Getting off the grid and into green biz: one man’s story

Dave Bonta hasn’t paid an electric bill in 12 years. He has no heating bill, either.

That’s because he kicked his 40 kilowatt/hr electricity habit in the 1990s and used solar electricity to fill the gap. “I learned to live on less,” he told an audience at RiverRun bookstore the other night. “Surprise, I made it to one kilowatt. It wasn’t hard…. It’s kind of nice to think we can throw our electric bills away. It’s kind of empowering.”

To reduce his power usage, Bonta – who has since co-authored the “The New Solar Home” and created the USA Solar Store chain – replaced light bulbs, got an energy-efficient washing machine, switched from a vacuum cleaner to a broom, and tossed the electric toothbrushes. “Anything that could be done with human power we did.” Even the press he used in his printing business was human-powered. He pedaled it.

Once he’d shrunk his energy footprint, he installed a small-scale solar electricity system in his rustic Vermont home. Printing customers immediately peppered him with questions about his set-up. That’s when the light bulb went off. He could sell this stuff, along with the know-how. Which is exactly what USA Solar Stores do, and the chain now has 27 stores in 11 states. It’s “about to grow like wildfire,” he says earnestly.

Bonta models his stores after the crunchy old Gateway stores, where the PCs were displayed on barnboard tables and salespeople didn’t bug you till you had a question. At USA Solar Stores, you can get anything from a conversation to a compact fluorescent light bulb to a full-fledged solar electricity setup. Or you can come in, look and leave. No worries. In any case, Bonta’s team is eager to address what he calls the three solar bogey men: expense, viability, aesthetics.

Bogey Man #1: Solar electricity is too expensive. Bonta will look at your current electric bill, figure in current incentives, find ways to reduce your demand, and show you how long it will take to pay off your gear. Even if the incentives disappear, he says, it’s still a good deal. The joy of sticking it to the man? Priceless.

Bogey Man #2: It doesn’t work too well. Wrong, he says.There’s a myth that if you wait, solar technology will get less expensive and super technology will come along. “The way it is now is pretty good. The technology is there, and the only thing missing is people who will try it.”

Bogey Man #3: It’s ugly. No, Bonta says, solar is becoming increasingly “building integrated” – where it’s embedded in your roof, not tacked on like an afterthought. And you don’t need it on your house at all. Bonta’s panels are on his shed, which gets better light anyway. The homes in his book are of jaw-dropping beauty.

Bonta is a softspoken guy. Although he has the conviction of a preacher, he has the slickness of, well, the guy who melted down in his first speech to the Rotary. But in the bookstore, once he warmed up you could tell he will not be denied: “Everything we can do to get our country on a sustainable path, we’re going to do.” If not, he says, generations will hold us accountable for the demise of the world’s ecology. “We can either explain it to them from a wheelchair, or fix it now.”

A new generation of products wraps stodgy concept of conservation in sexy new clothes

Not too long ago I described conservation and efficiency as the homely sisters in the sustainable energy world because there were no iconic products that symbolize efficiency the way wind farms and solar panels symbolize their respective industries. I was wrong. Epically wrong.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently published a list of companies that received grants to develop energy efficiency technologies. Many of these products are relatively boring, designed to toil away deep in the bowels of a power generation system, squeezing out delivering a few more watts here and a few more degrees there. Others, though, really capture the imagination. They show that energy efficiency doesn’t have to be a dud in the public eye. It can excite the popular imagination and communicate the message that using less energy is the single nicest thing you can do for the Earth until renewable energy usurps fossil fuels. And some of these efficiency products are, if you’ll grant some latitude on the use of the word, sexy.

Take Nanotrons, a division of Agiltron. Nanotron is working on a long-lasting reflective coating to improve on today’s short-lived coatings. Paint Nanotron’s coating on your building’s roof, then watch your cooling costs drop. Kazak Composites is developing building panels that retain heat and coolness, and “know” when to release them to keep room temperatures even. Lower air conditioning bills in a can? Smart sheetrock? Not bad.

