Friday, January 30, 2015

Concentrating solar power demonstrations

Students in physics Thursday, a very sunny day here in Maine, built solar concentrators using old satellite dishes and reflective Mylar, then attempted to ignite large kitchen matches. A good way to learn how much energy there is in sunlight. The outside temperature was in the low thirties F.

(Movie from Michelle L. Thanks Michelle!)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

No words needed...

Embedded image permalink

... assuming you are statistically literate. From Gavin Schmidt's Twitter feed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Reposted: Advice to a mature (non-traditional) student

This advice works just as well for FYFT students, too.


Hey Mick,

As my adviser, I was hoping you could advise me :)

I am struggling with the increase in tuition and what is needed for rent. I've been applying for scholarships and trying to find a job. I want to stay in school and accomplish something in life. I have family and friends that tell me to quit and get a "real" job, but that is why I am in school, to better myself, to help others who want to succeed and encourage people to make a change to preserve the world instead of depleting it.

I need direction because I have none, not many people I know have graduated a four-year program, let alone are doing something to preserve the environment.

It is a dream to graduate from Unity College and I'm now wondering if its even a possibility. I'm not afraid to work for it, I just don't what to do.

thank you for your time,




Good. We’re ready to think things through properly.

First up, one purpose of a four-year degree is to train leaders to solve complicated, convoluted problems. You seem to have a private personal complicated convoluted problem that is something like “WTF do I do with my life?” Am I right? Is there a better way to put it? Try to nail it for me. I’m serious here. Get to the bottom of things. Don’t hold back. Be a good critical thinker.

If that’s the root problem, “WTF do I do with my life?”, or something like it, then one solution to the problem is “Get a four-year degree and get a good job and a serious career.” There are other equally good solutions, like, “Drop out and become a lotus-eating Zen master” or “Join the marines and see the world.” As a college professor of long experience advising undergraduates, I am agnostic on which solutions are best. It’s your life, after all. Who am I to say what you should do? What I want out of the deal are willing students who are motivated to learn, so your choices must be freely made.

It’s important to also note that some of these other solutions are WAY cheaper than a four-year college degree. Like, the marines will actually pay you to see the world. In the interest of full and fair disclosure, I also have to say that it’s possible to have a great career without even getting a college degree. If you’re Steve Jobs, that is, or someone creative and driven like he was. Most people aren’t, so they take a degree to make up for it.

If you put your thinking cap on and work from the “WFT.?” question and eventually do get to the solution of “Get a four-year degree and get a good job and a serious career,” then it naturally follows that another decision must then be made: “Where to go to school?”

Unity College is one place to go to school, but only one of many, and middle-of-the-road expensive. Why pick Unity?

One answer is that Unity College is an acknowledged leader in a thing called the "sustainability movement” and has been for over a decade now, since the late 1990s, in fact. This is a very broad and hard-to-define movement, but it exists, and can certainly be an environment where a person can have a serious interesting career helping to solve some very difficult problems like climate change or biodiversity loss. So coming to Unity can definitely help you join the sustainability movement, if that is what you really, really want to do.

Note that these environmental problems are not very well understood by the majority of people. The average person, even someone who had a decent education, if given the exhortation “join the sustainability movement to help solve climate change” would be very confused, and one response they might have to that confusion would be that this is bad advice and they might then tell you so. This is I think where many students' friends and families who tell them to go to a “real” college and to get a “real job” are coming from. They simply don’t understand that thousands and thousands of people have interesting, well-paid, real jobs solving climate change in the sustainability movement or working with biodiversity protection. But they do.

Me, for instance. I have one such job. So does my wife. And we’re not doing too badly.

However, at this point it’s important to note that you could have a very good and even socially redeeming career going to some other college and becoming, say, a lawyer, an accountant, or a business professional. Or “join the marines and see the world.” See, we’re back to square one.

And it’s certainly possible to go to a four-year second tier state-run college and get a degree in accounting or business for much less than the Unity College degree. To make it yet more complicated, you could even go get that degree and graduate and join the sustainability movement. There’s no law to say you can’t. So, for instance, you could get a plain Jane four-year accounting degree for less than $40 K from East Overshoe State College in upstate New Guernsey, and then go to work for a solar PV installation firm organizing finance for household solar installations, and in a lifetime’s work making several hundred such installations happen, getting paid pretty well for this service, and when all is said and done, who would be able to say say that you wouldn’t have contributed as much if not more to solving climate change than, say, a fat old professor of Sustainable Energy?

