Monday, May 28, 2012

Is on the grid greener than off?

Photo: The Womerlippis' own propane-powered back-up generator, which is only needed when the grid power goes out.

Here's an interesting island conflict, slightly reminiscent of some of the ones I've witnessed in Scotland and Maine:

The pro-solar islanders seem to believe that having connectivity to the power grid is worse, environmentally speaking, than producing your own power. They also seem to think that solar power can't be produced if you're on-grid. In this, they fall into the same kind of mental trap that a lot of enviros fall into: assuming that small is always beautiful and that the "system" is always corrupting.

There may indeed be desperately corrupt elements in the Floridian power markets that I'm unaware of, but in general, small is not always beautiful, especially when it comes to power production. Living off grid is not only inconvenient, but downright polluting, if the power you use is produced wholly or partly by relatively small household generators. And the best format for efficient use of solar photovoltaic power is to be firmly connected to the grid.

My wife and I learned this lesson the hard way when we built our own off-grid straw bale house. We no longer live there, and there's a good reason. Several good reasons, in fact. But one is that our off grid house was terribly polluting. It was unsustainable and so we decided not to sustain it.

Go figure. But it's true. Small isn't always beautiful. Small can be dirty and polluting.

All renewable energy sources require back-up power, which can come from the grid, or from a home generator. This is because renewable energy comes from weather: sun, wind and rain. The alternative to not having a generator is to simply not use power from time to time, when because of the weather there's no sun, or wind, or water in the creek. The larger and more diversified your power system, the less you need to use your generator. One Internet acquaintance of mine who lives on a Scottish island, and is so far from the grid that he must make his own power (and thus can't be accused of making this mistake), has solar, wind and hydro power, a total investment of many thousands of dollars, and so rarely uses either of his two Lister generators. But he's an exception, and an expert mechanic and engineer to boot, and so he can lower his costs by installing and repairing his own equipment.

Small gas and diesel generators are notoriously inefficient and polluting. The smaller the generator, the more pollution produced per unit of electricity, and the less electricity produced per unit of fuel. Propane and natural gas generators are marginally less polluting, but still inefficient.

But if your home solar PV system is connected to the grid, it can be sized smaller, saving lots of money, and it won't need a back-up generator, saving yet more money. Put the savings into some other renewable energy investment, and you will have achieved something much closer to an optimum use of resources.

(Understanding this efficiency/pollution relationship is actually a fine application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and makes a great classroom module in critical thinking.)

If you want to use renewable energy, especially solar PV, it's nearly always cheaper, and less polluting, to be connected to the grid that it is to try to live off-grid. Unless, as I said, you're prepared to invest in a lot of different energy systems, so that, for instance, you can take advantage of the fact that when the sun doesn't shine the wind is often blowing. But when there's no sun and no wind, you will either start the generator, or do without. Doing without is fine if you can live without electrical water pumping and food refrigeration. Most folk can't or won't live without these things.

Otherwise, you're going to start your generator, and your green ambitions will evaporate in a small, private, and totally unsustainable off-grid cloud of air pollution and greenhouse gas.

What's funny about our own experience is that people still write to us about our off grid house, always fulsome in praise of the clean, green. off-grid lifestyle.  When we try to educate them about why off-grid is generally more polluting, they don't believe us.

Sometimes they even become rude.

Prejudice dies hard, doesn't it?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

College and career advice to a parent

This is a letter I wrote today to the parent of a prospective student. I think the information I gave reflects well on the quality of our small degree program in sustainable energy.

Any identifiers have been redacted.

Dear Mr                     :

I'll have to be somewhat discrete about protecting the students' identities with the information you seek, because, as like most colleges, we follow federal FERPA rules about disclosing student data. But here you go:

There were only two students graduating Saturday with the Sustainability Design and Technology major.

(Which major will become Sustainable Energy Management this fall. I can fill you in on the improvements if need be.)

The small numbers reflect the small size of the major. I believe last time we connected there were 14 students total, not evenly spread among years 1-4. I think we were down to 13 before graduation. The one drop-out was a first year who failed to attend classes. We'll only get one additional first-year, first time (FYFT = 18 year old) student this fall, but we also usually pick up some transfers and non-traditional students, so I expect to maintain total numbers in the teens next year. The program is more popular with mid-career transfers and non-traditional students than it is with FYFT students. Our growth target is for 20 to 25 students for now, which would give us some critical mass without triggering expensive fixed cost faculty and facility additions.

