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Living Green: Expert Q&A

  • Posted 01.20.09
  • NOVA

"Science Guy" Bill Nye and actor Ed Begley, Jr, appeared in NOVA's "The Big Energy Gamble" as a pair dueling to see who could live a greener life. Following the program’s broadcast, they answered a broad range of audience questions.

Bill Nye Ed Begley, Jr.

Bill Nye

Scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor
Full Bio

Photo credit: Courtesy Bill Nye

Ed Begley, Jr.

Actor and environmental activist
Full Bio

Photo credit: Courtesy Ed Begley, Jr.

Bill Nye Ed Begley, Jr.

Bill Nye (at left), scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor, is a man with a mission: to help people appreciate the science that makes our world work. Nye holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and honorary doctorate degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Goucher College, and Johns Hopkins. After working as an engineer at Boeing, Nye launched his comedy career on Seattle's Almost Live, where "Bill Nye the Science Guy®" was born. He currently hosts Stuff Happens, a TV show about environmentally responsible choices that consumers can make in their day-to-day lives. In his home, Nye has 4,000 watts of solar power and a solar-boosted hot water system as well as a low-water-use garden. It's fun for him—he's an engineer with an energy-conservation hobby.

Actor and environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr. is known for turning up at Hollywood events on his bicycle. He has served as chairman of the Environmental Media Association and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy as well as on the boards of the Thoreau Institute, the Earth Communications Office, Tree People, and Friends of the Earth. He has earned awards from the California League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Coalition for Clean Air, Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica Baykeeper, and the Southern California Gas Company. Currently, he co-stars in the TV series Living with Ed, a look at the realities of "living green" with his not-so-environmentalist wife Rachelle Carson. Begley, Carson, and their daughter Hayden live in Studio City, California in a small, energy-efficient home.

Q: I loved the show. Ed, can you tell me the basic information about the circulating wind device on your home? What it can power, how much you save, how much it costs to install, etc. Thank you, and keep up the green work! Frank Passalaqua, Tinton Falls, New Jersey

Q: Where can I find a vertical vane wind generator like Ed's? Who is the manufacturer? What is the contact information? Thanks! Gwen, Weston, Wisconsin

Q: Where can I get information on the Vertical Axis Wind Turbine that was shown on the roof of Ed Begley, Jr.'s home? Living in the city, I would like to explore using wind generation off grid as supplemental heat in my home during our frequent frigid windstorms here in western New York. Eric N. Miller, Niagara Falls, New York

Ed: Vertical Axis Wind Turbines (VAWTs) are something that I'm quite fond of. I'm hoping that they will be the solution for creating power using wind in an urban environment. I experimented with one from a company called PacWind, but have since removed that. I'm now working directly with a company called Enviro-Energies that makes a turbine called the MagWind. It is specifically designed for a roof mount (no pole needed) and takes advantage of dirty air and building-compressed air. It is designed to operate and create power in very low wind speeds as well. I'm going to have one put on my house in February, and I'm very hopeful that it will be the technology I've been looking for.

Other manufacturers in the VAWT space include Cleanfield Energy, WindTerra, Helix, and others. I'll be posting results of the MagWind online (www.livingwithed.net) in the near future, both from one on my house and a larger one that will be mounted on Jay Leno's garage. Cost of these MagWind turbines is about $5,000 per kw installed, and they come with their own specially matched inverter. More to follow—stay tuned.

Q: As a college student living in an apartment, what are three of the most important lifestyle adjustments one can make to live a carbon-neutral life? Michelle, sophomore, Madison, Wisconsin

Ed: Number one is get out of your car, at least a few days a week if you can. Walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation. That is number one. Number two would be use some simple technologies in the apartment to save energy—change the lightbulbs to CFLs and use an energy-saving programmable thermostat. Also, weather-strip the doors and windows and use window treatments as well. Put in a water-saving showerhead. Third would be recycling, composting, and supporting a community garden or a farmers market. These are all things that I did in the 1970s when I started on this journey and lived in an apartment. And they all saved me money!

Bill: 1) Work with less electricity. That would mean better lamps, and perhaps working more during daylight hours. When I was a student, I know that would have meant an enormous change for me.

2) If your campus is not already involved in recycling, work to get a program started.

3) If you are not an engineering major now, change; become one. Develop a better battery, get rich, and change the world. If you are an engineer now, work on: that battery, a better way to recover agricultural nitrogen, and better planned cities.

