Blogroll Review: Bottles, Biobutanol, Bagasse

by Frank Ling

DIY Solar Water Heater

The Chinese have done it again. In a country that puts waste to good use, they have found another use for beer bottles: solar water heating.

Matt James writes about a Chinese farmer who made his own solar heater in the EcoGeek blog:

“…we get the story of a man who made his family a solar hot water heater from 66 recycled beer bottles. He should have called, I could have helped him empty the bottles.”

In this setup, 66 bottles were linked by hose to collect solar energy from the sun to heat up water. The farmer says this is enough to provide water for all 3 members of his family.

Bottoms up or as the Chinese say “ganpei.”

Biobutanol Bust?

While ethanol received more attention than any other alcohol out there, it’s time to rectify situation. Methanol, which causes blindness, has a bad rap. Propanol is best known as a disinfectant.

But butanol with four carbons could be the next alcohol rock star. Scientists say it is superior fuel to ethanol.

However, it may be years until we see biobutanol pumps along the highways. Robert Rapier at R-squared Energy Blog argues that biobutanol’s time has not come yet. He says:

“Sad to say, but I believe biobutanol is dead. While research will (and should) continue, the process is currently at least 10 years from any sort of commercial feasibility. And I would point out that ‘never’ falls under the umbrella of ‘at least 10 years.'”

One of the problems with biobutanol is the energy intensive process needed to remove water from the product. Nevertheless, companies like DuPont and BP are investing heavily to develop butanol from biological processes.

Bagasse Hope

At the end of the day, ethanol still holds the spotlight. Brazil has now shown how to make ethanol even more competitive. Toward realizing energy returns from the cellulosic components from sugar cane, Dedini SA has developed a process to convert bagasse or leftover can stalk into ethanol.

Jim Fraser at the Energy Blog explains:

“The technology uses two pretreatment steps to convert bagasse, the lignocellulose-rich byproduct from cane processing, into ethanol: (1) pretreatment of the biomass with organic solvents, and (2) dilute acid hydrolysis. The innovation consists of adding a first stage pretreatment step which allows the diluted acids to do their work much faster and more efficiently. The liquid hydrolyzates are then easily fermented and distilled into ethanol.”

Now if there was only a way to convert Spam into fuel. 🙂

Frank Ling is a postdoctoral fellow at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley. He is also a producer of the Berkeley Groks Science Show.

3rd Generation Solar Cells – Dyesol Interview

Nick Bruse runs Strike Consulting, a cleantech venture consultancy; hosts the cleantech show, a weekly podcast of interviews with leaders involved in clean technology research, entrepreneurship, commentary and investment; and advises Clean Technology Australasia Pty Ltd and the leading advocate of Cleantech in Australia.

It seems we cant go a day at the moment without hearing about a new commissioning of a energy plant, or new technology development, or fund raising in the solar energy space at the moment.

Last week on The Cleantech Show I interviewed Sylvia Tulloch (podcast), the Managing director and founding team member for 3rd Generation solar cell technology company Dyesol (ASX: DYE). 3rd generation solar cell technology utilises biomimicry of the chlorophyll dye in plants to produce energy from the sun.

You can access the interview here

Many of you may be aware of Dyesol which has been a pioneer in the field of Dye Sensitised Cells (DSC) over the last 10 years, now providing the key dyes and Titania pastes to some of the 800 research and commercial organisations around the world developing DSC applications.

Don’t miss this interview, as Sylvia goes into detail about how DSC technology will have a large roll in the coming decade. Dyesol has also recently signed a number of large partnership agreements and supply contracts to for new DSC applications.

We discuss the technology and the applications where its lower cost high volume potential for energy generation in building materials, consumer devices and a host of other applications means it will have a signifcant roll in the future.

