Friday, October 29, 2010

Traffic Tecnique

This is a follow-up to a post of two days ago where I ranted about the bus system and mentioned I wanted to ride my bike to work but was a little concerned about one dangerous stretch on an otherwise congenial route.

Eh, today I did it.  It was way too hot, because at 44F you really need warmth downhill, but really bake in whatever you're using to get that warmth going uphill, and it's pretty miserable trying to go fast uphill when it's dangerous biking and you're cooking in your own personal oven and have been so for the past 2 miles. It is also awesome; the hard workout and feeling when you're done, that nice little exposure to outside when one is otherwise stuck in an office.

That stretch of road isn't as dangerous as I thought.  I forget that when you are biking you have one huge advantage you forget about when you are driving:  you don't have blind spots* and you can hear cars coming from far off.  Thus all I had to do was wait at a pullout at the base of The Narrows until I couldn't see or hear any cars, then start up it at top speed, staying toward the middle of the lane instead of hugging the curb as one usually does, just to make sure any cars that start coming would see me.  They did, and it was no problem.

There's a lot to learn about safe and assertive traffic-integrated biking, and I would call that a pretty advanced technique.  I've found there are other situations when a biker should, for the better safety of both himself and motor vehicles, take to the middle of the lane, One is in slow-moving downtown type traffic, in spots where there are many consecutive red lights and where parallel parked cars along the side of the road can be a hazard.  In those situations, cars won't be able to drive any faster than you can bike before you'll both have to stop at a light again, and it is more dangerous for both of you to deal with the car trying to pass when you should both be focusing on pedestrians, car doors, and fast-changing traffic signals.

*You have a better field of view, however, looking over one's shoulder should be done with great care. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Cost of Solar

As any kind of renewable energy professional and especially as one who deals with people who want to go off-grid, the top question we get, naturally, is:  how big a system do I need, and how much will it cost?

If you want to go off-grid, meaning, you tell the electricity company to stuff it (minus the few cents per kilowatt they'll start paying YOU, depending on your state regulations) and just live off what you produce yourself, the answer to how big a system you need is: power output must equal your top consumption on the winter solstice if it's been cloudy for a few days.

If you have no idea what you want aside from just "going solar, baby", this is the answer I gave a customer today:

The short answer to your question is:  it depends on how much energy you currently use, and how much of that you want to produce with solar.  Your home size and how efficient is your energy consumption are key variables.  Many times folks find that going complete off-grid with an "average" or larger home is just too expensive.  Energy efficiency becomes very important when you are trying to be unconnected from a utility and every light bulb matters, so it is always, always important to invest money in energy efficiency first if there are opportunities to do so. 

What many folks do is choose to offset a certain percentage of their energy with solar.  To do this they remain connected to a utility, typically purchasing their energy but also getting credit for what they produce.  This makes the cost cheaper (the batteries used to store energy are a significant expense), allows for wiggle room (you don't have to meticulously plan your energy so as not to go over your capacity) and yet still allows you to reduce your emissions and electric bill--the goals of most of us who want to go solar.

To get your first ballpark idea of how much it might cost you, there are some very helpful on-line calculators.  Here is a very basic one; also worthwhile is this one, which is more involved and technical but lets you compare two cost scenarios side by side. To use the calculators you'll need to know your monthly energy costs, and looking at two scenarios side by side can help you see how much energy efficiency can reduce the cost of your system.

Federal and state tax credits are a very important component of what makes solar affordable; has a comprehensive list of all of these available in all areas of the United States.  Some of the calculators try to account for these incentives.  If you find yourself interested enough in solar to move forward I would research your local incentives and talk to a good solar professional who can help you design a system that is the right size for your energy needs--and who can help you work with your energy consumption increase efficiency and make any solar you do install that much more cost effective.

