Programmable Data Logging in the Renewable Energy Business is Usually an Industrial or Agricultural Application and Now it's Residential


By Mary Jo Fahey

How much has smart home technology blended with renewable energy systems? A visit to this year's Midwest Renewable Energy Association's (MREA) Energy Fair, held June 18th through 20th, in Custer Wisconsin, offered an opportunity to investigate whether there are specialists with a foot in both worlds. Given that the renewable energy industry is dominated by do-it-yourselfers concerned with lowering humanity's impact on the earth, I knew I'd need to find a home network specialist with interests in ecology, energy efficiency and sustainability. The first day at the fair I found myself in a sea of exhibits that included solar and wind turbine hardware manufacturers, straw bale home builders, DC refrigeration retailers, advocacy groups, utility companies and corn pellet stove manufacturers. Most of the people I talked to had never heard of smart homes.

WebMATE

On my last afternoon at the fair, I found a software engineer who fit the profile I was looking for. His name is Darren Emmons and his software company was set up in the Outback Power Systems booth. Darren demonstrated his Internet monitoring software program that he designed to monitor his photovoltaic system on his house in Seattle. The WebMATE product comes with a WebMATE controller that is the other half of his newly-launched WebMATE product. When Darren wants to see how much electricity his photovoltaic system has generated, he accesses a Web page that displays a data stream generated by the WebMATE low power controller. The controller is embedded in an Outback Power System's MATE system controller that is part of an inverter converting DC current captured by his grid-tied photovoltaic sytem into 120 volt AC power.

Darren explained that not all photovoltaic systems require an inverter. As he says, "Many remote telecommunications sites run on 48 volts DC. A DC system could use a WebMATE, a MATE system controller, storage batteries and an MX60 charge controller."

In either case, the WebMATE controller has a socket model interface that allows a dial-up and a cellular model connection. Darren used the cellular modem connection to demonstrate his system at the fair. The WebMATE hardware and software is versatile enough to work with or without a home network. WebMATE's socket modem interface provides a routable IP address for dialup calls to the controller and a non-routable IP address if a homeowner has a LAN with a router. Home network users who own routers can connect the WebMATE socket modem interface to one of the available jacks on the router. Using the embedded IP address of the WebMATE interface, they can enter the address into the URL field of their Web browser and access the embedded WebMATE home page. If they have set up port forwarding on their router, they will be able to view the WebMATE page remotely.

When I asked Darren about software engineers who are also renewable energy people, he said there are a few in Seattle and that most of them work for Outback Power Systems, Xantrex and Microsoft. Darren owns his own software company and he has focused on writing software for Outback Power Systems because their technology is very advanced.

As we looked at Darren's live demo, the Webmate total displayed 5.4 kilowatts meaning that Darren's photovoltaic system had generated that much electricity for the day. Darren said wind systems can also be monitored and that Outback has experimented with special software in their MX60 charge controller for wind generator applications. For a Web-based application, Darren said wind speed and direction would also be helpful to display on a Web page.

As I looked at Darren's demo, I thought about the "control room" in Bob Hetherington's home technology project and I wondered how large a similar room would need to be to accommodate renewable energy equipment. Darren described the room he built in his garage and explained, "When I built my home fifteen years ago, I ran all the telco and cable wiring into one location in the garage. I've added DSL, a DSL modem with a built-in router, an Ethernet switch, Wireless 80211abg and wired 100-BaseT. The output power of my system is sent to a sub-panel for the circuits that are backed up by the inverter when the grid goes down. Another output of the inverter goes to the main panel for selling power to the grid. A six foot by five foot room is required for my inverters and batteries. The room needs to be that big to meet electrical code requirements. Most of the time, batteries are placed in their own separate room for safety. A battery-less sytem (no backup) would require a smaller room."

WebMATE will be available in the 3rd quarter and will be priced in the $4-500 range. A WAP version will also enable remote monitoring from a cell phone. For additional information, contact Darren Emmons at darren@solarhacker.com  or view the WebMATE demo at www.solarhacker.net.

MREA's Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair

The Rest of the Fair
For readers who are interested in what I found at the rest of the fair, read on. Now in its 15th year, the MREA is an extraordinary event that attracts remarkable people. This year's attendance was 17,500--a significant increase from last year's 11,000. I have been interested in the environment for many years but I'm a newbie when it comes to renewable energy. I spent over 20 years in the microcomputer business in New York City and moved to Wisconsin last year. My first encounter with pollution occurred in 1992 when I developed a physical sensitivity to ELF from working in front of a large computer monitor. When I researched the subject, I discovered that chemical pollution from fossil fuels is much worse than pollution from electricity although they are both a serious threat.

