Monday, June 28, 2010

Drinking Water Purity, Do You Know Where Your Water Has Been?

At this point in time the United States has one of the safest water supplies in the world, but things change. Our water treatment and delivery systems are aging and the demand for water continues to grow with populations of our cities. In the arid west reclaimed or recycled water, is being used to recharge groundwater. In other places waste treatment plants discharge to rivers that supply drinking water systems. Water recycling and reuse while increasing supply is introducing a variety of contaminants into our drinking water that water treatment systems and water regulations were never meant to address. Under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), EPA sets standards for approximately 90 contaminants in drinking water including bacteria and disinfection by products. For each of these contaminants, EPA sets a legal limit, called a maximum contaminant level. EPA requires that all public water supplies be tested for this list of contaminants on a regular basis and meet these minimum standards. In addition, EPA sets secondary standards for less hazardous substances based on aesthetic characteristics of taste, smell and appearance, which public water systems and states can choose to adopt or not. Though 90 contaminants is a lot, there are approximately 80,000 chemicals in use in our society and an uncounted number of pathogens.

Drinking water is typically treated with either Chloramine or chlorine both are disinfectants. (Disinfection by products are several of the chemicals tested for in drinking water supplies.) Chloramine is a combination of chlorine and ammonia that is currently considered best technology for controlling the formation of certain regulated organic disinfection byproducts and has come to replace the use of chlorine in many locations. Since the revisions to the clean water act in the past decade chloramine has returned to common use as a distribution system disinfectant after being replaced in 1940’s with chlorine when there were ammonia shortages. Chloramine lowers microbial densities of coliform bacteria, heterotrophic bacteria, Legionella bacteria while minimizing the formation of regulated disinfection by-products. However, these bacteria and the other substances on the primary drinking water list are not the whole story, nor are they the only substances in our water today.

Recycled or reclaimed water is former wastewater (sewage) that has been treated to remove solids and certain impurities, and then is used in irrigation, discharged to surface water that is a source of drinking water or injected into the ground to recharge groundwater aquifers. In order to make our river, lake, stream and ocean water safe for fishing and recreation, the Clean Water Act of 1972 mandated elimination of the discharge of untreated waste from municipal and industrial sources, and the US federal government provided billions of dollars in grants for building sewage treatment plants around the country. Modern treatment plants, usually using sand filtration and chlorination in addition to primary and secondary treatment, were required to meet certain standards. These standards were never designed to render the waste water potable.

Now; however, this water is being mixed with drinking water reserves. As recycled and reclaimed water is added to the water supply through indirect means, the potential for health impacts increases. Varying amounts of pathogens, pharmaceutical chemicals (e.g., hormones from female hormonal contraception and other pharmaceuticals in common usage) and other trace chemicals are able to pass through the treatment and filtering process, potentially causing danger to humans. Certainly, the USGS and US Fish and Wildlife have documented impact to aquatic life in surface water sources. Drinking water standards were developed for natural groundwater, and are not appropriate for identifying contaminants in reclaimed water. In addition to pathogens, and organic and endocrine disrupting chemicals, a large number of compounds may be present in reclaimed water. Today, we do not even have the technology to test for some of these substances at trace levels, and no studies have ever been done to measure the potential for developmental or health impact from chronic low level dosing. The drinking water standards are simply not sufficient for impaired sources or indirect potable reuse. Nonetheless, as the water supply becomes critical in various locations, recycling of water both direct and indirect is taking place and expanding.

Life depends on water and so in stressed areas like California we are beginning to reach for every potential source of water. The existing set of drinking water standards are not comprehensive and do not define safe drinking water potentially containing trace contaminants from modern life. Water supply managers keep finding additional chemicals in toxic concentrations that evade “best available treatment” standards. There is little health effects information on low doses of pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupters and limited ability to test at trace levels, and yet without hesitation we pump this water into the groundwater basins that represent the largest storage of water available to us. Water suppliers that serve the same people year-round are required to send their customers an annual water quality report (sometimes called a consumer confidence report). However these water supply reports neglect to clearly state where some of this water comes from and note that water is tested for only the primary and possibly secondary drinking water contaminants.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Last Water Grab in California

