Saturday, February 28, 2009

How noisy are wind turbines and wind farms?

This came up recently in response to a question from a resident involved in the wind power debate currently underway in several local towns.

Industrial wind turbines are large pieces of electrical generating equipment with moving parts, particularly swishing blades and humming gearboxes and generators, and so no-one should ever imagine, or try to get away with saying that there won't be noise.

The question is, how much noise will be created?

It's also important to ask where the noise will occur.

When is irrelevant. Although Maine's Site Location of Development Law allows for higher noise from new developments during the day than at night, you can't turn a wind turbine off at night.

The Site Location of Development law on noise boils down to one requirement, after you strip away a lot of fine print, and apply it to turbines which cannot be shut off at night: wind turbine noise may not regularly exceed 45 dBA at any location where the owners have a reasonable expectation of quietness, ie, any home in the countryside in Maine that wasn't built next to an already noisy industrial plant that existed before the home as built.

The GE 1.5 MW models currently used for all major wind power developments in Maine produce about 100+ decibels (dBA) at the turbine head at full-out operation, and about 54 decibels at the base of the tower. The sounds are reduced the further you get from the tower, until they blend into the background noise and can no longer be detected.

Because wind itself produces noise in trees and around buildings, while the turbine speed doesn't increase much after the peak operating speed of 8 or 9 meters per second is reached, the windier it gets, the more background noise there is, while the noise of the turbine remains the same. On a breezy day, woods and trees can produce 54 dBA quite easily, leading to the paradox that turbines are effectively less noisy at higher wind speeds than medium ones.

However, in Waldo County, Maine, we have primarily medium wind speeds of Class 2 and 3, leading to the paradox that turbines are effectively more noisy here than better or worse wind power sites.

Go figure. But it's true.

How quickly the noise reduces as the distance from the tower increases will also depend on the reflective or absorbent qualities of the terrain. Trees are better than open ground. The graph above is for a wind farm in wooded land in New York state.

If you place one or more wind turbines close together in a wind farm, there will be more noise than there would be from just one turbine. The manufacturer publishes data on the noise of just one turbine. The developer must mathematically model the noise from several turbines to predict the noise level at any given site. If a developer is proposing a wind farm, Maine jurisdictions and communities should look to see that the modeling has been done, so folks can be sure that the developer's noise impact predictions in planning applications are not based on just one turbine.

Based on the New York study above, the likely distance or setback that will meet these requirements is probably somewhere between 300 and 400 feet for GE 1.5 MW wind farms in woody sites. This is not to say that neighbors won't hear the turbines at 400 feet, just that the legal requirements will be met, and so the DEP will likely approve the permit, assuming all other requirements are met.

I have heard a rumor, but not had time to confirm, that GE has recently recommended a much larger setback of 650 feet for their 1.5 MW models, while the European countries tend to use an even higher standard of 500 meters.

The primary reason for these higher setback recommendations, as I understand it, is not noise, but ice throw safety. Turbine blades can accumulate ice during ice storms and other suitable weather conditions, which can get thrown off. The industry standard recommendation for ice throw safety is 1.5 times the turbine height.

Even with the 650 foot setback recommendation, it will be possible to locate turbines on sites in Waldo County and meet the requirements of the Site Location of Development Law. Towns may, however, enact stricter regulations, should they choose to do so. Care should be taken if towns decide to control turbines using noise performance standards because many agricultural and industrial operations will fall foul of the new regulations. It's probably best to require a setback specifically for large turbines instead.

Not all turbines, just the large ones.

The little camp owner or homesteader who wants to run a little Air-X or Skystream 3.7 household turbine shouldn't have to have such a big setback.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Learning to care for animals

Students in second semester Captive Wildlife Care and Education classes came to our small farm to learn to give shots to sheep (tetanus boosters prior to parturition), to clip dung tags (always a pleasure) and to trim hooves. All the ewes are pregnant, so careful handling is required.

A good time was had by all, I think. Aimee has a full page of photos available at

Twelve-year old designer scores with shelter built of trash

Sent in by Adam Grella, class of '09:

"Maine's Climate Future" assigned for Env. Sustainability Class

This report is now assigned, replacing the 2001 New England Regional Assessment as your regional climate change reading.

John Holdren movie assigned for Env. Sustainability class

LA Times methane movie

A nice little clip for classroom use when talking about the methane feedback,0,6678890.story

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Clean-burning wood stoves: a quiz from the DEP

Clean Wood Burning, In Our Back Yard

Every year around the middle of February, I start dreaming of spring in earnest. But since spring in Maine is more a state of mind than an actual season (for the last two years we’ve had snow right up to the end of April), I have to find my warmth by other means. Finding a patch of sun and curling up in it like a cat is one option I enjoy. Another is layering lots of wooly clothes. When the temperatures linger in the ones and teens and the sun doesn’t come out for days at a time, though, I find myself trying to warm up in the way of my caveman ancestors—I build a fire.

I’m not very good at starting a fire and even worse at remembering to feed it. I also don’t like the smell of wood smoke lingering on my laundry hanging outdoors or back-drafting into the house, so it’s important to me that my fire burns as cleanly as possible. There are several ways I can reduce wood smoke. Take this quiz and see if you know what it takes to minimize smelly (and unhealthy) smoke:

True or false:
1. To get a clean burn be sure to use freshly cut or “green” wood.
2. Store wood outdoors, stacked neatly off the ground with the top covered.
3. Start fires with clean newspaper and dry kindling.
4. To keep your fire cool and the smoke to a minimum, let wood smolder.
5. Let the fire burn down to coals, then rake the coals toward the air inlet (and wood stove door), creating a mound. Do not spread the coals flat.
6. When reloading your stove, add one log at a time.
7. Always burn the biggest fire your stove can handle.

