Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bergey Excel 10KW tear-down and rebuild

Having successfully collected our Bergey turbine from its former home, we needed to tear down and inspect the various components of the power head to see what was wrong.

The wind workers got a little help from Maintenance Director Roger Duval, pictured, a Master Electrician and an old hand with generators and like equipment.

Some problem-solving was required. The alternator on these machines bolts directly to a mainframe, composed of the yaw bearing and slip ring assembly and mounts for the tail boom, furling mechanism, and the alternator itself.

The mainframe is easily disconnected from the alternator at the connection flange. The alternator itself is somewhat less easily dismantled. In our case we hooked our tractor's fork lift to the flange and applied upward tension, tapping lightly on the magnet can with hammers.

The magnet can slid more or less gently off its own backing plate, revealing the stator and magnets.

We already suspected from the obvious misalignment of all the alternator parts that we would find damage, and we were right. The magnet can had been hanging loosely on its bearings and grinding on the stator.

There was less damage to the stator than we thought, but the magnets themselves were fairly heavily damaged.

Cleaning off all these iron filings and chunks of magnet will reveal the full extent of the damage, but at this point it looks as if we need at minimum a new magnet can and bearings.

BPI in Brooks

Dear Energy Professional,

Build Green Maine LLC of Brooks, ME is pleased to announce that it has been welcomed as an Affiliate to the Building Performance Institute (BPI) of Malta, NY. Leveraging on its tenure as Maine State Housing Authority’s leading building science trainer, this agreement with BPI permits Build Green Maine to offer accredited Building Analyst I training throughout the state and region. Nearly all federal/state energy efficiency rebate programs require BPI certification for participation.

Our inaugural 8-day Building Analyst I class is scheduled for Belfast at the Hutchinson Center, starting Monday, August 16th and concluding Wednesday, August 25th. The class will consist of five classroom days along with two “in field” sessions. This period includes both the Online and Field portions of the BPI Examination. The Online Building Analyst I test will take place during the fifth classroom day. One-on-one Field examinations will begin on Tuesday afternoon the 24th, individual tests are scheduled on a first to register, first preference basis.

Build Green Maine’s proprietary curriculum and in-depth field experience are what set us apart. Our trainers have extensive field experience, ranging from old construction to new, large to small and from traditional to high-performance. We have lectured and taught building science widely, delivering energy evaluation training for federal and state programs, to architects, engineers, contractors and homeowners alike. BGM schedules test houses for “hands on” field training. Each student will use all pertinent diagnostic equipment ranging from the blower door and IR imagers to combustion analyzers. Advanced topics (e.g., Zone Pressure Diagnostics) will be taught in the field, under real world conditions.

The cost of the course is $1,395, which includes BPI’s Online and Field Examination Fees and meals. A $300 discount is available to those holding a Maine Housing Energy Auditor Certification. Reservations can be made by calling 207-323-1974 or by emailing info@buildgreenmaine.org. A $250 deposit will guarantee your place. We also offer a test-only option.

Take a step in the right direction and get your BPI BA I certification with Build Green Maine today!

George Callas, CEO

George Callas
Build Green Maine

(207) 323-1974

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Have they no grandchildren"

A quote from Friedman's editorial this weekend, slamming the US Senate for failing to enact (or even really debate) a climate bill.

He's entirely right, of course. Some of us will live to regret this. The older among us will probably not. But our children and grandchildren will almost certainly wonder what we were thinking.

We're not thinking.

That's the problem here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Heat engines

Driving over the Mount Harris "pass" from Dixmont to Jackson yesterday I had an all-too brief flash of cosmic understanding.

This saddle between hills is 900 feet above sea level, while Jackson spreads out several hundred feet lower. On a good day you can see all the way to Acadia National Park, where the First Family is currently on vacation.

But what I saw yesterday wasn't the President and family, or even Air Force One which must have flown overhead at some time or other, but photosynthesis, on a grand scale. The Maine woods are in full leaf, and Jackson, indeed all of northern Waldo County, is of course just one big broad leaf forest, with a light scattering of dwellings and hayfields here and there.

A hazy, green, abundant, massively productive forest countryside. A New World Sherwood.

Yeah, Robin.

Under the shade of the trees, this time of year, it's much cooler than it is in the sunlight. Buggy, but cooler.

So, an obvious science geek question is, where does all this abundant solar energy go to if it's not reaching the ground under the trees? At this time of year more than a kilowatt of energy is hitting every square meter every hour the sun shines. That's like having a two-bar electric toaster oven in each square meter.

This of course makes for a lot of heat anywhere the sun's light hits the ground.

Sunshine energy is primarily ultraviolet light: invisible moving photons. Some of this light energy is reflected back to space as visible light in that part of the spectrum that humans experience as green.

Very green, in this case. The whole of Maine seems green, this time of year.

Some of the energy heats the air, which moves the energy around a bit. The more humid the air, the more energy the air can hold, the more energy the air moves around. This is why shade doesn't work as well, and why thunderstorms are more frequent, on humid days.

But an awful lot of energy is being absorbed by the leaves of the trees and used to combine carbon dioxide with water to make sugars and cellulose. I'm not sure how much, but enough to help make it feel much cooler under the trees.

A square meter of solar panels properly positioned on a day like this will capture about 15% of this energy in the form of electricity.

But I wouldn't cut down trees to put up solar panels. That would be a waste. Trees are probably much more efficient at collecting sunlight and reducing carbon levels than solar panels are. That doesn't mean to say I wouldn't cut down trees, though.

Here's our Womerlippi Farm woodpile, about four cords, 70% white or gray ash. At 24 million BTUs per cord, and 3.4 million BTUs per MWH, that's 7 MWH per cord, or 28 MWH total.

These four cords were harvested from an area less than 20 meters square. That's only 400 square meters. And, although the cutting was heavy, big trees were still standing on that 400 square meters when I was done cutting. No tree cut was older than 15 years, and most were around 10 years old.

