Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dealing with xenophobia

The Know-Nothings are at it again. A perfectly peaceful mosque in Tennessee has begun to be attacked by racist idiots.

This has to stop, now.

I have some experience with this kind of stupidity. Living in Sander's County, Montana from 1986 to 1990, put me accidentally in the furor over the white supremacist group, the Aryan Nations. These very nasty characters moved into old ranches and new home-builts that were just a few miles of forest road across the Little Bitteroot Mountains from the main compounds in Idaho.

The Montana compounds were strategically picked to provide cover for a bolt hole across the hills from Idaho.

I worked at the mill, the Vinson Cedar mill, and we had one black employee. He had a wife and family. He received death threats, and his house was fired, and after a few more weeks of fear decided to move. A Forest Service seasonal ranger had her cabin broke into and her dog killed, after she caught one of the racists stealing firewood from the National Forest. Other nasty incidents occurred in bars and the local grocery.

Eventually, of course, the FBI and the Idaho State Police went after the Idaho compound for various crimes. But on the Montana side we had instead a local civic response. A group was organized, meetings were held, and a rally, in which this tiny Montana's county's population was able to turn out several hundred people for civil rights and against race violence. Emboldened by this support, the Sheriff's Department became more vigilant. After examining their own conscience more deeply, most of the officers decided to honor their constitutional oath. Eventually they succeeded, with some help from the FBI, in arresting some of the racists on various crimes.

I was extremely proud of that small effort. I also remember the massive turn-out a few years ago in Lewiston, Maine, when no less than several thousand Mainers turned out to support our Somali immigrants and to oppose a tiny white supremacist rally. When ordinary people stand up, this kind of behavior crawls back into its hole.

So what is needed here, other than the right-wing chattering classes beginning to see the kind of violence they're encouraging with the stupid and illiberal nonsense over the so-called "ground zero mosque," and ending their own silly, self-aggrandizing behavior, is a good old-fashioned community response.

We need to stand up and be counted and say that American moslems are as American as any other generation of immigrants.

Remember, the original Know Nothings targeted Irish Catholics.

What is this to do with sustainability?

A lot, actually, because we need to have some notion of the kind of good society we might wish to sustain.

Remember the words of Pastor Niemöller?

"They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up."

More practically, I also have another 15 first year trainee Conservation Law Enforcement candidates in my introductory map reading class, and many more third years in my required sustainability class. As long as I'm partly responsible for training future Peace Officers, young men and women that will put on their country's uniform and take an oath to protect the constitution, they're going to hear about stories like this, and they're going to be made to think about what kind of country they actually want to protect.

Lomberg no longer a skeptic

In what must surely be one of the most dramatic reversals of belief and conscience ever, the famous Swedish climate skeptic Bjørn Lomberg has come out in favor of immediate action to reverse climate change.

Hard to fathom, though, why he was earlier chose to be such a well quoted denier for so long.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Community energy

I enjoy Unity College's close involvement with the state of Maine's many community energy groups. It makes me happy to see folks who are willing to step up to the plate and begin to figure out their energy problems as a community.

I just got this particular example in my email and decided to highlight it here:


What is a non profit community based clean energy project about? It is decision making by and for the community. The community has the ability and responsibility to look out for its own interests. Those interests include caring about our planet and the people that live on it, specifically in our own neighborhood. How can we balance the demand for electricity and other energy products with a clean and healthy environment? How can we promote a responsible energy economy that harnesses our local resources without doing more harm than good? These are some of the questions being discussed at Peninsula Power meetings. Peninsula Power is a group of interested volunteers from our area that wants to find answers to some of these questions. Only the community at large will have authority to act on any findings. Hopefully all members of our community are interested in helping solve some of these questions and would like to be part of the conversation, education, and study process.. Peninsula Power is not an outside force or profit making venture aggressively pushing for a commercial site on the Blue Hill Peninsula that will devastate our community.

Complacency with the status quo is a slippery slope that could lead to economic and environmental catastrophy. For decades Maine, and our local area, has imported 95% of it's energy needs from out of the State and Country. According to State statistics that equals 5 billion dollars a year being shipped out of state and never coming back. Can we afford those losses? We as a State are vulnerable to any supply or price fluctuations, and virtually any and all energy issues and problems. With world demand for energy increasing at a rapid rate these concerns are only getting greater. China has already surpassed the USA in its number of cars on the road and annual energy consumption. In two hundred years we will have burned up carbon based fuels that were two million years in the making. When is a good time to look for a clean alternative? Maine people have historically been independently minded and willing to create their own solutions, not willing to take what is spoon fed from afar. Let's look at all the difficult issues and see what can be done. Individual communities can make a difference.

Noise from wind turbines is one of the biggest issues with wind power. Let's look at the facts and see what we can find out.
Check out this article and accompanying podcast from "Renewable Energy World" about wind power noise issues featuring Texas and the Vinalhaven wind projects.

If you are finding thoughtful well balanced articles and reports about energy issues or wind power please share them by return email and we can distribute them to our current email list.

Paul Trowbridge

Peninsular Power

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Solar system failures

Here's my latest renewable energy project -- repairing the solar power "motherboard" at our Bale House -- a camp or cabin in the deep woods of Monroe, Maine, that Aimee and I built several year ago, and that was featured in several national newspapers (and even the Shanghai Daily!) because it was built using straw bale and recycled materials for less than $20,000.

This is a fairly standard small scale off-grid solar system. One solar PV module, a set of four 6V batteries connected in series and parallel to make 12V DC, a charge controller, and a 110V inverter -- what you'd need to make lights and a small amount of power for a cabin, camp, or remote home.

Now the most recent occupants are moved out, and before a friend moves in, I've been spending almost all of my spare time over there for a few weeks now repairing and restoring the old place, and as usual I'm mining the experience for lessons in renewable energy and climate mitigation.

This equipment was all set up because this house is too far from the nearest grid power lines. It would have cost about $50,000 to run ordinary grid power in, much more than the house is worth. Originally we had provided this small scale solar power system providing both 110V AC and 12V DC, backed up by a fairly expensive propane generator with it's own dedicated wiring system side-by side with the inverter system. It was enough to light the house, to listen to music, to pump water, and watch a show or two a night on a very small, energy efficient TV.

But the generator quit a few years ago, mostly because the occupants couldn't bring themselves to live without a TV, or at least without a fairly large TV. The generator, a brand name propane model, wasn't intended for nightly use, but that was what it was getting. Their TV was a cathode ray tube model now obsolete, and it likely drew at least 100W/hour.

When Aimee and I lived there we had a 13-inch portable that drew about 35 W, then to save energy we switched to a 13 inch flat screen model that drew 25 W, or less if you were watching one of those dark horror movies that Aimee likes to scare me with.

(I'm easily scared by horror movies -- this after a lifetime of volunteer rescue work in which I've seen the most difficult injuries and deaths up close -- go figure!)

When the generator quit on them, I was able to go over over and salvage the unit. I repaired it at home in my own shop, but decided they couldn't have it back if they were going to treat it so badly. They would have to live off their solar "income" instead.

