Green is the color of the future.
Manchester-based inventor Dean Kamen will soon be seen on Planet Green TV hosting Dean of Invention, for which he travels the world to look at emerging technologies, including alternative energy. The show fits with his track record of inventing technologies like the Segway and inspiring future generations with his FIRST program.
Perhaps the students of FIRST will one day revolutionize how we heat and power our homes. Until then, homeowners in New Hampshire are already using existing technology to cut down on utility bills and reduce their carbon footprints. They cite self-reliance as a side benefit of steps away from the grid. Each October during the Green Building Open House you can see these homeowners take steps into the energy efficient, environmentally friendly future.
We take a look at some of these innovations as well as the people who may help with future improvements in alternative energy and other technologies.
Future of invention
Dean Kamen looks for new tech abroad while a new generation of inventors grows at home
Dean Kamen has access to a helicopter outside the door of his Bedford home, which means Dean Kamen can go just about anywhere. But today, like most days, he is in his Manchester office.
Not for long, however, as Kamen will be leaving at the end of the week to fly to Monte Carlo in Monaco to meet with the global managers of Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Kamen hopes these preliminary discussions will enable his new water purification system to get into the hands of the estimated 1.1 billion people who lack clean drinking water. But that is at the end of the week. Right now, Dean Kamen is talking to me on the telephone. He is talking with great energy because, you see, Kamen is not thinking about where he is going. No, his mind is occupied with where the world is headed and whether America will be leading the charge.
Dean Kamen is many things: an inventor, an entrepreneur, a physicist; he has even been referred to as the real-life Tony Stark. But Kamen is also an educator. He devoted much energy to the founding of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), “an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation to understand, use and enjoy science and technology.” In 2008-2009 alone, more than 137,000 children participated in 42 countries. Now Kamen hopes to use a new medium to reach and educate people: television.
Dean of Invention premieres on Friday, Oct. 22, at 10 p.m. on Planet Green, which is part of the Discovery Channel family. In 30-minute episodes, Kamen and correspondent Joanne Colan travel the globe exploring emerging technologies that will be applied to some of the world’s most daunting challenges. Over eight episodes, Kamen and Colan investigate such topics as flying automobiles; processing plants that can harness the energy inside human and animal waste; and the possibility of bionic humans.
All these subjects are close to Kamen’s heart and are areas his company, DEKA Research and Development, focuses on. What did worry Kamen in the beginning was how to best deliver the message. Would the show dive deep into complicated subjects and appeal to those with advanced science backgrounds? Or would it simplify concepts at the risk of alienating science and technology folks?
“If you really understand science, physics and math, you can explain things with analogies,” Kamen said. “But you do it slightly differently for different people.”
In the end, although he had not seen the final product, Kamen was confident the production teams at Planet Green and @radical.media, “a global transmedia company that creates some of the world’s most innovative content across all forms of media,” would find the right balance to educate and to entertain audiences.
In the series premiere, “Meet the Microbots,” Kamen and Colan travel to Switzerland, Montreal and Cambridge, Mass. The episode addresses a complicated issue, “nanobots,” which are miniscule robots that are able to enter the bloodstream, find cancerous cells without anyone’s guidance and kill them, but it begins slowly and builds on concepts that can be understood. In the end, viewers don’t know everything about nanobots, but they have a foundation and may be inspired to seek further information.
Kamen also walked away with a greater appreciation for those who work in television.
“It was harder than I thought,” Kamen said. “I saw eight shows for 30 minutes, so I thought I’d give four hours and we’d all be happy. Turns out there was more to it. But there are a lot of really neat people out there. Getting to meet them was a personal benefit for me. Hopefully, the show can spark interest in people I will never get to know.”
There is certainly that chance. Planet Green reaches 64 million viewers through Direct TV and Dish Network, according to Reenie Kuhlman, Discovery Networks Publicity. Having such a large platform is important for Kamen not only to promote FIRST but because he believes the issues addressed on the show may define the world’s power structure.
Since the end of World War II, America has been seen as the worldwide leader in technology, according to Kamen. It is no coincidence that the steam engine, the telegraph, the telephone and the computer were all invented on American soil. Kamen attributes such success to an American confidence that stems from having some of the best universities. But he is concerned that history is not always a guarantee of future success.
“This is not a birthright of Americans,” Kamen said.
