Monday, April 19, 2010

Every day should be Earth Day

April 22 is Earth Day, so every where you turn, click, or read, our interests and actions are turning to environmental, conservation and energy concerns and issues. Carbon capture, “clean-tech revolution,” energy efficiency, wind power, venture capital investment in renewables, ocean power, biomass. All these concepts, ideas, products, devices and more are getting increasing attention from the public and policy makers worldwide.

Here are 10 tips that we all can use on Earth Day, or any day as a means to reduce energy and water use:

1. Monitor your utility bills. Most consumer bills provide usage information for the just-completed period, plus historical information year over year. You can monitor kilowatt hours or kWh (electric) and Mcf (1,000 cubic feet of natural gas), and find ways to decrease usage.

2. Do a home energy audit. These can be done by you, the homeowner or renter, or a professional. If done by a professional, it’ll be more expensive. Here’s information on how to do you own audit, and the difference between a do-it-yourself one and a professional audit:

3. Programmable thermostats. These can lower utility bills during winter or summer by as much as 10-15%, given the type of device and how well it’s programmed.

4. Turn off the lights and all other electrical equipment when leaving a room for more than 5 minutes. This especially applies to computers, printers, LCD or HD televisions. You can easily cut electric power to computers and electronic equipment with surge protectors and interruptible power sources.

5. Hand washing your dishes saves water, electricity, (which powers the washer) heated water (and whatever heats it, natural gas or electricity).

6. Unplug the beer refrigerator. A true waste of electricity, especially if it’s outside, which lessens its cooling capacity.

7. When replaces equipment and windows, replace them with ENERGY Star appliances, windows and doors.
8. When away from home for more than three days, turn down the temperature on the hot water heater, as well as the heating/cooling system. It’s advisable to turn the heating/cooling system all the way off.

9. Take baths instead of showers.

10. Close off rooms your aren’t using, close off the heating/cooling vents and unplug devices that use power, such as clocks, portable phones docks.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Watch the markets for tipoffs to clean tech's future

Now that the stock exchanges have rebounded from the recession of the last two years, so have the outlook for companies that are at the technological forefront of green technology and clean tech.

To track the performance of publicly traded clean-energy stocks, the NASDAQ has three indexes that benchmark the sector:

• CELS that tracks U.S. listed clean-energy companies;
• QWND that tracks global wind power companies;
• QGRD that looks at smart grid and grid infrastructure companies.

From 2007 through 2009, all three indexes grew at phenomenal rates, outperforming most market indicators. And you can expect the clean-energy indexes to continue to be volatile but likely to outperform the general market during stock market ups and downs.

Clean-energy technologies are becoming cheaper and more prevalent. It will still be some years before there are everyday applications for some technologies, like Bloom Energy’s “Boom Box,” which I blogged about last month. Future development is being propelled by funding by venture capitalists and major multinational firms, such as Dow Chemical, Panasonic and GE, investing billions in green technology.

You can expect to see over the next 5-10 years the same phenomenon (Moore’s Law) that affected microchip technology over the last 20 years to have the same impact on clean tech: manufacturing advances in technology creation that drive down prices, increases manufacturing efficiencies and price declines in raw materials.

We have already seen some advances in everyday use of green technology with washing machines embedded with smart devices that can communicate with smart meters and the grid, roof tiles integrated with solar photovoltaic and the evolution of biomass power generation.

Now, if you look to invest in mutual funds instead of the indexes, there are plenty of funds that invest in green technology. These might be more palatable to most investors because they are less volatile and more suited for long-term investments. They are socially responsible funds that invest in the stocks of companies that are environmentally proactive, and which are developing green technology.

Three mutual funds to examine, but these are in no way investment recommendations:

• New Alternatives Fund. NALFX claims to be the first environmental mutual fund, began in September 1982, and the “greenest fund” in the U.S. The fund seeks socially responsible firms and selects companies in alternative energy, recycling, clean air and water, pollution prevention and conservation.

• Portfolio 21. PORTX invests in companies that are integrating intelligent and forward-thinking environmental strategies into their overall business planning. The portfolio includes companies using financial and proprietary environmental analysis to identify those best equipped to manage the ecological risks. Some companies among the holdings: Google, Staples, Novartis, Roche, Telefonica.