When lawmakers in California approved the $11-billion water bond package that will appear on this November's ballot, the state was in its third year of drought. The winter storms came late this year, but nonetheless, covered the Sierra in snow. The state's biggest reservoir, Lake Shasta, is nearly full. After the wet season, statewide precipitation was at 115% of average for the year, reservoir storage was at 95% and runoff at 80%. By standard measures, California's three-year drought should be over, but water problems in California are not. Californian politicians have debated for decades how to modernize and expand their water system, which depends on aqueducts, reservoirs and pipelines, some dating from the early 20th century. To gain momentum and have the legislature act took three years of drought and court-ordered supply restrictions impacting the $36 billion-a-year agriculture industry.
Southern California with the largest population centers has an extremely limited natural supply of water. Generations ago water rights were obtained and after diverting all the water from the Owens Valley to LA it began importing water from other sources and recycling all the water it could, but it is far from enough to quench the thirst of Southern California. About half the water used in Southern California comes from the Colorado River Basin and from Northern California through the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta. The remainder is from regional sources and water recycled from waste water treatment plants. The Colorado River Basin, a significant water source for Southern California, remains stuck in a long-term drought. Environmental restrictions on pumping water from Northern California will continue to reduce exports to the south.
The bond package which will appear on the fall’s ballot includes the establishment of a Delta Stewardship Council to advance the co-equal goals of ecosystem restoration and water supply reliability. Californians just love words with “co” in it, co-equal, co-workers, co-operation… Council members have been selected and the organization is up and running. Delta governance institutions such as the Delta Conservancy, the Delta Protection Commission and the California Water Commission will be created or updated to protect their particular economic interests when allocating water to ecosystem restoration and economic strategy of the framework. The bond measures also require the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to establish a schedule for the monitoring of groundwater basins. And finally, the bills require the development of agricultural water management plans and require urban water agencies to reduce statewide per capita water consumption 20 % by 2020. What we are talking about here is controlling groundwater and rationing water for individual use. The allocation of the water will determine wealth and power.
In an arid environment, like much of California, water is often diverted from streams and transported, sometimes great distances, to farms, cities, and towns. Developing surface water supplies requires two intensive expensive efforts. The first is to plan, build, and maintain a surface water transport project. This entails building diversion structures, a distribution system, and storage reservoirs. The second is administrating and maintaining the system, including developing information about and monitoring the physical setting and enforcing agreements and allocations. Managing water allocations in California is very much managing the economy of the state. As water demand raises past supply the regulatory scheme or the state economies are doomed to failure. We are incapable of designing the right economy to allocate scarce resources to over time. What is right for today is not adoptive to the future. Central planning and allocation are too rigid to adopt. California’s economy is doomed. The limitations of the water supply will facilitate the central control of the economy. In the past, private wells have allowed a certain freedom of action, but that time is coming to an end.
Typically, groundwater supplies about 30 percent of California’s urban and agricultural uses. In dry years, groundwater use increases to about 40 percent statewide and 60% or more in some regions. The current water bond measures proposes a method to monitor and regulate the water basins that are the groundwater reserves in California. In adopting groundwater codes, most western states extended the prior appropriation doctrine to cover groundwater. Unfortunately, hydrology determines the long term success of prior appropriation as a groundwater management scheme and politics cannot control hydrology. California currently has a total of 27 local ordinances under which local governments attempt to regulate groundwater, but there appears to be no plan for developing a sustainable water budget for the state. In the past there has been limited monitoring of groundwater levels and use so that a accurate water budget could not be developed and the state has had no methods to prevent the mining of the groundwater. The current series of bills do not address developing a water budget for the state that is sustainable and an allocation that will assure the future of California, but simply a transfer of the wealth that the water represents to whomever the politicians choose.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Running on Empty III

The winter rains have brought a reprieve from the recent water crisis in California, but this is not a solution. The federal government has upped the water allocation from the federal pipes and canals to the Central Valley to 45% of the “total allocation” from the previous 5%. As politicians who lobbied the Department of the Interior to raise the allocations and boost irrigation supplies take credit for the increase brought by the winter rains in this election year, addressing the underlying problem is pushed down the road. California will issue $11 billon in bond money they do not have to repair the San Joaquin- Sacramento Delta, water projects and build dams to try and magically increase the supply of water. Dams will not solve the problem of not enough water to meet demand, but may add to the growing insolvency of the state. Including interest payments, the bonds will cost $24 billion out of the general fund over 30 years. The general fund has a current deficit of $19 billion this year. If the legislature feels all these provisions are necessary then they should directly raise water rates to pay for the costs.

