Internet Truth

One of the most difficult things for people generally to understand is that the Internet is not the same as newspapers, radio, television or any other form of professionally managed news source.

The Internet is un-edited.  The internet is unfiltered opinion and as such it may or may not be true.

Now all of us have received the email from “the gentle woman from Kenya asking us to help her recover $20M where she will share it with us”.  Clearly we have learned that these emails are not true.  But what about the ones that claim or are actually written by people with a PhD and who have a credible story to go along with their credible titles and backgrounds?

Let me give you an example – A recent email I received talked about how the signers of the Declaration of Independence had all suffered for their courageous stand.  It was heartbreaking –

Have you ever wondered what happened to the 56 men who signed the
Declaration of Independence?

Five signers were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died.  Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.  Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured.  Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War.  They signed and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

This was clearly sent to inspire us today. But the truth is not nearly so heart rendering.  You can read the truth here on Swopes.com.  You can also search Swopes.com for other clarifications like this one.  The site is organized to help you.

But what about other types of topics?  My favorite are articles that relate to global warming.  I recently received an article from my Dad in a magazine about piping and industrial fixtures written on the editorial page by the magazine’s editor.  In the article he wrote about how the sun’s 11 year sun spot cycle and other longer term solar cycles were really the cause of global (and temporary in his mind) warming.

A great site to dig into the real scientific literature but with simply written overviews is here.  What makes this such a good site for you to turn to is that it while it starts with clear explanations of the case for and against the assertion that the normal solar cycle is behind what we are seeing in climate change, it goes beyond this quickly and lists 10 peer reviewed publications in the scientific literature from several different countries – USA, UK, Denmark, Finland, France.

By citing peer reviewed science, you are assured that the process of science was applied to the published information.  Disagreements can still be present.  Even counter view points to the generally accepted theories and research are published.  But the data collection and data reduction methods must be scientifically sound and they must be current in their validity.  Peer review does not stiffle disagreements in interpretation but it does greatly reduce errors related to bad mathematics, data collection and so forth.

And this is the point.  Over the years climate change data has been improved, errors have been found and corrected.  Sometimes new data is specifically taken to clarify earlier data that was ambigioius or incomplete.  And when an article is published tha quotes older data using out of date methods or founding principles, you cannot be sure when the publication is simply from a source on the Internet.

The Internet requires us all to dig a bit deeper.   To question sources and quality of information.  In the past this job fell to editors of the New York Times and Scientific American.  But with the Internet, and the fact that it allows anyone – including me! – to publish information directly to you without editorial review, you have to become more critical readers.

Here is my list of some key sites to check your facts –

Swopes

Skeptical Science

Fact Check

If you have favorite sites, let me know by commenting or writing to me.  I will try to update this essay periodically.

Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Personal Stories, Spiritual Threads

Some Facts for the Record

This past Sunday, July 12, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a very nice article about the “green house” in Tiburon.   The remodeling of this house has been a project for me for the past 2 years.

About 3 years ago we purchased this house from Matt Masson, a local realtor.  Matt and his family had lived in the home for the previous 28 years.  Boy was it clear that he had an eye for real estate.  This spot was beautiful and the overall home design with its positioning on the hill side and it beautiful decks were stunning.  Matt had even been able some years ago to purchase the open space next to the home so that the views of the bay would never change.

[First lesson – if you ever can purchase property from someone who is a real estate agent and who has lived and loved a property for 10+ years, do it, as this will be a very special place.  Thanks, Matt and Roberta]

The article has generated many, many thoughtful criticisms, questions and ideas.  This essay will attempt to answer some of these.

First of all, the home is located in a beautiful site in Tiburon and as such it is not an inexpensive home.  Homes in this area cost in the $1.5-4M area regardless of their age, upkeep or green features.  California real estate, especially in the San Francisco Bay area is among the most expensive in the USA.

This part of the USA is also admittedly one of the very easiest for someone to build a house that achieves net zero energy use.  The reason is that temperatures here are never very cold or very hot.  In summer, like today, while it is over 100F about 50 miles to the east in Davis, CA and in the 90s 40 miles to the south in San Jose, it is only in the lower 70s in Tiburon.  In the winter, because we are virtually on the bay and this part is close to the Pacific Ocean, we rarely see temperatures at night below 45F.

Knowing this, we purchased the home and then researched the area and its characteristics.  We also looked over past electricity and gas bills for previous years so that we understood how it performed when it was purchased.

