Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama pledges 28% reduction in federal emissions

This from the Guardian. This is a fairly significant effort, and is going to require a good deal of energy-auditing and thinking outside the box on the part of the federal government. Most large federal buildings and campuses will have to have sustainability-coordinator types, and the demand for cost analyses and engineering is going to skyrocket. As always, I'm not sure we have anywhere near the professional capacity in place and in the pipeline to actually do the work. But the federal government will help build that capacity by demanding the services, and the educational market will have to provide.

US pledges to cut federal government emissions by 28% by 2020

Barack Obama will also propose a tripling of government funding for new nuclear reactors to more than $54bn

Barack Obama used his presidential authority to help advance his climate change agenda today, announcing that the US federal government and agencies would cut their giant carbon footprints by 28% by 2020.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Impossible hamster theorem

A You-Tube version of Georgescu Reogen's "Impossibility Theorem" appeared today.

It made me very happy. I guess I need to get a life.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fixing up a Jimmy Carter solar panel

Students in the Sustainability Design and Technology Degree are taking the junior-level Energy and Energy Efficiency class for the first time. It comes with a technology lab. I wish to use these labs over the years to make on-campus demonstrators of all the major renewable energy formats, as well as important energy efficiency treatments.

So one of the first things we needed was a solar hot water demonstrator. So we pulled a Jimmy Carter solar panel out of storage and cleaned it up with a view to figuring out a display stand and system demonstrator of some kind later on.

Students removed the glass plate and scrubbed both sides, chased out dust and dead spiders and reassembled the whole thing.

Then we put it outside in the sun and watched the manifold temperature climb to 76 degrees F in just a few minutes. The day was cold, too.

Life in the old panel yet.

But earlier we had tested a modern evacuated tube design that climbed to 120 degrees in roughly the same amount of time.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some snow day reading

Delayed start here at the college. So here's an alternate activity, an interesting article from the BBC on the basic physics of green design, and the general lack of understanding there is about it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Effective teachers? The despot, the carer, the charmer, and the rebel

Britain's Tory leader has promised to lure higher-performing students into teaching. A teacher responds.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Harvesting sunbeams

One of the trustees of the college, a senior staffer at a federal environmental agency, sent this image, with the following note:

this is the best of both worlds for you - sheep and photovoltaic arrays

How well she knows me. However, the photo would be absolutely complete were there also a wind turbine and a super-insulated passive solar house.

I wonder which is the more efficient converter of solar energy, the grass or the PV panels? Farming is solar-powered too.

Which brings us to today's sustainability activity: Students and I will be going to the Maine Agricultural Trades Show, where I will be presenting on farm wind turbines.

I tried to find the link to post, but the "Get Real, Get Maine" web page is down. But it's at the Civic Center in Augusta.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Farming important? Of course it is.

A new Guardian op-ed by Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation draws attention to the insecurity that just-in-time shelf stocking and other modern efficiencies have inadvertently added to the food system, which combined with a general lack of resourcefulness, creates a new kind of societal risk.

Apparently we're a couple snowstorms away from the breakdown of civilization. Simms believes that we may no longer have the built-in resourcefulness to deal with otherwise minor breakdowns in provision systems.

In London maybe, or New York, but not here in Maine.

Most of us Mainers have stockpiles of food and fuel, and the mental and physical wherewithal to get more if we need it. It's unlikely that we would suffer too greatly if a war that engendered rationing, or a civil disaster, were to cut off supplies for a while.

The small farm that my wife Aimee and I run is fairly groaning with food, fuel, and fiber right now, as we eat our way through a pig and two lambs, several hundred pounds of frozen, canned, and root-cellared vegetables, burn our way through three cords of homegrown and another three of purchased firewood, and knit our way through 130 skeins of wool, enough for twenty to thirty sweaters.

With a back-up generator and the equipment and knowledge to go out and grow more food and get more fuel next year and the year after that, I'd say we were fairly well-fettled as far as food and fuel security goes.

But it's worth noting how we got to this point. Aimee and I got here, like most other rural Mainers, by willfully ignoring the constant, insidious messages from the mainstream about how success should be measured. Raising lambs and pigs and growing spuds and chopping wood is not generally held up to be the premier "brand characteristic" of a successful academic, or even a successful person, in today's America.

By the standards of the mainstream, Aimee and I are not just eccentrics: quirky and cranky and perhaps mildly cantankerous, going against the flow. We are wrong, and wasting our time to boot. Why struggle to raise home grown food when it's obviously cheaper and more pleasant and less, well, suspicious, to let the professionals do it?