California local water agencies have invested in water recycling, conservation, groundwater storage and other strategies to stretch supplies, but the demand for cheap water exceeds supply as evidenced by the groundwater usage. Year round agriculture has been made possible by the ample supply of water used for irrigation. The limit to California’s agricultural bounty is water availability. Water available is a combination of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. In 2006 before the beginning of the last drought, California used almost 31 billion gallons of water a day for irrigation. This is 351 gallons of water a day for each agricultural dollar earned each year and represents 80% of the water used in the state each year. Buried in the water bond legislation contains a provision that would require most California communities to reduce their per capita water use 20% by 2020. That is a little like China agreeing to reduce their carbon intensity. The total water used will grow with the population, but there will be no growth in the water supply for the state and if climate projects are at all true, then there will be less water.

While a portion of irrigated water is recharged to groundwater and surface water, some is lost; the real problem is that there is inadequate water flow in the state to support this level of irrigation. Period. When California reduces the irrigation allocations, the agricultural use of groundwater increases. Many agricultural operations do not have adequate ground water flow to make up the shortage, resulting in loss of jobs and crops. The operations with available groundwater utilize it without regard for the recharge rate and ultimate impact on California’s future. When you withdraw the groundwater from fine-grained compressible confining beds of sediments and do not replace it, the land subsides. The incredibly fertile Central Valley was identified by the research efforts of Joseph Poland as the location of maximum subsidence in the United States. Once the land subsides, it looses its water holding capacity and will never recover as an aquifer. Groundwater mining in the Central Valley had slowed in the past few decades, at least until the recent water crisis.

California’s climate is dominated by the Pacific storm track. The mountain ranges cause precipitation to fall mostly on the western slopes. These storms also leave tremendous accumulations of snow in the Sierra Nevada during a wet winter. While the average annual precipitation in California is about 23inches (DWR 1998), the range of annual rainfall varies greatly from more than 140 inches in the northwestern part of the State to less than 4 inches in the southeastern part of the State. Snowmelt and rain fall in the mountains and flow into creeks, streams, and rivers. As these flows make their way into the valleys, much of the water percolates into the ground. The vast majority of California’s accessible groundwater is stored in alluvial groundwater basins. Though the health of the groundwater basins is neither tracked nor known, it is believed that California may be using the groundwater at an unsustainable rate.

California’s water allocations exceed supply in practically every year of recent record. Climatic variability produces both droughts and flooding. California has dealt with the limitations resulting from its natural hydrology by developing an intricate system of reservoirs, canals, and pipelines under federal, State and local projects to essentially move the water from the northwest to the south. However, a significant portion of California’s water supply need is always met by groundwater. Typically, groundwater supplies about 30 percent of California’s urban and agricultural uses. In dry years, groundwater use increases to about 40 percent statewide and 60% or more in some regions. Mining of the groundwater beyond the recharge rate is impairing California’s future. California does not have enough water available annually to keep up this usage level and the largest user of water in the state is agriculture. In order to continue to supply water to the rest of the state, California needs to reduce the agricultural water usage in the state.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

