Saturday, October 31, 2009

More CAT photos, from trip #s 2 and 3

Here to go with the earlier notes on our upcoming field trip to CAT are a series of photos I took on previous trips. (The ones in the previous posts belong to CAT)

Click on each photo to enlarge.

From top to bottom: Professors Womersley and Phillippi get recycled.

The wind tunnel demonstrator with wind turbine "gloves": discover the principles of "lift."

One of several hydro-power demonstrators, this one with a cut-away window to see the Pelton wheel working (while still producing electricity).

A solar panel with attached voltmeter on gimbals: rotate towards sun to get the best power supply. Solar panels do best with full, direct sunlight.

A retured wind turbine blade with chronology of wind power. Humans have used wind power for hundreds of years.

Another solar power display: This one has big "clouds" to use so you can see the power loss from dappled sunlight.

The Eco-Cabins, where we'll stay.

An ancient remnant forest in Wales, of oak. Welsh and other UK native woodlands are similar in species and species composition to New England, part of the same biome, another northern temperate hardwood forest. But deforestation has reduced woodlands to a fraction of what they were in the UK, while here in Maine our woodlands are expanding.

Notes on field trip class to CAT, spring break 2010

Images courtesy of CAT, in reverse order: The "Whole Home" display, the community-owned and run Vestas V17 wind turbine, and volunteers out for a hike in the Welsh countryside.

These notes are for students considering attending my upcoming Environmental Science (ES) seminar on renewable energy, to be held over next spring break at the Centre for Alternative Technology, or CAT, Machynlleth, Wales.

This will be my fourth visit to CAT, and each time I've become more fascinated with the history and boot-strap effort that has gone into development of what is now Europe's best, and probably best-loved, demonstration center for renewable technology and energy efficiency.

I decided I would like to share this exceptional place with students, not in the least because I desire that Unity College become at least as good a site for the demonstration and application of renewable and energy efficiency technology, a process I imagine being led by students in the Sustainability Design and Technology degree program, and others, involving many more hands on projects such as the wind turbine near the Eco-Cottage, or the new animal barn.

(Adding to this interest is the personal fact that my maternal grandmother was born in Macynlleth and grew up around there, a Welsh-speaking Welsh farm girl, living until just after WW1 and her thirteenth year on a small plot close by in the village of Pennal. Being a "Jones" (the most common Welsh surname) from Pennal meant she was part of a large, but long-lost, extended family. I probably have large numbers of direct relatives all around that area, both walking the streets and deposited in the graveyards, none of whom I have ever known at all. An orphan and step-child, she was pressed into household service for a wealthy upper-class English family in the industrial city of Sheffield (at age thirteen!), and so lost her Welsh heritage, but she never abandoned her Welsh identity and passed it on to her two grandchildren, myself and my sister, who now makes her home in Wales.)

Accordingly, we will travel together via Boston and London to CAT at the beginning of Spring Break 2010. For Americans visiting the UK, of which Wales is a semi-independent principality (a country whose head of state is a prince), with it's own language and government, a valid US passport but no visa is required. (There is a Welsh branch of the US Embassy here.)

Your participation in this class requires your attendance at CAT from Saturday 13th to Friday 19th March (6 nights). There are no exceptions and it will not be permissible to be absent from the site during this time, unless it is on an official hike or other organized activity.

It will still be the dead of winter here in Maine, but thanks to the wonders of thermohaline circulation, it will be early spring in Wales, quite warm, possibly sunny, likely rainy and misty, with daffodils in the roadsides and green leaves budding on the earliest trees. Wildlife will be active. Newborn Welsh lambs will be playing in farm fields and hills.

It will be good weather for long, possibly soggy walks over those fields and hills, and for contemplating rural life. It is unlikely there will be any snow except perhaps on the mountaintops close by, particularly Cader Idris, the mythical seat of Idris the (rather intellectual) giant.

Some of us will no doubt manage to climb Cader Idris, snow or no, and take other long and short walks close by CAT.

(Walking, by the way, will be the primary form of transportation while at CAT. If you are able, and simply don't like to walk, don't come on this field trip. You will hate it. If you have a temporary or permanent disability and can't walk, or can't walk easily, please come see me for accommodations.)

At CAT we will participate in various activities led by the staff, "mucking-in" in whatever is going on as the Centre gets ready for its summer visitor season. There is a new classroom building going up, an education center for renewable energy and energy efficiency classes at the university level, there will be a garden that needs help being planted, exhibits to fix up or make anew, and so on. The various renewable energy technologies will be explained and demonstrated, and you will visit the wind turbine test bed just above the center on the hillside.