No-one, that’s who.

The only thing that would be required to go down this other road is that you find your own ways to think about the sustainability movement and climate change. This is because they aren’t going to cover that in the curriculum at East Overshoe State. Not in any organized way. They may have the classes on the books, but they won’t be "joined up” in any way that makes sense. Not right now, at least. In twenty years they will be, and all boring old accountants graduating East Overshoe and all the hundreds if not thousands of other places like it will be made to take courses in climate change and renewable energy technology. That’s what society will need, and so that’s what will happen. But not right now, not right away.

Whereas at Unity College they will be joined up and they would make sense. (Not necessarily right away, but eventually, after a semester or two or three.) This is probably what we mean by “interdisciplinary" or “transdisciplinary” sustainability studies: that the ideas with which we work are joined-up, organized and connected and function across the traditional disciplines, which are rapidly being made obsolete by the demands of the marketplace for ideas. This is what we do at Unity College and we do it particularly well if you’re willing to pay attention.

(Note that not all of the students in all of the classes you’ve been in so far are paying attention. If they’re lazy students, or drunk, or smoking weed, they probably don’t know what a good sustainability education they’re getting, and so some UC students will add to the confusion by not being aware of their own situation. Don’t be like them. You can’t afford it, for one. But for another, it’s a very silly way to be in this world. Education is often wasted on the young.)

More complications and convolutions: If you went to Flagship State University instead, it’s possible and even likely that you could get a half-way decent joined-upsustainability education for about the same price as UC, or even a bit less. Most of the big state colleges, like UMaine Orono, by now have such programs. I’d like to think that they aren’t quite as thought-out and joined up as the Unity degree, but I’m a little biased, and some of them probably are pretty well organized by this point.

So, to summarize: If, after doing all this thinking you decide that you want a career solving climate change or biodiversity loss, then you’ll almost certainly need a four-year degree, and by all means Unity College is a good choice, but not the only choice at this point. If you decide you want to go someplace else, just tell me and we’ll think it through and find you a place to go.

Now the housing problem. I’m going to say right off the bat without even looking at things properly that most housing problems are in fact budget problems. If they were not, all students would be living in ten-thousand square foot MacMansions with poolside bars, right?

Budget problems are always solvable. They require some accounting skill, and, when they’re college budget problems they require some knowledge of the federal financial aid system. But they are solvable. The way to begin is to list all the expenses and income. I would go monthly since that’s the way bills tend to appear in the mail: list all the monthly expenses required. (Some annual expenses or annual income will need to be divided by 12 to make them monthly.)

Make a two column list “Monthly Expenses for my College Degree.” You could use Excel or paper and pencil. Here’s an example.

Item/Monthly Cost
Rent  $500
Electric bill $100
Food $150
Car payment $150
Car insurance $50

Etc, etc. Leave tuition out, for now.

When you get to the bottom of the list and have listed everything and added it up, make another list: "Monthly Income for my College Degree.”

This second list should look like something this:

Item/Monthly Income
Student loan $1000
(divided by 12)
Part-time job $800
Summer full time job  $700
(divided by 12)

Etc, etc.

This will be likely a much shorter list. Unfortunately.

If after you do both lists, income is greater than expenses, then you are probably OK, at least for now.

If expenses are greater than income, then we have to add income or reduce expenses. More likely, we reduce expenses. Break it down and work on one item at a time, but don’t forget that some items are joined together. So rent might be more expensive in Unity, Maine, but you wouldn’t perhaps need to have a nice car if you could walk or bike to school until the snow flies. An old beater might do. Or you might find cheaper rent in Waterville, but need a better and more fuel-efficient car to exploit this. Remember, nothing on the expenses list is sacred, not if you’re serious about your goal. (Except maybe food.) Do you really need a $100/month cell phone when a $14 one would do? And so on. More than likely your real list has different items and problems than the examples I’m using, but you get the idea.

You may need to up your loans. We can talk at more length when you come back to school about student loan repayment plans and forgiveness programs and whether or not loans are worth it, but bottom line is, they’re much more generous than they were five-six years ago. This is one really useful nation-building thing Congress has done in the last few years, that most folks don’t know about.

