Ikea To Sell Solar Panels

In order to tap into the growth of the renewable energy market, Swedish furniture giant Ikea will begin selling solar panels at its British stores. If successful, it seems likely this would spread to the United States, where subsidies for solar and wind power would make it a good buy for American customers.

Customers who buy the 3.37 kilowatt capacity systems (about average size for a mid-size home in the States) will also get an in-store consultation, along with installation and maintenance services over the life of the solar panels. 

"In the past few years the prices on solar panels have dropped, so it's a really good price now," IKEA Chief Sustainability Officer Steve Howard told The Associated Press. "It's the right time to go for the consumers."

Howard estimated that customers would make up the cost of the panels within seven years. Similar to many U.S states, Britain has a net metering program that lets rate payers sell excess electricity produced by solar panels back to the grid. Although the UK isn't one of the world's great solar countries – it has a total installed capacity of 1.7 gigawatts, less than a quarter of what the U.S. has – the country does generously subsidize solar panel systems, which makes it a good testing ground for Ikea's new product.

It could be a major boon for renewable energy in the U.S. if customers begin to see solar panels as a retail commodity that you can pick up at a local store, rather than something that requires months of bidding and work from contractors. With a low barrier to entry, the already-fast growth of the American solar market may accelerate even further.

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The Promise Of Rooftop Farms

Rooftop farming continues to grow in popularity, as residents of crowded cities with high rents who want to have local farms have been able to realize this dream by occupying the otherwise empty rooftops of buildings. In addition to producing a fresh food supply to locals, this style of agriculture also presents a number of benefits in terms of improving the environment and allowing more people to engage in green living.

A recent article in NPR highlights the efforts of Windy City Harvest, a non-profit program that raises a large vegetable and herb garden on top of Chicago's McCormick Place, a large convention center. The goal of Windy City Harvest, which employs ex-convicts and Chicago youth, is to provide 8,000 to 12,000 pounds of food for McCormick Place's food service company.

Rooftop farming can lower a building's energy costs because the plants absorb sunlight, reducing the need for air conditioning. They also consume carbon dioxide, which helps clean the air and limit climate change.

"Rooftops will be part of the mix of urban spaces that will be increasingly used to 'scale up' urban agriculture," Joe Nasr, a member of the faculty at the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University in Toronto, told the source.

Particularly in areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities where the weather is agreeable year round, this trend could be the next front in the battle to increase the prevalence of locally grown foods. With space at a premium, and with so many additional benefits to gain besides fresh food, there's little reason rooftop farming can't become a more permanent and prominent part of the urban landscape.

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Radfan Wins First Annual EarthHack Competition

Radfan, a UK startup that has developed a fan for radiators to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, has won the first annual EarthHack, a competition that pits teams of designers against each other to develop products that fight climate change. The makers of the Radfan, which sits atop any heating radiator and redirects hot air into the room rather than to the ceiling, will receive a $15,000 prize and have the chance for their invention to be developed into a product to be sold by Ikea or Philips.

The device only costs $3 a year to run continuously, and raises the temperature of a room 2 degrees Celsius without the occupant having to raise the thermostat. Radfan estimated that if it were widely adopted, the product could limit carbon emissions by as much as a million metric tons per year. It could also save homeowners 20 percent on their energy bills.

One of the criteria for the EarthHack competition was that entries needed to be scalable. A product that limits energy use is great, but if it can't be easily commercialized, it will hardly have much of an impact on climate change and CO2 emissions. The Radfan was designed with mass production in mind.

"We're thrilled to have won the Marblar EarthHack competition," Radfan's co-founder Simon Barker told The Climate Group. "We're really excited to demonstrate how the Radfan can help home owners to feel warmer and save energy around the world."

Hopefully, one day soon you'll be shopping at Ikea and you'll be able to pick up a Radfan for your own home.

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Drivers Willing To Pay More For Carbon Emissions Reductions

Policymakers often argue that the cost of reducing carbon emissions and averting global warming is great to be worth the effort. They say such measures would hurt the economy and cause problems for the average energy user. According to a new online survey by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, most drivers don't seem to mind.

The study found that drivers were willing to pay $100 for a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions, or $250 for an 80 percent reduction, and that they would accept a reduction in fuel economy and space if carbon capture technology was integrated into automobiles.