Of the two who most recently graduated, both of whom came in as FYFT students four years ago and are now therefore 22 years old, one will go to a small energy auditing company in a major city. This student interned with this company last summer and they took the student on as a working partner.

The other 2012 graduate is bound for graduate school in environmental policy, most likely in some quantitative area of climate policy, but is taking a year off and has gone to work for the "PIRG" system.

This is a well-worn pathway to an environmental policy career. The various state PIRGs run canvas-and-lobbying operations which generate income, which they use to hire a large seasonal stable of canvassers and junior lobbyists. There's a revolving door with graduate school for PIRG members.

That student will be working on an energy/climate campaign for a state PIRG. I can't tell you which state.

That makes the percentage of 2012 grads employed in their field 100%, but with such small numbers, percentages are somewhat meaningless.

Here's the complete run-down of all graduates of the program over all time:

2010: One graduate, now married and stayed with their old job for financial/family reasons

2011: Three graduates:

  • One is a sustainability coordinator for a Maine college and attending architecture school
  • One is an independent building contractor
  • The third will attend law school this fall in environmental law
2012: Two graduates:
  • One a working partner in an energy auditing firm
  • The other working for a state PIRG, will eventually attend graduate school in environmental policy

This isn't one hundred percent working in their field, but I think it a very reasonable level of career success. The most satisfying metric is that fully half will attend graduate school. These are competitive graduate schools, too. I can't give you the schools because the numbers are so small, you'd be able to figure out the students' identities, but they are very good schools.

One thing you should tell your student is that, for the better paid, most secure jobs in this field, graduate school is probably helpful if not necessary.

There are some well-paid options at the bachelor's degree level, if the student is willing to be entrepreneurial.

If a student is less academically inclined and not keen on graduate school, we tell them that a good fall-back career is as a household energy auditor. Even here in relatively impoverished Maine, auditors earn around $500 per audit. Industrial energy auditors are also modestly well-paid, can find work with a bachelor's degree and some additional certifications, and are required to be less entrepreneurial, since they can find work with large industrial service corporations such as Siemens or Johnson Controls. There is also fairly high demand for institutional sustainability officers and sustainability coordinators.

Hoping this meets with your satisfaction,

Mick Womersley
Lead Faculty,
Sustainable Energy Management

Sent: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 10:22 PM
To: Doug Fox; Mick Womersley
Subject: RE: Sustainable Energy Management Degree

Hello Mr. Fox,

Do you have any data on the percentage of students from this year's
graduating class that have landed jobs in the sustainable energy field?



Sunday, May 13, 2012

Graduation 2012 -- a big year for the college

The Unity College 2012 Commencement Ceremony was held yesterday. This was a very large graduating class, just over 140 students, our largest ever. Although the number walking across the stage today, would have included a few December 2011 grads, students on the "five-year plan," and some transfers, this large number of graduates still represents a very high level of student success for the entering class four years ago.

That would have been the Fall Semester of 2008 when these students matriculated to Unity College. According to the college's records, there 194 students in that entering cohort. If you assume about 20 or 30 of yesterday's 140 were either transfers or December grads, that's still over a fifty percent graduation rate.

Fifty percent is a very high graduation rate for any institution of higher education. Most have rates down in the forties or thirties.

The low rates generally happen because students flunk or drop out in very high numbers, or move on to other colleges. Mostly, life happens and students decide to do something else, like get married or take a job. The key is "retention", by which we generally mean that students survive their first year of college and stay at the same college until their second year. Students that make it to their second year will generally survive until graduation.

Unity College has had for several years now a very high first to second year retention rate of over seventy percent, and this is now beginning to affect the graduation rate, as it naturally would. Yesterday's graduation occurred precisely three years after the 2008 cohort registered a previously unheard-of seventy-five percent retention rate. Hence my estimated fifty percent graduation rate.