That's probably too wordy and technical for a first pass, so if you have suggestions for clarity, let me know,  because you know, it really is a complicated, individualized-design kind of a thing*.  Which fits in with some of the environmental ideals of holistic understanding of one's living as it relates to energy and the environment.  I'm sure it can also frustrate people who like easy, simple answers--but the truth is that to go off-grid with the typical energy usage of a 2500 square foot home you'd have to have a garage-sized room over re-enforced concrete to house the size and weight of your batteries. (Each is roughly one square foot of volume, eighty pounds of weight!)  But with all the energy incentives up in some areas, like this one, more and more people are throwing up grid-connected systems as a form of investment, and you know what?  That's some progress.

*"Solar in a box" kits do exist--and you're not going to get the most efficient performance out of them, compared to a well-designed system for your individual needs, potentially perpetuating the "solar doesn't work" mindset which is quite far from the truth.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Benefits are Marginal and the Costs are Just Annoying

Every quarter or so I get struck by the inspiration to incorporate the city bus into my transportation planning.  Yay environment, yay the ease and convenience of letting someone else drive for me, and all that.

Every time I do this, I am hopeful of having something remotely resembling the quick, easy, and novel experiences with public transportation that I have had in other places.  I was once pleasantly rewarded when returning after a previous long absence to find that they had finally started announcing when the bus would be approaching the next stop, as well as what the next stop would actually be--since this doesn't coincide with what the maps indicate as often as one would expect.  

Other than that, however, these three things always happen:

1) The bus is at least fifteen minutes late, except for that one time when it was twenty minutes early

2)I get hit on

3)The bus driver is unpleasant to me

(note: number 3) occurs in direct proportion to number 1), but so does passenger irritation, so we're just a whole busload of irritable people)

Couple this with one-hour frequency and a late bus resulting in missed connections at the transit center, and the fact that even without the extra time factored in it still costs me more to ride it than it would to drive, and the obvious question is why the heck would I rationally chose to do this?

Because the commute to my new work is 99% bike-able (flat and bike lanes the whole way, even!), except for that 1% that's on a steep, curvy, narrow road in between two very sharp banks in a location where the speed limit doesn't seem to concern anyone much.  That is incredibly frustrating, because this is about 90% Windowless Basement Office Job and if I can't bike to work then I worry I'm never going to get any outdoor exercise again.  So I was hoping the bus, with its handy snap-em-on bike rack in the front that the city planners keep raving about, could take me across that 1%.  And it can and I care, you know, and really, what's the point in whining about my little annoyances when some folks don't even have a car they have the luxury of trying to leave at home for the sake of air quality, exercise and frugality?

Those three factors still make me not want to do it though--and so I know I won't.  I'll start braving The Narrows instead.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Day with The Man Who Saves Trees

I actually wrote this last week, but I changed the date modifiers accordingly.

Last week I went out with a man whose job it is to preserve forest health in Shenandoah National Park.  He's a very kind, soft spoken man with a beautiful Virginia accent, who I get the feeling really listens to what people tell him--and whose regular mission includes singlehandedly protecting as many trees in one park as he can. From what, you ask?

Well. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Chestnut Blight, an "accidental" from China that decided it loved our chestnut trees so much it essentially "ate" (fungi don't eat as we know it so much as digest, but you get the idea) them all to death.  At 25% of the forest, that was no small feat.  The chestnut story from a tree man's perspective is over and done, but the onslaught of exotic invasive bugs continues.  What we did last week, what Dale does every day in the fall so long as we've had enough rain--is try to save the eastern hemlock.

There is a wooly adelgid (that's a bug in the aphid family, in case that makes it any clearer) that in my lifetime has decimated the hemlock trees of my mountains in a different fashion but similar outcome as the blight in terms of how many trees survive an infestation.  (That's essentially none of them.)   Scientists have determined that eastern hemlock has "no resistance", and bushwhacking through acres of forest with Dale, dead ones did abound.  At only 2% of total mountain forest makeup, you don't see forest-wide effects like we did with the blight.  But it is an important 2:  often growing along stream banks, where the long coniferous branches shade out 95% of sunlight from falling on the water, making the streams noticeably cooler and having important consequences for temperature-sensitive aquatic ecosystems when the shade is lost.