Think of student loans as an investment, as if you were starting a business. If you were starting a business, like a bakery or an auto shop, you’d probably get a bank loan of several tens of thousands of dollars to buy equipment, but you’d need to show the bank your business plan. In this case we’re starting a business called “XXX’s Career,” and making a similar investment. The investment needs to pay off in the sense that you can afford to pay the student loan when you get done, and still have money left over for other goals like a nice life, a house, or retirement, so this also has to be a very well-planned investment. That’s not as hard as it sounds with the new lower interest rates, pay as you earn, forgiveness and wotnot.

And people in the sustainable energy business are hiring. To properly plan, we need to start looking at some of these jobs, think about which kinds of jobs you’d like to do, and see how much they pay. We can talk more when you get back. If you’re a serious student, and plan, student loans shouldn’t be a problem.

One thing: Never, ever take out a private student loan. Make sure all your loans are federal.

Never eat at a place called “Moms," never play poker with a guy called “Doc,” never take out anything but a fixed interest mortgage, and never, ever take out a private student loan. (That’s all the fatherly advice I have, I’m afraid, and even this is partly stolen from an environmental writer called Ed Abbey.)

Hope this helps,



Monday, January 19, 2015

A bird's eye view of our latest project

Pika Energy posted spectacular drone footage of the tower we built out at Brent and Erin's farm just before Christmas. SEM and Physics students helped sort and transport the equipment and would have helped with the construction if it hadn't been for the holiday.

You get to see just how high a hundred-foot tower is from above. But remember -- these are actually some of the shorter towers we use. Our RNRG tall towers are twice that height!

Independent with Wind+Solar Power in Rural Maine from Pika Energy on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

CoA visitors look at energy efficiency, up close and personal

Picture: Our old farmhouse gets new insulation and siding, a few summers ago.

Friday started out warm but turned very cold and windy in the afternoon. Despite this, we received a small group of four student visitors, including their TA Nicholas Urban, all from College of the Atlantic, who arrived in the midst of an Arctic front which manifested itself in the form of a small blizzard.
This rather dramatic entrance notwithstanding, this also happened to be the day before the same group of students appeared in a New York Times feature about their renewable energy studies, a coincidence that seems remarkable enough to post about on the blog, and a reminder of how topical our work has become. Here's the article, plus an earlier one from Revkin's blog.

We began our visit on campus, where Admissions Ambassador Gunnar gave them a tour of the Terra Haus, our (almost) net zero passive solar dorm building. Gunnar is one of the residents of this award-winning building. 

We were then supposed to have Q & A with me about renewable energy and energy efficiency topics, but our small baby Roo, with whose welfare I was entrusted that day, wasn't having any of it, so I had the students drive by our farm on their way home, in hopes of getting Roo "down" or at least quiet so we could continue the conversation without the cries of a baby interrupting things. This ploy succeeded, somewhat to my surprise. 

The result was additionally fortuitous because, unbeknownst to me at the time, their main topic of interest was Maine home energy retrofit. I had assumed they wanted to talk about finance, a topic that was mentioned in the emails we exchanged. But our old farmhouse has been extensively retrofitted, and so we were able to take a tour and explain how it all got done and what was generalizable from that. The students are planning a business in energy audits. I'm not sure whether they will actually start the business or not, or whether this is primarily a class exercise. 
Either way, they got some good information.

One main concern I was careful to highlight is that you really can't just audit and retrofit old Maine residences. Much of the time you have to fix up the fabric of the building too, and often those repairs are extensive and require serious restoration carpentry. Restorers need to be very experienced in old buildings, as well as in jacking, sistering, scarfing, and shoring, among other fairly old-fashioned technique. You may need to repair a foundation or sister in new studs, or wreck out an old sill and scarf in a replacement. These are advanced skills not often found in the repertoire of run-of-the-mill (pun intended) Maine framers.

So there's no viable shortcut to energy retrofit of old buildings in Maine as a result. Energy auditors need to know a lot about buildings, and energy retrofitters need to be able to either repair old buildings themselves, or know enough to call in the services of someone else who can do the work. It was easy enough to demonstrate this with our old house, which has had much of this kind of work done over the years we've owned it, some of which can be seen in the basement and attic, some in pictures we've taken.