But I failed to make allowances for the pervasive power of habit. Pretty soon the solar system was damaged in a lightning strike. It shouldn't have been damaged, and in fact had lived through dozens of storms in years past, but the ground wire to the wiring system had been disconnected, and so the excess voltage induced in the lines by the atmospheric electricity had nowhere to go. This most likely happened because the occupants had worn out the battery pack, but rather than tell me to have it changed, they had hooked up a car battery. In doing so they had failed to connect the wire to the household ground rod. The inevitable power surge eventually came and a very expensive inverter and charge controller were fried.

But having started, this round of user-error induced failure couldn't end there. A car battery can't run one of these systems for more than a half hour or so, so when that didn't work for them, they'd tacked all these twelve foot extension cords everywhere, which they'd hooked up to a very cheaply made gas generator running outside, no doubt using a veritable "Christmas tree" of double or triple adapters.

It was a very old gas generator to boot, and was probably producing pretty low voltage a lot of the time.

This burn is the result. Lucky the place didn't burn down. Those small hand-start gas generators are meant for emergency use, and even then they can only run one or two items at a time.

And of course, no-one bothered to hook the generator to a ground rod either.

Now I have to get the whole system back to the original level of performance and safety.

Luckily the price of these components has come down, while the technology has improved, so the cost of repair is less than it would otherwise have been, and the results better overall.

I paid a lot of money for the old inverter, a Trace 600 W standby type, and the old charge controller, a Trace C 40. These were standard equipment for small scale solar design for many years, and very robust and safe, as long as they were properly grounded and protected by breakers and fuses.

A solar power system needs two separate grounds, one for the panels, since they usually sit up on a roof and attract lightning energy, and one normal ground for the electrical distribution components.

I was able to replace the whole shebang with new, up-to-date gear for less than I paid for secondhand gear 8 years ago. I used a Cobra 1,000 RV-style inverter, which provides more wattage than the Trace but doesn't need a standby circuit because it draws very little power when on. The new inverter runs without a sound, and has a built-in input volt-meter and output wattage meter. The old inverter was slightly noisy, and the entire system had only a variably flashing LED (on the charge controller) for voltage, and not a very accurate LED at that.

Very nice. We'll see how long it lasts, though. It seems too good to be true.

The white thing on the motherboard is the new charge controller, which is a Xantrex C35, basically the old Trace C40 (with the same old LED!), but without a shunt for excess power, which experience shows is rarely produced by this particular system which has only one module powering four golf-cart batteries.

There were newer, fancier, and cheaper units, but the price of the C35 was much lower than before and they are very robust units despite being, or because of, a 30 year-old design. The black thing is the new inverter. I also went through and reconfigured the wires to make the connections more straightforward, and I put a smaller main breaker in to protect the inverter.

So far so good.There's a short in one 110 volt circuit left to trace today, and then the cabins electrical power system will be restored and even better than it was previously.

But what can we do to make sure that the people who live there are willing to live within limits? This turns out to be a question of major importance as we head towards a world wherein humans have exceeded ecological carrying capacity.

On reflection, I know and have always known that technological understanding evades some people. The level of complexity that is reflected in even a small scale solar power system is far more than a regular house with 200 amp supply, because the regular house doesn't run out of sunshine, while the breaker and grounding system is fail safe.

The solar house, especially the small scale, off-grid solar house, is always in danger of running out of power. You get a fixed maximum supply every day, and if the sun doesn't shine, you don't even get that. This particular house produces about 300-400 watts a day on average, about 1000 watts on a good day, and none at all on a bad day. That's enough for some light and music, a couple hours of a small TV, and to run the 12 V water pump, but no more. And it's only fail safe as long as you don't mess with it.

(And if the owner/designer says the house can't run a 100 watt TV, the house can't run a 100 watt TV.)

Here we provided the building with a proper breaker and grounding system that was initially fail safe, but we could never provide enough sunshine to run all the normal range of American lifestyle appliances that the occupants wanted to run. Instead of adapting to the new low power lifestyle, they tried to adapt the home to their original high power lifestyle. The result was a cascading system of failures, one after the other, each one adding another level of safety issues, and each one setting the system up for the next failure.

For the want of a nail. Even a secondhand 25-35 watt portable TV would have cost $50 and saved the whole system from this cascading failure.

If we ever do have a major climate and energy crisis, one greater than the current chronic disruption, it will cascade like this too. The trick to avoid this is probably to call a time-out right at the beginning and work to get systems back to a safe and functional level before making things worse.

Unfortunately, I fear we won't have the foresight to do that, and so we will make things worse, break more and more systems, before we come back to solving the original problem, which is the carrying capacity problem.

So what does my recent experiment all tell us about the ability of ordinary folk to learn to live within ecological and other system limits?

We're fairly certain that the new occupant, a masters-level biologist and ecologist who alternates between running an organic farm and teaching biology at Unity College, can fathom how to live within the limits of the house.

In any case, this new occupant doesn't watch TV. But I'm not sure it will be that easy getting the rest of society down to where we're living within the safe limits of the climate system.

A good job, though, that we don't actually have to give up on TV. We just need to reduce fossil fuel use by about 80 percent. You can run a TV set, and even a large one if you must, on solar power.

Although I think that this is the message a lot of ordinary people get about climate mitigation requirements -- that you have to give things up.

And the first day of the fall term is Monday. Global Change at 8am. Better get some coffee.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Some observations on "green collar jobs"

My New York Times this morning had a big feature, made up of several little ones, about how many otherwise educated people already firmly in the workforce are having to go back to school in order to stay relevant and employable.

Embedded in that item was this item here about community college "green collar" jobs programs and a study by the Lawrence Berkeley Lab on the energy efficiency sector in higher education.

Now, what do I think about all this sudden academic interest in the theory and practice of saving energy?

And what does the educated energy professional need to know, especially at the four year college or university level?

I think imitation is the sincerest from of flattery.

Although to be fair, most of these other programs' organizers probably haven't heard of us.

But they are definitely following our lead. We saw this movement coming about ten years ago and moved to where we thought the ball would be.

I also think it takes some thinking to string together the proper programming.

It also takes some insight to see the deeper connections.

It would be easy to miss something important if you lacked the insight or failed to do enough thinking.

For instance, we didn't limit ourselves, or our program, to the energy efficiency sector. We saw that area as intimately connected to the renewable energy area, particularly the distributed forms, solar and wind power.

The inherent nature of the most efficient form of solar heating and cooling, which is passive or architectural solar, meant that solar power knowledge was and always would be directly linked to architecture and green building. So a working knowledge of architecture is also necessary, as well as energy efficiency and renewable energy knowledge.

And this whole enterprise is directed first and foremost by the need to reduce climate emissions and account for their reduction, always in keeping with the most recent climate science knowledge, which, however, is changing constantly. As, frankly, is the available technology in the energy sector, both technology for efficiency and for renewables.

So the truly effective "green collar" expert in the future will have to have a strong and very basic foundation in relatively timeless basic principles such as mechanics, energetics, ecology, math.

While the most important skill will be to account for and manipulate energy and matter flows in systems: household, energy, industrial, and climate systems.

Which systems of accounting, frankly, are the core of a discipline called ecology, although it's primarily physical ecology with an earth science edge that is needed.