But I grew up in Britain in the 1960s, just a few short years from the end of rationing. I walked past uncleared bomb sites on my way to school. My parents and grandparents told me about rationing. They explained how my maternal grandfather fed his family with a community garden, domestic rabbits, chickens, hens, and the trapping of wild rabbits. He managed to keep his food enterprises going through the war even though he was drafted.

Another article summarizes the scrabble for farm land, the so-called "land grab," that is taking place now in the developing world.

How should we think about this problem of food security?

Well, for one thing, we might learn to value anew the many millions of acres of recently abandoned farmland here in Maine. As climate changes, and food insecurity deepens, any decent patch of soil suitable for rain-fed agriculture might be useful for a field or a garden.

We might also value anew the occupations of farmer and gardener, and teach our children to honor their craft.

The great world of commerce and global markets may be where it's at, but we all have to eat.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

That's what I'm talking about

Recently a colleague from another university came to visit to talk about a new degree program he was designing, similar to our Sustech program, and we mused together on what the proper purpose of these new programs in renewable energy and energy efficiency analysis was, and what kinds of things we should teach.

I said we shouldn't get too fixated on any particular current technology or solution because we can't predict what the best solutions will be in five, ten, fifteen year's time. If we were being honest, we don't necessarily know what the problems will be either. We're guessing that they will be fossil energy depletion and climate change. But we don't know for sure.

We can, however, probably imagine that we will still live in a world where the least cost solution to any problem is preferred, where opportunity costs and external costs are significant ways to think about tech analysis, and where critical thinking, critical analysis, and communications skills remain key.

In other words, teach them to read, write, think and figure.

I enjoyed this related article below with my morning coffee: a business school prof who teaches his high flyers to think properly.

But I still wish the B-schools would produce students who understood a little ecology and environmental science too. They still do a lot of damage, these MBAs.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The ethics of wind

I've been discussing wind energy with some of our local folks in Maine who are impacted by new turbine developments. There are quite a few people who live very close to the Mar's Hill, Vinalhaven, or Beaver Ridge sites who are upset by the turbine noise, which is a particularly grating and upsetting kind of noise.

The noise was also somewhat unexpected by the turbine planners. Elsewhere in this blog I've suggested that this is due to the high wind shears we enjoy in Maine. Turbine planning and accoustic modeling systems worked out in Iowa or elsewhere will not necessarily work well in Maine, because of how sheltered our lower level winds typically are, while our upper level wind is quite powerful.

Today I want to write about the ethics of turbine and other energy impacts. The discussion I've been having with these folks is moving me towards a kind of deontological theory of power production responsibilities and responsibilities for the impacts of power.

We all use energy, and very few of us get our own. It's very expensive in cash or time to get your own energy using generators, wind turbines, solar panels, or even the humble woodlot, and so most of us prefer to ask power and fuel companies to get it for us.

This has led to the situation where the average Maine residence sits at the end of several pipelines of energy provision systems.

We're talking turbines, so let's talk about electricity, although we could also talk about heat oil and other heat fuel provision pipelines.

We call electricity pipelines power lines, and there are upstream and downstream impacts.

So the mix of coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro dams and incinerator power that is the New England grid's standard mix has these impacts:

coal mines
uranium mines
coal and nuclear power stations
gas and oil wells
oil and gas power stations
incinerators (like PERC
pollution: air, water, and solid waste streams from all of the above
hydro dams in Maine and Quebec (James Bay) and elsewhere
transmission lines, stations, substations, transmission line noise, and electromagnetic interference
impacts from transmission losses
energy security problems: the need to police the Persian Gulf

etc, etc

These impacts are all sited towards the beginning of the power lines or even further upstream or away, at West Virginia mountaintop removal mines, for instance, or at nuclear plants in New York State or gas plants in Connecticut. But the power that is made comes eventually our Maine power distribution lines, where the impacts then seem to become invisible, unheard, unsmelt, unseen.

It appears as if the power comes there without impacts.

Those of us who live close to a facility such as the Worumbo dam or PERC or a wind farm do see impacts.

Those of us who live far away have few.

As a renewable energy wonk, I know we need to begin to make renewable energy to replace fossil fuels that we will eventually run out of, and to reduce the impacts of fossil and other kinds of power. I also know that renewable energy, being dependent on the sun, is decentralized; the sun's rays are scattered across the surface of the planet and you have to have a collection mechanism to gather them into a useful format. Wind energy, which is ultimately solar energy, is similarly distributed, although it is more concentrated in watts per meter square than solar energy is, at least at good sites.

