5 Home repairs not to ignore
Use our expert advice to stop trouble in its tracks
You might be tempted to put off fixing your home until the economy rebounds. Rebuild the patio? Sure, right after your 401(k) rallies. But some problems, if left unchecked, can lead to thousands of dollars in repairs (rebuilding a foundation wall, for instance) and might even compromise your family's health, such as mold contamination.
The trouble signs are easy to spot, provided you know what to look for. What's more, contractors aren't as busy now, so they're likely to be more flexible on price. Here are the five biggest red flags of home maintenance, with our advice on how to deal with them. Our recent reviews of gutter guards and roofing and siding materials can also help.
1. Runaway rainwater
"If there are 10 things that can go wrong with a house, 15 of them have to do with water," says Bill Loden, a Madison, Ala., home inspector. Gutters, downspouts, and leader pipes collect rainwater and channel it away from the house. In very wet regions, leaders should extend at least 5 feet from the house. Check the entire gutter system seasonally for proper pitch and for clogs, corrosion, broken fasteners, and separation between connections and where gutters meet the fascia board. When inspecting gutters, extend straight ladders 3 feet beyond the roof at a 75-degree angle to the ground.
The soil around the foundation should slope away from the house at least 1 inch per foot for 6 feet or more. If you have planting beds along the foundation, make sure the grading of the bed, its edging, or the edge of the lawn isn't keeping water from draining away from the house.
2. Roof and siding
Roofs are the most vulnerable to water infiltration, given their exposure to the elements and the laws of gravity. On a sunny day, use binoculars to spot cracked, curled, or missing shingles, which are signs that the roof is near its end of life. Also check flashing around chimneys, skylights, and roof valleys, and the rubber boots around vents for cracks.
Siding is also susceptible to leaks, especially where it meets windows and doors. A $5 tube of caulk might save you thousands of dollars in structural repairs. If you live in a cold climate, check the siding under the roof eaves for water stains, which could be a sign of ice damming. Adding attic insulation and sealing gaps around pipes, recessed lighting, and ducts into the attic might help prevent future damming and lower your heating and cooling bills.
3. Pest infestations
Termites and carpenter ants gravitate to moist soil and rotting wood, another reason to make sure your gutters are in good shape and soil around your foundation is graded properly. Also keep mulch, firewood, and dense shrubbery away from your foundation.
Once termites infiltrate a home, they can bore through the structure in a few short years. Formosan termites, which are prevalent throughout the South, have been known to rip through studs and floorboards in a matter of months. To detect termites, probe the sill plate (also called a mudsill) that sits on top of the foundation with a screwdriver to check for rotted wood. To check for carpenter ants, look for piles of sawdust along baseboards. Regular termites also shed wings along windowsills, walls, and other entry points.
Rodents gravitate toward disorder and debris, such as leaf piles around the foundation. Plug holes in the siding and the foundation walls with expandable foam. Don't forget to look up for signs of birds, bees, or squirrels in soffits and attic vents.
4. Mold and mildew
Even houses in arid climates aren't immune. Hot outdoor temperatures can drive even small amounts of water trapped in the structure to condense on colder interior surfaces, leading to mold. Musty odors, dank air, and family members with chronic runny noses are warning signs. Check under carpets and around windows for visible mold or mildew. Also remove cover plates for cable-TV, phone, and Internet connections, and use a flashlight to peer behind walls and wallpaper for mold.
Avoid mold tests sold at home centers and online. Each of the kits we tested in the past had significant flaws that were serious enough to not recommend them. If indoor mold covers less than 10 square feet, treat it yourself by scrubbing mold off hard surfaces with a mixture of detergent and water. Then dry completely. Be sure to don an N-95 disposable respirator, goggles, and heavy-duty gloves. Professional remediation is required for larger outbreaks, if the ventilation system is contaminated, or if an allergy sufferer lives in the home. What's more, absorbent or porous materials, such as ceiling tiles and carpet, may have to be thrown away if they become moldy.
5. Foundation cracks
Some cracks are harmless, but others can mean trouble. James Katen, a home inspector from Gaston, Ore., suggests walking around the house with a No. 2 pencil in hand. Hairline cracks are probably the result of concrete curing or minor settling, he says, and can be filled with an epoxy-injection system. "But if the pencil can go into the crack up to the yellow paint on the pencil, that's a pretty wide crack and might be a sign of a major problem," Katen says. A ruler is another handy tool: Cracks wider than 3/16 inch, even vertical ones, can be a problem. Mark smaller cracks with tape and monitor their progress over the coming months. Also be on the lookout for horizontal cracks or bulging or buckling. Along with expanding cracks, those conditions require the attention of a structural engineer. The longer you wait to correct a problem, the more costly it will probably be.
More red flags
• Cracks at upper corners of windows and doors (uneven foundation settling)
• Mushrooms or fungus growing out of siding (moisture in the walls)
• Soft boards or loose rails on outdoor decks (decaying deck structure)
• Soggy ground and lush vegetation around septic tank or leach fields (overfilled or failing septic tank)
• Missing or torn insulation in attic (pest infiltration)
• Scratches or algae on siding (overgrown trees or plants)
As a Green Builder Part of what Scotts Contracting Offers is to bring St Louis Area Green Building Resources- Local Supplier
Tamko Building Products, Joplin, Missouri.
Do you really need underlayment on your sloped roofs?
- Nigel F. Maynard
- Image600LINER NOTES: RoofLiner is a lightweight, premium synthetic roofing underlayment that helps prevent leaking. Offering a Class A fire rating, it's made from Elvaloy AC copolymer and can be used with a variety of roofing types including asphalt shingles, clay, concrete, fiber cement, and metal tiles. Each roll measures 48 inches wide. DuPont Building Innovations. 800-448-9835. www.roofing.dupont.com.