This is one of the reasons he started FIRST. Kamen said if the next generation doesn’t wake up from its distractions of sports and celebrity gossip and realize the road to success travels through science and technology, then it will be the first generation that doesn’t find itself in leadership roles. Kamen said there are students around the world working ferociously to educate themselves to take the lead.
And the race, for many, is to develop and distribute renewable energies. While Americans represent a small percentage of the global population (3 to 5 percent), they consume a considerable amount (22 to 25 percent) of its natural resources. Many of these natural resources, like gas and fossil fuels, are finite, and with the rise of heavily populated countries like China and India, basic logic dictates these resources will continue to be divided.
This division has moved the forces of green technology and sustainable living away from the environmental movement and transformed them into an economic engine. Whether your personal politics are skeptical of global warming or not, there is no denying that alternative energy is a focal point for companies around the world. One of the reasons is that efficiency cannot be exported. This is why even the White House is adopting solar power.
“This project reflects President Obama’s strong commitment to U.S. leadership in solar energy and the jobs it will create here at home,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement reported in the New York Times. “Deploying solar energy technologies across the country will help America lead the global economy for years to come.”
What is being done
Despite Obama’s optimism, Kamen is not alone in his fears that America is falling behind. Jim Rubens is a consultant at Union for Concerned Scientists. “Rubens dropped out of Dartmouth College to join a commune and start a recycling center, then dropped back in to grow and sell about 10 businesses,” according to the Huffington Post. He has spent much time in politics and even ran for New Hampshire governor in 1998 and chaired the New Hampshire GOP platform committee in 2000.
Rubens believes the government needs to do more than install solar panels on the White House. A strong national energy plan is paramount for the United States to catch up with China in the fields of wind, solar, advanced batteries and other renewable energies, according to Rubens.
Rubens said tax credits for solar and wind come and go and so there can be no long-term consistency, which prevents companies from investing in it. While he believes many businesses and individuals have increased their efficiency by switching from fossil fuels to other forms of energy, he said if the federal government doesn’t enact a universal plan then these steps won’t be enough.
“Congress, give us stable policies,” Rubens said.
On the local level, such steps are being taken. For his part, in August 2006 Governor John Lynch announced the 25 x ’25 Renewable Energy Initiative, which plans for New Hampshire to obtain 25 percent of its energy from clean, renewable resources by the year 2025.
“It is time to use our know-how and resources here in New Hampshire to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and to build a stronger economy by leading the world in the creation of new, clean energy,” Governor Lynch has previously stated.
Of course Lynch, who seeks election to his fourth term this November, which would make him the longest-serving governor in state history, will not be in office 15 years from now. This makes such long-term initiatives difficult to enforce, as they can be changed at the whim of a new administration.
There is a lot of transition going on in Washington as well. In New Hampshire, all the congressional and senatorial candidates have energy plans. The detail and extent of these plans vary depending on the candidate but are certainly being addressed.
But in Washington, D.C., there are many conflicting interests (Rubens said the oil industry pays big bucks to lobbyists to defend its multi-billion-dollar business) and bureaucratic red tape (Rubens said both the Senate and House have passed energy bills, just not at the same time). That is why many locals believe the best way to enact change is to take matters into their own hands.
In 2008, former Derry Town Councilor Brent Carney proposed a Clean Energy and Environmental Initiative to his fellow councilors. The ordinance passed in March and said the town would give preference to alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles when purchasing new vehicles for the town. All new construction and all major renovations funded by the town would also need to meet basic LEED certification standards prescribed by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System.
“The Council in Derry?made a bold statement by passing my ‘Clean Energy and Environmental Initiative’ in March of 2008,” wrote Carney via e-mail.?“Derry?truly took the lead in New Hampshire on this issue, by making this a town ordinance (if not the first such ordinance in NH, one of the first).?However, because of the law’s broad scope,?it was difficult to oversee all its aspects and realize its full potential.”
As a result, the Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee was formed. When Carney looked to field the committee, he had no shortage of candidates.
“I think everyone on the Council was blown away by the number of highly qualified people who applied to be part of this committee,” Carney wrote.?“We actually changed the makeup of the committee so that we could allow more people to be on it.?Everyone who applied and who is part of that committee today is truly a leader on these issues, and we didn’t want to leave out any of their great ideas.”