That number seems rather optimistic, so I'm not going to bank on it until the "official" numbers from the Registrar's Office come out later this summer, but at first blush it seems that the number will be rather good. Of course, this represents an awful lot of hard work from students, faculty and staff. I'd like to think it also represents our efforts in curriculum improvement in the mid-part of the 2000s, when the faculty of Unity College strove to bring the degree majors more in line with the liberal arts and sciences standard by reducing specialized classes and emphasizing instead electives, general education, and student choice. In particular, this class of 2008 would have benefited from a mid-decadal curriculum improvement drive we called "40-40-40," which aimed to reduce some of our previously very specialized degree programs, with as many as sixty or seventy or even eighty credits in the major, and a very high resultant drop-out rate, to programs more in keeping with the liberal arts standard, and forty credits in each of general education, the degree major itself, and free electives. The 40-40-40 program is ancient college history right now, but my ancient faculty perspective remembers that the cohort of 2008 would have been only the second or third cohort to experience the new curriculum. We also made a lot of efforts to add value in the form of improved programming, field trips and other experiential pedagogy, and the like. The list of attempted improvements big and small is too numerous to mention here.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, in perspective, all that work seems to have paid off!

Among the "fifty-percenters" were several sterling students that I knew very well. Above, graduate and recent student in PS 3003 Energy and Energy Efficiency, Kristie Smith shows off her solar-powered mortarboard, while Student Government President  and recent student in Economics of Resource Conservation and Sustainability Amy Kennedy leads the column of graduates in the march to the stage, and gives her presidential address.

As Faculty Moderator of Unity College, I was on stage and got to shake the hand of every graduate. I'm pleased to say I knew nearly of their names, having had most in my classes at one time or another. Nine were my own advisees.

Congratulations to all the 2012 graduates, good luck with the job hunt, and have a great summer!

Excellent NYT article on student debt

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Flogging a dead (Troy-Bilt) horse and other human ecological activities

The Womerlippi's ancient Troy-Bilt "Horse" tiller
(This post cross-listed with

Yesterday was the first rain-free day in a while, and it was also my first Official Non-Work Day of the summer. There had been Weekends and even half- or partial Days Off earlier in the year, but those had been before the End of Classes.

There's something very different about the first day that a teacher gets off each summer that is after the end of classes. That's the day in which there is no stress, for the first time in a long time.

Teaching is a stressful occupation, or at least it should be, if you're doing it right.

It takes some level of stress or tension to change a mind, either your own or the student's. A teachable moment is a natural moment of stress or tension in which the student and teacher together encounter some new fact (new to the student and sometimes to the teacher too) that both student and teacher care about a lot. At that point, a mind can be changed, either the student's or the teacher's or both. If there isn't some level of stress for the teacher and the student in any teachable encounter, it's unlikely that anyone's mind is being changed.

And you have to leave open the opportunity that the mind that can be changed is yours. if you don't allow for this, then you can't be much of a teacher, at least in my book.

The stress builds up as the semester goes along, as minds are being changed left right and center, including, one hopes, the professor's, until it reaches a maximum point right before final exams. Then it begins to bleed off, as the workload and the number of stressful encounters with students and classes of students diminishes. Eventually, after the last final exam which for me this semester was Wednesday evening around 7.00 pm, all stressful encounters come to an end.

What does a fat, over-educated, slightly grumpy English professor of Human Ecology do during the summer?

(I'm slightly grumpy only because I'm fond of the truth, of facts, and there isn't always enough of either around to keep me pleased.)

Well, when I'm not measuring the wind or the sun or some other meteorological phenomenon in support of renewable energy planning, and not planning curriculum with my fellow Unity College faculty members, I'm growing food with my wife Aimee, also a Unity College professor, on our small farm,, in Jackson, Maine.

I find food-growing to be a relaxing and occasionally profitable summer occupation. It's also usually less stressful than teaching. And it's, very obviously, the highest form of applied human ecology.

My job title is, after all, Professor of Human Ecology. I'd better have some human ecology that I actually do, hadn't I?

What does a Womerlippi Farm day in the early summer look and feel like?

"Long and varied", is a good answer.

Friday's farm activities began with feeding sheep and chickens at about five in the morning, followed by a dog (+ human) walk of about a mile. Dog walks, including humans, are applied human ecology. We then moved the sheep to fresh pasture. We have about five or six rotational paddocks, which we graze on about a three-week rotation using an adaptation of the New Zealand system. Here's a photo of two of our young lambs in one of our paddocks. You can see the mobile electrical fence in the background. The system depends on the use of these fences to establish small paddocks that can be grazed for a few days by the herd, then given a rest period. We like to grow our paddocks out to about eight inches of length, then graze them back to a sheep's regular bite, then rest them for as long as it takes to get them to eight inches again. This system works well, due to the excellent application of human and ovine ecological knowledge.

I then spent an interesting half-hour stripping, cleaning and lubricating a set of sheep shears, and then "crotched" a young ewe, a first-time mother, who's experiencing loss of fleece due to protein stripping.