You will also visit the nearby town of Machynlleth to attend market day, visit the historical parliament building of Owain Glyndŵr (Welsh rebel leader, much mythologized as Glendower in Shakespeare's Henry IV), and in general, partake of Welsh culture, hospitality, and food.

(I'm sure Professor Murphy will approve of the Shakespeare reference.)

We will meet for our seminar discussion daily for at least two hours to discuss the important scientific, engineering and philosophical aspects of wind turbines, solar panels, Welshcakes, Welsh goats, Shakespeare, Glyndŵr, Welsh rugby, particularly the ongoing Internationals which I will no doubt be following closely as always, having not one but two teams to support (Wales and England), Welsh Rarebit the Welsh language and other important and relevant issues, as they come up. The technique of case comparison will come in very useful, both formally and informally. You will no doubt learn at least a few words of Welsh.

Fifteen such seminar hours are required, as will be your response in the form of written work both reflective and formal. Photography and video will be an acceptable response format for reflective work. The discussions will be led by you, the CAT staff, and myself, hopefully in that order of priority.

We will stay in the accommodation provided by CAT, a cabin that runs on renewable energy. The rooms have bunks, four to a room, and there is a sitting room and veranda, as well as a kitchen. We will self cater our own breakfasts and some lunches and some dinners. We have two other other eating options: the CAT cafe, or a two-mile hike to Machynlleth to eat out in the several good restaurants there, featuring either local Welsh cuisine, standard British fare (fish and chips, etc) or British-style Indian food. CAT's presence has made most restaurants aware of the vegetarian option.

Emergency numbers will be provided so you parents or family may contact you in Wales. You will have Internet access and so email available shortly after our arrival. Payphones are available at CAT (wind-powered ones), if you have credit or coinage in sufficient quantity. If you plan on using the payphone and were expecting to have long, loving conversations with your boyfriend, girlfriend or dog, be aware that this will be expensive. I spent £20, around $35, on one call home while in Wales recently. Use email instead.

Better yet, try to actually be in Wales.

Your cell phone will not work at all, unless it is one of the special types set up to do so under the different European system. I believe they are called "Tri-Band phones."

(It will do you good to do without this alleged amenity in any case.)

So, that's about it: the who, what, where, when, how, and why of our Spring Break field trip class to Wales. Write me or see me if you have other questions:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jared Diamond on TED

For students in Environmental Sustainability

Urban sheep mow city parks

Photo of some distinctively un-urban sheep at Womerlippi Farm last winter.

I've reported before on the outbreak of cost-cutting urban sheep in Europe. Here's another article. I do fully plan to find a way to integrate sheep-mowing back into our college land management system. It just makes sense, fiscally and in terms of climate emissions.

I also find sheep very calming and relaxing to observe. I expect others do too. There's nothing quite like a sheep chewing her cud for the picture of relaxation.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Limits to Growth, redux

I may have been in the environmental business too long.

I find it very hard to summon much concern over new reports of the planet's upcoming demise. After all, I live with this awareness on a daily level, and have done so for many years, in increasing levels of knowledge and clarity. There are few apocalyptic surprises left. I've already contemplated environmental catastrophe on a large scale, and perhaps surprisingly, come to terms with it personally and intellectually, at least as far as one might do so..

This doesn't mean to say that I don't find it infinitely sad. I am particularly saddened by two trends in particular, the increasing loss of species and biological diversity, and the inhumane way we are abandoning the agricultural and herding peoples of the developing world to climate change.

So, for instance, the emerging news of the massive drought in the Horn of Africa, with Kenyan and Ethiopian and Somali farmers and herders beginning to starve and die in their thousands.

That gets me.

Or the knowledge that there are only a few thousand mountain gorillas left in the world, and those threatened by meat hunters and forestry (de-forestry) operations.

Things like that still get me.

But the announcement, in Nature, that a group of scientists have developed a new index of the limits to change in large scale biogeochemical processes by which to better understand this collapse.

That doesn't get me.

I read the original Limits to Growth study a long time ago. Taking it further than most, I expect, I mastered the technique the authors used, of computer modeling, and learned to project out some of the same trends myself. I sought out graduate work with serious academics who could help me understand the politics and economics and ethics of it all, and received a fine education from several of the leaders in the field.

I expect I was supposed to go on and become like them, a productive researcher and thinker in the same arena, and get a serious academic job at a serious research university or think tank, where I might teach two classes a year and instead publish mountains of books and papers and so on.