The beauty of the Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee is that its members make real-world suggestions. For example, their energy-saving suggestions for the Taylor Library included replacing incandescent lights, installing a setback thermostat, increasing attic insulation, weather-stripping the front door, installing a CO monitor, sealing and insulating duct work as well as possibly putting in a new storm door. These suggestions are relatively inexpensive and easy to fix and are what Chair Tom Minnon has referred to as “hanging fruit.” Being more energy efficient isn’t limited to installing a solar greenhouse. It can also mean making small changes that lead to big results. The Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee has also orchestrated audits for all the town’s buildings.
Of course, the Taylor Library had $10,000 set aside for such renovations. Many homeowners do not, and these initial costs can be intimidating. This might be one of the reasons renewable energies are not taking off at home.
For someone like Rubens, who truly believes America’s dependency on oil is killing the future of our economy, these are frustrating times. From leaks in the Gulf to wars in the Middle East, oil has a heavy cost. However, it is our established means of energy and so when an oil truck pulls up to your house, everything is already in place and there is no capital cost. Alternative energies, like geo-thermal, may ultimately save a considerable amount of money, but they have larger installation and setup fees.
Paying these installation fees can be difficult to many budget-conscious Americans. So too can accepting new technology, according to Kamen. But people evolve.
“We didn’t have the Internet 20 years ago,” Kamen said. “Now try shutting it down for a day.”
Handing off the torch
One demographic that has always been adaptive is the youth. Rubens noted that young people poll well regarding issues of energy. This may prove to be important as this is the generation set to inherit both the planet and the economy. But as these youngsters begin to form career plans, are they drawn to careers in renewable energy?
Kate Emerson is on the front lines of this discussion. As a science teacher at Hollis-Brookline High School, she is privy to the conversations of America’s youth. She is cautiously optimistic.
“I’ve definitely seen an increased interest in science compared to when I was in high school,” said Emerson, who was a student not too long ago.
Emerson said while there hasn’t necessarily been a shift toward science and sustainability, she has seen a change in perception.
“It is now cool to be smart,” Emerson said. “I know that sounds funny but it wasn’t always the case. Now kids realize being smart and being successful go hand-in-hand.”
While this is certainly a good start, is it enough? Even Emerson admits that most of her students are under pressure to get into a good college and that there could be a greater emphasis put on education about sustainability.
“Particularly, since this is where the jobs are going to be in the future,” Emerson said.
But it is difficult. With the standard curriculum required in AP classes, teachers simply don’t have enough time to focus lectures on green sciences. Of course, there are always the after-school hours and Emerson said the school does have a “Green Group,” which is a small core of kids who manage the recycling around school. But this is a small percentage of the population. It is not as if other kids don’t want to join; according to Emerson, they just might be too busy flushing out their résumés.
Or they might just not be hearing what adults are telling them.
“I don’t think they understand how our level of consumption compares to the rest of the world,” Emerson said. “It is natural capital and I’m not sure they get that it is going to run out.”
But it is certainly a mixed message. Most would not dispute the merits of renewable energy; however, some would say such a switch is impractical and uneconomic. “The preproduction expenditures to construct a renewable energy project are extremely high, much more so than the conventional power resources we have grown accustomed to,” according to Renewable Power News. “The time it will take to recover these initial costs is in the neighborhood of ten to fifteen years. That is a lot of money for private capital investors to support while they wait for a return on their money.”
This length of time means it is ever more important to educate the young. There is always hope. Emerson is in her second year of teaching a semester-long ecology class. This new class, which reaches a handful of students, teaches many of the principles of conservation and awareness that Emerson hopes her students will pick up before college. Emerson said within the class she uses sustainability as a theme and said it is a very good start.
There is a group of youngsters in Londonderry who are also starting young and have international awards to prove it. The Inventioneers, a team of home-schooled students, have been in existence for six years. They are the reigning World Champions for FIRST LEGO League (FLL), which was created by Kamen to encourage young people in the areas of science, engineering and technology.
“There are four parts to FLL; the two main parts are the table challenge and the research project,” according to the Inventioneers website, www.theinventioneers.com. For the research projects, teams need to choose a topic related to the year’s theme. But this isn’t lava erupting from a volcano at a sixth-grade science fair. These competitors must create or modify a technology that solves a problem, meet with experts in the field and begin the process of making their invention a reality, according to 12-year-old Kate Balcom.
