were in no danger from this fire.
But are Santa Anas a danger? Yes. Because our hillsides will burn, just as they did in 2007. That year, we had fires literally on all 4 sides of our house, but none got closer than a half mile. Absolutely too close for comfort!
I’ve had two occasions since we moved to Southern California when the smoke was so dense and close that it turned the daylight orange. Those were very bad days. On the other hand, that is two days spread over 35 years.
Southern California has many things to recommend it. Yes, we have earthquakes … and bad ones strike every few decades. Yes, we have really bad winds and fires every few years. But California is a really big place, and most of the catastrophes don’t hit your neighborhood, thankfully.
We don’t have floods. We don’t have tornadoes. We don’t have 100% humidity. We don’t have snow in May (I’ve actually had two days of snow at my home in those 35 years). And it will be about 72 degrees in my neighborhood sometime during the day, about 330 days every year.
But there is a cost for living in this temperate climate. There is a cost for living in a place where you can be surfing in the morning and skiing in the afternoon. And I say you can be surfing and skiing, because you won’t be seeing me doing either of those!
I’ll proclaim my victories in other areas. Hail, King Pyrrhus!
LA Times Fire Updates
I’m loving this whole solar thing.
Driving to Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, I drove by Ivanpah, which is a tri-headed solar farm that will be coming online this summer. Click on the picture at right to get a better look at how one of the steam-driven solar collectors works. You really don’t get a sense of the scale of this project driving by … you just know it’s large.
It’s not. It’s massive.
It’s a 3,500 acre installation … that’s almost 5-1/2 square miles! No wonder desert lovers are up in arms about this project … it’s truly destroying a very large swath of pristine desert, all in the hopes of creating some “green” energy. It’s been 5 years in the making, and will generate an additional 3,500 megawatts when it comes online. The project is costing $2.2 billion. And it’s not even working yet.
BrightSource’s Ivanpah solar plant, shown in these images, took more than five years to permit, finance, and build. The technology features thousands of mirrors that direct sunlight at a central tower to produce steam and power a turbine. Utilities in California are looking seriously at the technology because they must deliver a third of their power to consumers from renewables by 2020.
In 2012, California became the first state to install more than 1,000 megawatts of solar collection capacity (that’s over 1 gigawatt). That’s going to be shattered in 2013 … and we’re not done. Another huge project is coming online in Riverside County, east of LA County, and that two-headed project is costing $2.6 billion and has a capacity of 500 megawatts.
While the utilities are investing b-b-b-b-billions in solar, consumers are also getting on the bandwagon, and putting solar panels up on their roofs. That isn’t a very efficient way to lower their energy bills (see link below), but it is having a direct affect on how much they pay to the electrical utilities each month.
Lancaster, California, became the first city in the country to require solar panels on all new housing construction. Given how solar is one of the least important things to lower power bills … good planning, Lancaster!
The irony that’s now becoming public is that California’s commitment to solar energy is actually going to hurt the poor. Here’s why:
“Low-income customers can’t put on solar panels — let’s be blunt,” said David K. Owens, executive vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents utilities. “So why should a low-income customer have their rates go up for the benefit of someone who puts on a solar panel and wants to be credited the retail rate?”
It’s not just a California problem:
Other states, including New York, Massachusetts, Louisiana and Virginia, have also been reviewing their programs, which are transforming the fundamental relationship between customers and their utilities.
California schools have jumped on the band wagon … there’s a white paper, link below, on how school districts have embraced solar. Our local high school district, the William S. Hart Union High School District, has signed a 20-year agreement with a utility for “discounted” electrical rates, and in return they’ve “received” solar panel installations in a carport style over all of their parking lots. The good news for me as a tax payer, if you want to call it that, is that the School District signed this contract and since it’s zero cost, it’s “off book” – meaning there’s no direct budget impact. But there’s a 20-year commitment to buy electricity from the company that provided their solar panels for no charge.
I loved finding out that they installed the collectors at Valencia High School facing the wrong way.