Q: Whatever happened to the Air Car, which was supposed to be produced within the next few years and powered by compressed air? Al Campos, San Antonio, Texas

Ed: I've seen some articles on it. I believe it's being developed in India. It looks quite small, which isn't good for a 6'4" guy like me. I'm still more hopeful that electrics will come back successfully. As a guy who's been driving pure electric vehicles since 1970, I can vouch for their reliability. I'm working with www.phoenixmotorcars.com, and there are others coming to market this year as well.

Q: I'm broke, but I want to be like Arnold but better. What can I do here in Massachusetts to get things done in order to have a zero-emission state? Ronnie, Massachusetts

Ed: You don't run up Mt. Everest—you have to climb slowly. That's what I did starting in 1970. I did the cheap and easy things that helped me reduce my impact on the environment and helped me save money. As I saved money, I did more. I didn't get solar hot water until 15 years after I started, and solar electric until 20 years after I started. Start by doing the little things—riding a bike or taking public transportation, CFL lighting, installing an energy-saving thermostat, recycling, composting, home gardening, etc. As you save money doing these things, then you can reinvest in more insulation, better windows, etc. Then you can save up for solar hot water, and eventually solar electric. It takes time, but it works—I know, I've done it.

Q: Hi Ed and Bill,

I already bike to work on the warmer days since I don't have a car. (I can't afford a car.) However, on the colder days, I get rides. Unfortunately, there is no public transportation here in Hudson, MA. What can I and others like me do and say to Town Hall about budgeting a hybrid-powered bus for the town of Hudson? Markus McLaughlin, Hudson, Massachusetts

Ed: There's strength in numbers—get a petition going and get signatures. Perhaps you can find a corporate sponsor as well. Perhaps there is a large company in the area that can do it as a corporate initiative. It's a worthwhile project. Keep me posted on your progress.

Bill: You're off to a good start. You've come up with an idea that might bring the city revenue and improve air quality for everyone. Note well though, Hudson is a small town. It's a hard thing to provide exactly the service that each individual hopes for. The longest journey starts with a single step. Go get 'em.

Q: Ed, When are you going to do new shows of "Living with Ed"? What a great show ... don't let it die!!!

Sincerely, Ed

Hopefully Planet Green will ask us to do more shows. Please e-mail them through their website at www.planetgreen.com and tell them you want to see more shows. If they ask us, we will certainly do it.

Q: Dear Bill and Ed,

There is a big wind-farm controversy out here in the Cape Cod area. What can we all do to make sure that residents needn't worry about having a wind farm out here? Sweden has wind farms everywhere. The U.S. should have them too!!! Thanks for letting me ask... Markus McLaughlin, Hudson, Massachusetts

Ed: Large wind farms do have an environmental impact. Personally, I think they are beautiful and would love to have one in my backyard, but not everyone feels the same way. Go to the planning meetings and make your voice heard. If enough other people favor it, it will happen.

Bill: As an outsider, I am baffled by the Cape Cod wealthy people's opposition to wind turbines. In the simulations and mock-ups I've seen at wind turbine and science teaching trade shows, the turbines appear quite small on the horizon. The excitement of producing energy right there off the shore would seem to completely outweigh the perceived need for an unobstructed view. In my experience, everyone who sits on a porch, a balcony, or captain's walk near the sea gets excited by the appearance of something moving, a ship or marine mammal. You've stumped us Cape Codders. Having traveled a small amount along European coasts, I'd say that a spinning turbine is a comforting sight.

Q: How can we make people see the real cost of power with the high subsidies that have gone to coal, natural gas, and nuclear for more than 30 years? Jim Stack, Chandler, Arizona

Ed: This is being talked about a lot. One solution I support is a carbon tax. Another is to create incentives for clean power production. Hopefully the new administration will support both these things, and we will begin to move in the right direction.

Q: Should I open the shades in my room during the day? When would it save energy? Grade 7, West Lafayette Junior High, West Lafayette, Indiana

Bill: The National Science Foundation was very impressed when my producers and I came up with a way "to engage the viewer in a call to action." Our idea: We had a full-screen graphic about just what you mention that said, "Try It!"

