Saturday, December 18, 2010

East Riding offshore wind

Wikipedia photo of a "jack-up" barge installing wind turbine foundations in the UK's North Sea waters.

It's always interesting to me when happenstance or geography forge links between any of "my" places.

The East Riding of Yorkshire, soon to be a major site for offshore wind development, was where my parents kept a vacation trailer when I was a kid, and the moors nearby were a popular patrol area when I was in RAF Mountain Rescue.

(The old North, East, and West Ridings of Yorkshire were former administrative subdivisions of this very large county, which was and is larger and more populous than several American states. They were phased out in the 1970s under attempts to consolidate county government and reduce costs. "Us" Yorkshiremen still use the old nomenclature for geographical reference and cultural meaning. The East Riding nomenclature, or simply "East Yorkshire" was recently restored.)

Even the RAF Fylingdales' "golf balls" on those moors used to be an identical DEW-line sister-station to the Charleston, Maine station where we are currently collecting wind data for the state of Maine. Although when systems were upgraded, Fylingdales continued in use, while at Charleston the only use for the slowly rotting steel pedestals that held the former radomes is as a research platform for our wind study!

The East Riding is well worth a visit, a great place for walks along the sea shore or moors, for fresh cod and chips and great bitter beer, and for beach holidays for the kids. One day, when I'm retired or perhaps a part-time professor, I hope to spend more time in all my old haunts, and we won't neglect the East Riding.

So I was fascinated to read this article on the hopes for an offshore boom there.

The descriptions of life in Grimsby during this recession sound a good deal like those in Bath, Maine, currently, except that at BIW it's the continued orders for destroyers and AEGIS cruisers that keep the yards, and families, afloat.

Of course, the overall scale of the UK's east coast wind farms are going to be almost an order of magnitude larger than the first generation of Maine offshore platforms will be. And a good deal easier to build, since the North Sea is a shallow sea, quite unlike the Gulf of Maine.

But the manufacturing and employment conditions are not dissimilar, while the grid-tie implications are quite comparable. The UK uses coal for electricity still, despite Thatcherite attempts to gut the former socialized coal-mining industry of northern England and Wales. The largest UK coal-fired power stations are in the former East and West Ridings. The government target is to reduce dependence on this climate-altering coal, as well as unreliable and mobbed-up Russian gas, by producing a very large portion of the UK's electricity supply using wind power. A massive DC "ring main" will facilitate the dispatch of this electricity to other North Sea countries.

The ambition of the project is considerable, and heartening, especially compared to the pessimism of US projections for coal, such as were found on Andrew Revkin's NYT blog yesterday.

Although Habib Dagher is a talented and ambitious man, with a great team working for him.

And if the British can build a giant wind farm on the Dogger Bank, I'm forced to wonder if Mainers might one day build on the shallower portions of the Georges Bank, of if the Newfoundlanders might use Sable Island.

So I don't quite share this pessimism. Which is a good job, since our students need to be encouraged, not discouraged.

All of us who work in the green energy and climate business have to have some positive vision, or we'd be wracked by fear for the future and made helpless and immobile.

So read the article and reflect on the fact that some folks, here and there around the world, are working to make cheap, efficient, climate-neutral energy a reality, at scale, on the ground.

Or in the water, as the case may be.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Might it work?

The Cancun agreement is done, and the reductions measures it contains are not enough to avoid a global AAT rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius.

My first reaction, however, was some rather mild, grown-up pleasure at there actually being an agreement at all, never mind one with binding and verified emissions reductions.

My second one was, well it may just work. The latest information from the science world is largely encouraging as to the magnitude of carbon sensitivity. The Lean and Rind Work from 2008 and 2009 gives us the basis of a decadal-scale tracking measurement system, from which we will be able to detect destabilizing feedbacks. Each year we fill in more and more of the remaining uncertainty.

That might be enough good news on the one hand. And on the other, in the word of energy economics, the news is bad for energy prices and the recovery, but good for the climate: OPEC is planning to keep production steady, not increase it. Oil prices will rise as a result because demand for liquid fuels is rising as China and India grow.

(Gas, diesel and heat fuel prices will begin to rise again in the next few weeks as the holiday driving and heating seasons bite, and the world adjusts to the OPEC decision.)

That oil price alone will spur a good deal of cost-analysis based innovation and early-adoption in the west, as we realize that $4/gallon gasoline is not such a great deal, compared to say, the EPA-rated 99 mpg of the Nissan Leaf. Which by itself will drive faster deployment and at-scale production of the new energy technologies.

And there are some great ideas out there with demonstrable ability to be produced at scale: Bloom Boxes, Hyperion reactors, Nanosolar panels, Chevy Volts, all these are reality now, in production, no longer just prototypes. They are just waiting to pry loose some of that capital savings that is sloshing around in the economy. The one-year business investment tax break will help a good deal with some of the early adoption and raise demand, although this demand will also soak up a good deal of existing production and maybe raise prices as a result.

The ability of thin film solar technology to produce large amounts of peak load power, provide easier grid area balancing, and reduce power line expansion costs is beginning to be recognized in grid manager's minds. And ARRA-funded home energy improvement schemes are beginning to provide services all around the northern tier states. US fossil energy consumption should continue to decline slowly and steadily even though the economy is now adding jobs again. Other nations are also on track, notably most European ones.

It's a messy, complicated system of interacting areas of change, hard to track, almost impossible for the lay person to understand completely, but it finally is starting to move in a good direction.

Virtuous circles are way better than vicious cycles.

Having been responsible for big, messy systems many times in my life, systems that had to be watched and monitored and managed constantly to keep them in the virtuous circle category and prevent vicious cycles beginning -- flight lines for RAF jets, lost person search management, running small businesses, analyzing energy systems, helping to run a college -- I don't mind this complexity very much.

Any professional mid-level manager in any serious walk of life in any western democracy deals with similar complexity.

Which gives me my lecture notes for summing up in Monday's Global Change class, and Tuesday's Environmental Sustainability classes, the last class meetings of the semester.

The mild pleasure I experienced upon realizing that there was to actually be a Cancun agreement was similar to the mild pleasure I experienced when, several years into a very complicated scheme of academic and management improvement, Unity College's incoming GPA, SATs, gender ratio and other indicators, such as more students in our more academically-inclined degree majors, all began to improve and kept improving, year on year now for several years.

This was an enormous amount of work and no small amount of pain and debate personally and collectively, and there were a lot of "two steps forward, three steps back" moments, but the big ship did begin to turn around. Several years later, we have a small environmental college with rising standards and a very high quality of outcomes in the form of excellent young graduates.

But that took a lot of work on the part of a lot of people.

It would help to get a few more people on board with these climate management goals, too. Nothing too radical. I'm not sure we need too many more radical activist types, not at this stage. What we need now are good engineer/economist/manager types who understand the science and can also deal with technology and complexity, identify virtuous pathways, get their organizations on those pathways, and keep them there.

Lots and lots of the kind of ordinary but talented middle class people who go daily to the ordinary kinds of middle class jobs, the ones that run society, and while they're there at work they think about reducing fossil energy use and emissions reduction, and they make some changes and get some things done.

That's how we're going to do this thing.

If we all do our jobs, Cancun just might be enough of a global agreement. In itself it doesn't contain the necessary emissions reduction measures. But Cancun plus rising oil prices provide what might just be enough of a spur to innovation and adoption to get this thing moving.

And who is going to want to use a dirty fuel like coal, or even oil, when there's a cheaper, cleaner system available?

So it might just be enough.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A biogas powered city

Nationally appropriate mitigation

In the environmental policy field there are key phrases in legislation that every serious wonk needs to be able to parse. It's generally best to know them off by heart. Examples are "joint and several" in Superfund, or "drinkable, fish-able and swim-able" in the CWA.

Cancun's example is above. It will be interesting to know what it will mean.

Friday, December 10, 2010

60% by 2030

The UK Government's influential blue ribbon panel on Climate, the Climate Change Committee, has released it's latest recommendation: that the country reduce emissions by 60% by 2030.