That’s been fixed; here’s what their parking lot looks like now:
Valencia High School’s solar panels also provide shade to their parking lot.
Where is it all going? No clue. But our state is committed to creating more solar energy. Here’s hoping it all works out for the best.
How Green Do You Want Your Energy?
Mojave Desert Blog
Sacramento Business Journal: California’s First In Solar
Geek.com: Lancaster, CA
MIT Technology Review: Ivanpah
New York Times: The Fairness Debate
LA Times: Schools Install Solar
KCET.org: California School White Paper
LA Times photography: Ivanpah
Green energy continues to befuddle and annoy us. I’ve been approached by one too many solar energy sales people at Home Depot … so I wanted to re-examine where we were as a society with solar and renewable energy.
This photo just makes me laugh.
Making green energy has become even more controversial as investment in green technology has increased. We now have green lobbies arguing against wind farms and solar energy installations (links below) because some wildlife will be harmed in the making of the supposedly green energy. I’m sure that’s true … so which would you prefer, using oil and coal, and harming the environment, or using solar and wind, and harming the environment?
I believe in the creation of energy that I can use. And if a few birds die in the process, that’s unfortunate. I like birds. But I like using energy, too.
But I digress.
Here’s a great set of tips on how to lower your energy bill without installing expensive solar panels. And you might be surprised to see what’s most important! According to the Minnesota Power utility, buying solar panels for your home is the LAST thing you should do! Here’s a priority list they developed to help their customers:
1. Home energy audit
Before beginning any energy retrofit work, a homeowner needs information — information best obtained through a home energy audit.
A good home energy audit always includes a blower-door test; most audits also include a thermographic inspection. To be sure your auditor is well trained, choose one certified by RESNET, BPI, or CBPCA.
A home energy audit can cost as much as $600. Thanks to subsidies from utilities and local governments, however, the cost of a home energy audit is often much less. Yet even if you pay the full cost of an energy audit, the money will be well spent.
Why spend hundreds of dollars on an energy audit? I can think of several reasons:
- When considering energy retrofit work, most homeowners prioritize the wrong steps. An energy audit provides valuable information to counterbalance misleading advertising pitches for worthless products.
- Your audit is likely to reveal unseen defects in your home — for example, thermal bypasses (air leaks) through convoluted, hidden chases, or insulation gaps revealed by an infrared camera.
- At the end of your audit, you’ll receive a customized list of the most important energy retrofit steps for your house — a list that may differ from your assumptions (or even from the recommendations of the energy conservation pyramid).
- By identifying the most important retrofit tasks for your specific house, a good audit can save you hundreds of dollars that might have been wasted on inappropriate work.
2. Low-cost measures to reduce plug loads
The next step, though obvious, is often neglected: turn things off.
To save energy, the most important things to do are the items at the bottom of the pyramid. In fact, the top two measures on the energy conservation pyramid are almost never cost-effective, according to Minnesota Power.
Inattention and laziness are responsible for a significant amount of energy waste; this step off can yield significant savings for a very small investment. To lower your electric bill:
- Turn off the lights when you leave a room.
- Turn off appliances that aren’t being used.
- When not in use, unplug chargers for cell phones and similar battery-operated gadgets.
- Put televisions and other “instant on” appliances on a plug strip — and remember to turn off the plug strip when the appliance isn’t in use.
The next step is very cost-effective: make sure your house is incandescent-free. Since most LED lamps are still less efficient than CFLs — and far more expensive — CFLs are still the best lamp for most fixtures.
For kitchens and basements, consider installing fixtures that use efficient linear fluorescent tubes (T5 or T8 tubes).
4. Air sealing
Air-sealing work is best done by an experienced home-performance contractor equipped with a blower door. Although this step usually costs hundreds of dollars, it will usually yield a quick payback in energy savings.
Air sealing work is not the same as caulking. Many homeowners have spent hours wandering around their house with a caulk gun — on the interior, filling cracks between window trim and plaster, or on the exterior, filling cracks between clapboards. Most of this caulking is a total waste of time. In fact, by trapping water, most exterior caulking does more harm than good.