Ups & Downs

by Heather Rae,

On about the eighth hour of scraping the lead paint off of the exterior of the old summer kitchen this weekend, the word, ‘torch’ comes to my mind. My mind wanders in the tedium; my moods mercurial. Take a torch to it, I think. The thought wings away; I envision a wall of smooth, ivory-painted cedar clapboard and keep scraping.
I’m vulnerable to passing comments these days. At the ‘transfer station’ (aka, the dump), I collar a stranger in an antique Ford pickup. He agrees to haul a vintage electric stove and hunk of cabinetry from my house to the dump. He claims a discarded oak chair from the wood pile. I later learn from his neighbors that he is a former commissioner of a large government agency in Maine. He says, ‘I did what you’re trying to do, and I’ll never do it again.’ I fight feeling disheartened and foolish. On Sunday night, a former publisher of newspapers whom I had met at a sustainable energy expo drops by the house, leaving his convertible red Mercedes sportcar running. I am in my PJs at 7:30pm, sick with a cold and happy for the company. He’s come to this town to take pictures of the straw bale house that is going up a block away. (I can see the vehicles of the construction crews from my kitchen window. We will have two straw bale houses in this town upon its completion; the first is four houses down my street and is finished in stucco.) The publisher walks through this old house and exclaims, ‘oh, this is great. What a great house!’ My mood lifts. Later in the week, an antiques dealer stops by to inquire about a Russian pot that he had seen in the dirt-floor basement of this house (‘It’s worth $750’.) He is upset that I have removed the original, lead-laden cabinet in the old summer kitchen. I feel guilty. I give him an art deco lighting fixture. All the other fixtures have gone to a ‘stuff’ dealer on Route 1. On Monday, the mailman hops out of his buzzy little white truck, hands me the mail and says, ‘the house is looking better every day.’ I need to hear these encouraging words.
There’s a hole in the wall in the upstairs bedroom where the Jotul stove vent has been removed. I’ve torn down a plaster and lathe wall between a bedroom and an abutting space to create a master bedroom. Now there’s a seam exposed to the balloon framing and cellulose insulation. I’ve torn out the code-violating kitchenette in the closet off of this bedroom. It needs sheetrock…or something. I’ve gone through two young men who excessively assure me that they can sheetrock and do good work. Neither do. I talk with them about insulation and the embedded energy of sheetrock and consideration of alternatives. The words have no meaning. In scraping the old summer kitchen, I confirm that the sill is rotting. I remove the clapboard and board around the sill. I tear out the old windows on the north side — with views of the neighbor’s garage and clothes line. The northern exposure will be double-walled and double-insulated with one small window.
Moving forward, after lots of deliberation and conversations with my home performance contractor, I have decided on a Baxi on-demand boiler for heat and hot water. With the Baxi, the old oil-fired (79% AFUE) forced air furnace and ductwork in the basement will go away. I can then remediate the moisture in the basement, air seal it and apply a vapor barrier without the obstruction of the furnace. With the Baxi, the electric water heater tank that takes up a corner of the make-shift kitchen will also go away. And, the Baxi will obviate the need to line the chimney to the tune of $1800: the Baxi vents through the wall. It can be solar thermal-ready, for future installation of a solar thermal panel on the roof of the summer kitchen. At 94%-96% AFUE, the Baxi qualifies for a Federal tax credit. It’s a plan that sounds like progress.

Other Goings On This Week
I hear from exhibitors at LightFair 2007 this week in New York City that the CFL controversy is heating up. The article in the Portland Press Herald about the woman who broke a CFL in her home and was instructed to cordon off the room has been making the rounds. Two people sent it to me over the last few weeks asking what’s going on up here in Maine. The response, I think, is to look what’s going on at LightFair, and to ask why other energy-efficient lighting technologies don’t have the consumer facetime of CFLs. More on that later.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Dear Sam

Dear Sam,

We met at the narrow, cavernous bar in the Philadelphia Airport. You were heading home to Ohio from Maine, a business trip. I was heading home to Maine from Ohio, a business trip.

You were in Maine to refurbish a commercial building in a long-time-ailing, once-industrial town. I was in Ohio to learn about building green.

I called you an idiot for being a climate change sceptic. You might remember me.

My flight delayed in Philadelphia, I lay on the floor at Gate 14 waiting (and waiting) with a copy of Vanity Fair, the Green Issue, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio photo-montaged beside an adorable polar bear pup. This magazine is not my usual read…so Hollywood, so New York gossip, so superficial. I suspect it may not be yours either.

Feet aloft, here’s a taste of what I saw in this heavy, glossy magazine stuffed with ads for cars, fashion, gadgets and alcohol:

  • an ad in black and white of sexy and sweaty young models obliviously getting it on in Diesel clothing while Manhattan, London and South Dakota flood. In one of the ads, a model dreamingly straddles a palm tree. The Diesel pitch: “Global Warming Ready.”
  • ad ad for Levi’s “eco jeans. 100% organic cotton” with a full-page image of another half-naked couple geting it on.