28 MHW divided by 400 square meters is 700 kilowatts per square meter for the whole time period the trees were growing.

700 kilowatts per meter divided by ten years is 70 kilowatts per square meter per year.

Our square meter of solar panels, by comparison, will collect 200 watts per hour, average 4.5 hours per day, 365 days per year, or 328 kilowatts per meter per year.

So solar panels are more efficient, right?

But that doesn't count the energy taken to make the panels, while the trees grow without this help.

Nor does it count the energy in leaves, which in this case were cycled through sheep, although in the fall the remaining energy in the leaves of the trees still standing will cycle through the soil.

So this is all very philosophical, isn't it. What do I think about all this?

I think I'm glad to have my firewood cut, split, covered and drying for winter.

And I'm glad to live in a beautiful Maine forest.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Stochastic arts"

There are some kinds of work that require the most perfect, precise planning. These are very few, in my opinion. Most jobs have their surprises. And then there are types of people who think that prior planning for everything is the hallmark of the professional. Holders of this opinion are fairly common, because it's taught at colleges and universities, especially in the business and administrative classes.

The theory is that it's the job of the modern manager to anticipate every eventuality, perform total "due diligence" and have a plan in hand at all times.

But my job isn't like this, and while I often make detailed, extensive plans, my personality has evolved over the years to the point where I actually enjoy those surprising days when nothing goes according to plan.

Yesterday was one of those days.

Our wind power research crew was scheduled to motor over to Newport, Maine, with a truckload of tools and equipment to begin the dismantling of a Bergey 10KW wind turbine. This is parked in a field not far from town, and the owners have come to dislike it, and want it gone. They want to run cattle in the field, and they want their young children to be able to play there without having to warn them about the tower. It doesn't help their opinion of it that it produces very little power on this site, and that it has already fallen down once. It isn't very well installed, and they've come to fear it in wind storms, which are frequent in this neck of the Maine woods.

(By the way, any wind turbine will do this, produce inefficient quantities of power, if not properly sited. Be sure to consult with a qualified anemometrist and have your site tested before investing in an expensive wind turbine. Steer clear of the contractors who are selling these things until you have your site's wind numbers and an independent power production estimate. The contractors often don't know how to properly measure the wind or find the precise wind map data, nor how to interpret it for a given site. Their job is to sell you the machine, otherwise known as a pig in a poke, if you don't take this advice. And they don't mind selling you the follow-up service when it doesn't work, or falls down, or whatever, either.)

We were to be helped in this endeavor by some experienced Bergey operators, Verne LeCount of MOFGA, and his regular consultant in all things renewable, Dr. Jay LeGore, a retired materials science academic and engineer who lives in our area and who experiments with solar, biofuel and wind systems. I've handled a lot of towers, but I'd never lowered a Bergey, so I was pleased to have them there. I also figured they could help pass some knowledge on to our two student apprentices.

Of course, they motored to the site in Jay's white Prius. Not trying to be stereotypical at all.

Anyway, long story short, we assembled our equipment, began the lower, which uses an electrical winch, and things were going well until...

the winch cable was frayed at the half-way point!

How this damaged bit of cable found it's way onto our winch drum is an interesting mystery. The winch had been systematically checked, and the cable completely replaced, just a few short days ago.

The supervisor (me) was on hand for this process and watched the wind worker spool most of the cable onto the drum. But I didn't watch it all. It's also possible that the tangle that caused the fraying occurred out of sight.

Suffice it to say the wind power crew and their supervisor are undergoing a process of memory- and soul-searching this weekend...

Ultimately, snafus like this are the supervisor's problem though.

Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, a great read I plan to require for all our Sustainability Design and Technology students, suggests that mechanical work of this kind has what other forms of professional work in this country increasingly lack: an objective standard of performance.

Managers in today's society, he suggests, can "spin" their performance endlessly, because often there's no way of telling whether or not they are actually producing good management.

He likens their predicament to that of the Soviet apparatchik, who has to have two whole spearate languages, one in "party-speak" for spinning her performance, another in more realistic and/or colorful Russian for trying to get things to work at all.

Good management is like composition or poetry. There's a lot of room for opinion. The eternal rhetorician's question, "what is good, Phraedrus?" applies. Since most students at colleges or universities are studying for these white collar types of jobs, they have to be taught, if possible, good judgment on questions like a good format for a report, or a good way to summarize a policy. Objectivity is difficult with such nebulous problems. Students grow up learning that effort and application will put them ahead of the pack, not necessarily being correct or right.

But for an old-fashioned machinist or wind engineer, or a climate scientist, for that matter, there are objective and time honored standards like "square," "level," "within tolerance," or "within specifications" (as opposed to without), and objective devices to use to gauge the quality of what is produced. The supervisor comes by with his level or gauge or micrometer, and the thing either is or isn't right, runs or doesn't run, produces the expected kilowatts per hour, or doesn't. Your planet either heats up and people begin to die, or it cools off and we manage to avert disaster.

Or, almost as obvious, and thus objectively, and with less time clock to run out while spinning endless excuses, your turbine is down on the ground safely.

Or not.

Crawford also notes that technical work is a "stochastic art" in that outcomes are inherently unpredictable and subject to intervention of random variables. Craftsmanship is found when the craftsman (or craftsperson, if you prefer) has mastered the process of his or her labor, including learning to cope with random problems.

I've come to think of teaching and mechanical work as having this stochastic feature in common.

Teaching is stochastic in that you never know when a teaching moment will occur, and the teacher has to be light on her feet to capture the moment, give the timely lesson, and drive it home. In today's distraction filled world, young minds are open to change only for very short windows. You can't afford to waste any of these window-open periods. A superb teacher is probably one who knows how to create those teachable moments really well, even predictably, and follow them up with the right lesson every time.

Anyway, this is all a very philosophical way of saying, we almost killed our wind turbine here. The day was saved mostly by experience. We had three grizzled veterans of many a battle with renewable energy equipment, including among the three, two PhD's, one of which was in engineering, and enough experience and coolness that we could talk it out calmly, study the problem, and come up with a solution.