- Image600MAXX TOP: MAXX TITAN is a waterproof membrane that allows roofs to breathe. It has a shiny silver coating that reflects up to 50 percent of radiant energy, helping keep homes cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, and features a bottom sponge-like layer that protects wood roof rafters and sheathing by absorbing excess moisture. Cosella-Dorken Products. 888-433-5824. www.cosella-dorken.com.
- Image600SURROUND SOUND: Surround SR underlayment is a tear-resistant roofing underlayment that offers secondary protection against moisture intrusion. Made from a waterproof polymer, the product is lightweight, easy to install, and slip-resistant. It features five times more material in one roll than 30-pound felt, the company says, and its rolls are 40 percent lighter and 25 percent wider than felt. Fiberweb. 800-284-2780. www.surroundtypar.com
- Opus Roof Blanket. (PRNewsFoto/Propex Operating Company, LLC)600MAGNUM OPUS: Opus Roof Blanket is touted as being superior to both felt paper and plastic sheeting underlayment. Its composition gives it a slip-resistant surface, and its blanket surface makes it easy for roofers to snap a chalk line. Lightweight and easy to work with, the product stays cool in summer and works in freezing temperatures. Propex Operating Co. 404-276-6394. www.opusroofblanket.com.
- Image600STICK IT: Making underlayment installation simple and easy, new Peel-N-Stick Felt is the industry's first and only saturated felt underlayment with a release film backing that can be peeled off, according to its maker. It requires no cap nails or staples for installation. It will be available in every state except Florida. TAMKO Building Products. 800-641-4691. www.tamko.com.
Some of the same construction professionals take a more relaxed approach to their roofs. They may install an ice and water shield on the first 3 feet of the roof or use 15-pound felt on the entire deck, but that's the extent of their program. Felt is an old standby, they say, allowing the roof to breathe and shed moisture. These builders also say they have not had any problems using this construction method, which raises the question: Is it really necessary for builders to use some type of underlayment between the roof deck and the roofing material?
"Generally, yes," says Maureen M. Mahle of Steven Winter Associates, based in New York City. "The purpose of underlayment is to serve as a secondary drainage plane. Water can and will penetrate the roofing at some point. Underlayment provides a 'flashing' to direct that water away from seams, joints, and vulnerable places in the building assembly."
Underlayment functions much like housewrap: It protects the roof deck from bulk water, but it allows the deck to breathe and release moisture from inside the home.
The preferred method of roofing protection in the old days was asphalt-saturated felt building paper, says the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH), a joint venture between the home building industry and federal agencies. But now the builder's weapon of choice is synthetic underlayment.
"Mimicking the attributes of housewraps, synthetic roof underlayments are now available to serve the same function as a secondary weather barrier with better resistance to tearing, moisture, and ultraviolet rays than traditional roofing felt," PATH writes on its website.
These products are made from a variety of materials, such as polypropylene, polyester, and fiberglass fabric. They are lighter in weight than felt building paper and usually can be exposed to weather for six months.
"Moisture resistance and hardiness make synthetic underlayment a good choice as a secondary weather-resistant barrier under roof cladding," PATH says. "Polypropylene and similar synthetic materials resist moisture, tearing, and degradation from UV rays, making them a durable, relatively long-term covering that can be used for disaster response. Fire-rated synthetic underlayments can provide added protection against fire spreading through the roof in multifamily housing and/or in regions of the country that are prone to wildfires."
Earlier this year, Wilmington, Del.–based DuPont Building Innovations introduced RoofLiner, a lightweight synthetic roofing underlayment that the company says provides excellent protection against leaks as well as enhanced durability and tear resistance. "Durable, high-quality roof underlayment is the foundation of any roofing system," said Alan Hubbell, DuPont's marketing manager for builders and remodelers, in a statement for the product's introduction. "The competitive pricing and enhanced features of DuPont RoofLiner make this product a welcome addition to the DuPont Weatherization Products portfolio," he added.
Joplin, Mo.–based TAMKO Building Products has a new introduction of its own. The company says its Peel-N-Stick Felt is the industry's first and only saturated felt underlayment with a release film backing that can be peeled off and the underlayment applied directly to the roof deck—making it easy to install, says Stephen McNally, TAMKO's vice president of sales and marketing.
Installing underlayment is no different than installing felt. It might even be easier. Some underlayments require fasteners but, on the plus side, underlayment weighs a lot less than felt. Some have self-adhering features so a little peeling and sticking are all that would be required. PATH says synthetic underlayments may cost about 30 percent more than felt, but "labor cost should remain the same or decrease."
But what about builders who say they don't use underlayment yet have not had any callbacks? As one reader wrote in a forum on the website of The Journal of Light Construction (one of Builder's sister publications), "I've removed old roofs that had NO underlay and didn't leak during their term."
The decision to use underlayment, Mahle says, is somewhat dependent on roofing type. "It's much more typical in shingles, slates, etc.," she explains. Still, she advises not to risk building a house without one. "We would recommend it under all types of roofing on sloped roofs," she says. It's a good idea under standing seam metal … but less critical. To my mind, the only exception would be membrane roofing [typically flat roofs]." Mahle adds, "I wouldn't go without one in any climate where you have above [average] potential for strong winds with rain."
If you are interested in Green Building on an Investment Property Check out the Benton Gut Rehab Blog Series-Benton Gut Rehab Green Blog Series
Even though solar is currently in the middle of a slow down when it comes to the manufacturing and the purchasing of panels and arrays, it still has the chance to become a big player in powering the world. Solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar power (CSP) developments are already making great strides in powering parts of Europe and Asia. But the U.S. is lagging noticeably behind and will need a little push from the government to get things started, namely in financial incentives and a firm piece of climate legislation signed into law.
