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 ( <> ) 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
( <> ) 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 <> .

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.

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.

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."

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.


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.


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, or the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council at .
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.