Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The military takes the lead in renewable energy

The federal government, via the Department of Defense, is finally taking the lead in renewable energy. This will speed the “mainstreaming” of renewable energy technology. Action is taking the place of words and minor financial incentives at long last. More private-sector jobs are an important added bonus. The military obviously sees the immediate need to break its long dependence on oil(mostly imported from not-always-friendly countries). Hopefully this will help Congress and the Senate see the light and speed the country as a whole in this direction.

Sunpower Corp.(SPWRA) has signed contracts with the General Services Administration, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy. New solar power installations for these government agencies will comprise a minimum of 20MW. Sunpower estimates creation of 1,000 new local construction jobs. Locations are in the west and mid-west, in Colorado, Indiana and Arizona and are expected to start producing power next summer. The U.S. Marines are also getting into solar power with suitcase-sized installations for field use.

Wind power is also in the picture. The U.S. Coast Guard installed a 2.4MW wind turbine at its Southwest Harbor Base in Maine. The Coast Guard is shooting for a zero-carbon footprint for housing at this base and also installed solar panels and solar hot water heaters. This closely follows the U.S. Army’s first wind project at the Toole Army Depot in Utah.

The Army has so far been focusing on geothermal energy production. The Air Force is moving forward on renewable biofuels for its aircraft.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Tampa Bay Real Estate Update

New foreclosure filings slowed slightly in July in the Tampa Bay area. There were 6,031 new filings. It is definitely a buyer’s market. Prices continue to slowly erode and have not yet reached a bottom. Florida existing home sales dropped 14% compared to July 2009, but condo sales were up 11% on a median price barely above $87,000.

In Tampa, The Towers of Channelside have received Fannie Mae approval. Almost three quarters of the 257 luxury residential condominiums have been sold along with four of the five retail units at street level. Marketing and sales are handled by JMC Realty Inc. The development consists of two 28-story towers in the downtown Channel district. Fannie Mae approval should make for quicker qualifications and closings on the remaining units.

An informal drive-around survey of Clearwater, Largo and northern St. Petersburg shows no slackening of real estate investor activity as revealed by bandit signs. Prices continue to decrease on these properties as well.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A new way to harvest solar energy

A new and much more efficient way to convert solar energy into electricity has been discovered. The process is called Photon Enhanced Thermionic Emission(PETE). PETE could double or even triple the current efficiency of photovoltaic conversion by also taking advantage of the heat that usually goes to waste. Another plus is that PETE becomes more efficient at high temperatures while current photovoltaic technology becomes less efficient at increasing temperatures.

PETE is achieved by coating the photovoltaic semiconductor material with a thin layer of cesium. Research continues on which semiconductor materials work best for this process. PETE seems to work well at temperatures as high as 800C. The added efficiency over current photovoltaic materials could finally make solar price-competitive with oil. The new process uses already-existing and easily available materials and has been tested in southern California's Mojave Desert.

The research is being done by a joint venture of Stanford and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The work is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Department of Energy. The original paper was published in Nature Materials after a success
ful demonstration of PETE.

photo courtesy of: freephoto.com


My creativity takes a variety of paths and requires a variety of actions. I write about what I do and find interesting(this blog is just one example): real estate, investing, photography, food. I photograph(examples also on this blog): mostly nature and wildlife but also architecture, still life, portraits, weddings and to illustrate my articles. I cook: a range of cuisines and fusions centering on fresh, healthy ingredients. I invest: in local single-family homes and in world-wide stocks concentrated on earth-friendly technology.

Maintaining creativity in these areas means spending some time each day doing each of them. This keeps me in active practice and keeps the basics mostly out of the thought process. The constant practice means I don’t have to stop to think about basic punctuation or grammar or spelling while writing; I don’t have to stop to think about which lens focal length or f/stop to use to get the perspective and depth-of-field wanted in a photograph; I don’t have to stop to think about whether to sauté or roast ingredients for an experimental dish; I don’t have to stop to think about how to enter a “buy” or “sell” order for stocks. Constant practice by constant doing takes the very basics of an activity out of the thought process and allows focusing on the creative aspects of the activity: to tell a story or just report the facts, everything in the frame in sharp focus or only the main subject, a medley of complementary flavors or the predominance of lemon/dill.

Continuous research is also a creativity booster. I read pretty much everything from science fiction to action/spy novels to stock/real estate investing techniques/theories to photography magazines and manufacturer’s equipment updates/new releases. It is important to think about these new(or old) ideas and how they tie in with personal philosophies/practices. I do not have the budget for a new lens but Canon has just released a 8-16mm fisheye zoom lens, stimulating me to think about new ways to use my current lenses. An organic gardening blog or Twitter post causes me to try a new spice or vegetable, a short story contest entry gives me style ideas to incorporate into my real estate column posts. I try to maintain a Zen attitude about life and always be open to new ideas and ways of doing.