 

Solar Parade

I felt a very strong impulse to investigate renewable energy when I read a recent two-part Associated Press piece on global warming. The article explained that earlier this year, Hawaii's Mauna Loa's Observatory recorded CO2 levels at 379 parts per million up from 280 parts per million two centuries ago. This development has convinced many skeptics about the urgency of our global situation and several prominent scientific organizations have concluded that "Greenhouse gases derived from human activities are causing surface air and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise." In a sidebar entitled, "A Rising Tide of Evidence," the Associated Press article included a map that was labeled, "Trouble for South Pacific Islanders." It seems that Funafuti Tuvalu in the Pacific, home to 11,305 people, is sinking. Its government appealed to both Australia and New Zealand for help with an evacuation. Australia turned them down but New Zealand has agreed to take the Tuvalu residents have started to relocate. Scientists have projected that sea levels will rise one meter in this century causing devastating changes in coastlines all over the world.

Before I went to the MREA Energy Fair, I was in the dark about renewable energy politics. For example, I did not realize that there are conservative libertarians who buy solar products because they're interested in an independent, self-reliant lifestyle off-the-grid. Dave Duffy, editor of Backwoods Home Magazine, is an example. He calls the themes about sustainability, global warming, climate change "nonsense" and feels the MREA Energy fair is enemy territory--even though he's an exhibitor.

There's also a group of environmentalists who feel wind turbines are a threat to migratory birds and negatively effect property values because they're ugly. Now that wind farms are the fastest-growing renewable energy source, the environmental activists who oppose them are spreading stories about bird carnage. David Blecker, the Executive Director of Seventh Generation Energy Systems and Vice President of MREA, was the first person I spoke to at the fair and I asked him about birds. He explained that there are no more bird collisions with wind turbine blades than there are with windows in homes. He mentioned that the Audubon Society supports wind power and I later discovered that Dan Beard, the National Senior Vice President of Public Policy, has said, "The National Audubon Society has also announced that it unconditionally supports the Wind Energy Production as a clean, nonpolluting source of electricity, producing no acid rain, oil spills, or radioactive waste."

Children Marching in the Solar Parade

The MREA: A Force at Work
The MREA Energy Fair's official name is the "Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair." It's the largest and longest running energy fair in the world including over 200 hour-long workshops (50 more than last year), three in-depth, hands-on sessions, 176 exhibits, nationally known guest speakers, renewable home tours, an alternative fueled vehicle showcase, several outdoor restaurants, children's activities and evening entertainment. The MREA's small staff anticipates a wide range of visitors' needs and the results are impressive. During the rest of the year, MREA's ReNew the Earth Institute provides tours for visitors to see working renewable energy systems (wind, photo voltaic, solar hot water and masonry stove) as well as hands-on workshops that vary from 1 day to 2 weeks.

The MREA is one of the top schools in the country offering educational classes on renewable energy. Sixteen of Wisconsin's Technical Colleges have also embraced campus initiatives on renewable energy. Nicolet College in Rhinelander, WI has plans for an Ecovillage that will feature a demonstration home with a zero net energy balance meaning the home will generate as much energy as it uses. The home will be grid-tied using the grid for energy storage. Grid tied systems are more popular than independent off-grid (remote) homes because of subsidies that are available from utility companies. As the demand for photo voltaics grows, people are discovering that it's possible to generate a revenue stream from a PV system.

Jane Goodall's Peace Dove

Author-Activist Guest Speakers

Judging from the crowds' reactions to keynote speaker author activists' comments about oil, it was not hard to understand their worldview that is clearly pro-environment and anti-oil. Author activists who spoke at the MREA fair included Richard Perez, Publisher and Editor of Home Power Magazine, John Stauber, Founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, Amy Goodman, Host and Executive Producer of Democracy Now! And Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. I was fortunate to sit in on two of the talks including:

John Stauber, Founder of the Center for Media and Democracy. John calls himself an investigative writer and democracy activist. His talk contained several hot issues that are covered in his four books including the collusion between the FDA and Monsanto including the public relations campaign created to influence decision makers who approved the Bovine Growth Hormone, Alex Carey's comments from his book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, Christopher Buckley's comments from his book Thank You For Smoking, Howard Lyman's 1996 appearance on Oprah and the lawsuit by Texas cattlemen, John Stossel's ABC 20/20 attack on organic food entitled, "How good is Organic Food?" including incorrect data presented by Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute (supported by Novartis, Cargill, DuPont, and Monsanto) and Stossel's apology, corporate front groups posing as environmental organizations, Fox Media's charge to propagandize the Iraq War, Grover Norquist's weekly meetings of activists that keeps all types of conservatives on a mission--to defeat Democrats.

Amy Goodman, Host and Executive Producer of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! Amy's visit to the MREA coincided with her 70-city tour for her new book entitled The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media That Love Them. To give a historical context to her talk, Amy opened with details about the blossoming independent media, America's hunger for independent voices and a brief history of Pacifica Radio.

Pacifica was founded as a listener-supported station in 1949 by Lou Hill, a World War II conscientious objector and the first radio station opened was KPFA in Berkeley, California. Lou Hill was firm on his decision to avoid advertiser support describing corporate sponsored radio as having "nothing to tell and everything to sell." The station's archives contain more than 47,000 tapes that span half a century of radio programming. Pacifica owns unique recordings of internationally known writers, political activists, religious leaders and entertainers such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, Archbishop Oscar Romero and Paul Robeson.