Energy flow, in this case ovine nutrition, is of course the basis of ecology. Ewes have to use up a lot of energy and protein to feed lambs, and this can sometimes create a break in the cycle of fleece-growing, meaning the fleece actually falls out, usually in the area of the udder and crotch. Which makes sense if you think about it, since that's the area closest to the mammary glands. Our ewes get extra protein in the form of oats and some bagged feed, but in this case it just wasn't enough. I sheared off the offending loose wool to prevent parasite infection, and made a mental and very human ecological note to increase the ration.

The next activity was rototiller maintenance. The first picture above is our very ancient Troy-Bilt "Horse" tiller, a venerable machine that has already had a motor replacement, among other major surgery.

The Womerlippis are a three-tiller family, having a classic 1973 Kubota B6000 tractor with original tiller attachment (the daddy tiller), the Troy-Bilt (mommy tiller), and a tiny new 50 cc light tiller (baby tiller). We use our tillers to kill weeds and maintain soil quality in our extensive vegetable garden. I'm an expert general mechanic, and our tillers are kept up as well as our cars, if not better. Tiller mechanics is an advanced branch of human ecology. The tiller is used to ensure efficient energy flow, and is itself a machine that uses energy and must be kept efficient and safe.

I had noticed that the lower pulley on the Troy-Bilt's clutch was loose, or appeared so. I wanted to get access to the pulley to inspect it, and so stripped the tiller down to that purpose. Unfortunately, the clutch mechanism's guide rods were rusted in place after years of use, and couldn't be removed without major surgery. I contented myself with inspecting the pulley attachment, a circlip, by flashlight, deciding that it was impossible to get to and wouldn't actually fall off for at least another ten years, and with changing the gearbox oil which my work had exposed to view and which at that point could be very easily changed, thus achieving some human ecological (energy efficiency) gain for my several hours of greasy labor.

By which time the garden had dried out for the first time after a week or so of rain. It was time to plant.

We've been planting steadily now for about four weeks, and only the warmest outdoor crops are as yet un-planted. Knowing when, and when not, to plant is a high human ecological art around here, given our extreme but rapidly changing climate. Yesterday I put in a long row of dry beans, the variety Vermont Cranberry, as well as a row of mixed types of cucumbers, and a partial row of good old Scots kale. The first two are considered post-last frost day crops around here. The statistical last frost is not until Tuesday (May 15th), but the NOAA weather service is reporting warm nights until at least Tuesday and so it was a good human ecological gamble that last frost had already passed, and even if it hadn't, the more tender crops could be covered with "floating" row cover to prevent damage.

I also weeded our herb garden.

Those activities took me up through suppertime.

After supper it was time to move the sheep back to the largest paddock where they usually stay the night. That job called for a sheepdog.

The sheep had been out happily grazing thick grass all day. Usually after a nice day, they just run straight back to the paddock, but not last night. They were enjoying the evening sunshine and a last little bite of graze. Like playful children, they didn't want to go to bed yet.

The Womerlippis keep two sheepdogs for times like this, but only one of the two, Ernie, is any good at his job. Leaving the recalcitrant sheep milling around in the dooryard, I went back to the house and got Ernie. The sheep gave up almost immediately after they saw the dog. Ernie followed them through the gate, and then, as his instinct should tell him to, came back to allow me to shut the gate. Ernie is an English Shepherd dog, and his excellent herding instinct is the result of around 2,500 years of selective breeding by (human) English shepherds, and before that Roman shepherds, expert applied human ecologists all, of which I'm only the most recent, and, when it comes to sheepdogs, the least expert. But, like Ernie, I can at least claim a good and long lineage as an English shepherd, as well as fair to middling human ecological instincts.

The last farm job before going to bed was to feed the chicks. We have a small brood of chicks incubating to replace some older laying hens.

Here they are in the brooder....

And here they are earlier, with Ernie and Flame (our other sheepdog, an Australian Shepherd) looking on.

That final chore of the day took me through to about nine in the evening, and time for bed. My first official "Day Off" started at five in the morning and went until nine at night and was nothing but work. Today started at much the same hour.

But it was also a lot of fun, and very satisfying. 

A less stressful application of human ecology, but human ecology nevertheless.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Have anti-wind activists signed up with the far right?