This is technologically feasible, although it will be somewhat more expensive to be that far out in front than it would be to follow along later.

Some side benefits would be of high value: lower acid rain pollution over Norway and the North Sea, better London and Birmingham air quality, and, of course a massive boost to the green tech sector.

I'm not sure that the current generation of UK students, up in arms about their government's proposed tuition hike-and-loan scheme, all of which sounds impressively decent to American students, are the people to take this policy over in 2030, though.

Right now they just seem incredibly selfish and loutish to American eyes.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Climate Journey series of films

These come from the British Guardian, and are presented by John Vidal and Dan Chung. Look to the right of the page to see the rest.

Here's the link:

And here's one embedded.

Chuing the fat on green energy race

From today's Guardian:

US energy secretary warns of 'Sputnik moment' in green technology race

Steven Chu says US must invest urgently in research and innovation to keep pace with China and other countries

Thursday, November 25, 2010

MPBN on Fox Islands wind shear

Finally, the Maine public is getting some better information on wind shear and turbine noise.

This is just a short news clip, but it mentions the proper reason for the unplanned noise.

Without understanding this complex phenomenon, you can't understand turbine planning, but Maine "Home Rule" planning regulations basically require amateur planning of wind power proposals, and have resulted in numerous restrictive ordinances, town by town, with many more in the pipeline, some of which essentially prohibit even the smallest and most innocuous of turbines (such as the Southwest Wind Power Air X) for noise planning reasons.

There's nothing wrong with Home Rule, or amateur involvement in planning, but we should understand that some things are complex and can't be easily understood without at least some hard work.

See the last post but one for the best information I've seen yet in the public domain.

MPBN of Fox Islands wind shear

Excellent report on wind turbine noise from the Acoustic Ecology Institute

I finally had chance (on Thanksgiving morning!) to catch up with some of the New England Wind Energy Education Project (NEWEEP) webinars. NEWEEP is a service of NREL and DOE, and aims to provide good information on which to base a reasoned discussion of commercial and community-based wind power in the New England region.

What pleased me greatly was a very balanced report from Jim Cummings of the Acoustic Ecology Institute. The report is well-detailed and provides a wealth of reasoned and scientific explanation of noise concerns related to wind turbine siting. Read side by side with the survey results from a recent survey of Vinalhaven residents, which one of my students is analyzing for an independent study (preparatory to graduate school in the applied social sciences), things begin to make more sense.

And the broad comparison of different perceptions of a "proper" rural lifestyle fit in well with some work we did much, much earlier on Sense of Place, now (partly) available via Google Books preview (page 191).

The AEI report is in the form of a well-referenced PDF slideshow.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

(Todd) Stern on Cancun

It must be confusing to some that two of the key players have the same last name.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Abraham on Monkton, for class

Students in GL 4003, Global Change, who are interested in the validity of Christopher Monkton's opinions on climate change, recently quoted by a class visitor, are directed to this fairly exhaustively researched lecture by John Abraham, PhD (of the University of St. Thomas, MN.

It is possible to skip through to the various slides that address the questions raised in class.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Update on Stern comments

OK, this makes more sense. What Lord Nick did say was that US exports would suffer if, as is very likely, Europe taxed carbon produced through the production chain to source on all products including imports.

He did not threaten a boycott. The Huffington Post extrapolated his comments to make it seem as if he did.

How likely is it that Europe begin to directly tax carbon instead of, or in addition to, their current cap and trade scheme? I'd say pretty likely, if as is also likely, there becomes a protectionist effect. Euro-unions would love that.

What would this then do to US politics? I expect we'd try to complain via the WTO and then, when that failed, individual companies with a strong stake in Europe, such as GE and GM, would reverse engineer their European exports to reduce carbon content.

Money talks. Nick is just explaining the facts of life.

Meanwhile, conservatives all over the country will continue to try to act as if climate change wasn't happening, and as if the rest of the world had not already realized this and moved on to a new economic reality. The ultimate result, in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years, will be to hand over many if not most US leads in green technology to Europe and even China. Because despite burning millions of tons of cola per year, China is investing heavily in green.

While the US owns the patents on all of the best technology solutions but refuses to join the party.

Unless, of course we keep seeing that scarcity premium attaching to the oil price. In which case it will be oil price, and the price of substitutes such as Bloom Boxes, Hyperion reactors, wind, solar, and yes, even coal, that condition US markets for engineering products.

I never thought I d find a reason to be thankful for high oil prices, but there it is. The only reasonable hope for keeping the US in the green energy lead.

And all this, when you think about it, begins to make sense out of the Gubernator's recent promise to reorganize after his final term as a climate campaigner for green business. Silicon Valley technology leaders have a major stake in US green technology. And of course Arnold would be very well connected. Leading to his new career. It's going to be the Terminator versus the Koch Brothers for the heart and soul of American business.

The real Nick Stern story is on the AFP wire:

UK climate economist warns US of trade boycott

LONDON — A British climate change economist at the heart of international negotiations seeking a greenhouse gas deal said Friday that the US faces a trade boycott if it fails to rein in its carbon emissions.

Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the British government's 2006 report on the economics of climate change, warned the US that many countries would shun its goods if they deemed them to be "dirty."

"The US will increasingly see the risks of being left behind, and 10 years from now they would have to start worrying about being shut out of markets because their production is dirty," Stern told The Times newspaper.

"If they persist in being slow about reducing emissions, US exports will start to look more carbon intensive."

Stern advises several G20 countries and his 2006 Stern review is regarded as the most in-depth and well-known study into climate change economics.

World leaders will meet at the UN climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico, in 10 days' time to try and kickstart emissions negotiations which faltered at the Copenhagen conference last December.

Stern said that countries who have pledged to reduce their emissions would resent competition from "dirty" exports. He highlighted aircraft, cars and machine tools as goods which could face restrictions.

"If you are charging properly for carbon and other people are not, you will take that into account," he said. "Many of the more forward-looking people in the US are thinking about this."

US President Barack Obama pledged before the Copenhagen conference to cut US emissions by 17 percent on 2005 levels by 2020, but has been thwarted by Congress.

Any new US commitments within the next two years are highly unlikely following the Republican party's gains in the midterm elections.

Hitting where it hurts

The following appeared in my email today, copied from the Huffington Post. I haven't investigated to see how speculative Nick Stern's comments were intended to be. However, being European, I do have a much better idea about the feelings most Europeans have in regard to the lack of US participation in climate reductions. A partial trade boycott is at least a distinct possibility.

But being at least part American these days, I also have a good idea of how American conservatives might react to such a boycott, at least in the first instance, and what might then ensue in US politics.

I would not have advised these comments. But I'll be fascinated to see what happens next. Lord Nick has stirred up a real hornets nest here.

Nicholas Stern: U.S. Trade Boycott Could Result If It Doesn't Address
Climate Change And Reduce Carbon Emissions

The Huffington Post | Travis Walter Donovan First Posted: 11-19-10
07:09 PM | Updated: 11-19-10 07:15 PM

Just 10 days ahead of international leaders convening in Cancun,
Mexico for the UN climate change conference, British economist
Nicholas Stern warned Friday that the U.S. could face a boycott on its
products from other countries if it doesn't adequately reduce carbon
emissions, AFP reports.

Stern told The Times, "The US will increasingly see the risks of being
left behind, and 10 years from now they would have to start worrying
about being shut out of markets because their production is dirty."

Author of the British government's 2006 report on the economics of
climate change, Stern is also a member of a high-level advisory group
that recently issued a report to the UN stating bank financing, carbon
permit auctions, and new carbon and transportation taxes are necessary
to raise enough money -- $100 billion a year by 2020, committed to in
last year's Copenhagen accord -- to effectively reduce emissions and
mitigate the damages climate change will have on developing nations.

"A modest price on emissions, in the range of $20-25 per tonne of CO2
would push incentives in the right direction and raise substantial
revenues," Stern told the Guardian.