This year’s theme, for which the Inventioneers won the World Championship in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, was transportation. They looked around their community and found texting while driving was a problem for many teens. That is why the team created the Smart Wheel, which is a steering wheel cover equipped with integrated sensors that record where your hands are. If your hands are at ten and two o’clock, the wheel knows you’re not texting. But if you remove a hand for an extended period of time, a buzzer rings alerting you of your dangerous behavior. The Inventioneers, which currently consist of Jaiden Evarts, 13, Kate Balcom, 12, Bryeton Evarts, 10, Emily Balcom, 14, TJ Evarts, 15, and Paige Balcom, 16, have a patent out on the wheel, did test runs in the laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and are working alongside an insurance company to give discounts to people who use a Smart Wheel. Not bad for a bunch of students too young to attend the prom.
But whereas they were working on saving lives this year, in the past they have attempted to save the environment.
The Inventioneers laboratory, so to speak, is a family home on a quiet street in Londonderry. The minivan in the driveway had a LEGO-themed license plate. It is mid-day and the Inventioneers are taking a study break. It should be noted that, although the kids are home-schooled, Lego League is an after-school activity and they still have a regular curriculum and course load to follow. However, they have taken a break to show off their handiwork.
TJ Evarts is 14 but needs to stop and repeat himself several times so this 27-year-old reporter can understand what he is talking about. He is very smart. Their inventions are scattered throughout the living room.
TJ is near an armchair, talking about a water filtration system the team created, which utilizes track-etch membrane filters, which stay clean longer so the filtration system can filter out parasites without having to constantly be replaced.
Near the sofa is a small greenhouse, which the Inventioneers use to model their design to extract oil from algae, which is considerably more efficient than corn. A bio-reactor would grow the algae, which would then be siphoned into oil and waste product. The oil would be collected and the algae bodies or waste product would then be turned into pellets, which could be used as fertilizer. This idea attracted the attention of Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg, who worked with the Inventioneers on the project.
Next to the violin stands is a sheet of wavy solar panels, which the Inventioneers found were at the optimal angles for sun to constantly hit the panels throughout the day and maximize energy. The Londonderry Fire Department was very interested in using this; however, at this point, the cost wasn’t feasible.
In fact, the Inventioneers have had so many great ideas over the years that they have had to take a break from one to move on to the next. But now, they’re revisiting these ideas and trying to put them into motion.
“We love thinking about ideas,” said TJ Evarts.
It has also helped their confidence that these ideas have been taken seriously. The students have met with presidents and CEOs, scientists and professors.
“We know it is OK to think outside the box,” said Jaiden Evarts.
The Inventioneers are still very young and have a long time before they go to college. Whether they choose to follow these inventions into a career is up to them. But they’ve already accomplished more than most.
If they do make the choice, they may follow in the footsteps of Matt Miller. When Miller graduated from Dartmouth in 2005, he wasn’t sure what he wanted out of life. But Miller knew he needed adventure and so he moved to China. With an Ivy League education and a fluency in Mandarin, Miller had the inside track to whatever career he wanted to pursue. He could have focused on business or politics. He chose energy. Miller believed energy was the future.
From 2007 to 2009, Miller worked for Trina Solar in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, where he focused on business development and solar project development. According to its website, www.trinasolar.com, the company “is an internationally recognized designer, manufacturer and supplier of mono and multicrystalline photovoltaic (PV) modules and has a long history as a solar PV pioneer since it was founded in 1997 as a system installation company.”
“I was able to work with partners in Germany, Spain, and Japan, and was able to travel to all of those places,” Miller wrote via e-mail. “It was a great learning experience and career opportunity, as I was able to gain a sizable amount of responsibility early on due to the company’s fast growth.”
In China, everything happens fast. Miller gained great experience, traveled the world and then realized he missed home. He is now back in America working at Recurrent Energy, a solar project development firm in San Francisco.
Bringing it home
Just as Kamen in his television show is searching the world for new technologies, Craig Cassarino is doing the same but also looking to have New Hampshire businesses benefit from them. Cassarino is the Brazilian consul for the International Trade Resource Center, which is based in Concord. In his role as a consul, Cassarino offers advice for any New Hampshire business that is looking to expand its services into Brazil. With more business, these companies can expand, which brings new, high-paying jobs to the state. Cassarino’s intimate knowledge of the country’s culture makes him the ideal bridge between New Hampshire and the largest country in South America. But how did a boy from Milford grow up to be an expert on Brazil?