Sounds unlikely, considering that many anti-wind activists in Maine at least are closer to Earth First! than the Koch brothers, but that's what the Grauniad is reporting this morning.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Junky jalopies and safe summer driving

A rough count of the number of student vehicles checked yesterday is thirty-two or thirty-three.

Thanks to the students of PS 3003 Energy and Energy Efficiency for giving of their time and getting their hands dirty (again!) to help out with these checks.

Most student vehicles were in good or at least adequate shape, and will survive the drive to wherever their owners are going, to home or to a summer job.

Because Unity College students are getting qualifications in the conservation and environmental professions, summer jobs are very often a long way away, out west, or in the deep south, occasionally even Alaska.

Some vehicles, about four or five of the total, definitely need some TLC. We found flat tires, bad mufflers, failed brake systems, and so on. Several check engine lights were on, and although none of the trouble codes we pulled were so dire that we had to advise the owners not to drive, some were worrisome.

The flat tires and failed brakes were the most dangerous problems we found.

I wasn't expecting to be able to diagnose failed brake systems with a simple safety check, but I'd forgotten that the modern fashion for disc brakes and open wheel configurations allows the rotors and pads to be easily seen. We were able to spot rough, ridged, and even corroded disc rotors, as well as worn pads. Of these symptoms, corrosion on the face of the disc rotor is the most problematic we found -- if there's rust on your rotor's face, your brake caliper and pads aren't working at all.

In general, we found what we expected to find, that not all students can afford safe and reliable transportation. We did our best to help out, but obviously we're not going to be able to do brake-and-tire jobs on every vehicle.

The main thing is for ALL students driving home is to drive safely, but especially if we warned you about the state of your vehicle.

Go slow. Don't speed.  It's not worth it.

Particularly, if we warned you about your worn tires and brakes, don't drive through a bad rainstorm. Pull over someplace safe and wait out the storm.

Better yet, get the new tires or new brakes before you drive off for the summer.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Vehicle checks this Thursday

Dear students:

As part of the overall and superior customer service provided provided by Unity College, consider taking advantage of free vehicle check-outs this Thursday afternoon May 3rd, 12.30 - 4pm in front of the Activities Building, Parson’s Wing.

Driving home? Driving thousands of miles out west for that summer job? Driving up to camp to hide away and recover emotionally? Or just driving as fast as you can to get away from college and all those bad grades and heartless teachers!

Whatever your reason for driving, don’t risk being stranded someplace remote, dangerous, or worst of all, uncool!

Before you get in the olde jalopy and drive off into the wild blue yonder, let the experienced mechanics and other techy-geeky students of this year’s PS 3003 Energy and Energy Efficiency class check the poor beast out.

We will check your tire pressures and pump them up if necessary, check and top off the oil and other fluids, clean your windows (dirty windows are a major source of vehicular accidents), and finally and perhaps most usefully, if your CHECK ENGINE light is on, we will use our computer reader to “pull” your trouble codes so you can finally know just what it is that your poor neglected automobile has been trying to tell you all these months.

(Did you know you can save lots of gas by keeping your car’s tires at the proper pressures? And that tire pressure changes as the weather warms and cools with the seasons, so you have to check them regularly! Did you know that a blown oxygen sensor is easy to fix and can save on gas too? Did you know that low oil level can kill your car’s engine? Well, now you know.)

Each participant will receive a written report on the serviceability of their vehicle, with details of any trouble codes and what they mean.

The college accepts no responsibility for the use or misuse of any of the information we give you about your vehicle, or for your car’s safety after you leave the campus, but we do suggest that it’s always better to know than not to know. In most cases.

(Employees are welcome too. Thanks to the Maintenance and Student Affairs departments for aid in providing this service.)

Be safe, drive safe.

Mick Womersley
On behalf of Spring 2012 PS 3003 Energy and Energy Efficiency class

Energy for Me

This video was shot by students from Isleboro School under the tutelage of the Island Institute at last year's Energy for ME conference held at Schoodic SERC.

(Islesboro is an island in Penobscot Bay, Maine.)

Energy for ME (a pun on maine's zip code denominator "ME") is an excellent organization, run by Island Institute and the partner teachers and schools, and they do stellar work with their various programs, including this program of energy education for island and shore-town high school students, their teachers, and parents. I'm very pleased and proud to be able to help them out, and also to involve our own students in this whenever I can.

For, as one of our own students mentioned in class yesterday, it's going to take a lot of this kind of education before people begin to figure out what to do to fix our current climate and energy crisis.