Thursday, December 31, 2009

Renewable power in Jackson, Maine, redux

Some of our neighbors here in Jackson, Maine have worked themselves into an incredible tizzy over the proposals of Competitive Energy Service (CES), a regional wind power development company, to place an as-yet unspecified number of turbines on the ridge to the north, shared with the Maine Town of Dixmont. This proposal spurred the drafting of a Jackson wind power planning ordinance, which is sufficiently restrictive to end the company's project. The ordinance has not yet been subjected to a Town vote. The two sides are yelling at one another over whether or not the draft ordinance is subjected alone to an up-or-down vote, or whether the selectors may present an alternative ordinance, less restrictive.

The most recent developments are a pair of competing petitions in favor of the two options above, and some kind of proposal by CES, to share turbine ownership with the Town, possibly employing a Tax Increment Finance District. I haven't yet read this proposal, so I shouldn't write about it. I hope to read it today, since the Town office is open 12 - 5pm, assuming the weather permits.

As I began to write this, there is the small matter of an approaching storm, very large. Even wind turbine debates stop for big snowstorms in Jackson, Maine.

I haven't involved myself much in the Jackson debate since at the most recent count I have five other community-owned wind projects to assist, including the state-owned site at Charleston, Maine that is my current priority. My usual role is to measure the wind and perform the required power production analysis and cost-comparisons, as well as GIS wind mapping and planning. The Jackson anemometry is being performed by CES in any case, and although I did make some GIS maps earlier for the Town, and I made some comments on the draft ordinance, I haven't done anything else.

I don't have time or patience for yelling, in any case. All I can offer is science, and there's no reason to yell about that.

I can't do much science right now, even. I have not been able to see any of the data. I'd like to see data since that would allow me to perform an independent analysis of the company's proposals, to see if the claims made for the value of community ownership are reasonable. According to the anti-wind group's newsletter, the CES proposal suggests revenue of $400,000/year from one GE 1.5 MW turbine on the Town's land. This is in line with the $250,000 to $700,000 that is feasible with these turbines on Class 3 and above sites, depending on the power of the wind and the cost of capital.

This might be a helpful fact to know, that the proposed revenue is within the range of feasibility, or not. It would be necessary to have a full year's wind data from the Common Hill anemometer to know for sure. The company has the data. The fact is, if the data didn't show at least a Class 3 site, a preferably a Class 4, no such deal is possible. A dead duck.

One useful fact. No spin, no shouting at each other. No rude accusations of double dealing or mental aberration. Just a fact.

If my neighbors were willing to listen and be reasonable with one another, there are a number of other facts that I could tell them that would be helpful. Right now they're not willing. In fact, they're still very much in the shouting-at-each-other phase of "conflict resolution," as the pro-turbine side and anti-turbine sides compete to see if their side can end up holding all the cards and calling the shots.

There isn't very much room for science in this debate, so I'm well out of it. But sooner or later the manoeuvrings for absolute power over the proposal will resolve themselves and we'll either have a planning environment where turbines are permissible, or we won't. If we end up with a regime where turbines are viable, then there'll be a useful role for me to play in evaluating the proposals.

Other facts I'd like to evaluate:

1) Because of geography of power lines, the connection to the grid must be made through Dixmont. Another possibility is Thorndike, to the west. Dixmont has already passed a restrictive ordinance. Connection is an expensive part of turbine costs. How does the company propose to make the connection? What is their estimate of cost to the Town?

2) Comments made by the company representative at an earlier meeting in Dixmont indicate that the wind on 1200 foot Mount Harris is Class 4. If Mount Harris is Class 4, Common Hill, at 900 feet, is Class 3 or less. Is there enough wind? I'd like to know.

3) Is a TIF District proposed? If, so, for how much? is it a favorable proposition, based on the finances? I wrote the State of Georgia's Greenspace TIF law, and have some expertise in that regard.

For the time being though, asking these kinds of questions are impossible, mostly because the two sides are at each others' throats and will be for some time to come.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sustainability Activities 2009



Here's a You Tube movie I made out of the best of the year's photographs. We had an action-packed year with a lot of renewable energy, green building, and sustainable agriculture activities.

I threw in a couple of high angle rescue training clips too. This is actually a renewable energy skill, because high angle rescue capability is required by OSHA for work on turbine towers. This is the SAR variant, but the techniques are the same.

Photographers other than me:
Cody Floyd
Hanna Gauvin
Megan McClelland

Friday, December 18, 2009

Career counselling?

What advice would I give to a student looking for a career in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate change mitigation?

This is an interesting question, as our Unity College admissions calendar is well in progress and the Admissions Office is assembling next year's entering class. It's also in the news. Each morning, if I have time, I read the New York Times and scan the education section headlines, and lately the paper has been full of articles about admissions.

I encounter the admissions process through visits by high schoolers. I generally meet most of the entering students in our Sustainability Design and Technology Program one or two years before they attend Unity College. They come for a visit, or attend one of our Open Houses, meet me, and we have a conversation.

The conversation that I can have with them at that point is naturally shallow, as are most processes associated with this stage of the choosing-a-college process. I can't tell you how many students have shown up to talk, only to realize that they were looking for something completely different. Students show up thinking that we offer a program in household installation, for instance. Or they somehow arrive believing that they can have a career in energy without doing science or math.

Often the first thing I ask is, "so you want to be an applied scientist working in the energy field" When they're stumped or bemused by this question, that's a bad sign. They hadn't realized that what we offer is a science degree in energy. I don't know how high schoolers show up at my door thinking this, but they do.

Indeed, I'm not sure how high school and college age people think or where they get their information from.

Which is good. That's not really my job.

But every week I have long conversations and/or email correspondence with half a dozen to a dozen different professionals that already work in this field. Sometimes we are talking or writing about students, setting up internships or projects, for instance. But more often than not I'm helping solve real world problems that these professionals encounter, in energy analysis, anemometry, finance, or legislation. They call me up or email me for answers, to stay in touch, to learn how to do new things, or I call them for the same reasons.

So I know what these well paid professionals do for a living, how they or the businesses they work for make money, what the skill sets are that they seek in order to make more money, and how to train students up to the proper standard in those skill sets.

That is my job, isn't it?

Thank heavens I don't have to think like a high schooler, though!

What I have to do instead is put the information needed in the workplace into forms and levels that high school and college-entry age folks can understand.

So, based on that information, what advice do I have for the student seeking a degree program and remunerative employment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate mitigation?

First, up, lay down the iPod, get off Twitter or Facebook, remove all distractions, and settle down for at least a minute.

You're going to need to learn to concentrate.

The modern world is full of distractions for all people, young and old, and the way that the field of energy and climate is evolving is no different. There is all kinds of spin and greenwash. But the great majority of successful professionals I encounter are not this kind of person. They are analysts and engineers, number crunchers and applied scientists who have a natural tendency to want to solve practical problems in making green energy or saving dirty, brown energy and in accounting for the emissions that are reduced when either of the above happen.

This is good, because this is where the money is, that pays their salaries. Energy is valuable, and green energy more valuable than brown, so if you know how to make green energy or save brown energy, then you know how to make or save money. You have to be able to account for making or saving that money if you want to get paid -- you must prove to your employer or the government that you are making or saving this money. But the potential supply of money to pay your salary is quite large. There's an awful lot of wasted energy in this world.

You need to learn to concentrate so you are capable of analyzing the energy problems of whatever organization you are working for, and solving them. Most organizations are complicated and energy can be made or saved in hundreds of different ways. It takes concentration to analyze all the ways and lay them out for study and pick the most cost effective ones and come up with physical improvements.

If you are prone to distraction, you won't do very well at this. So learn to concentrate.

The next thing I would say is, get real. Put away the ego. Stop noticing yourself. The world is not a stage on which you may play out the fantasy of your life. Get used to noticing, identifying, interpreting physical reality instead.

These energy problems are real problems with real physical embodiments. There's either a leak in the building envelope or there isn't. The oil level goes down faster or slower in the tank. The meter turns faster or slower, or if you're really good, backwards. Something physical has happened. You have made a difference or not.