BP Caused the Worst Oil Spill in US History

On the night of April 20th, 2010 a rush of methane gas up the well pipe to the sea surface occurred and the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig that was drilling the Macondo well exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 17. The oil well head, almost a mile deep, began gushing oil. Since April 20th oil has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Initially it was reported that the oil was being released at a rate of 1,000 barrels a day. That estimate was shortly upped to 5,000 barrels a day. On May 27th the US Geological Survey estimated that the well was actually leaking 12,000-19,000 barrels of oil a day. That estimate was subsequently raised to 20,000 to 40,000 barrels of oil a day and now after 57 days the scientists monitoring the Deepwater Horizon / BP Macondo well have raised their estimate of the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico to 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day. This is an environmental disaster or immense proportions.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee (Chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D., CA) and the subcommittee on oversight and investigations (Chaired by Bart Stupak D., Mich.) have this week released a series of documents that indicate that BP, a company whose corporate culture values profitability over safety and risk management, engaged in egregious corner cutting that resulted in the worst offshore oil spill in US history. According to the documents released, BP repeatedly cut corners in getting the well operational to speed up the process saving several days and reduce costs so that they could get the well operational. The Deepwater Horizon rig was the second rig to attempt to drill this well the first had been damaged in a Hurricane in late 2009. Transocean charged BP approximately $500,000 per day to lease the Deepwater Horizon rig, plus contractors' fees. BP planned that drilling the well to take 51 days and cost approximately $96 million; however, the drilling had run over 94 days by April 20, 20 10, the day of the blowout.
Very literally, time was money. Behind schedule and over budget, BP had made a series of decisions to save time and money which resulted in the explosion. According to the Energy and Commerce Report: BP ignored recommendations by Halliburton for 21 “centralizers” to stabilize the well before cementing and went with 6 to save the 10 or more hours it would have taken to install them. In choosing the final pipe for the well, BP opted for “long string” running from the Gulf floor to the well bottom instead of the more expensive and safer design. The safer design would have provided more barriers to prevent the flow of natural gas up the well wall and potentially prevented the explosion, but would have cost up to $10 million more. BP decided not to test the integrity of the cement using a 12-hour procedure known as the “cement bond log.” This decision was made despite the presence of the team from Schlumberger on the rig to perform the test. BP sent the team home. BP also failed to fully circulate the drilling mud which would have helped detect any methane gas pockets. This procedure would have taken 12 hours. Finally, BP did not deploy the casing hanger lockdown sleeve that would have prevented the seal from being blown out from below.
I have two points to make here. The first is why there were no inspectors to ensure that the design of the well was according to best practices and that the well was installed according to design. BP should never have had the leeway to make these decisions. When I installed solar panels on my home that tie into the electric grid, the Chief Electrical Inspector ensured that the design would work and met the building electrical code and that the project was installed as designed. Charles Jackson, the Chief Electric Inspector, became my hero when his thoroughness and insistence on following the approved plans protected me and made sure I ended up with a properly functioning system. I do not understand why the Minerals Management Service of the Federal Land Management Bureau can not be as effective an inspector and regulator as my local Building Development Division.
The second point is that BP has a demonstrated history of sacrificing safety for profits and should be required to pay for all damages. If you will recall the 2005 Texas refinery explosion, “The Report of the BP U.S. Refineries Safety Panel Review,” concluded that BP had a "corporate blind spot" when it came to safety. The report noted that employees were often poorly trained in the safety procedures required to prevent major incidents, while managers were sometimes too focused on increasing production to meet profits expectations. Executives failed to instill a culture where this "process safety" was paramount and instead created a corporate culture focused primarily on maximizing profits. This sounds very much like what happened with the Deepwater Horizon explosion. While I think that BP should be required to pay for the cleanup and all damages, I object to using political pressure rather than the rule of law and the courts to obtain a $20 billion settlement account. The government is engaging in political theatre instead of ensuring that regulators are able to ensure best practices are used in design and that wells are installed as designed.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Windmills are a familiar image associated with farms and Holland and are a special class of a wind turbine. The blades or propellers on a wind turbine are built to capture the wind and move, generating electricity. The constant wind blows the angled blades of the familiar windmill pushing them in a circle. If the mechanical energy thus captured is used directly to pump water, or grind grain, the machine is called a windmill. If the mechanical energy is instead converted to electricity the machine is called a wind turbine. The basic concept of a wind turbine is the wind turns the blades, which spin a shaft, which connects to a generator and makes electricity. This is the opposite of a fan, where the electricity is used to create a breeze. There are two main types of wind turbines, horizontal-axis and vertical axis. Horizontal-axis wind turbines (HAWT) have the rotor shaft and electrical generator on top of the tower, and must be pointed into the wind. The horizontal axis is the most familiar type of wind turbine. Turbines used in wind farms for commercial production of electric power are usually three-bladed and pointed into the wind by computer-controlled motors. Vertical axis wind turbines have the rotor shaft arranged vertically and the wind blades lined up horizontally. This type of turbine does not need to be pointed into the wind to be effective and may be suited to smaller installations. Vertical-axis turbines may be able to solve the main generation problems for home users including aesthetic concerns, space requirements and sound levels. This website lists all the micro wind turbines currently available, though I warn you the list is mind boggling.

