Back to ASA Home Page Alabama Solar Association
P.O. Box 143
Huntsville, Alabama  35804-0143
search only


Thoughts and Opinions

Your Carbon Footprint

Whether you believe in global warming (or climate change) or not, there is still ample reason to pay attention to your carbon footprint.

What exactly is your carbon footprint? It is the summation of all the greenhouse gasses caused directly or indirectly by a process. When you flip on a light switch, you are adding carbon to the air at the power plant that generated the electricity. You are also adding the carbon that coal mining equipment expelled while extracting the minerals. You are even responsible for the carbon released by the miners operating the equipment and the carbon used to manufacture the mining equipment years ago. We could go on and on, but you get the picture.

There is a lot of controversy about the science. There is a lot of evidence to indicate that the industrial revolution has added carbon to our atmosphere. There is a lot of scientific evidence to indicate that there have been high levels of carbon in our atmosphere in the past long before SUVs and coal-fired power plants came on the scene. Surely we cannot assume that industrialization caused elevated carbon levels millions of years ago.

There are excellent records of atmospheric conditions for the past 500 years. Ancient mariners were compulsive record keepers, and their logs indicate that atmospheric temperatures closely follow the documented levels of atmospheric carbon for the same period. The question is, did the increased carbon cause the elevated temperatures, or did the higher temperatures cause excess carbon? There’s strong evidence to support both theories, and perhaps it was a combination of events.

One scientific principle is certain, though; animals, including people, need oxygen to breathe. We can live weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without oxygen. The more carbon there is in our air, the less room there is for oxygen and the harder it is to breathe.

There has always been a small amount of carbon in our air in the form of carbon dioxide, or CO2. Plants need it to convert into sugar as they release more oxygen into the air for animals to breathe.

Unfortunately, industrialization has significantly reduced the amount of trees and other plants to absorb the carbon dioxide we breathe out. Add that to the carbon being emitted by burning fossil fuels, and you create air that is more difficult to breathe.

So even if you dismiss global warming and climate change, you can never dismiss the need for oxygen and the harmful effects of carbon dioxide to animals. It is clearly in our best interest to reduce our carbon footprint.

Next: Planing ahead to take advantage of other energy saving opportunities.

May 28, 2010 Posted by A. Morton Archibald, Jr., P.E., C.E.M.
President, Alabama Solar Association

A dozen ways to cut your energy use 25 to 75 percent:

“I want to live off the grid,” says the idealistic homeowner.

“Cut your energy use in half and come back to see me,” responds the Alabama Solar Association Solarite and renown solar installer.

“I never hear from most of them, but a few come back to get a design,” he tells ASA.

In fact, you can cut your energy use and your carbon footprint by 15 to 25 percent without significant lifestyle changes just by eliminating waste. If you are willing to accept a more austere lifestyle, you can reduce your needs by up to 75 percent.

In this series of blogs, we’ll examine why you should care about your carbon footprint and look at the following dozen solutions:

  1. Plan ahead to take advantage of other energy saving opportunities.
  2. Understand the law of supply and demand.
  3. Plug into renewable energy.
  4. Avoid using plastic bags.
  5. Drive smarter; slow down, car pool, use public transit, and combine trips.
  6. Bike or walk to work or for local errands.
  7. Shed some pounds; unload unnecessary weight from vehicles.
  8. Recycle if you must, but first reduce and reuse.
  9. Buy less stuff.
  10. Use LED or compact fluorescent lamps.
  11. Buy or build EnergyStar®.
  12. Tap the power of Mother Earth—geothermal.

Next: Your carbon footprint

May 5, 2010 Posted by A. Morton Archibald, Jr., P.E., C.E.M.
President, Alabama Solar Association

Avoiding oil spills, a letter to the editor of the Huntsville Times

The Huntsville Times ran two editorials on Saturday, May 1, 2001. The first erroneously titled “Stop the drilling” points out that oil and coal are likely to be part of our future for the foreseeable future. “Bike on right” urged cyclists to act like a vehicle when using public streets and roads. A cartoon depicted a giant oily wave cresting into the shape of a hand coming ashore while a tiny character labeled “Government Response” is going out to try to meet it. I wrote this response to the editorials.