You're in the picture, but you're not the important thing. The machine or the building that is using energy is the thing. Reduce the ego, get outside of yourself, and study the thing, not how you feel about the thing.

This is not a job for folks who enjoy telling fictional stories, for fantasists, or egotists, or grand-standers who like the idea of spinning out their own egos. Good analysts are often quite modest types, with modest dress and modest habits. Sometimes we're downright frumpy.

This is a job for somewhat grumpy Zen masters who can leave their egos at the door to the boiler room. People who are prepared to see things, to notice stuff. People who are more comfortable doing than being.

Pocket protectors, suspenders, toolbelts, sensible shoes, backpacks or handbags that contain useful stuff, these are all signs of the emerging energy master. Who cares what others think about how I look? It's not what I look that counts. It's what I know. My students may not be the most well dressed on campus. (But they will be the most well paid on graduation.) They are not the most gregarious, nor the most popular. Some, like me, tend to the grumpy.

But this is only because what we are interested in most is outside of ourselves, and we don't necessarily like what we see. When we get to the point where the thing we wish to fix is fixed, then we'll be happier.

The next thing I'm going to say is, be patient. Take your time to understand things.

Good news. This is a good area to be in right now. It's probably the best area to be in, from a job security and financial point of view.

Here's a common-enough type of headline about humanities majors who can't find jobs.

Our Sustech students won't have that problem. The energy sector, especially the renewable energy sector, proved relatively recession-proof during this latest business cycle droop.

Wind power in particular was one area where companies continued to hire during even the worst of the recession. And salaries are relatively high. Most of the just-left-college professionals I talk to, with only two or three or four years under their belts, get paid more than I do.

If I didn't love teaching and learning, I'd quit and take one of these jobs myself!

So why can't our Admissions Office find more students who want to work in this relatively recession free and relatively well-paid area? The usual American aversion to science, technology, engineering and math is one reason. There was a time when this country turned out the best scientists and engineers in the world, and in many ways that's still true, but you wouldn't think so sometimes, especially when you're trying to find a high schooler who wants a good career.

I don't know what it is that teachers and parents and pop culture does to scare students away from science and math, but it sure works.

Science and math is hard, but not that hard. One of the things that constantly amazes me in my energy outreach work is how easily people's eyes glaze over or they get confused when you show them a schematic, a spreadsheet, or a GIS map. People lack patience with complicated ideas. We geeks and wonks get paid because we have this patience. The huge STEM salary premium, the extra money you get paid for the rest of your life for being a bit of a wonk, is not so terribly hard to get.

You just have to be a tiny little bit more patient with science and math than the competition. That's all it takes.

Finally, I'd say, be prepared to change your ideas lots of times in life, based on new evidence and the emerging situation. I can't tell you what the price of a barrel of oil or a tonne of carbon will be in even one year's time, let alone for the rest of your career. But everything you want to do, every problem you want to fix, will be more or less easily fixed depending on those two metrics and many others. As the major facts of the energy and climate system change, so will you need to change. And you will need to be able to bootstrap yourself into new areas of expertise. the basic skills and knowledge: analysis and problem solving, physics, ecology, engineering, accounting, business skills, presentation skills, these will remain the same.

But the problem will change. So don't get stuck on one thing. Keep your eyes looking down the track. Read the papers and the blogs, trying to see what's ahead.

And keep your hard hat handy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My idea of a good time





We took a final, just-for-fun, field trip in our Wind Assessment seminar. This is a one-credit class in our Sustainability Design and Technology program in which students have learned how to measure wind using anemometer systems, how to assess wind measurements statistically and how to use the results to cost out the economics of turbine installations (of any size, small, medium, large), and a little bit about how to study turbine noise and planning problems.

We went to see local turbines spinning in the recent gale. First we saw our own small Air X model, which is hooked in parallel with a solar system, and has a cut-in voltage of 12.5, and so hasn't turned much this fall. A few non-sunny days and a bit of wind were enough to fix that, and it was spinning flat out.

Then we went to see Ervin's Amish wind compressor. It was shut down, having been working all day and the air tank being well above its cut-off pressure, but Ervin bled off some air and we got to see the pressure regulated furling system kick in. It worked beautifully.

As the air bled off, the air piston pressure reduced, allowing the tail vane to spring back into place, turning the turbine into the wind. It then spun up nicely, sounding a bit like a steam engine, only not so loud that you'd hear it from 500 feet away.

There is an Unity College anemometer on Ervin's tower, and we were pleased to see that now his compressor is "broken in," the cut-in speed is 10 mph. His tower was working well, too having survived a recent 45 mph gust, according to the anemometer.

We took pictures for Ervin to use in a sales brochure, and for Eli, another Amishman from the Schwartzentruber sect, who had some well-bred Baskir Curly Horses for sale that he wanted pictures of.

We were having so much fun hanging out at Ervin's farm, we never made it to the next two turbines on our list.

More stuff

More material for last week of class


http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/interactive/2009/dec/12/copenhagen-climate-change

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Noisy turbines and solutions

Here's a letter to one of our local Maine news sheets about how noisy the Fox Islands Wind project turbines are turning out to be.

I was expecting something like this.

It didn't stand to reason that you could build essentially an identical wind project to the Freedom Ridge one and not have the same kinds of problems.

So, as she says, we need to learn from this. One take-home is that the GE 1.5 MW S and SE models make more noise than expected, and possibly even seem more noisier here in Maine than in other environments. Why?

Two words: Wind shear.

For months now I've been telling anyone who will listen that we have surprisingly high wind shears in Maine.

The wind shear exponent is the number used in the Power Law equation to estimate the power of wind the further off the ground you get.

A high wind shear means more powerful wind further up. A low wind shear means relatively constant winds as you climb up the atmosphere. The standard wind shear tables stop at 0.3, supposedly the highest normally encountered, but in Maine in summer (when there are leaves on the trees and thus more blockage to the ground-level wind) I have measured wind shears (using simultaneous anemometry) at 0.45 and higher. A project in Massachusetts on the coast measured wind shear from one particular direction in summer at 0.57. A project in an area of coniferous trees, such as the one on Vinalhaven, would have constant high wind shears all round the compass and the year. One in an area of deciduous trees, such as the one on Freedom, would have higher wind shears in summer than in winter.

A high wind shear means you can have winds above 12 mph up high, at say 80 meters, one standard height of a GE 1.5 tower (they also come in 65 meter versions), powerful enough to turn a turbine and make noise, and low winds or none at ground level.

Meaning there may be no ground level ambient noise to drown out a turbine.

In Texas, Iowa, Scotland and Samso, other places where turbines have been used, with relatively low wind shears, there will be ground level winds and ground level ambient noise that will drown out the turbines.

In Maine there may not be.

Does this mean we can't have either commercial or community owned wind power plants in Maine? Of course not.

It means we have to plan them more carefully for noise, use more inclusive models of finance, and expect to get some noise.

Using more inclusive models of finance, especially some community ownership, is key. Noise like this is much more of a problem for commercial operations than it is for community ones because there is no reward, or not much of one, for the community sacrifice. If the only community benefit is taxation at around $50,000 per turbine, give or take 50% depending on the mill level, that's not enough.

But a GE turbine in a high electricity cost area, such as Vinalhaven which pays up to 25¢/KWH, may yield power worth $750,000 a year to the community. From which a stream of income comes that is large enough to compensate the community for its sacrifice.

Vinalhaven has three turbines. A couple million dollars a year is a lot of income to a town that may have only a one million dollar/year budget.

Our anti-wind groups will cry foul, that the turbines are providing such large incomes and so "buying" votes. But I would say that this is a community decision, whether or not to have such turbines, and not up to anti-wind advocates unless they are local, in which case they get one vote, and one say, like everyone else.