There were many obvious elements that became part of the remodel –

  1. the original structure had no insulation – so we insulated all of the exterior walls and ceilings including ones that required us to put in faux ceilings to create a space for the insulation
  2. all of the glass windows and sliding glass doors in the original home were single pane – we changed all of these to double pane, low E, argon filled windows and doors.
  3. the underside of the home had no insulation and while solid, we felt drafts coming up from the floor in those portions of the house – so we added both insulation and we sealed the home as well.
  4. the home had mainly incandescent lighting and we made many lighting decisions where we could use LEDs and CF style bulbs.  Overall the home made extensive use of LED lights that should not need replacing for the life of the home in many cases and which are VERY efficient.
  5. the home was heated by gas furnaces and because my calculations showed we could put up sufficient solar photovoltaic panels to cover our needs, we upgraded the furnaces to be electric (but actually dual source – gas and electric) heat pumps.  (this choice will be talked about more in a bit)
  6. the hot water in the home was heated in hot water tanks separately for the main home and the apartment – we decided to put in a single solar hot water system with tankless gas back up and share this hot water between the main house and the apartment.
  7. Marin County, CA has some of the most urgent water saving programs in the state – we decided to see how much of an impact we could make there by collecting rain water in the winter rains and using it throughout the rainless summers we have to water the gardens of the house.  At the moment it is not possible for us to use this water inside the home but this could change.
  8. Lastly, I like to swim but swimming pools are perhaps the largest and most energy wasteful structures so I researched this and opted for an endless pool with solar heating.

The outcome of these main home elements was that we were able to cut our natural gas usage compared to the previous home by more than 90%.  We did not get to 100% because we sill cook with gas (could have gone with an induction stove top but did not know of it at the time) and we still make some hot water during weeks of rain and clouds in the winter.  Nevertheless, our decision to move to solar produced hot water and electrical heat pumps has proven successful in reducing our carbon footprint more than many home designs.

Another outcome was that we seem to make much more electricity than we need in the summer but this situation is like the fable of the “Grasshopper and the Ants“.  In our case it means that we will need to show an excess of perhaps 3000 KW-hrs for the summer time so that when we turn on the heat pumps we can still break even.  We have some advantage as we make much more of the excess power at “peak” times and that power is worth more to PG&E and us so that in the winter when we pull it back at off peak times we can pull more power than we sold.

Last year when we showed the large electrical excess for PG&E on the electrical side the heat pump systems were not well set up and would often default to natural gas instead of electrical energy consumption.  we fixed that in mid-January of 2009 and now this coming winter we will have to see how well we do on the overall balance.

Probably our most aggressive experiment was the decision to build 15000 gallon cisterns under the home to conserve rain water and use it in the summer.  The tanks were nicely filled by the winter rains and it seems that as our draught tolerant landscape takes hold that we will be able to water this with the rain water we captured.  Still the actual monetary savings today will not really justify this as an investment, I believe.

Nevertheless, the aggressive design of this system has helped me think through how systems like this could be designed to be more cost competitive.  I see grand plans in many places like Singapore and the middle east to invest in large scale desalinization plants but it is clear to me that careful use of water that we naturally have is a much more cost effective way to engage the water conservation problem.  Together with a partner in Indiana, we are working on a novel product in this area.

The home serves as a laboratory for me in “Clean Technology”.  Each of the energy, water and other systems in the home are monitored and data is continually collected and stored on a server in the home.  This data allows me to make further changes from the initial design to improve its overall performance.  Sometimes the installed systems did not perform as was specified and through the monitoring we were able to teach the installers and equipment suppliers how to improve their products or services.

A word about overall costs since that was one of the recurring themes in comments on the web from the SF Chronicle article.  Our solar panels were purchased at a time when they cost about $4.50 per watt and then another $2.50 per watt installation.  Today the panels cost less than $2.75 per watt!  So costs are falling fast.  Still at the cost we paid, I believe our payback is more than 10 years unless you include the rebates.  Solar hot water for both the showers and heating the pool were 2 very cost effective systems.  The pool system should pay for itself in less than 2-3 years.  The home hot water in 5-7 years.   Overall for a home in this area of California the “green” elements we installed were certainly less than 5% of the overall remodel if you do not include the cistern experiment.  If you do then this perhaps doubles to 10%.