We improvised a back-up system to support the weight of the turbine and tower while we passed the frayed cable, and then "sistered" in a reinforcement for the frayed section. The frayed wire plus sister wire held until the very last minute of the lower. We're actually not sure why it parted in the end. That will have to wait for a careful autopsy of the damaged equipment. This made for a "hard landing," but the damage was limited to one tower section, for which there is already a replacement on-site.

Following the final short drop, our two apprentices were somewhat shaken. The day's stress had shredded their nerves already, and the noises of twanging wires and twisting tower were truly scary. No-one was ever in any real danger; We made sure of that. We were all very close to the tower, though, fielding different bits of it, the way the manual says. The apprentices were at the head, fielding the blades to keep them from the ground, when the tower fell it's last two feet right next to them. They immediately let go their blades and ran!

But the tower was already almost down when this happened, so the only way it could really have hurt them was if they had ignored the instruction not to get under it at any point.

Even so, they were shaken by the noise and sudden movements of the big scary tower.

But the experience just shrugged their more aged shoulders, tidied up a bit, and headed for lunch.

Disaster averted. Lessons learned. One for the casebook.

When I repair that winch this week, I'm thinking I'm going to spool all the wire on there myself. Every inch.

But then I think again. How do we learn to be the most responsible and capable people we can be, if we don't get given the chance to make mistakes, even expensive ones, and live through them? Especially when the standards are objective, like these are.

And while we may not be training blue collar technicians and certified engineers with our Sustainability Design and Technology program, we do need to train our people to deal with objective facts, such as climate emissions reductions, and to not spin their results.

It also occurs to me that if things do go to crap with the climate, we will need a few people seasoned in handling emergencies, too.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Waterfall Arts Presents:

Introduction to Timber Framing with Raivo Vihman

timber frame

July 26 - 30 M-F 9 - 4 Age 18-Adult

52 Kingdom Road, Montville, Maine 04941

$210 tool list will be provided

Get ready to cut a frame! This will be a five-day introduction to the craft of timber framing in which we will build and erect a small timbered outbuilding to house a handmade cob oven. Students will develop an understanding of the structural parts of a frame, and build confidence with the layout and execution of timber joinery, walking away with the skills to build their own structure.

Raivo Vihman has been avidly studying and building wood and vernacular architecture all over North America and Europe since he cut his first house frame of timbers in 2000 in Freedom, Maine. Last winter he studied French techniques of drafting and timber building with the Compagnons in Angers, France.

Please RSVP:
207 338-2222 or click HERE

Reigning opinion

The Prince of Wales has come out strongly against climate deniers.

Not sure how I feel about this, actually. On the one hand, I'm pleased to have another high-profile voice helping out. On the other, having lived in a republic for 25 years now, should I really care? Monarchism in Britain, I tell my hyper-meritocratic American spouse, is kept primarily for tradition and for tourism, and we turn a nice profit on it.

So if I pay any attention to the Prince on climate, I'm perpetuating the power of the monarchy?

Actually, I'm quite fond of the Royals, as are most Britons. I tend to see the Queen not so much as head of state, but as the nation's great-grandma, and was pleased to see her on TV the other week in NYC. Charles has always been a strong advocate for environmental causes. Charles is a kind of eccentric cousin who's job it is to enliven family parties with strange opinions.

And, once a cause becomes monarchical, at least in Britain, you know it's mainstream.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Action shots

I noticed we hadn't published any pictures in a while, and the blog was a lot of text.

Blah, blah....Boring!

Here's our most recent anemometry project: We placed a RainWise model anemometer (I call them "disposable anemometers" because they're so much cheaper than our expensive NRG ones, although not as capable) on a State o' Maine-owned communications tower in support of Maine wind mapping and to begin to satisfy the Town of Fayette's interest in knowing more about its wind resource.

The results, available in a year, after two more exciting trips up this big tower, will begin to test a hypothesis I have about Maine wind shear factors.

This is good college level physics and math. For the geeks among you, let me elaborate, at risk of becoming boring again:

The wind shear factor is the exponent in the Power Law equation. Power law models are essentially predictive analytical models used to predict a range of phenomena, among them how much stronger the wind blows as you get away from the ground. The variables involved in this are more or less obvious: how flat the terrain is, how tall and "rough" the ground cover vegetation is, how many buildings, etc. Any variable that might slow down the wind is subsumed in what my statistician professors a "kitchen sink" term called the "wind shear factor."

Kitchen sinks are combined variables that you put a lot of other, possibly hard to measure, variables in to. Here we subsume buildings, trees, flatness, and so on, in one number, generally a decimal fraction from 0.1 to 0.9. The wind shear factor is thus defined a priori as an exponential variable of the order of a fraction of the number 1, which is however still an exponent, "geometric" change, not "arithmetical", as Malthus would have said. Non-linear, we would say today. This makes sense because the further away you get from all those kitchen-sink wind-slowing variables, the faster and faster the wind is going to blow. Up to a point, and then it of course it won't make any difference.

I would like to mention here that much of my working life is about exponential change, so wind shear factors have much in common with population growth models, oil depletion models, climate tipping points and on and on.

I'm never happier except when I'm rummaging in a data set and I realize that there's an exponent, because exponents make life exciting.

Sometimes too much so.

All this sounds kind of assumption-ridden, but I can assure you many MS and PhD theses were devoted to testing the wind shear model over the decades that it's been known, and so the assumptions have been tested too.

The more interesting question is "what difference does this make for wind power in Maine?"

My answer to that is, "just about everything."

Our Maine wind map as currently configured uses a standard wind shear factor typically used for forested ground of 0.30. But in practice, because engineers and analysts do wind power planning, not scientists, this number is assumed, not experimentally derived. I never assume anything where numbers are concerned. That might be what makes me more of a scientist and less of an engineer or analyst.

