Sunday, March 2, 2014

Leaps of Faith in the Future: From Efficiency to PV to EV

After I did everything I could to make my home more energy efficient, I faced my first decision 12 years ago about whether to install solar panels as well. I remember friends asking me if they would pay back their extra cost in a reasonable period of time through electricity savings.  “Not yet,” I acknowledged, “you basically have to vote with your wallet on where you want your electricity to come from.  If I buy them and other people buy them, eventually they will be cost effective for everybody.”

Fast forward 7 years, and I made a decision to buy more solar panels.  This time, they were cost effective, mostly because the price of the panels and inverter had fallen just about as fast as electricity prices from the utility had risen.  They’re an even better deal today, and are an accepted way of cutting our energy bills in a sunny place like Durango.

In 2013, my wife and I faced that same kind of decision again with our car.  Our first instinct was to get a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt or the Ford C-Max Energi.  They seemed like the perfect solution -- an electric car around town for all our short trips, and an efficient gasoline powered car for our longer road trips, all in one vehicle!

When we looked at the numbers, it was evident that they weren't strictly cost effective compared to just going out and buying a regular hybrid.  We could live with that, but the utter simplicity of an all-electric vehicle (EV) started to look even more compelling.  In the end, we decided to make a clean break from gasoline, and the complexity of a car with all the mechanical parts of a gasoline engine wedged into a small space under the hood next to all the electronic parts of an EV.

Even with the federal and Colorado tax credits adding up to $13,500, we knew an EV wasn’t the most cost effective choice.  There are much cheaper ways of driving around.  But buying an electric vehicle seemed to me the purest way to vote for the change we wanted to see in transportation, in the hopes that someday everyone will be able to buy an affordable electric car.

At the end of 2012, we ordered a Tesla Model S with the smaller of two available battery sizes (60 kWh) and none of the options to make it faster or more powerful.  It seemed powerful enough already to accelerate better than other cars we had owned and had a maximum range of 208 miles per charge.

Tesla delivered the car to us in May, and I immediately took it on a road trip to Crested Butte, Pueblo, Denver, Mt. Evans, Aspen, and back to Durango.  It worked great and was really fun to drive, but the charging infrastructure still wasn’t quite there to make the trip convenient.  I had to break up my trip into segments of 200 miles or less per day, with recharging overnight, or allocate a couple hours in the middle of each day to recharge at campgrounds and sparsely available charging stations to enable longer drives.

Since that time, Tesla has built out a Supercharger network along the west and east coasts and across the middle of the country that passes near Durango.  There are now Superchargers in Gallup, Farmington, Blanding, Moab, and Grand Junction that are all reachable on one charge from Durango. They make longer trips possible by providing free, fast (20-40 minutes) recharging roughly every 150 miles.  So I decided to try something much more ambitious:  a 3,000 mile winter road trip from Durango to northern and southern California, and then back home across the Arizona desert.  And my goal was to do the entire thing on free electricity, with minimal inconvenience.

So how did it work out?  The full details are on my blog at Ecova, but here’s the high level summary. The total trip distance was 3115 miles and total electricity use was about 1099 kWh, counting the losses in the charging process. This works out to an efficiency of 353 watt-hours/mile. That about $136 worth of electricity at today’s national average electricity rates, or 4.4 cents/mile.  

My actual out-of-pocket cost was only about 0.2 cents/mile or $7 total, because the electricity at Tesla’s Superchargers was free. I was able to charge at friends’ houses and hotels for free too, so I only paid for electricity at two campgrounds near Yosemite. I almost hit my goal of free fuel costs! I saved about $480 on the gasoline that a typical gas-powered car of similar size and features would have used.

Of course, I was still using fossil fuels from power plants.  It’s clear from the research done by the Union of Concerned Scientists and others that we still have a long way to go improving the generating stations that charge our electric vehicles.  In Colorado, the electricity comes primarily from coal, so a typical electric vehicle is no better than a 34 mpg gasoline car from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective, unless you have solar panels on your roof.

But other states are much further along.  In California, the electric grid is much more heavily powered by solar, wind, and hydro sources, making an electric vehicle there the equivalent of a 78 mpg gasoline car.  Arizona and New Mexico are in-between, with an average of about 49 mpg.  Given the regional mix of charging I did on my trip, a reasonable average might be 55 to 60 mpg-equivalent – not too bad!

Over the next 18 months, the Supercharger network will grow to span the entire country, largely eliminating the inconvenience considerations that have hampered electric vehicles so far.  I can’t wait!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

'The Chicken & The Egg' of Compressed Natural Gas for Transportation

With the consistently rising price of gasoline and diesel and threats of climate change, vehicle fleets and independent drivers are looking to alternative transportation fuels for their transportation needs. One of the leading alternative transportation fuels in the United States is natural gas. When used as a transportation fuel natural gas is stored in storage tanks on the vehicles, in either a compressed natural gas (CNG) form at pressures between 3,000 and 3,600 pounds per square inch, or in a liquefied natural gas (LNG) form at a temperature of -260°F.  Compared to the traditional transportation fuels (gasoline and diesel) natural gas has fewer fuel life-cycle emissions (6%-11% fewer greenhouse gas emissions) and is less expensive, in terms of gasoline gallon equivalents (GGEs).

