Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008

H.R. 6049 (warning, PDF) was passed today: Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008 which gives us tax incentives to the tune of 18 billion dollars for

“investment in renewable energy, carbon capture and sequestration demonstration projects, energy efficiency and conservation”.

It also provides for extensions on expiring tax breaks, 37 billion worth, that have absolutely nothing to do with Renewable energy. I support most of them, but come on…It’s hard enough to get these things passed as it is.

The bill grants an extension on the “placed in service date” for a number of types of renewable and alternative energy services receiving a tax break in the previous bill that were set to expire and extends the tax credits available to solar, fuel and micro-turbines and extends this credit to public utilities.

In addition, the bill extends the credit for residential solar till the end of 2014

On the transportation front (I’m a car guy, so this is where it matters to me) we get an expansion of benefits for cellulosic alcohol, biodiesel production including a greater credit for B100 over blends.

We get a new plug in electric vehicle credit, some incentives on improvements on big trucks, fringe benefits for bicycle commuters, and tax breaks for alternative refueling stations until 2010.

All in all it’s a good bill, and it passed but a surprising number of our representatives voted against it. In fact, here you can find out if your congresscritter voted for it, and here for your senator. If you disagree with their vote, let them know.

Save on heating with alternative energy


Photo courtesy of Channel Myrt at Flickr.com.

Keeping warm is hard work. When the days get shorter and cold weather creeps up on us, there are many different ways to keep winter at bay. The most common sources of heat are natural gas, heating oil, coal, electric furnaces, and wood fueled fireplaces. As the costs of these heat sources skyrocket, many people are looking for alternatives.

Natural gas is one of the most widely used energy sources inside homes – about half of all American houses use natural gas to stay warm, and that number is increasing as natural gas systems dominate in newly built homes. Natural gas is available in many parts of the country, it burns relatively clean, and natural gas systems don’t require much maintenance. The price of natural gas has stayed low for several years, although lately the market price has been volatile. In the last six months, natural gas has traded between $6 and $14 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs). A typical home will use about 111 million BTUs during the winter, so heating a home for the winter would cost between $700 and $1,500, plus monthly service charges.

Heating oil is very popular in the Northeast. For instance, 80 percent of the homes in Maine rely on heating oil to keep warm, and the average home uses more than 800 gallons per winter. Heating oil is not a very clean burning fuel, and it releases plenty of CO2 and particulates. With the price of heating oil going up sharply in the last several months, price is a major concern. As I write this, heating oil is selling in the range of $3.40 – $3.70 per gallon. That adds up to a heating oil bill of about $2,500 to $3,000 for the winter, plus delivery costs. Delivery costs can be substantial, and typical customers will need 2-4 deliveries.

Coal furnaces are also widespread. Coal is cheap and it’s a domestic energy source, but there are some serious downsides. Coal furnaces cost more than other heating equipment (three times the cost of natural gas heaters), they require constant supervision, they’re messy, and they create obscene amounts of pollution. As the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, “From mining to processing to transportation to burning to disposal, coal has more environmental impacts than any other energy source.” The price of coal is also up sharply this year, with the price of the cleanest burning types of coal rising the most. The average cost for a ton of heating coal has tripled – a ton of coal with 25 million BTUs of energy costs between $140 and $180 as I write this and is expected to go up further. Heating an average house at these prices will cost $600-$900 this winter, plus delivery.

Electric furnaces are commonly found in areas with mild winters, and they are built onto many air conditioning systems as a backup. These central heaters are very expensive to operate – they generally have very poor efficiency, and the price of electricity has been rising along with the price of natural gas and coal (these are the primary fuels that electric power stations use). A typical electric heater can convert 1 kilowatt of electricity into about 3,300 BTU. Assuming electric costs of 12-20 cents per kilowatt, heating a home with electricity over the winter would cost $4,000 to $6,600, plus service fees. (To estimate the cost based on your utility rate, multiply your cost per kWh by 33,000).

Firewood is still used to hold off Old Man Winter (especially in parts of the country where trees outnumber people). The carbon produced by burning wood is the same amount that’s stored within trees as they grow, so sustainably harvested firewood is carbon neutral. It’s often possible to find “free” firewood – many industries have to pay to dispose of their wood scraps and will appreciate your help transporting their waste away. Try checking in with landscapers, tree surgeons, carpenters, and local recycling centers – but make sure to choose wood without varnish or paint. Treated wood can release toxic fumes when it’s burned. Dried (aka ‘cured’) cords of firewood have the highest energy content per pound. Green wood has less than 6 million BTU per ton, while cured firewood has approximately 13.5 million BTU per ton. Cords of firewood cost from $150-$250, so heating a home with cured firewood can cost $750 to $1,300, plus substantial transportation costs.

