Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Status on Our Sustainable Efforts

Recently, someone at corporate at Kim's work questioned whether consumers would be willing to spend extra money on things they didn't perceive to have a direct health benefit (i.e. spending money on carbon credits to avoid something bad perhaps happening in a number of years. Here's Kim's response, which nicely sums up a lot of our efforts over the past couple of years (except for food, which of course is another major focus for us):

Thanks for bringing this to the attention of those in Dallas that people really are willing to pay more for items they believe to be sustainable. My family is currently working to increase our use of sustainable practices and decrease our carbon footprint.

With this in mind, over the last three years we have:
  • Built a new house which was pre-built in a warehouse. By pre-building sections of the house in a warehouse less wood is consumed and wasted – everything can be pre-measured and the small sections of the 2x6s that are left over are used elsewhere in the construction. We paid a bit more for this, but felt that by doing so we reduced the impact on our forests. The house is two stories with a finished basement, and overall living space is 3500 square feet.
  • All ceiling lighting (not floor lamps – yet!) utilizes CFLs.
  • Outdoor security lighting is tied to a solar panel and timer to turn on and off throughout the year.
  • About 6 months ago we started purchasing green energy form our local energy company. We purchase enough green energy to off-set all our electric needs.
  • Since we are not yet ready to buy a hybrid car (which our next one will most certainly be), we are purchasing carbon credits to off-set the gas that we purchase for both vehicles each year.
  • We have invested in prairie plants and built rain gardens in our yard to keep the run off form our roof on our property and out of the storm sewers. The upfront cost of a rain or prairie garden is a bit higher than for your traditional garden plants, but well worth the investment.
Future plans:

  • We plan to add additional rain gardens as well as rain barrels to our city lot to decrease the amount of city water we need to pull from the lakes and water table.
  • We are currently looking into solar energy panels and what it would cost to install them, as well as what our ROI would be.
  • As an alternative to solar energy, we are looking into solar water heating as well. The up front costs are lower and the ROI is better, so this may be our entry point into the world of solar. Before we can install any solar, however, we need to get plans drawn up which need to go before a review committee for our neighborhood, and we need to get he covenants changed to allow solar panels. Neither of which will be easy, however we feel it will be well worth the battle.
  • I recently found out about “paper plates” and “plastic-ware” that is biodegradable and (I believe) corn based. Instead of throwing it in the garbage after your July 4 picnic, you can just throw everything into the compost bin. We will definitely be using them the next time we plan a picnic gathering!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fiber-rich Pancakes

We like pancakes and bacon on the weekend, but it's often a fatty and unhealthy breakfast. So, I've been trying to come up with a healthier version. It's still quite light, despite being full of grains and fiber. They're also very filling - two will usually be enough per person.

  • 3 eggs
  • 2½ cups white flour
  • ½ cup wheat bran
  • ½ cup oats
  • ½ cup flaxseed meal
  • 2½ cups milk
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 3 Tbsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon (if desired)
  1. Beat eggs with hand beater in large bowl until fluffy. This takes 3-4 minutes.
  2. Beat in remaining ingredients just until smooth
  3. Let batter sit for about 5 minutes to let the grains absorb the liquid. If it's still too liquid, add water 1-2 Tbsp at a time until it's right.
  4. Fry pancakes on hot griddle - about 4 minutes on each side.
  5. Serve with butter, syrup and/or jam.
This recipe yields about 18 four-inch pancakes. This will feed 4-6 people. Leftovers can be frozen and reheated for quick weekday breakfasts.

To reheat frozen pancakes: Arrange on microwave-safe plate, and cover. Microwave on high about one minute per pancake, rotating at about 30 seconds. Times will vary based on your microwave oven.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Beer = Liquid Bread...

This weekend is shaping up to be an interesting joining of good things!

I will brew Java Coffee Stout on Saturday, and then we will use the steeped grains in a bread following a recipe from Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads.

Part of the beer brewing process is to steep about a pound of crushed grains in warm water (155F/68C) for about 30 minutes. These grains would then normally be discarded (I usually compost them, but some will feed them to the birds), but this time we'll use them as the grains in a whole wheat bread.

The bread will be started tonight with a starter to soak the whole wheat flour. The bread will then be completed tomorrow after brewing the beer and adding the grains and other ingredients.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Researching Solar Power for Wisconsin

With energy prices at or near record highs (oil was over $100 per barrel today), we've started considering the possibility of installing some sort of solar system on the house to defray the rising energy costs. However, this is not a simple decision. First of all, it takes significant up-front-investment ($10-$50k it looks like), and there are many different types of systems and options to consider. Plus, there's a host of tax credits and incentives to consider. Then there are zoning issues and restrictive covenants to take into consideration.

I'll try to break down our research in a few blog postings. They will be written as I work my way through the various web sites and find out information.

First, we have a restrictive covenant that would seem to doom the project from the beginning. Renewable energy systems are not allowed in our neighborhood. However, we can appeal to an architectural review committee to be allowed to 'break the rules'. I'm confident that a system that is mounted flush with the roof would be OK. our house's south-facing roof-line faces away from the road, and is quite tall relative to other neighbors, so it should be possible to install a system that is fairly unobtrusive.

So, what type of system are we looking for? We would like a system that
  • has a pay-back period of five years or less,
  • connects to the grid with net metering,
  • can handle 90% of our annual electricity needs (10 kWh),
  • can be installed fairly flush with the roof,
  • is relatively maintenance-free, and
  • works in Wisconsin winters.
We've ruled out wind systems, because we're in a fairly residential neighborhood, and don't see a wind turbine passing muster with either the neighbors or the architectural review committee.

One of the first steps in setting up a system is to assess the site. In Wisconsin, there are certified site assessors charging between $200 and $500 for a full assessment (Focus on Energy will cover 60%, so our cost would be $80-$200). For solar systems, you need a south-facing location with unobstructed view of the sun for as long as possible each day. Fortunately, we have a roof that faces almost directly south, and is high enough that there are very few obstructions once the sun is up. It also seems that Wisconsin gets enough sun - although November/December can be dreary, the highest-demand days are in the summer.

Most of the rest of this is focused on photovoltaics.

Funding Incentives
  • Focus on Energy: 25% of construction cost up to $35,000 (program expired 12/31/07 - perhaps a new one coming up?)
    • Update 1/3/08: Program will continue with the same amounts at least through end of 2008. New forms will be up on web site within a week.
  • Federal tax credit: 30% of construction cost up to $2,000 (extended to 12/31/08)
  • Net metering - sell any excess energy to the utility. This means all energy is used - no loss to storage in batteries. More sun - better economics.
Sizing of System
  • Current energy consumption: ~11 kWh /year
  • System need: ~7.5 kW panels (6-800 square ft)
  • Approximately 4 daily hours of sunshine in Wisconsin (1,460 hours per year).
    • A 7.5 kWh system will thus generate 10,950 kWh per year
  • Price range: $40,000 - $50,000 (plus installation - it seems possible to most of it as DIY)
  • $45,000 after FoE and IRS incentives: $31,750
  • One year cost of electricity: ~$1,400
Hmm, a loan of $31,750 would have to be mortgaged over 30 years at 2.3% interest in order for the electricity savings to cover the cost. This doesn't take into account any rises in energy cost (or consumption), or possible tax benefits/disadvantages of increasing the value of the home.

Perhaps an investment of this magnitude to save the environment is better made in carbon credits? Or maybe more research needed...