When I and other science researchers measure the real wind shear factors in Maine and indeed all over New England, we often get much higher ones. The Massachusetts Renewable Energy Lab has reported a wind shear factor of 0.57 on one particular coastal hilltop. I've measured real wind shear factors as low as 0.42 and as high as 0.90. The latter is a bit of an outlier, to be sure -- a site where my anemometer was affected by buildings. But the first number, which my hypothesis posits is more like the average, was on a site that most anemometrists would naturally expect to have a wind shear number of about 0.30.

Since this term, the wind shear factor, is an exponent, it defines the behavior of the wind as exponential. The higher the number, the faster the wind speed climbs as you climb up the air column from ground level. The faster the wind speed increases, the more likely it is that you will have stronger wind for a turbine at turbine hub height, and the more likely that any turbine placed on the site makes loud noise at ground level.

This last is because high wind shear factors result in high wind at turbine hub height and low wind at ground level. Turbines appear noisier if there's no wind noise in trees and other vegetation to drown out mechanical noise. Of course, they're not actually noisier -- they just appear so.

So the higher the wind shear factor, the more potential for Maine wind power, but the more potential for noise. A two-edged sword, isn't it?

But you would think that the good people of Maine would want their wind power planners, commercial or government, to know what the number really was before planning turbines and wind farms, wouldn't you.

Even our anti-wind activists would want to know, you would think.

Watch this space and I'll let you know for sure, in a year or three.

There. That was interesting, I thought. But I'm a geek, so what would I know?

Letter from Kaitlyn at Online Universities

Sent: Thursday, July 15, 2010 3:28 AM
Mick Womersley

Hi Mick,

My name is Kaitlyn and I work with onlineuniversities.com. We recently published an article that you may be interested in entitled, "20 Inspiring TED Talks for Recent College Grads".

I thought perhaps you'd be interested in sharing this article with your readers? After having followed your blog for a while, I feel that this one article would align well with your blog's subject matter. If interested, here's the link for your convenience: (http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2010/07/20-inspiring-ted-talks-for-recent-college-grads/).

Either way, I hope you continue putting out great content through your blog. It has been a sincere pleasure to read. Thanks for your time!


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Seasonal update

I have a moderately ambitious wind research summer field season scheduled out, working with a crew of current and former students who are interested in climate management and renewable energy, putting up and servicing anemometers all around the central part of Maine. The results will enable me to tell the authorities, municipal and state, where community-owned turbines might reasonably go. They'll also help in mapping the winds in our area.

But it means a big work week one week in two. I decided on the week-on/week-off schedule since it gives me the best chance to both do the work and also enjoy the growing season. That was before my father died, and now I'm somewhat behind with my field work. So we're going to do a two week blitz and finish a bunch of sites and then call it quits for the summer. Administrative work demands are beginning to appear, and I have a big dossier to write. And before we know it students will be arriving back and I'll have classes to teach, and the Common Ground Fair, and the harvest, canning time, putting up food, slaughtering time, and on and on.

Fall is our busiest time of year. And fall arrives fast in Maine and lasts a long time.

Fall also means tomatoes. Oh, tomatoes...

Every day I go walk around our Womerlippi tomato rows looking hard for ripening berries. There's a few turning yellow, so any day now we'll have our first fruits. I am a great lover of fresh tomatoes, and am always just a little sad to walk away empty-handed.

Poor bear! But soon.

Fall also means no bugs. Surprise: you can get tired of bugs in Maine. I'm just starting to feel the pinch of my least favorite Maine biting bug, the no-see-um, a kind of flatlander's midge not unlike the Highland one with which some readers will be all too familiar. I can handle the dreaded blackfly, "the Maine state bird", no worries. They drive some folks nuts, even some native Mainers, but these days I rarely notice them. Mosquitoes bother me some, but they're relatively easy to avoid. Biting flies, the various horseflies or clegs are rampant this year in comparison to others but still only found here and there in the countryside.

But little no-see-ums come through your bug screens and into your house and get you while you sleep, little Nazis that they are. And their bite is nasty. Painful and long-lasting. I have red welts all up and down my ankles.

There are two ways to remove the threat of these little buggers. One is to leave all your windows closed, which with our current sultry weather is not an option. The other is to spray the screens with a deterrent.

Every year I say I'm not going to do it this year, but the sleepless nights build up, and I go pull out the spray. It's a pyrethrin-based product and supposedly harmless to humans and animals, although toxic to fish. It's the same stuff I use to keep the carpenter ants out of our house's sills.

Although a MOFGA member, I'm not a die-hard organic farmer. I use a few mild chemicals carefully. Penicillin, for instance, is a great help to unhappy sheep. And marigold juice, pyrethrins, are good bug deterrents.

There's a third way, which is to replace your standard screens with a smaller mesh. But apparently this reduces the air flow considerably. And we need that airflow right now.

But not for long. Fall will arrive in a few short weeks and with it this moist air will vanish back to Iowa where it belongs, taking the heat and humidity and noo-see-ums, giving us that perfect 70 degree day, 40 degree night, crisp, clear weather in its place. The first dry Canadian air mass is not yet in sight on the weather map, but I can smell it. It's out there somewhere.

Usually by the second week of August we've had our first taste of fall.

I'll let you know.

Energy efficiency report prices home retrofit


We might one day soon try to make this calculation for Maine homes, if it hans't already been attempted and is available somewhere in the burgeoning gray literature of government energy data. The UK housing stock is much more standardized than the American so the statistic has more meaning. (It's much more likely that the mean is the correct value for any given home.) But it would still be nice to know.

We might call it "the procrastination price."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lloyds and Peak Oil


Chatham House, the UK's equivalent of the Council on Foreign Relations, cooperated on this report. You can follow a link in the article to read the report. There's nothing in the report that is particularly new. What's new is how thinking that twenty years ago was considered the province of radicals is now part of the conservative mainstream of UK business and foreign affairs thinking.

Sustainability and quality

I had a moment of illumination this morning, which I'm putting down "on paper" on my blog here, mostly because this blog has turned into, among other things, a kind of combination of academic lab notebook and writing journal for me. When I want to see what I was working on six months ago, or look for an old thread to pick up, this is where I tend to go these days.