The International Energy Association released two roadmaps that say solar could power 25 percent of the world's electricity by 2050. IEA estimates that world solar output in 2010 will be 37 TWh and PV will account for 5 percent of available power globally by 2030. CSP will contribute 5 percent of the electricity used by 2020 in the U.S., central Asia, India and Latin America. Also, CSP and PV combined can provide 2.3 percent of the world's total power by 2020 and 8.8 percent by 2030. It could grow to 9,000 TWh by 2050.
The road maps also said that PV and CSP are not competitors, but partners in cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 6 billion tons globally by 2050. What's more, North America will be the largest producing and consuming region for CSP electricity.
Industry groups like the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) are practically begging the U.S. government to make incentives and rebates available again to help spur the growth of PV and CSP. It's a plea that should not fall on deaf ears. As the country moves to shift from fossil fuels to cleaner renewables, it appears to be difficult also to shift the government's mindset that renewables will have to be a major part in curbing carbon emissions, along with installing emission control technology at coal- and natural gas-fired power plants and building nuclear plants for the first time in decades.
Monique Hanis, spokesperson for SEIA, said about $74 billion has been invested in oil- and natural gas-fired power between 2004 and 2008, but barely a fraction of that has funded solar in the same time period.
"Investing in fossil fuels is an investment done by the governments," Hanis said. "If the public wants to shift to renewables, there is a need for a shift in investment."
One reason for the hesitation is that solar is still seen as the "newcomer" to the electricity generation party, much as wind was a few years ago. Since solar projects were originally relegated to residential rooftops, it is taking some time for it to be seen as a major generator of electricity.
Solar's slow growth also ties into siting issues. Many projects are being developed in deserts, some of which happen to involve federal ownership. The agencies responsible for those federal lands are trying to balance helping states reach renewable energy goals and keeping the lands safe.
The government will need to gain more experience with solar installations as it did with wind power. Once solar becomes more familiar, the backlog of siting permit requests should begin to ease.
The U.S. government will also need to put back the $2 billion it redirected from the loan guarantee initiative to the Cash for Clunkers program. The government will also need to recapture the Solar Investment Tax Credit, which extends a 30 percent investment tax credit (ITC) for eight years for solar energy projects. Treasury grant program eligibility will need to be extended for two more years and include real estate investment trusts (REITs) as eligible entities.
Of course, these solutions have their own challenges as well, such as where to get the federal funds to begin investing again and issues with REITs not being able to receive an ITC without creating a special purpose taxable entity.
Even if these renewable energy subsidies are successful, they will need to gradually decline to give people incentives to buy. The IEA said not having a decline is what caused the slowdown in purchasing and investments this time around as the market was inundated with solar panels and products and no place to put them.
Another big issue is transmission. Getting the power from sun-rich areas in the West to load centers is an ongoing battle still playing out through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the states. It plays back into the need for legislation and an even bigger need for government agencies and states to figure out how to get remotely-located renewable energy resources to areas that need the electricity.
The U.S. has the potential to achieve everything that needs to be done for PV and CSP to light up the world, but only if and when the government climbs on board. When that happens, the sky's the limit for solar.
Conservatives, let's talk about energy. And why so many conservatives are so wrong -- so liberal, even -- on wind and solar energy.
Let's start with a recent editorial from the home of "free markets and free people," the Wall Street Journal. Photovoltaic solar energy, quoth the mavens, is a "speculative and immature technology that costs far more than ordinary power."
So few words, so many misconceptions. It pains me to say that because, like many business leaders, I grew up on the Wall Street Journal and still depend on it.
But I cannot figure out why people who call themselves "conservatives" would say solar or wind power is "speculative." Conservatives know that word is usually reserved to criticize free-market activity that is not approved by well, you know who.
Today, around the world, more than a million people work in the wind and solar business. Many more receive their power from solar. Solar is not a cause, it is a business with real benefits for its customers.
Just ask anyone who installed their solar systems five years ago. Today, many of their systems are paid off and they are getting free energy. Better still, ask the owners of one of the oldest and most respected companies in America who recently announced plans to build one of the largest solar facilities in the country. That would be Dow Jones, owners of the Wall Street Journal.
Now we come to "immature." Again, the meaning is fuzzy. But in Germany, a country 1/3 our size in area and population, they have more solar than the United States. This year, Germans will build enough solar to equal the output of three nuclear power plants. What they call immaturity our clients call profit-making leadership.
But let's get to the real boogie man: The one that "costs far more than ordinary power."
I've been working in energy infrastructure for 25 years and I have no idea what the WSJ means by the words "ordinary power." But, after spending some time with Milton Friedman whom I met on many occasions while studying for an MBA at the University of Chicago, I did learn about costs.
And here is what every freshman at the University of Chicago knows: There is a difference between cost and price.
Solar relies on price supports from the government. Fair enough -- though its price is falling even faster than fossil fuels are rising.
But if Friedman were going to compare the costs of competing forms of energy, he also would have wanted to know the cost of "ordinary energy." Figured on the same basis. This is something the self-proclaimed conservative opponents of solar refuse to do.
But huge companies including Wall Mart, IBM, Target and Los Gatos Tomatoes figured it out. And last year so did the National Academy of Sciences. It produced a report on the Hidden Costs of Energy that documented how coal was making people sick to the tune of $63 billion a year.
And that oil and natural gas had so many tax breaks and subsidies that were so interwoven for so long, it was hard to say exactly how many tens of billions these energy producers received courtesy of the U.S. Taxpayer.