Climate legislation progress has effectively come to a halt in the
U.S. after a failed attempt this summer to pass a bill that would cap
greenhouse gases. The bill faced staunch opposition from many
Republican senators, despite having passed the House in 2009. With the
latest GOP victories in November's elections, there is little chance
that measures addressing climate change will succeed in the next two
years, although many states are moving forward with their own agendas.

According to Bloomberg, at a press conference on Wednesday, the Obama
administration's climate negotiator Todd Stern said that despite his
doubts about there being any "enormous leaps forward" in Cancun, he
still thinks "real and concrete steps" are possible.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Canadian study points to downside of Maine biomass fuel plans

Although I use firewood at home for heat, and manage a woodlot, I have never been a particularly aggressive advocate of biomass fuels as a major part of any large scale climate initiative. The potential to do real ecological damage by heavier harvests, shorter rotations, and so on seemed fairly obvious. And the various calculations of carbon cycling within biomass land-use areas, including forests and arable systems, seemed a little too simple to be true. At the very least, I wondered if the natural nitrogen cycle could keep up with the large forest biomass harvesting increases that already result from the search for carbon-neutral fuel.

It turns out that more complete knowledge is emerging. A recent study from a Canadian university looked at the carbon cycle in forest lands just a little east of here in Nova Scotia.

They discovered a substantial dip in soil carbon within a few years of harvest.

Bottom line: Maine land managers providing product to our rapidly expanding pellet mills will need to have, at the very least, some kind of average numbers for the carbon chemistry of their soils, including the deeper mineral layers, and they will need to relate these numbers to the overall areas under management, and perhaps to keep set-aside areas, to rationally claim carbon neutrality for fuel sources. When soil carbon is taken into account, longer rotations will likely be needed to achieve carbon neutrality.

Some further study will be required to apply the results of these initial studies to typical pellet forests in Maine, which have a greater proportion of hardwoods than the study areas used in the original work.

Here's the news article, from EnvironmentalResearchWeb.

Here are a couple of the related papers:

Diochon, A., L. Kellman (2009) Physical fractionation of soil organic matter: Destabilization of deep soil carbon following harvesting of a temperate coniferous forest, J. Geophys. Res., 114, G01016, doi:10.1029/2008JG000844.

Diochon, A. L. Kellman and H. Beltrami (2009) Looking deeper: an investigation of soil carbon losses following harvesting from a managed northeastern red spruce (Picea rubens Sarg.) forest chronosequence, Forest Ecology and Management, 257, 2, 31 January 2009, Pages 413-420, doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2008.09.015.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Proposition 23 fails

Among election news, the one I think most important for the future, but completely overlooked by the "chattering classes": A large majority of ordinary Americans in one state voted, essentially, to tax themselves more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The new energy polity, which cuts across party lines, begins to be clear. Significant support came from otherwise conservative people, including a conservative governor with Silicon Valley investors.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

New: Maine Energy Handbook

Thought you all might be interested.
Please distribute widely.

New Resource Available:

The Maine Energy Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Municipal Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy provides a single, complete, and trustworthy guide to support a boom in local groups tackling energy problems.

The guidebook is intended to help municipalities and individuals achieve energy successes more reliably and quickly by putting all of the need-to-know information together for towns and cities in a patented ‘Six Steps for Success’ process:

1) Connect with Helpful Resources

2) Organize Efforts

3) Assess Energy Use

4) Identify Efficiency Options

5) Identify Financing Opportunities

6) Evaluate and Implement Measures

The Handbook was created by Clean Air-Cool Planet Climate Fellow Steve Erario, who was hosted this summer by the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Kahan et al, for class

Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus

Dan M. Kahan
Yale University - Law School

Hank Jenkins-Smith
University of Oklahoma

Donald Braman
Cultural Cognition Project; George Washington University - Law School

Also, Campbell, Converse, Miller and Stokes, 1960, The American Voter

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wireless EV charging and solar hubris

The Guardian has an interesting new article on wireless vehicle charging systems, which reduce the need to plug in your EV.

This kind of new idea, and the massive drop in the price of PV these last two years, makes it seem pretty likely to me that the future of both transportation and diversified energy systems is PV/electric. If wireless power exchange can be made a two-way street, we will secure a major economy on power storage for base load, which makes PV that much more viable.

The average price of solar panels dropped by between 40 and 60% over the last three years. This is because of mass production. New high-tech factories, like the superb Nanosolar factory in California, are now able to crank out very cheap panels very quickly. There have been great economies found in the material inputs, as well as through mechanization of production.

It used to be the the solar cells had to be individually placed on the panel and soldered by a human technician. Now this can all be done by machine. In the case of Nanosolar, the amorphous semiconductor "ink" involved requires no soldering at all.

So, like the technogeek I am, indeed like the cheap Yorkshire-born technogeek I am, I keep checking and rechecking the price of panels online using Google shopper and the like, to see when I'm going to buy my household system.

This is an idea I had a few months ago in response to an online debate with an oil industry researcher, in which I held that PV and wind energy prices were beginning to approach a very general price parity with oil, and even coal, so that, some time in the very near future, the climate denier/fossil fuel industry apologist position that mitigation would be expensive would no longer hold water.

It would then be cheaper to begin to end our use of fossil fuels than to continue, even without considering the cost of climate change.

This is, of course, a turn of events that both OPEC and the Russians do not wish to see occur, but that we should. The strategic gains for the west would be massive.

In the 1970s, after the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt and Syria, when OPEC was in the sway of Arab nationalism and anti-Israeli sentiment, it was diversification of the US and UK energy portfolio, including the first Carter-era efficiency gains with North Sea and Alaskan production, that dropped the price of a barrel of oil down to where some OPEC producers really were feeling the pinch.

And, of course, they let go. The embargo was lifted.

This of course led to a recovery of the US and UK positions in the global economy after the former era of "stagflation," and $11/barrel oil fueled the decade of prosperity and high employment we enjoyed in the 1990s and up through 9/11. More recently the pendulum has swung the other way, and the current price of oil gives disproportionate power to countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Venezuala, and their ilk.

All good friends of the west and democracy.


My own idea, my next big project after switching 90% of our home heat to home-grown biomass and super-insulating, another small contribution to the recovery of the west and the triumph of democracy over dictatorship (!), was to fit a solar PV system to our house that would be cheaper than my power bill, reduce fossil fuel consumption, and of course, to geek-up the process, documenting it, and the costs, here.

Since I plan to install this system myself, with one or two students to help or look on for the education value, there's a major saving over the cost to most other American families.

But other than that, I think this a useful test.

Of course, it gets a little complicated. For one thing, electrical power in Maine has very little energy content from OPEC, the Russians, and the other Petrostate dictators whose teeth I wish to see bite the dust.

So the concept is flawed from the get-go.

That's what I get for being an armchair energy geo-strategist.

But bear with me. The price of oil is definitely conditioned by the availability of energy alternatives, and if, eventually, my solar plans turn out as planned, if millions of Americans do the same (as hundreds of thousands of Britons already are thanks to their feed-in tariffs), and, if as is also expected, electric vehicles become cheaper and more easily available and are used for night-time storage, then we'd be able to produce most of our energy using renewables, and then we'd have some leverage, wouldn't we?

Paradoxically, the faster oil prices rise, the sooner we get to deploy this great western-owned technology, reduce our dependence, and get our leverage and geopolitical position back. Ivan knows this too, of course. But he's just about as feckless and stupid as we are when it comes to choosing the right geo-strategic energy policy, so he won't be able to take much comfort in this knowledge.

But back to my micro-scale experiment:

The power supply for our little farmhouse comes from Central Maine Power and costs between 15¢ and 16¢ a kilowatt-hour (counting both the per-KWH delivery and per-KWH energy charges that would be offset, were we to produce our own solar power).

The best solar deals I've found recently involve the purchase of panel/inverter combination kits. These are packaged for contractors, but I can do all the work required myself. My father was a UK electrician. He trained me while I was quite young, and I worked for an US electrical contractor while getting though grad school. I wired this house we live in myself, and I've built several other solar power systems as well.