Finally, i have realized so much from this home in Tiburon and now am starting a similar but much more challenging project on my home in Indiana.  There the mix of power and savings is very different.  Indiana has very cold winters and very hot humid summers.  The system there will have much more focus on solar heating so that the renewable energy we capture will be more on the heating side but still very substantial on the solar PV side.  Again, we will have monitoring systems.  But there we also expect to have to innovate in the design of the overall control systems.  Look for patents and new system elements to arise from that design!  FYI, the Indiana systems are purchased using the lower cost system elements today and that system cost around $60K with the costs split 50/50 between solar thermal and solar PV.  In California the system cost was 70% PV and 30% solar thermal.

In conclusion, we are so grateful to have found this house and were able to purchase it from the Massons.  Without that starting point and original design, we would not have been able to have been so focused on our “green aims”.  The comments in the Chronicle made the home seem shabby and that was certainly not the case!  Next, we were able to work with helpful people from many different disciplines and different technology suppliers and that made the project intellectuallly challenging and fun.  Lastly, the decision to include some technology that was pretty aggressive – for example the water storage cisterns – are ones that we still do not regret and we will track and see how they perform as the world’s climate continues to change!

Write to me if you have more questions, flevinson@smallworldgroup.com.

Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Personal Stories

Is It Relevant to You?

One of the famous quotations ascribed to Sherlock Holmes (although of course written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) is spoken when he is asked what he thinks about the discovery of (then) the new planet in the solar system – Neptune.  He replies, “I shall promptly try to forget that fact” and when asked why, he further explains that his head has only room for facts and logic that support his crime solving activities and the new planet has absolutely no relevance to him.

It is somewhat in that same spirit that people must have been rather ambivalent about whether the sun or earth was at the center of what we now call our “solar system”.  It did not seem all that relevant and in some ways even not reasonable that we were on a spherical body spinning at a very fast speed and orbiting about the sun at an even faster speed.  All people if asked if they are moving like that would have to reply that they feel no such movement.  And since they cannot observe the motion, feel the centrifugal forces they would expect, and so forth, must wonder at the relevance of the these astronomical facts.

And now we come to Global Warming and Climate Change.

As I write this post I am sitting at a Starbucks in Singapore.  Here in this small prosperous island nation there are very few if any generally noticed changes in climate.  Singapore has always been very warm, humid, tropical.  And none of that has changed.

In the USA and Europe we have our Glacier National Park and Mont Blanc where the glaciers that have been there for 1000s of years are now receding on unprecedented scales.  We can see temperatures changes, we have stronger hurricanes.  But in a place where the changes are as hard to see as those related to the earth being a sphere that spins and orbits about the sun, people think little of this global crisis.

For example Singapore is so small a land area (20% of which has been created through land fill!), that they incinerate all of their trash.  No wasting land on landfills.  But the act of incinerating uses quite a bit of fosile fuel just to get rid of the trash!

As I sit here, it is particularly distressing to see a country so full of smart and worldy connected people so disconnected from this over arching issue of our times.

[Deep Sigh!]

Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Personal Stories

Amazing Skype

Well it has been some time since I posted a purely nerdy essay.

I am writing this from Singapore.  As many of you know, Singapore is a country that may be the most modern on earth.  It has great public transportation, great universities (NUS, NTU, SMU and new one!) that are world ranked.  It is a country that continually transforms itself.

I purchased a new iPhone 3Gs a couple of days ago and retired my previous originaly 4 GB iPhone which Apple only sold for 1 week !  So it was unique.

Anyway, the new phone is faster and takes better pictures and video but that is not the point of this post.

Today, I connected to WiFi in my hotel room in Singapore and called the USA using Skype on the iPhone and the call made using the phone for placing this call almost as simple as the normal way.  But the sound quality was perfect.  No pops, clicks no skips.  Wow.  The folks in Indiana on the other end also commented.

And the call cost $0.02 per minute versus the $2 per minute offered by ATT with my special overseas discount.

Key here is that the phone works just like an iPhone.  You talk and listen, can use a head set and so forth.  So all you need is this same device you use and carry anyway.

I used to carry quite a bit of gear so that I could use my laptop computer for this purpose but that was always more challenging.  This was simple and no extra stuff.

Amazing.  And Skype is a free application for the iPhone so you download and go!  Must set up an account and pay for the minutes you use, I typically purchase $10 every year or so and this is 500 minutes of use.

Try it!

Posted in Essays, Personal Stories