Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative

Wow, it's been some time, but here's the update.

Last Monday night we had student representatives from 4 schools around Vermont all gathered to talk about potential biomass legislation. We're calling it the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative. The result of that meeting was that the kids from Addison County are "phone bombing" their representatives to ask that their addendum be tacked on to a particular bill. David Zuckerman (Progressive from Burlington) said that most representatives get 20-30 calls from constituents TOTAL per legislative session, so a phone bomb party should be pretty effective (that's where you get together and have everybody take turns calling the representative). Slightly annoying? yes. It would be better if it were spaced out, but ... nonetheless that's the plan.

The plan as it stands right now is:
  • Tax non-renewable fuels to fund the transition to renewable fuels which includes
  • Overhaul LIHEAP (a fuel assistance program for poor folks in VT) to help them switch to biomass
  • Have the state buy lots of 1000 pellet stoves to sell at cost to Vermonters
  • Develop a pelletizer station where farmers or foresters or lumber mills or wood workers could bring biomass to pelletize and, at the same location, have a university-sponsored biofuels research facility to develop grass pellet technology.
  • To prevent racketeering, charter a pubic, transparent pellet fuels futures market

That way you create simultaneously a supply and demand system for Vermont-made pellets. This will also serve as a huge stimulus to the Vermont economy since farmers will have an additional cash crop (with the hope that they would not reduce food production, but rather they would find suitable crops for otherwise underutilized land).

We need SO much input though! From economics experts, biomass experts, university professors, and foresters. So if you're one of those folks please visit and reply with your thoughts!

We're hoping to have a conversation with the Governor about this within the next week. *oooo excitment! *

Tomorrow: Meeting at the High School for District Heating Project. Maybe that will ever happen. My fiery student wants to get involved, and gosh, I feel like with this girl anything is possible. She's got more energy than even me!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Sneak Preview: Biomass Wiki

Things have been wicked busy getting stuff rolling with the biomass for home heating legislation. Oh gosh, where to begin!?

Two teachers are trying to organize hundreds of kids throughout Vermont, and help them collaborate on PowerPoint presentations across schools which they will eventually present to the legislature. How do you do that?

The answer, my friends, is a wiki. This wiki .

What's a wiki? (I've been hearing this question a LOT lately). It's a website that multiple people can edit, which makes it perfect for project collaboration and joint-authored documents.

We haven't officially announced this site to the students, because we want the teacher-end of it to be settled, which we're hoping to have done by Tuesday. Even so, the bones of it are done, and it's just really exciting. :) hehehehe. It's encouraging that this may actually happen, that it might manifest as more than just talk.

Environmental Crisis Denial and Acceptance

Yesterday a friend who is working on biomass issues with me confided to me that on his drive home yesterday he finally started to see that this biomass legislation we're working on might actually work and be the best thing for Vermont's economy ... ever... he started to cry. Not tears of joy, but sadness for the environment and all the crap we're in. But why shouldn't he be happy? We may have just found a big chunk of the solution?

This reminded me of my super-low point just after getting back from the North American Association of Environmental Educators (NAAEE) conference when I didn't get out of my PJs for a whole day, because I was so depressed about global climate change. Why shouldn't I be excited about the future after hanging around with a bunch of people who care deeply about the Earth?

My hypothesis is that most people who believe global warming is real and anthropogenic (human-caused) have no way to see through the current culture of pollution to any kind of viable solution. They have no way to deal, no way to cope with the issue, and so it's emotionally suppressed.

Like you don't expose children to sex or violence - that's considered abuse - because they have no framework in which to deal with those issues. They lack the tools to understand it.

This is why I think once people have a clearer picture of what sustainability could be - they get really sad, (no doubt partially because we've got such a long way to go), but also because they now have the space to accept the situation and emotionally engage with our environmental reality.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Warning: Student on Fire!

One of the Montpelier students who attended the GIV Winter Weekend last weekend has now made it her mission in life to change the school's heating system over to something renewable. The whole thing made the channel 5 news which you can watch here... as long as you aren't trying to use Safari or Firefox (at least I haven't had much luck with them. Perhaps you need Windows Media Player?).

She has already spoken with the head of the school grounds and when he was like, "neither wood pellets nor wood chips will work" she said something like, "I cannot accept that oil is our only option".  Wow. Oh my gosh. This girl rocks!  

I told her about the District Heating Project with the Biomass Energy Research Center so she found their number, got some good information from them, and we're off and running. It's really refreshing to see how much energy she has to put towards this. 

It looks like I'll be advising an independent study for her around this stuff - I recommended it since she will be doing this work anyway. 