The old place is now, after much labor, exceptionally cosy and efficient for an older home, and only uses two cords of firewood, perhaps 1500 kWh of electricity and fifty gallons of heat oil at this point. (When the previous owners had it, it used 700 gallons of heat oil, ten cords of wood, and an unknown amount of electricity.)



Hi Mick,

I'd just like to thank you for hosting us last week at your home and campus. We learned a lot about how to approach a building retrofit. I especially appreciate how you stressed the importance of knowing a buildings age--a simple fact to figure out, but it clearly has huge implications on the recommendations and approach we would take.

On that note, on the car ride home we came up with one follow-up question. You mentioned that most Maine buildings fall into three modes/time periods of construction. The first one was the balloon frame style from the turn-of-the-century farmhouses. What were the other two modes?

Again, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to meet with us,  

College of the Atlantic
Bar Harbor, Maine, USA 

and my reply,


The oldest frame buildings in Maine are post-and-beam, modified from their British islands originals primarily by the use of wooden studs between the heavy posts and clapboard siding, rather than wattle and daub. This because there was much more timber available in colonial New England. Very often their posts and beams and studs have unmistakeable tool marks from hand-hewing, hand-sawing  in a “saw pit", or vertical “sash” power saw mill work, as well as “blacksmith” or square nails. Typically these were water-operated sash mills. Unity had several such mills at one time.

When more efficient circular saw mills were developed, and nails could be made by machines instead of by a blacksmith, the older type of stud construction called “balloon framing” evolved, generally just before and after the Civil War. Some houses, like my own, incorporate elements of both techniques (even as late as 1900 — carpenters were not always quick to adopt new ideas). Balloon framed homes under retrofit for energy efficiency must always be retrofitted with fire protection, if they have not already been, either by adding firestops to stud bays or by the use of fire-suppressant insulation. Balloon framed houses often have “let-in” cross braces because they are sheathed with one-by boards, not plywood panels. If the let-in braces were not effective, because of poor execution of mortices, etc, these houses tend to “rack,” i.e., lean over, to make a parallelogram instead of a square building. Most racked houses seen in Maine towns are balloon framed.

By the 1940s and 1950s, with the advent of cheaply available plywood and other engineered wood components, balloon framing was abandoned in favor of “platform” construction. A more efficient modern form of platform construction uses six inch studs instead of four, now required by law in Maine. This can be greatly improved with two more inches of stud bay insulation, and foam board insulation over the sheathing. The foam board can be placed under the sheathing if let-in braces are used. This is what I did with my extension.

Modern variants of post and beam construction use “SIPs”: structural insulated panels. These save the need to fill in between posts with studs.

The Terra Haus uses both a platform framed interior load bearing structure, with six-by studs, and an exterior eight-inch SIP envelope, essentially tripling the wall insulation. This technique was pioneered by GO Logic, the Belfast, ME-based design-build firm that built it. I’m not sure how far this idea has or will spread, but it solves some important problems in energy efficient architecture.



Friday, January 9, 2015

Ready for the new semester?

Monday is the big day, the start of a new Unity College semester. My own first class will be Tuesday, 8am. I'm looking forward to it.

Some upcoming student engagement highlights of our SEM program and related activities:
  • The Bibles Farm turbine is up and running (see below). We will be visiting at the earliest opportunity.
  • An in-class climate research project in GL4003 Global Change, with the cooperation of leading climate scientist Dr. Judith Lean at the Navy Lab. We'll be studying the impact of World War I and II on the ocean and land surface temperature series. We -- Unity College students and myself in last semester Economics and Quantitative Analysis class -- found an interesting and statistical significant effect, probably publishable, whereby the basic (L & R 2009) model is more skillful if you exclude these years. How come? What happened? Probably some of the data was messed up by wartime difficulties. We'd like to know for sure.
  • Student projects in Physics, Heat, Magnetism and Electricity. We'll be highlighting some of our new developments in electronics, robotics, and 3D printing, using our "maker-space" in the former Physics Lab.
  • Community-based learning projects in IC 3413 Environmental Scenarios and Solutions. We'll be partnering with various providers of community energy advice to see how we can help make Maine run on more renewable energy and be more energy efficient.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Detailed photos of the Bibles Farm turbine project

Brent and Erin took a sequence of pictures during the raising of their new Maine-made Pika wind turbine, so students could see how the process works. The first photo shows the overall setting with the tower raised. This is an off-grid farmhouse. Over to the left you can see a small shed with the solar array on the roof. This was the existing system. I'm not sure how large, but I'd say it's less than a kW, so the most power it could provide on a midwinter's day in Maine would be roughly 2.5 kWh. That's enough to watch TV or run a computer for a few hours, to run some lights, and maybe do one load of laundry every three or four days (but it would need to be sunny for all those winter days). In summer there would be more like 6.5 kWh available per day. Brent and Erin obviously needed the Pika to even out power production over the course of the year.