Just a few weeks ago, the International Energy Agency said worldwide, fossil fuels receive $550 billion in subsidies a year -- 12 times what alternatives such as wind and solar get.
Neither report factored in Global Warming or the cost of sending our best and bravest into harm's way to protect our energy supply lines.
Whatever that costs, you know it starts with a T. All this without hockey stick graphs, purloined emails or junk science.
When you compare the real costs of solar with the fully loaded real costs of coal and oil and natural gas and nuclear power, apples to apples, solar is cheaper.
That's not conservative. Or liberal. That comes from an ideology older and more reliable than both of those put together: Arithmetic.
The information and views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of RenewableEnergyWorld.com or the companies that advertise on its Web site and other publications.
Germany -- Researchers from the Germany Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research (ZSW) have broken a new efficiency record for thin-film copper indium gallium diselenide solar cells.
The researchers produced a 20.3 percent efficient cell, only a fraction less than the best multi-crystalline cells on the market. However, producing a cell in a lab is much different than mass production. CIGS cells typically reach about 10-11 percent when manufactured in large numbers.
The area of the world record cell is 0.5 square centimeters. The semiconducting CIGS layer and the contact layers have a total thickness of only four thousandths of a millimeter, making them 50 times thinner than standard silicon cells.
CIGS cells have received a lot of attention in recent years because of their high efficiency. But scaling the technology outside of the lab has been difficult because of the complexity of manufacturing. Many companies have been bogged down in building new manufacturing lines and have burned through copious amounts of capital with little to show.
Within the next years, the efficiency of the relatively low-priced CIGS thin-film solar modules will rise from about 11 percent to about 15 percent, say ZSW researchers. The question is: Will companies be able to finally capitalize on that efficiency gain? Or will they continue to be bogged down by high capital requirements and low product volumes?
Some companies, like the start-up Applied Quantum Technologies, have learned from the problems that have hurt CIGS producers and are taking a more modular, incremental approach to building manufacturing lines.
One of the older companies in the CIGS space, MiaSole, announced this week that it will be supplying the developer juwi Solar with 7.5 MW of modules for projects in Germany. Miasole said earlier this year that it would ship over 20-MW of product. However, it is still unclear if it will sell that much in the remainder of 2010.
New Mexico -- The largest solar PV array in New Mexico was unveiled this week. The 1.1 MW project was installed on a parking structure at the Bell Group headquarters in Albuquerque.
The project uses over 5000 locally-made solar modules by SCHOTT Solar PV, Inc., which recently set up its US headquarters in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was developed by Affordable Solar and the VE Group, with facility management help from the Bell Group.
The installation covers 5 acres of parking area and will generate over 1,600,000 kWh of clean electricity annually -- enough to meet 80 percent of The Bell Group's electricity needs. This locally generated clean energy will avoid approximately 1,125 tons of CO2 emissions annually, while the solar structures provide shaded parking for employee and visitor vehicles under the hot New Mexico sun.
California -- A new government study shows that Americans are using less energy overall and making more use of renewable energy resources.
The United States used significantly less coal and petroleum in 2009 than in 2008, and significantly more wind power. There also was a decline in natural gas use and increases in solar, hydro and geothermal power according to the most recent energy flow charts released by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
"Energy use tends to follow the level of economic activity, and that level declined last year. At the same time, higher efficiency appliances and vehicles reduced energy use even further," said A.J. Simon, an LLNL energy systems analyst who develops the energy flow charts using data provided by the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration. "As a result, people and businesses are using less energy in general."
The estimated U.S. energy use in 2009 equaled 94.6 quadrillion BTUs ("quads"), down from 99.2 quadrillion BTUs in 2008. (A BTU or British Thermal Unit is a unit of measurement for energy, and is equivalent to about 1.055 kilojoules). The average American household uses about 95 million BTU per year.
Energy use in the residential, commercial, industrial and transportation arenas all declined by .22, .09, 2.16 and .88 quads, respectively.
Wind power increased dramatically in 2009 to.70 quads of primary energy compared to .51 in 2008. Most of that energy is tied directly to electricity generation and thus helps decrease the use of coal for electricity production.
"The increase in renewables is a really good story, especially in the wind arena," Simon said. "It's a result of very good incentives and technological advancements. In 2009, the technology got better and the incentives remained relatively stable. The investments put in place for wind in previous years came online in 2009. Even better, there are more projects in the pipeline for 2010 and beyond."
The significant decrease in coal used to produce electricity can be attributed to three factors: overall lower electricity demand, a fuel shift to natural gas, and an offset created by more wind power production, according to Simon.
Nuclear energy use remained relatively flat in 2009. No new plants were added or taken offline in this interval, and the existing fleet operated slightly less than in 2008.
Of the 94.6 quads consumed, only 39.97 ended up as energy services. Energy services, such as lighting and machinery output, are harder to estimate than fuel consumption, Simon said.
The ratio of energy services to the total amount of energy used is a measure of the country's energy efficiency.
Carbon emissions data are expected to be released later this year, but Simon suspects they will tell a similar story.
"The reduction in the use of natural gas, coal and petroleum is commensurate with a reduction in carbon emissions," he said. "Simply said, people are doing less stuff. Therefore, they're burning less fuel."
Tulsa -- When it comes to federal financial incentives, proper planning is essential for renewable energy project owners and developers who seek to maximize available incentives, avoid pitfalls and realize a quicker return on investment.
Most renewable energy developers seek to benefit from one of the major federal renewable incentives: (1) grants in lieu of investment tax credits (Treasury grants or Section 1603 grants) and (2) loan guarantees from the Department of Energy (DOE) (known as Section 1703 and 1705 programs).
Why not both?