The wind turbine is an attractive idea for renewable power generation and might fit into my goal of reducing my purchased power by an additional 50%. However, before you jump to buy one, you need to determine if your site is suited for a micro turbine. Ed Begley Jr. who is involved in marketing a new wind turbine design was dismayed to find his own home was not suitable for a turbine. In order for a wind turbine to work, the wind must blow at a sustained and consistent level. The economics of a wind system are very sensitive to the average wind speed in the area. As a general rule of thumb even for a micro turbine 8-10 mph average wind speed is necessary to produce any meaningful amount of electricity. The US Department of energy has a map so that you can get a general idea of the wind, but wind is a totally local phenomenon. Winds are created by uneven heating of the atmosphere by the sun, irregularities of the Earth's surface, and the rotation of the Earth. As a result, winds are strongly influenced and modified by local terrain, bodies of water, weather patterns, vegetative cover, and other factors. Though I live in an area rated as having poor wind potential by the DOE, I think I may have a prevailing breeze (wind?) to the river. The only true way to know if your site is a candidate for a wind turbine is to actually monitor the wind for an extended period of time.

Installing monitoring equipment can be an expensive exercise, but actual measurement of the wind speed could determine if any of the micro turbine designs coming onto the market might be suited for my site. Before choosing which type of turbine is best for a particular site, some sort of wind speed measurement should be taken for a few consecutive months (or ideally, a full year). With long term wind measurements an accurate average wind speed can be calculated, as well as determining likely maximum wind speeds. Armed with this information, a turbine can be chosen that will maximize performance at the average wind speed, as well as one that will withstand the likely maximum wind forces to avoid catastrophic failures.

In addition to adequate wind (or too strong wind), there are other issues involved with wind turbines appearance; danger to birds and sound. Wind energy is seen as a ‘green energy solution’ that is renewable and generally good for the environment. These turbines, however, also emit infrasounds. According to Rosemary Stephen PMed, EOH, IPM, Elements: Environmental Health Intelligence, “In general, humans can perceive audio frequency ranges between 16 to 20 Hz (cycles per second) at the lower limit of hearing ... Infrasounds are in the lower range, at or below, the 20Hz frequency range…A small percentage of the population have a very acute sense of hearing A 1998 study done in the Netherlands “indicated that 15% of the population is possibly involved (affected), 3% definitely” experiencing “sensations that may be attributed to low frequency or even infrasound.” For the segment of the population who can perceive infrasound, the frequency resembles a loud, continuous, highly irritating noise.” This small portion of the environment is impacted by proximity to wind turbines. As for appearance we all have to deal with neighbors and family and because wind turbines generally need to clear the tree line, they are not subtle. My solar panels can not be seen by my neighbors under normal circumstances, but a wind turbine could be viewed by anyone on the road.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

