Sustainable Business Conversations, March-April 2017

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Sustainable Business Conversation, March 2, 2017 Topic: Understanding Your Business Through Your Customer's Perspective

It is very important to understand your clients and why they came to you in the first place.

  • Take the time to understand who your customer is and where they are in terms of understanding your business and what you can do for them.
  • One of our group members purchased some property from an older couple who had never done a formal real estate closing before. She learned that she needs to be sensitive to what the other party’s past experience has been. You can wind up either a) scaring someone, b) insulting them or c) making them look/feel stupid. How can you ask pertinent questions without it being insulting? Begin by sitting down to talk and begin to establish a relationship with your client/customer. Maybe say something like, “I talk fast – stop me if you have questions.”
  • One group member rents apartments. When interviewing prospective tenants, they ask them to fill out an application. There are questions such as – What do you know about recycling? How interested are you in being green? They try to gain an understanding of the client and whether or not they are in sync with their business values.
  • Sometimes when we don’t understand the language of a professional (doctor, financial planner), we can be reluctant to ask questions for fear of appearing "stupid." We need to recognize that our clients/customers may not always have a good understanding of our business, our values and what we can offer them or how we can serve them.
  • Understanding another person's perspective is fundamental in theater. We need to be non-judgmental when approaching a character to perform. Whatever they are doing is completely right from their perspective, even though it may seem to not make sense at first from our perspective. What is the conflict this person struggles with?
  • One group member is a mental health therapist: "I am an empathetic listener and pay attention to my client’s point of view. Someone coming to therapy for the first time may feel very vulnerable, especially if they are from another country and have significant cultural differences. I need to be careful not to get too far ahead of someone and give them too much information."
  • A theater director needs to be aware of an actor’s issues and struggles. When something seems off, take a break, have a chat. Talking personally can open a new pathway for the actor to develop a character. Too much information is not beneficial. The director does not share everything with the actor – the actor also need to do their research. Theater provides a buffer – through portraying other people’s lives we learn about ourselves. But theater is not complete without an audience.
  • You cannot do life the same way you do art. It does not work to wait to feel inspired before paying your bills. Inspiration is not consistent, you can’t turn it off and on.
  • Some people are more comfortable with business issues and transactions. However, we've learned that every business is a people business. You have to be willing to learn how to deal with people. People love to talk about themselves. Chapter one of Dale Carnegie teaches that there is a lot of power in getting people to talk and really listening.


Sustainable Business Conversation, March 9, 2017 Topic: Solar Energy Systems, Part 1

Solar panel.png

Weather extremes are more common: First you must understand that most building codes are 20-30 years old and are often seriously out of date with regard to current technologies and weather conditions. Just yesterday we had a historic wind storm with 12 hours of high winds and gusts over 50 mph. Since the Green Garage began construction in Detroit in 2009 we have had extreme events of temperature (high heat, record cold), rain, snow and wind. With climate change it is likely that such extremes will become more common and buildings should be designed with extreme weather in mind.

Using solar energy requires that you get connected to the earth around you. If it’s a sunny day or a cloudy day – you become aware of the impact on the energy produced on your roof. It’s a view into the natural world. :

  • Solar south is not the same as magnetic south (about 23 degrees off).
  • The optimal location is facing solar south and avoiding shade. You want the sun to hit the panels at as close to a 90 degree angle as possible. At our latitude (SE Michigan), that would mean mounting panels at an angle of 42.5 degrees.
  • Optimal placement is often not possible on your particular building – you do the best you can.
  • You need to understand the geometry of the building, places where shade is cast and issues such as being part of an historic district where the panels must not be visible from the street.

It's the wild west: In the early days of the auto industry, there were hundreds of auto companies, the vast majority of which did not survive. The solar industry is in a similar period, a sort of "wild west" phase where anything goes. It’s hard to know which contractor to hire, which solar panel manufacturers will still be in business 10 or 20 years forward. Deals that are posted on websites turn out not to really exist when you are seriously shopping. This “Green flake” factor is a big barrier to making informed decisions.

Things to consider regarding installation:

  • You must have a qualified structural engineer involved in designing the system and its foundations if you plan to install on your roof.
  • You must consider water drainage, snow loads and the strength of the roof complex.
  • At this point we should be designing for higher winds, heavy rain bursts and other extremes of weather. The old 100 year storm calculations are no longer good enough.