But for an ad from Abundant Forests, the line-up is the usual overdose of consumerism. I read that Lancome is “embracing a range of eco-chic initiatives” and “will plant one tree for each of the first 10,000 bottles of Cell Defense that are sold.” (That’s a lot of landfill for one tree, right?) I read that a beauty entrepreneur “has launched support of the endangered sea life [coral] with a luminescent two-toned powder compact encased in nickel and embossed with a coral branch” A portion of the proceeds from the compact will benefit research on the effects of global warming on coral reefs.

I understand your sceptism about climate change…your aversion to ditching the Expedition you worked hard to afford. I have my loves as well (imported perfume, imported wine, soft toilet paper.) I understand that the messenger (“Algore”) isn’t a trusting source for you. I get it. It can be hard to get past the messenger, but you said you would try.

I hope your project in Maine moves forward. As I heard in Ohio, the greenest building is the one not built. If we should meet again, we can talk about greenwashing, starting with the ads in Vanity Fair. If you do pick up Vanity Fair, read the article about Myron Ebell at Competitive Enterprise Institute. I mentioned it and him at the bar. It’s a very good article. We can talk about astroturfing. And, next time, I buy the drinks.

PS I’m sorry I called you an idiot.

Other Goings On This Week
My brother and his wife are gutting their house in the Hudson Valley. They just bought it; it needs a gutting. I stuck around last Saturday for an interview with Radiant Construction, contractors who bring Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) credentials to the project. I liked them, partly because Joe Levy and I scuffled over green building concepts. Joe uses Icynene(R) Spray Foam. The program with which I work, Home Performance with ENERGY STAR(R), advocates dense-pack cellulose. Personally, I’d use both depending on the application. Joe said the whole-house ceiling fan was a great way to remove warm air from the house. I was taught whole-house fans are bad. The fan is going away when the ceiling is opened up to the rafters, so that argument ended abruptly. Ken Tohinaka of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation said during the ACI Conference in Ohio, “it’s better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.” The saying could easily apply to green home construction. I look forward to seeing how my siblings and I attempt to get things approximately right.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

ACI Conference 2007

by Heather Rae

Cleveland hosts the 21st ACI Home Performance Conference this week. Over 1,000 people registered to exchange information about “house as a system” building design and operation.

ACI President, Laura McNaughton, greets attendees, “As this conference opens, the issue of climate change and the urgent need for affordable energy present both environmental challenges and economic opportunities. Many people are struggling to stay warm, and we wonder if we are running out of fossil fuels. At the same time, consumer demand for green homes that are energy efficient, durable, comfortable, healthy and safe has made the ‘house as a system’ approach more relevant than ever. Home performance contracting is poised for mainstream expansion.”

ACI attendees represent the crossroads of residential energy; there are utilities, national laboratories, government agencies, technology vendors, non-profits and, of course, consultants. I attended a full-day session with the EPA on the national Home Performance with Energy Star program to learn how to best manage and market the program and how to motivate contractors and homeowners to participate.

Time and again, studies and anecdotes find that people’s priorities for their homes are comfort and operating costs, indoor air quality (health), resale value and environmental impact. All of those concerns are addressed through home performance.

Our challenge with home performance is not so much to ‘transform the market’ but to create a market for a concept that is entirely new to the general public. Unlike green billboards — like solar panels — which announce to the neighbors one’s ‘greenness,’ home performance is a mostly invisible endeavor. Like solar, however, the energy benefits of home performance can be measured and used to demonstrate ‘greenness.’ The EPA (with the help of Performance Systems Development, my employer) is working on a certificate that lists the improvements made to a house — things like air sealant, moisture remediation, insulation. The certificate for the Maine Home Performance with Energy Star program will include carbon savings as well. A homeowner can take that information to the IRS for tax credits, to the bank for home equity loans, to the real estate market, and to future carbon trading markets.

The certificate is a marketing hook for a concept with significant marketing challenges, the first one being that nobody knows what you’re talking about. (‘Oh,’ you might hear, ‘energy audits!’ Well, sort of, but not really, you might reply, as you force yourself not to talk about science or diagnostics or even energy but about the things that really matter to people like drafty rooms and wet basements, ice dams and moldy rec rooms and the costs of maintaining a home.)