One such deal currently offered includes six 170 watt panels and an inverter for $8,000.

Getting there, price-wise....

In Maine, on our house, on average for the year, these would produce

6 X 170W x 365 days x 4.5 hours/day = 1,675,350 WH or 1675 KWH

Maine's net metering regulation allows you to credit all this power against your power bill. Our house has a south-facing roof that is a perfect solar site, which would allow almost all of the 4.5 hours/day of sunlight to be converted to electrical energy.

The value of this power to me is therefore 1,675 KWH x 15¢/KWH = $251/year or $21/month.

The cost of the $8,000 solar power system is reduced by the $2,000 or 30% federal tax break.

There's also a state-level rebate of about the same magnitude that would very likely expire in a few months if the most conservative of the candidates currently running for the Governor's Office in Maine were elected.

I can't afford to plonk down even $4,000 cash on such a system, so I'd need a loan. $4,000 on a cheap loan, such as a home equity loan or a secured consumer credit loan, would be about $60/month. On a more expensive loan, such as a credit card, it would be about $100/month. The $21 bucks I would get from net-metering don't begin to pay for the system.

So we're not there yet. Solar PV has to come down by yet another two thirds in price or electrical power go up by two thirds in price, or some combination, before I can realize my ambition.

But we are within the same order of magnitude. And I do think we'll see the price drop/price rise combination over my lifetime, and likely we'll see the solar prices drop a good deal more over the next decade, especially with government help in key places.

I'd be willing to bet on another 50% drop in five years.

My earlier insulation and biomass fuel efforts, on the other hand, have already begun to be paid off by the reduction in energy costs of this house, and have already helped wean the west off oil. The previous occupants used to burn 10 cords of wood and 700 gallons of heat oil a year. Last year we burned 4 cords and less than 50 gallons. Our local forests are burgeoning in biomass, so we don't really worry about adding to carbon in the atmosphere by burning this wood.

So at least one form of solar power, native Maine biomass, is cheap, viable, carbon-neutral, and geo-politically helpful.

That woodsmoke from our chimney is the pure smell of freedom, folks.

Up yours, Vladimir!

I guess I'd better go start the durn thing up, hadn't I?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bird music

Nothing to do with anything but I enjoyed it.

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Solar advice to a friend building a new home

Here are some notes I wrote up for a guy I know, a Unity alum and parent of a Unity student, who is building a new home for his family.

XXXX, you ask for some thoughts on reviewing the pictures of your site:

1) In general, solar energy comes in three forms, solar photovoltaic for electricity production, solar thermal hot water, and passive solar which is where we use the sun's energy, and super-insulation and sealing, to heat the home in winter through good design principles and retain the heat.

2) The latter is nearly always the most cost effective way to use solar energy at your stage in the building process. A few extra thousand dollars on insulation and design now can save up to 90 percent of your energy bill later. This is because heat is the largest energy expense for houses in Maine by far, not electricity or hot water. Unfortunately Maine architects are rarely trained in passive solar design principles. Give yours a good interrogation to find out what he or she does or doesn't know. (Those law enforcement job skills come in handy, don't they?) The main features are to orient the longest axis of the house east-west, so the long wall catches the southern sun, and give that wall larger windows, while other walls get smaller windows. If the winter sun is then allowed to fall on massive objects within the room -- usually a dark-colored concrete floor is used as in the Unity House, but furniture and walls can also be used -- then the heat is saved naturally (passively) and released through the night. The house will also be very comfortable and pleasant to live in. Especially if the floor is used as the heat mass. For this to work insulation values in walls need to be R 40 and up and in ceilings R 50-60 and up. Air-tight sealing, including basements, and some form of heat exchange ventilation complete the package. We have such a house on campus, the Unity House and I will be glad to show it to you next time you visit. Just give me some warning. I can also arrange for XXXXXX's class to take a tour. The Unity House was expensive but there are much cheaper ways to achieve the same values.

3) If east west orientation is not or no longer possible, as seems likely based on your foundation pictures, proper up-to-date systems of air-tight sealing and those high insulation values can still save you 70-80% of your heat bill. Make sure to either do them during the construction phase, or at the very least least make the place air-tight now and make provision for additional insulation to be added later (by adding foam board to the outside walls or similar). Use of a blower-door test after the building envelope is completed but before the interior is begun is a good way to assure air-tightness. Insulation is much cheaper than heat bills. Payback for insulation added at this stage, say from R19 to R40 in the walls, is going to be less than two or three years. R40 is not yet standard practice for insulation although it should be. Maine builders are way too impressed with their recent (last decade) code update to R19 code for walls, and remain lazy about sealing basements, although the common use of Typar-type building fabric has eliminated most air links through walls in new construction. Again, interrogate. Don't accept low standards if this is what your builder offers. You need that R40, and you need the building to be sealed. Once sealing is achieved, additional ventilation is needed. It's important to ventilate a tight house properly to avoid moisture problems inside the house, even inside the walls and attic and basement crawl spaces. Powered heat exchange ventilators work best, but careful construction of wall and crawl space areas goes a long way to making sure moisture doesn't end up where it's not wanted.

4) Looking at the pictures of your immediate site, you'll need to cut down a lot of trees to make solar work on that site. Those trees are quite a lot bigger than I thought, and a lot closer to the building. Prove this to yourself next time you visit the site by looking to see where the noonday sun is in December: 23 degrees above the southern horizon. You'll see it effectively filtered through all those trees. The trees will prevent any solar energy making it to the house, and reduce the return on any investment in passive solar design or panels to very little. I would take them all out, if what I wanted was a solar house. No reprieve: all those south side trees that block the December sunpath must go. This stands true for solar hot water too. The only exception is solar PV, where you could locate an array of panels on the far side of the trees and run the power through a wire to the electrical distribution center.

5) If you can get all the above done: design and build a passive solar house or at least a well insulated and sealed house, solar hot water or solar PV is the icing on the cake. It's currently expensive but prices have dropped lately, in the case of PV about two thirds of the price it was four years ago, and in the case of solar thermal hot water about 80% of the price four year's ago. The price is still dropping, and you can get help from the state and a tax credit from the federal government. A reputable installer can design you a system for the house. Here's rough numbers for a conventional two-three bedroom family home: For about $15,000 you can make most of the electrical power you will ever need ( a grid-tied system), and for about $10,000 you can make up to 80 percent of your hot water. Now is the time to go consult the installer, because you want to a) get your taxes back and get the rebates, some of which expire next year, and b) wrap the extra expense into whatever financial instrument you are using to pay for the house. It's this combination which makes it cost effective: the total system will cost $25K, but you get 30% back on your taxes and 30% from the state incentives, so this is only $8.5K, and the payments on, say, an extra $8.5K of financing added to a first or second mortgage are about $70-90/month, which is less than your electricity/hot water bill will be if you didn't have the system. You will still have an electricity bill, but it's likely to be less than $40/month on average, including the cost of making hot water when the sun doesn't shine.

If you don't mind, I'm going to take your name and identifying features out of these notes and post them to my website as an informal guide for students and others to use.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Finding the overlook

Here's a successful coursework assignment: Our Intro to CLE map readers find the Mt Harris overlook.

There's no trail to this beauty spot, just a deer run in the woods, and you only know you're there when you look up and can see the pond. The students get only an eight-figure UTM grid reference, and must find it by pacing and using bearings and orienteering.

Some groups find it the first try. Others need to come back the next class and find it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Soup kitchen repellant

Our local food bank continues to do a roaring trade, helped along by the efforts of our own students and the veggies for all program, while the papers continue to talk about folks losing their jobs and houses.

All this misery!

How can people protect themselves against job loss and foreclosure and food insecurity?

Aimee and I don't stand in much fear of losing our jobs. Higher education is considered somewhat recession-proof, with students actually returning to college when the business cycle is in a trough.