I don't have time for too much in the way of serious academics any more. The pressures of the kind of constant day-to-day teaching we do at a college like ours, especially in the sustainability arena, the speed and pace of the state of Maine's push towards renewable power and the resultant demand for information, the business of running a small farm, and finally being part of an extended family spread over this continent and a small island archipelago 3,000 miles away, all these make it unlikely that I'll have time to perform serious research or writing in the next few years.

Perhaps my time to write will come, but I tend to doubt it.

But that doesn't mean to say I haven't stopped thinking about serious ideas. If I get a moment of quiet time, in the shop, or the garden, I do tend to cogitate. Without the discipline of hard science writing, I tend to personalize too much, and so all my best thinking is mixed up with what I do and who I am. I'm not sure that is as much of a problem as the scientists, social scientists, and philosophers who were my mentors would have made it out to be.

We all have to get by somehow, physically and mentally. In the Internet age this kind of thought-and-life blogging might be one way we do so.

Anyway, this is what I've been thinking about in my personal thought-and-life system recently, as I split wood on the farm or my students and I raise anemometers:

A major problem is the theory of sustainability is the missing macroeconomics. The foundation of current macroeconomics is the Marshall/Keynes macroeconomic synthesis, Keyne's General Theory, which we could call the growth theorem, whereby the policy of almost all countries on the planet is to maintain economic growth. Kenneth Arrow called this an "impossibility theorem." Sustainability is a challenge to this otherwise ubiquitous thinking, but few of the enthusiastic and blithe spirits who've climbed onto the sustainability bandwagon of ideas lately have actually thought very hard about what kind of macroeconomics they want to substitute for growth systems.

Macroeconomics is hard. Bandwagons are easy.

You see, real sustainability, if we ever got to it, would actually be a very dangerous and revolutionary idea from the perspective of the owners of capital, and I'm surprised that the backlash so far seems confined to climate skeptics pronouncing prospects of economic doom on the Internet. If we really embraced a sustainable future, we'd have to abolish huge parts of capitalism as we know it. In the 1920s or 1930s, such revolution in ideas caused mayhem in US streets and led to WWII and the Cold War, as the whole world argued out whether mass man or the individual was to rule in the marketplace of ideas.

I lived through, and acted out parts in this great pageant, in the latter quarter of last century, and although I'm prone to nostalgia, I don't particularly want to live through it again.

But 1984 has come and gone. I remember it, if at all, as a good year for mountain-climbing. That was the year Corporal Womersley of the Queens own Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service took a group of officer cadets up Store Skagastølstind in Norway, summiting with Dave Balharry, a guy who's now an important Scottish community planner and naturalist. I can't believe I got paid for that.

Good times. I had a lot more wind then. These days I have wind turbines. I like constants, like the wind.

Society has moved on, too, from the era of robber-baron capital. Most established, mature folk own capital in America or Britain today, in the form of their houses and their retirement schemes. We depend on it in particularly desperate form for our residences and our retirement years. There's no letter I open more quickly than the ones from TIAA CREF with the quarterly numbers, and no bill around here gets paid before the mortgage bill gets paid.

Like most Americans and Brits, and in fact like most sustainability thinkers, if we were to admit the truth, I can't afford to be a revolutionary. There was a time, before I went to graduate school, but after I got out of the military, when I wanted to remake society, but it was literally a sophomoric period. By the time I was a senior, I'd put away such childish things and was looking forward to a real job after graduate school.

Only the young are free of capital cares and woes. And as we saw from the recent recession, losing growth in capital is terrifying for ordinary people. We lose our jobs, our houses, our retirement, our lives, and no-one wants that. But we're caught in a trap, as the old song goes, or we can't get off the treadmill.

The very term sustainability implies stasis, or a "steady state," and the foundational book in sustainability economics was Herman Daly's 1977 Steady State Economics.

Stasis is never that good for living things, and later Herman developed the ideas, primarily in For the Common Good (with John Cobb) and Beyond Growth to include concepts of development, which these authors drew from their deep backgrounds as religious and social thinkers.

Development is usually good for living things. Permanent growth, it's been said, is the ideology of the carcinoma.

(I'm sometimes a lazy academic and I don't remember who said that, but you can Google it if you need to.)

When I studied under Dr. Daly in the late 1990s, I heard him say several times that the key to a sustainable future would be found once someone (he didn't know who, and admitted it wasn't him) had worked out a sustainable macroeconomic theory. He implied that the growth theorem synthesis would remain in place until this problem was solved. And I agree. He didn't say "should" stay in place, but I generally add that small word too. Call me a conservative. Regardless about how badly I feel about the unsustainable way our current economy is growing, particularly with climate change and biodiversity loss, I don't want to be that guy who screwed with the economy and caused hardship for billions of people.

Luckily, I'm not an influential economist so this is unlikely to happen. But we should always remember what Keynes said about economic "scribblers:"

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back."

So the fate that awaits the first few sustainability macroeconomists, if they are in the least successful, is likely to be perpetual infamy, at least among conservatives and holders of capital, if, as is very likely, they haven't first worked out all the angles before some politician implements their ideas.

We're working out some of these angles right now, as we debate competing ideas for caps on climate emissions. Cap and trade, cap and dividend, UOCP (utility-only carbon price), what-you-will, they all have one thing in common: they're the first large-scale limits on material throughput in the economy. The first steady state regulations. Up to now we've only limited throughput of some toxic materials, DDT or dioxin, et al. Carbon is different, categorically and in effect. A carbon limit is a real limit to growth, economy-wide, world-wide if China and India play ball. The rhetoric of the climate-and-green-job hawks reveals they don't know this, or don't know it yet. But it is.

The camels nose of physical steady state thinking inside the tent of macroeconomic growth theory. Much will follow, although I won't live to see it. But you can't fight the Laws of Thermodynamics, and so society must restrict throughput if humans are to maintain populations below carrying capacity.

