Saturday, May 22, 2010

Towering roughnecks

Here's our summer wind assessment crew at work. This healthy outdoor activity, which is done in support of community-owned wind projects all around the state, requires the lifting and lowering of our NRG wind assessment towers and their transport from one site to another. This requires field work and a fair amount of humping of steel tube, steel cable, and precious, expensive anemometers and computer loggers.

That, at least, is the outdoor part. Then there's the indoor part, which is the crunching of the resultant data and writing of scientific reports that tell communities whether or not the have wind enough for a community-owned turbine.

To facilitate this work I've hired a merry crew of students, who will be driving with me all around the great State o' Maine much of the summer, putting up and taking down these towers, crunching the data, writing reports, and, the Holy Grail adding the knowledge to our growing fund of public-domain wind power data in this state.

With that data we hope to calculate a new, more accurate model for wind prediction in the state, and use that model to create an undated GIS wind map. The value of this work would be millions of dollars, if we can reduce the need for expensive wind studies by creating a more definitive wind map. The one we have now, created by a commercial firm under contract to the federal government a few years ago, doesn't work very well, and in fact has been demonstrated to be unreliable on several sites where we have taken direct measurements.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Letter from an Alum: Opportunity in Nicaragua

Hi Mick and Doug,
I was a former student at Unity and am currently volunteering at Grupo Fenix ( in Nicaragua. It is a solar promotion/development group that thrives through the work of motivated volunteers, interns, students and professors. I am consistently reminded of the strong influence Unity ultimately had on me ending up here. Upcoming, and I know this is short notice and most students are gone home, but there is a Solar Culture Course (and will be many others) being held here on July 10-18. More info can be found on their website:
There are many opportunities for internships, volunteers, or student/teacher groups (who can potentially arrange private courses), to get involved. Please share this information with anyone who might be interested. We have posters and flyers that can be sent if you´d like to help spread the word for this inspiring group.
Thanks, hope all is well at the Unit--

Contact me ( for a referral.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Afghan and Iraq vets back green power, Fox News declines their ad

If there were any proof needed that Fox News is indeed the communications arm of the far-right of the Republican party, an intriguing recent episode of political theater clinched it.

In a nutshell, what happened was that a new group called VoteVets, which aims to support veterans running for office, created some ads linking support for fossil fuel use to the strengthening of Iran and other worldwide "enemies" of the US. You can see the better of the two that I saw above. I don't think the ad is at all left wing, or even that controversial, but Fox News, in a fit of illiberal censorship, refused to run it, even as a paid commercial.

So VoteVet's money is not good enough for Fox, huh? So much for the marketplace of ideas, unbridled capitalism version.

Ye shall know them by their fruits.

The ad links profits from oil to Iran's material support for the Shia insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It begs some serious and welcome questions about the overall effectiveness of our strategy in the middle east, given this high oil price which amounts to a subsidy from the American public to the worst Islamist nations. It also looks to a future of energy independence.

I for one was very glad to see it.

As an ex-serviceman myself, I've been asking these kinds of questions since since the 1980s, in fact since I left the UK military in protest (after nearly seven years of service) against Margaret Thatcher's defense, energy and social policies, and in particular her actions against the Greenham Common peace campers, and her undeclared war on the culture and people of northern England, particularly those of us from steel and coal-working towns.

Thatcher and Reagan together forged powerful and long-lasting links between a kind of far-right construction of patriotism, the oil industry, and, particularly in America, the leadership of the military, links that eventually became almost unquestioned and unquestionable if you were a person who lived and worked in one of these three settings.

This coalition succeeded to the effect whereby, by the time 9/11 had added fuel to the fire, very few Americans had it in them to question deeply and carefully whether or not we were in Iraq for WMD, or for oil, whether it was wise to hand so many national interest functions to the likes of Haliburton or Blackwater, and whether or not Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld were as wise or as intelligent as they tried to make themselves out to be.

Well, we saw where that got us, didn't we?

At the time I channeled most of my anger and outrage into a single paper on the topics of conscription, respect for service, student financial aid and leadership, which you can still read on the web if you're so inclined. At the time some intellectuals were asking questions about where we'd find the personnel to fight two wars at once, especially if, as was beginning to be apparent, succeeding at both wars would require a more intelligent serviceman or woman. How could we find the quality of recruits needed? Especially when, according to the example of Dick Cheney or George W. Bush, for instance, no one in his right mind who was bright enough to become a corporate and/or political raider would join the service and deliberately put themselves in harm's way? I was and remain proud of the paper, which won a small award and was republished in paperback in an anthology.