Even so, one purpose in running a farm is to have a warm place to live and to have food. As I read articles about Americans who have either lost jobs or had their hours cut back, one question might be, does it work? How easy is it to grow your own, and does it put heat in the hearth and food on the table cost-effectively? Now that the harvest is in, let's do the books.

This year we farmed a little over four acres, including our land with a half-acre that neighbors loaned to us for the purpose.

(We let our lease on the 12 acres surrounding lapse -- Aimee needed a new car and I needed airfare to visit my ailing mum, so sending several hundred extra dollars to the absentee landowner in Florida was out of the question. We may take it up again in later years, but thus far we haven't needed the extra land for firewood or agriculture, so although the lease payments preserve future options, they're not strictly part of the farm.)

Most of that four acres was for firewood and sheep grazing. We also brought in several hundred bales of hay and several tons of feed, so any proper calculation of our food balance sheet needs to take this into account.

So what did we grow since this time last year? We enjoy growing food and would probably do so even if we lost money, but it's nice to know whether or not your efforts pass the straight face test, commercially speaking.

Numbers are approximate.

4 cords of split, stacked and dry hardwood firewood
About 250 pounds of potatoes
35 dozen eggs
200 pounds of tomatoes, of which 100 pound canned or frozen
40 pounds storage onions
Assorted salad crops and herbs
Two weaned lambs sold on to another farm at two months
One fat lamb, 45 pounds dressed, already in freezer
One ewe and one older ram culled for mutton, 100 pounds dressed, already in freezer
3 pigs, around 180 pounds each dressed, not quite done

The going rate for cut, stacked and dry hardwood is $250/cord, so $1,000 there. If we credit ourselves $1/pound for potatoes, onions and tomatoes, $1.50 a dozen for the eggs, $50 total for the salads and herbs, $50 apiece for the wains, and $3/pound for meat, this is valued at $540 for veggies, and $2,208 for lambs and meat, so $3,748 total.

In order to grow these crops we input approximately,

150 bales coarse Maine hay @ $3.75/bale (that was robbery and we haven't been back since) = $563
1.5 tons pig pellets @ $250/ton = $375
0.5 ton store oats @ $240/ton = $120
0.5 ton coarse 16% bagged feed @ $10/50 pound = $200

Total for inputs is $1,258

Meaning we netted $2,490 worth of food and fiber for our efforts over the year.

This doesn't count the several tens of dollars of plant starts Aimee sold or gave away earlier this year, or any yarn we may sell from the wool clip. It doesn't make much sense to count the yarn since we sell it or use it so very slowly. The whole clip is still bagged in the barn and we haven't even thought to take it to the mill yet.

Given that we spent probably less than twenty five human-work days total in working the farm this year, this is a pretty good rate of pay and certainly well above minimum wage.

Not too shabby.

Much of this success is due however to the fact that the farm is set up pretty well at this point. If we hadn't put so much money and effort into the barn and fences and equipment, we wouldn't be able to clear this income. But our capital costs are negligible at this point, and the equipment seems to stay in pretty good repair from one year to the next if I tinker a few days each year, which when I have the time is actually a pleasure. This year's big investment was a new chainsaw, although there's a "new" secondhand lawn mower as well. the land is fertile and the input of fertility from pasture and grain via forage legumes, poop and compost is more than is needed to keep growing food on the same land for years to come.


This is valuing our food at pretty low dollar, too. Supermarket prices. Generally speaking food of this high quality comes much more expensively, so, for instance, people pay up to $4 dozen for free range eggs, and Aimee's pesto production alone (110 jars this year!) is worth many more dollars in value added.

This food and firewood should help keep the wolf from our door though.

Proof of concept.

I expect if the so-called Great Recession became the Great Depression, if Aimee and I lost our jobs, we'd lose the farm too, but if we as is more likely we pay it off and farm it into retirement, it should serve us well, keeping us as healthy as we keep it.

I always questioned the wisdom of the detached, urban way of life where everything is a losing trade with the system, and no-one really knows where their food came from.

It works fine until there's a recession.

It's a good deal easier and I think more rewarding to make bargains with Mother Earth instead.

And she cuts a fairer deal in return.

Independence of mind and body is the result. We might do well to remember that Jeffersonian wisdom as we reorganize after this latest economic disaster.

The real strength of a nation is not in nuclear bombs or industrial capital, but in the independent human beings and healthy landscapes the system is meant to create and maintain.

Without which the industrial system is just so much rusting machinery.

That you can't eat.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Offshore wind announcement

Google has announced massive funding for an offshore wind transmission line for the "lower" east coast. Interesting!

And one of my PhD advisors, Willet Kempton of UDE School of Marine Policy, is noted on the front page article in which this is announced. Very cool.

In the NYT.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

From George at BuildGreenMaine

Dear Colleague,

With the rollout of our new website, we would like to also remind you of our upcoming BPI Building Analyst I certification class October 18-26th in Belfast.

Feedback we received from our August class coupled with the hiring of some of our recent candidates confirms what our students have told us for years, that Build Green Maine offers Maine’s best, most thorough and hands-on building science training experience. From classroom teaching to field instruction to proctoring the written and field exams, we ensure that our students are prepared for the whole process in gaining their BPI BA I certification. If you or your employees are in need of training and certification, why not get it done completely and get it done ‘right’ from the start?

In addition to the full class, we are also offering Test-only and Fieldwork Mentoring Opportunities. Specifically, if you or one of your employees has received Analyst or MSHA Energy Auditor training and are ready to take the exams, we will proctor you in either the BPI Written and/or Field Tests.

If you or one of your employees have received training or are currently working in the field, but are looking for mentoring and guided practice you can join us for the fieldwork days of the training class.

Finally, we offer an additional $75 discount to students who are or work for a company that is a member of MABEP (Maine Association of Building Efficiency Professionals).

So check out our website, email us at or call today at 323-1974.



Friday, October 8, 2010

Farm Energy Partners: Unity wind research on video

Here's a fun thing for the Unity College wind workers: their name "in lights." Our partners at Maine Rural Partners/Farm Energy Partners made an outreach video showing our anemometer placement in Mercer, Maine, among other renewable energy projects.

Wind worker Steve and I are shown with the Burrs (the landowners) working on the 100 foot anemometer tower, which equipment was donated by NRG Systems Inc. of Hinesburg VT, and Competitive Energy Services of Portland Maine, for which we mere scientists as always say "thank you, thank you."

The work was also funded by Efficiency Maine Trust using USDA REAP and DOE ARRA programs, with technical assistance from NRG and NREL.

This equipment will tell us the wind rose, wind shear, and temperature and average wind speed every ten seconds for the next year. It will rule in or rule out turbines of different make and model on this site and others on the same geological feature, a central Maine farmland and woodland plateau in the Town of Mercer. The larger effort of which this is a part will benefit the people of the state of Maine by allowing much better turbine planning, including noise planning. It will also allow cheaper wind assessments for towns and public agencies. Wind data gained from these efforts will be provided on request to the general public.

Many thanks to EMT, MRP and all our funders and supporters other collaborators for the great chance to do some science in the public interest.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Vinalhaven turbine update and noise science corrections

The New York Times has an OK article today about the Vinalhaven turbines and the noise problems with wind power plants in general.

I say OK. It has a terribly biased headline but that's just the usual yellow journalism. But it was interesting in places.

The primary substantive failing of the article is that it is an incomplete study of a difficult problem.

In particular, it aims to describe Maine's noise problems with turbines, but fails to accurately state why we have a noise problem with turbines, and fails to reference two concerns that we should be able to address, going forward, in other Maine wind power proposals: wind power noise modeling, and the particular noisiness of the Vinalhaven turbine make and model (and mark number).

The rest was fine, although the article also did a less than adequate job of trying balance the views of the few residents of Vinalhaven not in favor of the turbines adequately with those very many, a great majority, who are in favor. The attached video does a better job because you get to actually hear the low-grade clash of cultures that is taking place on the island in the voices of the folks that are being interviewed. As a person who studied environmental justice for some of my graduate work, with several field studies under my belt in more deprived places like Baltimore row house neighborhoods and Maryland eastern shore fishing communities, I have to say, I find this situation slightly ironic.