We have begun to call these kinds of energy systems, such as solar PV, or wind, "distributed energy" or distributed generation systems.

The difficulty with all these distributed energy systems is that you take both the environmental impacts and maintenance impacts and redistribute them from the beginning of the power line to the end, the place where they're least expected, based on our current understanding of where the impacts should be.

So like power stations and coal mines, wind turbines also have impacts of noise, visual impacts, and construction impacts.

Turbines also require mines, smelters and factories. They require no fuel while in operation, though, which is a great savings over fossil power. Turbines also last a long time, we know from experience, and can even be fully refurbished. With major refits at the 20-25 year point, turbine lifespans might quite feasibly be forty, even fifty years, and then everything can be recycled and made into a new model turbine.

The ratio of energy made to energy invested is typically 80 to 1. The upstream energy, upstream land use, upstream water, and air pollution impacts of every unit, every KWH, of wind turbine energy produced are much less than those of fossil or nuclear energy KWHs.

But then there's the downstream impacts. These often appear to be larger.

Clearly some portion of Maine's land is now of less use than it was, because of the noisy turbines, at least to the people who live there and can't come to terms with the noise.

I'm not belittling this. It's a major problem. I'm just trying to put it in the whole context.

And although many people are upset, given time, they may come to terms with the turbines or adapt, or other people might come in, more tolerant of noise, and use the residences and land that the current residents consider blighted.

People hate to have to come to terms with impacts like these. The usual result is a planning battle, and an economic battle between those who want to exploit the resource and those who don't. There will be conflict, whether it takes place in Maine, at the West Virgina strip mine, the Nevadan nuclear waste facility, or on the outskirts of Basra.

Weighing all this in the balance, what has actually happened in the power production and distribution systems of Maine now the turbines are running at Freedom, Vinalhaven, and Mar's Hill?

I think the main thing is we moved some of the impacts of energy production, and the conflict, which is significant and difficult to deal with, further downstream, to communities that weren't necessarily expecting to have to be responsible for their share of the impacts of energy production.

Was this fair? I don't know. There are still folks who will escape impacts. Should they compensate those who are impacted? Probably.

Should people be more responsible for energy in general? I generally think so, but I'm not sure how much responsibility we can reasonably expect, given the nature of our society. And this is all very general, while the conflict that results is specific, and often nasty.

But I do know that distributed energy systems will just simply, naturally, unavoidably, do this: move the impacts from upstream to downstream. I also do know that the upstream impacts of the former conventional system are likely greater than the total of upstream and downstream impacts of the more distributed system, now that the turbines are running.

Arguably some American communities should be kept pristine of energy impacts, but which ones? The rich ones? The ones next to parks and preserves? Should we focus the impacts far away, where we can't see them, like Appalachian mountaintop removal mines?

Keep asking questions like this, and combine the answers with an understanding of energy efficiency, as well as fossil energy depletion and a working knowledge of solar, wind, biomass and other renewable energy, and you begin to see that we definitely have to move towards distributed energy and renewable energy, but that means we also have to move the burden of impacts and maintenance further down the cable too, to communities that are not ready for this responsibility.

One similar, currently undistributed burden, for instance, is house maintenance. Currently oil heat is subsidized by our tolerance of air pollution, oil wells, oil pipelines, the constant human and financial cost of our troops in the Gulf and other regions, and a myriad other hidden costs.

If instead everyone using oil heat had instead a duty, well defined, to maintain their house to a proper standard of insulation, we could save an awful lot of fuel, and perhaps even a small number of lives and limbs of servicemen and women lives in ongoing and future middle east wars.

You can see that this view is not rhetorical or hyperbolic. Not if you take a deep breath and give it an hour or ten to sink in.

These are real impacts that hurt the lives of real people. Both the coal mines and the turbines have impacts.

It is just a wider, different view of the whole impact of our energy production and distribution system.

I don't know what the answers are, but I do know we are going to have to figure them out.

Another Unity House story

This one gives better coverage to the technical details of the building:

Friday, January 8, 2010

Maine and the King's Royal Arrow

Despite previous difficulties, Maine's leaders might find themselves studying the efforts of Britain's Crown Estate, as it begins to implement a fairly serious decision to pioneer offshore wind power at scale.

I make no claims as the the revolutionary propriety of this.