Blower-door directed air sealing work is usually concentrated in a home’s basement (especially at the rim-joist area) and attic (where huge thermal bypasses are often hidden under a layer of fiberglass batts). Most air leaks are best addressed with two-component spray polyurethane foam.
5. Efficient appliances
Once you’ve paid for blower-door-directed air sealing, it’s time to take a close look at your appliances. If some of your major appliances — your refrigerator, clothes washer, or dishwasher — are more than ten years old, you may want to replace them with more efficient models.
Don’t be tempted to buy a bigger refrigerator; small is good. Pay close attention to the yellow EnergyGuide labels — especially the annual kWh number — when you go appliance shopping.
6. Insulation improvements
Ideally, your home has plenty of insulation in the attic, above-grade walls, and basement walls. But if you’re insulation isn’t up to snuff, it’s well worth improving it.
In colder climates, it makes sense to install R-60 insulation in your attic — as long as the attic is accessible and roomy enough to accommodate the insulation depth.
If your stud bays are empty, they can be filled with dense-packed cellulose insulation installed through holes drilled from the exterior.
Basement walls can be insulated on the interior with rigid foam insulation or closed-cell spray polyurethane foam.
7. Water heating
If the configuration of your home’s plumbing pipes permits, you should install a drainwater heat-recovery device — especially if members of your family prefer showers to baths.
If you have an old, inefficient water heater, you may wish to replace it. Options include:
- A high-efficiency gas-fired water heater;
- A high-efficiency electric resistance water heater;
- A heat-pump water heater;
- An instantaneous gas-fired water heater;
- An indirect water heater connected to a boiler;
- Any of the above, supplemented by a solar water heater.
Of all of the options listed in this section, the fastest payback will probably come from the drainwater heat-recovery device. Although a new water heater can lower your energy bills, you shouldn’t expect a fast payback on the investment.
8. Space heating and cooling equipment
When inefficient heating or cooling equipment gets old enough to replace, be sure to invest in the most efficient available equipment. If you’re shopping for a new furnace, look for a high AFUE (in the 90s). If you are shopping for a new air conditioner, look for high SEER (14 or higher).
There’s an important reason why energy-efficiency experts recommend holding back on the purchase of new heating and cooling equipment until air sealing and insulation work is complete: envelope improvements may permit heating and cooling equipment to be downsized. If you replace your heating and cooling equipment before finishing necessary air-sealing work or insulation upgrades, you’ll waste money on oversized equipment.
9. Replacement windows
We’ve now reached the top of the pyramid. Further measures will probably reduce your home’s energy consumption, but they are unlikely to be cost-effective. The reason these measures are at the top of the pyramid is that few homeowners want to spend more on retrofit work than they will ever see in savings.
In a heating climate, the installation of low-e storm windows is more cost-effective than installing new replacement windows.
If, for reasons unrelated to saving money, you insist on new windows, be sure to choose windows with low-e glazing. Glazing with a low U-factor is desirable in all climates. In climates with cold winters, south-facing windows should have a high solar heat-gain coefficient (SHGC); in climates where air-conditioning bills are high, windows should have a low SHGC.
10. Renewable energy equipment
At the top of the pyramid is the category of work least likely to provide a payback: the installation of a photovoltaic system or a wind turbine. There are many reasons you may want to have PV panels or a wind turbine, but saving money isn’t one of them.
Remember, it makes no sense to invest in an expensive PV system until after you have invested in all of the other measures listed on the pyramid.
Musings Of An Energy Nerd
Clean Power Collateral Damage
Saving Desert Tortoises
The High Cost Of Renewable Electricity Mandates
Concord, New Hampshire – High Electric Rates
Some native plants are real eye openers in the garden, such as this unusual beauty. Planted just last fall, this native sage is already a rock star.
Large arrowhead-shaped leaves are not typical of most sage plants
Tall spikes on square, hairy stems support the flowers that bloom March – May.