A year of physics, a year of biology, a year of chemistry and math through calculus remains the primary basic qualification for a science graduate in any major, and sustainable energy is no different than any other degree in this respect.

If it is different, it's because the field changes, and will continue to change, so quickly that the ability to go back to first principles with any new idea is at an even higher premium than it would be in, say, wildlife biology, where methods and ideas are changing, but not as quickly.

First principles.

On which foundation should then be laid a layer of newer, more shifting knowledge about the current technology and climate science and its math.

The math that is needed is also somewhat timeless, mostly elaborate arithmetic in spreadsheet models, but it also includes some algebra, some trigonometry, a little calculus, and lots of computer modeling.

There's another large area of cognate knowledge that is needed, knowledge about management, about business, about economics.

On that last, these new energy specialists need to be thoroughly versed in the ongoing debate between followers of Keynes and followers of Friedman that plays out in US politics. They should be able to play Keynes against Friedman in their own heads and use either argument with either audience, since even Friedman would see the massive "externality" that is climate change, and so you can, and should argue this anytime you meet a neoliberal conservative.

Just for fun.

But they should also know how differently these issues are seen in mainland Europe, where both Keynes and Friedman can be seen as passé.

They should therefore also be very well aware of the alternatives, the ecological economics critique of our planet's current predicament, as well as the criticism from social democracy. All of which, frankly, is rooted in philosophy and ethics.

Did I mention that you must be able to read, write and otherwise communicate in English very well indeed?

A graduate that has all this science and social science and humanities knowledge will be able to come to their own independent and valid judgments about the desirability of any given course of action or technology implementation, having first run the pros and cons through the filters of physical, ecological, business, economic, social and ethical feasibility, both quantitatively and qualitatively. They will then be able to represent this conclusion in written English with appropriate mathematical reasoning, and argue cogently for it. If they are practical people and have done a little fieldwork, or spent time in the workshop or lab or crawlspace, they will be all the better at actually getting something done, instead of just talking about it.

(There are a lot of good talkers in my business, all of whom would be made more palatable and agreeable by having occasionally stuffed some insulation into a hole or connected a solar panel.)

I also tend to think that the truly independent sustainability thinker will also have a pretty stiff spine of moral decency and courage as well, but I'm not sure I can require this as a condition of graduation.

Developing ownership of all of these areas of knowledge and skill, and fostering all the appropriate dispositions, in one person at one time, is of course a very tall order for a mere baccalaureate program, which is why those working in the energy and climate nexus at higher levels in policy, government and business will need graduate school, mostly just to have enough time to get beyond the introductory level, but also to develop as independent thinkers and people.

A couple of "gap" years here and there in the trenches, especially the military or Americorps or Peace Corps wouldn't hurt either, especially with the dispositional outcomes. In particular, these will need to be people who know the truth when they see it and are not afraid to speak that truth to power.

But there will be lots of positions for baccalaureate graduates who can handle all of the above. A state-level energy program, for instance, should do well if it has a good and energetic posse of young professionals with the background I outline. A business, if it means to do well with ideas in this field, will always need such people. Quite a lot of our students are interested in their own businesses. A non-profit organization working in the climate/energy sector, such as the Natural Resource Council of Maine, would always benefit from new, fresh people that are up-to-date in this field.

I would think that this education would be a good investment, for the right students.

How about for the planet?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In the top 30

I don't know why this seems important to me -- it isn't really. What is more important is how well I do explaining the intricacies of climate science and green energy policy starting next week, or how organized we are at leveraging our latest research funding for wind assessment work into useful work experience for undergraduates.

But we've been working hard at improving this college for a long time now, so it does feel good to get some recognition.

In particular, this particular rating has us scaled highly for serving otherwise underserved students: students from low income and minority backgrounds.

That's very satisfying.

"Unity, Maine – August, 2010 – Unity College has landed in the top 30 of The Washington Monthly 2010 College Rankings, the highest placement on the baccalaureate colleges list of the rankings for a Maine college.

Unity College is the 16th -best baccalaureate college by The Washington Monthly's measurements.

The honor comes on the heels of being named one of the greenest colleges in the United States by the Princeton Review.

“When I reviewed The Washington Monthly approach, I was impressed by their approach—they want to ‘measure how well individual colleges and universities were meeting their public obligations in the areas of research, service, and social mobility,'" noted Amy Knisley, Unity College Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs. “I am very pleased to have attained recognition by these measures, given our commitment to providing an affordable education that prepares students to serve in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.”

Kay Fiedler, Director of Admissions at Unity College, saw the high national ranking as another step in a growth and maturation process for the College founded by Unity area residents in 1965.

“It is great to see Unity College being recognized as a leader in the environmental movement,” said Fiedler. “It is our mission to prepare a new generation of leaders equipped to address the pressing environmental challenges of our time. We are always seeking bright, engaged young people who have the passion to learn and the academic ability to succeed and this type of recognition helps get the word out there about America’s Environmental College.”

The Washington Monthly rates schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility, which emphasizes recruiting and graduating low-income students; Research, with a focus on producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs; and Service, which emphasizes encouraging students to give something back to their country. The methodology is online at http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/college_guide/feature/a_note_on_methodology_4year_co.php.

Unity College is a small private college in rural Maine that provides dedicated, engaged students with a liberal arts education which emphasizes the environment and natural resources. Unity College graduates are prepared to be environmental stewards, effective leaders, and responsible citizens through active learning experiences within a supportive community."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Behavioral wedges (and science reporting)

One of the items of scratched vinyl in my head is this strange notion that we can get a good deal of climate emissions reductions and energy savings without a climate bill. Not that I don't want one. I do. I just don't think we'll get one for a year or five. The current political stand-off in Congress, especially the senate, is rather persistent. It will take a fairly major climactic event, several more Katrinas, or a Pakistani monsoon in the Mississippi drainage, or the wildfire destruction of a major southern California city, or all of the above plus $5/gallon gas, to shake the senate and/or the US public out of complacency.

This is just a notion of mine, but based on my growing experience in practical green building and retrofit. These days, if you invite me over, I'm likely to start investigating the air leaks in your basement, or telling you just how much money you're paying to run that "retro" fridge. But I'm too busy with my regular teaching, our wind research, and other related projects to do the actual scientific number crunching to test the hypothesis.

(So I write about it here instead, as I do with a lot of my bugbears. I also post on other people's blogs. This is not of course, how I was taught to "do" science reading or research, but the Internet is changing all that very quickly.)

But a group of fairly senior researchers has done the number crunching, and so it's official.

Recently I posted on Revkin's blog (at the NYT) and the authors of this article responded.

There's a moderately popularized version here, and a more formal one here.

(The authors are Thomas Dietz, Gerald Gardner, Jonathan Gilligan, Paul Stern, and Michael Vandenbergh.)

They also have a web site for their work. I find it helpful that more and more peer-reviewed work is now being made widely available through these dedicated sites that authors post or other similar means. Typically, if I wanted to read the original, I'd have to buy the journal or write our librarian and have her ILL it.

But these guys, like a lot of others, provide a link. Speeding up the dissemination of useful ideas is a very good thing.

