Monday, December 31, 2007

Church and Sustainability?

I'm afraid the simpler design for a bicycle generator is going to have to wait a bit because I've got something on my mind.

It seems to me that the church (yes, I admit I am a Christian and a physics geek simultaneously) is in the business of bringing life to the places which are dead and need healing. That's the essence of the Resurrection, no? Taking things which are broken, and mending them. Healing wounded things. Reconciling broken relationships. Healing is divine. All healing. "Self-healing" is a property of living things, and so I think that's one regard in which God is in us.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because church usually addresses certain kinds of broken relationships: God-humanity, human-human, human-his/her body. This is evident in the types of prayer requests that come up during a prayer meeting. "Pray for Billy Wood's surgery" (human-his body). "Pray for Susie's salvation" (God-humanity). "Pray for Judy's relationship with her boss" (human-human).

But you never hear prayers like "Pray for the reduction of invasive species in our area". Or "Pray for global climate change". At least in the churches I've been to, you just don't hear that. It's not normal. But what better to pray about? Somethings which we pray about it's easy to picture the solution, but global climate change seems inevitable and huge - something that only God could control, so it would be a perfect thing to take to God. He specializes in the impossible! :)

Just now... something has occurred to me. I was going to list here the ministries that churches normally support, which address different kinds of brokenness, but I'm realizing that there really aren't that many. I've heard of some churches doing racial reconciliation, and churches supporting homeless shelters, or crisis pregnancy centers, or doing jail ministries, collecting money for needy families, or even "deliverance ministries". But when I list ministries of the church, I think of "youth ministry" or "new moms". These are not so much ministries as they are clubs. Curious.

In any case, it seems to me that there's space to have some kind of an environmental reconciliation ministry through the church.

I'm not sure what that looks like, but I think it should happen. Suggestions welcome.
(Also, I have to blame Hal Colston of the Good News Garage for this idea).

Here are the things which St. Andrew's (my church) has either done or is planning right now.

1. Give away sample sizes of eco-friendly laundry detergent to college students to advertise our church, and hopefully start them on good soap-buying habits.

2. We're going to have a church service series on environmental stewardship where we invite Seventh Generation to come talk about their products and how we can be kinder to the earth. yay!

3. We don't print bulletins, so we can save paper. Nor do we have our own building so we save on the consumption that comes along with a new building.

4. We serve organic fair trade coffee as refreshments.

5. mmmm... we don't have a 5, but I feel like this stuff isn't enough. These are little things - "lead by example" type things, but we definitely need to be doing more. We've just got to invent it. (oh the future is exciting!)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Student-Built Bicycle Generators

Today I stopped at the high school to meet up a with a former student who wanted to borrow our bicycle generator. Her college in Canada (I forget which one now) is having a green fair, and she and he compatriots are hoping to rehabilitate our delapitated machine.

Two summers ago we built 5 bicycle generators with a group of summer school students using Subaru alternators and deep cycle batteries... and some wires and stuff (heh heh). All 5 worked by the end of the 2-week session (which seems amazing to me now), and since it was the first time anyone in the group (myself and my co-teacher included) had ever done something like this we made a lot of mistakes that would certainly affect the way we would build them in the future.

In any case, this is what we did:
We took Subaru alternators (cause we could get them for free, and Subaru is like the official car of Vermont, so they're pretty abundant), and we made sure there was a good electrical connection between the outside of the metal alternator and the metal bicycle frame (grounding), likewise with the negative side of the battery (use a high-gauge well-insulated wire).

The Large Bolt on the alternator carries the majority of the current, so you need a pretty hefty, well-insulated wire connected to the positive side of the battery, but that's not going to be enough to produce electricity once the alternator's turning.

The reason is because the alternator has no permanent magnet. It's an electro-magnet, which means that it needs just a little bit of juice to start production (lighter-gauge wire should be fine). Thus the idiot light. When you flick the switch to "on", the battery sends a little bit of current through the bulb, which provides resistance and tells us that there's electricity flowing through there. And when the bulb is lit, that means the electromagnet is juiced and its ready to produce electricity on its own.

The alternator is built to cease using electricity from the battery once it's going, so after a few turns the idiot light should go off indicating that it's sufficiently powering itself as it turns. When you stop, however, the light should come back on.

Be sure to turn the switch to "off" when you're done, so you don't drain the battery.