Saturday’s Times Letters offered problem and solution. The giant oil slick looming to destroy our Gulf Coast could have been avoided, if everyone rode bicycles correctly, we would not need oil, And if frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump their bottoms every time they jumped.

Frogs are about as likely to change their anatomy as are Americans to give up automobiles. We will need oil for a while, but we must drill smarter and move now toward renewable energy.

Oil drillers need contingency plans to seal future leaks should they occur. They need a way to capture spilled oil into tankers bring it ashore to separate oil from seawater.

More importantly, we need to reduce demand. We need to use the Huntsville know-how that took us to the moon and back to make renewable energy cheaper and easier to use. We get enough sun on earth each day to meet global consumption for 16¼ years. The energy is free, but we need cheaper collection and conversion techniques. Wind power, without which Columbus would not have discovered America in 1492, could power us 58 times over.

Check out for ways you can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. If you think you alone are too small to make a difference, you’ve never tried to sleep with a mosquito buzzing your ear.

May 1, 2010 Posted by A. Morton Archibald, Jr., P.E., C.E.M.
President, Alabama Solar Association

The prolific weed that grows rapidly in the south may hold a key to future energy savings.

Civil War soldiers used berries from the pokeberry bushes to make ink. Children smash them to stain their cheeks. Southern cooks have long used the young tender leaves as a cheap vegetable known locally as poke salad. Scientists are trying using them to gather solar radiation.

Researchers at Wake Forest University's Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials have used the red dye made from pokeberries to coat their efficient and inexpensive fiber-based solar cells. The dye acts as an absorber, helping the cell's tiny fibers trap more sunlight to convert into electricity.

The fiber cells can produce as much as twice the power of current flat-cell technology. They are composed of millions of tiny, plastic "cans" that trap light until most of it is absorbed. The fiber solar cells can collect light at any angle from sunrise to sunset.

Let’s hope engineers can make them work in the field nearly as well as scientists can make them work in the lab. I have plenty in my yard I can share with production crews.

May 1, 2010 Posted by A. Morton Archibald, Jr., P.E., C.E.M.
President, Alabama Solar Association

Solar Farms Grow Electricity

Solar farms are an excellent way to generate electricity, and, in North Alabama, they are a profitable investment. They will work in the lower two-thirds of the state only if the owner has a use for most of the electricity onsite. Building a solar farm solely to sell electricity to Alabama Power Company ( is neither encouraged by the utility nor profitable.

Solar farms make electricity from sunshine with no pollution or noise associated with fossil fuel plants. Since fewer people object to living near a solar farm than object to living near a nuclear or coal plant, distribution lines to users are much shorter. More of the electricity generated is available for its intending purpose, because less is lost to the resistance of the distribution lines and transformers.

The perfect place for a solar farm is the roof of a large manufacturing plant, a distribution warehouse, or other structure that uses a lot of electricity while the sun is shining. Roofs are less shaded than are ground locations. Utility connections are usually found just below roof level on one corner of the building close to where you will mount the solar arrays. Roofs are seldom used for purposes other than weather protection, so they are almost always out of the way. In fact, rooftop installations work so well that 80 percent of all PV installations are located there. Properly designed and installed, rooftop solar panels can actually extend the life of a roof while making it cooler.

Building the PV arrays on top of a heavy daytime electrical user is a double bonus. You have all the advantages described above plus the advantage of shorter distribution lines. In most of Alabama, those regions served by the Alabama Power Company, solar farms are only financially feasible when matched to a facility that will use all or most of the electricity generated.

Under the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA, Green Power Providers program (, the utility will buy all the power your system will produce and pay you a bonus. TVA will reimburse you nine cents per kilowatt hour above the retail rate—even that you use yourself—for the first ten years. TVA then promises to pay you the full retail rate for all the electricity you generate during years 11 through 20 of the program. The Alabama Power Company is only obligated to pay you their “Avoided Cost” rate of about 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of only that portion of electricity you put back onto the power grid. If you are connected to the Alabama Power grid, you need to use as much of the solar power you produce as possible and minimize that electricity you put back on the grid.

Let’s suppose you want to build a modest 100 kilowatt (kW) solar farm. Prices are still dropping, but let’s say you will have to pay $3 per watt or about $300,000 for the project. You will likely be able to build your system for less by the time you are ready to proceed, but let’s stay with the $300,000 figure for now.

