Friday, February 29, 2008

The Ethics of a "Global Warming" Debate

Scientific controversy in the classroom is normally thrilling for a teacher. It means that students are exchanging their ideas about science, debating their ideas like "real" scientists would. And this is good. 

Through the whole Creation vs. Evolution debate I have felt that I don't need to plug too hard for one side or the other because debate is healthy for science. 

But this morning I have felt that the debate over whether or not Global Climate Destabilization (aka Global Climate Change, aka Global Warming) is happening and we're causing it is not a debate I'm really willing to entertain.  

If Creationists are right, meh. cool. If Evolutionists are right. meh. cool. (My faith is not dependent upon creationism). However, if Global Climate Destabilization experts are right, then we need to act NOW. And if we're wrong. meh. let's not do anything. I would add that debate is only healthy when the debaters are acting in a scientifically "free" environment - the kind Richard Feynman refers to in his speech on Cargo Cult Science. And I'm afraid that the "sides" of this debate are not wholly free. 

This morning it was brought to my attention that scientists who did not buy into global warming were meeting in New York City at a conference to discuss how not-screwed we are. After poking around a bit, I found that it's put on the Heartland Institute.  

Who is the Heartland Institute? We're all wondering? And I think a better question is who's funding the Heartland Institute? Well, according to their website, their funding sources are secret. Right. Well SourceWatch has them tied to Walmart, Big Tobacco and Big Oil - specifically ExxonMobil. Yea like millions of dollars tied to ExxonMobil. 

When debate prevents action towards healthy choices I and my class shall abstain, thank you. Sorry ExxonMobil, I will not be your puppet. 

Renewable Energy Curriculum - Authentic Community Applications

Fairily soon my student teacher will be done with her soloing period, and that will mean I (finally) get to be back in my classroom with kids. It's been a really long time, and I miss them :_(
Ok, maybe not that much. heh heh.

But when I get back, we'll be working on renewable energy projects. The idea for these project is "study a real-life energy system, and make a proposal to the people who have influence over that situation". The rubric for this assignment includes

*Energy and Power Calculations (the content-related criteria)

*Evidence that they have contacted an expert in the community about their topic (notes from a phone call or an email)

*A presentation to the class and then later to the people of influence preferably using power point.

I have a student who is all about putting a wind mill on top of National Life (or at least the hill National Life is on), and so I can imagine that will be his topic.

I'm thinking we could either have "independent projects" (or groups of two) for this, where everyone's kind of working on their own deal, or we could pose the same question to each section, and groups in one class could work on solutions to the same problem. Or I could have all my sections of the same course work on the same problem/question.

Right now I'm leaning towards problems divided up by section, and so have everyone in the same section working on the same problem. I'll elicit their ideas for problems, I'll also put out some ideas of my own, and then I'll let them "choose" the issue they want to tackle as a section. And by "choose" of course, I mean, choice with my ultimate approval. (Aww, just now it was like I'm the Governor and they're the congress and I have veto power!). Except that my classroom is a benevolent dictatorship, not a democracy :P

National Board Exam - My Impressions

For those of you readers going for National Board Certification or thinking about it, I feel like it's my duty to warn you. The test is hard.

I was told that these were questions "any decent teacher would get right", and so I assumed that meant it would be easy. I checked out the study material online, it didn't look too tough, so I figured I was prepared enough. Although I don't know how I did, I do know that it was WAY more difficult than I anticipated, and so here is my advice: Study.

Basically i'm sworn to secrecy about the actual content - in fact I might have overstepped my bounds by saying it's hard. So, dear NBPTS, please don't drop the hammer on me - I just want people to take this test as seriously as you do.

Recent Biomass Media

Wow. It's been some time, but dang a lot has happened since my last post. Mainly in the area of media.

Specifically the rally got coverage in the Essex Reporter, where I did in fact get quoted. The hearing spawned a Vermont Public Television session last night where my independent study student called in. HA! and Yesterday morning my student and I were on WGDR (Goddard College's radio station) on Carl Etnier's show Relocalizing Vermont (you can listen to the show here). And we were invited to be on his WDEV show (out of Waterbury) on March 19th. Sweet.

And our service learning coordinator invited our group to present at the March 2008 KIDS Consortium conference in Maine - the kids are really pumped about that.

All of this leads me to the question though, to what end?

Why are we doing all of this? I'm hungry for some action.
Some of our students met with the UVM board of directors to advocate for a biomass research facility, and they seemed into that. Norwich is I think a little more eager to jump in, so we're closer to some action on that front.