But there is the noise to consider. Planning projects should be designed to minimize nuisance, but they can't be designed to prevent all nuisance. Should I be permitted to object to State Route 7, which goes right by my house making 50-60 decibels until quite late at night for many Jackson residents who live right on it? Or to the Great Farm Rifle club a couple hundred yards away where my neighbors may shoot machine guns for fun, on Sunday to boot, making 80-plus decibels in my dooryard?

Turbines are quieter than these other nuisances if planned properly.

Does this mean that blanket setbacks, such as the one-mile ones proposed for Dixmont or Jackson are required?

No. In fact, such setbacks are possibly capricious and violate planning standards for that reason. A performance standard is much better. A community or developer that has to meet a performance standard has the option of using a quieter or smaller turbine. The blanket setbacks apply to all turbines above a certain KW rated capacity, usually 100 KW.

If Fox Islands Wind had used Northwind 100s instead of GE 1.5s, I venture to guess that there would have been much less noise. A blanket setback affects smaller turbines as much as it does larger ones, and so is not properly tailored to the particular nuisance it seeks to control.

As I've mentioned here and to anyone who will listen, the Supreme Court standard for planning, since Lucas vs. South Carolina Coastal Commission, is that planning regulations can be used to avoid a public nuisance or "noxious use," even to the extent of a constitutional "taking" of some value from an owner's property. But the Lucas ruling also says that the regulation must promote some clear public interest, clearly identified "background principles of nuisance and property law that prohibit the uses" landowners intend.

This has been generally taken to mean that rational and even scientific systems be used to measure the nuisance and abatement, so that we can positively identify the nuisance, and that regulations be tailored to actually deliver nuisance abatement based on the science.

This, in a nutshell, is why I had to go to Vinalhaven last month to put up an anemometer next to a decibel meter, so the nuisance could be measured, to determine if it did or did not comply with the DEP's noise regulations.

A blanket setback that disallows the use of a quieter turbine to reduce noise from a proposed development does not meet the Lucas standard. The nuisance the blanket setback was intended to control was noise. But the noise can be controlled without the setback. Therefore the regulation has "taken" some value in the owner's property, the value of the right to put up a quieter turbine. It's just a matter of time before a landowner sues to regain this right.

There would have been much less power produced too, though, if Vinalhaven had used smaller turbines. While a GE 1.5 may produce five million KW a year, a Northwind 100 will only produce a couple hundred thousand.

I venture to think that the dust will settle on the Vinalhaven project more by the community buying out the neighbors who have noise than by the community giving up on a couple million dollars a year, widely distributed through cheaper power bills and even through buying out the houses of those most affected. Which houses will no doubt promptly be resold to other buyers who can live with the turbines.

But I guess we'll wait and see.


>>>>>>>



-----Original Message-----
From: XXXXXX
Subject: FW: Very sad news from Sally Wylie of Vinalhaven


Sent: Wednesday, December 09, 2009 5:50 PM
To: undisclosed recipients:
Subject: Very sad news from Sally Wylie of Vinalhaven


Hard lessons from the Fox Islands Wind Project


by Sally Wylie



North Haven and Vinalhaven Schools were let out for the ribbon cutting ceremony on November 17. Students passed out colorful pinwheels and excitement was in the air. Governor John Baldacci joined the crowd. First District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree flew in from Washington, D.C. to join her daughter Hannah Pingree, Speaker of the House, in order to celebrate the completion of the Fox Islands Wind Project. As one speaker said, this was the largest group of North Haven and Vinalhaven residents together, ever! The turbines were running, the community had pulled together, and with the support of the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative Inc., the Island Institute, and George Baker, CEO of Fox Islands Wind LLC (FIW), remarkably, the dream of community-based wind power on Vinalhaven was a reality!



Amongst the participants were many of us who are neighbors of the turbines. Although our group overwhelmingly supported the project, we now live with the daily presence of turbine noise, 24/7. As one of the Fox Islands Wind Neighbors (FIWN) recently noted, "We support the windmills, but not the noise." The noise is as constant as the wind, building in intensity according to wind speed and direction. It can be a low rumbling, whooshing, grinding background noise that one can just hear above the sound of the trees or it can build to an in-your-face noise, like jet engines roaring combined with a grinding and pulsating sound that echoes in your head, keeps you awake at night, and beats on your house like a drum.



As neighbors of the wind turbines, we find ourselves in the midst of an unexpected, unwanted life crisis. When GE flipped the switch and the turbines began to turn, island life as we knew it evaporated.



As I watched the first rotation of the giant blades from our deck, my sense of wonder was replaced by disbelief and utter shock as the turbine noise revved up and up, past the sound of our babbling brook, to levels unimagined. It was not supposed to be this way!



During informational meetings, on the Fox Islands Wind website, in private conversations, and with personal correspondence, we were all told that ambient noise from the surrounding area would cover the sound of the turbines. This was our expectation. The Fox Islands Wind August 31 cover letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) explained, "When the turbines are generating higher sound levels, background noise will be higher as well, masking the sound of the turbines." On the Fox Islands Wind Web site FAQ we read, "The blades passing through the air can make a 'whooshing' sound and mechanical parts or unusual wind currents can produce a steady 'hum' or 'whine.'



However, ambient noise is usually louder than any noise produced by wind turbines and modern wind turbines are significantly quieter than older models." Our immediate experience was the reverse..



Since that moment of realization, we have been on a steep learning curve. Our days are filled with e-mail correspondence with neighbors and George Baker, of Fox Islands Wind, research on the noise pollution and health risks associated with turbine noise, research on the impact of low-frequency noise, research on technological solutions, research on the impact of turbine noise on domestic and wild animals, research on state sound regulations, conversations with the press, neighborhood meetings, meetings with the electric cooperative and FIW, a meeting with the DEP, multiple letters to our State Representative, Hannah Pingree, letters to Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, letters to the Vinalhaven Land Trust board members, e-mails to possible sound consultants, debates with neighbors as to how we will pay for a sound consultant, letters to the DEP where we are beginning to know everyone's name, and the list goes on.



We have been to the town office to copy tax maps and get the addresses of year-round and summer residents who live near the turbines. We have driven all over the island with sound meters, determining that the turbine sound can travel more than a mile in certain areas and noticing whose homes are impacted. We have spoken with people in town to spread the word. We have invited people to our homes to listen for themselves. We have learned and explained under which conditions the turbines are loudest and why. We have developed data sheets so we can keep daily noise observation records. We have worked to find the words and sounds to describe the noise, each perfecting our own imitation, some better than others. We have learned to count windmill rpm and discovered that above 15 rpm the noise is tough to take. We have read lengthy amendments and studied sound protocols. We have learned about state sound regulations and found that the 45 decibel limit that is designated as "quiet" in Maine, is truly a cruel joke. On our quiet cove, we now know that 45 decibels is loud.



We have studied spreadsheets, yearly wind speed records, and have worked to determine how much Fox Islands Wind can slow the turbines down and still cover the cost of the windmills. We are scrambling. We do not want to leave the homes we have built with our own hands, the gardens we have planted, the memories that are so much a part us, and the dreams we hold for the future. We are not looking for financial gain. We are desperate to gain back what has been taken from us.



From where we are sitting, it seems that the industry standard for turbine noise in rural areas is absolutely wrong! I cannot speak for all the Fox Islands Wind Neighbors on this, but my husband and I feel that, on a local level, well-meaning individuals made a critical miscalculation. Depending on wind speed, wind direction, etc., we estimate that households within a mile to a mile-and-a-half radius of the turbines are impacted by the sound. This is a very serious issue that affects many homeowners on Vinalhaven and could also, due to diminishing property values, affect the tax base of the town. In an island community, such as Vinalhaven, where people sincerely care about and support one another, we are in the position where economic gain in the form of reduced electrical rates/wind turbine debt could be pitted against community well-being. How willing will the Fox Islands Wind Cooperative and the community be to share the burden of this major miscalculation? Rather than bringing us together, the noise from the turbines has the potential to tear our community apart..