Regulating sunlight can bring savings. [For instance, on hot, sunny summer days when you want to save on air conditioning, try closing the shades. In the winter, when you want to keep warm, opening the shades to bring in sunlight may or may not be the best way to go, because closed shades can provide insulation.] If you've noticed the effects informally, you will probably be impressed when you get diligent about it. Adjust the shades several times a day, if you can. You'll probably save money.

Q: I watched your lid experiment. Our class took it a step further. After adding pasta, we brought the pot (with lid on) to a boil and turned off the gas. The pasta cooked in 22 minutes without additional heat. We think that if you cook pasta once a week, this cooking method would save 12 pounds of carbon dioxide. We need help with the calculation. Lori Chen's Science Class, Fair Lawn, New Jersey

Bill: A calculation like this is oh-so-very dependent on assumptions. Twelve pounds over how many weeks or years? If it's a year, that sounds quite high. I ran some rough numbers. You might be suggesting 30 pasta meals a month. Could be, but one would have to love his or her pasta. Consider this question: How good is the pasta? Italian chefs have been messing around with pasta and its cooking for centuries. There has got to be a reason that they suggest cooking it to just the right stiffness before cooling and eating. The successes in the future will come not just from doing less, or using less. They key is to do more with less.

Q: I am a homeowner concerned about my family's carbon footprint. I would like to know an inexpensive way to get into solar panels. Thanks. Al Davis, Everett, Washington

Bill: The best thing might be to negotiate with a mortgage lender. Put a $40,000 system on your house, but have your mortgage payment go up only $30 a month. The big thing to keep in mind is that a system adds value to your house, just like a kitchen remodel. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, kitchen remodeling can be fun. If you're not, you can end up divorced and miserable, when you meant to be making your home happier. There are a few do-it-yourself steps in solar energy. Just keep in mind that a lot of it is electrical and electronic. And there's a fair bit of roofing. So, mistakes can be costly and even dangerous, especially in the details, the craftsmanship. I have 4,000 Watts of solar power. I've never tried it, but I imagine it could make your bones light up, as they do in cartoons.

Q: Is it practical for any average person to install solar panels or wind turbines that will make a notable difference? How much would that cost? Anonymous

Bill: [Thanks to my solar panels,] my electric bill is $7.00 a month. When there are 31 days in the month, it goes up to $7.03. Is that notable? The Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power just sent me a check for $333.13, for the power I put back on the grid over the last six months. Notable? I guess so. My neighbor Ed has a wind turbine; it has not proven effective. There are several companies now producing very small turbines. Let's see if one of them works out.

Q: What is the "payback" on photovoltaic solar-power panels? If I were to invest in solar panels for my private home in upstate New York, how long would it take to recoup the expense on a given panel?

I currently have an open-loop geothermal heating system installed and have eliminated oil heat 100 percent in my 225-year-old center hall Colonial home. But I have increased my electric use about $100 a month in the heating season to run the water pumps. Dave Floyd, Broadalbin, New York

Bill: People are obsessed with payback. The answer, as you might expect, is that it depends on answers to questions like these: How many panels? Which direction can they face? Unobstructed sunlight? Preserve the look of your classic home? And so on.

Payback is important, but do you ask that question of a kitchen remodel? A garage upgrade? A new driveway? Solar-electric systems add value to your house. To the right buyer, your house is far more valuable than a similar place without a solar-electric set-up.

If you're spending $100 a month on pumping, it sounds like you could do with some weatherizing. I don't know what steps you've taken, but an old house is generally an energy sieve. There are leaks everywhere. But then, if you're a savvy guy with a geothermal heating system, I'd be surprised if you haven't insulated up a storm, pun intended.

The biggest improvements I've made to my house are my windows. They cost a fortune, but what a difference. The other problem with windows is that making them look good takes time and care. You want to preserve the look of your classic home, and so on. The other problem with window upgrading is that it is, if you will, not sexy. They are passive and seemingly low-tech. But that's where our conservation dollars could be best spent.

Q: How can I find rebates or incentives to help pay for installing solar power in my home? Anonymous

Bill: Get online to your electrical and gas supplier's website. There you will find what you seek. I hope the suggestions you'll find fill you with excitement. Changing lightbulbs really works. Your bill goes down, just like that.

Q: What impact will hail have on solar panels? I live in Tornado Alley and am concerned about the impact of hail damage on such fragile technology. Stephanie Bribiesca, Norman, Oklahoma

Bill: I have seen amazing demonstrations of how tough modern panels are. They aren't really fragile. Just make sure your manufacturer is not a ditz. Solar panels are much tougher than, say, window glass. Here's hoping your whole house is tornado-resistant. It can be done, but you have to add hardware, anchors, tie-downs, and so on. That usually adds cost. But compared with the cost of rebuilding, it's a bargain.