More new ideas about how to think about the imminent collapse of the planet.

But instead I came to Unity College, started teaching undergraduates, some of whom are woefully dismal students, others acceptable, got married, and started a farm, and began to work in local energy and energy efficiency and also, differently enough, search and rescue training and organization.

But actually, I'm still working on the same problems. I'm just being more direct about it.

Because you can publish all the tomes you want about the limits to human growth on planet earth, and I will believe you, in most cases, if you confine yourself to the science.

But that doesn't tell me a damn think about what to do about it right now.

(I'm supposed to wait for some big new government program, I guess.)

While insulating houses, putting up solar panels and wind turbines, and growing pigs and potatoes does do something about it right now. Especially if these things are done intelligently and in a way that others can learn from them, using the Internet, for instance, as in this blog.

Even helping organize search and rescue does something about it right now.

(Because if we get in the kind of shape the Ethiopians are in any time soon, we'll need civic society organizations that take responsibility for the public safety and basic needs.)

So I guess I won't get too worked up about the new index. And I don't think I want to get back on the fast track of environmental academics either.

I'll settle for modest practical goals that will make a difference right away.

Like right now. I have to get up and go feed myself and then the sheep.

I don't think I'll read this new article. I know what it will say.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sustainable transport, and wind turbines for Jesus

Not a hybrid, but a thoroughbred?

Actually, this horse is most likely a standardbred, a variant on the thoroughbred line used by the Amish for buggy horses.

This sight caused students a little consternation on Thursday. One of our local Amish had decided to use the college library on a rainy day, which happens a lot, the college library being also the public library for the five surrounding Maine towns. But usually the Amish come up on their bicycles, not in their buggies.

They come to do research, usually, for some business purpose. But sometimes they come just to read books.

The Amish generally are in favor of books and learning. But they don't take it too far. Amish school goes only through the eighth grade, after which young men are apprenticed to an Amish journeyman in one or the other trade, and young women help their in the home, although not necessarily their own family home. They too may be apprenticed out to another Amish home. We would think of this as domestic servitude. They see it as loving service.

The leading book in any Amish house is of course the Bible, specifically the New Testament, from where they get their philosophy, living life according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as revealed, primarily, in the four gospels and the letters of Paul.

It's the prioritizing of the Gospel of Mathew and its Beatitudes that give the Amish philosophy its particular emphasis on peace, as compared with more "muscular" Christianities.

That's the main book that must be read.

But technical manuals are also valued, especially if they are useful. Any book that gives details of farm operations, carpentry, the building of wind turbines, and so on.

That's right. One of our local Amishmen has a business with his son that makes wind turbines. Quite good ones. His turbines don't make electricity. They compress air for power tools, or pump water. But they are quite large, with about a twelve foot diameter blade-span, and lattice towers of seventy-five or a hundred feet. And they are probably noisier than electrical generation turbines of the same size.

Air compression is a particularly noisy operation, whether you do it with a gas or diesel motor, or a 110 V electrical supply, or a wind turbine.

He and I visit regularly, and I keep him updated on the latest developments in the local wind power ordinance battles, in which many of his neighbors are attempting to make his products illegal.

What does he think of this? I've asked him. He is bemused. He doesn't quite understand why, when God has given us a resource to use, we would not wish to use it. To him, the large GE turbines on Beaver Ridge seem quite practical, considering we English must have our electricity. And he is quite fond of electricity, in so much as he is allowed to use it. Even if he is not allowed to use electricity in his home, he values it highly, and uses it in a sparing or controlled way in his shop: taking the power from a small wind turbine and some solar panels to charge a set of batteries used for welding, and the power from a 220 volt generator to run a milling machine which can't be run any other way.

If it was allowed, subject to the ordnung of the church meeting, to have more electricity, he would. But it's not allowed, so it's a moot point.

And in general, the weird obsessions of the "English," as regular Americans are called, are not really his business, and he certainly is not likely to get up in town meeting to try to say anything about it.

Obviously, there's a lot of irony in this situation: An Amishman and a Quaker in the wind energy profession, find themselves on the same side, very roughly speaking, as corporate capitalists and hired engineers, today in Waldo County.

I say very roughly speaking. Intelligent restraint is rarely a bad thing. I think if we allowed the corporations to do what they wanted to do in Waldo County, we would be giving up our scenic vistas and amenities for no or very little return, and probably a number of residences would be made much less livable by the noise that would be made by the dozens of turbines the companies would install.