"While most efforts at containing carbon dioxide emissions are directed at large-scale stationary producers….there has also been interest in considering the feasibility of carbon capture from….the gasoline-fueled internal-combustion engines ubiquitous in transportation," John Sullivan, an assistant research scientist in UMTRI's Human Factors Group, said in a news release. "Various methods are under development to capture and store these gases before they enter the atmosphere."

Carbon capture on cars would require that the CO2 emissions be stored in a separate compartment, which would take up room and add weight to the vehicle, thereby reducing overall fuel economy somewhat. But the survey found that drivers are willing to tolerate this if it meant improving air quality and the environment.

That the public is much more willing to accept the costs of going green and avoiding climate change is good news, but the key is to convey this fact to the people who guide environmental policy in government. Hopefully, more studies like the one from the University of Michigan will accomplish that.

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Can The World Run On Renewable Energy Within 20-40 Years?

One of the perceptions of renewable energy that environmental advocates often work to eliminate is that technologies like solar, wind and other forms of clean power are prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, many people still believe that the future of U.S. energy infrastructure is in natural gas and "clean coal". But a recent report from Stanford University is the latest evidence that this view is mistaken and that global energy supply could eventually be derived primarily from renewables.

The study, co-authored by Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson and U.C. Davis researcher Mark A. Delucchi, states that the world's power needs could be met with solar, wind and other alternative, sustainable sources within 40 years using current technology. Their findings were published in Energy Policy, and involve a plan that would convert most of the world's power usage to electricity. Wind and solar would provide about 90 percent of the world's energy needs, while geothermal and hydroelectric would contribute about 4 percent.

For applications that require much higher power outputs, such as fueling large ships and trains, the world could rely on hydrogen, which could be procured using electricity.

Making these changes, the authors believe, would result in 2.5 to 3 million lives saved, and would allow the world to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change.

"Based on our findings, there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources," Jacobson said in a press release. "It is a question of whether we have the societal and political will."

While the answer to that question remains uncertain, hopefully research will continue to pour in and convince the general public of the seriousness of our energy problems and the potential of renewable sources.

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Expiration Dates On Food Labels Leading To Waste

Most Americans judge the freshness of food not by tasting or sniffing it, but by looking at the expiration or "sell by" date printed on the packaging. Although this may seem to make sense, these dates are often poor indicators of when food is no longer safe to consume, and using them as an excuse to toss produce, milk and other products leads to a staggering amount of food waste.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School recently published a report on the topic, which states that dates printed on food packaging aren't standardized by the government or any regulatory body. Typically, they're only meant to indicate to grocery stores when food is at its peak freshness, not when it becomes unsafe to consume.

As a result of this and other inefficient consumption practices, Americans waste 40 percent of their food, totaling $165 billion a year that is simply thrown in the trash or dump. The rest of the world isn't much better: Nearly one-third of the global food supply is tossed out, leading to 3.3 gigatons of carbon emissions when it sits in a landfill decomposing.

The NRDC has a few policy prescriptions that would lead to a better system for indicating food expiration:

  • Make sell-by dates on packaging invisible to customers.
  • Replace them with a standardized system, regulated by the FDA, to determine the actual expiration dates of foods. This should also include "freeze by" information.

Given how many people throughout the world continue to live in hunger and poverty, it is imperative that agriculture industries make more concerted efforts to limit waste and encourage more efficient allocation of food supplies.

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Does Energy Efficiency Increase Home Values?

It's hard to argue with the fact that efficiency improvements for your home are a good investment. In addition to helping you save money on your electricity, heating and cooling expenses, efficiency also helps the environment by reducing your reliance on fossil fuel power.

But some residents trying to sell their homes have found that making such investments won't necessarily raise the value of their house once it hits the market. A recent article in the San Francisco Gate discusses the unfortunate reality that energy efficiency isn't especially high on the list of priorities for buyers.

"It's the icing on the cake," Julie Reber of Zephyr Real Estate tells the source. "We've tried to evaluate if marketing as green brings in buyers or just helps close the deal. It's the latter, unfortunately."