Global Climate Change and Repentance

Alternative Title: There's Hope for Job like a Cut Down Tree

For a long time I've noticed small parallels between prophets and scientists. We both are concerned with the future and making predictions. We both are interested in the well-being of the public. We both have to listen, to God or our experiments, and hear what they have to say even when we don't like what the implications are. And well-funded scientists are ones whose experiments pertain directly to real life. "Yes, you may build a highway here, there are no wetlands" or, "No, you may not tap this spring, you will destroy the ecosystem". These statements sound a lot like "Yes, the Lord will bless you in battle today." I'm not saying scientists have a direct line to God. But I do wonder how the message of global climate change would be different if it were written like it came from one of the Biblical minor prophets.

It might say,
"You have been too greedy, and stolen from your children. You have been too lazy and thus become dependent on the devices which will kill you. These are wicked ways. Repent or you and your children will be destroyed along with the Land you so abuse. Now is the time to repent. Do not wait for your neighbor."

Bad things happen when a culture does not listen to its prophets.

It does seem apparent to me though that at the stem of global climate change are moral issues like greed, sloth, and not listening to the voiceless - in our case, future generations. So approaching global climate change as a moral issue:

I don't think the people know how to repent of this. I don't think people have a good picture of what sustainable living looks like. They don't know how to choose anything other than what they've grown up with.

The closest thing to a healthy picture of sustainability in the public conscience may be Native American culture or Tolkien's Hobbiton or the Amish. These seem so primitive by comparison, but in a healthy world, some combination of these things may be an accurate picture of the future.

I think I'm joining the Regressive party ;)

Back to the point, though, I think we need to teach people how to repent (make 180 degree turns) of sins against the Earth.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Biomass for Home Heating in Vermont

The most exciting part of the Governor's Institute of Vermont (GIV) Winter Weekend was the movement to act on an idea.

Last year a junior at Mt. Abe Union HS went to the VT State Legislature to talk about the potential for biomass fuels as a renewable home-heating option. The legislator who invited them said, "We like your ideas, come back next year with more people". So that Junior (now a Senior) came to the GIV Weekend, and told kids about her work on biomass for home heating systems.

A less-than-ideal-though-likely scenario for Vermonters:
Let's say the price of oil skyrockets to the point of basically being... well, unaffordable. What do we do? Most of us have wood-stoves, so being the independent problem-solvers that we are, we start going out to cut down trees. But do we have enough trees to sustainably harvest to heat everyone's homes? No. Our initial estimates were that we could harvest 1 ton of biomass per acre per year of wood. This is not enough. (I have not done this calculation myself, though I would really like to). Even so - we end up with wide-spread deforestation, which leads to a lack of tourism - Vermont's biggest industry.

A better solution for Vermonters:
What if we could heat our homes with something renewable that didn't shoot our forests? Turns out high-density perenials like switch grass, Jerusalem artichoke, and Japanese knotweed grow at very high densities every year. This means we could harvest 15-20 tons per acre per year sustanably. That's huge! And hopefully enough (again - I need to do this calculation).

These crops could then be turned into pellets to be burned in a pellet stove, but there's not a lot of pellet stoves in Vermont, so there's not much demand for pellets, so no one makes pellets, so no one has a pellet stove - here again is our chicken-egg catch 22. So the idea would be that the state of Vermont could help home owners buy pellet stoves, thus creating a market for pellets, and then we could have a centralized pellet station, to which farmers and land owners could bring their crops for pelletization.

Local. Renewable. Home Heating Fuel.

This would keep more money in the state of Vermont thus creating a multi-million dollar stimulus to the Vermont economy.

So that's what we're proposing. It's beautiful. I'm getting my students involved. We're going to the statehouse :)

Biodiesel is Kind of Nasty

This past weekend I co-taught at the Vermont Governor's Institute Winter Weekend (which mainly advertizes the summer program). All the summer programs were represented there, and students could choose which "strand" they wanted to pursue (e.g. Arts, Music, Current Events, Youth Activism, Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics), but the general theme for all the strands was Global Warming... and what we can do about it.

It was, in a word, phenomenal. Everyone came out of it completely psyched to carry on the work they started. We I got to help students plan how they would change their schools when they got back. And the best part was we are hopefully taking some students to the legislature to propose a bill around biomass, but that's for another post. In fact, this weekend will undoubtedly supply fodder for many many subsequent posts.

But, more to the point of this post: One of the highlights from the weekend was making Biodiesel. Ken Oldrid (pictured below) of led a workshop in which we made biodiesel. Here's the general plan:

Heat up vegetable oil
Mix together NaOH (sodium hydroxide) and methanol - shake until dissolved
Mix methanol and NaOH solution together with warm vegetable oil - shake even harder and longer
Wait until it the liquid separates into two layers (glycerin on top, biodiesel on the bottom)
Pour or syphon off glycerin layer.