We'll have to adopt carbon emissions restrictions because the changing climate will make us do so. And this will be a terrible shock for holders of capital everywhere. I don't care about the robber barons, if any are left. (I tend to imagine that faceless corporate boards are more influential in reality than capitalist celebs.) But, like every mature participant in the global economy, I will need a house and a pension for my retirement. A terrible and desperate choice awaits us all, the whole middle class of the western and even the booming eastern world. Will my TIAA annuities keep coming if we reach a tipping point? I doubt it very much.

We live in interesting times.

Another thread of ideas I've been working with for a while might offer a way out of the dilemma, but I'm not really sure how to package them yet, and may never be sure.

Long ago I read Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was a big mistake. I was seventeen, Leading Aircraftsman Womersley, and on my way from basic training to my RAF engine fitter's course at Number One Technical Training School, RAF Halton, now sadly a shadow of its former self.

Zen had a cheerful purple cover (purple always a good color for a serious work of philosophy) showing a nice spanner (not a wrench) emerging from the lotus, and it was on sale at the WH Smith bookstore on the platform at London's Paddington Station, then, pre-Thatcher, still a warren of union-controlled ridiculousness. Perhaps knowing I was in for an uncertain journey, I paid my two-pounds something. And really, that was the end of my career as an RAF engineer before it even really began. Without that book I'd probably still be in the service or retired, a Warrant Officer of engineering perhaps, bristling with NCO virility and mustaches, Kipling-esque, in charge of a whole combat squadron of Tornados in some sandy airport somewhere very hot and dry.

(It's a major fault of my personal and admittedly self-contradictory brand of little-Englander romanticism that I find it comforting that British senior NCOs still bristle in the world's deserts, over a hundred years since Gunga Din. Although My Boy Jack is probably closer to the truth.)

You see, the book got me started on thinking. My education, up to that point, as a young man tracked through the socialist technical training system, was about doing, not thinking. I was good at physics, maths, chemistry, metalwork and even technical drawing. But I hadn't been taught to think, not by the system.

Anyway, long story short, got done with the RAF only six years later. Didn't take so long to conclude that Pirsig was right, really. Bummed around the world's eco-communes and green radical groups a bit, two-three years. BA, MS, PhD, twelve years or so. Twenty year's on, an official thinker.

The four bullet-point version.

(I'm still rather more comfortable with doing than thinking. Although I "is" one, or at least resemble one, sort of officially, I retain the enlisted man's eternal suspicion of the thinker -- the wet-behind-the-ears green officer with an idea. And I much prefer coveralls to a suit.)

Back to Zen. Pirsig posits that the western world has lost quality. Literally. We had it, used it, liked it, built York Minster and atom bombs and the Hoover Dam, then dropped it somewhere in the long grass and haven't seen it for a while. A nagging loss but nonessential.

It will show up one day, sort of rusty, and we can perhaps spray it with WD40 and get another few years out of it.

Where is quality in sustainability macroeconomics?

Now there's an interesting question for a paid thinker. I could really get my teeth into that one, if I'd just slow down from putting up wind turbines and cultivating annual crops: potatoes, tomatoes, and undergraduates.

Pirsig has a whole Metaphysics of Quality, and since he lives right here in Maine somewhere I should go talk to him about it, the way I once traveled from Montana (UMT) to Maryland (UMD) to talk to Herman Daly for six years of my PhD.

Quality is, or should be, closely linked to the theory of value, which is part of any macroeconomics. Quality and value are much the same thing. Value is just one way to measure quality, and the metric doesn't have to be dollars, that "silly old dollar sign", as FDR famously told us one fireside chat (that probably saved my country and permitted my birth as a free thinking Englishman).

Everyone needs a theory of value in their macreconomic system. Marx had a labor theory of value. Friedman gives supremacy to capital. Keynes wanted a circular flow of value between labor, firms, and government.

"What is the sustainability theory of value?" is a subset of the question "what is quality in human life."

Aristotle asked that one, Pirsig reminds us.

Herman Daly would say that physical value (as opposed to metaphysical) in the human economy is created by a physical process by which naturally-occurring materials such as iron ore, crude oil, beef cows, and human labor, are combined in various processes industrially or household based, to make goods. Goods are the primary locus of physical value. This is not completely materialistic. In Daly's thought, goods provide service to humans, which creates a mental value. How much mental value comes per unit good is subjective and prone to manipulation by ad men and mad-men alike. But the basic physics is supreme. We all feel better after a good dinner, a little entertainment, and a decent night's sleep in our own bed. The dinner, the bed, the house the bed sits in, are physical entities with value. The entertainment is a little trickier, but it still has a basis in physical value: TV cameras, electricity, antennae or satellites, and so on. You have to first have physical value in order to add any mental value to it. Mental value cannot supersede physical value and life continue.

Herman advised a modest income of goods as a basis for sustainability. Our current economy tends to have us all seeking something less than modest and perceived solutions from some sustainability advocates, even Herman, smack of communism or at least a green version of nanny-state socialism.

But we're a long way away from actually implementing any more radical sustainable political economy. We'll be lucky if we slow carbon throughput in the economy by 2020. And the way we''ll get there will almost certainly be capitalism, albeit the green Keynesianism we're currently getting from the White House.

(And also, somewhat remarkably, from small "r" republican Maine Senator Susan Collins, in a recent TV appearance on Channel Five news.)

I can live with green Keynesianism for now. It seems to me that it retains individual freedoms that I've come to cherish since moving to America, is somewhat likely to succeed at least partially, and that in any case this or any other macroeconomic theory is unlikely to survive climate change. We have to make our bets and spin the wheel. Obama's green jobs plan will likely reduce emissions. A climate bill would help. That might be all the steady state theory we have time to debate and implement before we reach tipping point. I'll put my chips on green, with the rest of the moderately capitalist western world middle class, and hope for the best.

I'm fairly clear-eyed about what this will likely mean for the climate, though. I'm a good-enough climate scientist to know that. I've seen the data, crunched them myself enough to satisfy myself what will happen. It's a weak solution. We'd better be ready for some hot weather, some severe weather. We will almost certainly destroy the subsistence livelihoods of millions of poor folk, perhaps billions. Climate refugees will combine with terrorists, and the current intra-Islam civil war over modernization (that we insist on mistaking for our own egotistical concept, the so-called War on Terror) will slop over continually into our own cities. Our farmers will have to become ecological whizz-kids to keep up with moving systems and seasons.