1. False: Season wood outdoors through the hot, dry summer for at least 6 months before burning it. Properly seasoned wood is darker, has cracks in the end grain, and sounds hollow when smacked against another piece of wood.
2. True
3. True
4. False: Burn hot, bright fires.
5. True
6. False: Reload your wood stove by adding at least three pieces of wood each time, on and behind the mound of hot coals. Avoid adding one log at a time.
7. False: Use smaller fires in milder weather.

How’d you score? If you got more than five right, you’re probably using your wood stove as efficiently as possible. If not, take a look at some recommendations for cleaner wood burning at One of the most important steps you can take to reduce smoke outside and inside your home and use less wood is to replace an old (pre-1990) wood stove with a cleaner-burning EPA-certified stove, and make sure it’s installed properly by a professional. Non-certified stoves emit between 15 and 30 grams per hour compared to two to seven grams of particles per hour emitted by EPA-certified wood stoves. That’s a lot less smoke to stink up the laundry hanging outside—not to mention your lungs.

This column was submitted by Andrea Lani, an Environmental Specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Bureau of Air Quality.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Free pizza for sustainability sleuths

I'm offering a free sixteen-inch pizza on this snow day at the UHOP for any student who can find the not-so-deliberate mistakes in this New York Times article about British makers of home-produced bio-diesel.

There is one major climate change blooper, as well as one major misconception that carries throughout the article. Any student who had taken either Human Ecology or it's replacement Environmental Sustainability, and gotten a passing grade, ought to be able to find both.

To claim your pizza, just be the first to add a comment below with both right answers.

Small print: You must be a Unity college student to compete. Any of the many sustainability wonks who read this blog from time to time can hold fire, or if you simply can't resist, email me your answer at, and I will give you the satisfaction of confirming that you're correct. But no pizza for you.

That means you too, Stef.

Here's the offending article:

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Peak's Island Wind Resource Assessment

Can you say "anemometry?" I have a really hard time getting it out. But that's what we're about these days. Wind resource assessment is easier to say, so maybe that's why it's the standard term.

But anemometry is more fun to try to say. Try saying it six times fast.

I went with Sustainability Design and Technology student Cody, and Efficiency Maine's Environmental Educator, Katie, to do a preliminary survey of a wind assessment site on Peaks Island, Maine, and to give a community talk on wind power and wind assessment.

This is us on the ferry. I always enjoy Maine islands, as they remind me of Scotland.

The best place to put our anemometer tower, we determined, was at the top of this old WWII lookout tower. Back in the day, the German subs would lie off Portland and try to sink the liberty boats as they left the harbor for good old Blighty.

So we can put this very old building back to good use. That's what I call recycling.

The next picture is of Cody at the top of the tower.

A 360 degree view of Casco Bay and the Gulf O' Maine. A five-star anemometry study site if there ever was one!

On the ferry home, the lights of Portland were spectacular in the clear night sky.

All in all an excellent field trip and immersive educational experience in community wind assessment and planning for Cody and Katharine. Thanks to the Peaks Island Environmental Action Team for being our hosts, and especially for taking us to such a great community suppah!

For more details on Community Wind Assessment, a program of Unity College Center for Global Change and Sustainability, click here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hansen heats up

Jim Hansen's pleas have been getting ever more agitated and frustrated and ever less scientific these last few years and months. He has done far more than any other scientist to put the climate change issue, especially the abrupt climate change issue, on the table.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Exxon Mobil sued for causing climate change

The Alaska native village of Kivalina is suing several major energy corporations, including Exxon Mobil, for creating a public nuisance in the form of climate change which has forced them to move inland to a cost of 400 million, and conspiring to keep the facts about that nuisance from the public.

Exxon Mobil, and several other defendants like Peabody Coal did fund the efforts, now finally beginning to subside, by organizations such as the un-aptly-named Greening Earth Society, the Global Climate Coalition, the George C. Marshall Institute, and the Cooler Heads Coalition, organizations who for years distributed contrived and psuedo-scientific climate denial information.

All of their efforts are now a matter of court record, cited as conspiracy?. You can get the court documents here.

Did they conspire?

I guess a jury will get to decide. And since this is a civil trial, the burden of proof is "a preponderance of the evidence." The Inupiat of Kivalina, and their canny lawyers, are in with a chance, I'd say. Most likely the firms will have to pay them to go away. I remember my John Grisham! Most of these cases are settled out of court.

I mentioned once or twice before on this blog that when the real effects of climate change begin to sink in, some of the businesses involved in the climate denial campaign might find themselves in court. This is a little earlier than I was expecting, but then climate change in Alaska, despite what "pit-bull with lipstick" Mrs. Palin had to say, is far advanced.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Renewable power in Jackson, Maine

People are getting upset about energy in Maine again. This is not surprising. In such a cold wintry place, energy is vitally important, and anything that important is always controversial.

The most recent controversy is over wind energy in Jackson, my home town. Which is funny to me since Jackson is really a beautiful almost unbroken, rolling hilly forest, and energy here is abundant.

Our old Maine farmhouse runs primarily on Jackson-made energy from recent sunlight, and far less on fossil fuel (which is really ancient sunlight) from away. As a professor who teaches about energy efficiency and renewable energy, and as a climate policy wonk, this is important to me, and has taken a fair amount of effort with insulation and caulk and spray foam to achieve.

But it does run on sunshine.

Visitors are often confused, however, when they look for the solar panels and wind turbines that most folks seem to expect when confronted with a "green" house. But the fact of the matter is that it isn't quite that hard or expensive to run a house on green power.

The primary source of green power at our house is sunlight. This is collected by 15.5 acres of grass and trees. The grass goes into eight sheep, who use it to make meat and fleece. The meat we eat, in the form of surplus lambs. The fleece, most recently, has gone on to a student's experiment in fleece insulation, of which perhaps more later. But it's really the trees that are the thing.