As I type, a computer is whirring away in our basement, sending wind speed data and noise level data to sound technicians in Boston. FIW is taking sound measurements, as required by the DEP, and it is our joint hope that they will be able to make adjustments to windmills in order to reduce the noise. Along with our neighbors, we are recording daily noise observations which sound specialists can use as a means to determine under which conditions the noise is most disturbing. We are eager participants in doing whatever we can to rectify the situation. We feel fortunate that Fox Islands Wind is controlled by the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative and that they are eager to work with us to find an answer.

However, it is very clear to us, that life as we know it on Vinalhaven has changed irrevocably. We understand that our best hope is to come to a reasonable compromise.



We are working with FIW to find a balance between the level of noise that is tolerable and the turbine speed necessary to produce electricity. This is a far cry from what we were told and what we expected. One has to wonder if wind turbine technology is truly ready to be implemented in rural areas. Community based wind power is a very good idea, a smart answer to our energy dilemma. The numbers actually work. It is just that our life-for us, and for our neighbors-does not. Ironically, for households within earshot of the turbines, the GE windmills fly in the face of island sustainability. Some islanders who lived close to the turbines were given the choice of either selling their homes or land to FIW at the assessed value or living with the turbine noise. Most chose to sell rather than live with the noise.



Others are trying to stay where they are with hopes that GE specialists and FIW sound specialists will find technological solutions. The Island Institute website states, "The Institute's perspective is fundamentally ecological. It understands that all life is intimately linked with its environment; that people are therefore an inextricable part of the ecosystem of the Gulf of Maine, that there is an interdependent web of existence more evident on islands than in other communities and landscapes." As is, there are some year-round families on Vinalhaven who feel their existence is being marginalized and the noise issue minimized.



Before any other island community takes the step towards wind power, come to Vinalhaven and see for yourselves the consequences of those actions. Come to our meetings. Come stand on our porches, listen to the nonstop roaring, thumping, whooshing, grinding sounds of the turbines, and compare it to the quiet you currently experience. Watch how our community struggles with this issue and see how we resolve it. Look at the compromises we make and decide if those trade-offs are worth it for you and your neighbors. For many islanders, a cohesive, caring community and good quality of life are of critical importance. Don't let the wind blow it away.



Sally Wylie lives on Vinalhaven and in Rockland. She is part of the group Fox Island Wind Neighbors.

http://www.workingwaterfront.com/online-exclusives/Opinion/13571/






Saturday, December 5, 2009

Best activity pictures of the semester

What did you do with your semester?

This is a cross section of what my students were doing. These are in reverse chronological order.

What these pictures have in common is that they are all "action shots" and unposed, although some of the subjects knew they were being photographed at the time and struck funny or silly poses.

You can click on an image to enlarge. Narrow or widen your browser window to make captions line up with photos.



"Dead-eye Dierdre," ready to shoot.



Snorri, the Womerlippi Farm rental ram, ramming it up for the camera.



Me, working on the decibel-linked anemometer for the Fox Islands Wind project



Ervin, one of our local Amishmen, climbs his turbine. He needs to get a safety harness.



Ervin concentrates on some welding



Kaylee and Heather board some boarding boards



SAR team students on a mock evacuation




Teaching the horizontal lower using the tandem system.



My favorite classroom setting



Getting ready for the lower



Learning to rappel



Spreading "mud" for the barn foundation: a dance choreography



Tough customers: Who you lookin' at?



A trenchant Unity character.



Cody on the tower at our Charleston wind assessment site



Et moi




Worm's eye view of a Freedom turbine



An Aaron in the wet

Friday, December 4, 2009

Boston Globe article on Unity Amish impacts this blog


The main purpose of this blog is to communicate with students and friends of the college, particularly to provide a place where our extended Unity College family of sustainability-minded folks can catch up. A secondary purpose is to create an ongoing record of materials used for teaching in my various classes, a kind of library reserve. It's also helpful to have a place to publish student work and have them get an audience.

A final use is just as an outlet for my frustrated journalistic and publishing "talents." I'm really too busy teaching, building, and working on community renewables and energy efficiency to have much time for writing, let alone serious research (although I would love more time to do both), but having a blog helps me stay in touch with developments in my fields.

So it was only of side interest for me that my Amish friend Ervin, who makes his own wind turbines, was the subject of a Boston Globe article this last Sunday, and that the article was front page news. I took most of a day off from barn-building to help host the reporter, Sarah Schweitzer, although that turned out to be largely unnecessary since she proved quite capable of finding her own way around. It was fun and educational to hear Ervin describe the family and Unity Amish church meeting's beliefs, their ordnung, and their outlook on the world. I learned a few things I didn't know. I was pleased for Ervin, although a little concerned too about the potential result.

But what was almost as interesting to me was the increase in interest in the college and our sustainability programs as a result. The graph is the results from my blog-tracking service for that weekend, and see the spike in hits on Monday. Four times as many as normal.

I hope the folks that visited for the first time went away having found something interesting.

Population offsets

Another pre-Copenhagen headline to make you think:


Rich nations to offset emissions with birth control


Radical plan to cut CO2 argues that paying for family planning is developing world is the best bet

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jim Hansen pre-emptively bombs Copenhagen

Copenhagen climate conference
Copenhagen climate change talks must fail, says top scientist

Exclusive: World's leading climate change expert says summit talks so flawed that deal would be a disaster

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/dec/02/copenhagen-climate-change-james-hansen


I might have expected this, although I wouldn't have guessed it would make the front page.

I'm not sure Jim is right about the politics.

I am sure he's right about the science.

Including trading. Although I helped pioneer some fairly creative uses of offsets in Maine (bundling Maine Housing energy efficiency improvements to gain offset income), that was perhaps hypocritical on my part because I've never really believed a trading regime would work that well in large scale. The main reason I wanted the offsets was because they were required for us by the ACUPCC, and was durned if I was going to pay for traffic lights in Portland Oregon, which was what another Maine college chose to do.

In this case, though, I think we need to get our first international climate agreement behind us. Climate treaty policy is going to be for the first decades of the 21st century what the General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trades (GATT) was for the last of the 20th century, all high level negotiations that set the terms of the balance of trading power throughout the world, and like the many rounds of the GATT, we need to get in the habit of having one.

There's another article that's interesting, too, an editorial by Sachs, headlined "Time to let the experts lead."

I liked his paragraph summary of what serious climate problem solving looks like:

"Here, then, is a proposal for the post-Copenhagen attempt to square up national and global policies so they add up to something more than more years of empty promises. Let's start by recognising that most of the human-made crisis emerges from a few pivotal human activities: how and what we grow to eat; how we mobilise and distribute energy; how we transport ourselves and our freight; and how we build our buildings and lay out our cities. Each related sector requires its own intensive strategy – to identify the kind of research and development activities, public infrastructure investments and public policy to accompany a positive price on carbon emissions, through permits or taxes. Countries would have a lot to share – for instance in new technological options – and a lot that would distinguish them, according to geography, resource base, development level, and more."

And


"...Copenhagen should be the end of negotiation by politicians with technical issues kept in the shadows or ignored. Let's get scientists, engineers and ordinary citizens involved in a true discussion about our common future, and especially the tradeoffs, costs and choices. Together we can prove that our world is still capable of reaching long-range agreements when our children's lives and wellbeing hang in the balance."

Monday, November 30, 2009

In our Backyard: DEP on Climate Chnage

Via Stef '06 at the DEP:

Take the Carbon Challenge, In Our Back Yard

The news about climate change these days can be distressing, if not down-right depressing. With Congress grappling over the intricacies of many-hundred-page climate bills, many of us feel powerless to accomplish much on that front. However, while not one of us will singlehandedly bring about a low-carbon future, each and every one of us can take actions in our own lives and homes to reduce our “carbon footprint”—that is, the amount of climate-change causing emissions our direct actions cause.

The New England Carbon Challenge (www.necarbonchallenge.org <http://www.necarbonchallenge.org/> ) gives us an opportunity to figure out just how much climate-changing carbon we are responsible for and provides realistic options for measures we can take to reduce that footprint. The Challenge is a joint initiative of the University of New Hampshire and Clean Air - Cool Planet
(www.cleanaircoolplanet.org <http://www.cleanaircoolplanet.org/> ) that works to educate, inspire and support sustained reductions in residential energy consumption.

