Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Service Brings A Smile

A tornado rolled through downtown Raleigh this past Saturday, taking with it all the trees in my back yard, much of my fence, lots of my roof shingles and siding, my grill and yard furniture, as well as depositing more trees then I ever had growing. I wish my yard had played host to the forest that landed there on Saturday afternoon. In Sunday’s aftermath, I found no major roof problems, so grabbed the chain saw and the rake to take on some of the yard. I couldn’t tackle it all alone, but figured I would pull the big items to the rear of the yard where most of the other debris had gathered. It was shaping up to be a long day, as I knew the task was too great to complete by sundown. Lo and behold, along came the cavalry. A pack of NC State students on a volunteer prowl wandered into my neighborhood looking to give their sweat and muscle to those in need. Many hands make light work. Over the next four hours, my neighbor’s son and I kept the chainsaw rolling and the kids got everything to the street. Aside from missing the shade of the trees, the yard looks pristine, giving me some semblance of normalcy in an otherwise uncomfortable situation. Thanks Trevor, Will, Jesse, and the rest of your crew of too many names to remember.

Why do I take the time to recount this story? Why am I so pleased with the work these kids took upon themselves? Yes, I am glad to have been the benefactor of their efforts, but more importantly, I know the rush provided to the giver of those efforts. I know what those kids are starting now will persist in them forever and more people will benefit from their continued efforts in the future. Though I had performed occasional volunteer work through my youth, it was usually a school or association requirement. However, in 1999, as an intern architect fresh out of school, I started on a path that profoundly altered my perspective. Oddly enough, I didn’t exactly get involved for the right reasons. As a matter of fact, the reasons were plainly selfish. Habitat for Humanity of Wake County sponsored a competition to design an affordable house, which, if selected, would actually be built. I looked at it as an opportunity for me: an opportunity to design and build a house without yet having received my architectural license. The design was selected for construction and I decided to see the project through by volunteering every week on site. What started as a selfish endeavor of designing and building a house, turned out to be a valuable lesson in providing a great and deserving family with a home and hope for the future. Their lives were directly affected by the work I was doing. Each week became less about building a home and more about helping a family. When Stephanie, my homeowner, expressed to me that her children would get the opportunity to go to college because of the environment her new home had provided, I fought back tears. When her children smiled and thanked me at the neighborhood dedication, it was too tough to fight. And what I’ve found is the fighting of those tears or the tears themselves are like pure adrenaline. It’s a rush of it’s own. Some choose to skydive, some prefer motorcycles, the x-games are awesome, but work and sweat your ass off helping someone who really needs it and you’ll find it just as exhilarating.

In March, I took my second trip to Granada, Nicaragua with the Rotary Club of South Granville County, NC. They work in conjunction with the Granada Rotary Club and have constructed four school libraries, one medical clinic, and one school in the Granada area over the past twelve years. My business partner, president of BuildSense, and Rotarian, Randy Lanou has organized the last two trips, written the grants, procured the funds, laid out the budgets, and lead some great teams in the completion of a highly productive medical clinic and a great new elementary school. Nicaragua is the second poorest county next to Haiti in our hemisphere. The life conditions are horrendous. I’ve never seen anything worse, but the people are happy, spirited, and full of smiles. They take pride in what they have even if that means they sweep the dirt in front of their shack. It’s a good place to put in perspective how much we take for granted here in the USA. When our crew of 20-25 volunteers draws close to completing our full scope of work, a large gathering of local families join us and present us with some small token of appreciation, many smiles, and perhaps a song. I keep my sunglasses on because here come those tears again. I’ve got what I wanted. The rush is back and I know once again, that it is truly better to give than to receive.

To learn more about my experience of designing and building with Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, read Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism by Metropolis Press.

To learn more about service through the South Granville Rotary Club and Rotary International, go to www.rotary7710.org or www.rotary.org.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

10,000 kWh

In same way that you notice when your car rolls past 100,000 miles, we noticed that our clean energy generation system hit the 10,000 kWh milestone this week. The system has been in operation for less than two years and has consistently performed beyond our expectations. We have a "buy all, sell all" system which means that we buy every watt that we use and we sell (back to the utility) all of the power that we generate. We get paid for that power two ways. One, our utility pays us wholesale rates for the power and two, a clean energy company pays a premium rate for the clean power.  In 22 months of operation, we have earned $3,250.00 from the clean energy company and another $450.00 from wholesale power sales. Without taking the value of the tax credits into account, we are making a 7.4% return on our investment. If I immediately offset our investment by the significant state and federal tax credits (which we realize, but not right away), the return on our investment goes up to a whopping 21.3%. If you are doing better than that in the market right now, will you please send me the name of your broker?

There are caveats, of course.  The clean energy company is very slow to pay (but they do). Our energy generation system is the first in our county and I had to work with our planning board to write a new ordinance that supports these systems. The federal tax credit is realized in the first year but the state tax credit is spread out over 5 years. A good spot with generous solar access is required (we designed and oriented a shop building specifically for this purpose). Lastly, our initial investment was a bit lower than most as my father and I installed the system and just hired a professional to set up the inverter and grid tie-in. Still, we find that our system is well worth the effort.

Another way to look at the financial value of a clean energy generation system is to check the time line on seeing your initial capital back. At that point, you still own the system and its capability to continue to produce energy and revenue for decades to come. Without tax credits, our system would pay us back in 13.4 years.  With tax credits, 4.7 years.