  • This system would be great for long-term power use - if you were actually trying to fill a battery with human-generated power.
  • It was super cheap - each bike was built for less than $100!
  • All the parts are readily available at an auto-parts store.

  • The way we built them ... (heh heh) they were almost impossible to move. Those deep cycle batteries were freaking heavy.
  • We ended up attaching a tiny inverter to our battery (with the cigarette-lighter end cut off) so that we could actually plug in some devices for our parent/community exhibition. But what we didn't anticipate was that those inverters were the type of device that is "always on", and as long as it was plugged in they were sucking energy from battery :( thus killing them.
  • They did not demonstrate the correlation between the wattage of a device and how hard you would have to pedal to power it. Because of the electro-magnet, you couldn't get around needing a battery. So as an educational tool to demonstrate power it wasn't so good. As a tool to teach circuitry, it was great.

The bicycle generator I lent to the college student was of a different (simpler) design, which I'll notate tomorrow probably.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Organic Housing

Sabin's Pasture has been a controversial piece of property in Montpelier, VT for a few years now. It's one of the last undeveloped parcels of land within the city limits, everybody's got some plans for it.

A couple weeks ago, an civil engineering class from Norwich University gave a presentation of their work in which students created a development plan for Sabin's Pasture. Most had a compact loop of houses and a larger winding system of hiking trails. They took into account a huge amount of factors like, wetlands, solar exposure, bedrock depth, existing paths, and even the "essence" of the place (e.g. enclosed forest - introspective, bare hill top - connectedness to the rest of Vermont, etc.). In general I thought they did a fantastic job. There was one assumption though which I didn't jive with. They assumed that the houses which already exist in Montpelier would be the model for the houses which will be built in the future. I mean, it sounds fair enough, but I suspect we'll have fewer resources to play with.

We will need to be more energy efficient in our designs, and our resources will have to be more local than the vinyl siding-type housing we're accustomed to.

If I could :) (hehehehe) I'd build a house like this on Sabin's Pasture:

This house was built buy a guy in Wales mainly out of material found on their property or from the rubbish. I know what you're to say: It's a Hobbit Hole. And to that I say, what's wrong with a Hobbit Hole? Here's why it makes sense:

1) Below-ground housing with straw bale insulation is wicked heat efficient.
2) Built from local abundant materials makes it cheaper.
3) No nasty synthetic chemicals to worry about.

The builder-owners were kind enough to supply a sketch of their plans. I love it. I would love to build something like this eventually :)

And in case you're interested here are some other visions of earth-bermed housing:
Bag End 2

Monday, December 24, 2007

Theo Jansen's Walking Creatures

And now for a little fun...

Theo Jansen is one of my favorite artists because his art is both elegant and complicated, and I'm very into science-based or mathematical art. Theo Jansen makes walking beasts out of pipes, springs, and whatnot - just beautiful to watch.

I appreciate that his art requires a high degree of technical difficulty and a deep understanding of physics. Each Beest starts out as a computer generated model, which goes through many iterations until it is optimized for walking (or at least that's how I understand his process), and then the computer model gets transfered to reality, where it walks on the beaches of Holland. Here are a couple of videos of Theo Jansen and his work:

Here's another walking animal which can carry heavy loads:

And Finally a 3D Simulation of how the previous animal works:

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Stone Henge Technology

Yesterday my friend Zach, a physics teacher in California, sent me this clip of a guy who has a passion for moving heavy objects. Odd, yes, but it seems that he may have stumbled upon the method used for moving the monoliths of Stone Henge. The principles are simple, so it seems plausible.

Maybe I'll use this clip when I teach center of gravity. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Photovoltaics Cheaper Than Coal?

As we think about the future of the high school's roof space, I'm torn between visions of a rooftop garden or photovoltaics.

How are we going to afford any (additional) photovoltaics?

My dad recently passed on this link to Nanosolar's new solar cell technology - basically conductive ink printed on a metal substrate. I'm sure it's efficiency is crap (though they're not publicly sharing their specs), but efficiency isn't the goal here - the point is they're wicked cheap. So cheap, in fact, they're being touted as "cheaper than coal" per kWh. What? Did I hear that correctly? Cheaper than coal? Where do I sign up? :)

The solar panels we put on the school's greenhouse were predicted to pay for themselves in 50 years. Great. I'll probably have retired by then. Their site doesn't list prices either, so it's hard to verify that any of it is actually true. Otherwise you know I'd be running the calculation myself on this page. heh.