A 100 kW system in DeKalb County atop Sand Mountain, Alabama, will produce about 135,000 kWh of electricity for the first year. Productivity of the arrays will decrease to about 80% of the original capacity by the 25th year of the system. This solar farm will produce a little over three million kWh over the 25-year projected lifetime.

The same system in Clay County southeast of Birmingham would produce a little over 138,300 kWh the first year and more than 3.2 million over the 25-year project life of the system. So the Clay system would out produce the DeKalb system by about 6.5 percent. But what is the dollar value of this energy harvest?

Now grab your crystal ball, because here’s where it gets complicated. How much will electricity cost next year? How much for each of the next 25 years?

Let’s look back at the history of energy prices. They have climbed an average of three percent per year, adjusted for inflation, for each of the past ten years. In one of those ten years, however, energy prices climbed a whopping 13 percent. Even with the one anomaly, the past ten years are our best gauge of the next 25.

Inflation has added another two percent per year to energy prices over the past ten years. Inflation was likely slowed by the recession over the last five, but again, it’s the best data we have.

Assuming electric rates climb three percent per year for the next 25, and inflation adds another two percent, we can project TVA rates to rise from 11 cents to near 38 cents per kWh. Alabama Power rates will likely climb from the current 12.5 cent rate to about 43 cents over the same time. Alabama Power’s “avoided cost” rate might climb from 3.5 cents now to about 12 cents during the same period.

This means that the DeKalb system would produce about $772,400 worth of electricity during its lifetime. The Clay system would produce about $760,200 worth of electricity if and only if the system owner used every watt of electricity the project produces. Selling the same electricity of the same Clay farm to Alabama Power would yield only $212,900, or less than the original investment. Solar farms would likely break even in 7.2 years in TVA territory and 10.2 years in the rest of Alabama. Solar farms that sell most or all of their electricity back to Alabama Power would likely never break even. This is why solar farms in most of Alabama work financially only if the builder uses most of the electricity produced.

Supporting Data

We used the PVWatts program developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL, to estimate energy production at the two locations being considered. We used historical data to predict future energy prices and inflation.

Red in the figure above shows years in which you will have spent more money so far than the system has generated. Green shows years of money coming in. Obviously, the more green the better. This project would likely break even at 7.16 years and provide virtually free electricity for the next 17.84 years. The Savings-to-Investment ratio is an excellent 2.96.

Now let's look at the same solar farm selling all the electricity it produces to the Alabama Power Company.

As you can see from all the red in the above chart, this project would never quite pay for itself. The projected Savings-to-Investment Ratio is only only 0.996.

Consider now the same system using all electricity generated by an onsite industry.

April 6, 2013 Posted from Tarlac City, Philippines, by A. Morton Archibald, Jr., P.E., C.E.M.
President, Alabama Solar Association

Think it hard to recycle an aluminum can?

Think it hard to recycle an aluminum can? How would you recycle a ship?

The environmental Leader website of Environmental and Energy Management News reports that more than 1,000 large old commercial ships, such as tankers and container vessels, are recycled for their scrap metal every year. Unfortunately, these old vessels contain much more than steel. There’s asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), tributyl tin and oil sludge — contained in end-of-life ships. Properly managed, these hazards pose little threat to the workers who recycle them.

Many European ships wind up in substandard facilities on the tidal beaches of South Asia. In 2009, more than 90% of European ships were dismantled in ship recycling facilities in non-OECD countries, some of which were substandard. Since I plan to go swimming from a beach in South Asia within 2 weeks, this startling problem hits home. I am in the Philippines to teach classes on solar and renewable energy and to install solar panels.

The European Parliament’s environment committee voted to create a Europe-wide ship recycling fund, in response to the European Commission’s proposed rules to ensure that European ships are only recycled in facilities that are safe for workers and environmentally sound.

Perhaps this trend will eventually catch on in other parts of the world. Read more at .

April 7, 2013 Posted from Tarlac City, Philippines, by A. Morton Archibald, Jr., P.E., C.E.M.
President, Alabama Solar Association

What are "avoided costs" anyway?

The Alabama Power company pays customers about 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour “avoided costs” for any energy (kilowatt-hours or kWh of electricity) the customer puts back on the grid. But what exactly are “avoided costs?”

