One of the most knowledgeable people in our region on small-scale renewable energy technologies and the marketplace trends, Tom Konrad is a financial analyst, portfolio manager, and writer. He has a PhD in mathematics from Purdue. His study of chaos theory led to his conviction that knowing the limits of our ability to predict is much more important than predictions themselves, a lesson he applies to climate science. He’s a volunteer energy coach with New Yorkers for Clean Power and chair of the Marbletown Environmental Conservation Commission.
As an energy coach, what are the most exciting developments in clean energy and efficiency technology that you have seen in the last year?
I’m excited about the new range of electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, like the Ford F150 Lightning and the Toyota RAV4 Prime. They are now allowing people who would never consider buying a compact car to experience the incredible responsiveness of driving electric. We’re on the cusp of having electric vehicles that meet every driver’s needs. They are not just as good as gas powered vehicles; they are better.
The same is true for electrics replacing small gas motors like lawn mowers and leaf blowers. A year ago, I cleared a foot and a half of fairly heavy snow from my driveway with my new electric two-stage snowblower. It was even able to handle the piles of compacted snow left by the snowplows better than my old gas blower.
What are the most persistent questions that households and business owners have about switching to renewables?
People come at this from all sorts of angles. Often, it’s a narrow question, like “Should I use geothermal or air source heat pumps?” Or, “What is the best electric vehicle?” The answers to these questions depend on their needs and how much they can pay, so they usually end up in a much broader conversation than they probably expected.
What I really like is when someone comes to me asking about solar or an electric vehicle, and I’m able to get them interested in heat pumps or induction cooking while also answering their original question.
Heat pumps have come into the mainstream quickly. What is most important for people to understand as they consider these technologies? When are air source heat pumps the best choice and when should people consider geothermal?
Most people will find that air source heat pumps are the most economical choice. While they are slightly less efficient than geothermal, the upfront cost is much lower. But people should know that the air filters need to be cleaned regularly (I’ve had multiple people complain to me that their heat pumps just are not working properly only to find the problem was fixed when they clean the filter.)
It’s also very important to make sure that your home is well insulated and air sealed before relying on air source heat pumps…they can have problems keeping up in older, poorly insulated, or drafty buildings.
The outdoor units need to have protection from snow piling up around them. The normal way to do this is to attach them to the wall of the building, but if it is a stud wall, you may get noisy vibration when the heat pump is working hard in the winter (this is seldom an issue in the summer in air conditioning mode.) If at all possible, the outdoor unit should be attached to a masonry wall rather than a stud wall. If that’s not possible, consider ground mounting, especially if there is an overhang or a deck to offer snow protection.
Geothermal is the best choice for people who can afford the up-front cost, or are in hard-to-insulate houses that have a high heating load and already have air ducts.
Solar is a commodity now and the prices have fallen. What are the biggest issues around quality, and the consumer choices that people should keep in mind?
Because of falling panel prices, more than half the cost of a home solar installation is actually labor and other soft costs like marketing and overhead. For that reason, there is not a lot of incentive for established installers to offer substandard equipment. Find a local installer with a good reputation, like the ones Sustainable Hudson Valley vets for our Green Group Purchase program and you are unlikely to go wrong.
What are your go-to sources of information to keep on top of electric car choices?
For electric cars, I like the Plugstar Shopping Assistant.
Solar is sexy. Efficiency is earnest. People can be daunted when it comes to doing the foundational work of making their buildings more efficient before they invest in renewables. What’s your advice?
Upgrading your home’s insulation and air sealing is a lot less sexy and trickier than most of the other upgrades we are talking about, so I totally understand. Part of the problem is that every building is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation. But if you don’t address a leaky building before upgrading your heating and cooling, you will pay more for the system and it won’t work as well.
For many people, the best strategy is to hit the most critical spots. In many buildings this means spray foam around the above ground portions of the basement walls (the rim joists) and a lot of blow-in cellulose insulation in the attic. The walls are less critical, and can be addressed when there are opportunities during other remodeling projects. If you are adding or replacing siding, that is a great opportunity to add a layer of continuous insulation on the outside of the walls. If you need a new roof, you may be able to insulate the ceiling from above in buildings that don’t have an attic. If you open up the drywall in any wall, make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to cut down on air leaks and add insulation.