Even the stuff that will work under the covers has a good cool quotient. Machflow Energy, for example, is using exotic gases like krypton and xenon in a heat pump that makes refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners run on less electricity and with no environmental damage. Considering that heating and cooling systems emit over a half billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, according to the DOE, efficiency improvements make a huge difference to the environment. And you thought krypton was Superman’s home planet and xenon was the warrior princess’ brother.

Some products combine efficiency with one of the other marquee sustainable energy sources. Covalent Solar is developing coated glass that improves solar voltaic efficiency by concentrating solar energy on dense arrays of solar cells at the edges of the glass, reducing the overall number of cells needed to produce the same amount of power as a larger solar array. Giner Electrochemical Systems, LLC., is working on a new way to produce hydrogen (fuel cells, anyone?) with less electricity than current production methods.

So back to the use of “sexy.” Maybe “interesting” or “fascinating” would have been more appropriate words to describe these up-and-coming efficiency technologies, but they lack the necessary sizzle. Energy efficiency needs to be in the public’s face – and not just the “earth first” set. They’re already invested. I’m talking rank-and-file consumers. The U.S. consumer market consists of more than 100 million households and generates about 17 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to As much as 30 percent of the energy used to power household heating, cooling and appliances is wasted. The European Union is ahead of the U.S. on the efficiency front. It has already set a goal of cutting its energy consumption 20 percent by 2020, and it knows it needs the mass audience’s buy-in to reach that goal. “To achieve this goal, it is working to mobilize public opinion, decision-makers and market operators and to set minimum energy efficiency standards and rules on labeling for products, services and infrastructure,” the European Energy Agency writes on its Web site. We’re not going to make worldwide societal changes that reduce energy consumption by talking like Mr. Spock. Efficiency needs an iconic product that combines a little Angelina Jolie sex appeal with some Steve Jobs salesmanship thrown in for good measure.

How GM can get its groove back

In an interview this week with NPR at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, GM Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz was bemoaning how the company lost its way from the days when GM made its greatest cars in 50s and 60s. Later that day, my iPod Shuffle dished up Neil Young’s “Johnny Magic,” whose video takes place inside Young’s electrified ’59 Lincoln, the LincVolt. And that’s when it struck me … with so much of GM’s future riding on plug-in hybrids, why not be like Neil?

UPDATE: Yes, I realize that Ford built the Lincoln, not GM. I’m just saying…

Urban farming sows seeds of hope in Detroit

What comes to mind when you think of Motor City? America’s proudest industry crushed? Twenty-seven percent unemployment? An exodus of more than half the populace?

How about a wasteland where you can buy a house for $15,000, if you dare live in it?

John Hantz sees all that but also envisions Detroit as the nation’s first urban farm. Acre after acre of sustainable agriculture could create jobs, attract tourists, yield the local produce consumers crave, and create scarcity of real estate to revive a moribund market.

“We need scarcity,” the wealthy stockbroker tells Fortune. “We can’t create opportunities, but we can create scarcity.”

An estimated 40 square miles of land lies abandoned in the 138-square-mile metropolis. The concept of farming it is drawing positive if cautious responses from various quarters. Says the American Institute of Architects, “Detroit is particularly well-suited to become a pioneer in urban agriculture at a commercial scale.” Fortune includes favorable quotes from a Harvard urban planning professor and a former HUD official as well.

Hantz Farms envisions tomatoes and greens germinating in the spring and shoppers harvesting ripe produce for the table in the summer and fall. The investor is offering $30 million for a pilot and is asking for free tax-delinquent land and zoning changes that would lower taxes.

Hantz has his critics and skeletons, but the idea is wildly fresh. And given the city’s legacy – creating an industry that helps warm the planet then protecting that industry at all costs – what could be more carbon negative?