For the right project, developers can pursue parallel incentive tracks to obtain both incentives but first must work through contradictory definitions, challenging deadlines and demanding requirements associated with each program. In this field, success requires an early-stage strategic game plan to avoid a late-stage financial or regulatory quagmire.
As with virtually all sectors, renewable energy project development suffered a severe downturn during the recession and credit crisis. The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) sought to reverse this situation by injecting stimulus funds into the sector. Renewable energy received substantial attention under ARRA due to the sector's importance to developing a clean energy economy, reinvigorating American manufacturing and creating jobs.
Under the federal system prior to ARRA, the production tax credit and investment tax credit were the principal federal incentives driving renewable energy project development. Neither of these incentives functioned effectively at the height of the credit-frozen and tax liability-starved recession. Congress enacted ARRA Section 1603, the Treasury grant, as a way to expand the use of clean and renewable energy despite diminished investor demand for tax credits and the lack of credit availability. Pursuant to Section 1603, the U.S. Department of the Treasury reimburses eligible applicants for up to 30 percent of the capital expense for specified energy property. This cash grant is payable to the project within 60 days after it is placed in service.
Due to the severity of the recession, Section 1603 was designed to be a rapid response with a short lifetime. To comply with Section 1603 requirements, a project must be placed in service or begin construction during 2009 or 2010. The last day to submit a Treasury grant application is Oct. 1, 2011, but construction must begin no later than 2010 no matter when the application is filed. For projects that begin construction in 2010, it is also necessary that the project be placed in service in time to comply with the credit termination date for the particular type of renewable energy.
The definition of "begin construction" under Section 1603 is somewhat vague and requires careful attention to detail and a complete understanding of Treasury rules. According to the Section 1603 safe harbor rules, owners can meet the begin-construction requirement when they have paid or incurred more than 5 percent of the total cost of the project (not counting certain preliminary costs). An owner can also satisfy the requirement by actual site work or even by entering a binding contract to purchase necessary equipment such as wind turbines–as long as the turbine manufacturer starts building the turbines and other Treasury requirements are met.
The Treasury has done a terrific job of administering Section 1603. Owners who submit complete applications are getting a 30 percent return on eligible capital costs within 60 days, though those who are less diligent with their applications can expect delays. Due to the success of the program, a significant number of lenders are willing to give a short-term or bridge loan to owners with projects that meet Treasury grant specifications.
Treasury grants are not a long-term incentive program, however. The grants were designed to jolt the economy by making funds available and putting people to work as part of ARRA; its sunset date is rapidly approaching. If a Treasury grant is a possibility, advisers and engineering consultants strongly recommend that owners and developers work with legal advisers to craft a compliance strategy that ensures they will qualify for the grant. Project proponents can then communicate with Treasury staff during 2010 to establish a firm placeholder and confirm that the work planned for this year is sufficient to meet the begin-construction requirement by actual site work or by meeting the 5 percent Treasury safe harbor.
There are significant efforts underway in Washington, D.C. to extend the Section 1603 program into 2011, but prospects for this occurring are uncertain enough that developers cannot rely on it. Even in the event of a program extension, there is a significant likelihood that the program will be less favorable to owners and developers due to proposals to transform the program from an immediate cash grant to a somewhat more conventional refundable tax credit.
Loan guarantees also provide an attractive financing tool for renewable energy project development. These guarantees predated ARRA and offer numerous benefits, principally by reducing the risk exposure of lenders under the program and theoretically providing greater credit liquidity. Prior to ARRA, however, these benefits proved to be illusory, with the limitations of the program preventing even a single project from utilizing DOE loan guarantees. The prior program is described by Section 1703 of Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 ("EPAct 2005"). Section 1703 authorizes the DOE to issue loan guarantees to eligible commercial projects that "avoid, reduce, or sequester air pollutants or anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases" and "employ new or significantly improved technologies as compared to technologies in service in the United States at the same time the guarantee is issued. The first challenge raised by this program was the innovation requirement, which precluded the funding of mature technologies. Unfortunately, such maturity is a standard prerequisite for project finance. In addition, the 1703 program suffered from the credit subsidy cost requirement, which effectively required applicants to self-insure project risk by making an administrative fee payment to DOE to cover the risk of payment default or delinquency.
Under ARRA, Congress invigorated the DOE loan-guarantee program by establishing a temporary program under Section 1705 that authorized DOE to make loan guarantees to certain renewable energy systems, electric transmission systems and leading-edge biofuels projects that commence construction no later than Sept. 30, 2011. In contrast to the Section 1703 program, 1705 projects do not have to employ innovative technologies. In addition, ARRA provided $6 billion (reduced to $4 billion when the Cash for Clunkers program was funded through a funding diversion) in appropriations to support up to $32 billion in loan guarantees, including authorization to cover the credit subsidy cost of eligible projects.
The most important deadline for renewable energy developers under 1705 is that they must start construction by Sept. 30, 2011. The definition of "construction starts" under DOE 1703 or 1705 is different from the Treasury 1603 grants definition. For 1703 and 1705 applicants, starting construction is defined as actually commencing construction at the site with no alternative compliance or safe harbor expenditure options available. Thus, to stay within the attractive funding zone of ARRA for loan guarantees, projects must be able to complete all conditions precedent (including additional requirements that arise from obtaining a DOE loan guarantee) and literally start construction by Sept. 30, 2011. If a project fails to meet this deadline, even if a conditional commitment from DOE has been received, the project is precluded from receiving ARRA funding. For some solicitations, including the Financial Institution Partnership Program (FIPP), such tardiness is fatal and the entire solicitation becomes inoperative after the deadline.