I just enjoy the potential irony.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Here's Jesse, and the Unity House

Today’s WABI-TV Channel 5 story about Unity House featuring Sustainability Coordinator Jesse Pyles is now available online at

Mark Tardif

Monday, January 4, 2010

Renewables "supergrid"

One solution to the problem of siting the new transmission systems needed to bring renewables to market and for linking wind and solar to pumped storage hydro plants: put the cables in the sea.

This project slated for the North Sea reminds me of the now outdated wiring system called a "ring main." Interesting that a high-voltage DC line outperforms AC for this purpose. Who woulda think it?

Edison vs. Westinghouse, rematch, and Edison wins one.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Sustainability Institute

Our degree program in Sustainability Design and Technology will soon be three years' old, and because our first intake included transfer students, will likely graduate the first students this spring.

At the time we began the program, a fairly substantial debate was held over the name. We were groping. And for good reason. The emerging nexus of climate concern with energy policy and implementation of renewables and efficiency measures was beginning to occur, had been occuring for several years already, but no-one really knew what it was called.

A debate ensued. It lasted a while. A short while, as academic debates go, but a long while relative to the world of energy ideas, which changes much faster.

We settled on "Sustainability Design and Technology" and went on to concentrate on implementation. I for one breathed a sigh of relief and got back to real things. Teaching is a very grounding process. Instant feedback is available in the eyes and minds of the students. Unless you're the kind of flimmer Barbara Ehrenreich complains about in her new book, all positive thinking and no bottom as we say in Yorkshire, you have to have something solid to teach. We also knew we were providing useful information based on the response of dozens of professional people in the enegry business with whom we remain in almost daily contact.

A fairly evolved praxis in green building, building energy retrofit, solar and wind mapping and assessment, the economics of energy and efficiency, related cost analysis, and climate accounting was what emerged as the subject matter of our "Sustainability Design and Technology" degree, once we connected all the dots. I wouldn't say our program is complete. We're still plugging away at it. In fact, it never should be complete. If it doesn't change fairly frequently, as the field changes, then we are doing students a severe disservice.

Imagine my surprise, however, when, in 2008, I happened to share a conference podium with another program director of an identically titled program, a year younger than ours!

Imitation is the sincerest from of flattery. But what's in a name?

Quite a bit, actually, if the basic starting point for 98.5% of information searches is a search engine such as Google. (I just made up that number, but you get the point.)

Now, the Guardian reports, there's to be a very high-powered Sustainability Institute in east London, working with many of the same ideas and technologies, albeit at a much more massive scale.

Clearly sustainability technology has legs.

Here's another relevant piece:

As Colleges Add Green Majors and Minors, Classes Fill Up

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Classes are filling up as fast as colleges can add new major and
minors in green programs, as students demand the courses and employers
wanted trained students, reports USA Today.

More than 100 majors, minors or certificates were added this year in
energy and sustainability-focused programs at colleges nationwide,
according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in
Higher Education (AASHE), reports USA Today. This is up from three
programs added in 2005. Click here for AASHE’s list of academic
programs in sustainability.

As an example, the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State
University started an undergraduate program in sustainability studies
with a focus on solar about 18 months ago, which now has about 600
students who have declared sustainability a major, reports USA Today.

Rob Melnick, executive dean of the institute, told USA Today that the
growth rate is unprecedented even though the program has the toughest
admission standards of any school at the university.

Other schools including Illinois State University, Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of
California-Berkeley are also seeing big demand for green-geared
programs, reports USA Today.

The Illinois State University in Normal, Ill., offers 65 majors in
renewable energy, a program started in 2008 with help from a $1
million Department of Energy grant. Richard Boser, chair of the
Department of Technology, told USA Today that employers, including
those in wind energy, hope to hire future graduates.

Other schools, including the Oregon Institute of Technology,
Wisconsin’s Mid-State Technical College, John Brown University and
University of Dayton, also offer renewable energy programs. The
University of Toledo (UT) is another school that hopes to combine some
of its faculty and researchers into a new school dedicated to
alternative energies.

MIT launched a minor in energy studies in September, pressed by a
student survey that revealed that 43 percent of freshmen and
sophomores were very or extremely interested in it, while the
University of California-Berkeley’s has seen its introductory energy
class grow from about a class size of 40 students to 270 students,
over the past ten years.

The same trend is occurring for MBA programs in response to growing
interest from students.

The Obama administration estimates that energy and
environmental-related jobs will grow 52 percent from 2000 to 2016
compared to 14 percent for other occupations, reports USA Today.

A recent report prepared by the Political Economy Research Institute
at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst says the U.S. can create 2
million jobs over two years by investing in a rapid green economic
recovery program.