For the most part, these heat sources come from non-renewable sources. Using lumber from deforested areas and fossil fuels from the ground contributes to climate change while also damaging air quality. The US supply of oil and natural gas is inadequate for current demand – huge amounts of these fuels are imported every year. Heating oil depends primarily on foreign sources – more than 60% of all heating oil comes from imports. About 85% of all natural gas is produced in the US, and most of the remainder is imported from Canada.

Consumers and scientists are experimenting with various ways to reduce the cost of heating a house. There are plans to produce natural gas from landfills, and pilot projects are testing to see how biodiesel performs as an additive to heating oil. There are also long-term projects to clean up coal and produce electricity from green sources. Those developments are years or even decades away, so here are some alternative heating options that you can try out today:

1) Consider a pellet stove.

If pellets are available in your area, you may want to consider this unconventional stove to cut down on your bills and reduce your carbon footprint. Pellet stoves burn waste material that’s been processed into convenient pellets – the compressed sawdust and wood chips look a bit like animal feed. Pellet stoves are designed for particular fuels, and there are even some pellet stoves that burn pellets made from corn husks, cherry pits, and other agricultural waste. By matching a pellet stove with a cheap fuel source in your area, you can cut costs and intercept trash before it makes it to the landfill. Ash from a pellet stove also makes an excellent fertilizer. A pellet stove burning premium (low ash) wood pellets currently costs about $1,000 to $1,600 plus transport fees to heat a home through winter.

A pellet stove burning Biomass pellets can cost even less. Compressed corn straw pellets (where available) cost about a third as much as premium sawdust pellets. A pellet stove running on biomass can cost $300 to $1,000 to fuel. Many pellet stoves come with self-feeding hoppers that can go a day or so without supervision, but storage of the pellets takes a lot of space and can add to the cost. Pellet stoves are in short supply though, so you may want to check non-conventional sources to pick up a used one.


Photo courtesy of lisatomt at Flickr.com.

2) Apply dark paint to your roof and outside walls.

Dark colors do a great job of soaking up the sun’s energy, and paint is a low cost way to heat up your home. Many town recycling centers have partially used buckets of paint available for free. Blending these paints will usually produce a heat absorbing brown paint.


Photo courtesy of lolla_sig at Flickr.com.

3) If you use electric heaters, ask your utility company about a time of day meter.

Electric heaters run most often during the night, when demand for electricity is low. Some utility companies offer discounted rates during these off-peak hours and you can cut your bill simply by installing the right kind of meter.


Photo courtesy of Fragments of Eternity at Flickr.com.

4) Install a geothermal loop.

The temperature 50 feet underground stays fairly constant year round. Even when it’s snowing, you can tap the warmth of the ground to heat your house. Geothermal loops work by running water through underground pipes and up to heat exchange units. Not only can they cut heating bills by 30-70%, but they can also be used to cool your house in the summer.


Photo courtesy of tomm12723 at Flickr.com.

5) Add insulation.

Honestly, this should be the first item on the list. Insulation is cheap, easy to apply, and it cuts costs by reducing the need for heat. For the best results, use a thermal imager to identify “hot spots” – the places of your home that are leaking the worst and focus on insulating them.


Photo courtesy of abrunglinghaus at Flickr.com.

Willie Run-coast to coast on one tank of biodiesel

willie logoThe red headed stranger has always been a major supporter of bio-fuels.  Start a conversation anywhere in Texas and Willie Nelson will invariably wind up with at least a casual mention.  So Nik Bristow and Brian Pierce, a couple of copywriters for Fitzgerald, have launched an attempt today to make a coast to coast drive from New York to California running entirely on BioWillie brand Biodiesel.  From the trips website:

“Some of the biodiesel we’ll be using is is derived from Beef Tallow.  The rest will be from waste vegetable oil.  biodiesel is a very diverse fuel and can be made from a variety of sources.  We think it’s one of the biodiesels greatest strengths”

The vehicle in question will be a Diesel powered Volkswagen Jetta with a modified gas tank.  The trip will be made entirely without stopping for fuel or food.  They will stop only to switch out drivers every few hours for safety reasons.