My folks are considering a pellet furnace, which is cool. But dang. We're asking people to make a huge capital investment if they can afford it. How do you spread the word to people with capital about the payback benefits (not to mention the ecological benefits) of biomass fuels grown in state? That's where my energy is going now, so we'll see what comes of that.

Meanwhile the students are meeting tonight and Sunday with college students from Middlebury College to possibly collaborate on Powershift 2008, or maybe even an April 1st "Fossil Fools" Day celebration of some kind. We'll see - the future is an exciting place!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

March on Montpelier: Renewable Energy Rally!

Last night's renewable energy rally and subsequent public hearing on the effect of fuel prices on the Vermont economy was a HUGE success. It was a cold early-evening, so no one was just hanging out on the lawn and the legislators were not in session, so what was our goal with the rally? Media attention - bring awareness to this issue. And we certainly succeeded at that!

These are shots of us on the state house steps. Jessie (one of the student ring-leaders) spoke to the crowd, and then... we had a big dance party. We grooved to Deft Punk and Jackson 5. It was awesome. Until it was time to eat, and then re-assemble for the hearing.

I was interviewed by the Essex Reporter, so there will probably be a report about it soon, and we made the front page of the Times Argus. The best part though, was a big story by the Channel 3 WCAX news crew! You can check it out here, but you have to have Windows Media Player to watch it. They interviewed my independent study student and she was very articulate :) yay!

Since each individual only had 2 minutes to speak we chunked up our proposal for pellet stoves and prairie grasses into 2 minute chunks that students presented in shifts. It was incredibly organized and the legislators were "impressed". This was a great way to start conversation. I talked with the chair of the meeting afterwards, Rachel Weston, and she said that just because the deadline for bill proposals was already past, one of the purposes of this hearing was to gather ideas for next year.

I think in the meantime we'll shift our focus to the pilot projects. If we can show that low-income housing folks can manage a pellet stove with proper education and attention, and we can set up a Vermont-based pelletizer system, then man, we'd be golden. :P That's what we'll put our energy into for now.

Ok ~ AND:
I just found out - our group made the Boston Globe and a publication called Cogito - not for this rally, but for our proposal in general.

For more pictures check out the facebook group!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Rally for Renewables

I can't believe I didn't mention this earlier!

The kids with Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative are planning a "Rally for Renewables" on Wednesday of this week. We'll leave the High School at 5pm and march to the State House, where we'll hold a rally, with students signing up to give a little testimony about where they want their energy to come from in the future.

So far we've got 54 kids who've said they'd like to come to this rally from the facebook event page, and 189 kids who "might show up". Plus we've got students who've said "I'm bringing a car-full of kids", and other people saying that they're alerting their church groups, etc. It's going to be wild.

This is all leading up to a Public Hearing to be held at the State House that evening at 7pm regarding the effect of fossil fuel prices on the Vermont economy.

And Dude. I just got off the phone with a guy from Bernie Sanders office (Vermont Senator to the US legislature). He wants to come, cause he'll be in town that day! His schedule's tight, so he might now, but if he can he will. That's SO exciting. Gah!

I hope all the details work out. I'm a little nervous for that...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Addison County Legislators Talk to VSHI

This morning it was all bright and sunny at the Bakery and Cafe in Bristol where students from the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative gathered with four legislators David Sharpe, Claire Ayer, Michael Fisher, and Harold Giard from Addison County to discuss next steps.

In my view this was the best meeting yet, mainly because we're at the point of taking action steps instead of just talking. Dave Sharpe said that he was willing to work on some small amendment to the current energy bill to try to allocate 1 million dollars that could go for a pelletizer station.
He also said that we need to talk to LIHEAP people about an "emergency furnace" fund - cause I guess if you're on LIHEAP and your furnace gives out, you can tap into this fund to get a new one. BUT what if instead of a new oil furnace it was a new pellet stove or furnace - for which the fuel is cheaper anyway! This seems like a very straightforward simple step in the right direction.

Claire Ayer gave us names of high up Ag folks so that we can get some farmers on board.

Harold Giard highly recommended that we get a general business plan together. If we could get 100,000 dollars right now what would that go for? He also recommended getting VTC involved with research aspect. Yay, that sounds like a great plan. :)

So, it's been a very productive morning, and tomorrow we'll have to divide up jobs among the folks there. (This is really turning into another full time job for me!) It's a good thing my intern is still teaching, I'm not sure how I would cope with this AND teaching simultaneously!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Aiding the Switch to Biomass for Multiple Demographics

One of the comments we received from Rob Ide of the Clean Energy Development Fund is that our proposal would be stronger if we could address in it how to reach multiple economic demographics. Our proposed tax on fossil fuel would help aid low income folks make the switch, but then how do you encourage more wealthy people to switch? Up until today our ideas have been basically educate them. If they know they'll make their money back in 5 years or less, who wouldn't do it?