By following his passion.
Cassarino grew up in the 1960s when the mantra was “Back to the earth.” Through some fortuitous encounters, he got turned on to ecology. With a love and knowledge of the environment, Cassarino looked around and noticed there were no major recycling programs. He decided to change that. For $3,000 he bought a truck and began a recycling program, which spread out of Milford to New Boston, Amherst and other towns. He collected cans and bottles and with each new success, other communities approached him for advice. He began to consult. He won state contracts in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Other companies began to take notice. Major waste management companies started their own recycling programs. Cassarino could see the writing on the wall and knew he couldn’t compete. So in the late 1980s he decided to sell his company to a group now owned by Casella Waste Systems.
Young and single, Cassarino decided to move to Brazil.
“I fell in love with the country,” Cassarino said.
At first he was attracted to the beach and he began in Rio de Janeiro, but soon he realized the money was in São Paulo. Not knowing anyone, Cassarino moved to the city and found the right people. Just as with recycling in the U.S., he was ahead of the time. Brazil, the seventh-largest economy in the world, needed help with environmental engineering, renewable energy and recycling. Cassarino was going to re-live the ’70s and ’80s in Brazil. He was doing what he loved, combining his knowledge of Brazil with his knowledge of energy. He became a matchmaker, matching projects with companies like Enron and Rubbermaid.
“Then I met a lady,” Cassarino said.
Cassarino fell in love and married his wife, Catita. While it was an exciting time to be in Brazil, Cassarino knew it was time to return to the States to begin his family. He now has a son named Caio. He returned in 1996 and worked for a local company before forming Leonardo Technologies, Inc., which is based in Bedford.
With his unique set of skills, Cassarino finds himself working on some interesting projects. Last year, a delegation from Tocantins, a young state in Brazil, led by Governor Carlos Henrique Gaguim arrived in Concord and signed a “sister-state” agreement with Governor Lynch. The Tocantins is essentially an agricultural state in central Brazil that is home to the company Origine, which has one of the most comprehensive sustainable agricultural models Cassarino has ever seen. Everything from where cattle should feed to how much rice should be planted is dissected in an effort to make the farmland as sustainable as possible. These farms are also looking for renewable technologies, which, with the sister-state agreement, could be provided by New Hampshire companies.
Since the Tocantins, which was formed in 1988 and is perhaps most famous for being a location of Survivor, is not overly developed, Cassarino and others have the luxury to explore the concept of entirely sustainable cities. There are several other projects Cassarino is looking at, such as cross-breeding Akaushi cattle, which have high Omega 3, with more abundant HeartBrand cattle. He also had a partnership with Ted Turner’s Ranch, which grew Camelina, a flowering plant that can be used as a biofuel. Studies have shown camelina-based jet fuel to reduce carbon emissions from jets by about 80 percent.
“If we can bring a New Hampshire-based company’s technology for developing bio-fuels to Brazil, it can create jobs and educational opportunities in Brazil as well as generate growth for the company back here in the States,” Cassarino said.
This win-win approach is critical to overcoming the skepticism concerning science and technology as careers. Many argue that whether or not the U.S. produces a lot of scientists, investors are going to send their money to India and China to work with less expensive scientists and engineers. But Cassarino thinks quite the opposite. He believes these developing countries will look to the U.S. to find partnerships where both parties can benefit.
But Cassarino doesn’t think like most people. This is one of the reasons he has been so successful. He truly believes technology, which takes a bad rap for the isolation it can create, will bring people closer together.
“People are eating more locally grown food than ever,” Cassarino said. “This isn’t just about economics. It is also about sustainability and that takes time.”
As a young man, Cassarino used to deliver fresh milk. He would enter people’s homes at 5 a.m. and check their refrigerators for milk and replace empty bottles. He knows life will never be that way again, but he feels new technologies, which have linked New Hampshire to the Tocantins, can make the ever-growing world smaller once again. But, Cassarino cautioned, it takes time to do it right and America, and New Hampshire, are taking steps and shouldn’t be rushed.
“It is never fast enough,” Cassarino said. “But it is going.”
The color of self-sufficiency
A myth-busting look at the value of green-building
On Oct. 2, 483 New Hampshire residents opened their homes to the public to let them view various sustainable living practices and home features.