(Interesting how so many of my colleagues still ban Internet sources for research papers. I expect when the first science journals came out, there were Oxford and Cambridge dons that decried their presumption, criticized their authority, and sent their students to go read Aristotle instead. Actually, I just read, in William Rosen's The Most Powerful Idea in the World (p125), that one of the best sources for scientific information in 18th century England was The Ladies Diary. Apparently, more by accident than design, this magazine, previously more or less what it's title suggests, became a leading reporting forum in its day. So go figure. Time and ideas wait for no man or woman.)

Dietz, one of the co-authors of the behavioral wedge idea, I've met, I think, at US Society for Ecological Economics conferences or something like that.

There's still the question of how to overcome the complacency. The authors evaluate the various methods so far used to interest the public in emissions reductions/energy efficiency methods. They conclude, in that wonderful values-neutral science langauge, that large reductions are possible and can be achieved if policymakers use the best ideas and the most effective incentives.

The most effective? Cash, it turns out. Duh.

But still, this is a very helpful contribution, and one I might not have found were it not for my Internet habits. I'll add the paper and some discussion of it to a couple of my classes.

Here's their concluding paragraph:

"Lifestyle changes may become necessary in the out-years under constrained energy supply or economic growth scenarios, and they may become more attractive as a result of changes in social attitudes or national or community priorities, some of which might evolve from grassroots efforts to achieve the emissions reductions analyzed here. Additionally, policies that add a financial incentive for carbon emissions reduction are likely to increase behavioral plasticity and may also induce downsizing of household equipment. A U.S. demonstration of leadership on achieving the behavioral wedge might help induce other countries to do the same. The potential of behavioral change deserves increased policy attention. Future analyses of the potential of efficiency in meeting emissions goals should incorpo- rate behavioral as well as economic and engineering elements."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Krugman and Keynes and climate

I've been thinking about the American dream lately, about what climate and energy difficulties mean for this, and how today's economic system is so very difficult for so many Americans.

Today there was more food for thought: The NYT's (and Princeton's) Paul Krugman has a new opinion piece on the need for more stimulus and how the Democratic consensus that seems to be emerging is that, politically, this isn't possible.

Austerity, the new byword.

One casualty, it turns out, is Obama's green jobs program. This according to a different item from Revkin. The money for the program was in the climate bill, which is now shelved.

I'm not certain that there isn't quite a bit of green jobs money still in the pipeline, particularly in the stimulus package. Although the deadline is theoretically up soon, a lot of funding is for contracts whose date exceeds the ARRA timing.

That's not my point though. And even if I'm right, delayed ARRA dollars won't be anything like the several million green jobs we need.

The main casualty of all this austerity, according to Krugman, is employment.

Shouldn't we be doing more to encourage green job development?

The key, unstated point in Krugman's piece is really that Keynesian theory and history both are being ignored here. History shows that employment is a "lagging indicator." Sometimes the lag is acute. It took a decade, and WW2, for employment to return to "normal" after the depression of the 1930s. What's a government to do? Keynes' usual response was that "demand-side" measures that put cash in the hands of people who would spend it were best. This would enter the economy, stimulate aggregate demand, and we'd climb out of the business cycle bust. The CCC, the WPA, TVA, BPA, all these New Deal alphabet soup agencies met with lordly approval from Maynard.

In WW2, it was all those Rosie the Riveter's that did the socioeconomic climbing, of course, and after the war the GI bill, particularly the home finance package, did much of the same. I tend to think that having a better educated workforce as a result of the education package was also important.

But conservatives always opposed demand-side notions that look anything like social programs, preferring tax breaks instead, and of course talking up a storm about "fiscal responsibility." This would pass muster if the tax breaks that get passed were for the middle class, but somehow with both the Reagan and the Bush tax cuts, they turned out to be primarily for the wealthy, while both presidents presided over massive growth in the federal budget and deficit. Any reasonable person reviewing the fiscal record from 1980 to 2008 would have to admit a major disconnect between stated theory and actual practice.

From this vantage point, green jobs just looks like welfare for hippies. But that's bigoted, as well as untrue. There are plenty of conservatives in the green energy business.

And although the danger we pick technological losers not winners is actually quite real, I think we have enough obvious winners to back. Insulation, for instance. Or solar hot water.

Not that the current Democratic congress seems more able or likely to walk its talk, or even deliver an incoherent program, especially with their climate bill failure. I'm sure they could have come to some agreement with Collins and Snowe if they were willing to strong-arm their own coal state senators. But they don't have what it takes. There's no Lyndon B. Johnson in today's senate.

Make a decision, the trainers on my military leadership courses used to say: "Any decision will do." Moving is better than staying still and getting shot.

We should just say it out loud: Neither party, and no economist, really understands how the economy works. We never did. The simplified model, the so-called circular flow model on which Keynesian theory rests, suspiciously simple in the first place, has been superseded by all kinds of sneaky back channels and hidden loops whereby investors and governments both hedge and hedge and hedge.

Certainly no-one knows it well enough to grasp the levers and strings, and, with the quiet confidence of, say, "Sully" Sullenberger, pull us away from the pyre in one clean motion. Not even the sainted Obama. Roosevelt couldn't do it in the 30s. Reagan couldn't do it in the 80s. Bush didn't get anywhere near in the early 2000s, and 2008 was the result.

Meanwhile, though, the Chinese are untrammeled by any mere theoretical difficulties. Having navigated the recession with little discernible difficulty, they now proceed to sink billions into green transportation technology. This coming hard on the heels of their billions sunk into wind energy, and their continuing billions spent in household solar.

How on earth are we mere westerners supposed to be able to explain this with our blind gropings in economic theory!

Demand side, supply side, which strings or levers are the Chinese pulling!

Someone tell us, please, how they do it!

Or maybe they just never read any of these guys, Keynes or Friedman...

...and do what seems to work instead. They make a decision.

When you look at the scale of some of the New Deal monuments, the BPA and TVA and all that massive government architecture that surrounds the National Mall, the massive scale of it all, in comparison to the weak and modest notions of our day, the Chinese seem to be the new New Dealers of our time, and possibly even the new Americans.

I'm re-reading Simon Schama's The American Future: A History.

Seemed like good timing, given the "widening gyre." Prosac for the geo-politically depressed.

Schama, another ex-pat, and a self-admitted apologist for the Anglosphere way of life, is an easy pick for me to read, reflecting all my personal biases. But there's what seems to me a lot of realism in some of his otherwise very rosy and cherry-picked version of history.

Schama advances Kevin Philips's point that the liberties which Americans take for granted were first fought for by Britons, and that there's a direct line of inheritance from Magna Carta through the New Model Army and the 1688 Bill of Rights to the Revolution, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and on to Barrack Obama.

Obviously, with the recent vote-grabbing, Know-Nothingist shenanigans about the Ground Zero mosque, these liberties come with the price of constant vigilance and constant reminders, lest our own tribal instincts get the better of our vaunted freedoms.

But Schama's America, and the Anglosphere in general, remains the worldwide bastion of free speech, religious freedom, and political freedom. China is not. No persecuted minority wants to escape to Beijing or even Shanghai.

