Friday, May 27, 2011

Arborgeddon in the Year of the Tornado

May 25, 2011, will be remembered in Bloomington for seven tornado warnings, one tornado and hundreds of toppled trees. Watching radar, listening for sirens, and heading for the basement were part of the routine here. Thirteen tornadoes touched down in Indiana. At one point a line of severe thunderstorms ran the length of the state and each had an associated tornado warning as I watched on RadarScope.

Thousands lost power and traffic was snarled the next day due to dead traffic signals and trees strewn across city streets. A tornado touched down on the southwest side of town along Highway 45 and wrecked a mobile home park, among other structures. A linear swath of severe damage went from Walmart at Hwy 45 and Hwy 37 all the way through town and through the IU campus. Amazingly, nobody was killed or critically injured. As I write this, three days later, many still are without electricity.

An estimated 300 trees were destroyed on campus and hundreds more have missing limbs.

Dunn's Woods, which fills the old quadrangle, was impassable due to fallen trees and limbs.

Student Legal Services, across 7th Street from the IMU and Dunn Meadow, took a direct hit, illustrating that street trees with limited room for spreading roots are particularly vulnerable to high winds.

This fence at the north side of the tennis courts south of Woodlawn field illustrates the force of the wind, which bent over 2-inch steel support posts.

A typical scene looking east from Woodlawn Field jogging path toward Arboretum (note Wells Library in background).

While some students who ignored the sirens reported harrowing near misses from falling trees along 10th Street, there were no serious injuries. One Campus Division employee I spoke to, who had been with the university for 32 years, said he had never seen anything like the tree damage this storm wrought. Generally, campus buildings held up well.

While not half through, 2011 is already being billed as "The Year of the Tornado." According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with records like the most severe thunderstorm wind reports on record (April 4), largest tornado outbreak on record (April 26-28 - which killed 321 people), and most tornadoes in a month (April, 875 tornadoes - previous monthly record for any month was May 2003, with 542 tornadoes). The Joplin EF-5 tornado was the deadliest since 1947 and 2011 overall has seen the most tornado deaths since 1953. For the year, we have had 1,314 tornadoes so far and the record for a year is 1,817, set in 2004. The average year sees 1,274 tornadoes.

As the May 25 storms here illustrate, we have much better warning systems in place now than existed 50 years ago. I received a cell phone warning from IU prior to every tornado warning, my iPad and iPhone both gave me push notices from The Weather Channel for every storm, TV and radio stations sounded emergency warnings, and even if all that wireless technology was not working, I could hear all of the sirens.

Many of the 132 people who perished in Joplin had warnings but lacked adequate storm shelter for a tornado with 200-plus miles-per-hour winds. If you don't have a basement, it may be worth investigating a simple storm shelter that can be placed in your garage slab or a kevlar and steel above-ground shelter that can be installed in an existing home. Our home in Evansville had an above-ground storm safe room with reinforced concrete floor, walls and ceiling, that also functioned as a spare bedroom during normal weather. Although we have a basement in our Bloomington home, I was missing that comfortable, quiet, secure above-ground room on Wednesday. Our next house will have one.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Business Case for Solar Energy In Indiana

Motoring north along I-465 on the west side of Indianapolis, you may notice a large solar photovoltaic installation on the south side of an office and warehouse at 5925 Stockberger Place. The new corporation behind this installation is Energy Solutions by JMS, which is a partnership of a mechanical contractor, Johnson Melloh Solutions, and architecture and engineering firm, Schmidt Associates.

A freestanding aluminum frame angled toward the sun supports the array of Onyx solar panels, which will soon be manufactured in Columbus by NuSun, Inc.

Central Indiana receives an average 4.2 hours of sunlight per day, allowing this 100-kilowatt capacity solar photovoltaic array to produce 132 mega-watt-hours of electricity per year, which is more than this 12,000 square-foot building uses. Excess energy produced on sunny days can be sold back to IPL for credits that can be banked for times when the sun isn’t shining. No batteries required.

According to Mike Gardner of Energy Solutions (formerly Vice President for Operations at Butler University) the system cost approximately $500,000 installed. After the owners take a 30% Federal tax credit and a special accelerated depreciation for solar renewable energy, the net cost of the system is about $220,000. These tax incentives will expire at the end of this year unless extended once again.

Indianapolis Power and Light (IPL) is offering $0.20 to $0.26 per kilowatt-hour feed-in tariff for excess electricity sold back to the grid, but Energy Solutions declined that arrangement, which would have transferred their right to sell solar renewable energy credits (SRECS) on the open market to IPL. SRECs are currently selling for about $0.30 per kilowatt-hour. While there is no guarantee that SRECs will hold that rate, Energy Solutions sees it as a good opportunity to gain experience in this market to better guide their customers and they think these rates may increase substantially. They can also sell excess power back to the grid, thanks to net metering offered by IPL, an arrangement that the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission is considering for other public utilities in Indiana.

“The bottom line,” according to Gardner, “is that the system will pay for itself in about five and a half years.” After that, Energy Solutions pays nothing, but they may still be able to sell about $40,000 worth of SRECs per year and also enjoy 132 megawatt-hours of free electricity per year, for at least the 25-year warrantee period of the panels. As electricity prices continue to climb, this idea will only shine brighter.