One of the things I managed to do in that paper was to envisage a day when the returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, their patriotism now tempered by understanding and knowledge, would take up the mantle of leadership in society. I saw this as a good thing, since I guessed, or assumed from my own very powerful experience in this regard, that their service would lead them to ask better questions and have better, more intelligent ideas about what to do about our very complicated problems in the world, as well as a stronger ethic of public service and national duty. I also advocated for a system of improved financial aid for military and other national service, since I foresaw that these kinds of experiences, not just the military but Peace Corps and Americorps, were just what was needed to get America and thus the west in general, back on track, and I wanted us to create avenues whereby more service led to better qualifications, which would naturally lead to more of those who served being promoted to leadership positions, compared to those who wouldn't serve.

I doubt my paper actually contributed much to the process, but I can look back and see that the ideas were adopted -- although probably quite a lot of other people were having the same ideas at the time. And we eventually got quite a bit of what we wanted. We do now have much better and much more generous systems linking military and non-military national service to student financial aid. We do now, to some much better extent, show more respect to those who have served, and give preference in hiring and in aid for education to them over those who haven't. The result has been and will continue to be, to some extent, to dilute the crass individualism of pure capitalism, and to begin to create a new, more intelligent construction of what the national interest is, one with a more communitarian ethic.

As a result, and I offer the VoteVets ads as one piece of proof, we are now beginning to ask much better questions about where we're going, together, as a society.

And the returning veterans, who've seen for themselves just exactly what a foreign policy decided in back rooms by draft-dodging neoconservative idealogues and their client industries can do for us, are now beginning to show leadership and push back.

All of which makes me very pleased. So hats off to VoteVets. Way to go.

And roll on the day when you guys run the country.

Meanwhile, shame on Fox News. Not only do you show disrespect for the opinions of a group of men and women who have served their country and undoubtedly earned the right to have any opinion they want on any topic under the sun and get that opinion published by any reputable news organization, but you've revealed yourselves as illiberal censors of ideas, immoderate idealogues, a new and insidious Big Brother from the far right.

But how long do you think you can keep that up, once these intelligent, committed, active young men and women with good records of service, who have figured out what is really happening, begin to assume the leadership and power they deserve?

For over a generation the political right and their captive news media outlets have applied a conservative litmus test to help us poor unwashed fools decide who is a person worthy of listening to. That person was an individualist and a capitalist, on the far right in terms of foreign policy, and would certainly never question the wisdom of our energy choices. Oil was king, and we didn't care where we would have to go to get it, or who we would have to get it from. But we've been sending lots and lots young men and women to go get it, and those young people have been part of a very non-capitalist, very non-individualistic operation called the military.

And they all vote.

And so we shouldn't be surprised if, after doing this very difficult thing we asked them to do, and doing it well, especially when we got rid of some of the original and failed leadership, they come back and look around at some of our wider choices, and begin to ask broader questions about what we are doing in the world.

And there's no stopping this process. This genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Graduation: First Sustech student ever: Heidi!

Graduation was yesterday. And crossing the stage for the first time ever was a Unity College Sustainability Design and Technology Major, Heidi Kowalski.

Heidi came to us with quite a bit of college already, but was looking to reorganize her life around work in the renewable energy and energy efficiency business. Reversing the normal time logic of part-time college, she held down her existing job as a hospital technician on the weekends and commuted to us during the week in term time. This ability for hard work was particularly apparent when she effectively served two internships, one formal, graded internship as an office person for ReVision Energy, our local installation-and-analysis firm, the other helping to build an experimental green residence in the Unity neighborhood.

As someone who also had to hold down a job, or two, to get through college, and who was also an older student, I appreciated this capacity for work in her a good deal, and was quite proud to see Heidi cross the stage. Heidi is competent, practical, analytical, hard-working, very down-to-earth and sensible, and will be a tremendous asset to the company who employs her as an analyst, manager or businessperson.

Of course, she might also just choose to hang up a shingle as an independent energy consultant or auditor.