There is an effort at the federal level to create policies that will encourage buyers to seek out efficient homes. The Save Act would allow them to take out large mortgages by requiring banks to consider the money saved on electricity as part of the buyer's income. But it's unclear if this law will have a significant effect. Many listing services provide only limited information on a home's energy efficiency given that those looking for a new home don't tend to focus on the issue much.

It's important to note, however, that energy efficiency is an issue that will eventually affect all homeowners. Over time, fossil fuels will likely go up in cost, raising electricity and gas prices to a point where it is simply common sense to make efficiency improvements. 

Keep checking back with LifeIsGreen.com for more information about renewable energy and green living topics!

Portland Planning Dense Communities

Portland has experienced considerable growth in the last decade, and as a result city planners are trying to spur development that encourages new residents to live in denser communities. Such neighborhoods are seen to be more conducive to green living, as they require fewer resources and reduce the need for automobile usage.

One notable example is the Hassalo on Eighth development, which will incorporate 657 apartments and 58,000 square feet of retail space within a relatively small, dense area. Rather than devoting acres of land to parking, the community will be a walkable, more dynamic neighborhood where people can find all their needs within a short distance.

EarthTechling reports that all of the buildings constructed a Hassalo on Eighth will be LEED-certified Platium, the highest energy efficiency rating under the LEED program.

"There is a gap in the urban grid of this neighborhood where mid-century planning principals called for surface parking lots in lieu of dense, walkable communities," co-developers GBD Architects explained on their website. "We are repairing this urban fabric by introducing mixed-use, dense development that creates a 24-hour neighborhood."

The structures at the development will be equipped with several innovative green technologies and efficiency measures. GBD notes that apartment buildings will recycle and re-use all of their water rather than having it sent to sewers.

One of the keys to getting people out of their cars and into walkable neighborhoods is removing barriers to the development of such communities. Portland, along with other cities including San Francisco and Seattle, are slowly but surely moving in that direction.

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Find Out What Your House Needs With A Home Energy Audit

We spend a lot of time on this blog providing advice on green living and how to improve the energy efficiency of your home, but each house is different, and your particular residence may have it own particular inefficiencies that need to be addressed. This begs the question: How a homeowner can go about identifying these flaws and improving the way their house uses heat and electricity?

The best way to do this is to hire an energy consultant and have them perform a home energy audit. There are many steps to the auditing process, but essentially what the contractor will do is look at all areas of your home that can effect the way you consume energy and determine if there are savings to be had. For example, they'll look at your windows to figure out what kind of insulation they're providing. They'll also analyze your plumbing system and water usage to identify potential savings in that area as well.

Many local and state governments provide incentives to homeowners who go through with this process, and some utilities will even offer a discounted auditing program to give customers a low-cost efficiency consultation.

It's true that installing weather-stripping and a programmable thermostat could potentially save your family hundreds of dollars in energy costs every year, but there are many other areas of your energy use that require some level of expertise to detect. A home energy auditor can provide you with that information so that you can stabilize the finances of your household while also helping the environment.

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New York Trying Out New All-Electric Bus

New York is typically the testing ground for revolutionary new public transit options, and the city's new all-electric bus pilot program is in keeping with this trend. Local transit authorities are testing out a new public bus that runs entirely on electric power supplied by three batteries, which allow the bus to travel 150 miles on one charge. If successful, the city could adopt the bus for all of its routes, allowing the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to save over $190 million a year in fuel costs.

The buses are constructed in China by a company called Built Your Dreams, Ltd. According to the New York Daily News, the company plans to open a manufacturing facility in California soon. 

So far, rider feedback has been positive. The batteries, located in the back of the vehicle, have resulted in limited headroom towards the rear of the vehicle, but overall those who have had an opportunity to board the vehicle say it is relatively comfortable and spacious.

"It's quieter than the other buses," Sze Wei Mah, 47, a Brooklyn travel agent, told the source.

In addition to saving on fuel costs, the MTA could also avoid the need for oil changes, which are required for the average diesel bus every 3,000-4,000 miles. A typical MTA bus gets its oil changed every 5 weeks.

The only issue is that the new all-electric buses cost about $800,000 each, twice as much as the diesel models that the MTA currently relies on. But over time, the high price tag could come down as a result of scaling and improvements in production and supply chain processes. In the meantime, New York will experience improved air quality and finances while setting an example for other metropolitan areas looking to make their public transit more efficient.

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