15.5 acres of fairly rapidly growing trees is about 15 cords, or 1,900 cubic feet, or 54 cubic meters of new wood per year, primarily hardwoods, primarily ash. This is about 20,000 kilograms, or 20 metric tonnes. That much ashwood contains 350 million btus of energy, or about 103 megawatt hours (MWH).

We only use a little more than a third of this production. The rest is sequestered in the growing forest. This helps make up for the fact that our current forest management regime is intended to reduce the smaller trees to make room for grass for animals, leaving larger ones for firewood and cover.

So that would be about 33 MWH total from firewood.

By the way, when I see the bright orange light from our woodstove door, I immediately think of the stored sunlight it represents. This is a comforting thought, especially in the middle of winter.

The next largest supply of energy is from electricity. We purchase our power directly from a company that owns and runs wind turbines, and that aggregates power from Maine hydrodams. There are environmental impacts from both, but the hydrodams have been in place for many years, and are more or less accepted parts of the Maine landscape by now, with their own ecologies and human and wildlife communities, so we opted for hydropower. In the future we may switch all or part to wind, mostly to show support for this new Maine industry which I find valuable, and which is beleaguered by local environmentalists and neighbors. But for right now, our power comes from hydroelectric dams. It gets put into the grid, and the electrons set in motion by the spinning generators at the dam get mixed up with all the other electrons, but we take out as many as are put in and as we paid for, actually less electrons than are made to move for us, taking into account transmission losses, and so we purchase and use moving electrons, or electricity that is made by hydropower, which is also made by the recent sunlight that evaporated the seawater and river and lake and groundwater that became the rain that filled the dam.

So again, we are running on recent sunlight.

Our house uses about 4.8 MWH/year of electricity, mostly for light, entertainment, and refrigeration, but also a little for heat. This is a little less than the national average of about 10 MWH/year.

The house uses about 850 lbs of propane, a fossil fuel, which is about 0.38 of a metric tonne, and contains a further 5.3 MWH of energy. This is very old sunlight, and is used for hot water and cooking.

Finally, because heat energy from wood is less regulated, and requires our presence to feed the woodstoves, we run an oil furnace in the background all of the time in winter. This is also very old sunlight, and its use in our house is strictly controlled; and so it only takes over when the heat from the woodstoves die, or when I decide to nudge up the thermostat to take the chill off more quickly than the woodstoves can. The furnace thermostat is set to 60 degrees F, and so on a cold day it kicks in a few hours after we leave. This uses between 50 and 150 gallons of number two heat oil per year, an average of 100 gallons, a further 4 MWH.

So the total of all this energy is:

Firewood: 33 MWH
Hydropower: 4.8 MWH
Propane: 5.3 MWH
Heat Oil: 4 MWH
Total: 47.1 MWH

Percentage of total household energy consumption that is renewable is 37.8/47.1*100, or 82%.

We could definitely do better than this, but to be reasonable, we also drive two cars, which together consume about 600 gallons or 2,700 liters of gasoline, which is another 25 MWH, quite a lot more energy. Since we can save some of this energy simply by only driving one car whenever we can, which also saves quite a bit of money, we would be financially better off right now not by trying to save more household fossil energy consumption, but by trying to carpool more often. These last few weeks of the spring semester we have been able to carpool an average of 60-70% of the time, which compares well to last semester's 30-40% of the time. Of course, our ability to carpool is directly related to the timing of the teaching and meeting schedule that Unity College gives us. If our schedules are at normal 8-4 working hours, then we can carpool. If not, if one of us has an early or late meeting, the other must either leave late or come home early to feed the animals and the woodstove.

The extent that we are able to carpool, and the amount of time that our cars last, is also directly related to our ability to save money to buy new energy-saving appliances and equipment for the house, or to buy a more efficient car.

This is all a pretty carefully constructed system of rational trade-offs, I guess. But it works for us and we are able to progress towards less overall fossil energy use per year. We are reaching the limits of what can be achieved cheaply with insulation and caulking and firewood. The next stages -- an electric or plug-in hybrid car, a new solar thermal hot water system, possibly combined with an electric on-demand hot water heater for when the sun doesn't shine, these are all relatively expensive.

But even then, the heart of the system will be the 15.5 acres of woodland, whose green leaves we hope to see spread soon this spring to catch some more of that sunshine for us.

Just recently, a group of our neighbors from Jackson, Maine published a newsletter and web page opposing the wind power developments proposed for the Mt. Harris ridgeline to the north. I probably know that land as well if not better than anyone, since I explore it extensively each fall while teaching map reading to the trainee park rangers and game wardens of Unity College, or on my own or with Aimee on Sunday walks.

It is a very beautiful area, the scenic jewel of the Great Forest of Jackson and Dixmont.

There may be quite a lot of very large wind turbines on that hilltop soon. Our neighbors are really anxious, and many do not wish to see the turbines go ahead. They are asking a lot of very awkward questions at Town Meetings and in their paper and web site.

For my part, I think the company, which is the same one I get my hydropower from, should perhaps think about a few less turbines. While my neighbors might think about accepting a few, or even getting one or more that are owned by the community.

As for my neighbors, I wonder if we sat down together and added up all our energy consumption and studied all the difficulties and problems that are caused by each and every kind of energy, well, I wonder if we might not then realize that the turbines are possibly a better investment than patrolling the Persian Gulf, or building new nuclear power plants, or waiting for climate change to revise the entire north-eastern forest ecosystem.

The problem is, I think, a) we don't do that. Instead we shout at Town Meetings. And then b) even the country as a whole doesn't do that, which is why a power company I otherwise support can get away with turning this part of Maine into an energy exporter for other parts of the country, essentially an energy colony. And then c) I'm a very boring, very rational old college professor who just wants his students to grow up fast, and put away childish things like yelling at each other, and think about it as well as they can.