I'd like to dream of super cheap photovoltaics on our roof, but for now I'll have to wait: They're sold out for the next 12 months. :P

Friday, December 21, 2007

Roof Top Garden for the High School?

Today I had a structural engineer from DeWolfe Engineering come talk to my class about what he does and also about the possibility of putting a green roof on the school - my students' idea. 

I personally haven't decided what I think about it. 

First of all, we've got to find the plans for the roof, and no one has found them :( I think it'll basically come down to this: either the structure was built with strength enough to one day support an additional floor (in which case we're good to go), or not (in which case, it's probably not going to happen).  And it really could go either way. 

We've got a potential grant lined up that could help us pay for it through enVision Montpelier , but we've got to get some of these issues squared away first. 

It was totally good  having this guy come in cause, well, I don't know jack about structures. Engineering was not my bag.  Paper physics is so much cleaner. (I am converting into a hands-on person, but it's a slow process). 

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Teaching Big Idea Over Time

I realize I take a risk by saying this, but ...

I'm going for National Board Certification this year. Like 4 teachers from my school went for it last year, and 3 got it, and that one teacher... well, I'm sure she wishes that she hadn't told people she was going for it. :P

Anyway, I had my first real freak-out session this week. Ok, so freaking out for me mainly includes listening to loud music and combing my fingers through my hair and since I just got it cut that means it just sticks straight up. Yes, I have stress-o-meter hair. "Oh my! Looks like the Lorax's not having a great day - her hair is pretty much on end! I thought you needed Elmer's glue to get it to stick out like that!"

I'm working on the entry entitled "Teaching a Big Idea Over Time", for which I've chosen F=ma, aka the relationship between force and motion. That's huge. For this Big Idea you have to submit 3 lesson plans, which ideally show
1) a connection to technology
2) a connection to other disciplines
3) how you accomodate your lessons for the specific needs/abilities/interests of your students


4) Each lesson has to produce individual student work which shows a progression of the student's understanding towards this Big Idea.

There's a bunch more, but I think just even finding lessons which meet these requirements is tough. I mean, I've got stuff which will work for this, but took a lot of thought to put it all together. Anyway, it was this fourth item which had me in fits this last week. So I re-thought through my 3 lessons, got a new plan (after my hair was 2x normal volume), and in the jubilation of having worked it out danced around my living room to the "King of Spain" by Moxy Fruvous.

Let's this version of The Plan works out. :P

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Carbon Offsets/Credits: Only a Temporary Solution

Small correction: getting people carbon offset credits for Christmas might send the wrong message. "Hey, take an extra drive in your car today! It's on me ;) " Not the goal. After talking with my friends Colin the Radical and Bart my Bus Buddy they pointed out that carbon credits are not a sustainable solution - we can't just keep planting trees or building more methane digestors as a means of "making up for" our carbon pooping.

So coming back to my senses - carbon offsets are merely a temporary solution until we can find overhaul some large-scale systems. Now, just how to change those systems? No dream to big, what would it take?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

I'm Getting Carbon for Christmas (With a Little Help From NativeEnergy)

As I was contemplating what to get people for Christmas I stumbled upon this post by Grist: Ten great ideas for "stuff-free" holiday gifts". And some of her ideas were pretty sweet, I'm a big fan of stopping someone's junk mail (provided they're don't actually want their junk mail to burn in their woodstove). But of course the thing which caught my eye was the carbon offset site from Tufts University, which is just about how to choose a carbon-offset program or company, and thankfully for us lazy folk, they have some recommended programs at the bottom of the page. the only US-based company was called NativeEnergy.

So I'm digging through their projects and my heart-rate is increasing because this stuff is just so sweet, and so you can imagine my heart rather freezing when I read under their previous successes about a project they did in my home town! Essex Junction Municipal Biogas Center.

The Tufts site didn't recommend carbon sequestration programs through protecting forests because not much is known about a forests ability to sequester carbon long-term, so programs that create new clean energy sources or are just a different way to "offset" your emissions.

I think I know what I'm getting people for Christmas :) ...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Greenhouse Energy Feasibility Study

Two years ago one of the biology teachers at my school asked me about the recently built greenhouse. They needed a pump for an irrigation system, but that meant adding another electric appliance, and would it be possible to install some kind of renewable power source right there at the greenhouse? Like a windmill, or solar panels, or something.

