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Jay Leno's Solar, Wind, Green Garage

Credits: ©2008 Ben Stewart / Popular Mechanics

By Ben Stewart - Jay Leno has been making his own power for almost two years thanks to a PacWind Delta II vertical-axis wind turbine mounted on the side of the Green Garage's rooftop. But one turbine, albeit a very large one, isn't nearly enough to keep the lights, air conditioners and numerous shop tools humming along every day, all day. So Jay decided to augment the Delta II with a grid-tied General Electric solar power system.


Jay Leno Wind Turbine

Jay Leno makes plans with the team from PacWind (left) to install the state-of-the-art Delta II turbine (right) on the roof of his Green Garage. ©2010 Popular Mechanics

Solar and wind systems complement one another nicely. When there's no sunlight to be captured but the wind is blowing, the turbine will make power. When there's sunlight but no wind, the solar panels pump out the juice. And when those powerful Santa Ana winds of Southern California kick up on a sunny day, both can really crank out the kilowatts. Jay has found that he can make his own electricity in just about any weather. On one recent day, we learned the last time we were at the garage, Jay had made more power than he consumed--enough to spin his electric meter backwards. But to produce such a significant portion of the energy he uses from sunlight, Jay had to go big. And that's exactly what he did, thanks to some guidance from GE.

The roof of the garage is covered with 270 solar panels. Each one is a 200-watt GE module--one of the most powerful designs on the market. The whole system produces 54 kilowatts of DC power. That's enough to serve a good chunk of the energy needs (at least while the sun is shining) of eight to ten average homes. GE says that over the lifetime of the system (about 25 years) Jay will offset close to 3 million pounds of CO2, which, according to GE, would be equivalent to taking 200 cars off the road. GE worked with Premier Power to design and install the system. Like many roof-mounted systems, Jay's panels are attached to nonpenetrating racks. The panels essentially float on the roof and are less susceptible to high-wind loads than are other mounting systems. A Xantrex inverter converts the DC energy from the solar panels to normal household AC.

One of the coolest features about the system is the Fat Spaniel Technologies Web monitor. Basically, Jay logs onto the company's Web site, where he tracks just how much energy is being used and how much is being made--daily, weekly or monthly. Everyone at the Green Garage can see, right there on a computer screen, the energy those solar modules are producing. Check back soon for a long-term report on the system.

Wind Power
Wind power usually brings to mind those giant, prop-style turbines in Denmark or their much smaller cousins, like the 900-watt Whisper 100 that our PM's off-the-grid Energy Family uses in Vermont. As those innovative solutions have proved, wind can be a great compliment to solar power--and the rest of this country is just starting to catch up. So as we move forward with Jay Leno on transforming his Green Garage, you'll probably see a rooftop solar panel array augmented by wind power to help the shop generate its own energy and become self-sufficient.

Recently, Jay had a chance to meet up with the folks from PacWind, a company that makes vertical-axis wind turbines like the 500-watt Seahawk they brought by the garage. Drag-type vertical turbines such as these move a lot like those three-cup anemometers commonly used for measuring wind speed. But the PacWind design is unique in that its foils utilize the forces of lift, too, making them more efficient.

The Seahawk was just one example of Pacwind's turbines--and Jay was impressed. But for the 17,000-sq-ft. garage, which uses, um, quite a bit of energy each month, the PacWind team recommended their brand-new, top-of-the-line Delta II turbine. It can produce 10 kw at around 28 mph and has a cut-in wind speed of 6 mph. These turbines don't need a braking mechanism and can self-start at very low wind speeds--something similar designs in the past could never do. Generating usable wind power can be quite tricky, since wind is fickle and performance can vary from place to place. But according to Pacwind, Jay's garage looks like a very suitable spot.

A few more neat things about these vertical turbines: They take up very little space, they're virtually silent, and multiple units can be placed within feet of one another. Delta II units can also be stacked vertically up to 50 kW. We wouldn't be surprised to see quite a few of these 9-ft., 500-lb. turbines lining the upstairs of the Green Garage very soon.

Water Heater
The staff here is always looking for ways to be more efficient, even if they're relatively small. So Jay Leno invited the folks from A.O. Smith Water Heaters recently to bring their new, high-efficiency Vertex water heater to the Green Garage. Actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. came along to check out the installation, as well as to his garage. Ed was certainly impressed with the work so far, and he'ss exited about this water heater, too.

A.O Smith brand manager David Chisolm and Bateman Water Heating Engineering's Scott Bateman explained that the Vertex isn't just a regular gas water heater: It generates a whopping 76,000 BTUs per hour, but it's also 90 percent efficient. Most home water heaters in service today are around 78 percent efficient, and tankless models are 80 percent efficient.

The key to this unit's performance is in the coil. Inside the tank, the Vertex has a "helical coil" heat exchanger, which essentially has an increased surface area exposed to the water compared to a conventional heater. This helps produce more hot water, more efficiently, and at a lower cost. The Vertex is said to produce as much hot water as much larger models and claims to provide a continuous flow of hot water--enough for hot shower after hot shower.

A.O. Smith says home owners are saving up to 30 percent on their hot water utility bill. Sounds good to us.



Jay Leno Water Heater Video Link

Jay Leno's Garage