Believe me, I understand the limitations of my wishes very, very, ruefully well.

I don't believe in black and white when it comes to energy. Even my firewood pile, which is probably one of the cleanest forms of energy, still produces solid waste in the form of ash, air pollution in the form of particulate, and environmental damage each time I cut down a tree and cut it up for firewood.

A few wind turbines on Jackson ridge would probably be a good thing. They might help us all learn to run as much as we can on recent sunlight here in Jackson. I for one would like to use this energy. It would be better if the community could get the most benefit out of them, particularly if we owned one or more of them, and it would be better if there were less of them than are proposed.

The community probably has it in its power to require some or all of this, but it would take a good lawyer to figure it out. To begin, we might start by doing our energy sums.

Friday, February 13, 2009

In our Backyard: Winter walks

Via alumna Stef at the DEP:

Winter Discovery, In Our Back Yard

As February arrives, cabin fever can begin to set in with a vengeance and days spent curled up indoors begin to seem a little less enticing. When activities like skiing or snowshoeing are not an option for your family, try a twenty-minute walk outdoors in your neighborhood. It's a fun way to exercise and restore everyone's spirits, it deepens a child's creativity and understanding of nature, and it's totally free! Here are three ideas for winter discovery walks:

1. Mysteries to solve: Look for something that seems intriguing, and investigate it by observing. For example, walking near a salt marsh recently, I noticed an icy pool with a cluster of black shapes like giant seeds in the middle: what were they? Ducks? I could see the headline: "Maine temperatures reach record low, ducks found frozen solid." Just to check, I returned that afternoon and, with the tide out and the thin covering of ice gone, some of the ducks were swimming in the same pool, and another was flying along the ice. The ducks were fine! While we humans are walking around covered in layers of wool and polyester fleece, ducks survive cold winters with fluffy down undercoats and have oil glands that keep their feathers from getting wet. When you see a duck with its head tucked back nuzzling its tail, it is spreading oil onto its feathers.

2. Some things are easier to see in the winter: The shape of a tree tells a story about its history. Did an animal nip off the top bud long ago, creating a "Y" shape? Were side branches trimmed to keep them out of the way of power lines? Barbed wire embedded in a trunk suggests the tree was used as part of a boundary fence at one time. Look at the trees you find and make up a story together about what has happened in the tree's life.

3. Winter seeds and the animals that eat them: Look for the remaining petals of hydrangeas and for seeds still clinging to trees and shrubs. While not as showy as summer flowers, they can be just as beautiful; winter textures ask us to pause a moment and notice. Look at nearby tracks to figure out who is eating the seeds. Look for robins near crabapple trees or ornamental shrubs with bright red berries. Robins? That's right: robins can be opportunistic and some won't migrate far if they can find food nearby.

There is so much to explore, visit your summertime haunts to see how they are different in winter. Look for shapes in the icicles and snow banks and come back again in a few days to see what changed while you were away! Winter walks are small steps that can make a big difference in your health and for your appreciation of Maine's natural wonders. For more ideas for winter adventures with your kids and for information on upcoming community events, see "Take it Outside!" at:

This column was submitted by Hannah Wilhelm, Maine Conservation Corps Volunteer with the Biomonitoring Program at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Bureau of Land and Water Quality. In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the DEP.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Darwin Day!

My wife Aimee, being quirky, yes, a definite Quirk, celebrates holidays all of her own making.

You'd be surprised how much more important Darwin Day is in her cosmos than Valentine's Day.

Have a good wet, soggy Maine Darwin Day. Remember, evolution can happen even in winter.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cheaper power from wind -- it works!

Wikimedia Commons image of wind turbine installation

I get a lot of questions from the general public on wind power and community wind. One set of questions, asked a few weeks ago, was 1) how much of our total electrical power we might expect to produce from wind turbines?, 2) whether that was really significant in terms of our energy problems?, 3) whether it would lead to reduced prices for power?, 4) reduced greenhouse gas emissions?, and 5) closure of coal-fired power plants?.

I had responded that we didn't yet know all the answers to these questions, but that we had theoretical answers, and more practical information was beginning to come in, from the countries that have the most wind power already installed, Denmark and Spain: gives a good idea.

1) How much of our total electrical power might we expect to produce from wind turbines?

This is normally given as 20%. The Danes are at about that right now. The article above shows that this number can be exceeded for short periods of time.

2) Is this really significant in terms of our national-level energy problems?

I think so, although if you were looking for a silver bullet, you'll have to keep looking. All energy choices require some sacrifice in terms of money, pollution, or land use. If energy were free and always present where needed or wanted, we'd have colonized Mars and Venus by now, and we wouldn't be nearly as worried about human life on this planet! In economics, particularly in markets controlled by cartels like OPEC, small percentage points of difference can make a very big difference to the outcome of some models. The "swing share" phenomenon in oil is a case in point. It was only a 10% shift in production from the middle east to Alaska and the North Sea that resulted in the $10/barrel oil of the 1990s. In this case, a serious effort in renewable energy production that meets anything like 10, 15, or 20% of our needs in the electrical sector will tend to make more of a buyers market for oil and gas, which will improve national security, given that oil and gas revenues boost the military capacity of countries hostile to the west, such as Russia or Iran, or encourage those western countries we have political difficulties with, such as Venezuala.

3) Will wind power development lead to reduced prices for power?

I tend to think that the Spanish example in the article can be duplicated. The nature of wind power is such that the cost of power is shifted from fuel to plant. Plant lasts longer, has a stable price, and maintenance and replacement/refurbishing costs can be amortized. This fits the definition of "sustainable" capital from Daly (and Hicks). Wind power may well act as a defense against inflation in macro-economic terms, because it is not consumptive of fuel, whose price is a driver of inflation. The key is to get the plant built, and I imagine Spain is enjoying it's success with these wind farms right about now.