They would all much prefer New York, Sidney, Auckland, or even poor old Bradford.

The proof of the pudding.

Can we keep it up? I hope so. But we'll have to extricate ourselves from this funk soon and put our minds to energy and climate at least as urgently as the Chinese are doing, or we'll add further severe weather complications to our current Keynesian and geopolitical puzzles.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Maine made massively abundant

This post mirrored from our Farm Diary site.

Here's a shot of our dining room table, which has accepted the overload from our kitchen counters.

The food preservation season is upon us, the garden is putting out tons of food, we're even busier than usual squirreling away our harvest, and most days the kitchen is just a big mess of food and food-related activity.

This is just one day's picking from the tomato patch. There's another bowl of cherry type tomatoes from an earlier effort not in this picture. We also have big bowls of onions taking up counter and table space in our kitchen, small ones, for pickled onions. The green ones aren't unripe -- they're Aunt Ruby's German Greens, my favorite salad tomato.

I suppose this is appropriate since I'm married to a German-American greenie.

In other food news, I took our last male lamb to the butchers, where he yielded 52 pounds dressed meat, a Womerlippi Farm record. There were two more males, but we sold them to some farmer friends, one of whom is a MOFGA worker, earlier. The three pigs will be late this year, but they're coming along at about 60 pounds. They'll yield another 600 pounds of meat, roughly.

I've also dug and root-cellared 3/4 of the spuds, yielding about 100 pounds so far, not counting about 30 pounds given away and 20 pounds or so already eaten. Usually I do this job all at once, but this is a tricky year for blight. The first batch of main crop spuds we harvested got a little blighted. This was about 50 pounds, and was dug by a work group of visiting first years from our college.

It's hard to supervise so many students. I wasn't around to stop them washing them with the hose, and they were left damp for too long. I had to throw about a third of them out, the rest I washed again, more thoroughly to remove spores, and gave away to people who would eat them quickly, or made potato salad of.

We've been eating a lot of potato salad lately.

After that I was a little circumspect about harvesting spuds and resolved to do them just a bit at a time and make sure the blight didn't spread. The obvious damage to plants is in the tomato patch, not the potatoes, but I suppose the spores are in the dirt from last year. Anyway, the first batch I put up properly, not washing them, stayed fine after a couple weeks in the cellar. So I dug about half the crop this weekend, and that seems fine too. I'll get the last this coming weekend.

Aimee, for her part, went out to the primary Amish food stand run by Caleb Stoll, and bought several bushels of sweetcorn which she shucked and put up frozen. The ratio was about 10/1, ten corn cobs to each one pound bag of frozen shucked corn, but the kernels were small since she bought culls. Caleb's hardware store and food stand is on the Thorndike Road just out of Unity, and recommended.

The process by which she got her twenty or so bags of (cream-style) corn was fun to watch. She sat on the porch and pulled the "covers" off, flicking the corn borer bugs for the chickens to eat. If the chickens didn't happen to be handy, she'd call them up. Eventually one enterprising bird, the one remaining Golden Comet from four years ago (the last of her race!) came right onto the porch and just hung around for the bugs.

Then she brought the bare cobs into the kitchen where the big canning kettle was boiling, and scalded them, then dipped them in cool water to cool off, ground off the kernels with the special kitchen tool we have for this job, bagged up the results, and froze them.

But wait, that's not the end of the fun.

Then she took the left-over corn covers and empty cobs to the sheep and pigs, who scoffed them up in great satisfaction. While Mary the dog, it turns out, likes to gnaw on shucked corn cobs.

So everyone got fed by this process.

Except me. And then I cleaned up the kitchen and porch. How that got to be my job is one of those wonders of human family life, but it did. Go figure.

Watching the BBC news most nights while surrounded by all this food is uncomfortable. I grew up with Pakistani people in the UK, went to school with them, served with them in the RAF, and I still love to eat their food whenever I get a chance, whenever I'm home in Britain. It's upsetting to see so many of them so hungry.

The aid seems to be beginning to get through, though.

Meanwhile, every bit of food we can grow for ourselves and friends is, I suppose, one bit less food we need to buy from the supermarket, and so a bit more food available for everyone else. Maine was always capable of growing lots of food, as Israel Thorndike's Great Farm experiment originally showed.

I was talking to the Amishman who grew the hay we got this year, originally from the south. He wanted to know more about the history of the area, since he'd noticed how much had been agricultural land and was then abandoned. I told him of Thorndike, the Waldo patent and the Great Farm. His land too was almost certainly Thorndike's at one time.

As the climate zones on the North American continent move north, this is one large area of former agricultural land that will become relevant again.

As for the Womerlippis few acres, it doesn't make sense to own so much land if we don't use it. I submit that we are in fact doing so, and being successful.

Just as Thorndike intended. Although as we're obvious Jeffersonians, and as I'm an Englishman, I expect he's rolling in his grave to see us making a modest homestead out of his federalist, neo-feudal mansion.

That'll teach him, the elitist old bugger.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Article and video on wind vs. coal in WV

The article is better than the video. You definitely need to read it to get the full picture.


David Roberts

David Roberts of Grist has published a cogently argued piece, reprinted in the Guardian, on why the US environmental movement is not and never will be capable of dealing with climate change. Roberts does a very good job of summarizing the problem and reasoning to the ultimate solution.

The whole piece is here.

Here's the conclusion:

"What needs to happen is for concern over earth's biophysical limitations to transcend the environmental movement -- and movement politics, as handed down from the '60s, generally. It needs to take its place alongside the economy and national security as a priority concern of American elites across ideological and organizational lines. It needs to become a shared concern of every American citizen regardless of ideological orientation or level of political engagement. That is the only way we can ever hope to bring about the urgent necessary changes."

He's right. And he's encapsulated the whole thing in a nutshell. Nicely done.

The problem is, and I've mentioned this before several times and only quite recently here, this kind of 180 degree change in the overall pattern of widely held mental models in the US happens very rarely and only in response to very serious events. And I keep being brought back to World War Two, although I must sound like a stuck record.

Pearl Harbor was enough to get the US into World War Two, but Hurricane Katrina wasn't enough to reorganize American ideas about climate change.

And if the more or less total destruction of a US city wasn't enough, you have to ask yourself what is? Certainly not the Pakistani floods, nor the Russian fires, nor even this record-breaking long hot summer in the US and Canada.

Never mind that all this was predicted with quite good accuracy in the 2001 and 2007 IPPC Reports. (A reproduction of the table that summarized the prediction is here.)

When the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, despite the fact that the war had been going on for over two years, and despite the fact that reports of massacres of Jews and other non-Aryans had been leaking out of Europe since mid-1940, millions of Americans were still walking around with a mental model of the world situation in their heads that somehow told them that the Japanese would never attack America, and that the European war would not affect them and could safely be left alone.

This mental model wasn't reorganized until the obvious destruction of the Pacific Fleet on December 7th.

Today, the situation is similar. We should be smart enough to admit that millions of Americans are walking around with a mental model in their head that somehow says that climate change is most likely not happening, or if it is, it's not going to be too terribly bad. A smaller number, those most ideological, are walking around with a slightly more elaborate mental model that tells them that climate awareness and advocacy is a political choice, one that left-of-center people pick, when they could reasonably make other choices.