But let's get the science right before we start on the social science.

First up: the high noise levels of wind power plant at Vinalhaven or Beaver Ridge were unexpected. You can't get the companies involved to admit this because they face possible lawsuits, but I can tell you what I think happened, an educated guess. This unexpected noise was because we essentially took wind farm design approaches out of the midwest and Europe, where terrain is more open and less forested, and applied them in our woodsy Maine hills and dales.

It wasn't unreasonable or stupid to bring in midwestern expertise and use midwestern models. Ordinary common sense says that if you want to do a thing right, you bring in the guys who've done it before, or at least copy their ideas and systems. But in this case it backfired somewhat in terms of noise.

Not in terms of power production. If anything, these wind farms make more power than expected.

And for the same reason they make more noise than expected, which is high wind shear.

Specifically, expectations that ground level wind would be noisy enough to drown out turbine noise were not met.

Wind shear is the concept that wind speeds change as height above ground level changes, the wind layers shear, creating a laminar flow pattern.

The wind nearly always speeds up as you get farther from ground level interference. The more it speeds up, the higher the wind shear. The normal wind shear factors used for wind farm planning top out at levels of 0.3 (this is a factor or exponent in the Power Law equation, so, for once in science, no units are appropriate to state). But we have measured actual wind shear factors as high as 0.5 or 0.6 in Maine.

This throws all the design models off. You'll essentially hear noise pollution at further distance from the turbine than you otherwise would, although not all of the time and not under all atmospheric conditions, but definitely some of the time. This is because the wind at the ground level is low or non-existent, while the wind at higher elevation is turning the turbines just fine.

In the midwest it was generally a given that you couldn't hear a GE 1.5S model turbine at all once you got a thousand feet or so from the base because there'd be plenty of noise in the trees or grass or buildings. Here in Maine, especially in summer when wind shear is higher, you can hear the turbines, some of the time at least.

The other thing is that the GE 1.5S model turbine is noisier than some other turbines, although not noisier than all turbines and perhaps not even noisier than the average.

But there are quieter turbines, some made by GE even, some even later models of the 1.5 series, that might have been used.

It's a moderately big turbine, for one, and that makes it noisy. But it also has a gearbox, and that makes a lot of noise. Direct drive turbines make less noise. It also has a monopole tower. Lattice towers, available for smaller turbines up to a fraction of the capacity of the GE model, make less blade noise.

So to avoid the problems we've had at Vinalhaven and Beaver Ridge and Mars Hill, we should plan out our turbine noise models using expectations of higher wind shear, and work hard to not put turbines so closely upwind of houses, considering carefully the wind rose data that tells you where the wind comes from that is strong enough to turn the turbine. And we should consider using direct drive turbines for large scale wind farms and lattice-tower turbines for small scale community or private wind turbines.

This is of course probably too much pragmatism and common sense for our local anti-wind activists, who won't be at all happy with this kind of thinking.

I distinctly remember one encounter with such a person in a public meeting in which I tried as carefully and as moderately as I could to explain wind shear and even drew a picture of laminar flow, while all the time this person's voice was raised, talking way too fast and not at all listening.

The Tea Party of wind?

I don't say that they should necessarily be satisfied with this kind of thinking. That's a personal choice and a matter of conscience.

But since we can use this technology to do good things like reduce greenhouse gas emissions and begin to reduce oil consumption, reasoned analysis of our efforts so far should probably be considered.

By the way, our local wind activists will also dispute that wind power reduces climate emissions or oil consumption.

They're mostly wrong on the first, and partly right on the second.

When you connect a wind turbine to the grid and the wind blows, if it's just one turbine or even a small farm like Vinalhaven, what happens is that one or more natural gas powered "peak load" plants are throttled back to keep voltages stable throughout the grid.

That reduces GHG emissions, although not by quite as much as they would have been reduced if we'd been able to take a coal-fired power plant off-line.

Twelve twenty-thirds (12/23), to be exact. That's the ratio of GHG emissions between natural gas and coal. It's a bit more complicated than that due to differences in plant efficiency and the power curve of the natural gas generators, but that's a good number to start with.

You still have to have the GHG-emitting plants, you can't get rid of them because the turbine doesn't run all the time. But the more wind you have in your system, the less GHGs per unit electricity are produced.

If we could turn off a coal-fired plant, we'd obviously save more GHG emissions.

But coal-fired plants are very different, especially older dirtier ones. They like to run at full blast, because of the way coal burns: long, slow and hot. A coal plant is generally run at it's rated output all the time that it's running.

This isn't quite true for more modern combined cycle, fluidized bed systems, which are also about a third more efficient as older steam turbine plants. These can be throttled up or down a little. But they still are generally kept operating at stable outputs, not continuously variable outputs.

So we would need to be able to know exactly when wind power was going to come online if we wanted to specifically reduce GHG emissions from coal plants. This would be a good thing to do, because coal is damaging to the environment in other ways than just producing GHGs. There's also mountaintop removal mining to consider. Or acid rain, to name just two of many.

There are two ways to do this. One is to forecast the wind and change the number and distribution of coal plants you have turned on at any given time accordingly. The other is to have wind farms in the most consistent winds, which are generally offshore.

Europeans have succeeding in using both to reduce climate emissions from electrical power production. But as with the wind shear example above, it requires a little more complex thinking on the part of both power plant engineers and the folks they are making power for.

Engineers, who can be surprisingly fragile when it comes to some kinds of complexity, need a little help to appreciate a less consistent but still very green power source. Consumers need a little help to understand a more complex set of questions and choices than is normally encountered in consumer life, such as the trade off between the damaging effects of GHG emissions versus the damaging effects of wind power plants.

The other claim our anti-wind activists are making is that wind power doesn't reduce dependence on foreign oil. This is certainly true as long as you plan to drive a gas or diesel powered vehicle for the rest of your life, and pay the price of fuel at whatever rate it will be then. But I'm interested in plug-in hybrid and battery-electric vehicles, and society should be too. I might like to consider, for instance, putting a medium scale, grid-tied turbine like a recycled Vestas V-15 on my property, and using the power for electrical resistance heat in winter and for vehicle charging.

I'd try to get my neighbor's cooperation by offering them free power through net-metering, a local power cooperative. I'd do this myself. I'd enjoy the engineering challenge, and I've seen a Danish farmer on TV who did much the same kind of thing.

Unfortunately, this would no longer be legal in many Maine towns because of the restrictive ordinances that have been passed.

(Funnily enough, despite an otherwise restrictive ordinance, a relatively large private turbine like a V15 could be made legal in my town of Jackson. You see, when our local anti-wind activists rallied for their restrictive ordinance, they made the ordinance apply only to grid-tied turbines. So if instead I just run the power into home heat and car-charging, I can put up my V15, or even a much bigger turbine, even one that would be totally offensive to my neighbors. Obviously I'm not going to do this because that would not be polite, but that's the way the ordinance is written. Go figure. I did explain this to the anti-wind group and the planning board at the time, very carefully. After all, if you're going to have an ordinance, you'd better understand the technology and it's various possible applications, and plan for contingencies, right? But I guess they weren't listening.)

At a much larger scale, we could, and probably will, consider feeding wind and solar energy into battery electric cars. We would do this just for reasons of developing green transportation, but as I've mentioned elsewhere, it wouldn't be a bad thing to have some more storage in our grid system for reasons of evening out intermittent solar and wind power production, and battery electric cars could provide some of this ability.


The Obama Administration relented: Solar panels are to go on the White House.

Go Unity! Well done Amanda, Jamie, and Jean. Thanks again to Bill McK.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fracking oil companies

An interesting article for class tomorrow, on the oil sands and shales boom.