The tour revealed a common theme: a major motivation for green-building homeowners is the advantage of being less reliant on outside sources for a comfortable lifestyle. The recession has left many homeowners wary of the economy, and thus building a lifestyle around self-sufficiency has become more appealing and even practical.
Joanna Magoon, Green Building Open House Coordinator for the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association (NHSEA), agrees with this while noting another factor in the appeal of green building: “You’ll find an even larger group chooses a greener lifestyle out of a sense of social responsibility. These folks make it a priority to do their part to reduce their carbon footprint as individuals, for the benefit of everyone. It’s their way of addressing global warming through personal action,” she said.
Greenbuilding.com, a website founded by green leader David Johnston, lists “The Four Myths of Green Building”:
Myth 1: Green Building is for Tree Huggers
Myth 2: Green Building is Ugly
Myth 3: Green Building is Too Expensive
Myth 4: Green Building Doesn’t Work (as in, products have quality issues or require excessive maintenance)
Using this as a background for the tour, I set out to test these myths. The crowds at this annual tour — more than 16,000 people toured the 500 sites in October 2009 — bust the first myth. Greenbuilding.com says that the overall market for sustainable building materials is about $20 billion a year and is expected to grow more than 10 percent annually.
A closer look
Nestled in a cozy Derry neighborhood, Tom and Hope Minnon describe their 1975 bungalow as their own little “oasis.” Behind the picturesque bridge, there is a stream and pond with brightly colored fish and a welcoming country-style front porch. Despite its charming appearance, the home is made of more than 20 energy-saving features.
For Tom, former executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association and a founding member and past president of NHSEA, creating an energy-efficient home was long overdue. When he and Hope bought the house in 2000, they decided to practice what he had always preached, and they began with a dual goal of remodeling their 2,400-square-foot area into a place that would feel comfortable and that would reduce their carbon footprint. Myth 2, busted.
The Minnon home, which hosted more than 100 visitors on Oct. 2, now boasts a roof made of recycled materials, a sun tunnel skylight, bamboo flooring, wool carpeting, kitchen composting and a neutron battery-powered lawn mower, among other green features. On a larger scale, the Minnons have solar thermal heating and have installed a geothermal ground source heat pump and photovoltaic (PV) system.
Living about 50 miles upstate in New Durham is Greg Kelley, the owner of a 1987 ranch-style home. With a primary goal of being self-sufficient while also being energy-conscious, Kelley’s home sits on six acres of luscious land with green fields, a spacious outdoor garden, long Switch grass, a frog pond and free-range laying hens — not to mention six solar hot water collectors, 14 roof-top solar panels for his PV system, a deep well hand pump, a large solar dish used for cooking and a solar oven, which is essential to Kelley’s weekly bean-baking.
Next to Kelley’s home is a 650-square-foot geodesic dome garden habitat, in which he grows year-round vegetables and Tilapia.
The Quirks, about 90 miles west in Enfield, are retro-fitting an 1866 three-story house in hopes of making it a Zero Energy Building (ZEB), which means all their energy needs including heating, hot water and electricity will come from renewable sources, according to Kimberly Quirk.
This means going above and beyond the construction standard of using R20-30 in the walls and R40-60 in the roof for insulation. Instead, the Quirks will use R40 in the walls and R80 in the roof. They are putting in a double window system and a foam-sealed envelope, and will use a heat exchange ventilator to bring the right amount of fresh, preheated, outside air into the house for good air quality, according to Quirk.
While keeping their ZEB goal in mind, the Quirks are also focusing on making their historic home LEED-H certified, meaning it will be a leader in energy and environmental design for homes. In addition, they will attempt to use no combustion, which means they eliminate gas, oil, wood or even pilot light usage. Lastly, they wish to do all the above while preserving its historic roots.
So what’s the noticeable difference? The Minnons claim to be saving about $1,000 in heating and cooling plus $500 in electricity per year.
“My electric bill for August was $168, which includes two refrigerators, a washer/dryer, hot water and air conditioning [running all the time],” said Minnon, adding that about $20 of that goes toward his pond pump, which the average homeowner does not have.
Even Tom’s lawnmower is battery-powered — “I don’t believe in gasoline-inspired equipment. The emission for one lawnmower is equal to seven automobiles. It’s the most prominent sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” he said.