The term is defined by 18 C.F.R. § 292.302 of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's regulations. These regulations were issued to implement Section 201 and Section 202 of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 ("PURP A") (relating to cogenerators and small power producers).

Section 292.302 (b)(1) provides “the estimated avoided costs for Alabama Power Company, solely with respect to the energy component for various levels of purchases. These costs are stated on a cents per kilowatt-hour basis, during daily and seasonal peak and off-peak periods for ten levels of purchases, by year, for the current year of 2010, and each of the next five years. All costs include fuel and variable 0 & M and CAA compliance cost, if any, and represent estimated avoided costs at the generator busses.” In other words, “avoided costs” are what it costs the utility to generate electricity from coal with no respect to transmission losses—even those within the plant itself. “Avoided costs” represent only 28 percent of the total cost of delivered electricity—or a little more than one-fourth.

Solar, on the other hand, has very few distribution losses. Energy produced on a residential or business rooftop is used right where it is produced. Photovoltaic (PV) systems avoid the costs of internal losses, distribution, billing, administration, taxes, and profit representing 72 percent of the electric costs customers must pay.

An Alabama Government Public Access website provides more insight into the calculations.

Perhaps one day the Alabama legislature will decide to join the 21st Century and allow solar producers to put energy back on the grid at a reasonable cost. Meantime, at least in North Alabama, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA, pays us a bonus of 9 cents per kWh for all electricity generated, while Alabama Power charges their customers a 9-cent per kWh penalty.

So, if you’re an Alabama Power customer with a PV system, for now, at least, it’s use it or lose it.

April 7, 2013 Posted from Tarlac City, Philippines, by
A. Morton Archibald, Jr., P.E., C.E.M.
President, Alabama Solar Association

There’s good news for energy this week (May, 2013).

Companies line up to drill after survey shows Dakota oil, gas fields,

Now it may seem strange for a diehard Greenie like me to applaud the massive oil reserves anywhere, but I am first of all a practical individual. As much as I would like to see us immediately shift to 100 percent renewable energy, I know that we will continue to depend on oil for years while we develop new technology. With 8 quarts of oil in every automotive tire and vast quantities of plastics, even Electric Vehicles and bio-fueled conveyances will need some oil. If we have to use oil, I would rather see it come from the United States from beneath the sands of folks who don’t like us very much.

Now a concern: let’s not take this newfound oil as an excuse to continue our wasteful habits of driving gas-guzzlers at breakneck speeds. Sooner or later, oil will run out. We need to begin now preparing for that day. We can’t wait until the last days to begin the transition to renewables.

We get even better news from Australia: Breakthrough in solar efficiency by UNSW team ahead of its time, .

Australian scientists have found a way of hugely increasing the efficiency of solar panels while substantially reducing their cost. The University of NSW researchers have come up with improvements in photovoltaic panel design that had not been expected for another decade.

Silicon wafers account for more than half the cost of making a solar cell. "By using lower-quality silicon, you can drastically reduce that cost," Professor Stuart Wenham said. "We've been able to figure out what the secret is that enables hydrogen to sometimes work the way people want it to, and sometimes doesn't."

At present, the best commercial solar cells convert between 17 and 19 percent of the sun's energy into electricity. “Tier” modules represent the top five percent of panels sold, and their criteria begins at 16 percent. UNSW's technique, patented this year, should produce efficiencies of between 21 per cent and 23 per cent.

Let’s hail the Dakota oil discoveries as a chance to import less oil and not as an excuse to waste more. Let’s use the advances in photovoltaic efficiencies as an opportunity to continue our shift from fossil fuels to renewables, before it is too late.

Consider the world we are leaving for our children and grandchildren.

April 7, 2013 Posted from Tarlac City, Philippines, by A. Morton Archibald, Jr., P.E., C.E.M.
President, Alabama Solar Association

" Alabama doesn't have enough sunshine for practical solar applications." (April, 2014).

This was a statement made recently by a senior official of the Alabama Power Company at the announcement of Calhoun Community College renewable energy laboratory in Decatur, Alabama.

Boston, Raleigh, Newark, Portland, Denver, and Indianapolis all have less daily sun than Huntsville, and each of these cities has at least six times more solar installed than we have in the entire state of Alabama.