4) Will wind power reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

The Danish grid helpfully produced an English language version of it's environmental report here, showing unequivocal reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, some large proportion of which is attributed to wind power development (the rest being conservation and energy efficiency). There are also reductions in conventional pollution from mercury, nitrous oxides, and sulfur dioxide.

5) Will wind power lead to closure of coal-fired power plants?

No, not right now. The base load problem is still present. Wind power doesn't work all the time, and so you have to have some better base-load system for when power demand cannot be met by wind. Coal, nuclear power and oil are the usual choices. Natural gas, hydropower, large scale solar and nuclear power are useful peak load technologies.

But smart grid and distributed power production thinking and technology will allow us to incrementally reduce the percentage of power needed for base load as we install wind capacity. So it may be possible to phase out coal plants one day directly because of wind. An example of this kind of radical thinking is the recent proposal to build peak-use solar power stations in some spots in Maine, rather than to expand the current transmission network and connect it more thoroughly to the New England regional grid. Another example are the prototype Hyperion nuclear power plants for distributed power use. A third is the idea that plug-in hybrid and battery electric cars can collectively form a national power storage system.

More importantly, wind power reduces the need to run coal and oil fuel through these power plants, reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately, as soon as a new turbine gets plugged into the grid, This also reduces the need to build new power plants.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Emergency summit on climate change to be held next month

Climate scientists are worried that the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (the "FAR") may be too weakly stated, and are having a major meeting to study the problem and report to governments what should be done.

I've mentioned before about some of the questions, like the speed of sea-level rise, or the various methane feedbacks.

In the meantime, here's a bit of good news, about how leadership and careful civic planning helped smooth a weather emergency, and probably save a few lives.

It will take this same kind of civic effort, multiplied a thousand fold, to manage, if we are foolish enough to let some of these abrupt climate effects take place.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Update: 75 now dead, horrific scenes, "hell and fury."

Australian wildfires and climate statistics

The Aussies are fighting for their lives and homes again. Thirty five people have died already.

The increased frequency and intensity of Australian brush fire seasons is another of those extreme weather phenomena that are linked to climate change statistically, but that a climate scientist is not allowed to say "is caused by" climate change.

Sooner or later, when we're the ones whose homes and lives are threatened, we might begin to give up on that scientific nicety or point of etiquette, so that we can begin to communicate with ordinary people in the way that they understand.

You see, a scientist who knows that there was any probability at all that there might be bush fires in Australia (or in California, or hurricanes in the Gulf, or high summer temperatures and tornadoes in Maine, or any of a dozen other extreme weather phenomena) knows that she cannot say scientifically that this bush fire was caused by climate change.

What she might instead say is, ceteris paribus, if we put more GHGs into the atmosphere, the likelihood of bush fires in any given year goes up, as well as the likelihood that there are more and larger brush fires.

Even then, you may still get a year without brush fires.

Likewise, in Maine, all other factors being what they currently are, we expect increased GHGs will lead to warmer and shorter winters. But we also expect that they will lead to more precipitation, ie: snow.

And we can't rule out the possibility that the random winter will be quite cold.

This is because climate change means that the frequency of warm winters will likely increase, and the average temperature of winters will likely increase, but the variability of winters may also increase.

This could be called the "mean-variability paradox," and it's one reason why Rush Limbaugh is able to get away with telling people that this year's cold in Iowa and Maine means that climate change is definitely not happening, when 99% of climate scientists will tell you it is, despite the cold.

To understand, you need to learn a statistic called the frequency distribution.

If you take the frequencies of occurrence of mean winter season temperature in Maine, and plot their distribution, you will get a bell or normal curve like the one above.

If you increase the mean temperature, but not the variability, you move the curve to the right, but it keeps its overall shape.

If, however, you increase the mean temperature, but also the variability, you may move the peak of the curve to the right, but flatten the curve out at the same time.

That's when you notice that it remains possible, although less likely, to have winter as cold as some winters used to be.

The mean-variability paradox, in political terms, is a sucker-punch. It sucks you in. It makes "big fat liars" like Limbaugh seem more believable on climate change than thousands of climate scientists. It allows a large, even politically crucial percentage of people to go on believing that climate change is not happening, even when it is, and, when combined with the bit of scientific etiquette that prevents scientists from making plain-spoken statements related to causation, adds up to decades of lost time.

Which leads directly to dead bodies like the ones in Australia last week. The Aussies, it seems, either have already or will soon accept the new reality and make their dispositions accordingly: more firefighters better ecological planning rules, firebreaks, possibly abandoning some areas for settlement as just too dangerous. More taxes to pay for this. Reduce fossil fuel consumption.

They will need our help with this last one, or they'll be piddling into a very hot wind for decades of hot summers to come.

I keep saying this: we're all going to have to learn to think more complex thoughts if we're to get through these next few decades with civilization intact.

Postscript: Real Climate Blog has an excellent piece by an Aussie scientist giving the actual details of the calculation I summarized above.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Teach-In, smeach-in

At other colleges and universities the climate activists are busy trying to pull direct action and other protest stunts to get the administration to pay attention. So last week they held a national Teach-In.

Well, of course, we couldn't be left out. So we had to have one too. But nobody wanted to think through how redundant this would be.

So this was the situation last week at our version of the national Teach-In:

Our interim Sustainability Coordinator Aaron Witham, a former student, and the C.R.A.P. Crew and other work studies diligently put on a dog-and-pony show for the Teach In, with movies and guest lectures by prominent Unity College climate change and climate mitigation professors (me and Keven Spigel). The venue was the Student Center. And of course the main audience in the end was the C.R.A.P. crew and sustainability work studies themselves, while everyone else picked their way around the shindig to get at their lunches and coffee.