The journey starts in midtown Manhattan, and will continue on across the country passing through over 400 cities on the way to the final destination in Santa Monica. As for the math, the Jetta has been modified to hold 75 gallons of BioWillie brand biodiesel. The Jetta gets 40 MPG which gives us a theoretical range of 3000 miles. A quick check of Google maps gives us a distance of 2,809 miles, so they have a small margin of error.

From PR.com

“We’ve had a lot of people asking why we’re doing this. Well, not only are Nik and I are longtime biodiesel supporters, but

we are also communicators by trade. We’re lucky to be affiliated with Fitzgerald+CO, where we’re connected with a large group of enlightened, innovative folks who have made this run a reality. It’s good to be able to put your skills to work for something you personally believe in,” said Pierce.”

The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, known in popular culture as the cannonball run, was an illegal race that followed this same route Back in the 70’s. The best time was achieved in a Jaguar XJS in 1979 of just under 33 hours. That averages out to 87 mph average. While there is obviously a connection here, ascertions that they will be following the exact same route are incorrect. The original  ended up in Redondo beach and there was NO set route specified. And the most obvious difference is that instead of trying to set record speeds they will try to make the journey on the least amount of fuel possible.

At willierun.com you can monitor the progress of the team and even see video feeds from the car.

Tax laws are causing a solar installation frenzy, trying to beat end of 2008 tax credit expiration


Photo courtesy of
M.Barkley at Flickr.com.

At the end of this year, an elevated tax credit for for alternative energy projects is set to expire. These federal tax credits will decline from 30% of the total construction cost to just 10%, and several alternative energy groups have been lobbying Congress to extend the benefit. Even though some states and local power companies offer additional incentives to invest in alternative energy, the reduced Federal tax credits will have wide ranging effects. Industry experts and analysts expect companies who sell solar, wind, biogas, microturbine, and fuel cell technologies could be wiped out by reduced tax credits:

Without the credits, “I’ll essentially be out of business,” Tamas said. “Solar will be dead, other than for a little bit of residential.”

Congress was expected to renew these popular tax credits, but the Senate and House have gone into recess without doing so. Since many of these projects require months and months of construction time, there could be a lag in construction even if the credits are renewed in September. In the near term, the uncertainty is creating a solar building boom.

Many big retailers are attempting to complete green energy projects before the tax credits expire on December 31st. Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Whole Foods, Safeway, REI, and BJ’s Wholesale club are just a few major companies that are accelerating their solar installation plans to beat the deadline. This means that solar workers are pulling overtime and likely to see big bonuses this year, but they may be getting pink slips in the spring.


Photo courtesy of
EGL Energy at Flickr.com.

In the news: reducing your AC bill, earn cash through recycling and more


Photo courtesy of
Mayank Austen Soofi at Flickr.com.

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture here. This week, a lot of exciting things are going on.

The news is full of stories about practical ways to save money. One easy way is to save energy and cut your air conditioning bill.

Here are 4 websites that help you earn money from recycling everything from old cell phones and digital cameras to glass bottles and old cars. Recycling e-waste is a double win – with commodity prices sky high, the copper and gold in old electronics are worth some serious cash, and keeping heavy metals out of the landfill is key to protecting the environment.

“We generally see about a 100 percent increase in recycling in mid- to affluent neighborhoods,” says [RecycleBank CEO Ron] Gonen. “In lower-income neighborhoods, it can be up to 1,000 percent, because the recycling rates are so low there.

Also, the shipping industry is taking huge steps to reduce their fuel bills. Surcharges are running out of control, and the profit margins of commercial transport companies are under pressure. In addition to driving slower, truckers are saving fuel with an Auxiliary Power Unit. APUs are widely used in airplanes to provide electricity without running the engines, but their high price has kept other industries from adopting APUs. With high oil prices, and new pollution controls that outlaw idling engines in residential neighborhoods, that could change quickly.

Due to climate change, farmers are now using sunblock to protect certain produce. Presumably, sun ripened tomatoes aren’t on that list.

Could you live a month without buying any plastic? A British Blogger is trying to do just that, and its tougher than you might think.

Is the future going to be human powered? Clubs and fitness centers from Portland to London are adding devices that harvest kinetic energy to power the lights, sound systems, and HVAC. There are even plans for a floating gym that will travel back and forth on the Hudson river under human propulsion.