More Thoughts on Sustainable Living, Energy Use and Ecological Impact

Last spring Dr. Chu, US Energy Secretary, advocated for "white roofs everywhere". He said lightening roofs and roads in urban environments would offset the global warming effects of all the cars in the world for 11 years. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that blanket statements like that need to be more closely examined before blindly accepting them even from Nobel Prize winning physicists working for the government. Both Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and Con Edison performed studies of different roofing materials. Livermore Lab only looked at the reduction in energy used for air conditioning probably because their Lab is located in California.
Con Edison divided their training center's roof into three parts: a traditional dark roof section, a section painted white, and a green section with plants growing on it. An energy-efficiency study by Columbia University was designed to help researchers understand how each kind of roof performs. The green and white roofs were found to perform equally well in preventing the “heat island effect,” in which conventional dark roofs absorb sunlight during the day and radiate heat back into the atmosphere at night which is postulated to create along with asphalt pavement the increased temperatures associated with urban and suburban areas.
However, the green roof is beneficial in summer and winter as well as reducing rain water runoff. The green roof reduces summer heat gains by up to 84% and winter heat losses by up to 37% compared to a black roof. The white roof reduces summer heat gains by up to 67%, but reflects heat in the winter when it is desirable to maintain heat. In a cold climate, a dark roof can lower heating costs by soaking up the winter sun. White-roof advocates counter that, in the continental United States, the "winter penalty" is just 10 percent of the overall savings because the roof is covered with snow for much of the winter, but many locations with freezing or near freezing temperatures do not have significant amounts of snow throughout the winter.
Green roofs are clearly the better choice for energy consumption year around. The obvious problem is green roofs only work with flat roofs, my house has a traditional peaked roof so a green roof is not really and option. I can not even imagine my neighbor’s reactions to a white reflective roof glaring at all drivers from the end of the cul-de-sac. Another problem I did not even imagine is maintenance requirements for a green roof. I went to see the Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc. building in Gainesville, VA which was one of the first LEEDS certified buildings in Virginia and was dismayed to discover that weeding and replanting after extreme weather was necessary. WSS actually utilizes its interns to weed the roof. I can barely keep up with the hand weeding of my garden (because I do not use weed killers or other chemicals, I dig out the weeds in my beds).
Living in a moderate climate (last winter not withstanding) my roof does not spend the greater part of the winter covered in snow and I might benefit by having my roof absorb heat in the winter. Though, throughout the summer a dark roof would results in extra load on the air conditioning/heat exchanger. One of my goals in the insulation of my attic was to thermally isolate the attic from the rest of the house. For the insulation project, the attic and accessible areas of the basement and crawl spaces were inspected for adequate insulation. Then following the recommendations by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory the attic, crawl spaces, eves, ductwork, underside of a large portion of the main level floor were insulated with cellulose. The pipes, end caps, knee wall, sump pumps and all identified areas were sealed, the garage was insulated and an insulated garage door installed. My total electricity bills for the following 12 months were 27% less than I paid in the 12 months before I added the additional insulation to the house, and the winter liquid propane usage (as measured in volume use December through March both years) was reduced by 25%. Also, the overall comfort in the bedroom over the garage and the master bedroom has been vastly improved. I was very surprised at the energy savings for what was a well insulated home. The payback on this project was under 4 years, unbelievably good.
My solution to the roof question was to begin to fill the southern roof span with solar panels. I have covered about 60% of that span with solar panels (so far). The goal is to test their production and function and save up more money for more panels down the road, though my estimate is that the savings from the solar panels will be about the same as from the insulation project. The problem is they cost (before rebates, tax credits and sale of SRECS) ten times as much. A more cost effective next step would be to convert the entire house heating and cooling to “geothermal” heat exchangers, though in truth, I have yet to find any models to estimate my cost and savings from that conversion.
Other recommendations for sustainable living or energy efficiency are based on a set of assumptions that may not be true for all situations. People’s patterns of living are starting to diverge. As an example we live, work and relax from home. I leave the house a few times a week to purchase supplies, pray, and volunteer. I rarely go more than 10 miles from home and drive (my little hybrid) only a few thousand miles a year. My water supply and waste disposal are private and sustainable. According to research performed in Dutchess county the average daily aquifer recharge (from rain and snow only excluding septic recycling) for Soils types C, C/D and D prevalent in this part of Virginia are estimated 326-583 gallons per acre. It is essential in a sustainable system that the groundwater level be maintained with recharge and adequate surface water is supplied to maintain the ecology even during drought years. My property totals more than 10 acres and our total indoor and outdoor household water usage was clocked during the early summer at between 100 and 150 gallons a day. We do not water our garden; trying to plant only what will thrive in the natural environment unaided. Virginia gets plenty of rainfall and it seems silly to plant anything that requires irrigation. Thus, not only is my septic system non-consumptive, the recharge rate vastly exceeds our water usage (and hopefully our neighbors since our water supply is dependent on total demand and recharge of the aquifer). I have an alternative septic system and I am incredibly careful of its operation, management of the load and maintenance.
Yet, with that I use a large amount of electricity for entertainment, to store my meat bought in bulk and the wine put up for the next decade. Thought my refrigeration units are energy star, there are several of them. Our home theatre is an LCD which is far more energy efficient that plasma, but less energy efficient than the now available LED TVs. It may be an LCD, but its large. Sustainable living is about thoughtfully using the earths resources. A fun place to start thinking about the sustainablility of your life is to go to the energy star home page and measure your home energy score.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill

On the night of April 20th, 2010 a rush of methane gas up the well pipe to the sea surface occurred and the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 17. The oil well head, almost a mile deep, began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. From the start Louisiana officials have argued that keeping oil away from the coastline, protecting the estuaries, marshlands and beaches to protect not only the ecology of the area, but also the fishing and tourist industries was of first importance. There was no immediate response, no deploying of manpower and resources to protect the coast for days as the oil gushed into the Gulf.

On April 22nd the Navy and Coast Guard were sent to fight the fire from the explosion. Since then, BP was left to respond to the spill and for days on end the oil catching booms sat idle. This is not the first blowout in history, though the difficulty of staunching the flow was compounded by the extreme depth of the well. For 40 days BP bumbled along trying different ideas to staunch the flow, these; however, were basically the same approaches used in the past. In 1979 when the Mexican Ixtoc well blew out in 150 feet of water it took just about nine months to staunch the flow. The Deepwater Horizon is about a mile deep so the difficulty of responding the spill ins not to be underestimated. The Mexican national oil company Pemex tried to stop the flow with drilling mud, and then with steel and lead balls dropped into the wellbore. It tried to contain the oil with a cap, but failed in all attempts despite being only 150 feet deep. Finally, after nine months a relief well successfully plugged the hole with cement and the flow was stopped after 138 million gallons of crude was released into the Gulf of Mexico.

Though BP has systematically tried to stop the flow by first an attempt to activate the blowout preventer valves, then by trying the first dome which became clogged with icy hydrates and failed, then by trying to divert and capture the flow with an insertion tube, followed by trying to plug the hold with mud and debris (as the Mexicans did). Finally this week BP was able to cut the riser and lower the second containment cap in place. This cap captured 6,077 barrels of oil during its first 24 hours in operation. This is estimated to be somewhere between 25%-50% of the flow. There are four vents at the top of the cap which are now open to relieve pressure and if they are successfully closed without blowing out the seal, the captured flow could be increased. This cap is a temporary measures to capture the flow until two relief wells are completed in the next three months and the Deepwater Horizon can be permanently sealed.

BP is preparing backup systems in the containment effort (risk management learned a little late). Several more caps are in the Gulf. BP plans to replace the currently installed cap with a heavier and more tightly sealed cap designed with storage capacity in case a hurricane forces the containment ship to leave the area. BP and US regulators appeared to believe that because there had not been such a catastrophic blowout in the Gulf since 1979, it would not happen. We were not prepared; we did not have an emergency plan or procedures to mitigate the impact from a catastrophic blowout. Inappropriate risk management took place and was compounded by inappropriate emergency response.

A thick film coats the shore from Louisiana to Florida, and tar balls and orange foam have washed up on Gulf Coast beaches, too. These are the immediate effects of a spill are obvious along with the images of oil soaked and suffocating and dead seabirds washing up on shore. More than 597 birds have been found dead along the coast, according to a federal tally released Friday. In addition more than 243 sea turtles have also been found dead. Dead dolphins were also washing ashore, 31 were dead as if June 7th. But some types of ecological damage are hard to measure and can take years to document. This ecological tragedy is immense. As David Leonhardt pointed out in the New York Times, people in general do a lousy job of estimating risk. Maybe requiring emergency response preparation and maintaining emergency response forces and measures is the true job of government.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Misadventures with my Solar Photovoltaic Project

The renewable energy rebate in Virginia was limited by the $15 million in stimulus funds that the Commonwealth of Virginia allocated to the program. I signed up for the renewable energy rebates two days before the cut-off, I did not complete my due diligence and select my contractor, sign the contract and make a good faith deposit until after Christmas having been delayed by the mid-December snow. As the winter snow storms hammered northern Virginia over the winter my selected contractor struggled to prepare the engineering work and drawings necessary to obtain the permits. Weather delays and the usual contractor delays (always at least a week later than the salesman promised) interfered with obtaining the completed engineering work and the permits.