But another possible answer today came from my dad. Tax credits for those who switch to pellet stoves from fuel oil burners. That way those with the capital will want to switch. I hope the Governor will like this solution.

Coupling tax breaks for those who switch voluntarily with a tax on fossil heating fuels to aid the low-income switch (those without the up front capital) makes our proposal tasty to both parties.


Weatherization Team and Pellet Stove Non-Profit

Today at the weekly Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative meeting, the idea came up for us to start a non-profit that people could donate to in order to help get pellet stoves in the hands of LIHEAP recipients.

This rolls in with my idea for a church-based volunteer weatherization team. After talking with my dad this idea seems to be taking shape a bit more. There are plenty of guys from North Avenue Alliance who are pretty handy, and we could get CVOEO to host a training, and then go to people's houses, do an evaluation, and then send a team of people to do the work (caulking, insulating, etc.). Why not?

It could be like it's own organization like Care Net, or the Burlington Emergency Shelter, which both get support from area churches. They're inter-ecclesiastical and really they have to be because the scope of their work.

One thing though - I should check with Hal Colston (Good News Garage, and Neighbor Keepers) cause I think he may be starting a new fuel-based non-profit, so maybe he's already doing this stuff! :)

And to tie in something Hal taught me, if we did this weatherization volunteer program, I don't think it's enough to say, "here you go! welcome to fuel savings! Bye." The recipient needs to commit to give back somehow. Hopefully by reducing their consumption in some way. And if it were church people, perhaps the recipient could host a potluck where they bring nothing, but then the people who worked there could get to know the home owners.

Friday, February 8, 2008

"Governor Douglas, may we tell you about biomass?"

After a small run around finding me a sub at the high school, I joined the team of students in a meeting with Rob Ide, who works with the Clean Energy Development Fund, so that we could talk about funding a demo project for a pellet burner-pelletizer micro supply-demand system. He asked us great questions, and though he doesn't have a lot of staff or time, he said he'd be willing to meet with us further about this idea, which was very exciting.

From there we went to the State House expecting to testify before the Senate Natural Resources and Energy committee, but they were not ready for us. But I should say we made an excellent use of our time while we waited (and eventually discovered that our slot to testify had been postponed). We found out that Addison County has received a $30,000 grant to do a feasibility study on putting in a pelletizer (thank you Will Stevens for that info!).

Meanwhile Greg Clarke from the House Education committee got us a meeting with Governor Jim Douglas and the Leuitenant Governor Brian Dube. So we talked with them for a short while. Governor Douglas mainly just took in what we were saying (we didn't bring up the tax part of it at all) and he seemed vaguely positive, though I'm sure that's him just being political. Afterwards he gave one of the students his card saying that he would like to meet with us further about this. Brian Dubie was very positive and wants to co-author some publications for his weekly newsletter about this - what legislator wouldn't want to claim this idea and working with kids?

Shortly after we went to the House Education committee to says hi mainly, and explain that what we're doing is good education.

The other piece that seems to be snapping into focus is a march/rally on Feb. 20th. That evening there is a public hearing on the effect of the rising price of fossil fuels on the Vermont economy. There will be a panel of experts, and then anyone can sign up for 2 minutes of speaking time, and you want to get there early to get a good time slot. So we're planning to meet at the high school and walk to the State House with signs, and we're hoping to call Bread and Puppet, and we're planning to alert the media. This is going to be fun :) hehehehe

If the students really do care, we've got to mobilize them around this issue.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"Madame Speaker of the House, may we come in?"

The plan for today was meet a core team of students from around the state at the state house cafeteria at 1pm to present our biomass plan to Gaye Symington, the Speaker of the House.

At about 11:30 I received word that because of all the snow those other schools were not coming. That left my fiery student, a senior I snagged, and myself to pitch this idea. (Deeeeeep Breathe). We were ready to go it on our own, but then there we are in the Cafeteria gathering our thoughts when 4 key students from Mt. Abe come in. WOO HOO!

The presentation to Madame Speaker of the House was very organized, very deliberate, and she sounded amenable to it. She didn't give us a lot of feedback, but did say that it was impressive but then directed us to the President Pro Tem, Peter Shumlin (which I'm not really sure what that is, I should look it up), and he connected us with Ginny Lyons who has a biomass-related bill she's working on with the Senate. So we gave a mini-pitch to her and Peter Shumlin, and she said, "can you come back Friday to testify?" "Um. Yes." yesyesyes. We would drop anything to come testify. They're voting on a draft of it tonight, and she'll fax it to us in the morning so we have an up to date version of it. Then we'll devour it, and come back on Friday for a quick 15 minute presentation with a 20 minute Q&A period. Dang 15 minutes isn't long.