Also graduating today were Steve Swartz and Mary Kinney. Steve is not a Sustech major -- I guess he discovered his calling too late in his college career to take all our program. But he took a good number of our classes and this combined with his previous college work will be enough to make it quite likely he'll find work in the field.

Enough work, and well-enough paid, I would imagine, for him to decide if he likes it enough to go to graduate school in something closer to Sustech. Steve is also hard-working, and a good self-starter. He quickly picked up the Q-GIS platform after I gave him the briefest of introductions one day. Instead of taking a GIS class like most students would, he learned how to do it himself. This kind of self-starting smarts is one reason I predict he'll have to go to grad school one day. Steve is definitely an outdoorsman first and foremost, a good trait in the wind power field, where a head for heights and an ability to read maps and use GPS and GIS also come in handy. Steve is the mustachioed dude in the blue hard hat.

Mary took only one or two of our classes, and that I think for fun and for breadth more than for a career path. But she was a great asset to the recent Energy and Energy Efficiency class and swung in with gusto on all kinds of hands-on projects. Here she is, unauthorized, climbing on the table to get better purchase on her Philips screwdriver while experimenting with solar module set-up. Full disclosure -- I did tell her to get down off the table as soon as I had the picture. And note that everyone in these pictures is wearing appropriate PPE. Up above Mary and Heidi are fielding the guy wires as we take down the Vinalhaven anemometer preparatory to moving it to a different site a few weeks ago.

So all's well that ends well for these guys. Off into the wild blue yonder.

What about us that stay behind? Well, a bit of a rest, and a change that is as good as a rest, is in order. I have to get organized for my field season and I'm picking away at that job daily.

But I can't help but ask how well a job we did with these undergraduates. We meaning Unity College, that is, and particularly the Center for Global Change and Sustainability and the Sustainability Design and Technology Program. Was it worth it, for these students?

I have to say I'm not too unhappy with the results. Particularly with Heidi, who was able to finish her degree in just two years because she transferred in so many credits. Ordinarily, you just don't get this kind of service. Trying to cobble together a custom degree completion program, while adding in as many hands-on and practical, in-the-field, experiences as we could muster in the time available, while maintaining quality in the regular programming, that's not normal for the rather hide-bound education system we have in this country.

But that's just part of the question. More and more I have to ask, how well do we do preparing students for the problems society must solve tomorrow? Especially in energy and climate change?

Unity College is not a professional preparation college. We're a liberal arts and sciences college. This means that although we might have specialized classes in applied physics and energy analysis and climate mitigation and ecological econometrics, it isn't our business to be trying to make engineers, business managers, and accountants.

What we should be able to make instead are well-rounded, creative, boot-strapping, open-minded problem solvers, general-purpose leaders for society, who will help remake civilization anew, each generation.

As a professor-practitioner in the world of energy and climate mitigation, I can keep my eyes glued to the pages of the New York Times or Science or Nature, as much as I want, and I do, but the best I can do about figuring out what problems tomorrow's leaders must solve is take a WAG, a wild-a*&@d guess. I can imagine that climate change is going to be a problem, and that energy will need to come primarily from the sun or things that are driven by the sun, like the wind.

But what if there are problems I can't foresee? And if my life has taught me anything, it's that I can't foresee that well and neither can anybody else, especially the people who are stupid enough to think that they're in charge.

For my first career, I was trained to fight the Cold War. My job, as an enlisted man and engineer in the Royal Air Force, was to put airplanes into the air, and keep them there, gassed-up, oiled up, and armed-up, to knock down nuclear bomb and cruise missile-carrying enemy aircraft that were expected to approach over the North Sea from the former Soviet Union. While they were up in the air, I was to keep my head down in the trenches and bunkers, fend off saboteurs and fellow travelers with my trusty 7.62 mm rifle, and generally try to stay alive while World War III went on all around me.

Only problem was, the enemy that actually attacked poor old Albion during this period came from the air and sea from Buenos Aires, not Moscow. And of course they didn't actually attack us anywhere our poor old aging Phantoms or even our 7.62 SLRs could get at them. And their even more decrepit aircraft didn't carry nukes, but instead the Exocet missile. And so instead of Tupulev bombers, it was Mirages and even aging Corsairs, and instead of Soviet nukes it was a stupid two-bit French rocket with half a brain that took out all those men on the bridge of HMS Sheffield. And so it took a small miracle of improvisation and muddling through and 280 British lives and over a 1,000 Argentinian ones, to make it so the Falkland Islanders could stay what they wanted to stay, and still do, which is British.