In other words, millions of rather ordinary and only moderately conservative Americans believe that left-of-center people decide to be aware of climate change and support climate policy in the same way that we might decide that we're in favor of gay marriage or publicly-run health care.

It's a choice, not a necessity, and one only chosen by leftists. That's what they think.

And to some extent they are right. There's been a lot of bandwagon-jumping, and the left has embraced climate change and used it as a Trojan Horse for other ideas and policies, including many that are just plain stupid or frivolous. Read some people's material on what to do about climate change and you'd think we will all be living in 1970s type communes, eating nothing but radishes and walking everywhere, within a few short years.

But that doesn't mean to say that it isn't still the biggest issue facing humanity, nor does it mean to say that ordinary Americans, and even these ordinary, moderate American conservatives, can safely ignore it.

Contrast the way that Americans felt about World War 2 in, say, 1941, with the way that Europeans felt about it at the same time, and you might begin to get an idea how most climate scientists and serious energy thinkers feel about this. If you were my grandfather, say, a very ordinary Englishman, you'd already been in the Army for two years, although you were 41 years old and had a wife and kid at home in Sheffield. You'd already lived through the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Your home neighborhood had been bombed. You actually thought you were lucky (at your rather advanced age) not to be sent to France (again) in October 1940 and have to suffer through Dunkirk.

Instead you'd been assigned to heavy rescue in London.


How much more real was World War Two for you, compared to one of isolationist Senator Burton Wheeler's Montana constituents? Obviously, by 1940, it was no longer possible for my grandfather to hold the mental model he had previously held, around the time of the Munich fiasco, which was that war was a terrible thing (he'd been in the trenches in the first war) and Britain should do everything it could do to stay out of another one. That mental model, held by millions of ordinary Britons, had all but evaporated by June 1940.

But it was still possible for Burton K. Wheeler's Montanan to hold his particular view, right up to December 6th, 1941. And so Americans, and their Congress, did very little to think about or prepare for the war.

The problem is, by the time you get to December 7th, if all you do is wait for people to change their minds, you're in a lot of trouble. Luckily, we didn't wait. A smaller number of people took action. We had FDR, who had begun to rearm even before September 3rd, 1939. We had the designs for the machines that would win the war, the Liberty ship, the Sherman tank, the jeep and the B17, completed, and some of the latter were already in service and even destroyed at Pearl Harbor. Factories had already shifted to war production to meet first British and then, after July 22nd 1941, Soviet demand.

Congress did pass Lend-Lease and we did have the destroyers-for-bases deal, as well as the convoy system. We did enough to stave off disaster.

The most important thing that happened was that Britain did not lose the war or surrender before December 7th. That meant that the war would continue to be in the news, that Edward R. Murrow would report from London during the Blitz, that Joe Kennedy would come to be seen as a fool and poltroon for his defeatist reports, and that Hitler would always have that giant aircraft carrier in the North Sea called the British Isles in his rear when he turned his sights east to all that Soviet Lebensraum.

When ordinary kinds of conservative Americans finally reorganize their mental models about climate change, we had better have done quite a lot of this kind of preparatory stuff. And there's lots that can be done without having to wait for a climate bill. Energy efficiency and renewable energy projects that can pay their own way and compete even at today's oil prices can be begun tomorrow, if we choose. We can certainly make sure that we have cadres of well-trained people to do the work, to be the trainers that train the trainers that eventually train the people that will really reorganize American industry and agriculture. We can think about how to scale up, just how we might organize to completely insulate and weatherize our existing housing stock, or just how we might organize to make enough thin-film solar for every rooftop.

But the most important thing we can do is not surrender, to not go away quietly. Because there will come a time when the evidence is so compelling, when the scientific explanation of what is happening is the only one that fits, and millions of ordinary people are forced to admit what is already obvious to us, that we have to reduce carbon emissions very, very quickly, and all these ideas and processes and techniques get put into action on a massive scale.

And we would be smart, too, if in preparation for that day, we would lay off our bandwagon-jumping, and come up with a mental model of climate response that ordinary kinds of conservative Americans can accept. One that doesn't seem to want to abolish capitalism, for instance. One that is rational, and scientific, and that doesn't use climate change as a Trojan Horse for hemp or transcendental meditation or eating radishes in a commune or some other happy horsepoop.

And then we wait. Unfortunately.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Penultimate field project of the summer

Our anemometry field work, having given us difficulties all summer, is finally starting to get easier.

Easy is relative, of course. It's never easy to wrestle these huge steel towers by hand up and down the state of Maine. Several times this summer I've wished for a team of mules or a tractor with some kind of super duper four wheel drive, anti-tip-over system.

With backhoe, loader, trailer and forklift permanently attached so you could use whichever you wanted any time you needed.

I don't think they make those, but if they do, that's what we'd need. That and the mules.

But what we have instead is sweat, sweat and more sweat, elbow grease, and of course, old fashioned brute force and ignorance.

Did I mention the sweat?

Anyway, sweaty scene-setting aside, there is a purpose to all this hard labor. We're trying to measure the wind for serious scale wind turbines on community-owned, state-owned, or farm business sites. About the only place we won't measure the wind is a private residence that happens not to be a real farm, ie, more than 50% of income from farming. Those we don't do. Nor do we measure wind for small scale turbines that are cheaper than anemometry equipment. That's a no-brainer.

And we don't measure for large scale commercial farms, although there's nothing to stop a Maine town government putting in a substantial, money-making, green-power making, community-owned wind farm if they so wish, such as the Fox Islands Wind Project (one of our anemometry sites earlier this year).

But if you're a farm, a town, a non-profit, or a branch of the state or federal government, we will help you out.

All the data is in the public domain, and anyone who wishes and has the knowledge to use it can contact me and get a full data set for any of the sites where public money has been used to pay for equipment or labor. Of course, this is data, so it's not very interesting unless you can crunch numbers, but we give it out for free to anyone who asks for it.

We also use the same data to read the Maine wind map very carefully, correcting intuitively where we can, and we make custom poster-size or computer-file GIS-based wind maps for anyone who asks.

At this point we have good data from enough sites in the state of Maine that we can correct the wind map for a lot of places. Not all, but enough to begin to save people time and trouble. We have enough anemometry data from our sites and those run by our partners, the University of Maine's anemometer loan program, that if you have a site in mid-central Maine, we can in some cases give you a fairly accurate wind assessment without needing to measure the wind.

Other parts of Maine, not so good. The wind map, which was made for the federal government by a private contractor in 2007, has been inaccurate enough in three or four places that we know of to encourage a project on an unsuitable site, or discourage a suitable one. We need to measure in other areas, eastern and northern Maine, and then correct the map properly, scientifically: actually correct the algorithm or wind model the map is based on.

Bit by bit, we're getting out there. This is a five or ten year project.

Yesterday's job was to finalize our biggest project of the summer, the Mercer site. This is a private farm where the owners are interested in having a farm turbine, possibly with their neighbors or community involvement. It's a mid-central Maine hilltop in a region were the wind map numbers are most inaccurate. We have sites in this region where we've measured the wind and found it to be stronger than the map number by two full wind power density classes, a Class 4 site instead of a Class 2.