But the coal industry is strong in Northwest Alabama. Yeah, but Indiana is a coal state, and Indy alone has 56 MW installed PV; The entire state of Alabama has less than 2 MW.

But Alabama has all that oil in the Gulf of Mexico; and yet New Orleans alone has 22 MW of solar, and YES, Louisiana is an oil state.

Source: Shining Cities: At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution,
We have plenty of coal in the ground, but coal has its own special challenges.

Most of us remember the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, but how many of us remember a spill eight times more toxic just 16 months earlier and four times closer to Alabama? On December 22, 2008, the dike on the 84-acre pond ruptured sending a 20-foot high wall of 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry into homes of nearby residents. The sludge included arsenic, mercury, coal particulates, and other nasty chemicals—Merry Christmas, everybody.

Even without the disasters of spills, coal is not a good fuel source to produce electricity. According to the US Energy Information Administration 42 percent of electricity in the US is generated by burning coal. I got to see just how dirty coal can be on 2003. I took the pictures below mid-morning in Nanchang, China. Look carefully at the picture on the left to see if you can spot the sun. Then look at the sun circled on the right photo. Now look back to the left picture to see how faint the sun appears in the brown sky. Do we want to breathe this air in Alabama?


Now I’m not suggesting that solar can immediately replace oil, gas, or coal, nor am I suggesting that we can immediately abandon the present power grid. We do, however, need to join the rest of the United States and begin a gradual shift toward renewable energy sources before fossil fuels become prohibitively expensive. Electricity produced by photovoltaics (PV) is already cheaper than electricity purchased from your local utility via the power grid. Over the 25-year guaranteed life of a PV system, you can expect to produce electricity to pay for your initial system costs three times over.

Alabama has 1.4 percent of the US land area and 1.5 percent of the population, but we have only 0.017 percent of the US PV capacity. With slightly better than average sunshine on the planet, we should be doing a lot better.

Where’s the leadership that Alabama showed in making flight practical a hundred years ago? In the space race in the middle of the last century? Now we have a new millennium and enough smart people to show that leadership again. Will we accept the challenge of the future of energy? We have plenty of smart people, but do we have the political will?

Any more excuses, or is Alabama ready to join the 21st Century?

April 15, 2014 Posted from Huntsville, Alabama USA, by
A. Morton Archibald, Jr., P.E., C.E.M., NABCEP PV Installer
Chairman, Government Activities, Alabama Solar Association Chief Engineer, Affordable Energy Solutions LLC

Electricity’s Dirty Little Secret:

Electricity seems so clean when it comes out of the outlet, but most electricity in the United States has a dirty little secret. More than half our electricity comes from burning coal.

Some of our coal comes from digging tunnels deep in the ground and sending coal miners down to dig it out. This is dangerous and unhealthy, but the other method is worse. It involves blowing up entire mountains to get the coal beneath it. This forever destroys the beautiful landscape as well as the homes to many people, animals, and plant life.

Many of you may remember the terrible oil spill we had in the Gulf of Mexico a few years back. It killed millions of fish and left gobs of tar on our beaches. A little more than a year before, however, a much worse spill occurred, and it was much closer to Alabama than the Gulf Oil Spill.

Just three days before Christmas in 2008, a holding pond broke sending more than a billion gallons of coal ash, arsenic, mercury, and other bad stuff removed from coal to make burning it for electric generation a little bit cleaner. Just imagine sleeping in your bedroom when a wall of this dirty mess taller than your roof crashed into your house and all your Christmas decorations.

There is a cleaner way to make electricity that doesn’t require coal, oil, gas, or any other dirty fuel. The sun sends us more clean energy every day to meet the entire world’s energy needs all day, every day. In fact, if we only used one-thousandth of the sun’s energy, we could still replace all the energy we use today from coal, oil, gas, and other dirty sources. If your family had a typical home in Alabama, over the next 25 years, you will likely pay almost three times as much for the dirty electricity most people use now as you would using a clean photovoltaic system.

April 24, 2014 Posted from Huntsville, Alabama USA, by
A. Morton Archibald, Jr., P.E., C.E.M., NABCEP PV Installer
Chairman, Government Activities, Alabama Solar Association Chief Engineer, Affordable Energy Solutions LLC

Back to ASA Home Page