But if we allow the activists to write the regulations, we won't get any benefits, and particularly we won't get the right to have our own Town-owned turbines.

And even Amish turbines, in some of the ordinances (like Jackson's), will be made illegal.

Which I find sad.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Climate curmudgeons

Fascinated today to hear that the UK government is reported as being in dock with it's own advertising standards agency over a climate change advisory.

The ad is above. Apparently almost 400 people have complained. If this ad ran in America, Limbaugh and Beck would have blue fits, and tens of thousands would complain.

But that's not to say it isn't a terribly effective and even quite clever ad, in which I agree with most of the main points.

Although I think the drowning puppy was a bit OTT.

Anyway, see for yourself. And circulate. Circulate widely.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More wind turbine woes

(Click on image to enlarge. Copies available on request.)

Students and I attended the Dixmont Planning Board's Question and Answer session on wind power, where I had been asked to be a panel member and answer questions, presumably because of the work I do in Maine community wind assessment and wind power planning.

Students, particularly in our Environmental Policy and Sustainability design and Technology programs, need to prepare themselves for the day when they will be in the hot seat at meetings like this, which is why I made sure a few of them went. One student who went to the meeting is also a Dixmont resident.

Dixmont, with Jackson and Thorndike, is the locus for a wind power development proposal by Competitive Energy Services, a relatively small regional electrical generation and wind power development company. They are the company who developed the three-turbine installation at Beaver Ridge in Freedom, Maine. They are also a parent of Maine Renewable Energy LLC, which sells green power power attributes (RECs) through the Maine Interfaith Power and Light program.

The current Dixmont ordinance would most likely act to discourage any industrial wind power development in Dixmont, even a facility in which the Town would have an ownership stake.

I went to this meeting primarily to say that residents should consider a wind power project if the Town could get an equity ownership in one or more, or part of one, turbine, and so receive more than just tax revenue, but also revenue from selling power under LD 1075, the Maine community energy law, now Public Law Chapter 329. The revenues from even one turbine would be in excess of several hundred thousand dollars, while the tax revenue would be significant, but much less. I also went to argue for a smaller setback than the one-mile currently in the ordinance, but only if combined with a different noise regulation, an absolute standard of 40 dBA at occupied structures.

These ideas would permit some form of development to go ahead in Dixmont, and are a middle ground between what the developers want, which is more or less to be free to go ahead and put up as many turbines as they see fit, and what a group of local activists want, which is either no turbines, or, to put it in the best possible light, remarkably strict regulation of turbines.

I was able to say what I had to say, and I think it was heard by many folks in the audience, but I'm writing it down here again so that there is an independent record.

The meeting was much better facilitated than previous meetings in Jackson, with a moderator who took written questions from the audience. This provided for less of the contentious "he said/she said" back and forth that has mired such meetings recently.

It was still pretty clear that there were quite a few folks there who were not particularly interested in working the problem, if that meant that the proposal stood a chance of going forward, even in truncated or modified format. Even with the meeting format, there was still a considerable amount of rhetorical high jinks, particularly in the form of leading questions, and those in the audience who disagreed with the speaker, particularly with Andrew Price, the representative from CES, expressed themselves by pulling faces and not letting speakers finish points.

I found this behavior somewhat regrettable and pointed this out politely but directly. After I expressed myself so, which the moderator did not particularly wish me to do, another case of "positive thinking being neither", the incidence of face-pulling and interrupting did seem to go down a bit.

While the CES representative and others on the panel continued to defend the record of the Beaver Ridge wind farm, which I also found somewhat regrettable, when most folks in our area know that it is noisy and probably too close to a row of residences on Goosepecker Ridge Road and elsewhere.

At Unity College we definitely know that this development is noisy because quite a few of those houses on that road are owned by Unity College employees.

I pointed out that the development was too noisy, and used the opportunity to argue for the lower noise limit.

After about two and a half hours of back and forth, the meeting ended and we all went home to gather our wits and decompress and get ready for another workday.

I may be wrong, but didn't go away with the impression that the Planning Board was interested in changing the ordinance.

So this is where we are at in Jackson and Dixmont. The ordinances are written and although I don't know this for sure right now, both Planning Boards seem content to let them go forward with restrictive setbacks that the company argues would more or less prohibit development.

In neither case is it guaranteed that the laws will pass. In fact, I'd say that there's a fair likelihood of them not passing. I'd give them fifty-fifty, or 60-40 right now. Some voters will defer to the planning boards and vote yes, but others won't. Maine towns, particularly Jackson, have a history of rejecting planning restrictions.