Efficiency remains the red-headed stepchild but is gaining recognition. Greg Thomas, president of Performance Systems, and past president of ACI, wrote of a report by the American Solar Energy Society (Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.), “fifty-seven percent of the expected carbon reductions would come from efficiency, followed by only fifteen percent from wind. The remaining sources were geothermal (not heat pumps, but hot earth), biomass, concentrating solar and solar PV, and biofuels, such as ethanol. Interestingly, this is almost in reverse order to the attention these possibilities get in the press.”

The potential for dynamic marketing of home performance is as big as the challenges and the rewards.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

The Party’s Over

by Heather Rae

This past Friday, I put down the crowbar and power-downed the computer and drove to Portland to speak about home performance at a workshop, “Global Warming, Cool Solutions.” The workshop was part of a one-day conference called “Achieving Global Energy Security.”

Held in a LEED Gold-designated building, it was a provocative day sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Maine Council of Churches, Sierra Club, Peace Action Maine and others. Unlike “silo” meetings, conventions where the choir convenes to sing to itself, this conference painted the big picture that is often missed in silos — the connections among climate change, environment, economy, energy and foreign policy, peaking oil, nuclear proliferation, the health effects and hideousness of war, and morality. Somehow, the conference planners spun the negative messages positively into workshops around solutions. Those solutions are clean energy: renewables and energy efficiency. And conservation. The conference presentations are being posted on the website:

Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times magazine (The Power of Green): “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are – including a car culture. But if we want to continue to be who we are, enjoy the benefits and be able to pass them on to our children, we do need to fuel our future in a cleaner, greener way.”

A photograph of an Iraqi man holding a fainting or dead young girl in his arms, her leg blown to bits, flesh and bones dangling, was still with me at 2am the night of the conference. So was Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford’s reference to Richard Heinberg’s, The Party’s Over. Dr. Ashford paused, breaking from her presentation as the audience chuckled at the image of a businessman holding a gun to his head to say, it was a fun party wasn’t it? But now the guests have gone home, and we’re left with our house in disarray. After the fossil fuel party, what will the response be of this industrialized nation addicted to oil: Will we go the way of Cuba that adapts by adopting distributed micro-solutions, or will we go the way of totalitarian North Korea and enter into dark stagnation?

The message I heard at the conference was that everyone can do his and her part, everyone can take action to find solutions to these pressing global energy-related issues. (I also heard from Efficiency Maine that it has established the first program in the country to reclaim used CFLs at the point of purchase.) This past week, seven contractors came to my house to take their field exams for the Building Performance Institute certification. In the vernacular of building science, all seven found that various parts of this old house “communicate” with one another. That is, air flows freely every which way in her balloon frame.

This old house, she’s a talker, and I’ll shut her up as best I can. Tightening up a house is not radical change. Nor is buying a hybrid car. Or screwing in an energy-efficient light bulb. But I doubt it’s enough. A while back, I sat down with an aide to Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) and suggested that monies be taken from the war chest and allocated to solar R&D and market penetration. Apparently, that’s radical; the aide nodded at the suggestion, politely. It should be a lot harder to be polite in the face of the blown flesh of an innocent little girl.

Other Goings On This Week
Another party that’s over…
Pete McCloskey, a one time candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination, explained his reasons for leaving the Republican party and included this: “Earth Day, that bi-partisan concept of Gaylord Nelson in 1970, has become the focus of almost hatred by today’s Republican leadership. Many still argue that global warming is a hoax, and that Bush has been right to demean and suppress the arguments of scientists at the E.P.A., Fish & Wildlife and U.S.Geological Survey. I say a pox on them and their values.”

Me too.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Pittsburgh’s Green Building Alliance

by Richard T. Stuebi

A few weeks ago, a group of us from Cleveland made the two-hour drive down the Turnpike to Pittsburgh in order to learn more about the Green Building Alliance and to meet its leader, Rebecca Flora.

Founded in the mid-1990’s, the Green Building Alliance is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to promote green-building principles and activity in the Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania area.

Unlike most other environmentally-oriented not-for-profits, the Green Building Alliance is exceptionally market-oriented. They tout financially-grounded value propositions to customers — in their case, primarily real estate developers — rather than promoting green buildings as “the right thing to do” to save the environment. They serve capitalists, instead of posing as tree-huggers.

Also unlike most other environmentally-oriented not-for-profits, they are having significant and seemingly-scalable impact. Though a mid-market city, Pittsburgh is frequently recognized as a hot-bed of green building activity, a leader among U.S. cities, ranking alongside San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. (Yes, Pittsburgh!) And, from an economic development perspective, this activity is generating a cluster of product and services businesses specializing in green buildings, with revenue opportunities far beyond the Pittsburgh region.