Then! Some representative (I didn't catch his name) from Addison County told us to go to the House Agriculture committee which was meeting at the time, and so we interrupted their meeting getting all situated and seated, and then like 20 minutes later David Zuckerman (who presides over that committee) told us we had a few minutes to pitch our idea.

And that was a little messier. We clearly were trying to focus on the agricultural side of it, but that meant that we didn't talk about the tax until the end, which I think was a little confusing for them. But anyway, they had SO many questions for us, and ideas, and people we should contact, and altogether it was very interesting and challenging. We didn't know things like How much does a farmer make per acre of prairie grass. Yes, it's sold for like $250/ton at Home Depot, but how much of that goes to the farmer? We didn't do that calculation, and some kids started not answering their questions, but re-directed their questions to things they did know about, which we talked about after as not so good.

But anyway, we found out that there are some counties which have received grants already to install pelletizers and work on biomass and such, so we need to talk to those folks to see how they fit into this picture (Burke and Bridport).

People kept telling us "it's so much easier to start something like this if you have a pilot program. Do it small-scale first". And fair enough. So we've got to pursue that.

In addition, David Zuckerman suggested that maybe both halves don't need to come from the government - the halves being pellet stoves in people homes and a universal pelletizer for local crops. If the government bulk purchases pellet stoves for people to sell at cost (or with a low-interest loan), then perhaps there would be a private player who would build the pelletizer? It's a thought. Either way the folks said that if you do a grant proposal through the Clean Energy Development Fund it's always stronger if it's a public-private cooperative endeavor.

It took almost 4 hours and now I'm EXHAUSTED!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

To Switch or Not to Switch?

It's a snowy day outside, school has just been let out, but my fiery student is not frolicking through the slush on her way home. No, she's with me and Jock Gill in the boiler room of the school discussing our energy future.

There are many reasons to switch us over to pellets, but there are many reasons to stay as we are.
Reason to switch:
  • Pellets are cheaper than oil per BTU (with a Co-op contract, it's about $13/MMBTU, whereas fuel oil is $18/MMBTU). At this rate, and for the amount of BTUs our school uses, it would end up saving us money, but not tons because of the new building it would require).
  • 10,000 gallon fuel tanks tend to leak, or float in a flood (which Montpelier may be prone to?)
  • Pellet stoves don't put out the amount of SOx and NOx as fossil fuel exhaust.

Reasons not to switch:
  • The current boilers are only 13 years old (or roughly half-way through their expected lifetime)
  • They're running fine, not leaking, they're well kept up - no maintenance reason to replace them
  • The boilers themselves are high efficiency models for the type of fuel they burn.
  • If we put in a pellet furnace we'd need a new building to house it and a chimney.
Perhaps instead of focusing on the high school we're going to look at the Middle and Elementary Schools to see if they would stand to benefit more than the high school. We'll let you know how that goes!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Churches Helping People not Pollute

Walking home from the meeting with Tony Klein I got 2 new ideas for how to relate sustainability with church.

So it's a sin to pollute, no? I think we'd all agree on that. On the way to the meeting I was thinking about polluting in the context of the Lord's Prayer, "lead us not into temptation". We've got a pile of people who would really like to not pollute (sin), but they don't know how to. I think it is fair to say that one of the functions of the church to support people in their quest to live rightly.

Tony Klein was saying that a bill he's working on right now is to improve the weatherization of housing in Vermont. There's something like 60,000 homes which qualify for state aid to increase the efficiency of their houses, and the aid program only covers 1,500 houses per year (that means it would take roughly 40 years to cover all of them). But I'm sure there are people, good hearted people, who would help out their neighbors in this regard if they knew what to do.

So as an extension of the church, you could have a Weatherization Team, which would get invited in someone's house to improve the heat retention and insulation of that home. The Weatherization Team would need to be trained in what to do. Or we could do smaller things - cover windows with plastic, etc. I'm not sure what all is involved or how involved a volunteer team could be, but it's an idea.

Other ideas could be - if we expect people to not use plastic grocery bags, we could host a grocery bag making party where we make them out of used fabrics or whatever.... possibly?

Basically the idea is to have the church host/support events or teams that enable people to not sin so much (of course i mean polluting here).

More ideas are coming I'm sure... i can see the wheels turning behind your eyes :) What are you thinking?