As her talk moved on to war profiteering, Amy spoke about the night the bombs started in the first gulf war and statements made by the famous network anchors. CBS's Dan Rather opened with "Good Morning Baghdad" and NBC's Tom Brokaw said, "We don't want to destroy the infrastructure because we're going to own it in a few days." Other topics in her talk included: the Blair/Bush disinformation two-step, ascendancy of the oil oligarchy, Cheney's connection to large oil, Condeleeza's position on the board of Chevron for more than a decade, Jeremy Scahill's 1998 investigation of the oil tragedy in the Nigerian Delta where Chevron paid and transported Nigerian military and police troops on May 25, 1998 to shoot and kill unarmed Nigerian activists protesting on one of the company's offshore oil rigs, her experience on a Sally Jessie Raphael show that never aired and the Santa Cruz massacre that occurred in East Timor during Indonesia's U.S.-backed occupation.

Rainbow's End
The Energy Fair's children's education program was called "Rainbow's End" and it included a solar parade. The parade mascot was a paper machete bicyclist that pedaled ahead of a giant peace dove from Jane Goodall's September 21, 2003 global peace event that she led from the lawn of the U.N.

Craig Howard

Craig (Lone Gunman) Howard of Fatmobile SVO Systems

One of my most interesting meetings at the fair occurred in the Alternative Fueled Vehicle Showcase. Craig Howard of Fatmobile SVO Systems is a specialist who converts Volkswagen diesels to 100% vegetable oil vehicles that run on clear oils such as peanut or canola. He's an electronics technician who's also a clever inventor and he's based in Mason City, Iowa. Craig looks so much like Richard Langly of the X-File's Lone Gunmen, I asked him if people mentioned the resemblance. He said "all the time." Craig was the first person to introduce a 100% vegetable oil-powered vehicle at an MREA fair four years ago and this year his car was one of five vehicles showcased.

Craig's car is a 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit that started out as a diesel vehicle. As he got started, Joshua Tickell's From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil As an Alternative Fuel provided useful information. Craig says it's known as "FFFT" among the vegetable oil fuel crowd. When asked about his design, he explains that he adds a second tank to a diesel-powered car to hold vegetable oil as well as a unique back-flush feature that other cars do not have. People who would like to convert their own car may be interested in Craig's manual that's available for a $10 minimum donation. Craig likes to help people convert their cars and the donation helps screen out people who are not seriously interested in the subject. The booklet provides basic instruction and comes with complete follow-up support that is accomplished by e-mail. He's also teaching a course to members of the Church of Deep Ecology in Minneapolis in the Fall of 2004. People who are interested in joining the class may contact email@churchofdeepecology.org.
 

Vegetable Oil Tank

Craig explained that diesel Volkswagens make such a successful transition to vegetable oil-powered vehicles that the price of VW diesel cars on eBay has skyrocketed. As Craig explains, "A diesel engine is an ideal engine for fuel made from vegetable oil. Unlike gasoline that mixes with air inside a combustion engine, diesel engines compress the thicker diesel or vegetable oil to form the explosion that powers the engine. Diesel engine are very different than a gasoline engine. For example, there is no need for a carburetor or spark plugs.

When I asked about drawbacks, Craig explained that vegetable oil adds nitrous oxides to the atmosphere and although they're not greenhouse gases, they do contribute to smog. However, the smog is nowhere near as polluting as normal diesel that contains particulates and generates a thick cloud of black smoke.

Craig's Fan Light Toy - click to enlarge

Craig has also used his expertise in electronics to build light toys that don't need batteries. He built a "Light Emitting Flaxseed Oil Bottle" that his fans at the energy fair called a "Flaxlight." All the internal parts are salvaged from old electronics equipment. For example, he used a stepper motor from a dot matrix printer to power the light. As he explains, "Many electric motors will make electricity when you turn the shaft. The stepper has a pulsed output that I changed to a steady DC current." He's also built a fan light toy that looks very beautiful when it's twirled at night. When someone swings the fan to get the propellers moving, the motion causes the multi-colored lights to pulse.

People Creating Change at a Grass Roots Level
For the past year, I've been living in a town in Southern Wisconsin where General Motors is the largest employer. Because of my interest in the environment, I began to search for people who like-minded others almost from the time that I arrived. Those who I found lived in other towns. Although Wisconsin has a good record in renewable energy over-all, there are pockets or communities in the state where the interest in renewable energy is much more widespread. Amherst Wisconsin, near the MREA headquarters, is one of those areas. One of the exhibitors at the fair gave me a tip when I asked how to find those communities across the country where there's a large amount of interest in renewable energy. He said, "Look for the towns where the advocacy or activist organizations are located and that's where you'll find people who are creating changes at a grass roots level."

Mary Jo Fahey has been working as a print journalist and technical writer since 1988. She is the author of five computer graphic design books as well as several medical texts. She may be reached at mj-fahey@sbcglobal.net.

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