I speculate that their uncommon impact is highly correlated with their uncommon focus on customer needs. It’s perhaps a good case study for other environmental not-for-profits to understand.

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh community for their achievements so far in revitalizing themselves economically and environmentally through an increasing commitment to sustainable buildings — and to the Green Building Alliance for playing such a vital role in catalyzing this regeneration.

Of course, much of the success of the Green Building Alliance owes to the dynamic leadership of Ms. Flora, and to sustained financial support from the local philanthropic sector, particularly The Heinz Endowments. Kudos to them. Such boldness is rare, but hopefully their encouraging example will inspire many others to follow.

Richard Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

Green Theory, Green Practice.

by Heather Rae

The bank and I closed on the 1880 Federal-style house two weeks ago. The renovation possibilities that earlier filled me with giddy excitement are now all around me: the old wood floors, the near floor-to-ceiling windows, the high ceilings and the old summer kitchen that juts out behind the boxy structure of the main house. Today, I’m a little less giddy.

During the bidding process, I asked two home performance contractors to walk through the house with me. For this, I donned new Carhartt bibs and jacket – both a bit big for my frame and building ambitions. On a cold winter day, the roof covered in snow, the first home performance (HP) contractor, a former homebuilder, checked the integrity of the fieldstone and brick foundation, the horizontal ThermaPride furnace, the electrical system, and the wood framing and clapboard. He observed things like the plastic sheets on the dirt floor of the half-height basement, serving to block moisture gain in the living areas of the house. He said the electrical could not handle electric heat. At $.15 a kWh, it and the electrical space heaters promoted by the local utility, for me anyway, are non-starters. The big stuff looked OK, so I made a bid…a really, really low one, a bid so low that it insulted the seller’s agent. Nice foot to start on in a very small community. The seller came down slightly and the bargaining game and inspections began.

During the inspection process, I did not hire a home inspector. I hired a plumber, a chimney inspector and the second HP contractor whom I met at a HP training session last August. For $100, the plumber told me the plumbing was old and no plumber was going to fix anything without replacing it. (Perhaps it was a wasted $100, but there it was, spoken.) For $300, the chimney guys cleaned out the old chimnney and performed a Type II inspection. The vent connector had been blocked 90% by the debris falling down the interior of the un-lined and ill-maintained chimney. Which had to go. At least the top half. Maybe a $2000 job for new chimney and flue liner. It is not the price of the chimney that set me off: It was the poor maintenance that could be a health hazard, potentially poisoning people (like me and the previous renters) with carbon monoxide.

The HP contractor arrived with an infrared camera. We had agreed to skip the “blower door” test at this stage. The “blower door” measures the leakage of the house. We would do the test later, both before and after improvements had been made to the shell of the house. The infrared screen showed black where there was no insulation in the walls of the house’s thermal boundary. There were few missed spots. I was quietly hoping there would be NO insulation and then the house would be prime for well-installed dense-pack insulation, performed by someone I knew was trained and certified in “whole-house” HP. And I could be there monitoring the insulation job with an infrared – a contractor’s worst nightmare of a client.

The HP contractor checked for moisture in the attic. With a smoke stick, he tested holes in the plaster walls and around the attic access. I pointed out the bathroom exhaust vent that features a view between the blades to the outdoors. From the walkthrough, I know warm air is rising into spaces it shouldn’t, like the attic — a huge, glorious, uninhabited space smelling of old-world carpentry. I also know the roof is getting on and should be replaced. I’ve often said that I love standing seam metal roofs for their ‘green-ness’ and their aesthetic. Yet, for this house, it will be architectural asphalt with a projected 30-year lifespan.

On an entirely other level of dreams, perhaps the roof would be standing seam metal. And, I would replace the forced air furnace with a super-efficient EnergyKinetics System 2000 radiant system bringing elegant warmth to flat, wall-mounted radiators in every room, even upstairs where the ducts do not venture. The old summer kitchen would run off of solar thermal and PV. And, the attic, growing dormers with views of the Kennebec River, would be a hide-away for (someone else’s) grandchildren or for writers to write. In practice, these dreams, like my dreams of a green renovation are tempered by lathe and plaster, old pipes and a limited budget.

Next: Demolition!

* Check out the photo of wind turbines on the front page of the Carhartt website.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.