Oops. Need a number check, please.

So we wanted a bit more data on that issue, and the owners wanted data to decide on their turbine, and there was federal and state money available through USDA and our partners the Efficiency Maine Trust. Maine Rural Partners, a regional agricultural advocacy organization working for farm energy efficiency and commercial viability, among other desiderata, did the outreach.

But the sweat, dear readers, was all ours. Although we had a good deal of useful and sweaty help from the farmers.

This site gave us more than the usual amount of trouble and at least one of the wind workers said that she was "done with" driving out there even though it has a nice view and there happens to be a good coffee shop along the way. We put in about fifteen or maybe twenty field days on this site, not counting the six or seven days to initially recover the equipment from the previous site, which itself was a very inaccessible mountaintop, requiring each component to be carried about half a mile down a steep trail.

The problem with Mercer was the clay soil. It had clay pan at 2-3 feet, very well drained this time of year, and hard as iron. This clay defeated no less than three different power augers, each increasingly larger and more powerful. You could chisel it away in small chunks with an iron bar, each blow requiring the full force of a pretty strong guy, but that's no way to run a railroad.

Eventually we got a back hoe and dug big holes and buried nautical-style "deadmen" anchors, using recycled wheel rims slipped over our screw-in anchor rods. There's nothing quite like a rusty sixteen-inch wheel rim under four feet of clay or glacial till, rocks and all, to give you a decent anchor. (Thanks to TA's Automotive and Salvage, a very fine and public-spritied organization, for the rims.)

Earlier this week we pull tested similar anchors at the University of Maine's Peaks Island wind site to 4,000 pounds. They would have held more, but that was already 500 pounds more than the required load, so we left off at that.

Here's wind worker Steve on the ferry to Peaks, looking positively vacational. Don't worry. By the ride back, he was good and sweaty.

The equipment we used at Mercer was a NRG Systems 60 meter tower, which we reconfigured as a 30 meter tower for this site.

Although we started our wind program four years ago with the 60 meter equipment, the University of Maine started with 30 meter, and since we need compatible data to correct the wind map, and since 60 meters is twice as big and twice as scary, and finally, since the community partners are usually thinking of smaller turbines, we decided to use 30 meters from here on out in most of our program.

That means we get to make two 30 meters out of each 60, although we have to buy some extra base plates and guy lines to do this.

The NRG towers are called "tilt-up" towers because they hinge at the base plate, and are lifted by a winch and a "gin pole." They flex a lot and make scary noises going up and coming down. Sometimes they fall down, especially if you're inattentive to the cable tension as you raise or lower the tower. We had one fall down earlier this summer. Not for the faint-hearted.

You need to be an experienced rigger, and even then you need the NRG Systems training, to think about working with this equipment.

(The Mercer site equipment was given to our wind program by both NRG Systems and Competitive Energy Services, for which we are grateful.)

Long story short, with the deadmen and recycled and donated equipment, we were able to get an anemometer on the Mercer site for much less than the going costs. And we're collecting data that will be in the public domain. It will be accessible and free, and if you are a community organization in the mid-central area, this data will allow you to rule in, or rule out, a community turbine, for free.

When it would normally cost between $20,000 and $50,000 depending on the height of the anemometer tower. This expense, and commercial competition, means that private wind power developers generally keep their data secret.

We don't keep data secret. We collect it using public money, and so we give it out for free. We think this is a good deal, since there are very few communities that can afford this. We also feel that public wind data is more efficient and valuable than private data. This is, after all, very basic science, and although the commercial value is high, if the data is privately held, no one is looking at it in a coordinated way, and that costs everyone.

The data can also be used for proper public planning, since the turbine noise nuisance varies based on the wind. Towns and municipalities can properly plan to reduce noise, another good reason to think that public data is better than private.

We have one more day today at the Mercer site, a clean-up day. After that we have one more site to set up this summer. Then we're done with field work for a while.

Which is good, because although I enjoy the work, and although I need the exercise, I am a little tired of all that sweat. It will be nice to go out to these sites in fall and collect the data when it's a little cooler.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Portugal's energy independence drive

Elizabeth Rosenthal of the NYT has a good feature out which I just found although it's a day or two old.

(We're way too busy with fieldwork these remaining summer days, trying to measure Maine's winds. I'm looking forward to fall teaching because it will be a nice rest, in comparison.)

Anyway, the article is on Portugal's achievement with renewables.

Reading the comments with some interest -- well over 90 percent seemed favorable, and there were only one or two denialist-type arguments, I followed this link to the DOE's CO2 tracking center and found the Portuguese emissions record graph shown.

Of course, some of this reduction is the recession. All things being equal you'd expect an emissions drop more or less proportional to the drop in economic output.

I also notice a rise in the use of natural gas, so they're probably substituting gas for oil and coal in power production, and that's part of the reduction in CO2 emissions.

Makes sense, if you can do it. Gas is cheap right now.

Still, according to the article, forty-five percent of their electricity this year will come from in-country renewable sources.

Most of the recent additions to their renewable portfolio are from land-based wind, which they've increased by a factor of seven in the last five years.

Wonder how much wind measuring they had to do? By the time you've measured the wind properly in enough places, you don't have to measure any more. There are whole European countries where anemometric reports are no longer required for turbine placements. Models and more sophisticated maps do the work for you.

We're not there yet in Maine. Although I'm starting to think there are a few areas, such as these mid-central hills in Lincoln, Waldo, and Somerset counties, where I can guess with some accuracy what the wind speeds will be on measurement.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Charging capacity and climate coniptions

The upcoming release of several consumer-market EVs is interesting, even though the prices are such that the Womerlippis won't be able to afford one for years to come.

This most recent NYT article on fast-charging stations is lucid and readable, and got me more or less up-to-date on a few trends.

Despite NYT's helpful boosterism, I'm not terribly optimistic about the pace of the EV roll-out without a carbon price, though. Even after the prices have come down so that EV's are more or less the same, pound for pound of future scrap metal, as regular gas cars, there'll probably still be a consumer bias towards traditional vehicles.

And what will ultimately reduce that bias won't be the charging opportunities per se, although I expect that will help a bit. It will be the price of gas.

I'd like to see us make this transition much faster, but I doubt that will happen. The recent recession has reduced demand for oil and prices are relatively cheap and look to remain that way for a while. While the advent of both the EVs and the so-called eco-chip engines will also reduce demand. The so called peak of Peak Oil might easily be a twenty year plateau at 80-90 mbd.

So we're back to Congress and the failure to pass a climate bill. It's in some ways unfortunate that we've just had a more or less manageably sweltering summer in the US, not a ridiculously unmanageable one. We're not Pakistan, with terrible, frightening monsoon floods, or Russia with choking forest fires and excess deaths in Moscow. If we were, our senators might just be beginning to see a little climate sense right about now.

Of course, this too shall pass, although I'm not looking forward to it. It's more or less inevitable that the current and static construction of climate and energy polity comes crashing down around our heads with some new outbreak of weather emergencies in the US. Congress will then run around like a headless chicken, and maybe, just maybe, get around to passing a bill.