For Kelley, the electricity bill for August was $30, compared to $100, he claims. If an average family household is burning 100 gallons of oil, Kelley claims that adding solar features saves about $80 because it cuts oil use down to about 20 gallons. “I typically use 600 kilowatt hours of electricity and the PV system produces 400 kilowatt hours a month. [That means] I’m producing two thirds of what I use,” Kelley said.
Both the Kelley and Minnon homes are grid-tied, meaning that if their PV systems produce more electricity than they use, their accounts get credited or the excess power goes back on the grid for others, usually neighbors, to use. Watching his PV system meter go in reverse has become one of the main joys of having alternative energy, Minnon said.
The Quirks haven’t moved into their home yet; Kimberley said she is most looking forward to no heating bills, as well as no dependency on oil or gas.
What about maintenance?
With such extreme savings, going green seems like a no-brainer. That’s where Myth 3 comes into play.
For the Minnons to buy and install their Climate Master 27 geothermal system they had to fork over $15,000. The PV system drained about $17,000 from their account. All in all, they’ve spent about $150,000 in renovations, according to their home’s page on the NHSEA website.
Most of Kelley’s solar heating features cost him about $16,000. He spent $10,000 on his dome and about $21,000 for his solar grid. That racks Kelley’s bill up to about $47,000 in alternative-energy bills, not including other various costs.
Myth 3, not busted? Before finalizing that, its important to keep incentives and tax credits in mind.
Despite the large chunk of money the Minnons spent on their geothermal system, Tom explained that his system qualified for a 30 percent tax credit, meaning he received $4,500 back instantly. Likewise, there was a $6,000 rebate for his solar electric costs, plus a 30 percent tax credit, bringing the net cost down to $2,400 from $17,000. “I couldn’t afford not to,” said Minnon.
Kelley also took advantage of the benefits of returns. Advocating for on-demand heating systems, which only heat water when necessary, he claims it’s possible to save enough money using this type of system to see a return in just three years.
In addition, Kelley believes that installing energy-efficient features increases property value by a significant amount.
“If you do a bathroom remodel you might get 50 cents to the dollar whenever you sell your house. I spent $10,000 doing a bathroom remodel but [because it’s with sustainable materials] I can add five grand [to the house value]. With solar stuff it’s dollar for dollar,” Kelley said.
Yes, alternative energy products are expensive, but when the return is quick and incentives are offered, most say the cost is worth it. Myth 3, busted.
Finally, the catch
There must be a catch. Myth 4 states that green building requires too much maintenance or products tend to be of lower quality.
The Minnons have been making alternative-energy renovations for 10 years now, Kelley for four, and the Quirks are still in the process. With no complaints about the functionality of their green building features, the quality component of this myth can be busted.
As for maintenance concerns, Minnon can see no disadvantages. “It’s all positive for me. It’s maintenance-free. I literally do no maintenance on any equipment. With [an] oil [tank] you need it cleaned out every year. I like the fact that everything operates automatically,” he said.
The Quirks won’t have to fear the harsh New England winters anymore. Because their water tank is so large, about 2,000 gallons, they are heating water in the summer that will be useful in warming the house during the dark, cold days of winter, according to Kimberly. Myth 4 seems, at least for now, fairly well busted.
On a personal level
Still, why go to the trouble of making these renovations?
“It’s no longer just about saving the planet. It’s about being more self-sufficient and less reliant on outside systems,” said Kelley, who claims that having an alternative-energy home means sleeping well at night because of the comfort that comes from being self-reliant.
“People don’t realize that grocery stores have two days’ worth of food on the shelf. If that 18-wheeler [grocery truck] doesn’t pull up every day the shelves go bare. Knowing that I can grow my own food year-round, that I have access to clean well water even if I don’t have electricity and that I can run without electricity from the street is a real big comfort factor,” Kelley said.
For Minnon, being self-sufficient is an incentive in itself: “To me, electricity is a home-grown energy. At least we aren’t at the hands of people selling oil,” he said, adding that he actually looks forward to getting his electric bill now.
Michelle Rose, the tour program manager and building energy speaker coordinator for NESEA, validates this. She has observed that “the blanket reason for green building is the social responsibility [that comes from using sustainable materials]. The people who do this are doing it for a reason. They want our planet to be healthy and strong and not waste our non-renewable sources.”