According to the New England Carbon Challenge website, about half of all climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions come from households through their energy consumption for motor vehicles, home heating and electricity usage. With the Challenge’s Carbon Estimator, an individual can enter some basic household data (such as number of people in the home, gallons of heating oil used, etc.) and get an estimate of the amount of carbon emitted by that household in a year. From there it gives a number of options for reducing home energy consumption and the amount of carbon (and money!) saved by taking those actions.

The New England Carbon Challenge also offers opportunities for communities and organizations (such as schools, businesses, faith-based organizations and civic groups) to get involved and be recognized as leaders in reducing energy consumption, putting these towns and groups on the Energy Challenge Map and providing them with tools, resources, strategies, and support to help households estimate their emissions, map out a plan to reduce these emissions, and chart the community’s progress in achieving its carbon-reduction goals.

While not everyone feels compelled to halt climate change, almost no one will say no to saving a few bucks. The New England Carbon Challenge estimates that households that have taken the Challenge are saving about $755 a year in fuel and electricity costs. Now that’s worth taking the Challenge.

To sign up your community or organization, or to find your own household carbon emissions and steps you can take to reduce your emissions and save money, go to www.necarbonchallenge.org <http://www.necarbonchallenge.org/> .

This column was submitted by Andrea Lani, an Environmental Specialist with the Maine DEP Bureau of Air Quality. In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

National Forests accept climate role

The leadership in DC has been discussing this for a few years, but this is the first time I've seen a serious coverage of ground-level understanding.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/science/earth/29trees.html?hpw

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving, and the fixings...




Here's the result of Thanksgiving cookery at the Womerlippi Farm. Minus the pumpkin pie, which I forgot to put on the table for the photo.

Sprouts, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, lamb sausage and sage for stuffing: ours.

Turkey: Raised by an young Amishman called James, who at the age of 15 or 16 essentially runs his own farm and can drive a three horse plow with ease. Three Belgiums too, mind, huge 18-hand mega-horses.

Cranberries, stuffing bread, onions: Commercial.

And here's a slide show by provocative NYT artist/commentator Maira Kalman, whose work I like.

http://kalman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/back-to-the-land/?8dpc

I found it hard to read some of her comments. Apparently there are people who think that growing your own food is elitist.

Here's an example, the most egregious since it seeks to inject reverse racism:

"I’d rather the kids learned how to read, write and add rather than dig, clean up, and recite the elitist food cant of white people with too much money and time on their hands."

I may grow my own food on my own land that I struggled for years to be able to buy, and that may make me elitist, but I plan to do so until the day I die.

I tend to feel more like I'm reclaiming my birthright as a working class Englishman and a Yorkshireman from a rural area now swamped by suburbs, reclaiming in fact what my grandfather and grandmother tried to teach me, but were not able to succeed at, thanks to the distractions that engaged me as a teenager. I also tend to think that what we do here on this small farm is a natural consequence of the many years of thought my wife and I have put into our criticism of society, and represents our own effort to change that for the better.

We raise affordable, high quality meat, eggs, firewood, fleece (for yarn), and vegetables that we sell for a reasonable price, or often just give away.

How is that elitist? Somebody needs to get out of the city once in a while.

Never one to dodge an argument, I posted the above response on the NYT site.

I should have added that since of course we both also teach math, science, reading and writing to students of all backgrounds, we both also believe in education. But if that education is only fitting to secure the recipients a better-paid place in the machine, and not the fierce independence of thought Aimee and I value so highly, then it will be at least partially a wasted effort.

And who then will renew society and make it better each generation? A society too, that will always need to eat.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Important new planning case

The state can seize land for economic development if the area is "blighted."

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/25/nyregion/25yards.html?hpw

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A different kind of anemometer, on a different kind of island



I received a call Friday from an interesting Maine personality, George Baker, CEO of Fox Islands Wind, LLC, and professor at Harvard Business School.

George had just completed the commissioning process on the important Fox Islands wind project, a 4.5 MW wind farm out on the island of Vinalhaven, and Maine's pioneer community-owned wind project.

Vinalhaven island is home to one of Maine's signature communities of practical lobstermen, back-to-the-landers, and well-heeled refugees from the lower 47, a very quaint, sometimes twee, always fiercely independent kind of life.

Now they get to make their own power.

George needed an anemometer system pronto, to comply with a (somewhat) surprise DEP permitting requirement that a logging decibel meter and logging anemometer be installed to record and study any possible wind nuisance above DEP levels. If he couldn't get this installed, he might have to turn off the turbines, which would lose beaucoup money for the community.

As one of only a handful of folks in the state who have this kind of gear "just lying around," and an advocate for community-owned wind power in Maine, I was more than happy to help. Luckily, the call came at the start of my nine-day Thanksgiving break so I had time to help.

This resulted in a three-day burst of activity. The logistics, brain, and muscle-power involved in putting up any serious anemometer tower are formidable and stress inducing. Hundreds of parts, lots of details, a dozen specialized jobs each with its own special tool. Annoying knacks to several tasks that experienced guys just do, while the rest of us struggle for hours. Heavy physical labor. Cold steel that hurts your hands to touch in winter.

Add the slight further difficulty of a remote island site with a 75 minute ferry ride, and you can imagine the potential result.

This is one of those cases where you think of everything that will happen, and then think of everything that is likely to happen, and then think of everything that just might happen, and try to be ready for all of them, and the thing you didn't think would happen at all!

We had a fun-filled if slightly frenetic day. My instinctive response to this kind of stress is to slow down a bit and use my brain more, which I'm sure was frustrating for George, who's the kind of high-powered guy that juggles about four lives and six major projects, all successfully. A brain on overdrive, like a fast car.

Me, my brain is 4WD and works best in low range. An old Land Rover. 1961 Series !. Ex UK military. "As is."

I consider it a successful workday and a good time, if, at the end of the day, the equipment is installed, works, and no-one is injured or hurt. If it looks even likely that something bad might happen, I slow down and drop a cog.

Then I go home to my one life and slow right down some more.

The device we installed is 30 feet out of a 60 meter NRG TallTower system. We have an anemometer and vane at 30 feet, another anemometer at 15 feet, and a temperature recorder at logger height. Instead of cutting our 60 meter cables, worth a hundred dollars or more each (and there are 24 of them!), we got replacement cable in shorter lengths.

The system is installed in a somewhat sheltered location, juts outside the 1,000 foot radius from the turbine. It is designed to study the case or phenomenon in Maine that is somewhat common, where our high wind shears keep turbines running, but the low ground winds mean low ambient noise, and so the turbine is noisier than it would be in Iowa or Minnesota or Scotland where high ambient winds rustling trees and leaves drown out turbine noise at around 1,000 feet or so.

The day was fairly successful and we erected the tower without incident and got the logger running and even made the ferry back with time to spare.

Which means that the turbines can keep turning and making power and money for the islanders, and reducing climate emissions to boot.

Amen to that.

I couldn't take students on this project, all sensible students being safe at home for the break, but we can go back for some follow-up work in a few weeks time.

Students will enjoy the trip to the island. I did. When I wasn't working flat out.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dismal science?





We all could save more emissions than we do. I expect, for instance, if I cut my satellite TV and book-buying habits down, and undertook one or two other economies, I could afford the payments on a Toyota Prius, and poop-can my 12 year old Escort station wagon, saving between 10 and 20 mpg.

Actually, the Prius would be the wrong move.

Let me explain:

For a good deal less, I could buy my wife a Chevy Aveo, and save even more gas -- simply because she drives a Nissan Frontier pick-em-up truck, which, although pretty good for a pick-up, is far worse a guzzler than my modest "shop teacher" wagon with all the tools in the back, and the up-to-date oil change stickers.

This is the paradox of fuel efficiency -- you can save more emissions by switching from a moderate guzzler like the Nissan, which gets 19 mpg for an EPA highway mileage estimate, albeit a bit more the the way Aimee drives, to a moderate saver like the Aveo which gets 34 mpg, than you can from switching from a moderate saver like the Escort to an efficient saver like the Prius.

