May 2008


Recycling &Uncategorized26 May 2008 02:26 pm

Mandla blank

The picture that I meant to take of Mandla

These are sad times in South Africa. And though I mostly feel quite distant from the terrible violence against our African neighbours, I have been touched by the tragedy in one, odd way.

For the past two years, a man name Mandla has rung my bell every Monday morning to see if I have any recyclables for him. I first saw him digging through garbage in my neighbourhood during one of my jogs. He was collecting white office paper, so I told him to stop by my house, since I always separate the good white stuff, which fetches a higher price. Ever since, he has made a weekly stop here. And as prices have risen for other commodities, I have given him cartloads of plastic bottles and cans in addition to paper.

I had just decided that it was time to write about Mandla on GreenerHouse. I liked the topic, because I believe that developing this kind of relationship creates meaning out of recycling, spares the collector the indignity and effort of digging through rubbish, and could save homeowners trips to the recycling depot. I had even decided that I would call the post “Meet Mandla.” I was going to take his picture and place it on the website.

It was going to be a good week for Mandla, because I had worked on the cleanup crew for my daughter’s matric dance and had rescued bins full of PET plastic bottles, aluminium cans and steel (tin) cans. I had them waiting at the gate for him. When Mandla didn’t show up last Monday, I didn’t think much of it. But now he hasn’t rung my bell for two weeks, so I know that last week was not a good week for Mandla. We had never discussed his origin; we mostly talked about the prices of various recyclable commodities. But it now seems clear that he was a Zimbabwean. In my experience, most of the hawkers who collect recyclables on foot are from other African nations.

I hope that Mandla is safe, wherever he is, and that someone is giving him lots of white paper to sell.

Solar20 May 2008 03:26 pm

I cannot yet reprint my article on solar photovoltaics vs. diesel generators from Maverick magazine as long as the issue remains on the newsstand. But I can share a  few thoughts from what I have learned while reporting the article:

Prepare Ye the Way of the Panel. For years we’ve been promised that photovoltaic panels will come down in price as volumes increase. Well, volumes increased, but prices went up. Demand rocketed in Germany, Spain and elsewhere as governments made solar attractive financially. Solar-cell factories couldn’t be built fast enough to accommodate the new buyers, so the law of supply and demand took over. This is a temporary situation. As new factories are commissioned, prices will fall to not-yet-seen lows. If you’re feeling flush with cash and impatient, go ahead. Early adopters play a great role in advancing the acceptance of any new technology. But for most of us, it makes sense to wait, especially if the S.A. government implements a feed in tariff—like the one in Germany or Spain—which pays households for surplus solar electricity they feed into the grid.

In the meantime, there is plenty of work to do while getting your home ready for cheaper solar. Photovoltaics produce less electricity than you would expect. They belong in houses that already have low electricity consumption. Replace that old fridge. Install compact fluorescent light bulbs. Invest in a gas stove. Install a solar hot water panels, perhaps with gas back-up instead of electrical back-up for cloudy days. Consider space heating with gas or wood. And if you are doing any remodeling, plan a space in advance for batteries and an inverter. They need protection from the elements and ventilation, preferably in a location close to your circuit board.

It’s Your Health, Too. Burning more diesel is not just bad for the planet, it’s bad for you. Diesel fumes are known cancer-causing agents. Would you want your neighbour to idle his 1979 diesel Land Rover Defender in your driveway for several hours a day, spewing carcinogenic fumes toward your family? Running a diesel generator is no different.

You Get What You Pay For. People are always telling me that generators are cheap. And to look at the advertising inserts from D.I.Y. stores, you would think so. But some of these generators do not even have voltage regulators, leading to blown TVs. Even better generators with voltage regulators can create brief surges that are harmful to sensitive equipment. Seamus Finnegan of Northern Technologies SA recommends two layers of surge protection to protect against electrical current spikes as well as an uninterruptible power supply to keep computers operating during the lag between the beginning of load shedding and the start-up of the generator. “We see a lot of damage done by generators,” say Finnegan.

Heads Solar Wins, Tails Diesel Loses. Okay, maybe I’m biased, but diesel has problems under both scenarios facing South Africans. If load shedding becomes a serious regular occurrence, then the fuel expense begins to eclipse the upfront capital expense, and solar becomes more attractive financially. If Eskom gets its act together and load shedding ends, anyone who opted for solar still has a source of free, green energy. Those who bought a diesel generator are stuck with a rusting eye-sore.

Solar &Uncategorized14 May 2008 05:20 pm

The latest issue of Maverick magazine, which is arriving on newsstands this week, includes an article I wrote comparing diesel generators with solar photovoltaic panels. The point is that solar cells are normally considered pricey, with little hope of paying for themselves in the near term and maybe not even in the long run. Load shedding changed all that, however, because many South Africans are now shelling out tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars for diesel generators to make themselves Eskom-proof. In my article I compare what happens if that money is instead put into generating solar electricity on the roof. I use actual quotes for systems for one house and then run the numbers to see how the two options compare over time.

When this issue of Maverick comes off the newsstand, I will post the article in-full on GreenerHouse. In the meantime, I will share a few insights from my reporting here in the next few days.

Global Warming &Lighting &Uncategorized07 May 2008 09:42 am

frogs on CFL

Those Frogs Still Prefer CFLs

Yesterday in my daughter’s science class, the subject of energy efficiency came up, and another girl in the class mentioned that she had heard that our house was full of energy-saving devices. So my daughter had to explain what we were doing at home to save electricity. One boy asked if manufacturing those compact fluorescent light bulbs doesn’t use more electricity than making a common incandescent globe.

She didn’t know the answer. And neither did I. But I was glad that the younger generation thinks about the carbon footprint of the products we buy, and I thought it deserved a little research. After much digging, I came up with some information from Osram about the electricity that goes into making their bulbs.

Osram says that they need 3.36 kilowatt hours to produce each 15 watt CFL. This is about two-and-a-half times the amount of electricity required to make the equivalent 75 watt incandescent globe, 1.29 kilowatt hours. An incandescent bulb is a simpler product, after all. So the advantage goes to the incandescent on day one.

It loses the advantage quickly, however. If you use the two bulbs for four hours a day, by the 9th day, the incandescent has used so much more electricity that it has lost its advantage. By the end of a year, my very rudimentary life-cycle analysis shows the CFL winning the race by 25.26 kWh to a whopping 110.79 kWh for the incandescent.

Even if you were burning these bulbs in Iceland, using carbon-dioxide-free geothermal and hydroelectric power, the CFL would be more environmentally friendly because it lasts longer and so one CFL is the equivalent of several incandescents.

If, like Noah, you know that the world is going to be swallowed up in a flood in a few days, an incandescent bulb is the green choice. If you think the flood might take a few more years as the Greenland ice cap melts, you should buy CFLs.