So I took it to the kids: What kind of renewable energy source should we install here? They broke into groups, did some research and came back with some calculations around energy, electricity, and power (thank you Vermont Framework of Standards!) and also a recommendation as to whether or not this would be a good option for us here at the school.

They ended up presenting their findings to the principal, head custodian, the original bio teacher, and the service learning coordinator. The class consensus discussed there with all these stakeholders was that we ought to pursue a photovoltaic system to power not just the irrigation pump, but all the electric appliances in the greenhouse (computer, fans, etc.), to which the administration replied, "if you can find the money!" :)

(Later that week in the Ben & Jerry's Free Cone Day line a parent of one of my students came up to me and said, "I'm on the Montpelier Energy Team and we need to talk". Woe. Ok. And basically he invited me to bring my class to present at the next energy team meeting!)

(Then the fine people at Knowles Science Teaching Foundation heard about the project, they flew two students and I out to Chicago to be a main presenter at their summer fellow's meeting!)

So the next year was called writing a million grants (ok, maybe just a few), but we got some of them (Vermont Community Foundation, Toshiba America Grant, MHS Boosters, etc.), and by the time the next school year was out we'd raised enough money. So a team from Solar Works, Inc. donated their time and worked alongside a team of students from that year on the installation.

And Now... Today... I feel some amount of confidence in the data output system. Fronius collects the data and displays it on this website, which I've found slightly difficult to navigate, but we've got data there for AC power, ambient temperature, module temperature, irradiance, and wind speed. We had a few glitches - it wasn't recording data for a few days towards the end of November, but it should be working now... even though output is extremely low and intermittent right now since they're smothered with snow.

If the above link asks you, the
login: student
password: greenhousepv

Then go to the tab PV Systems, then select Montpelier High School Greenhouse under Third Party Systems, then select Archive over on the left to see all the logged data about wind speed, AC power, etc. And I'll leave you to mess about with it to figure out the navigation. Happy surfing! :)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Environmental Reciprocity: What About Regular Stuff?

Today on the bus I was talking with my buddy Bart who works for the New England Grass Roots Environmental Fund or NEGEF about my ideas about "Environmental Reciprocity" and he helped me clarify some ideas that are honestly still forming. It's much easier to quantify "give back what you take" for something like carbon emissions, or mLs of spring water. But what about the everyday manufactured things like paper cups or dishwashers or cars (minus the fuel) for that matter? There has been some chatter about whether or not a Hummer is actually more environmentally friendly than a Prius just based on the energy it took to manufacture it. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to advocate for a Hummer, but it is a good idea to consider the embodied energy over the entire lifespan of an object. And for hybrids or electric cars, battery manufacture and disposal is certainly a major hang up. Let's hope battery technology improves.

Anyway, back to more generic stuff...

It seems like there are two options for sustainable types of products.
  • Products which biodegrade quickly from readily renewable resources
  • Products which are meant to last a really long time, from stuff that will last a long time (and the parts that run out first ought to be from readily renewable resources)

What does this mean?

It means that there's a lot of disposable plastic stuff which will no longer be the norm as oil gets more expensive. So what's on the out?
plastic flatware
plastic packaging
gosh, wouldn't it be great if there was a renewable resource-based tire! (besides just cannibalizing older tires...)
plastic fake plants? Please. These should be outlawed...

It also means that there will probably be an increase in temporary products made from plant-based material. Like this disposable flatware made by BSI Biodegradable Solutions.

Then there are those mysterious objects which seem neither here nor there - I haven't figured out how to think about them... stuff like CDs, or window fans, or lawn chairs...

Ok, I'm going to stop thinking about stuff and maybe close my eyes for a little while... :P

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tesla Motors

Just yesterday Bernie Sanders (a senator for Vermont - Independent) came to the high school to speak to the kids about whatever was on their minds. It was during this talk that my students and Bernie brought up Tesla Motors and their electric Roadster. This electric sports car isn't meant for mere mortals, but rather it's all souped up to make it attractive to that upper echelon who can afford carbon morality and (hopefully) will jump-start the industry to make it more attainable for us little people.