According to the latest alternative fuels price report from Clean Cities the average cost for CNG in the Rocky Mountain Region is $1.82 per GGE and the average cost for gasoline is $3.42 per gallon. Today in the United States there are approximately 112,000 CNG vehicles in operation and 672 CNG fueling stations where these vehicles can be refueled. However, in the four corners region there is only one CNG fueling station, located in Moab, Utah. With the cost to operate CNG vehicles being almost half the cost to operate traditionally fueled vehicles, why is there almost no CNG presence in the region?

Which came first the chicken, or the egg? 

Fleet managers in the four corners are discussing which should come first, CNG fueling stations or CNG fueled vehicles. CNG fueling stations generally cost between $1 and $2.5 million and, investors are skeptical to put forth such large amounts of money when there is no demand for the transportation fuel. Likewise, fleet managers are resistant to purchase CNG vehicles when there is no place to fuel them, especially since these vehicles cost $7,000 to $10,000 more than traditionally fueled vehicles. Unlike the issue of the chicken and the egg, eventually the four corners region will find a solution to the CNG vehicle and infrastructure dilemma.

One solution to the dilemma currently being considered is subsidization of the first CNG fueling station in Southwest Colorado. In December 2013, Governor Hickenlooper announced a $30 million award from the Federal Highway Administration’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program for the development of CNG fueling stations statewide, and CNG vehicle purchases in non-attainment air quality areas in Colorado. The grant application process for these funds is expected to begin in the spring of 2014. With this funding opportunity the first CNG station developer in Southwest Colorado could be eligible for up to $500,000 in CMAQ funds to purchase the equipment for the station. Capital investment in station equipment is the largest cost associated with the development of a CNG fueling station therefore, the CMAQ funds could make a CNG fueling station project more enticing to investors.

4CORE is working to diversify fuel sources and create demand for alternative fuel vehicles. 4CORE is a sub-grantee of the Refuel Colorado grant, which was awarded to the Colorado Energy Office in order to accelerate the adoption of alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs). The work being done under this grant includes:
  • free energy coaching services for fleet managers, 
  • discussions with auto dealerships about offering AFVs, and 
  • monthly and quarterly working group meetings with different local fleet managers, car dealerships, and economic and community leaders. 
These working group meetings are an arena for knowledge sharing, networking, and AFV demonstrations with question and answer sessions. The energy coaching service offered to fleet managers involves in-depth quantitative and qualitative analysis of the fleet to determine which vehicles are most suitable for replacement with AFVs. At present, there are multiple fleet managers in the region interested in these vehicles and they are in the midst of analyzing the economic benefits and returns on investment for purchasing CNG and other alternative fuel vehicles.

4CORE is also working to create a business plan for the first CNG fueling station in Southwest Colorado. The idea is to develop a fueling station coinciding with CNG vehicle procurement by a number of fleets. The fueling station business plan will be shared with investors once it’s completed. It may not be long before we see CNG vehicles on the road, and a fueling station with pump prices reading $1.85/GGE. The chicken and the egg issue of natural gas as a transportation fuel in the four corners will be solved.

About the Author
Sarah is a Colorado native who fell in love with the Durango area while earning her Bachelor’s in Anthropology at Fort Lewis College. After graduation in 2010 she earned a Master’s in Anthropology and Certificate in Sustainable Urban Infrastructure from the University of Colorado Denver. Sarah moved back to Durango in 2012 in hopes of starting a career in the field of sustainable development. After a grueling 11 month AmeriCorps service term installing weatherization upgrades to low income housing in Southwest Colorado, Sarah is excited to be working with 4CORE on improving the sustainability and resilience of our local communities.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sign Up for Solarize at Ska - and get a Free Beer!

Join us for our last big Solarize Signing Celebration this Saturday, February 22nd from 4 to 6 PM at Ska Brewery! Bring a friend or neighbor to sign up, witness the signing of Solarize contracts, talk to others who are going solar and have a beer on Ska.

And... don't forget that signing your contract with any Solarize La Plata installer can help two area non-profits get their own solar. You can empower The Woman's Resource Center and Boys and Girls Club of La Plata go solar. Solarize La Plata needs 50 contracts signed  (half of the campaign's goal) and Shaw Solar will donate free solar to these deserving non-profits. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

2 Down, 98 to Go!

Matt Helms of Flatrock Solar is installing the second Solarize La Plata system this week. Here is a sneak peek of the scene on site:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Get Rid of your Excuses: Go Solar

To the Durango Herald Letters Editor
We often hear these reasons for not doing something: 

It costs too much, it’s too technical, I’m apprehensive, I’m too busy

We all know these types of statements are only excuses for not doing now what we later wished we had done sooner.

GOING SOLAR is one thing that is easy to put off, for all the reason stated above.  But let’s look at that first excuse, about cost:

If it’s worth doing later, it’s worth more doing now, because:
  1. It will not be cheaper next year. 
  2. The cost for your electricity will continue to go up (see 11/22/13 Durango Herald front page). 
  3. If you have dollars in a low rate savings account, CD, money market fund (think ½% interest!), you can invest those low earning dollars in SOLAR PV for your home and immediately begin earning 6-7%!  Now who wouldn’t to do that right now?