And this will all happen because we're too chicken to ask serious questions about capitalism. Because we all depend on it too desperately. I include myself in this.

Yellow, not green.

I think we might make things better for ourselves and a lot of other, browner, people in the next two or three decades, if at the same time as embracing green Keynes (a rather gay thought if ever there was one, that the maestro himself would likely have appreciated), we also embraced a more physical metaphysics of value.

If we were to take a leaf or two out of Zen, and begin to ask ourselves serious questions about things like, "where is God in a wind turbine?"

I'm serious here. Sort of.

Back in the day, in my time in the hallowed cloisters of RAF Halton, I was taught by the monks to find God in the precision reading of a micrometer, in the integrity of the thread on a three-eighths AF- (American Fine) thread bolt, or the uninterrupted flow of an airfoil. These were rather Anglican and foul-mouthed monks in blue suits with stripes on their arms, but they knew their God and he had Power.

He was descended in part from Kipling via "Boom" Trenchard and "Bomber" Harris, and He meant to keep all English (and Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish but not Irish) children safe in their beds at night by the judicial application of spanners (but not wrenches) to modern but aging jet airplanes.

(The Irish, it was felt by most monks and the "brats" they taught, might benefit from our air supremacy over those shared islands, but they didn't deserve it, since they skipped out on "the war" and sent their crazies over to bomb RAF barracks).

That might be a bit narrow for the whole world to appreciate, but it was true enough at the time, to those narrow-minded blue suited monks, and after all these years of going around to come around, I'm not so sure if it wasn't a small part of a much greater truth about the Cold War in general.

After, all, I get to write whatever I want on this blog, don't I?

Contrast the concreteness of this blue-suit theory of value with that of the mortgage broker at Lehmans, circa 2008. Where is God, and where is value, in a derivative financial instrument that at root is an electronic accounting of the combined debt on a hundred thousand suburban houses "owned" by desperate two-wage families who find themselves paying the electric bill with the credit card one month in two? Especially when one consequence of the massive suburban housing-and-lifestyle complex that is engendered by this flaky debt is massive growth in carbon emissions?

We have to start putting this together here. I think it's time we drifted back to a more physical theory of value. I need to credit Matthew Crawford, here, for some of these ideas, and for adding to my understanding of the metaphysics of quality. Matt is, it seems, another engine fitter turned PhD philosopher, and would probably have managed to survive the blue suited monks too.

We can get there partly by systematically devaluing the spin and propaganda that folks who want to make money out of inflating ideas and their own performance use to get money from us. That would be a start.

Spin, as we found out during the "Great Recession" is unsustainable. Real sustainable value is more concrete.

I don't quite know how to go further, I must admit. Like most westerners these days I worry as much about getting to work and finding the time to do my job properly as I worry about what my job is theoretically supposed to be, which is thinking about the fate of civilization and trying to find ways to renew it.

Like all of us I need the economy to keep running. But I can, we can, all push it in a more concrete direction, where we begin to understand quite well how the judicial application of smaller and smaller amounts of scarce physical throughput can create sustainable flows of service to satisfy real human needs, food, clothing, housing, energy.

As long as we don't let ourselves be misled again by spin and greenwash, we should be able to get somewhere by applying this, hopefully increasingly concrete, understanding of sustainable human economic value.

That's as far as I've gotten.

So for now, I'll have to content myself with the knowledge that God or at least the highest Quality might be present in the fine tolerance required for the ring gears of an super-quiet American-made Northwind 100 wind turbine gearbox, or the smooth flow of the airfoil of the same, or the spreadsheet statistics that show, in green Keynesian fashion, that this turbine will perform well on a hilltop site that just happens to be owned by the people of this State. The turbine will make electricity, a physical good, without making as much carbon, a physical bad, as it would have if we'd made the same electricity using coal.

At about eighty-to-one, actually. One eightieth of the carbon per moving electron. The blue monks would have appreciated the precision with which we can calculate that fact.

That's my current definition of quality, my current theory of value, my macroeconomic basis to proceed. It's a very personal and up-to-the-minute synthesis, subject to change.

I'm no Keynes or Daly, so I doubt I'll ever come up with anything more generalizable.

But what I have so far has meaning for me.

By extension this theory would imply that the most important thing to do right now, taking everything into account, is to simultaneously teach about and implement the renewable energy solution to climate change, using Green Keynesian excuses to get it done, but realizing that all macroeconomics is political economy, and political economy is probably or at least strongly suspect of being ideological cover for what you want to do in the world, and what I most badly want to do with the world around me, is replace dirty energy systems with clean ones as fast as I,

as we,


Now where's that blue suit? The one with the grease stains.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Great Farm update

Here's an update on our home-based sustainability activities on the Great Farm.

Later this year a group of new students will come for a day to help out and learn some of what we're depicting here, and we always have lots of existing students over to see what's going on, so these aren't completely private activities. We put them to educational use too.

The subtitle of this collection might be "something for everyone:" photos of farm productivity in some detail.

First are this year's baby chicks, no longer quite so young. These are replacement layers. They're picking the bugs out of the trailer, bugs that came from a dead elm I cut to slow the spread of Dutch elm disease, and to use for firewood. The bugs are not the actual cause of the tree's death, so it doesn't hurt to cut and move the trees around. It's the fungus that weakens the tree bark and lets the bugs in that is the real cause, and that spore is spread on the wind.

The chicks are welcome to the elm bugs. Proper "free range" poultry should be ranging around a farmyard, where their job is to clean up slugs and ticks and eat leaves and waste feed and turn it into eggs for us to eat.