We also saw a few scattered sick ones, and those are the ones we sought:  measuring the diameter, numbering the tree in a book that will eventually go to govn't records of the use of your tax dollars--and getting out our pesticide dispenser.  They tried spraying the trees with all kinds of things, with only patchy success and important consequences for the surrounding forest, but Dale assured me that this treatment works, within months.

We make holes in the ground around the tree, and pump in an ounce in each of what is essentially a synthetic nicotine. (Imidacloprid, if you care).  The tree will absorb the Imidacloprid and become toxic to adelgids.  We treated fifty trees that day, utilizing GPS to tramp through acres of forest that I can assure you start to look alike very quickly with no trail to guide you.  I would not reccomend bushwhacking in the Appalachians unless you know what you are doing--and I didn't, but Dale did, because he wasn't the one checking the GPS, yet always led us straight back to his truck.  Dale can treat thousands of trees a year, has been doing this for quite a few years, and yes, he can turn all of the data into a GIS graphic for taxpayer scrutinizing pleasure.

The hope is to learn a thing or two from the story of the chestnut, to keep pace with unhealthy and human-accelerated forest changes and keep a hemlock gene pool alive.  Perhaps resistance will come with time, or else, like in the case of the gypsy moth, something will be brought in that successfully kills the adelgid without introducing it's own set of unintended consequences.

Every good farmer knows that the war with pests is never really over.  The hemlocks are only a recent wave.  The next big thing, so I've only recently learned, is the "asian long-horned beetle", poised to do damage to the pretty and tasty sugar maples in New England.

 What's interesting about that one is that in preparation "they" have launched a massive public education campation, with TV advertisements and interactive online games!  The public education angle is a largely unexplored one.  We do have legally-required precautions going on in our trade: we fumegate wood products sent outside of the country to kill any hitchhikers, we have customs officers prohibiting Sally and Jim from bringing seashells from Australia into the US for their personal seashell collections. It is largely impractical to undergo any kind of intense regulation of all organic matter trade in a globally connected world, what we do helps, but it still sometimes only takes one missed shipment.

The long-horned beetle public education campaign is an interesting experiment, because simply transporting firewood is a major spreader of many of these bugs into parks and recreational areas, and the same folks who like to have campfires might feel a strong case for having the places they like to go and build their campfires continue to be conserved.  Jim and Sally might not want to add Australian seashells to their collection if they understand they might be releasing the next non-native palm tree fungus into the Palmetto State.  I don't know if "beetle busters" will be effective enough, but in different times, different tree species, we've sure tried many other things, so might as well give this a shot.

Things That Maybe Don't Bother Me

Several times a month I hear some new story or other, probably on NPR (yes, I am one of the ones the pledge drives are lamenting about, I haven't yet contributed despite being an avid know what, I thought about contributing for real some this morning!), about facebook and privacy, or google and privacy, pandora and facebook and Google and twitter linking up to retain everything about every song I ever listened to and then commented about on facebook...

I hate twitter, but anyway.  I wasn't particularly thrilled with facebook started taking recognizable things I once said I liked and linking them to random advertisements that might affect other people if they wanted to click on said random links--but who really looks at that anyway?  I'm not so much of a facebook user anymore anyway, I'm finding I value the world IRL (that's In Real Life, so the local public radio guy explained) more and more, which, if you knew me in high school, will know that's quite a change of heart. 

In general, all of this information collecting and selling--or not--the deliverance of targeted ads, this ability for some advertising firm to build an entire profile of me, what kind of music I listen to, what links I click on, what I've ever bought ever...

Well, I can see some potentially bad ways that a repository of such information could be used, a la "big brother", and in one sense I think my shopping habits are nobody else's damn business on principle (nonexistent over the Internet, mostly).  But since it happens to all the millions of Internet users all over I can hardly think that anybody will find my dismally tightwad habits particularly interesting anyway, and if all it's being used for is to make sure certain ads come my way instead of others...well, if I'm going to enjoy having my whole life on Google calendar and bringing you this blog (come on Mozilla, you're really going to put a red squiggle under the word "blog?" You really aren't with the 'net, are you?), they've got to pay for it somehow, and since I will take ads I can ignore for free services I would actually rather get ones for things I might actually like.