Operating this way most effectively keeps me out of ruts. Concentrating too hard or too long on one activity or one technique puts me into a rut, which is then difficult to get out of. If I find myself not getting excited about photographing wildlife or landscapes I will park downtown and spend some time wandering around looking for interesting street scenes or architectural details or man/nature juxtapositions. If I feel uninspired for my next real estate column I might research the latest battery technology breakthroughs as a mental refresher. When feeling burned out on a house rehab a long swim in the Gulf of Mexico can get my thoughts back on track.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Recent random real estate thoughts

Florida licensed real estate sellers should be getting a settlement from BP. After negotiations between the Gulf Coast Realtors Association and BP(via government rep.), it was agreed that all states bordering the Gulf of Mexico would get a payout based on the amount of home sales commissions lost because of the oil spill. The amounts have not yet been decided.

As expected, both new and existing home sales plunged to new depths after the expiration of government tax credits. This has happened despite a near-record low 30-year fixed rate mortgage interest of 4.21% in Florida. 15-year rates are now well below 4%. But people still are not buying. Many are no doubt waiting for both home prices and mortgage interest rates to go even lower, which it looks like they probably will.

The rate of new foreclosures in the Tampa Bay area does seem to be leveling off. This fact has done nothing for the backlog of homes already in foreclosure. Hillsborough County started running two-per-day foreclosure auctions at the courthouse this month and will continue through the end of the year. The intent is to deal with the 36,000 to 38,000 foreclosures already in the system. Any guesses what this is going to do to the housing inventory and pricing in the area?

All of the federal government’s programs designed to help ease the housing mess continue to be unmitigated failures. The feds just can’t seem to figure out that as long as these programs remain voluntary and continue to help the banks more than the homeowners that the banks are not going to cooperate. There is just no financial incentive in any of these programs for the banks to help the homeowners. As long as banks continue to make the most money(or lose the least) by following through on foreclosures, that is what they will do. They bankers are not going to renegotiate lower interest rates or reduced principal amounts just because they are such swell people and it is about time the government figured this out.

Another part of the wave of the future is here

One of the oldest public swimming pools in the country has been transformed into one of the greenest and healthiest places to swim indoors on the planet. “The Plunge”, also known as the Richmond Municipal Natatorium, has been brought back from the dead after being closed for nearly a decade because of lack of public funds for maintenance and necessary upgrades. The historic 1925 pool reopened on August 14, 2010 in Point Richmond, California.

The refurbished 324,000 gallon pool now features chlorine-free saline water sanitized with ultraviolet light, solar heating, solar electric power, highly efficient pumps and 300 operable windows for natural ventilation. The $7.5-million makeover was paid for with a combination of voter-approved funds and private donations. A portion of the grounds are now dedicated to a community food garden.

This type of project is the wave of the future. Governments and other public-service entities need to take the lead on the issues of energy efficiency, alternative energy use and public health. If government sets the example, these types of projects will seep into the mainstream and become the norm much more quickly.

Up to this point, most projects of this sort have been undertaken by private-sector companies. The companies are not spending this money just as a public service or for good PR. They are doing it because they can see the writing on the wall and know it makes good long-term financial sense. Government on all levels needs to adopt such a long-term outlook and jump on the bandwagon sooner rather than later.

For photos and more information, click these links: http://solar.calfinder.com/blog/news/richmond-plunge-green-pool/ and http://www.metaefficient.com/architecture-and-building/efficient-public-swimming-pool.html.

Friday, August 27, 2010

My Personal Investing Strategy Ingredients

I have overhauled my stock investing strategy and portfolio to better reflect my environmental and political beliefs and the realities of the current investing market. Investing in what you know and are comfortable with, I still strongly believe, is the way to success. I know the technology and energy sectors and environmental science issues. Intense self education let me shift from my former “buy & hold good undervalued companies” to my current “buy when it’s down and take reasonable profits before it goes farther down”.

Converting the portfolio is an interesting and ongoing process. I developed a list of several hundred companies that fit my criteria. These companies are directly or peripherally involved with: solar power, wind power, geothermal power, “next-generation” nuclear power, fuel cells, batteries, flywheel energy storage, electric vehicles, hydrogen/natural gas vehicles, smart grid, organic agriculture, sustainable aquaculture, water treatment and supply, waste management, and a variety of other earth-friendly fields. There are plenty of companies to choose from in all of the above listed areas. These companies are diversified enough to not leave me vulnerable to a crash of one market sector. These are definitely growth industries on a global scale and are also geographically diversified.

Converting the investing strategy is more difficult, but it is obvious to me that the days of buying shares of a good company at a bargain price and knowing that they would be worth much more in five or ten years is a thing of the past. This is very much a mental adjustment for me. In today’s stock market investors must be light on their feet. Investors must keep well informed about business/investing and larger global issues. Investors, to be successful, cannot become emotionally attached to the companies in which they are investing.

I am benefiting from these changes. I feel good investing in companies that improve the situation for everyone. I am more confident and more successful for specializing in the “green” niche: I can know the companies in greater depth, have a better “feel” of the business issues involved and better see things in context. I was formerly a generalist but now understand the advantages of being more specialized as an investor.