Then there's this year's pork and bacon at age about 10 weeks. I moved the piglets from the little pig sty to the big one, which has an open-air run. These girls have never had so much fun before, with real dirt to root in and all kinds of piggy treats thrown over from the garden. The pigs will get all the waste from the garden from here on out, lots and lots of green stuff, weeds and plants that we're done with. It's very thrifty to keep pigs next to a kitchen garden. They will eat all of that waste happily and turn it into meat for us to eat.

They'll also help prepare the compost we need to raise the veggies. Our garden is exceptionally fertile, thanks to these pigs. You can see a lot of old hay in the picture. This is sheep bedding from lambing season. I cleaned out the old pig sty, which earlier was the lambing pen and full of soiled hay used for bedding, and moved all that bedding into the pig's open air run, where with rain and time it will become compost. We'll make about two tons in total. It won't get used, of course, until after the pigs have given it another going over and mixed in some dung and urine for good measure. Pigs make the best compost out of sheep bedding.

Another part of the farm ecology is sheep eating trees. Most people don't think that sheep will eat trees, but they just need a little help. If you're getting firewood, and leave the branches on the ground temporarily, and can let sheep into the place where you've been cutting, they will thriftily clean up all the leaves. Leaves are very good for sheep feed. The branches are then much easier to handle and can be moved out of the way and piled up tidily. There's a balance to strike with this. You can cut more wood, and eventually you'll get more sheep pasture and open land for farming that way, or you can cut less wood, and keep the land in growing trees for firewood and feed.

Either, way, the sheep get to eat.

We're trying to make a parkland, which is a combination of woodland and grassland. In these pictures, you can see the light newly hitting the ground, previously bare forest floor. Next summer that ground will grow grass and clover. I will make sure of this by sowing it this fall.

Other than satisfying our need for feed for sheep, we like the partly open feel of the parkland, and we're trying to conserve some beautiful elm trees and some heirloom apples. The elms need distance from each other to reduce the threat of the fungus. The apples need to see daylight to grow fruit, and they also need pruned back into health, and so the competing trees must be cut away. I am also leaving some young conifers, the pines, spruces and tamaracks, to make saw logs in ten or fifteen years. They're between twenty and forty feet tall right now. When they're sixty feet tall and a couple feet around, we'll get a local sawyer in with a bandsaw mill, take some of these trees for lumber, and use it to make furniture and repair building. Until they get bigger, they're of no use, not even for firewood, since like most New Englanders we don't burn softwoods. But the sheep do like to use the broad conifer branches for shade, so they can stay until they're lumber size. We'll make sure to plant other trees in their place, most likely fruit trees.

For years to come, we'll have grass, leaves, firewood, lumber, and fruit from our orchard/elm/conifer parkland. Meat, heat, furniture, buildings and food. This particular area was previously Israel Thorndike's orchard, so those apple trees have some historical significance. I'd particularly like to get the apples back into production and see what they taste like.

I expect back in the day most European peasants and the workers that originally cleared Thorndike's Great Farm knew all these tricks pretty well and practiced them assiduously. Aimee and I are of course both descended from long lineages of peasantry and were in fact trained pretty well in the modern American and English versions of peasant gardening and food preservation as kids.

But this whole farm approach is more advanced stuff we didn't learn from our parents and grandparents. As society industrialized this kind of knowledge was lost. We're learning or relearning as we go. Sometimes we make mistakes.

But for the most part we seem to be extracting food and energy from our small plot fairly efficiently, and using the activities to move it in the direction of further productivity gains.

A hundred or more years ago in my homeland of England, this was a popular poem among English yeomen. Thoroughly Jeffersonian in sentiment, and thus also thoroughly American, it has always resonated deeply for me:


Though the wealthy and great
Live in splendor and state
I envy them not, I declare it
For I grow my own hams
My own ewes, my own lambs
And I shear my own fleece and I wear it

I have lawns, I have bowers
I have fruits, I have flowers
And the lark is my morning alarmer
So all farmers now
Here's Godspeed the plow
Long life and success to the farmer

Friday, July 2, 2010

Anemometric antics for antiquated academics

The Unity College wind power roughnecks have been out and about again in the great State o' Maine, fearlessly measuring the wind against all odds.

This time we're trying to get new wind data from the foothills of our western mountains. These rolling hills go up well above 1,000 feet, and the best potential sites have a clear view to the higher mountains to the north and west. The existing wind maps tend to understate the wind resource on these hills, at least we think so, based on one site where we currently have an anemometer.

We'd like to know more.

We worked on two sites this last week. One, where we'll put an NRG system that we salvaged earlier from Harris Mountain, is privately owned and the farmers wish to explore a small- to medium scale turbine cooperative within the local community.

The other is a municipal site. This site has houses close by and for that reason is not likely to ever host a turbine, but it already has a communications tower, owned by the state. This allowed us to perform some very economical anemometry, placing a RainWise anemometer/logger unit on the existing tower, and saving the use of a purpose-built tower. We fabricated a base plate, climbed the tower under the supervision of state officials, and placed our unit at the very top.

The data we collect from these sites will be made available to the general public and authorities for wind power planning purposes. Accurate wind data can rule-in or rule-out sites for wind power planning. It can also help tell you where wind noise nuisance from turbines will appear on the ground, and how loud it will be at any given point.

I'm likely to get comments on this blog, contentious comments, or perhaps even nasty comments, from Maine's anti-wind power activist movement. These folks will try to tell me that I'm doing the wrong thing here.

But I respectfully disagree.

The private individuals, farmers, municipalities, and state agencies involved in these studies are all doing the right thing, which is trying to take proper responsibility for their energy usage and the impacts of that energy usage. Although placing small and medium scale community-owned turbines on Maine mountaintops will have impacts, they will be less than the impacts of the coal mines, oil-and-gas fields, uranium mines and other war zones, real or environmental, where energy is extracted.

It's just that Mainers will be asked to live with the impacts, instead of importing energy from the Gulf of Mexico, West Virginia, Iraq, Iran, or other trouble spots around the world. We are not used to living with the impacts of the energy we all use here in Maine. We prefer to let other states and other countries feel the impacts.

Out of sight, out of mind.