If you wanted to use straight veggie oil in you diesel car, it'd get all gummed up because it's too thick. So to thin it out, you'd just need to heat up the vegetable oil. And then start and end your run with regular diesel so that it doesn't solidify in your engine.

Ok, let's compare:

  • Biodiesel requires two extremely dangerous chemicals (NaOH will give you a chemical burn if it gets on your skin, and Methanol is one of the primary ingredients form making meth so you actually can't buy methanol in Vermont. Methanol was so dangerous we had to go outside to open it up, and in addition to that he told us not to breath while it was open!)
  • OR
  • Vegetable Oil requires a 2nd tank and a heater in addition to a regular diesel tank.

Which is easier for mass production? Which is safer for mass production?
I think you get my point.

This means I'm jumping off the biodiesel train and moving more towards vegetable oil.
Yay for clarity and information.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Physics Teaching Resources

Just the other day I received this question, so I thought I'd share the answer:

I have a question relating to High School physics. I have been asked to help someone kinda do a home school physics class. I was wondering if you had any suggestion on a good physic book or any other sources on line.

The first is, a resource for eliciting student misconceptions around different physics concepts. It sounds like it ought to be something like WebMD, but no, it's for physics education :) Teachers select the topic and can pick which questions they'd like to ask, and then it gives you a report of what misconceptions your students have: super cool.

Conceptual Physics by Paul Hewitt is a really fantastic curriculum, which I would highly recommend for a textbook.

Besides that, Arizona State University has something called "Modeling Curriculum" which is also excellent, though slightly more advanced (I mainly rely on their material for my classroom). I'd say it's one of the best available curricula I've seen.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Series of Conversations

An update on the biofuel plans:

Talking with a Farmer:
I had a conversation with my buddy Lindsay who's a farmer in Addison County about the idea of farmers producing their own biofuel on site, which then could then sell to the general public, who could also bring lawn clippings by and so get a discount on fuel. She thought the part about on site fuel generation for farmers would be awesome, and selling it to the public would be awesome, but the part about having people deliver organic matter to be then turned in to fuel was more difficult.

She said that would require additional labor to sort through that matter to make sure that it was adequate (I'm not sure what all that would entail yet... at the very least it would mean that it's not littered with non-organic matter).

We also talked about diesel farm equipment and how to make biofuels work for those devices. And it comes down to either you make biofuel and tweak it to function exactly like diesel (not change necessary for the equipment) OR you make the biofuel as is and tweak the machine so that it will work with the fuel you've produced.

Talking with a Social Leader:
Since I'm a teacher, and I have these ideas about biofuels and I'd like to write this grant, how the heck will I fit it in? When will I have time to do anything? Probably just during the summer. So my Social Leader friend said she could talk with me further about how to be a part of something like this without having a lot of time to work with. (yay hope!)

Talking with an Eco-Maven Physics Teacher:
Tom Tailer, the physics teacher at Mount Abraham Union High School suggested that biofuels are not necessarily the solution for transportation. In general the world will get more local and less global once fuel becomes more expensive, and the focus ought to be more on human needs rather than getting around. Which leaves biofuels as a good option for heating fuel.

Fair enough. Maybe we won't use it for getting around, but maybe we could use it instead of heating oil? I don't know how difficult such a retro-fit might be (moving from heating fuel to biodiesel), but I imagine it's just a matter of changing the burner.

Bottom line, I think it's still worth the investment, because it will be useful one way or another.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

"Simple" Bike Generator

My former co-teacher (and professor at Yestermorrow Design/Build School), Ben Cheney, called me up the other day looking for a voltmeter and an ammeter that could read up to 120 Volts and 10 Amps (respectively), and unfortunately, I didn't have anything besides a multi-meter to lend him, but turns out he needed these devices for a bike generator he's building for Efficiency Vermont to do demonstrations in schools. And the electrical design is similar to the "simple" one I was planning to put up anyway - so here it is:

It's merely a DC motor, but instead of supplying electricity to it, you turn the shaft, which then makes the process work backwards, generating electricity. The light bulb doesn't care which direction the current is flowing, so you can turn the shaft in whatever direction is convenient. According to the Simple Bike Generator I've got in my room (errr... rather which is out on loan to a Canadian college), the generator shaft is in direct contact with the wheel via a rubber stopper, which fits on the end for good contact. That's really have the job right there, though, is making good contact between the wheel of the bike and the generator shaft. It's not easy. But... you're creative, you'll be able to figure it out ;)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Eprida: Biofuel Production for Montpelier?

Today after the Service Learning Committee meeting I talked for a while with Gwen Hallsmith, the Montpelier City Planning Director about my ideas around local biofuel production. She said two things:

1. One reason to not love biofuel is that the biggest issue with biofuel is water and food. Apparently it takes an enormous amount of water to create biofuel and clean freshwater is a bigger issue for humanity than transportation. The question comes down to, "Who gets the food and water, the people or the cars?"