Double-dipping and Traps
The independent value of both Treasury grants and loan guarantees is clear. However, the smart play is to recognize the interaction of the incentives and their requirements on the same project. This planning is best done thoroughly and realistically at as early a stage as possible in project development. In this manner, a critical path timeline can be developed and timing challenges can be immediately addressed. In some projects, difficult decisions regarding project milestones, financing and environmental work can be made early rather than at a later stage when there will be more severe cost implications.
The first nettlesome aspect of the conflicting requirements is compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Most owners and developers are familiar with NEPA, as the statute establishes a stringent set of procedural requirements for projects that have a federal nexus and involve a department's exercise of decision-making discretion. DOE loan-guarantee incentives establish a federal nexus and involve discretionary qualification review that requires NEPA compliance. Notably, Treasury grants in lieu of tax credits do not, analogous to qualification for tax credits without the requirement of federal decision-making involvement. Thus, a project that has no other federal nexus can comply with the begin-construction requirements of a Treasury grant-in-lieu without having to comply with NEPA. A project seeking a DOE loan guarantee, however, will need to satisfy NEPA.
There are three primary levels of sufficient NEPA compliance depending on project attributes:
- Categorical exclusion or exemption (CE/CX)
- Environmental Assessment (EA)
- Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
To date, CE/CX's have been quite rare in projects applying for loan guarantees. While agencies develop their own exemptions, elevated NEPA compliance is favored with the preparation of an EA as a minimum. The EA process typically takes three to six months to complete, on average. Upon completion, two outcomes are possible. The preferred and best-case scenario is a "finding of no significant impact" (also known as "FONSI"). Assuming all other program requirements have been met, construction activities could commence soon after issuance of the FONSI, as NEPA has then been satisfied. However, a conclusion that the underlying project is likely to have significant environmental impacts will require more extensive project review in the form of an EIS, which can take an additional year or more to complete.
The challenge under the DOE loan-guarantee program is that many projects were already under development prior to the passage of ARRA.
Quite prudently, the environmental consultants for these projects made their assessments of whether there was a federal nexus to trigger NEPA before the DOE loan garantee program under ARRA existed. In some situations, the project then moved forward without a NEPA compliance component because it had been determined that NEPA did not need to be satisfied. Projects that later decide to pursue a loan guarantee are often left behind schedule on NEPA compliance because the trigger came late in the timeline. Thus, these projects are now struggling to satisfy NEPA and still meet the ARRA loan-guarantee deadline on Sept. 30, 2011.
The second nettlesome challenge arises from the NEPA requirements themselves. For projects that must satisfy NEPA, work on the site cannot begin until the necessary NEPA process is completed. Therefore, a delay to satisfy NEPA could affect a project's ability to meet the begin construction requirements unless funding is sought through a grant-in-lieu under Section 1603. While the begin-construction safe harbor may provide a solution on the Treasury grant side, it is not available to solve the loan guarantee challenge. Even with a safe harbor, the loan guarantee project will still need to get all the way through NEPA in order to complete construction and go into service. This placed-in-service date must predate the credit termination date of the Treasury grant program. In addition, this date actually triggers the payment to the project owners and developers.
The foregoing discussion outlines the pitfalls and potential solutions to these incentives as they exist today. As previously noted, Congress is considering an extension of the Treasury grant program to put it more in line with loan guarantee deadlines. Congress could also convert the program to a refundable tax credit instead of its current grant-like structure, which would potentially delay the return of funds to the next tax year. The DOE is also working to streamline and speed up the FIPP application and approval process that specifically supports commercial energy-related projects. Owners and developers will need to monitor legal developments in this area carefully to ensure success in their projects.
Blair Loftis is the national director of alternative and renewable energy for Kleinfelder. He can be reached at BLoftis@kleinfelder.com. Graham Noyes is an attorney specializing in energy and telecommunications at Stoel Rives LLP. He can be reached at email@example.com. Lisa Dickson, an area manager with Kleinfelder/S E A, also contributed to this article.
Solar Array Design: Parallel Wiring Opens New Doors
Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States -- For decades, designers of solar power systems have faced a knotty set of interlocking challenges. Solar panels produce DC at relatively low voltages, but inverters require a relatively high input voltage to be able to convert the power to AC and send it to the grid. Solar panels can be wired in series to sum their voltages, but their combined output fluctuates with even small mismatches among panels on a string.
Striking a balance between these factors is traditionally one of the grand challenges of solar power system design and also a significant element in determining whether a given location is suitable for a solar installation in the first place. However, today new doors are being opened by innovators in a vibrant technology-driven industry and the advent of parallel wiring architectures for solar arrays promises to create new levels of freedom and flexibility for designers.
Series: The Old Way
Series-wired systems are governed by the principles of voltage. A solar array must provide a high enough voltage to enable its inverter to operate at an efficient level; this has traditionally required series wiring, so that panel voltages sum. Similarly it is important to make sure that the system can never go above the maximum voltage permitted by code, usually 600VDC in the U.S.
However, the inverter is sensitive to operating voltage levels. It can suffer major swings in efficiency when the input voltage varies in relation to its fixed output voltage. The larger the variation, the harder it is for the inverter to operate at optimal efficiency. Currently inverter efficiency is shown at a single operating point when actual operating efficiency varies as system voltage changes, real operating efficiencies can be off several percentage points from the optimal operating efficiency.
To accommodate these physical demands, all series-architected solar installations must abide by a set of design rules. The result of these rules is to define the minimum-sized building block (string) used for a given installation. Once this is defined, that exact footprint must be used for the entire array. This can lead to serious challenges, as designers are forced to manage the always-unique geometry of the proposed array location. In many cases, these challenges translate into increased cost of deployment, smaller system sizes or even a decision to forego the installation completely.