• Winslow Green Growth. WGGFX is a global growth equity fund that intends to invest a significant portion of its assets in small and medium cap companies. The fund focuses on certain environmentally-oriented investment themes, such as clean energy, water management, sustainable living, environmental services, green transportation and green building products.

Lastly, keep this in mind: Only invest in stocks, funds and companies that you have researched and understand.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bloom Energy's "Bloom Box" is a game changer

For weeks, observers worldwide have been awaiting Bloom Energy's big announcement about its "disruptive" next-generation power alternative. Well, that announcement came Wednesday and it's big.

The company is producing the Bloom Energy Server, or "Bloom Box" a stand-alone solid-oxide fuel cells that will allow homes and businesses to generate their own electricity. The fuel cells use hydrocarbon fuel and one cell should be enough to power a home. The cells do not require combustion and therefore produces half the greenhouse gas emissions of more conventional energy sources, the company claims.

The Server is a game-changer because it creates power at the spot where it's being consumed. It's disruptive because it's a potential killer app for the electric power and utility industry.

The problem with today's distributed energy power generation is that it is very inefficient, and has a volatile cost structure. Almost two-thirds of the energy produced by coal and natural gas-fired plants is lost in heat before it's transmitted, with about another 10% lost as the electricity travels over transmission lines.

Among the Server's advantages: it's an always-on power source, unlike renewable sources such as wind and solar, which are intermittent; it efficiently converts a wide range of carbon-based or renewable fuel to electricity, while cutting their carbon footprint; it can use a wide range of fuels, such as biodiesel, natural gas and petroleum.

Bloom Energy's biggest hurdle right now is cost and scalability. The current product can power roughly 100 U.S. homes or a mid-size business and costs $700,000 each. Bloom obviously wants to shrink the box in size and cost so that a homeowner can have one for around $3,000.

With a three-to-five-year estimated payback for a business, it could recoup server costs in savings by lowering what it pays for buying power from a utility.

Bloom already has on board customers such as Bank of America, Coca-Cola, eBay, FedEx Express, Google, Staples and Wal-Mart. As a matter of fact, Bloom's unveiling was announced at eBay's San Jose, Calif. offices.

Don't believe the hype? Let's wait and see if the Bloom Box has any staying power and real growth potential as a next-stage disruptive technology.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Surge protectors can save your equipment and money

We use them all the time, but do we really know what we’re using with surge protectors, and can they be green?

Surge protectors are devices that are between your computer or other electronic equipment and an electrical outlet that and protects your equipment's power supply from electrical surges. A surge protector regulates the current to connected equipment by either blocking or shorting to ground any "unsafe" voltage.

Usually set up in a "strip" or a box, surge protectors have several power outlets to plug into. Better versions will also have at least one data outlet to protect a telephone, fax machine or modem because these are also in danger from a surge of electricity through a phone line.

The other function of a surge protector is even more important. They also should act as surge suppressors. A surge suppressor prevents the peak AC voltage from going above a certain level. In normal U.S. homes, the standard voltage is 120 volts. If the voltage rises above 120 volts, the surge suppressor tor helps to prevent that problem from destroying your computer.

There are four basic levels of surge protectors:

• Basic power strip: These are just extension cord units with five or six outlets and only provide basic protection.

• UL-rated power strip: Look for models that meet Underwriters Labortories criteria. Look for at least UL 1449, UL's minimum performance standard for surge suppressors. There are a lot of power strips listed by UL that have no surge protection components at all. They are listed only for their performance as extension cords.

• Surge station: These large surge protectors fit under your computer or on the floor. They offer superior voltage protection and advanced line conditioning. Most models also have an input for a phone line, and may have built-in circuit breakers.

• Uninterruptable Power Supply: This design converts AC power to DC power and stores it on a battery. The UPS then converts the battery's DC power back to AC power and runs it to the AC outlets for your equipment. If the power goes out, your eletronic equipment continues to run, off the stored battery power.

Green technology in surge protectors, some suggestions:

Monster Green Power uses propriety technology to save energy and money. It has six devices, ranging from six outlets to 10 outlets, ranging from about $50 for the Monster Power MDP 500 Digital PowerCenter to the HDP 900G PowerCenter, for about $150. All these devices protect equipment from dangerous spikes and surges while an audible alarm lets you know your gear is protected. It keeps your electronic devices at their peak with a filtering system designed to remove electrical noise and interference. It saves money by connecting your HDTV or receiver to the control outlet and your other components into the other switched outlets. When you turn off your HDTV, receiver, scanners or PC, other devices will be automatically disconnected from power and switched back on again when the unit plugged into the control outlet is turned back on.