The Pika engineers had been working on a solution to just this problem, and wanted some test sites close to their southern Maine production facility. We almost got one of these for the campus, but the idea fell through the cracks of various personnel and sustainability plan changes. Getting one for Brent and Erin's farm was a great opportunity to make up this deficiency, and I was pleased that my students and I could be of help.

This first shot, although out of sequence, shows the overall layout of the site just prior to lifting. This is a tilt-up tower, and a gin-pole and winch arrangement is used to get it in position. Here the main tower is up on blocks and sawhorses, while the gin pole is in the proper position for the lift.

Here's the arrangement at the top of the gin pole, where a heavy duty lifting bracket transmits the force from the winch cable to the main tower guys. This tower was made by Renewable NRG Systems of Hinesburg VT. This company has been a great partner for the college over the years. Long ago they trained me in met tower work, and I've passed the knowledge on to multiple generations of SEM students. 

The tower itself was an older model 40 m RNRG tower, and was donated used to the college's wind study in 2009, if memory serves, by a different company, Competitive Energy Systems. By 2014, it was too short for today's taller wind systems, and thus obsolete and surplus to requirements.

A two-to-one mechanical advantage pulley system is used to increase the lifting power of the winch from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds.

Threading the winch cable through the pulley system.


The winch and winch anchor. We used screw-in rock anchors, there being plenty of shallow ledge on this site. This necessitated the rental of a large compressor and hammer drill, a heavy expenses, but one which will pay off in longevity and security of the anchors. Each anchor can accept up to 27,000 pounds.

An eight foot-step ladder was sufficient to vector the lifting force of the winch to a direction suitable for raising the gin. Heavier gin poles would require a second or "mini-gin."

Detail of the base or hinge plate. The gin is hinged above and behind the main tower hinge. Brent poured a concrete slab to prevent shifting of the base plat over years of use.

A cold rain hindered progress. The sensitive electronics of the turbine head needed to be protected from this.

The blade assembly ready for installation. These blades are specially designed to reduce turbine noise.

These plastic keeper bolts (under the paper) prevent damage to the slip-rings and other components through premature rotation. The yaw bearing sits above (to the right in this picture) the threaded metal cuff in the upper left.

The motherboard, showing the 12 gauge UV protected connector wire (which runs all the way to the house) and slip rings (in the see-through plastic puck at the center)..

The shroud that covers the electronics.

Assembling the blades to the turbine head.

Brent admires progress so far. But the worst is yet to come.

Torque-loading the blade nut, a "lefty-tighty" left hand thread. It took a moment for us to realize that this torque wrench design doesn't work for left hand threads. We improvised by tightening Tony's Subaru lug nuts to the required 60 pounds feet, then using that same muscle memory to calibrate the same amount of torque to the turbine head. Note to Pika: Order a left-hand torque wrench.

Assembling the vane.

Raising the main tower. This part takes a long time because you need to adjust the guy tension every few feet, to make up for the uneven height of the side anchors.

A good shot showing the additional curve we deliberately gave to the main tower. This is to allow for the additional elasticity of the upper guys compared to the lower. They are the same diameter cable, but longer, so there's more elasticity. In the end we put in too much of a curve and had to take it out later while trimming the tower.

Shifting the load from the gin-pole to the main anchors using RNRG's specially designed  come-along winch. And yes, I am holding my child. Little Roo had to accompany me on this expedition because mommy was at the dentist that day and didn't want to break her appointment (and be forced to wait two months for a new one). I stayed out of the line of fire and primarily gave instructions and advice.

Brent puzzles out the come-along. Notice the winch wire is loose. The weight of the gin pole is holding the main tower in position, because the overall center of gravity is now on the gin pole side of the hinge. To manage this, we always make the rear tower guys a little short, so that the tower stops gently before it slams "over the top."

And the final effect. You can see the power production here. We'll take a field trip out to this site during this semester's physics labs.