Kevin did a bonza job of explaining his lake sediment research and relating it to past climate events and methane which I liked because I hadn't seen it yet.

I did my fairly routine Peak Oil explain-and-debunk.

(Peak Oil debunk exec. summary: Hubbert's peaks work, but only at the largest possible scale, you can't use them to predict oil market behavior or even scarcity except at that scale, Peak Oil activists tend to love to scare people when the really scary thing is not so much oil use but coal use and climate change itself. We are running out of oil, but that just means the price will go up and we will use it less.)

Aaron explained the college's nascent Climate Acton Plan.

Actually, this last is not so new, since I, and former Sustainability Coordinators like Jason Reynolds, carried most of it around in our heads the many years we did what Aaron is now doing. But it's about time we wrote it down and tied it to the Master Plan and the curriculum.

Anyway, we all did our bit, especially Aaron, who was running around like a one-armed paper hanger trying to make it all work, and the collective result was a fairly journeyman-like job of explaining Climate Change to ourselves and the odd other student and faculty member.

And then we went back to our classrooms, where, for at least the ten years I've been a faculty member at Unity College, everyday is Teach-In day.

In my case I went right back to explaining the fundamentals of systems analysis to third years so they can properly understand their upcoming and mandatory eight weeks of climate change, followed by an obligatory four weeks of energy efficiency and renewable energy. This comes after the required three weeks of basic human ecology.

Actually, we don't allow any student to graduate from Unity College until they have proved they are competent in all these areas by passing an examination.

How about that for a Teach-In? Seems a little more, well, developed, to me.

And never mind Kevin's fifteen weeks of Lake Sediment Analysis related to climate change for sophomores, since that isn't technically required. The poor old sophs could have chosen to take Nancy Ross's fifteen weeks of Recycling in Local Schools. Or Jim Horan's Earth Day and Beyond instead. Never mind all the work on environmental change we shoehorn into Bio I and II.

No wonder the audience was thin! We've worn them out with this stuff. They've all had climate change, and most of them have had it two, or three, or four times over.

We should have gone to some other college to do our Teach-In. Our time would have been better spent.

What I want to know is when the elite of the climate change education world will finally turn around and realize just how much they've been following our lead for the last few years. And give us some credit for being the first college in the country to require a systematic education in climate change and climate solutions for all undergraduates.

But of course, they would never do that, since to do that would be to take some attention away from themselves.

For us, we probably don't need the attention for the sake of the college. But I want more resources to work with, and I want our students to get the credit so they can get jobs and be recognized for what they are:

Graduates of the first college in the US to require climate education for all students, every one of them trained to understand climate change and help implement solutions.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Grown-up ideas not so shiny but very sensible

I had guessed that I would be pleased with the maturity level of the Obama administration, but I finally knew for sure when Jon Stewart lampooned the new president for emphasizing in TV interviews that weatherization schemes were a good Keynesian stimulus. Apparently weatherization is a but too mundane for New York city's chattering classes.

This is a great example of how weak-minded people can be in these days of spin and junk. Apart from the fact that progressive economics, and especially political economy, was driven to the margins by the 28 or so years of spin-control and half-hearted analysis we've had since the Reagan revolution, and so we've more or less lost the ability to debate Keynesian programs on their merits because only a tiny group actually knows what Keynesianism really is, we have also seemingly lost the ability to be plain-spoken and sensible, and to appreciate the mundane when it's truly important.

Try sitting in a cold house in Maine without a job with $3 a gallon heat oil instead. If only the idiots who are responsible for the stupid policies, and the stupid chatter about the stupid policies, and the inability to correctly understand and apply theory and calculations about the stupid chatter and the stupid policies, were the ones freezing their tushes off!

Jon Stewart is funny and I watch him all the time but he's paid to be a clown. Of course weatherization is right out of the Keynesian playbook, and in large enough scale and with some kind of means-test or at least basic screening for applicants, an excellent use of government resources in a recession.

Basic weatherization, essentially sealing and caulking houses, requires only a brief training. With two months of winter left here in Maine, and three or more in Minnesota, increasing the funds available to get some of this work done is a great idea, but we'd better get on it for this year. We've been doing this work in our neighborhood with volunteers, but you'll get a lot more houses done if you hire crews.

The next step is beyond weatherization, which is usually taken to mean a day or two's relatively unskilled work with plastic sheeting and spray foam and caulking guns on a single house. Next comes new insulation and building envelopes, replacement windows and doors, new roofing, old fridge replacement, new on-demand and other efficient hot water tanks,and even some of that new-fangled renewable tech, most likely the solar hot water systems, which are generally a good payback.

So in addition to weatherization, another policy that would achieve much the same only through different means for different beneficiaries would be, say, a 75 - 95% tax credit on approved insulation, window-and-door replacement, solar hot water systems, and the like, boosting the current scheme even more.

Or a block grant to organizations like Maine Housing so they can do the same kinds of stuff for people who don't really have much of a tax return.

Or all three policies. How about all three?

Actually, it all sounds very much like what Maine Housing has been doing for years, in cooperation with Efficiency Maine and the CAPs.

Want to put some folks back to work in Maine? Just call up Maine Housing today and tell Dale McCormick she has more funds right now to do what they've been doing for years.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Finance trickles, turbines now cheaper

No cloud comes without a silver lining. In this case, you can now actually get your hands on a turbine - IF you can get your hands on some money. Previously you had a long wait.

Since I'm helping shop for one for the high school right about now, although we're still at the analysis stage -- fitting the right turbine to the site and the budget -- this is both good and bad news.

Actually, now I remember, I'm shopping for two. As well as a 75-100KWH one for the high school, I have to get a tiny one too, <1KWH, for the college's Eco-Cottage (a student dorm that runs partly on solar and wind).