• If you want a surge protector that provides power in case of black out or brownout, then your best buy is Cyberpower Intelligent LCD 585VA 8-Outlet UPS. Estimated backup runtime: 2-47 minutes. It has a real-time display system for eight outlets -- four backup/surge and four surge only -- dataline protection. It also has a proprietry software system, called PowerPanel Plus, that automatically saves and closes open files, and shuts down a computer system in a orderly manner. It’ll cost between $60-$130, and can be found on Dell, TigerDirect, Staples and CompUSA web sites. It’s least expenseive at Staples.

• Another good buy is the APC Performance SurgeArrest 11 Outlet with Phone, Coax and Ethernet Protection. On the APC web site, there is a surge protector selector, where you can determine what might work best for your needs. I went through the selection process and came up with 12 recommendations. I choose the Performance SurgeArrest because it had re-settable circuit breaker, dataline protection, and overload indictor and, of course 11 outlets. Cost: $45. Also check out APC Power-Saving Home/Office SurgeArrest, 8 Outlets with Phone Protection. It’s priced at about $30.

• Then there’s the “Green Power” surge protectors from Stellar Labs. Check out 8 Outlet Smart Green Power Surge Protector. It has eight outlets, five "Green Power" outlets and three outlets that are always on. This device monitors power usage, and when consumption drops 70% from peak for three minutes, the five Green Power outlets automatically switch off, saving you money and reducing harmful carbon emissions. Stellar labs have about seven different devices, ranging in price from $20 to $40.

Cyber Power surge protector systems provide the right mix of uninterruptible power supply technology, which also reduces energy consumption. They call it GreenPower UPS™, and they plan on leading the surge protection industry in green technology.

It is estimated that seven percent of the world's electricity usage is consumed by electronics in standby mode. So reduce that usage, by cutting off power to all the devices when they are not needed, or saving your equipment from being destroyed because of spikes and surges, and surge protectors can be green in at least a couple of ways.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Solar panel self-installation heating up

What seems to be gaining momentum across the USA is self-installation of solar panels in homes.

Home improvement stores, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, are attempting to capitalize on an increasingly trendy form of alternative energy because the costs of solar panels are falling.

The price of solar panels fell between 20 percent to 30 percent last year, but demand is expected to pick up in 2010 because the worldwide market is expected to surge. The prices of equity share of solar-centric manufacturing firms and suppliers reflected that same glut in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Solar is becoming increasingly popular. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates up to 250,000 U.S. homes generate some solar energy. And, U.S. solar electric capacity grew by 63 percent in 2008, triple the growth in 2005, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

Several suppliers that have equipment in hardware stores are Akeena Solar Inc., Sunforce, Sunlinq, Sharp and Duracell.

Costs range from about $1,200, for the Sunforce 200 watt CIGS panel, to $130, for the Sunling’s 6.5 watt folding solar panel.

Once you make the decision to install panels, there is myriad amount of paperwork, including permits and certifications that are needed. If there is any doubt, it’s wise to seek an installation company. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, has a voluntary national certification program, and can help locate installers near where you live.

You can also go to Service Magic enter your zip code and provide some basic information about type of installation you are looking for, i.e., roof or ground mounted, grid tie-in, direction it will face.

Costs of the panels usually do not include what’s needed for installation including parts. So expect installation costs to amount to about a third of the total bill.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Turning green (devices) into gold @ CES

Most of the gadgets, gear and technology that grabbed attention at last week’s 2010 International Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, the world's largest consumer technology tradeshow, focused on 3D TVs, smart mobile devices, wireless applications in autos and e-readers.

Green technologies had there biggest presence ever, but were still dwarfed by the ubiquitous consumer electronics. I was on the lookout for low-cost devices and applications that most of us could afford, and which would provide a cost or energy savings payback quickly.

Although there's already an established market for green-minded consumers, we aren’t willing to pay a premium for super energy-efficient electronics just yet. High energy prices will make energy-efficiency tools more appealing to a much broader audience. That needs to happen first before the people will start to make green-minded choices when buying everyday products.