Read it before you condemn my fracking language.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Proposition 23 and the Koch Kingdom

A New York Times opinion piece by Frank Rich today connects the activities of the billionaire libertarians, the Koch brothers, to the Tea Party, undermining that movement's claims to be grass-roots. An earlier magazine article by Jane Meyer, in the New Yorker last August made explicit some of the workings of their various think tanks and funding choices. The bottom line seems to be, if we believe Meyer and Rich, that these guys give millions, and likely hundreds of millions, each year to campaign against government interventions of all kinds, but especially environmental regulation.

I could care less about this, except that some of the ideas the Kochs spend millions to stifle are the most important in the world.

Most recently, they have been implicated in funding the vast Proposition 23 campaign to overturn California's energy bill, AB 34, a cap-and-trade bill not unlike RGGI here in New England.

Both Rich's and Meyer's articles, but especially Meyer's which goes into great detail, explain how the Kochs' point of view is essentially libertarian, small government, anti-interventionist. They're small businessmen who made good, became big businessmen, and now get to enjoy their money. Unfortunately, the way they enjoy it is by attacking ideas they don't agree with.

Rich and Meyer don't explain, and most of today's commentators on the Tea Party phenomenon also fail to explain, how modern political libertarianism, when it succeeds which is rarely, uses the mythology of small people and small businesses, but seems to work primarily for the further power of very large corporations. This is the irony of the Tea Party -- the beneficiaries, if any, of a swing to the libertarian right in American politics are unlikely to be the rank-and-file, self-employed, small-business types. Corporations will benefit, and not all corporations. There are plenty of corporations that stand to benefit from the green jobs agenda that is, by default, the alternative to the proposed deregulation of the Tea Party.

So excuse me if I find it ironic that the Koch's are well-heeled theoretical libertarians, while the Tea Party's supporters are vernacular libertarians, but the real ideological debate, the one that actually matters, that will actually result in change of one kind or the other if either the Koch's or Obama are successful this fall, is between a clean jobs agenda for corporate welfare and a dirty jobs agenda for corporate welfare.

But both are corporate welfare.

So it goes. How silly, that we can't see clearly the failings on both sides. When Dick Cheney wanted to study the energy problem he put together a secret team of corporate insiders from the energy industry, who came up with a nice new package of tax breaks and easier policies for themselves. Arguably, this contributed to the Gulf oil spill. The inherent failure to recognize the deadendedness of a policy based on post-peak oil also contributed to our involvement in Iraq. Massive benefits for the likes of Haliburton and Koch Industries ensued. Corporate welfare.

While Obama, who given his druthers would certainly advance climate regulation and fund green energy, seeks a cleaner, greener kind of welfare. But much as I like subsidies and other government assistance to clean energy and efficiency, it is still often corporate welfare.

If the Koch's investments were in companies like Nanosolar or Clipper Windpower, would they still be funding the campaign for Proposition 23?

So much for libertarianism. A pity, because I've always been deeply in favor of individual liberty.

I think I know who the real libertarians are, these days in the great Republic.

The real libertarians are Americans like the Mainers who call or email me in their dozens and tens of dozens each year, or that talk to me every year at the Common Ground Fair, seeking to know if a wind turbine would work on their property, or if I can explain how to build a household solar power system, or show them how to conduct an online energy audit, or solve a particularly tricky insulation problem. These folks are trying, all by themselves, without the aid of Obama or the Kochs, to move the energy economy a few more electrons or a few more barrels towards energy independence and away from climate disaster, for themselves and the country.

In doing so, they are helping move the US and the democratic west away from dependence on undemocratic, repressive, petro-states like Russia or Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.

The other real libertarians, and sometimes they are the same people, are the academics and ordinary people that have mastered the very complicated area of climate science, looked deeply into the future, and realized how vital it is to get greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere down.

Because there will be no better chance for either repressive corporations or repressive regimes to take over than when the planet is fully in the throes of dangerous climate change, above 2 degrees Celsius AAT increase.

I have to admit, it isn't easy to understand climate science and to project the results of that inquiry into the even more nebulous fields of economics, political economy, and national security. I've been studying these areas for nearly fifteen years now, and I've had good teachers, some of the best minds in the field, and I still can make big mistakes and jump to incorrect conclusions. I can see why it might be easier, intellectually, to opt for a simpler story, to jump to a self-satisfying conclusion.

But all that will happen if I get it wrong will be that one more professor didn't do as good a job as he should of lecturing. This would not be a good thing.

But how bad would it be?

See, I don't have the real bully pulpit that comes with being able to spend millions of dollars on promoting my favorite bugbears.

If the Koch brothers are wrong in their ideas about climate change, and yet they succeed in bringing down this influential Californian law, and bring down others that may come after it, then the USA and the democratic west in general may have a much harder job surviving the next few decades.

In the very best possible outcome, we will miss out on an opportunity to begin to shed our dependence on a source of energy that is less and less available on our own safe ground, and more and more available from land and sea that belongs to the natural enemies of liberty.

In the worst, we may trip over the threshold of a tipping point and accelerate warming, fry our agricultural regions within a few decades, melt the ice sheets in a couple hundred years, and then have to somehow weather the planetary civil war that will ensue.

And where will be the liberty in that, Messrs. Koch?

Are you sure that your ideas about these issues are the right ones?

You'd better be right. I hope you are. At the very least, I hope you're willing to take your share of responsibility if you are not.

That's the real question for all of us, isn't it, the most important scientific and policy question of all.

How sure are we that the things we think are real, really are?

Unfortunately, since both the Kochs are over seventy, they won't likely be the ones that have to deal with things if they are wrong.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Here's the latest on Prop 23 in California, which stands a fair chance of going down due to common sense and the Gubernator's intervention.

An interesting moment in American history: Americans may, essentially, vote to tax themselves through user fees to reduce GHG emissions.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


After the election, the Obama administration will roll out energy legislation, if not cohesively, at least in chunks.

That was the take-home, for those of us in the energy-and-climate business, from a recent full-on interview in Rolling Stone.

I could go for some chunks right now.

Of what, though?

Knowing the folks advising him, some of them at least, and knowing the proposed policy as declared before 2008 by Holdren and others, it will be chunks designed to address various carbon stabilization wedges.

Here's Obama, from the interview, providing hints:

"When I talk to [Energy Secretary] Steven Chu, who, by the way, was an unsung hero in the Gulf oil spill — this guy went down and helped design the way to plug that hole with BP engineers — nobody's a bigger champion for the cause of reducing climate change than he is. When I ask him how we are going to solve this problem internationally, what he'll tell you is that we can get about a third of this done through efficiencies and existing technologies, we can get an additional chunk through some sort of pricing in carbon, but ultimately we're going to need some technological breakthroughs. So the investments we're making in research and development around clean energy are also going to be important if we're going to be able to get all the way there."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Alladale updates

Here's a Yale Environment 360 post by Caroline Fraser highlighting the Alladale Reserve and another similar "rewilding" scheme in the Scottish Borders.

I was pleased to read it, since it gave me an update on some issues I follow from time to time in Scottish conservation.

Regular readers will remember our fact-finding mission to Alladale three years ago. There's a string of posts on this blog.

The Alladale project, owned and led by millionaire Paul Lister, is attempting to reintroduce various Highland fauna, but particularly moose right now, later wolves and bear.

I have to say, I think the community organization model used at Caroline's other featured site, Carrifran Wildwood, will outlast Paul Lister's commercial one.

Lister, as we discovered once we met and talked with the guy, is not particularly interested in the Scottish communities that surround him. Aimee and I and the other Unity College researchers that visited saw this at first hand. He's also disrespectful of the Scottish hillwalking and mountaineering fraternity.

But like all Scottish landowners he does not control access, nor does he have a right to do so, so this lack of respect, which has led to an inability to communicate with both locals and walkers, has led to difficulties with his scheme.

While the Carrifran scheme, which serves similar goals, appears to have generated wide participation and admiration.

My grandfather, the Kinder Trespasser, would have approved of this scheme, whilst Listers would have been seen as yet another moneyed theft of the people's birthright.

There's little doubt that most Scottish people see the Alladale scheme like this too. Fraser outlines the issues. Lister has a major PR problem on his hands and it will prevent him from succeeding with his goals.