And then there was the PIRA. The Provisional IRA. Using money collected from Irish-American suckers in bars in Boston and New York, money supposed to go to orphans and widows, instead we had bombs in Birmingham pubs and the RAF barracks just down the road from mine. More widows and orphans. I can be forgiven, I think, for taking this personally. These bombers were actually trying to kill people like me, after all, if not me personally.

But that's not the point. The point is, we didn't see it coming. In either case. And so none of our defense thinking was any good. And so we had to protect civilization by reorganizing our thinking from the ground up. The specialists were at a loss, as they always are.

And they were so grand, with their gold braid and tailored uniforms from fine London tailors. How long it took me to realize that the tailored uniforms were the Emperor's clothes.

And who the heck was thinking back then that the real threat to civilization might not be the junta or the PIRA or the Sovs, but instead an otherwise harmless and even helpful oxide of carbon?

If you had told me back than that by 2010 I'd be a computer-bashing, carbon-counting energy analyst keeping a farm and teaching sustainability college in Maine, I would have laughed you out of the crew room. And how useful is it to know how to change the recuperator on an F4, or how to deep strip the engines on the JP3s and 5s and Bulldogs that trained the pilots that flew the F4, as well as the Harriers and Sea Kings that turned out to be a bit more helpful in the South Atlantic? Not very much use at all.

But, funnily enough, it does help a good deal knowing how to parse a sentence in English, how to apply an equation, how to structure a logic problem, understanding some college level physics and engineering, and so on. Things I did learn at RAF College Halton in 1978.

(It doesn't hurt knowing a Number 3 Phillips from a Number 2, for that matter. I use that kind of technical knowledge almost every day, too.)

So, given the prior performance of the folks who were in charge of me back then, I have every reason to believe that I will be just as incompetent at predicting the future. In which case these students are going to need what I didn't get enough of as a youngster, which is an education that can be organized and reorganized, used and reused, to solve problems we won't and perhaps can't possibly see coming.

If I just taught them to do one kind of analysis, that wouldn't be good enough. They have to know how to bootstrap themselves into new, completely unforeseen analysis problems. They can't just learn one kind of writing, one kind of public speaking, one kind of research.

Most of all, they have to have a high regard for human freedom and for service to society. They have to be willing to think hard about what kind of society they want to live in and be willing to work and sacrifice to see that happen.

I can't foresee the future, but I can guess that climate and energy problems are not going to make the plotters and bomb-throwers and all the kinds of -isms there are go away. More than likely, they'll get worse, as more and more poor people are pushed to the wall.

And if we're not careful and true to this liberal education ideal, we'll get worse as a result, giving up on our own ideals and freedoms too easily. We might even hand our values over to some new American junta, run from the boardrooms of Exxon or Haliburton or Massey.

Saving the world for fossil fuels.

I don't think the likes of Steve and Mary and Heidi are going to let that happen too easily on their watch.

Friday, May 7, 2010

CO2 emissions news

US CO2 2009 emissions are well down on last the year before. No great surprise, with the recession and all, but it's always good to delve into the numbers.

You can do that at

There's a few efficiency gains and increases in the use of renewables underlying the larger loss to the economy.

Good news for once.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

School's out and summertime projects

Well, the semester came crashing, grinding, shuddering to a halt as ever. It's never pretty. There is never enough time to do every job perfectly, neither for the professors nor the students, so there's always a bunch of half-done student work to grade, while you say to yourself "what was she/he thinking."

And there's always much the same feature to the various professorial reporting that must be completed! Now what actually did I do with my school year? Can't for the life of me remember, it was such a blur.

Keeping a blog is helpful, because there's a record. Here are the highlights in slide show form.

What next? After a spot of rest, a bit of grading and graduation, I mean.

Well, there's several anemometry projects to do, including one beginning next Tuesday. It's always fun to do renewable energy projects on the tops of Maine mountains.

There's a PBS film crew coming to film the Jimmy Carter panels, again next week.

There's a barn to finish, just a few bits and pieces. Starting tomorrow, as part of the pre-graduation clean-up day.

There are new students arriving for a NOVA, for which we will provide some hands-on projects.

There's a small farm to keep. Go to if you like small farms.

There are summer conferences and webinars.

All grist for the mill.