There were several products that got my attention:

YoGen handheld charger. This handheld emergency charger makes electricity generation easy because users simply pull on the string to generate a 5-watt charge. The YoGen generates the same charge as a plug-in charger, so one minute of pulling generates the same amount of power as one minute using a wall charger. Check out the charger at the YoGen online store.

NAVTEQ's Green Streets. This digital map data provider enable drivers to save fuel and cut carbon emissions by choosing better routes, optimize cruise control, and make other efficient adjustments that economize fuel and carbon emissions. NAVTEQ is the leading provider of digital map data, navigation software and devices.

Sony’s Vaio W Series laptop. This “Eco Edition” mini laptop comes in a green-tinted plastic enclosure made from 23% recycled CDs and a carrying case made from recycled plastic bottles. The device is energy efficient too, with an Energy Star 5.0 rating and EPEAT certification. Sony’s latest offering also has a high-definition, 10.1-inch LED screen, 250 gigabytes of hard drive storage, and up to seven hours of battery life.

And a green product that was at the show, but was unveiled in November:

The Electronic Housekeeper. The “dashboard” by Denmark-based Electronic Housekeeper, is a wall-mountable console that interacts wirelessly with your appliances and devices at home. It monitors heating and air conditioning, and electric and water meters. What sets it apart from so many other dashboards hitting the market is that it is one of the first to give consumers monitoring of all utilities, including water.

Right now, other than Energy Star appliances, electronic devices don’t have labels to help consumers make decisions based on energy consumption. That needs to change. That will prompt people to buy based on cost and energy savings.

Brand-name manufacturers are innovating more around energy and environmental sustainability, driven both by economic interests and regulations. That, too, will drive down prices as well.

Like with everything technology-based, wait long enough and capacity will increase and costs will drop.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Want to go green this winter? Buy a digital thermostat

It’s January, and I have resolved to … lower my heating bills. Easier said than done, you say, like most New Year’s resolutions.

With that said, the HVACs we live and work in use the most energy either heating or cooling the building, or lighting the rooms and powering the appliances and equipment in them. Normally, a third of the energy consumed in a building is used to heat or cool it.

Heating/cooling are controlled by thermostats, and most US homes have manual ones that are inefficient because they have to be manually adjusted. Newer digital thermostats use thermistors (thermal resistors) to detect changes in temperature. The thermistor changes resistance as its temperature changes, so by connecting it to some chips and other electronics, the digital thermostat can easily detect the room temperature.

You can save energy with a programmable thermostat from the first day its properly installed because you can tell it when to automatically make adjustments based on time and temperature.

Need help selecting a thermostat? Check out and look under the resource library and the thermostat-buying guide for homeowners. The site contains great information to help you decide what to look for based on your home heating system, what kind of electrical wiring system you have and what features you might want in programmability.

The site carries information on multiple brands including Honeywell, White-Rodgers, LuxPro, Robertshaw, and Braeburn. It also has information on installation, wiring and disposal of hazardous mercury thermostats. How much do thermostats cost? They run from about $29 all the way to about $150, but you can buy a good mid-range device for about $50-$80. You can recoup these costs in a couple of months of lower bills.

Lastly, for those of you who haven’t read my first blog post, the purpose of and my website, which is under development, is:
• I’ll support and discuss what new and working with green technology
• I’ll post and point to information that will hold the fossil-fuel industry accountable for its pollution
• I’ll point out individual steps and products you can use, buy, investigate and invest in to conserve energy at home and at work. This will include product reviews and suggestions.
• I’ll push the use of valid alternative and renewable energy, including solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and nuclear power
• I’ll keep an eye on energy policy – worldwide, nationwide and state by state -- because without informed and enlightened governmental road map, we are doomed.

With those goals in mind, pay attention to the 2010 International Consumer Electronic Show, the world's largest consumer technology trade show, with more 2,700 exhibitors, in Las Vegas this week. The Consumer Electronics Association represents thousands of companies involved in the design, development, manufacturing, distribution and integration of consumer electronics products The must-see list for this year includes ebook readers, digital cameras, digital TVs, GPS devices and sound systems, and automotive smart systems, for communication and mapping.

CES has always had green technology area and, this year’s focus will be on smart appliances, many types of power-management devices and tools for managing home and industrial power consumption.

I’ll talk next week about some of the cool energy-efficiency devices unveiled at CES.