Baby wind turbine and momma wind turbine. Where's daddy bear?

Wind power doubles in a year, finance slows to a trickle in US

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Question on community wind revenues

Dear Mick,

Just one question for now - how is community-owned wind more efficient that than the industrial turbines, unless it goes into a locally-controlled grid? (I'm not aware that such things exist). I know you also mentioned this with the Mount View project as well, trying to match generation to use.

Doesn't everything go into the New England grid and get sold through contracts to whoever? (eg. I understand the Freedom project has a contract so sell to New Hampshire).


No. That notion applies to big producers like Freedom, who must find wholesale buyers and also make up money selling Renewable Energy Credits (RECS). But for smaller community-owned sites, the Public Utilities Commission of Maine has a series of regulations that allow...

1) Net metering for small energy producers (Title 3, chap 313). Allows small generation facility owners to get retail price credit for power the produce, even power they put into the grid at one place (meter) and use at another "in the vicinity," up to 100KWH. So this creates a value of 12-15 ¢/KWH for facility owners rather than the wholesale price of 0.5 to 2 ¢, up to a point.

2) Aggregation for surplus KWH (Chap 315): Small facilities owners can save up KWH they produce at windy times, and times of low power demand, as credit, and use it at other times. After the maximum allowable, they have to accept wholesale price.

3) Provisional rule on shared ownership (Docket 2008-410). A group of individuals can share in the ownership of a generating facility, as a co-op, a non-profit or for profit corporation, or as a branch of a municipal corporation and use rules 1 and 2 to create and aggregate KWH credits at retail values. That means that you and a bunch of Jackson neighbors, or the town, could put up a turbine in a windy spot and get a high retail value for the power produced, up to a point (100KWH/hour rated equipment), and use it to pay everyone's power bills.

Not as easy as it sounds, quite a bit of small print, but that's it in a nutshell.

And the power generated on site close to homes and other demand sources means that less coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear power is used elsewhere. Those sources are powered down a fraction as turbines come on line. Also, because production is closer to demand, there are fewer losses to transmission, which losses are considerable, so there's a "double dividend."

Finally, the CO2 produced by the production of wind turbines and their lifecycle use is about 1/100th of that produced by regular power generations systems.

I will post this on my blog, having deleted your name and email, as it's an answer to a series of commonly asked questions.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Da big one

The NYT has a good, big new article about the economic stimulus and social change. Quite thoughtful.

I guess others are thinking about this too right now.

It was too long to read before breakfast, so I'll have to work on it later.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Not easy building green

It's hard to stop using fossil fuel.

Not impossible, just difficult. It requires a considerable amount of hard work of different kinds, but primarily engineering design, math, economic thinking, and old-fashioned tradesmanship or craftsmanship. All of which are in exceedingly short supply in this silly, foolish, communications-and-spin oriented world of ours.

Take our old farmhouse, for example. Despite being more or less completely gutted, refitted with new equipment, and being about as well managed as a building can be when its owners work 60 hour weeks for three-quarters of the year, it still uses a hundred gallons of heat oil a year. (This is in addition to several cords of wood and several hundred KWH of electric heat.) This year, with the cold, it's been more like a hundred and fifty.

So even with many tens of thousands of dollars of retrofit, all my skills and brainpower and several summers of work, we still don't have a carbon neutral dwelling. What will it take in the end? Probably the addition of a new exterior envelope of thick foam board all around the main part of the house, plus the installation of another electric baseboard heater, running on Maine hydropower or wind power bought through the grid. At least another five and possibly ten thousand dollars.

Luckily, it's all tax-deductible. But not easy.

Then take the high school's wind turbine. So far it's taken the donated hours of eight or ten excellent professionals with expertise in everything from wind assessment to economics, from companies like NRG Systems to non-profits like CEI, not to mention small armies of Unity students. And nothing has been built yet. This is just the planning phase. How many years of education and experience were needed just to outfit this one small school with a turbine? Even then, the numbers may not crunch at today's turbine prices and power prices.

So when I think about all the college students busy in both of my countries, the US and UK, trying to lobby the government to come up with a better climate-and-energy policy, I wonder if they really realize how much work there is to do after the lobbying is done, to get the renewable energy and energy efficiency equipment actually installed and running.

Eventually we'll get done with the political phase of climate and energy leadership. Eventually the proper regulatory, tax and subsidy regime will be in place, the one that makes it expensive to use oil and coal, particularly expensive to waste the energy that results, and cheap to use renewables and efficiency measures. Since this is really a matter of switching a subsidy from damaging sources of energy to clean ones, and of switching a regulatory regime designed to control regional pollutants like sulfur dioxide to one that can control global ones like carbon dioxide, it shouldn't be as difficult as it currently is, but lots of people have rice bowls that depend on the older forms of energy.

Then what will we need?

*Planners who understand energy.
*Engineers who understand planning and economics.
*Tradesmen and women, who can do difficult installations and solve difficult on the ground engineering problems.
*The trades supervisors, managers and business people who will keep them working
*Government officials who understand all of the above
*Leaders in business and government who must take difficult decisions to establish the government and private for-profit operations to make and install all this equipment
*The last of the world's oil and gas to provide the energy to make and install all of the equipment

I'm not sure how many of our young people involved in the lobbying and activism quite understand what different skills and knowledge and dispositions are required for this second phase. So different, in fact, that it may not even be the same people who do the work. At Unity College, our climate activists are not studying energy, engineering, economics, or business. And the students who are, are, for the most part, not climate activists.

Climate activism is about communications and about the marketing of ideas. It requires professional skills, but different ones. There's even a revolving door with green business.

And business is in a bad way. For two or three decades or more, it has been more profitable for a bright young person to immerse themselves in the glamorous world of communications and marketing -- to the point where much of business has become just communications and marketing -- than it has been to learn how to make the actual products that are being marketed.