The New Parallel Solar Universe
The enabling technology for parallel solar deployment is a new generation of low-cost, high-efficiency electronic devices that allow a solar module to deliver a fixed DC voltage to a DC power bus. This DC power bus can be set to the single best point for the inverter or can float to whatever level the inverter requires, allowing the inverter to concentrate simply on optimizing its AC-to-DC conversion efficiency, as opposed to worrying about what compromises it might need to make to effectively harvest power from the solar modules. This mechanism provides an effective transport of power to a central inverter where AC conversion efficiencies can be optimized.
In this parallel solar paradigm, the PV technology of the module no longer matters, as each module operates with complete independence from its neighbors. Because each module can produce the voltage level needed by the inverter, voltage summing with strings of modules is not needed. This means that a solar array can now be designed and installed just like a lighting system. Each module represents a current source and as long as the array's wiring is sized appropriately and its branches are capable of handling the current produced, the system will work at optimum efficiency; no other design rules apply.
What does this mean to the system designer? The biggest advantage is that systems can be built using variable-sized blocks of modules ranging from 200 watts to 31,000 watts. This enables designers to maintain installed cost targets while also taking complete advantage of all available space at an installation site. If the geometry or aesthetics of a project require multiple azimuth angles, different angles of tilt or shading, there is no longer a need to incur the costs or design limitations of multiple inverters. The solar power system can accommodate the architecture of the building, rather than requiring the building architecture to provide an ideal platform for the solar array. Different PV module technologies can even be applied to a single inverter (that is, thin film and crystalline).
But this new technology also allows us to think a little further out of the box. We now have a new tool available for optimizing a system's production capabilities in multiple environments. We are only scratching the surface of what we can achieve with this new capability. For example, rather than using a technology like a tracker, we might use different materials technologies to optimize production across multiple seasons and environmental conditions.
Mathematics of Parallel Solar Power System Design
Parallel solar design reduces the number of variables that need attention during solar power system design. Voltage is no longer a factor, so Voc overhead and temperature drift are no longer concerns. We are also freed from worry about the NEC 600V upper limit and its restrictions on the number of modules we can wire together. This simplifies the calculation of wiring loads.
Three basic decisions must be made at the outset: size of the installation in kWh, modules to be used and inverter to be used. With these in mind, we can start to envision the system. As an example, let's consider a 180 kW building block using 30 kW units with 230 watt solar modules operating at a Vmp of about 40 VDC. The math here is simple: we will need about 132 modules (30,000/230 ‚âà 132). We will assume that the inverter's peak efficiency point is at about 330 VDC. From this, we can calculate that at maximum power output, we will have to deal with 92 Amps of current into our inverter (132 modules × 230W/330V = 92 amps (P/V=I)).
Thinking about this as a lighting circuit, we can look at using six branches of 15 Amps each, a conservative level for #10AWG PV USE-2 or RHW-2 cable outside of conduit. Each branch would have an inline 20 Amp fuse connecting it to a #4 AWG PV backbone that runs directly into the inverter through a 125 Amp fused DC disconnect.
We can also go a bit larger and design a parallel solar power system for 500kW production capacity: module power density, 230 W; voltage input to the inverter, 330 VDC; total power capacity of system, 550,000 W.
This will tell us the number of modules we want to use: Total System Capacity/Module Power 500,000/230 = 2,174 modules.
To figure the total current the system will need to manage we take the total power and divide it by the voltage. Modules×Module Power in Watts = System Power. System Power/Voltage to Inverter = Current. Thus, 2,174×230/330 = 1,516 Amps.
From here it is a simple matter of working out the number of branches needed to manage the current flow. If we assume use of three of our 180 kW building block circuits (506 Amps each) to connect to our inverter, we can place their terminating points close to the array to minimize our use of conduit. If we want to minimize our terminations, we could use #4 AWG PV wire into our building block combiner units, with each handling 85 Amps.
To minimize I2R losses we can take a conservative approach and use 20-Amp in-line fuses harnessed into the #4 AWG PV backbone, giving us six branches using #10 AWG PV. Each of our three combiners then will have 167kW of power concentrated into a single pair of conductors, handling a total run of 506 Amps into the central inverter. This array would need just six physical field terminations at the combiners, and six at the inverter. If the combiners are placed strategically at the edge of the array, the conduit runs would likewise be limited to three: one from each combiner to the inverter (see figure 1, below).
The difference between parallel and series architecture for solar power system design is as simple as the difference between current and voltage. In a series system, the voltage of the module drives the design and therefore the economics of the installation. Parallel wiring lets the voltage be set as a constant, which allows the system to be driven by current.
Current is a much easier variable to work with on several levels. First, it is a familiar, well-understood design variable for designers and installers; the same one used in all lighting system design. Second, the current variable is much easier to regulate and control with existing safety systems. Third, we can optimize the efficiency of the DC-to-AC conversion by regulating the operational voltage of the solar array to the voltage of the grid that the system is providing power to.
Perhaps most importantly, parallel solar wiring allows different PV technologies to feed a single inverter. This promises to open new vistas for architects and system designers as they search for better ways to integrate solar technology into our everyday lives. It will allow PV manufacturers to optimize products for very specific environmental conditions without having to carry the load of an entire system's production capacity. It may also make new materials more feasible by isolating each module from the rest of the system, allowing it to work at whatever native voltage is most efficient for that particular technology. All of these new possibilities open the door for innovation in the solar market.
Stamford, Conn., August 12, 2010 — Research undertaken by Gartner, Inc. and the Solar Electric Power Association has revealed that utilities are becoming increasingly interested in procuring photovoltaic solar power generation systems.
A telephone survey of utility firms in the U.S., Germany, Spain, Italy and France was supplemented by an online survey in the U.S. The survey was conducted from mid-December 2009 through mid-February 2010, and it included 134 respondents.