Other important things to know about photovoltaic panels:

  • One solar photovoltaic (PV) panel typically has 60 cells that produce direct current (DC) energy.
  • Under ideal (laboratory) conditions, the typical efficiency of a panel is about 12 to 13 per cent, meaning that about 87 to 88 percent of the solar energy reaching that panel is not converted into electrical energy. No building can match the ideal conditions of a laboratory, so energy efficiency will be even less than 12-13%.
  • If the panels get coated with dirt, the efficiency is even lower (so it’s good to have access to wash the panels).
  • Depending on how your array is configured, if part of a panel ends up shaded during the course of a day (by a tree, a wall, etc), the whole array of panels could then function at the reduced level of the shaded panel.
  • Once DC power has been created, it needs to go through an inverter to change it to alternating current (AC) power which is standard in the USA. There is additional loss (about 4 percent) going through the inverter. Now that you have AC power, the electricity can be fed into the household to power lights and appliances. This means that you need to purchase less electricity from the power grid.
  • Most solar PV systems are designed to be connected to the power grid. Designing an off-grid solar system is a whole different level of cost and complexity and is not practical for most people.
  • Unlike photovoltaic panels which convert solar energy into electricity, solar thermal panels heat a liquid (such as water) that flows through them. The Green Garage uses solar thermal panels for radiant heating the building. These panels are more efficient in capturing energy and can transform as much as 80 percent of solar energy into heat. Of course, the most hot water is produced on the hottest summer days, and that’s often not the time that heat is most needed.

Sustainable Business Conversation, March 16, 2017 Topic: Solar Energy Systems, Part 2

To work in solar these days you have to be an explorer. The field is changing fast and there is always something new to learn. Here are some important things to know:

  • Solar is inefficient and only makes sense after optimizing the building efficiency with insulation and sealing the envelope. This holistic approach to solar is not an easy sell. Computing the cost of ownership is a good tool.
  • Buying a solar photo voltaic (PV) system includes solar panels and micro-inverters. The most reliable and affordable micro-inverter has been Enphase, but as of yesterday, this product is no longer for sale. The economics of the industry are changing daily and maybe hourly.
  • Since 2008, the cost of solar panels has decreased by about 80%. The industry keeps getting turned upside down as companies or products go in and out of the marketplace. You have to jump in at some point in time even though it’s chaotic.
  • A solar panel is expected to lose about 20% of its capacity over 25 years of operation.
  • One solar panel generates about 250 to 280 watts of power under ideal conditions.
  • The cost of one panel is about $250 and the cost of one microinverter is about $150 – or about $400 for the set. In addition to this equipment you also need mounting frames, clips, wiring and other items.
  • The soft costs of installing a system are really the biggest issue and may double the hard costs of equipment. Soft costs include designing the system, getting permits, structural engineering review of foundations and supports, installation by electricians, and connection to the utility meter. The hard costs are going down fast. However solar installers are still a small cottage industry and the business is unpredictable.
  • As soon as a solar PV panel is held in the sun, it starts to generate electricity. You can get shocked by touching it if you don’t know what you’re doing. Amateurs should not be attempting to install panels themselves.
  • It is important to configure the system of panels properly. One way of connecting an array results in the whole system producing at the level of the least productive panel. This means that if you have 10 panels and one of them is in the shade at some point, the productivity of all 10 panels will decrease to the level of the shaded one.
  • A different way of connecting an array uses Enphase micro inverters installed one to one on each panel. If one panel is shaded or down, the other panels would still work to full capacity.
  • The economics of solar PV systems can be complex. Looking at one array with 42 panels, it generated about 13,500 kilowatt hours (kWh) in a year. As a DTE customer, you would pay about 16 cents per kWh - meaning that the electricity generated was worth about $2,154, or $51.29 per panel per year. Another economic benefit is that the underlying roof can be expected to last about 10 years longer.
  • If you have a super-efficient building, solar PV can potentially cover 3 months of electrical use in the summer. However, in winter the output of solar PV is much less, so that it does not contribute much to the heating regime.
  • When considering a solar PV system, it is important to first improve the efficiency of the building envelope, appliances and lighting. The payback on improving efficiency is much better than the payback on installing solar PV.