Hey, now that I have a job, maybe I'll buy a domain and hosting!

Monday, October 11, 2010

350 thoughts

When I went into college as an environmentalist I found out pretty quick that "activism" is sooo not my thing.  I am too timid and furthermore too attached to my rationality to chain myselt to anything, ever, and even asking people to volunteer or sign a petition, much less holding up signs and chanting things, are so not things I relish doing or found myself willing to do again after trying them once. I don't even much like calling my elected officials, but that at least I'll do.  Something about being introverted, I suppose, about not wanting to bother people who aren't asking to be bothered, about self doubt as it relates to having a worthwhile opinion on something, about insisting on a true conversation as opposed to absolutely anything else--even though the supposed point of activism is that nobody will engage your conversation so you've got to find creative ways to bring it into wider attention. 

There have been instances in this country and world where activism has been necessary to bring about change.  I can recognize that, but still, I don't want to be the one to do it.

"Activism" incorporates all kinds of things--it could be trying to have that conversation.  It could be having a bake sale to raise funds.  It could be organizing food drives or river cleanups or fun runs.  Writing letters to the editor.  That kind I suppose I can handle--have handled; have read the names of endangered species to a crowded campus, have written a letter to the editor on an accused friend's behalf, have organized river cleanups and campus energy reduction initiatives.  But even though I care, I don't have much energy for endeavors like this.  I can't let go of my reservations about the whole notion of trying to rally people around something I think is imporant.  I do have strong convictions on right and wrong--and I can't extend those to anyone beyond myself.   To me doing is doing, not trying to get other people to do.

Yet with something like climate change, all I can do is not enough to make a difference.  Yesterday was supposedly a big day for climate action.  I attended a speech by Bill McKibben on Friday night, the founder of, an organization dedicated to generating activism around climate change, and that was pretty much his thesis. We've tried scientific appeal to reason, we've tried having the conversation, and that hasn't worked, we are still emitting beyond a safe threshold and the climate is still warming.  So maybe people who care, people like me, have to stop just doing things ourselves and start trying to get other people to start doing things too.  If political limitation is the problem--and it is, not technology, not capabilities; that can be found as long as there is will to deploy such solutions, which there is NOT--activism is one way, maybe the only way, around that. 

Some of the things that have been done around the world in the name of "350", which is one scientific interpretation of the number of carbon dioxide molecules per million molecules of air that we need to keep our climate relatively like the one we knew, are pretty inspiring.  Especially considered that one of the ethical issues with climate change is who is projected to feel the effects of a disrupted climate, compared to who is producing the carbon emisisons which change it.  I like reading about this sort of thing, and I want to help.  I want nothing more than to find a solution for this, what I believe to be the greatest challenge that humans have ever faced--but I'm, still not very willing to organize events or do anything remotely like telling other people what to do.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Not College

Here's a secret:  As long as it's a topic I care about and even sometimes if it's not, I have always loved writing papers.

When you're writing a paper in school-world, you've got a few weeks.  You may have other homework, but as a student, writing papers is part of your job.  You have libraries of sources and helpful professors and ample opportunity for time management and prioritizing of all of your other projects--at least if you're a hardcore J on the MBTI scale like I am.  You want to write well, and you want to be thorough and correct, because demonstrating good writing, clear thinking and lack of falsehood is what gets you a good grade.  Good grades are the tangible goals that represent those intangible things like learning, developing thought, job well done, etc.

When you're writng the script for a potentailly nationally-distributed internet "podcast" which condenses, explains, and most importantly makes relevant and Not Boring real scientific information about air quality in a national park, you've got a few sources and they are all scientific papers outside of your main discipline.  You have a few days, in the middle of a a real job which has many other demands.  You still really want to write well, demonstrate clear and correct ideas...but for completely different reasons.