When that new round of climate impacts happens, as it surely must, it seems that recent progress in renewable energy and in new technology, such as these charging stations, will mean that we have some decent cards to deal.

It's just a sorrowful, crying pity that we have to wait. Again.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Ratings game: The Princeton Review

The Princeton Review included us in their list of the nation's "greenest colleges." This is a short list of only 18, so this is fairly significant recognition, and quietly satisfying.

When I first arrived here in 2000, we weren't anywhere near this good. The college had a good reputation for natural resource programs, and we had done a few green things, like serendipitously grab the Jimmy Carter solar panels from that GSA warehouse and put them on our cafeteria roof, or like the time we had an early-days ESCO in to switch out light bulbs and fit watt-hour meters to lighting, to try to save some energy there. We'd also just begun to build properly insulated buildings.

We hadn't done very much else. We were burning oil left, right and center, and we didn't buy green power, or properly recycle. We grew very little food on campus, and we bought hardly any local food.

But, as it turns out, the most important thing there possibly could be to do, we had already done.

A year earlier, in 1999, we had instituted a required course in sustainability for all students. In my opinion, that one single action probably did more than any other to set us on a path towards becoming ever more sustainable, every year.


Because then we had to begin to walk our talk, or students would complain.

Every year since then, a hundred or more Unity College students have received an in-depth training in sustainability, including material on climate change, food, and energy. This occurs even if they are studying a major that they feel is unrelated to sustainability. And it occurs even if they are themselves uninterested in the subject.

And every year since then, of course, the best of these students have asked "OK, if this is so important, what is the college doing about this?"

So I credit students for much of this success.

One memorable event stands out: Our former business manager threatened to switch our food service over to a multinational contractor. Students rebelled, in what I called tongue-in-cheek the "Sodexho Riot" although it was nothing of the sort, and a rather disheveled but effective protest movement ensued. A rally attracted over 100 students. the administration of the day backed down right smartly, and the food service remained in house, and now, many years later, does a roaring trade in local and home-grown food and contributes to our green ratings.

In another, students interested in the college getting renewable electricity organized the "Solar Power Dance Party." They had made a small solar power station with a single panel and a couple golf-cart batteries and inverter. It all fitted on a small hand truck, and could be wheeled from place to place. They set it up in the parking lot outside the Activities Building, and blared out music all day, annoying the heck out of the teachers trying to teach in the nearby classrooms. But they made their point.

I'm not sure exactly how much this event had to do with the college's purchase that year of 100% renewable electricity. But the two did happen in sequence.

Later, again at students' request, the solar panel was matched with another and fitted to one of our small cottage-style four-bed dorms, along with a proper inverter and a small wind turbine. This dorm became the "Eco-Cottage." Students competed to live there so they could live at least partly off-grid (the so-called Eco-Cottage still had oil heat and a mains refrigerator and stove).

But was the Eco-Cottage the idealistic prototype for the Unity House? And the newest plans for a truly super-efficient small dorm?

I think we'd have to agree it was.

So, dear readers, when you study the Princeton Review or other green college rating systems, or when you hear the claims of one or another college or university to be green, I would ask a couple of hard questions, if I were you:

Do they actually teach what they say they believe, and to all their students, not just the environmental majors?

And do they walk their talk?

If they do the first, the second follows naturally.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Climate isolationist senators

In the midst of what seems very likely to be one of the hottest summers on record, the failure of the Senate to pass or even seriously consider climate legislation seems increasingly ridiculous to those who have taken the threat of climate change seriously. A new article by Eric Pooley in Yale Environment 360 and the Guardian takes a long slow, look at this shambles.

This article is interesting to me because it's the first one I've seen by someone within the "goldfish bowl" of mainstream climate science and politics in the US that directly references the current emissions reductions successes, and the very large number of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects that are now in the pipeline as a result of ARRA and other economic (as opposed to political) approaches.

I've been saying this for several years now: all this talk about climate policies, so very little effort in reducing fossil energy consumption. When the latter is so easy to do, while the former runs directly up against all of the inertia in the American political system.


We should remember that this is a country that waited until December 7th 1941 to realize that it had to get directly involved in WWII. In the period prior to Pearl Harbor, up to 80% of Americans held one or another form of isolationist views. Only when America was attacked directly, did FDR have a mandate to act. Climate change is a very similar kind of threat, distant, involving other people, not ourselves, away someplace else, and above all, requiring us to change our plans for our lives. This last is understandably the hardest to bear. But the alternative, which appears to many to be nothing more than a call to abandon the American lifestyle and even capitalist polity, is too difficult for most Americans to contemplate.

I'll never forget what one otherwise impressively intelligent and probably graduate school-bound young woman said to me, after taking my Environmental Sustainability class:

"I suppose this means I'll never get that Jeep Liberty I've been dreaming of."

That's what it meant to her, that she thought she would have to change her plans. And while she could see the logic through to the inescapable conclusion, she couldn't accept it. And she didn't. That was one student who went away still thinking that climate change wouldn't affect her, despite the all too obvious facts.

Even though what it probably means is that ordinary kinds of capitalist companies have to ensure that the Jeep Liberty or whatever has to get 60 mph or better yet run on batteries. We'll need to harness capitalism to get out of this hole we've dug for ourselves.

Of course, this scenario can't last. Americans will figure it out sooner or later. The effects of increasing carbon dioxide and methane can't be staved off by mere wishful thinking. Climate change will manifest itself more and more directly in the years to come. But until climate change is that obvious to ordinary Americans, the political inertia will continue to be massive, a giant, suffocating wet blanket of humid political air.

This parallel of wartime isolationism is perhaps too obvious for sophisticated folk in the climate movement. But that's just the point. Folkways and traditional memes or mental models are impressively persistent, even when the nomenclature believes they are not. Just as it was too difficult for most Americans to contemplate entry into WWII and all that would entail for their lifestyles, so it is for climate change.

In the America of October 1941, Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana uttered these not-so-famous words

" I can't conceive of Japan being crazy enough to want to go to war with us."

Just before Pearl Harbor it was,

"If we go to war with Japan, the only reason will be to help England."

Wheeler was a popular politician who, like most today, tried hard to reflect what he thought his Montana constituents wanted. But once the attack on Pearl Harbor was over, the attitude swiftly changed. It was time to "lick hell out of" the Japanese. And I expect too, once it becomes that obvious, most Americans will fall in behind the climate movement much as in December 1941 they fell in with the Allies.

In the meantime, we are pushing a rope if we think we can convince Americans of climate change without what they consider convincing evidence. Instead, we need to get emissions down directly, by actually acting on the technological changes that are required to do this. As the DOE's recent figures show on emissions reductions, it doesn't take a climate bill to put in insulation or put up a wind turbine. If we can get this jump start, ten to fifteen percent a decade, by the time the next Katrina occurs, we'll be at least already heading in the right direction.

It doesn't take a Pearl Harbor to get something done. The Atlantic convoys had been heading east, dodging U-boats all the way, for many months before December 7th, 1941.

It just takes a Pearl Harbor to get something done by Congress.