Q: Plenty of sun and wind on our 80-acre property in Texas. Can you pass along contact information regarding companies that install the roof wind turbines and solar applications? Thank you very much! Rick Caerbert, Purdon, Texas

Bill: I'm not an expert on vendors. If you're diligent, you can find good vendors, then tell your neighbors about your favorite people. The vendors' businesses will grow, and everyone will benefit. We all hope that one day these systems will be common and standardized. We'll all be able to go to Lowe's and pick up everything we need, in the same way you can get everything you need for a water heater or new electrical panel. Ahh, someday...

Q: Do you know of any reputable contractors in the New York City area who install solar panels for residential homes? John, Staten Island

Bill: No, would but that I did. The way I find my house contractors is by word of mouth. Good contractors know this, and act accordingly. Ask around, and of course, look all over the Internet. If you find a good one, tell the world.

Q: Given that most power plants burn coal or natural gas, why is not more being done to capture the CO2 and "pump" it into nearby greenhouses to grow food, fuel, and fiber products? Tim Dean, Portland, Oregon

Bill: This is a good question, but it really does have a good answer. It can't be done economically, because of chemistry and the nature of the universe. Right now, at our current level of understanding, pumping carbon dioxide to a facility that can capture and reuse the carbon takes more energy than we got producing the carbon dioxide in the first place.

The current idea, so much in vogue with the coal industry, is to pump the carbon dioxide into a coal seam underground, where, it is nominally claimed, it would stick to the coal (the carbon) that's already down there. I am extremely skeptical of such schemes. Having been in mines and observed uncontrollable coal fires, I find the industry's claims literally incredible, because underground galleries and spaces leak. I may, of course, be wrong. I am open-minded, but so far utterly unconvinced. It may be an enormous opportunity for the right chemist. But right now, it looks like wishful thinking. The good short cuts are to produce less carbon dioxide and promote the growth of forests and native ecosystems.

Q: I have heard a good deal about fuel cells both to power electrical plants and cars, but the NOVA program said nothing about them. Is there a reason? Marilyn Depew, Lake Oswego, Oregon

Bill: I guess there are at least two reasons. First of all, fuel cells aren't quite ready, in the sense that they are not robust enough for most vehicles ... at least, not yet. Then, bear in mind that a fuel cell is a battery, albeit an especially good one. You have to have a source of hydrogen. For all this to be practical, the hydrogen will have to come from a renewable source.

Right now, commercial hydrogen is generally produced by "reforming" natural gas, methane. The waste product of the chemical reaction is carbon dioxide, the very gas we're trying to limit. With that said, if we can build, say, solar-power plants that produce hydrogen through electrolysis of water, we might be getting somewhere. Stay tuned...

Q: We have a passive solar house we built ourselves. We did a lot of the work, and we would now like to add solar panels to our south-facing roof.

It is three stories (walkout) on the south-facing back, so how would we get the snow off the panels in the winter? And, what do you think of the solar panels with Teflon-like outer covering? Isn't Teflon (the magic substance) a cancer-causing, bio-accumulating substance?

It is a great product made here in Michigan!! We almost went with them, but we don't like Teflon. We are concerned it could be adding a lot of PFOAs [perfluorooctanoic acid] and PFOSs [perfluorooctane sulfonate] to the environment for the next 30-50 years, when people would like to be doing good.

Thanks for all yours great efforts. Go PBS and NOVA!! We are longtime PBS-NPR members. Vince Caruso, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Bill: Teflon on solar panels is probably fine. Just don't go cooking with your solar panels. Don't let them get to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and don't pound on them with metal spatulas. That's how Teflon generally gets into our water supplies and elsewhere. I would be very surprised indeed to learn that a significant amount of Teflon runs off of outdoor surfaces. It's when it gets hot and broken free that the trouble starts.

The snow in winter generally slides off of solar panels much sooner than it slides off of other parts of your roof. Sunlight passes through the snow and warms the dark panels. They produce a thin slippery layer of water right on their smooth surfaces. Off the snow slides way ahead of other parts of your roof.

Thanks for your kind words.

Let's change the world,

Bill

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