At today's prices, neither switch pays for itself. The cost of owning the Aveo is about $160/month plus gas savings, the Prius about $300/month. It would take much more savings in gas, or a cheaper price, for even the Aveo to pay for itself. However, if, as is likely the Nissan becomes in need of more frequent repairs, the Aveo might make out.

And if I had enough money to buy the Prius? I'd buy some more insulation for my house instead. I'd save more emissions that way.

This is the sort of calculation that makes romantic environmentalists, and Toyota marketers, mad. If you are purely a moralist and like your rights and wrongs in black and white, having someone tell you that you'd save more emissions by buying a more modest, less holier than thou, vehicle, is not what you want to hear.

But the numbers speak for themselves.

I've only been thinking about this because I just put about $1,000 into the Nissan and am not done yet. And I quite like the Aveo. It won't do me any good though. Aimee likes the Honda Fit. She likes all that funky storage room. I promised her one last year, but we got the secondhand Escort instead because it was a nice deal at only $1,200 from another UC prof (thank you Barry).

Now switching from the Nissan to another secondhand Escort as nice as this one?

Such a deal.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deteriorating carbon sinks

Ocean acidification is reducing the effectiveness of the oceanic carbon sink. We knew this, but now we have a new, better data set and a better explanatory model.



http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/19/science/earth/19oceans.html?hpw



and

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v462/n7271/full/nature08526.html

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

New EV program touted

I would like an EV, and had I the time, I might have made one like my buddy and colleague Tom Gocze of Hot and Cold TV fame.

But the next best thing would be to trade in our 1999 Nissan on a 2010 Nissan Plug-in Hybrid and get a serious tax break for early adoption.

Read about it here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Religious environmentalism and how ideas change



Photo: We attended an Amish wind turbine raising in Unity Maine, on Wednesday. These home-built turbines, which make compressed air, not electricity, may soon be made illegal by several local towns. Do the Amish have a different mental model of energy and sustainability than the rest of American society? Does their religion affect the way they think about energy?



Three news items sent me to the bookshelf to pull down my PhD dissertation (on the potential effects of American religious environmentalism) and re-read the conclusion.

This was, I admit, a moment of pure academic self-gratification.

The Queen has been hosting world religious leaders at Windsor to discuss climate change responses. Al Gore, albeit expectedly, has released his new book on climate change, setting forth the religious and moral imperative for action. And Tim Nicholson, a young fellow in Britain, won the right to have his discrimination case heard in court against the firm that allegedly fired him for his religious environmental beliefs.

I told my thesis advisors and the small crowd that attended my dissertation defense in 2002 that religious environmentalism would be important one day.

"I told you so," gets you nowhere in life, particularly with your spouse.

Lately I've been interested in the number of people around me, and in the public arena, to whom I might have said this, were I less than diplomatic, and if I could.

Which has led me to more useful and productive thoughts about ideas and leadership and how people's ideas of how important systems in the world work change over time, also a topic of my thesis. It helps that I currently have a class, my Environmental Citizen "Build a Barn" class, to whom I am supposed to teach about such things.

One of my dissertation advisors, Willett Kempton of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of Delaware, wrote a rather decent book about Environmental Values in American Culture, still in print, which I used a good deal in my thesis.

Kempton, et al, hypothesized a relationship between people's actions on the environment and the mental models they held of environmental processes. "Mental models" are the explanations for phenomena that ordinary people use to understand complex systems and make decisions. The weather is a good example. Few folk are weather forecasters, but we must all make decisions about what to do based on what the weather will do. Anticipating good or bad weather can make or break a picnic or a wedding, or even, especially in Maine, make a mundane daily commute a huge challenge.

So most of us have a mental model of what the weather does in our region and walk around daily applying this model, making decisions about what to do. We get a lot of help from experts, of course, the forecasters on the TV or radio or these day the Internet.

But they can't make decisions for us. We have to do that.

So in Maine, the accuracy of your mental model of the difference between driving in the dark on the freeway in light powder snow versus heavy fluffy snow, when all the forecast said was "one to two inches of snow," may make a big difference. Knowing whether the snow that was forecast was likely to be light and powdery or wet and fluffy, based on your model and based on other factors like the air temperature, the direction of the storm, the wind, the itch in your big toe, is important to your life. However rational or irrational, if your mental model works for you or at least seems to work, you will cleave to it.

Many folks, possibly an increasing number, are still walking around thinking climate change will not affect them. And they are cleaving to this model. This disinterest, plus the recession, interference with the health care debate and the debate over the war in Afghanistan, have scuttled American progress on a climate bill for a while, and thus the Copenhagen conference.

Others, particularly our local anti-wind activists, are deciding that green energy is not for them, based on mental models, often somewhat mistaken, about how much climate change will affect the countryside they seek to protect, how much they will be affected by energy shortages, the amount of noise wind turbines make, their efficacy in actually reducing climate emissions, their cost-effectiveness, and mostly, how ugly they are.

And boy are they ever cleaving. Just ask our local selectors.

Once people have a model and become stuck to it, it is hard to change, however much evidence may pile up to the contrary.

As a degree-trained scientist and social scientist, I'm supposed to be good at changing my mind. We PhDs are beaten fairly soundly with the sticks of assumption-questioning and premise-challenging as we come through the gauntlet of highest academia.

This may not be good: we become like the proverbial two rabbis with three opinions on an issue between them. But at least we can change our minds.

Sometimes.

The religious ideas mentioned in the three articles are interesting to me as a scientist and a social scientist because they demonstrate the way that certain more reflective fields of discourse in society have a rare ability to change mental models and thus the minds of the people that hold them. It's hard to think of religion as one such field.

We tend to think of the mainstream world religions as things with timeless creeds, but the best religious organizations act more like philosophical think tanks for ordinary people, asking questions about moral behavior and trying to answer them while staying within the confines of the tradition, whether Talmudic, Biblical or Koranic.

This is definitely a better guide to right action than utilitarianism, whether of the capitalist libertarian sort, or the socialist welfare-maximizing sort.

Both, in the their time, have reduced people to slavery and could happily do so again. So for that matter have the three Abrahamic religions, and at least some followers of one of these seek to do it again.

But I think the mainstream religions do make a solid contribution to societal discourse, and I think Gore is right to suggest that climate change is a biq question for God.

The new scientific information about the planet's climate is a huge challenge to the various mental models we have of the good human society. If we live on a planet that can switch into an ice age or into a superheated phase more or less at will (or at least driven by Milankovitch cycles), where is God in that, and how does he want humans to live?

As a scientist and as a Quaker I don't generally expect God to tell me this. I expect to have to figure it out for myself, using rational thought, my own conscience, and above all, moments of quiet refection in which the most brutal self-honesty can move to the surface of consciousness. This particular praxis, to my mind, of careful reflection, marks the best, and hardest to implement, idea of my adopted tradition.

But I know most other religions feel a deep need to know what God wants them to do.

I do hope they figure it out soon.

NYT graphical analysis of unemployment

We'll have to discuss employment and related issues like unions soon in Introduction to Economics and Economic Criticism. When we do, this graphic will be interesting to study.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose; In Our Backyard

Via Stef 06 at the DEP.

With this greatest of recessions not showing any signs of letting up - at least for those of us not riding golden parachutes out of the collapsing financial industry - many people are turning away from the consumerist free-for-all and are instead making do with what they have and taking stuff that’s already out there in the world and giving it new life.

Unlike recycling, which breaks an item down to its component parts and makes it into something new (e.g. shredding newspapers and mixing them in the pulp to make new paper), or reusing, which doesn’t generally involve a modification of the reused object, repurposing takes something that’s out there already and changes it into something new and useful, without shredding or melting it back into raw material.