2. Even so, she liked my idea, and she recommended a pyrolysis-type biofuel producer called Eprida. It sounds pretty much too good to be true (which, we all know, probably means it is), but it's worth investigating. As far as I understand it pyrolysis is a kind of slow burn, letting (in this case) organic material decompose in the absence of oxygen, which leaves some kind of fuel, and a byproduct: char, something like charcoal. Only this stuff enhances carbon sequestration and can be used like a fertilizer. I know - too good to be true, saves gasoline burning AND takes CO2 out of the air. They have short flash video explaining the process, but somehow I feel like that's being generous. I came away from it feeling like I'd just watched a Dharma Initiative video on LOST. It may be legit, but not being a chemist, I'll need to do some further research.

Anyway it was encouraging to hear positive feedback from her about this idea. We'll see how far we get with it.

I think Gwen may be the archetype Eco-Maven.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Lawn-Based Biofuel

So I talked with my kids today about this idea of farm-scale supply and demand, then expanded to publicly available biofuels, and one of the kids said that someone around here is already doing that - already sells biofuel. I've got to find out for myself if that's true (other teachers were doubtful).


Here's a small modification to that system. What if, once the distilling operation was functioning, people could bring their lawn clippings from their yards to this place and drop them off in return for a discount on fuel? Sweet, eh?

All the environmentalists in my life who don't like biofuels don't like it because it's not going to be a large-scale remedy/replacement for gasoline. It would take crops grown over an area the size of Kansas someone said. But grass is the #1 crop grown in America. What if we just ... used it? People could switch to Switch Grass (hehe), or they could just stick with conventional grass (which does have some cellulosic stored chemical energy). We could probably have enough, eh? We'll have to run that calculation with the students.

It could also be extra revenue for restaurants if they could sell their grease to a biofuel-producing station.

It's evolving.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Environmental Healing Tipping Points

Hal Colston recommended I read Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell, so I borrowed it from the library and read it over our break. It changed the way I think about behavior.

So I've been applying what I learned to affecting the kind of large scale change that needs to happen in order for our planet to heal. If everyone in America unplugged their appliances when they weren't using them, we'd save energy, but it would do about as much good as a band-aid on a broken arm. What is enough? Well, here's my list of things that need overhauling (not in order of importance):

1) heating fuel
2) electricity
3) transportation fuel
4) China's gotta find some better options or have higher standards (and the theory is that if America leads, China will follow)
5) Rainforests need to not be chopped down, and allowed to regrow in desolated areas.
6) human population stabilization
7) greener everyday products: matching product useful lifetime with material lifetime

Ok. That's a daunting list. Un-realistic by most people's standards (but that's why we believe in God, right? To do the impossible?)

After thinking about this list in the context of Tipping Points, something occurred to me: most everyday people don't have any choice in these things. When regular people buy a house, the type of fuel is determined by the architect, not them. When regular people buy a car they pick out a manufacturer, model, and color (I suppose some people get more involved), but since biofuels are not a mainstream option, that decision has been made for them.

So how do you affect change for home heating and transportation fuels? It's not by educating regular people, though it probably wouldn't hurt, but they're not the people to talk to. The people to start the biofuel epidemic are architects and auto manufacturers.

Yesterday my friend from NY and her husband, who's an architect, came to visit, and he assured me that green building courses are now the norm for architects, which is certainly encouraging, so hopefully that field is already shifting.

But biofuel for cars? The Catch 22 of no-supply-no-demand for biofuels is the stumbling block that we need to overcome. But how? Here's a hypothesis.

Instead of going to car-manufacturers, go to the other half of the system: fuel producers, aka farmers. The idea is
  • help farmers switch their equipment to biodiesel and
  • help them setup biodiesel production on their farm from crops they can grow.
Nobody in Montpelier will buy a flex-fuel car until they know they can fill up around here. So start micro supply-and-demand systems going on farms, and then the structures are there to expand the supply as demand increases. But you need the farmers need that mechanism to get the whole thing jump started.

If we could advertise in Montpelier that some farmer had "locally grown fuel", people would go nuts!

A lot of farm equipment is already built to run on biodiesel, so I need to do some further research on how many farmers around here are biodiesel-equipped, and secondly how many of them are producing their own biodiesel.

We might also need to have some kind of incentives program to get people around here to buy flex-fuel or biodiesel-capable cars, but that's not too hard to imagine.

Montpelier just won a $100,000 grant to make the city more sustainable, so I think I'll be writing a grant to support farmer seminars, biodiesel production equipment, biodiesel farm equipment perhaps even? We'll see.

Check out Chrysler's Flex Fuel vehicles: Chysler

Feeling Hopeful ~ Happy New Year Everyone!