While many townsfolk don't know or haven't heard that there are other options, especially the ownership option. The local activists against the wind project remain very active and continue to effectively polarize debate. I'm not sure if they mean to do this or not, but they are having this effect.

I suppose we'll have to put it to the voters at Town Meeting. It will be interesting to see what will happen.

One important new fact did emerge. Andrew Price, the CES representative, stated that the ongoing wind measurements at Mount Harris and Common Hill show that the Wind Power Density Class is "less than five." I take it to mean that the data is coming in at Class 4, for the straightforward reason that Class 3 is generally not profitable with the GE 1.5 machines proposed, and soon after CES found it was only Class Three, they'd very likely pull their project proposal.

However, the NREL wind maps (see image above) show only pockets of Class 4 on Mount Harris and none on Common Hill.

These two bits of data, taken together, suggest that only a proposal for turbines on the Dixmont section of the ridge would be forthcoming, the Jackson section having proved unprofitable or marginal. I doubt that the numbers are all in and crunched, especially connection costs, but if the top of Mount Harris is only Class 4, then the topography says that Common Hill is likely Class 3 and below par. Andrew Price alluded to this in some of his other statements and I picked up on it, although I don't think very many others did. The Jackson section is also furthest from the power lines where the power would have to connect to the grid, another nail in the coffin. In the final number crunching, turbines on Common Hill would have to "pay for" more connection that those on Mount Harris.

This is all a guess, of course, but I'm very familiar with the power curves and cost analysis for the GE 1.5 at this point. It's an educated guess.

His data also apparently confirm that the prevailing wind that is above the cut-in speed of a GE 1.5 comes out of the north west, meaning most of the sound from Mount Harris would finish up in the southeast, the least occupied area. The topography there is steep and concave, and there's a good chance the sound, captured by the laminar flow, would fly over the top of the nearest buildings around Drake Pond, which in any case are in Jackson Town and presumably not protected by the Dixmont ordinance.

Of course, this is also an educated guess. We'd have to see the data to know all this for sure, which CES is not prepared to let us do.

So my other main point was, unless the Towns get to see the data, we don't know where the noise will end up. I argued for a part of the law requiring permit applicants to provide data.

This is unpalatable to the companies, who think they will lose out to competition if they have to give their private data away, but I think that they have to pay the piper. I also think they also have to cooperate in helping plan for some Town equity in these projects.

I think it's a no-brainer for the towns. Whatever else you do, get the data.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

US climate emissions heading down, down, down

Finally, US climate emissions are heading in the right direction, although not necessarily for all the right reasons, all of the time. But they are going down for some of the right reasons.

Praise be.

This according to a Grist article published in the Guardian.

The reasons given are of course, the recession (no surprise there) but also energy efficiency efforts, and renewable energy deployment, especially wind power.

While oil prices are heading up again, and are now widely touted to keep going up.

I'm on record here in this blog and elsewhere for having said that we don't necessarily need a climate bill to get emissions down.

We don't have one, and emissions are going down, so I must have been right, right?

High energy prices for fossil fuels, combined with incentives for efficiency and renewables, will do just as well and possibly better, at least to begin, than a climate bill. There are so many low hanging fruit to pick in our national energy and energy efficiency portfolios, lowering emissions is just a matter of applying rational thought to the use of energy, at least in the beginning.

In an energy efficiency orchard full of nice, fat, juicy, expensive low hanging fruit, a climate bill might even slow down the pickers, or distort their efforts so they pick the wrong ones first.

The lingering danger is, however, that without climate action, the same market incentives (high oil prices and incentives for efficiency and renewables) also create a playing field that tilts in the direction of cheap-and-nasty coal-fired power production.

So what we need there is some kind of one-way valve for coal in this particular dynamic system. No place to go but down. I'm with Jim Hansen (and I quote): "somebody needs to step forward and say there has to be a moratorium, draw a line in the sand and say no more coal-fired power stations."

No new coal-fired power plants, and aggressive retirement and replacement of old ones, is definitely the ticket. Cap and trade will do this, or a carbon tax, but so will EPA regulation of CO2 as a pollutant, which doesn't require an Act of Congress. Way back when Obama first came on board, the EPA began the regulation-writing process. It takes a while, and can be slowed or speeded at the will of the President, but because of court precedent it is inexorable. Eventually the EPA will issue CO2 regulations, whether Congress caps, trades, or dances the fandago.