Repurposing has found a cozy niche among those who sew.  The internet abounds with instructions for wearable art made by dismantling old T-shirts and reassembling them into skirts, headbands or grocery bags, quilts, toddler pants, baby hats and more.  Vintage bed sheets offer up another treasure trove of colorful, ecological and cheap fabric for a myriad of projects from pajama bottoms and clothespin bags to picnic blankets and bath mats.  A trip to the nearest thrift shop (or your own closet) could easily yield enough material for all of your holiday crafting projects.
Not handy with a needle and thread?  A quick internet search reveals a number of ways of repurposing obsolete computer accessories - CDs decoupaged and made into coasters, CD cases turned into picture frames, and even a CD spindle turned into a bagel-carrier (technically this last is reusing but too clever to leave out). 

Have extra building materials lying around (along with a few tools and some carpentry know-how)?  You can turn a block of wood into a toothbrush holder, two pallets into a deck chair, five gallon buckets into a fence.  If your returnable bin is overflowing with bottles from a beverage of the grape variety, they can be combined with scrap wood and turned into modular shelving units that will attract attention.
If you got an A-plus in cut-and-paste, there are dozens of ways for you to repurpose paper projects.  Crafters have dismantled vintage children’s books, too damaged to be read, and made them into greeting cards or glued the illustrated pages onto vintage suitcases and metal buckets.  Magazine pages can be turned into light fixtures, bowls and picture frames. 

No matter what your skill set, there is a repurposing project out there to suit your needs.  Just hop on your favorite search engine and enter the words “repurpose” (or “recycle” or “upcycle”) and either the materials you are hoping to use up, or the final product you hope to create.  For those of you who haven’t felt the economic pinch, but want to show off your green credentials, hundreds of artists and craftspeople ply their repurposed wares online, ready for you to contribute to the greening of the earth and to their own personal economic recovery.

This column was submitted by Andrea Lani, an Environmental Specialist with the Maine DEP Bureau of Air Quality.  In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Indoor air quality

Via Stef '06 at the DEP:

In Our Back Yard; Cleaning Up Indoor Air
 
Will an air purifier help me?
 
Many people these days are worried about the quality of air in their homes or offices.  Many of these people try to make their air better with air purifiers or air cleaners.  Unfortunately, this may not help.  Here’s why.
 
Many air purifiers or air cleaners are really ozone generators.  These usually claim they “make your air smell as fresh as after a spring rain.”  Some advertise they “clean your air with ions,” or that “charged plates pull the particles from your air.”  The idea of these devices is that they either cause the pollutants in the air to become oxidized (and theoretically less harmful); or they make the contaminants become electrically charged so they will stick to ‘charged plates,’ filters, or anything else that can have a static electrical charge- like a TV screen, walls, carpet, or hair.
 
As the name says, ozone generators make ozone, which everyone knows is harmful when made by pollution outdoors.  The ozone from air cleaners/purifiers is the same ozone, but is made by an electrical charge instead of a chemical reaction.  It takes a lot of ozone to “clean” the pollutants out of indoor air, but it does not take too much ozone to hurt people.  This means that an air cleaner/purifier that ‘cleans’ the air is making enough ozone to be harmful, and one that doesn’t harm people doesn’t really ‘clean’ the air.  A side effect of using ozone to clean the air is that the by-products made when ozone reacts with things in air are often more dangerous than the original pollutant.
 
So what should you do?  The best thing to do is reduce or remove the source of your air quality problem.  For many people, it means cleaning your house differently or with different products.  For example, use better vacuum cleaner bags, which don’t let as much dirt and dust escape when vacuuming.  This means buying the packages of 3 bags for $10, instead of the packages of 10 bags for $3.  Damp mop the floor instead of sweeping, to keep dust down.  Use cleaning products that advertise low fumes, or no fragrance, because the fumes and smells can bother people.  Mold problem?  Find and fix the water problem that let the mold grow, then remove the mold or mold-contaminated materials.  Stop mold from starting by drying up water leaks, spills, etc. in less than 48 hours.  Not sure what the problem is?  Play detective.  The source of many problems is not too hard to find.  It is usually easier to stop the problem than it is to deal with it once it happens.
 
If you feel you really need an air cleaner, consider one that only filters air.  And make sure you change the filters!  For more information on air purifiers, or how to find what your air quality problem might be, go to this federal Environmental Protection Agency website at http://www.epa.gov/iaq/, or the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council at www.miaqc.org .
 
This column was originally submitted in 2003 by Bob Stilwell, the Radon Section Leader at Maine CDC.  In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Another post on Revkin's blog

Sometimes, for sport and to keep my mind working at a level appropriately higher than that of some of the students I teach, or indeed the bad TV I watch when I'm too exhausted from teaching (only some of) the students I teach, I post on Andy Revkin's blog at the New York Times. It seems a shame to lose this writing, so I sometimes copy it here to my own blog where I can at least keep it "for posterity," if there is such a thing in the Google-sphere we all live in these days.

(Tom Paine had it so much easier. Sigh.)

This was in response to Andy's post on the current climate change bill and whether or not it would actually work well enough. Some well meaning criticism in this regard from policy folks at the EPA will have the effect of helping to scuttle the bill.

(On the efficacy of the current bill in the Senate, or why it doesn't matter so much that it probably won't work that well.)

This problem is of the same nature as the kind of large scale market-conditioning programs in Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, or FDR's depression era Ag bills.

It will take decades, and many many adjustments to meet the ultimate goal of reducing all climate emissions, including CO2 which is the primary focus of the current bill, to safe levels. We'll be tweaking these regulations for generations to come, and we'll need to have subsidiary programs in land use management, household and building energy efficiency, and since we are unlikely to be 100% successful, emergency management for floods and wind and such.

Likewise, the various Great Society welfare programs conditioned the labor market for decades and their various descendants still do. The results vary by state and manifest themselves in different ways, but the primary result is to set the break-even point at which a person must enter the workforce to improve their living standard. This is not an insignificant calculation, and has knock-on effects in crime and population, among others.

Likewise the federal form for financial aid, or FAFSA, which unites most of the Great Society and other educational programs, conditions the market for higher education, setting the hurdles which students must jump over, or crawl around somehow, to get the education that will make up for what seems from my jaundiced vantage point to be the routine failure of the high schools.

(Want to reduce the cost and time involved in college education? Pry the high-schoolers away from their cell phones and actually teach them algebra, or how to parse a sentence in English.)

And the regular round of Ag bills conditions and reconditions the market for commodities and farm aid of all different kinds.

The result in many cases are less than efficient in operation. There are large transactions costs which create a market for middlemen and arbitrage of all different kinds. Sometimes these are officially approved and fully socially acceptable, such as college student financial aid officers. We see the inverse in the recent ACORN scandal. In some cases the transactions costs create economies of scale, so for instance, major research universities have an easier time getting Ag Bill research grants than small private colleges. (He said somewhat sadly.)

Strict conservatives might like to do away with all of these systems and have a fully \"free market\" but are routinely defeated in this by their own favorite special interests who have some sacred cow to defend. 'Twas ever thus, I believe, in American society. I'm reading Brinkley on Roosevelt (TR) right now, and the history of the patronage-infested \"spoils\" system he fought, and Mancur Olsen (\"The Logic of Collective Action.\") came to speak to my graduate class in environmental governance.

So, although I'm much in favor of climate legislation and anyone of reasonable intelligence should be too, it would seem at least likely that if this continues to be a priority, which it will because nature is in charge of that timetable, not us, then we will make a start with a first climate bill and then add programs and amendments and probably in twenty or thirty year's time there will even be a climate reform movement, much as there was a welfare reform movement in the 1990s.

This sort of result is what you get when you have as many checks and balances as we do in American legislative life.

From this point of view, climate is like health care. It may not matter much where you start. If even one state solves the problem of un-insurance and under-insurance using tools made available by a national bill, then others will follow suit, albeit in their own way and own sweet time. Even one successful state-level co-op will serve. Opponents of government-run or-sponsored health care realize this, I believe and are out to scuttle even the foot in the tent door, thinking it more of a camel's nose. Although the metaphors are murdered, they are probably right.