SOLARIZE LA PLATA has taken care of those other excuses also: it’s easy to sign up, we’ve simplified the process, we’ve partnered with 5 local certified solar contractors; and we’re with you all the way from signup through watching your electric meter spin backwards. GOING SOLAR couldn’t be easier or more secure.

But you’re too busy?  Well, your friends and neighbors aren't too busy to recognize and act on a great opportunity. Since Solarize La Plata’s launch on Oct. 22, over 235 home owners have signed up for Solar PV.  

You can too, but only through Jan 31st.  Why wait to do something that makes sense to do now?  GET SOLARIZED today!  Visit , or call Four Corners Office of Resource Efficiency, 970-259-1916.

Robert Lea
Chairman, Solarize La Plata – a citizen’s grass roots campaign for your energy independence

Friday, January 17, 2014

City of Durango Discounts 4CORE Services to Improve Energy Efficiency

4CORE is partnering with the City of Durango on residential and commercial energy efficiency, offering a $100 discount toward 50 4CORE HomeRx energy assessments, and a $200 discount for 25 commercial energy assessments. Additional matching funds of up to $500 will be available for 20 homes and businesses who implement energy efficiency upgrades while the funds last. Additional incentives may also be available through Amerigas, LPEA and Atmos Energy.

“City Council knows that this is the place where energy savings begins,” said Dick White, Mayor of Durango. “With energy prices increasing, return on investment for efficiency improvement grows. These incentives will benefit our residents, our environment, and our local economy.”

4CORE has developed expertise in energy efficiency recommendations for homes and
businesses. The Home Performance Prescription Program (HomeRx) is a streamlined process, which helps homeowners along every step of the way. 4CORE makes homes and buildings efficient, safe, and comfortable, while also helping occupants save money on utility bills. Detailed energy, health, and safety assessments are performed and a consultation is provided, complete with a report and recommendations. 4CORE also offers radon testing and post-upgrade inspections as additional options.

“This is an incredible opportunity for our community,” said Gregg Dubit, 4CORE Executive Director. “With these incentives in place and our HomeRx program up and running, we believe 2014 will be ‘the year of energy efficiency.’ We're working to make our region a leader in energy efficiency.

In addition to the discounts being provided by the City of Durango, financing options are available through the First National Bank of Durango to help with energy efficiency improvements.

4CORE trains and works with certified local contractors to assure a high quality work and is focused on supporting local job creation. The organization has coordinated assessment and efficiency improvement services for over 645 homes and businesses. More information can be found on the 4CORE web site at, or by calling 970-259-1916.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Final Shibang: Solarize La Plata Sign up Party

Every year, residents of LaPlata County send millions of dollars out of state to pay for their electricity use.  Meanwhile, massive amounts of solar energy bathing Southwestern Colorado are not being used to create electricity.

Why?  Money, primarily.  In the past, solar PV systems were very expensive, and the cost of coal-powered electricity was cheap.  We now know that there are a lot more expenses with coal-powered electricity than we see on our utility bills, but it has been easy to ignore them because we pay for them in indirect ways.  But, things have changed.  Solar PV panels have come down significantly in price, and La Plata Electric Association (LPEA) has informed us that the cost of our coal-powered electricity will be going up every year for a number of years.

The Four Corners Office for Energy Efficiency (4CORE) facilitated the formation of a volunteer citizens’ group called “Solarize LaPlata” flast summer with the goals of bringing affordable solar PV systems to the people of LaPlata County, creating local jobs, and keeping  money here that would ordinarily leave the area,  Based on a model developed in Portland, OR and endorsed by the Department of Energy, the Solarize LaPlata group has partnered with local solar installers, the City of Durango, First National Bank of Durango, and the 1st Southwest Bank.

If you have ever thought you would like to have solar power or you would like to be more energy-independent, you should check out this program.  And in today’s financial climate, if you have money sitting in the bank earning practically nothing and it’s not part of your emergency fund, you may want to consider going solar as an investment that will average a 7% return.

The Solarize LaPlata committee will be hosting an informational meeting at the Bayfield Library on Saturday, January 11th at 2 p.m.  The program will be explained in detail and there will be time for everyone’s questions.  Those people interested in taking the next step can sign up to have their electrical needs assessed to see what size solar PV system they would need to offset their electricity use and what it would cost.

The Solarize LaPlata a time-limited program.  The citizen volunteers have worked with local installers to bring down the price of a grid-tied solar PV system, which eliminates the need for batteries.  The program offers base systems of three sizes with quality components, warrantied installation and parts, special low cost loans from two local banks, and help in walking people through every step of the decision-making process.  Come to the Library on January 11th and find out how easy going solar can be!

About the Author:

Diane Higgins is a volunteer Steering Committee Member for Solarize La Plata. She recently installed solar on her own home and is hosting a Solarize Open House on Saturday, January 18th from 12 -2 PM at 383 County Road 225.