The other difference with the two schemes is that the Carrifran scheme is concentrating on natural flora before fauna. Lister is fairly distracted by his lack of competence in biology, which has led him to concentrate on higher levels of the trophic web than may perhaps be viable, restoring or seeking to restore various charismatic megafauna before the food systems that support them are restored.

This last point is arguable, since the major problem with primary producers in this food web is overgrazing by red deer (Cervus elaphus), which might be reduced if one of his predators, the wolf, were successfully introduced. This is the best argument Lister has. But current law will require him to fence the entire reserve and run it as a zoo before he gets his wolves.

It would make a lot more sense to me, ecologically and in terms of public relations, to concentrate on restoring the native pine and other remnants of Caledonian forest first, engaging the community in plantings and visits as they have done at Carrifran.

Trouble is, no-one will pay to see this, which negates the commercial "safari park" approach that Lister seeks to demonstrate.

And Lister definitely lacks the patience to get on a slower plan to rewilding.

Passive house piece

Here's an interesting NYT article about a house Bensonwood is building to the Passive House standard.

Bensonwood, of course, built the Unity House, also a passive solar design.

Note the use of a blower door at the point the building envelope is complete.

We'll be building an other passive solar building here on campus soon, to add to our existing fleet. This time the architectural firm is Go-Logic of Belfast. The funding will come from the Kendeda Fund.

Kayla, one of our Sustech students and an occasional blog contributor, recently served an internship with Go-Logic.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

All the fun of the fair

Here's our booth at the Common Ground Fair. We were there all day yesterday and today, and we will be there all day tomorrow too, dispensing college advice as well as advice on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

I enjoyed my time with all the fair-goers, answering energy questions and trouble-shooting solar, wind and household retrofit problems.

I also got to walk around a little. The second display is our friends at ReVision Energy. Staffed largely by our former students, this excellent solar/wind design and installation company operates throughout the region.

We like them because they help out with internships and come to talk to class on a very regular basis. They are also extremely competent and honest. Energy audits are an integral part of every service. They will be sure to tell you when you don't have enough wind for a turbine, or when you'd be far better off investing in insulation done by some other contractor before you buy an expensive solar system from them.

I wish there were more companies like theirs in this business.

The blower door display was the big attraction at our booth. One interesting character, Dan Huisjen, a local energy auditor (whose email I have if you are interested in hiring his services), was disturbed by the fact that the door had been assembled incorrectly to the display frame.

This was because our poor blameless librarian, not one of our energy people, had opened up the display that morning, but Dan proceeded to set things right, and in the process attracted a crowd, who then hung around for an impromptu explication of the way a blower door works and is used.

Dan is certainly an energetic kind of energy auditor.

Other things I saw and liked: This home-made sheep stand would certainly save my back when it comes to dung-tagging and hoof-trimming. Aimee saw and liked it too and we might make one for the Womerlippi Farm.

I liked the sign at MOFGA's resident farmer's farmstead.

I am happy to identify with the peasant moniker, coming, as I do. from a long line of the same.

To my mind a peasant or husbandman is the most redeeming occupation. After all, what a peasant does is capture sunlight using efficient agriculture, taking the sun's energy and the soil and rain to make food, fuel and fiber in abundance.

Amen to that.

One good peasant can support an awful lot of people. Many more of us might aspire to this exalted status, instead of, for instance, hoping to succeed on American Idol, or for that matter, Wall Street, or emulating thuggish gangsters.

Finally, I enjoyed as always the sight of MOFGA's 10KW Bergey turning in the warm breeze above the main fair parking lot. This is of course the same model that I obtained a broken version of this summer, for the price of disassembling and trucking it to campus.

I proposed a occasional seminar class for this coming spring semester that will repair and reassemble and raise our 10KW Bergey, after which we will connect it to one of the college's meters and net-meter the power produced.

Violating the law

We're at the Common Ground Fair all weekend, in the Energy and Shelter area, showing off wind assessment and energy audit equipment and the like, and answering questions about energy and college.

Come see us and ask a question. Who knows. You may even get a good answer.

One guy yesterday didn't like his answer. He wanted to know why he couldn't put a wind turbine on the roof of his camper and use it to produce electricity for the camper while driving down the road.

I explained, very, very carefully, that the extra drag contributed by the turbine would add to his fuel consumption, and the energy created by the slipstream turbine would be at least less than the energy of the additional gas consumed, and probably much less. He would probably do better to hook up his vehicle's alternator to whatever interior battery he was thinking of charging, if it isn't already hooked up so. If he wanted much more electrical power he should fit a more powerful alternator to the vehicle. He might profitably use a wind turbine while the vehicle was parked, but not while it was running down the road.

This is of course a fairly simple application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Entropy Law. Any of our Sustech students could have given him the same practical answer, and any of our juniors in other majors too, after taking their required third-year class in climate and energy.

But this fellow was not helpfully educated. He was, rather, most offended. He looked very hurt and then angry, rejecting the information, could not accept it, and then argued against it, raising his tone all the while.

Beautiful to watch.

A picture of denial.

If we could get a read-out of his brain during those few minutes, we could probably solve the energy crisis and the climate crisis all at once, because we could track and follow the brain's denial mechanism, identify the neurological seat of whatever incorrect mental model he's using, just completely troubleshoot the wonky plumbing that some people have up there.

So he threw out a last one liner to the effect that he "knew the US military was doing it" so it must work. His tone was nasty by this point, so I told him that the US military wasn't doing it, because the US military was smarter than that, and he angrily stumped off into the netherworld from whence he came.

Why publish this encounter on the Internet?

It's just an example of the kind of reaction we get to a lot of energy and climate science problems, from denialists to anti-wind activists. People listening way too hard to the voices in their own heads.

My wife used to have a great bumper sticker on her truck.

It read, "Don't Believe What You Think."

Good advice for our students.

Critical thinking is probably the most important skill to learn in college.

Here's a good question:

Does the Common Ground Fair save more energy than it uses?

People drive to this fair, sixty to eighty thousand of them, from all over New England. I would guess the average fair-related gas consumption to be at least five gallons and possibly ten. Two to three visitors per car.

That would be between 100,000 and 400,000 gallons per fair, discounting all the other energy that goes into the products sold, and running MOFGA (which excellent outfit uses a lot of renewable power and even generates some itself).

To save that much energy, each visitor would have to go home each year and engage in a behavioral change that reduced overall energy use by the equivalent of a couple-three gallons of gas, or about twenty or thirty KWH. Two or three times that for a family.

Behavioral changes that would count might involve buying more efficient local food (not all local food is more efficient, but most is), or other energy saving products, as well as the more obvious household energy changes demonstrated in the Energy and Shelter area.

Is that possible?

I doubt the average fair goer succeeds in learning enough that is new or additional about efficient agriculture or living techniques to do this. This is especially unlikely because most fair-goers come each year, and most have already adopted energy-saving measures. One couple I talked to yesterday were looking to get a wind turbine, but it very soon was apparent that they didn't consume enough electricity to make sense out of a wind turbine. They didn't use heat oil either, but instead burned firewood for fuel. The only serious energy improvement they might make was to trade in their car, which they drove very little, for a more efficient one, and even that was unlikely to pay for itself. They were probably exceptional, but illustrative of the inherent problem of "preaching to the choir."

But the occasional or new fair-goer might reduce energy consumption by a very large amount, particularly when you consider that some might choose to implement a lifestyle choice that lasts much longer than the per-year time-frame of the fair.

So if I go to the fair and learn about a new weatherization or insulation technique, or visit Unity College's blower door exhibit and learn how to get a proper energy audit, and thereby reduce my oil consumption by a hundred or two hundred gallons a year as a result, over many many years, I might "pay" for many visitors' energy required to get them to the fair.

All this is speculative, but not nearly as implausible as wind-powered camper guy.

In any case, the fair is fun, one of the best fun things I do every year in my job.

A little fun never hurt anyone. Or any planet.