I was surprised that the detailed drawings and engineering work resulted in only a single electrical permit, but the contractor told me that the county had said only the electrical permit was necessary and the building code was not specific to solar panels. I was later to find out that the contractor had been misinformed or misunderstood the county building department clerk. Nonetheless, a permit was granted. Ultimately, when the error was discovered, Prince William County fast tracked the issuing of the solar building and electrical permits to help me meet the renewable energy rebate deadline. From the date of acceptance of the reservation for renewable energy rebates you have 180 days to actually install the system and meet all the requirement of the program to obtain your rebate. Signing up only guarantees that there is still money available for your project not that you will receive the rebate. Since the engineering and design work were properly done back during the winter, it took less than two days to get the permits. Chad Roop, Construction Inspection Supervisor was incredibly helpful throughout the process and the contractor, while having performance problems was honorable and kept at it until the installation passed inspection.

Solar Photo Voltaic panels are one of the least cost-effective ways of reducing your use of non-renewable resources. The only way these systems get installed are by all of us subsidizing the cost. This is accomplished by tax credits, state rebates, and renewable energy credits. Virginia had never before had renewable energy rebates. Maryland, our neighbor to the north had regularly funded a program that had a waiting list, so there was a predictable number of solar projects each year or two and an opportunity for local companies to develop experience. In Virginia, very little solar had been installed before this year; the small companies that were developing the expertise in solar systems saw their opportunity to grab a temporary business bonanza.

Despite assurances that they could handle the amount of work they booked, the company I had chosen to use had probably taken on a few more jobs than they could do, supervision was spread too thin and they hired additional people with inadequate training and experience to do the installation. What should have been a one week to ten day (depending on weather) installation began on April 19th and finally passed final inspection from the county on May 19th. In between I had the contractor who finished my basement back to repair the wall damage (twice) and the solar contractor was visibly showing stress.

The contractor was a well established roofing contractor and wanted to do a good job. I believe his foreman and the roof installation crew are capable of the work. The installation started with the first problem, notification of interconnect was given to the wrong power company. Fortunately, NOVEC, my power cooperative, had a solar meter installed within 24 hours of being properly notified. They were amazingly responsive in both the installation and in sending me the signed paperwork for my rebate supporting documentation. I would like to point out that the roof installation of the panels passed inspection on the first try and in the torrential rains of the past few weeks my roof has not leaked and the panels stayed put. The roof installation crew wore roofing shoes and safety harnesses and was careful moving the solar panels. For the most part the panel installation went smoothly other than setting my garden mulch on fire on the second day by flicking still lit cigarette buts off the roof. After I put out the fire and yelled at them, the installation crew agreed not to smoke on my property, though I have picked up numerous cigarette buts from the road. (It is a private road and cigarette filters are environmentally persistent, so I pick them up along with any other trash I find.)

The other individuals who worked on my house reportedly no longer work for the company. Four separate electrical inspections were performed by the building department until the system passed and in between, the system was entirely rewired, the contractor’s watch is a permanent resident in my wall, and my stove has been reconnected. Yes, they cut my stove out trying to move the circuit breaker, punched three large unnecessary holes in my walls, and used interior wiring where water proof wire was specified by their design. In addition, on the first attempt, four out of six wires were not connected to anything. The electrical inspector was tough on the contractor by the end, but they had not demonstrated any competence in the area and I feel that Charlie Jackson, the Chief Electrical Inspector, was looking out for my best interests and ensuring that the system was installed according to the approved drawings and code. Mr. Jackson showed unlimited patience with the contractor, and his thoroughness in the inspection is what ultimately ensured that the system was safely installed. I felt well protected and served by my county government.

The contractor was out here today to finish up details. The Enphase Micro-converter system is supposed to broadcast to the internet the power production. That is not working here. Reportedly, the system is working at all the other installations. The contractor thinks that it is a failure of the EMU, after spending the afternoon here. The contractor has agreed that until I’ve verified that the system is working and producing energy that is being applied to my power usage account and all the details are taken care of, I will not be making the final payment for the system.