Their website touts some pretty impressive specs: 0-60 in 4 seconds, range of 245 miles per charge (granted, you're probably not going 60 miles/hour that whole time). This car seems to have the Zenn beat, but only if you're willing to part with nearly $100,000. oooohhh ouch. :/

They do claim, however that you effectively get 2cents/mile and that the battery is good for 100,000 miles. And now for a little math:

(2cents/mile)*(100,000 miles) = $2,000 operational costs over the life of the car

Ah, and how does that compare to my Honda Civic (35miles/gallon)?
(to do this right i ought to find the function which describes the rate of gas prices over the last 5 years), but for now let's make things simple and assume that the average price of gas over the last 5 years has been about $2.50/gallon. And that I'll probably drive it to 100,000 miles.

100,000 miles * (1 gallon/35 miles) * ($2.50/gallon) = $7,143.

I don't think anyone's going to run out and buy a Tesla Roadster for the operating cost savings, but it is a handy piece of knowledge in case they come out with a more affordable model.

Oh, right, one caveat: where does your electricity come from?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How many trees would it take?

The other day I did the research and the math to determine how many trees it would take to offset projected carbon emissions for an upcoming road trip.


400mi*(1gal/36mi)*(2.5kgC/1gal)*(1tree/6kgC)=4.6 trees growing for 25 years

So there it is! We'll need to plant 5 trees in a location where they'll be undisturbed for 25 years. (Though at this time of year, that might be tricky. Maybe I'll wait until the spring.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Environmental Reciprocity

About a week ago we Hal Colston from the Good News Garage and NeighborKeepers came to speak to my church group about his journey in starting these organizations and about what keeps people in poverty.

He said a prevalent attitude he has had to un-teach is the idea of entitlement. And in this case it means you fill out some paperwork, and you get your food stamps, because you have a right to that food. But Hal advocates for what he calls Reciprocity. If the Good News Garage gives someone a car then that person is now obligated to give back to the community in some way. Maybe it's giving someone a ride to work, or maybe it's volunteering at some local charity. It's the recipient's choice of what to do, but they have to do something in order to receive a car. "You have to give back".

Then I spent a few days at an Environmental Education conference and instead of coming away encouraged, I came away with that nasty twist in the stomach familiar to people who work in environmental advocacy. Perhaps for the first time I had genuinely confronted the question "Is what we're doing enough?" And I had to admit the answer which nobody wants to say out loud: No, It's not enough. If everyone changed their incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent, is that enough to save us? Of course not. Well then, what is enough? ... And so you see why I had this knot in my stomach.

The next morning before my head left the pillow a small part of the answer came to me: "Environmental Reciprocity." This is simply the idea that in an environmental context, if you take something you must put it back.

That 200 Mile Road trip I'd like to go on costs more than just gas; its costs CO2, and just like you remunerate the driver, you should also compensate the atmosphere by removing that same amount of CO2.

The scary part is that the earth will reach equilibrium eventually whether we like it or not, and either we will reciprocate voluntarily, or the resources will be taken from us involuntarily, and I don't think anybody wants to see that.

True Environmental Reciprocity is daunting. For every car ride, for every hot shower, every kWh used in microwaving dinner, we should remove the emissions that we incur.

I don't think Environmental Reciprocity is a new idea. In fact I'm certain that any kindergartner could have told me this. It's funny how that idea seems to have been selectively applied.

So, of course, now that we have a measuring stick (and we are so off of the mark), how do we start? System-wide change is starting (with flex-fuel cars and increased public transit), but while I wait for that to take hold, my attention has been turned towards carbon sequestering projects. But I'll save that for a later post.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Who Said the Electric Car was Dead?

Hey Folks!
I've got a lot bubbling around my brain lately since I just got back from the annual conference of the North American Association of Environmental Education (or NAAEE for short). There's lots to be said, but let's start with the simple stuff.

I'm seriously considering buying one of these for my next car:

This car is better than a hybrid. It's electric.

Zenn Motor Company is based out of Toronto, with a its manufacturing plant in Montreal. For a Vermonter like me, it doesn't get much more local for auto-manufacturing. I met reps from this company at the conference, and they explained that the battery technology limits the range to 35 miles, and no one's going to take a car on the highway if its range is only 35 miles. And who knew? If a car is only rated for 25 mph it doesn't have to be registered.

Again, it's not that an electric car is 100% clean, it's that your getting your energy from an electric utility. It should still cost you less per mile than gas, though. And for a place like Vermont (where most of our electricity is generated by Vermont Yankee (nuclear) and Hydro-Quebec), kWh for kWh an electric car is *much* cleaner.

At $11,000 (affordable even for a teacher), they said they can't keep them on the lot!