So either way, as long as the Obama administration is serious, coal goes down.

So it seems to me that we may have a fail-safe system in place at least for the next three years. I'm starting to feel kind of optimistic for the future.

There will of course be a know-nothing backlash.

That much is traditional in America.

And the neo-Coughlinites of radio and cable TV will sing out to high heaven that coal belongs to Jesus and we should burn it to praise him.

Again, tradition dies hard.

But we should always remember that the real tradition in American society is that reactionary movements always lose in the end.

In this case, they are already losing, as long as emissions, and fossil energy consumption, are going down.

Emissions will continue to drop just naturally because of all the low hanging fruit now getting more and more aggressively picked. The accession of the first graduates from programs like ours, trained to pick 'em, will help.

That's right. We will very soon graduate our first Sustainability Design and Technology graduates, all of whom are very well trained in the finding and picking of low-hanging energy fruit. They are already saving money for the college and for their internship providers, while also reducing emissions. I'm very pleased with the smarts and the good sense of our soon-to-be-grads.

What will also help is the continued regime of aggressive incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency, and of course high oil prices. I have a lot of faith in the likes of Chu, Holdren, and Fetter, to keep up their end of the argument within the administration.

Optimism. It's a drug I don 't usually recommend. I'm with Barbara Ehrenreich:

"Positive thinking" is neither.

All this New-Agey positive thinking, if-you-can't-say-something-nice-don't-say-anything-at-all nonsense is for intellectual lightweights.

Real scientists and serious thinkers are not, and should never be, trained that way.

If you have something negative to say, based on fact, you should always say it.

But, if the facts appear positive, then that has to be said too.

And, for once, I think they are.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In your backyard: Streams and energy hogs

(These columns reprinted courtesy of Stef '06 at the Maine DEP)

In Our Back Yard; Who Lives in Your Stream?

Rivers, streams, and wetlands in Maine are classified as AA, A, B, or C depending on the goal for the waters use.  AA is the highest class and C the lowest.  All classifications meet the requirements of fishable, swimmable set by the Federal Clean Water Act.  But do all the waters live up to their goal? 
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Biomonitoring Program evaluates waters all around the state to see if they are meeting their class goal.  They do this by monitoring the health of the populations of algae and macroinvertebrates (animals without backbones that can be seen with the naked eye) that live in the rivers, streams, and wetlands.   These creatures live in the water most of their lives.  By monitoring them, DEP knows what the water quality was like not just when they took the sample, but what it was last week and last month. 
Many different types of macroinvertebrates and algae can be found.   Some species require cold, clean water to survive and others tolerate polluted water.  Finding a variety of the organisms that require clean water is good, meaning the water quality is good and any human activities in the watershed are having minimal effect. A community of mostly pollution-tolerant species indicates poor water quality.
Maine is a national leader in using biological data to better identify the health of waterbodies.    A statistical model based on the types and numbers of creatures collected has been developed that predicts whether a river or stream sample attains Class A, B, or C.  New models for wetlands and algae data are being developed. 
So how’s your neighborhood river, stream, or wetland doing?  The Biomonitoring Program posts data to a DEP website to help you find out about your local waters.  Visit our web site at: .   The web page includes helpful hints about biomonitoring data and uses Google Earth.
Look at the web site to find out whether a river or stream is classified as AA/A, B, or C, and if it meets its class.  For example, searching for “Guilford, Maine” reveals site S-84 on the Piscataquis River.  Click on the red square representing the site to show a window with that information.  To see all the data on the site click on the link in the bottom left corner.  The interesting information about this site is its class attainment.  In 1984 and 1985, it did not “attain class,” but after 1989 it does. Additional treatment of discharges to the river in the mid 80’s resulted in improved water quality, and by 1989 it attained its water quality goal.
For more information, contact us at . 
This column was submitted by Hannah Wilhelm, Maine Conservation Corps Volunteer with the Biomonitoring Program at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
In Our Back Yard; Borrow A Kill A Watt Meter & Save Energy 
With a rising cost of living, everyone wants to know how to save energy these days.  Kill A Watt meters can help people better understand where electricity is being used – and wasted – in their homes.  This spring, Efficiency Maine equipped Maine’s public libraries with Kill A Watt meters.  Public libraries are great resources; they provide books, videos, music, internet access – and now – a great tool to help you conserve energy.
Here’s how it works.  Go to your local library and check out a Kill A Watt meter.  When you get home, plug the meter into an outlet and then plug an appliance into the meter.  Turn the appliance on, and the Kill A Watt’s digital readout will tell you how many watts the appliance is using.  Ask yourself how often you use this appliance.  Do you think it has a big impact on your electric bill?
Next, find an appliance like a TV or computer.  Plug the Kill A Watt into an outlet and plug the TV or DVD player into the meter.  Don’t turn the appliance on.  Look at the digital readout; you may notice that this machine is using several watts of energy!  This is called a phantom load, and many appliances are guilty of using electricity when not in use.  Such phantom loads can add up to a hefty part of your electric bills.
Why do appliances have phantom loads?  One reason is that many of these machines have internal clocks and remote sensors – for example, computers, TVs, microwaves and stereos.  Anything with a digital clock, glowing light or remote control could be wasting electricity.  Battery chargers, although small, are often guilty, too!  Once you’re done charging your cell phone or mp3 player, unplug the charger.
So how do we squash these energy hogs?  Unplug!  Any appliance that has an easy-to-reach plug can have its power cut with a simple tug.  What about those hard-to-reach outlets?  Plug the offending appliances into a power strip, put the power strip in an easy-to-access area, and turn it “off” when you are done using it.
These Kill A Watt meters have been in public libraries for several months now, but Efficiency Maine is starting a new program to stock school libraries with Kill A Watts too.   Accompanying the meters will be lessons to help teachers integrate the Kill A Watts into their classroom curricula.
Teachers who would like to take your Kill A Watt investigations a step further, can contact Maine Energy Education Program.  They offer free, classroom-based, hands-on energy programs and can assist you with Service-Learning projects focused on energy efficiency.  Visit for more information.
To learn more about Efficiency Maine’s Kill A Watt program, visit .  And don’t forget to stop by your local library to borrow a Kill A Watt meter! 
This column was submitted by Stefany Arsenault, Assistant Director of Maine Energy Education Program.  In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ostrum wins Nobel