"PV solar systems are a cost-effective means of adding distributed and central generation sources," said Alfonso Velosa, research director at Gartner. "System costs have decreased by over 30 percent since 2008. This has lowered the cost of electricity from these systems and improved their competitiveness relative to other renewable energy sources. PV systems are attractive to many organizations and individuals as they can be designed relatively easily, in a wide range of sizes and to fit in many different locations."
Utilities in Germany clearly lead in the use of PV resources, with 75 percent of the German utilities surveyed currently using PV as part of their energy resource portfolio.
An additional 15 percent of utilities are considering adding PV to their portfolio within five years. To a large extent, this reflects a decade-long effort by the German government to support renewable energy.
Among U.S. utilities, 44 percent of those surveyed indicated they had PV solar energy resources and another 33 percent consider PV solar power generation for use within five years.
"Clearly, U.S. utilities, and their customers, have been exploring the PV market. To some extent, they may also have been learning from activities in markets such as Germany," said Mike Taylor, director of research at SEPA. "The large number of U.S. utilities that are using PV systems indicates that they are building up their experience with the technology in anticipation of expansive solar growth and new policy initiatives that could occur."
The survey found that renewable energy requirements and government requirements are the top two global factors behind the utilities' decisions to integrate PV supply into their energy portfolios. This is due to the higher costs of PV energy relative to retail and wholesale electricity prices, and, more importantly, the prevalence of various procurement and incentive requirements in different countries.
"Overall, the survey indicated that federal policy and state regulatory levels have strong influence over utility procurement decisions and strategies," Mr. Taylor said. "Although price declines will continue to make PV more competitive with retail and wholesale electricity pricing, it is unlikely that the importance of policy will decline significantly in the near-term."
"U.S. utilities will continue to have strong influence over compliance options for meeting national or state-level renewable portfolio standard obligations, but while EU utilities feel a similar influence from policy, their mechanisms and processes for acquiring PV generation are very different," Mr. Velosa said. "This points to a hazard for the PV industry. If policy does not adapt to the changing pricing environment and other budgetary pressures, there may be a backlash against PV and other renewable energy sources."
Electricity transmission infrastructure market drivers and barriers
The electric transmission grid is a crucial component of modern society. Much like the cornerstone of a building, transmission is the foundation that supports activity in virtually all areas of the energy sector.
Indeed, the global economy will be inhibited if the grid cannot keep pace with technology advances, changing demographics and the competitive energy markets.
In the U.S., there is consensus that increasing investment in the transmission infrastructure is a critical priority. After decades of neglect, the electric power industry started addressing the country's transmission issues in the late 1990s.
As directed by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been taking steps to create incentive-based rates of return for transmission projects. Both national political parties support the development of the grid, and a recent focus on developing smart grid capabilities will add momentum to this trend.
Considering that support for transmission development has spanned 20 years and four presidential administrations, it seems likely that this policy trend will continue.
Many forces are influencing investments in the transmission market. Pike Research's analysis finds that four market drivers have the most impact on the development of transmission projects:
Reliability/capacity enhancements — This is the constant driver of the transmission market. Reliability projects are ongoing at many U.S. utilities and, as assets strain to accommodate increasing competition, new transmission is needed to ensure reliability.
Renewable portfolio standards (RPS) — State RPS mandates have resulted in a dramatic increase in renewable generation (predominantly wind power). The inability of the current transmission infrastructure to handle this new and frequently distant generation is the biggest factor driving the development of the grid.
Economic projects — Transmission congestion and the development of competitive energy markets are increasing the economic justifications for new transmission systems.
Replacement of infrastructure — By some estimates, one-third of the U.S. grid is at or near the end of its projected lifespan. As the nation builds new capacity, it must also replace a considerable amount of its existing transmission capacity.
However, opposition to new transmission projects is common. The biggest obstacles are issues related to siting new lines and the allocation of project costs. The FERC is unlikely to use its "backstop" siting authority and this issue will continue to be problematic.
With regard to cost allocation, some progress has been made in developing models that do a better job at calculating the benefits of transmission projects.
Pike Research believes that the FERC will replace its current case-by-case cost allocation approach with a more consistent formula by the end of 2011.
The same forces that are stimulating overall investment in the electric power industry have fueled technological innovation in the transmission sector.
These innovations have resulted in the increased use of several key transmission technologies:
* High-voltage direct current
* High-temperature superconducting cable and electronic components
* Fault current limiters
* Power electronics
Public policy, market forces, and technological innovation have all impacted the transmission sector. Transmission has become more competitive and more adaptable. Moreover, there is a greater emphasis on specialized applications of technology.
The electric power industry in every part of the world is trying to become more efficient, reliable, and (in most areas) cleaner. The transmission market varies significantly by region.
In some areas, huge amounts of capital are being spent to modernize and expand transmission infrastructure. Some of the largest and fastest-growing countries (e.g., China, India, and Brazil) are building national transmission systems for the first time.
It is not unusual for the dominant country in a region to invest as much as all of the other countries in the region combined. This uneven distribution of expenditures is an example of the competing infrastructure needs in many countries.
Pike Research forecasts that the worldwide transmission market will grow by a compound annual growth rate of 1.5 percent during the forecast period (2010-2020). The majority of this growth will occur during the first half of the period, leading to modest or even declining growth rates for some regions in the second half of the period.
In the U.S., the electric power industry has committed substantial resources to expand and modernize its grid. Pike Research forecasts an overall growth rate for transmission expenditures of 1.3 percent for the period from 2010 to 2020.
The CAGR for the first half of the forecast period is expected to be 3.5 percent, reflecting the nation's commitment to renewable energy and competitive wholesale energy markets.
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