The current recession is really the collapse of this massive bubble of spin, in which we collectively believed all our own spin about how valuable the different new financial products and bits of paper and heavily marketed electronic junk was, and bid up the prices of all this spin, paper, and junk, until it all came crashing down one day.

This in the two countries, Britain and America, that respectively began the industrial revolution and took it to the next level of sophistication and productivity. Countries that could make anything we wanted. But we chose to make junk and spin and paper instead of useful things.

Likewise, climate activism right now, in its current phase, from top to bottom, is mostly just communications and marketing. It's very useful communications and marketing, much more so than the normal kinds of for-profit marketing.

But we're going to need a bit more than that.

I think it high time we went back to our industrial roots, and relearned some other old fashioned-but-newfangled skills: how to fabricate from raw materials, metal, wood, plastic; how to shape parts; how to assemble, test, fit, install; how to plan, study, economize; how to analyze and use logic -- in short how to get things built or fixed, an how to run large scale programs that get things built or fixed.

These are the skills we'll need to finish the job, and they're not found in marketing classes.

As an ex-RAF aircraft engine fitter, I was privileged to have what must have been one of the world's last traditional engineering educations, back in the day at the former No 1 Technical Training School, RAF Halton, Buckinghamshire. Let me explain what that was like, so you can see how developed a tradition it was, and how far removed from marketing and activism.

Grease plus swarf plus snot plus attitude equals RAF engine fitter, AKA "sumpy," the world's most responsible, highly trained and independent minded military technicians.

(We even had our own language.)

Back then, Halton was a massive facility built by German WWI POWs, in which row after row of football field-sized worksheds with gleaming concete floors and hundreds of pieces of fabrication equipment vied for space with rows of aircraft, jet and piston engines, cranes, lifts, jacks, workbenches, and the like. This was your world. You started with a whole month of filing. No kidding. You had to learn to file metal to micrometer precision. The idea was to learn hand tool skills, which most of us adult entrant fitters already had since we mostly came from northern industrial cities, and to learn to be precise.

Some of the instructors were WW2 veterans, and had worked on Lancasters or Spitfires when it really mattered. They treated us snotty kids with pure amused disdain.

A piece of metal is either an inch thick, to a tolerance of one "thou," or it's out of tolerance. It either is, or it isn't. No spin or communications can make it within tolerance if it's not. You either do the job right or you don't do it at all. We might spend a week trying to get one measurement right, then get told to do it all over again, not good enough. Out of tolerance.

Then the engines and their systems. We learned to assemble and dis-assemble half a dozen different types of engine. We learned physics in the classroom: aerodynamics, mechanics, electricity, math through calculus. We learned to use cranes and lfting equipment to remove and replace engines. A Rolls-Royce Spey engine weighs 4,000 pounds and is about fifteen feet long, without the afterburner. Speys went in Buccaneers and Phantoms, the Vietnam era F4 fighter. I worked on Phantoms, among other types. I was trained as a jet engine technician, intended to be a junior leader working with teams of mechanics to service aircraft, on the fast promotion track to be an engineering shop supervisor, which I later became, running engine bays and flight lines while still in my early 20s. It was even a Halton graduate that invented the jet engine, Frank Whittle. Later I took another course, the piston engine course, and specialized in that for a few years. The RAF still had a half-dozen types of piston engine in the late seventies and early eighties, and we were trained to work on beasts like the Shackleton bomber, the last flying derivative of the famous Lancaster, with the massive v12 Griffon engine.

Now that was a real "derivative," not the kind that needs a bailout.

There was a sense of purpose and disciple to the training, and an idea that you were doing something useful for society. This notion was heightened for me by the Falklands war of 1982, and the IRA bombing campaign, for which we had to fortify our airfields with sandbags and barbed wire. It completely evaporated when Maggie Thatcher invaded the north country with swarms of thuggish southern police to break the miner's strike in 1983-85, and I had to leave the "Mob" then, and joined the environmental movement and came to America.

The social and industrial changes that resulted from Reaganism and Thatcherism broke the heart of British and American engineering prowess for a generation. Experienced machinists and toolmakers, men who could make anything out of metal, were out of work in both Sheffield and Pittsburgh. Plenty who lost their jobs while in their fifties never worked again.

Much of our equipment and knowlege fled to China. I expect other important engineering disciplines in Britain and America went into the same decline that the RAF then entered, which lasted for a dozen years with job cuts and a weakening of standards. And so, after eighty years of engineering history, RAF Halton is no more, and even the colours were transferred to Cosford.

The Halton colours are the only ones in the British military that are always carried by a non-commissioned officer, a testament to the importance of engineering in air power.

What I would like to be involved in now, is a process whereby we recover some of this prowess and spirit, temper it with more up-to-date ideas from ecological economics and conservation biology, recover the western spirit of can-do leadership, and implement a resoundingly successful solution to the linked energy and climate problems. This thing is starting to move. But we'll need a lot more people with this rare combination of difficult problem solving skills and engineering know-how.

We need to train a whole new generation of skilled personnel for this field.

That's what I think I'm trying to do each day I go to work these days. And I really feel like a whole person again. If you can use a crane to put a jet engine in a plane, or a massive piston engine in its nacelle, and do it without breaking something or hurting someone, then you can put a wind turbine together too. It's the same engineering. And more and more, as I make connections with managers, engineers, technicians, planners, and professors around the country, I'm starting to feel like I'm a part of something again.

I have begun, however, to lose touch with the climate lobbying and activism movement.

Which I think is fine. It will do great without me. I'm happier with the black-and-white of engineering and economics, where it either works or it doesn't. When I gave up engineering all those years ago to study the environment, the move didn't sit that well with me, and I was always tinkering with something on the side.

Now I'm going home, and can feel it.