Elinor Ostrum, whose work on common property rights showed how flawed Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" thesis was, just won the Nobel.

For once I agree with the Nobel committee.

Nobel economics prize won by first woman

• Elinor Ostrom's work may help fight climate change
• American academic Oliver Williamson shares award

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Old fashioned carpentry

Photos: Ryan makes a notch for a 6 by 8 hemlock beam, which will hold up the hay floor of our barn.

This post mirrored from our barn blog.

The exterior walls of our barn are "stick-built," meaning they are built with relatively thin sticks of lumber, two by four inch by eight foot studs, or "2 by 4 by 8's," or just "studs."

Wishing to build both a sturdy and a locally-sourced building, we employed fully two inch by four inch, locally produced, "rough cut" hemlock lumber of high quality, which we bought in quantity from Gerald Fowler's lumber mill in Thorndike, Maine.

I say "fully" because most lumber that carpenters and contractors use for building is only nominally 2 by 4 inches. Mainstream commercial lumberyards for generations have sold only kiln-dried, planed, stamped 2 by 4 studs. The "stamp" is the manufacturer's quality assurance stamp, and while most carpenters know it means very little, most insurance companies wish you to build with this material. The reason is not because it's the best lumber to use for any particular purpose. It's instead authorized for use because this kind of lumber, stamped by a reputable and large lumber company, carries with it the implied promise that, if the carpenter or contractor uses this lumber, uses it correctly, following standard systems taught in trade school and written in carpenter's manuals, then if the building then falls down, causing a loss for the insurance company, the lumber company will be available to be sued, as well as the contractor, and any sub-contractors, to make up the insurance company's loss.

The lumber companies, contractors, and all but the flakiest of subs, carry bonding and insurance too, just in case they are sued.

Kiln dried lumber, however, is not two by four inches but instead planed down to an actual dimension of one-and-a-half by three-and-a-half inches. This dimension was not chosen for ease of calculation. It was chosen because this was what you got when you planed down a rough two by four. These days, with low kerf band saws and high speed planing knives, you'd get a larger stud by just planing down a rough two-by four, but the one point five by three point five inch size is kept because the savings from the new equipment has been absorbed as extra profit to the lumber company, not passed on as stronger lumber to the customer.

Kiln dried or KD or, phonetically, kay-dee lumber is brittle, generally cut from spruce or douglas fir, cracks easily, warps spectacularly in the wrong circumstances, rots well, and has less than half the strength of air-dried rough cut lumber if hemlock is the species used. Experienced carpenters in Maine, where this conifer is abundant, keep hemlock lumber around and use it for bracing and other jobs where superior strength is needed.