So does it really matter that much where we start? We probably aren't going to do anything terribly serious until another city or two is destroyed in any case.

We just aren't that bright. But we will muddle through somehow.

Meanwhile, in case no-one noticed, the stimulus package is also a climate bill of sorts, as it has already shifted resources into weatherization, wind, and the like. Because although solar PV power may not be cost effective right now, good building design and insulation certainly is, and so, thanks to some subsidies already in place as well as some expert technical developments on the part of GE and Vestas, is wind power, and so is solar thermal hot water. Right now there is enough work for two or three of me just at my one small college.

Anyone who believes renewable energy and green building is not currently cost-effective is an idiot who doesn't know how to read a spreadsheet.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Watching the oil and gas peak manifest slowly

For anyone who wonders what peak production of fossil liquid and gas fuels might feel like, this Guardian article is interesting.

Notice that the shortage is politically and economically manipulated by anyone who has a finger in the pie and market or political power over the resource, including the Russians, the two largest UK political parties, the gas companies themselves, the EU, the Norwegians, and, behind the scenes, multiple unions and of course, the newspapers, looking for a scary headline.

While the real story is as mundane and banal as a few empty gas reservoirs and the worry that a state-owned gas monopoly won't honor it's contracts. The rest is just political and commercial noise.

But isn't that how an economic shortage will manifest itself?

No-one wants to be cold. But see how each thread is connected to the next, and how hard it is to separate physics from politics and commerce?

And isn't it the European's own fecklessness and foolishness that gives the Russians such power? And are we not subject to similar idiocies, even here in Maine?

When I was a kid in the 1960s, Britain was powered and heated by indigenous resources: primarily coal and hydropower. Every house on my row-house street in Sheffield had not one but two coal fireplaces, and used about 25 lbs of coal a day in winter. Coal was cheap, and came out of the ground less than a dozen miles away. Of course it was filthy and we shouldn't redeploy it widely today without a working CCS system. But it was under our local and national control. What electricity there was that didn't come from coal came from hydropower in the Welsh, Cumbrian and Scottish mountains, and Britain's independent nuclear power.

But if you have told us, in 1972 or 1973, that we were better off with this mix than with clean oil and gas, we would probably not have believed you. We thought of coal as dirty and outdated, hydropower as industrializing the mountains, and we believed oil and gas were the energy supplies of the future.

I guess we wanted to be like America.

In the same seasons that Monty Python so funnily debunked legendary Yorkshire hardiness in the "When I were a lad..." scene, the not-so-funny forces were gathering that would eradicate the coal system in Britain. By 1979, Britain's newly-elected free-market conservative PM, Margaret Thatcher, knew she needed to dismantle British unionism before she could dismantle the Welfare State before she could give the huge tax breaks she wanted to give to her upper class and upper middle class conservative supporters, most of whom were from the south where coal mines and mining villages were a foreign concept.

But the groundwork for this had been laid earlier by Labour itself, in an attempt to clean up city pollution in places like Sheffield. In the 1970s, the beginning of the end of Old Labour was there for anyone to see who was able to see it: the organized replacement of those coal fireplaces with government-provided gas heaters running on North Sea gas.

Did they think North Sea gas would last for ever?

The old saying about food, "you are what you eat," suggests that eating bacon is more than just bad for you physically. Is there an allegory in energy?

Certainly, whatever you think your politics are, at root all politics is money, and all money is made through the use of energy. Your political environment, particularly your political freedom, is directly conditioned by the forms of energy you use.

If northern Britain had still been heating with coal in 1984, the miners would have won their battle with Margaret Thatcher.

The result, of course, of all those free and subsidized gas heaters was that Britain got out of the coal business in a big way, the unions were broken, and large parts of the Welfare State dismantled. That might have been alright in the 1970s and 1980s when we had some North Sea oil and gas, but it set us up for the 1990s, when of course Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Soviet Union dismantled itself and began looking for cash industries with products the west actually wanted, and the current global oil and gas political system began to set itself up.

And now Britain, formerly energy independent, still sitting on one of the largest coal reserves in the world, is dependent on Russian gas for winter heat. While the US and its allies are struggling to find a way to pacify the middle east so oil prices will remain below $100 a barrel, so we won't have to all buy new electric cars and put up wind turbines and possibly nuclear power plants.

It's an uphill struggle, and one we had better begin to give up on. Let the Russians and the Saudis and Iranians hang on to their oil and gas.

So far we are lucky here in Maine. Unlike Britain, we don't have to worry too much about our energy stockpiles for the winter. As the weather gets colder here, and the snow begins to fly, most of us fill our oil tanks, which gives us a handy buffer, 250 gallons or more for most households and smaller buildings. Firewood piles in dooryards and palletized pellets in warehouses and basements all around the state are another huge buffer.

Gas of course behaves very differently: Pipeline pressure must be maintained for storage buffers to work at all. Which means, in effect that you have to put as much in at one end as you take out of the other, with just a few days or hours of excess. Feel sorry for the Europeans now at the mercy of Gazprom. We are lucky ours comes from Canada.

If anyone ever needed a better picture of why energy independence is so vital, this is it: however mundane the British exposure to Russian manipulation might seem, it is vitally important not to get in a similar position.

Maine has abundant renewable energy: biofuel, hydropower, wind, solar, and tidal resources. We will soon have to begin to really think about how to deploy them wisely. Thus far we've only been practicing, which is why our booming wind industry is in such ill repute with what is truly only a misguided and vocal minority.

This too shall pass. Think about it: If the Russians were restricting our gas, or prices zoomed back up to $140/barrel, and you could buy an full-American size electric or electric-hybrid sedan car for less than $20,000, wind would become as American as apple-pie, and as popular a New England product as maple syrup, although possibly never as uncontroversial.

But the political dynamic would be reversed and it would be the anti-wind activists that would be shouted down in town meetings by ordinary Mainers worried about energy, not the other way around.

And has anyone noticed that even in a recession, with 10% unemployment, gas is still just under $3.00 a gallon. Once the recession really ends, it's obviously going to zoom up again.

I'm not psychic, just because I can see this coming. It's a logical process of deduction. And we will embrace wind power here in Maine. Especially as we figure out how to have community-owned turbines and community micro-grids and electric vehicles, all working together.

Of course, the best energy unit is the one you never have to use in the first place. Insulation comes first. The stimulus money going into weatherization is a good deal for our national security and for jobs, but we will need to ramp up, and up, and up.

There is probably no more righteous activity in Maine right now than insulating and weatherizing peoples' houses. Maybe that's what our anti-wind activists should be doing with all their abundant energy and rectitude.

Transportation comes next. The sooner we get the new electric vehicles like the Volt and plug-in Prius widely available, the faster we can begin to disentangle ourselves from middle east politics, the quicker the Islamic petrostates such as Iran or Saudi Arabia will have to begin to solve their own internal problems, instead of exporting their radicals, who would otherwise focus inward, as terrorists, the faster we can bring our own troops home.

Developing Maine's energy and energy efficiency resources is the real public duty we all have to begin to accept.

We need to be sure not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, though. Reasonable restrictions on wind power development such as the State Model Wind Ordinance, or the few town-written ordinances not written by anti-wind activists or cobbled together from untested boilerplate downloaded from Wisconsin, make good sense.

We will need new standards for biofuel forestry operations, or our forestry lands will undergo a second round of Nader's The Paper Plantation syndrome, only this time to make pellets.

And we need to deploy this energy wisely and efficiently, using localized production and other "smart grid" ideas to offset transmission losses and create a "hardened," more secure grid, with lots of the local, separable micro-grid nodes that would help us keep the power on in more locales, the next time a big ice storm hits.

One new thing I'm excited to see when I visit CAT next year (see below) is the micro-grid switchgear that lets the Centre disconnect itself from the UK grid and run as a stand alone local grid.

I wish we had one of those in Jackson, Maine.

Today, I think, will be an energy day. I need to get some more firewood. And I think I will refill the spare gas tank for my generator.

Let's increase the buffer a little.

That sounds like a good, precautionary Sunday's chores.