They also use it to build their own buildings, especially outbuildings, where wallboard is not used. Hemlock has the additional benefit of being rot-resistant.

Kiln-dried is for the customer's barn, not the contractor's.

So why would anyone use kiln-dried lumber for an outbuilding?

Because the insurance company made them do so.

This is one of those cases where the decline in lumber quality and concurrent common sense is a symptom or knock-on effect of a primary shift in values in society as a whole,

Long ago, lumber companies began kiln-drying and planing lumber to make it easier to get smooth finishes on walls if dry wall and other wallboard products were to be used. Before drywall there was lathe-and-plaster finish which could accommodate the irregularities of rough cut lumber. My own farmhouse, 109 years old this summer, is rough cut hemlock, and originally had lathe-and-plaster walls. But drywall saves time and produces a smoother if not superior finish, and so planed lumber, and wallboard, were needed to "knock out" the cheap family housing that began to be the norm after Levittown and other motor suburbs, eventually with their attendant shopping malls and "box stores," came to replace the historic pattern of American cities, beginning in the 1950s.

Most American families benefited from this cheaper housing supply and the overall price of housing fell, allowing middle-class values of home ownership to be achieved lower on the pay scale than previously possible. It was also in this era that the dependent, commercial, middle class suburban house began to replace the independent, subsistence and market-producing, rural homestead or farm as the American ideal housing format, the dream that most would strive for.

In fact, since the 1950s there has been a substantial net loss in farm and homestead ownership, and a corresponding commercialization and intensification of agriculture.

And so went the Jeffersonian dream, taking the rough cut 2 by 4 with it, superior strength notwithstanding. Now you can only buy them from small private lumber mills.

Actually, Jefferson, who wasn't a carpenter but knew a fair amount about building and planning, probably would have thought of even rough cut, stick-built, lathe-and-plaster finished housing as cheap and nasty. In Jefferson's time, if you built to last, you used stone, brick, and post-and-beam construction.

The walls of our barn are thus somewhat anachronistic, and employ a building technique, using rough cut sticks, abandoned by the mainstream some 40-50-60 years ago. The interior frame of our barn, which will be held up by massive, cross-braced hemlock posts and beams, will use a technique a hundred or two hundred years yet more anachronistic. Post and beam technique, in English-speaking society, dates back to the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England, or before, to the Iron and Bronze Age Celts. The technique was well known to the Romans and Greeks, and, where timber was available, used throughout the biblical world of the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians. Carpenters in the time of Ptolemy or Aristotle knew how to make a cross-brace that fit. Jesus, an Israeli carpenter by nationality and trade, would have used these techniques. His cross certainly used them. David's palace, and the first, second and third temples, would all have had post and beam roofs, even if the walls were of Jerusalem limestone.

The oldest European-settlement buildings in America are post and beam.

Many can be studied to this day, if you are interested in how buildings, and societies, are built.

My own particular favorite, in which the carpentry, and social construction, can still be observed well to this day, is Third Haven Quaker Meeting House in Easton, Maryland. But I'm a Quaker, and so biased. Third Haven used "green" or fresh-cut American white oak, Quercus alba. In Britain, where the Third Haven Quakers came from, we would have used the English oak, Quercus robar.

Interestingly, alba, in gaelicized Roman, also is Albion, perfidious or not, and where the Third Haven Quakers, and me, were from.

Third Haven was the third haven they had found from religious persecution, as they tried to build a better society.

It was not a metaphor. They were kicked out of the previous two.

The Easton Quakers still meet there every Sunday, or First Day, in summer. These days most that are not retired are commuters and many work in Washington DC for the government.

As for our class, we're just beginning to take our inquiry into the building of a building a little deeper, inquiring further into what the design and execution of a building might teach us about the building of a society.

At 8am, the time for our class, students are tired, and much as Trey, one of last year's students, described in his post here, participation in that debate seems too much for most. Most would rather just build. Building a building is more concrete, and possibly more fun.

But there are hopeful signs that a few are willing to begin to think about what kind of society they are being trained to lead, and how to make sure it is sturdy-built and will serve, or even serve better, for their lifetimes at least.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Chamber

Thomas Noyes explains in the Guardian how the US Chamber of Commerce's anti-climate bill effort is falling apart and why.

Cents and sensibility

US energy firms are starting to abandon climate change denial and embracing plans to regulate carbon emissions

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Blogging Heidi

Heidi, one of our above-average Sustainability design and Technology students, began blogging about her internship at ReVision energy today.

Very cool.