Tony Klein says "Start a Demo Project"

Wow, what a fascinating meeting with Tony Klein (D) from East Montpelier.

The big things that came out of that meeting were:
We need to get in touch with the Clean Energy Fund to create a demo pelletizer system to prove that our idea works, which would be amazingly sweet because then there would actually be a local source of heating fuel! And then when people see that it's making a MAD profit other people will jump in! Which leads to the next thing we have to do:
Talk to the "chief number cruncher" for the state, I forget his name now, but get him to look over our plan and see if all our projections are roughly correct.
Lastly, we need to coordinate with a more extreme bill that's upcoming for a "March on Montpelier" which the high students are demanding. "They keep asking me, do you have a date yet, do you have a date yet, do you have a date yet?" So we'll just go... and make the point that
It's the young people's future, not theirs.
An incrementally increasing tax on fossil fuels would be good for the Vermont economy if that tax went into shifting our market to more locally-grown sustainable alternatives.

On a slightly separate note, today we found out that we have a date with Gaye Symington who's Vermont Speaker of the House, and when Tony Klein heard about it he said he'd try to be there as well.

He kept saying how impressed he was with this idea and at the end of the meeting he said, "you guys give me hope for the future". Sooooo yay :) It's not likely to be a bill which will pass this year, but we can get started with the demo project. In fact, that's probably going to be my new priority 1.

* rock! *

Tomorrow: meeting with Jock Gill to discuss the future of our high school's potential switch to biomass pellets!

Gosh, life is pretty exciting right now!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Tree House Dreaming

Yesterday while waiting for the library to open I passed a book shop, and one of the books in the window caught my attention. It was about Treehouses of the world, and it was just SO ridiculously beautiful.
So here I am websurfing on my couch and I stumble upon the TreeHouse Workshop which was responsible for many of the pages in that book. So here it is for a little day dreaming :)

Student Teacher Starts Tomorrow

I think all teachers can remember the time when Sunday afternoon was a bittersweet time. The tension between enjoying the remaining hours of the weekend and the worry about the pending lesson plans sinks in dampens even the most lively activities. This tension has waned to almost nothing since this is now my 4th year (though it's certainly not gone!), but tonight - Sunday evening - it's pretty much zero. Why? Because starting tomorrow, my intern takes over all my classes! Whoo HOO! I'll be around to talk her through how it's going before and after school, but for the most part I'm off the hook. Well.. I do have to be in the building, but that just provides me time to work on my National Board Certification business.

I've got evidence done for 3 out of 4 entries, and I've been saving the writing portion because I knew I had this chunk of time coming up.

She'll do just fine... or it will make her hate teaching. One or the other. :P

Whoo HOO! Biomass for Vermont

Today at the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative meeting (composed of high school students and 2 teachers) we made a fairly major discovery. A few representatives proposed last Thursday a bill which is tantalizingly close to what we're proposing. HA! It's HR759 and it's something that we can get behind, something we can propose modifications to. Yay!

Tomorrow I'm meeting with a representative from the committee on Natural Resources and Energy with two students and another teacher to discuss the legislative process.

And meanwhile other students are working on putting together a dinner with the Governor. Crazy. (I can only pray that his schedule will be clear and that he'll actually want to meet with us).
This is SO freaking exciting.

Want to know more? Everything is on the wiki:

Friday, February 1, 2008

Tapping Into Revolutionary Teenage Energy

After the Montpelier Energy Team meeting the Duke Energy representatives kindly took us out to dinner at Main Street Bar and Grill (run by the New England Culinary Institute - where I got a local cow on a locally-baked bun, haha!). So what do you talk about with highly educated "important" people in the energy world? kids. facebook. myspace.

I told them about the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative led by a group of extremely passionate students. I told them about the meeting on Sunday and about the fire in each of them. And Jock Gill said something to the effect of

"There's something happening in the younger generation today that hasn't happened since the 60's."

This reminded me of the cartoon I saw a while ago of a teenager talking to his father saying, "You just had a war to protest. We've got to save the world!"

But in all seriousness I believe this is true ~ the kids are more motivated than other generations and they're less bound by red-tape, less disillusioned, and I find it exhilerating to be the go between for the younger people. I am the doorway between an explosion of fresh ideas and energy and the real world. It's terrifying and wonderful ~ mmm I hope it lasts! :) haha.

District Heating for Montpelier? Not Soon.

So much to tell you about!

Last night I went to the Montpelier Energy Team meeting where we hosted two representatives from Duke Energy who are interested in helping us start our city's District Heating project. But first a brief explanation of "District Heating".

District Heating is the idea that there is one location with a boiler or burner which provides heat for a network of buildings. Sometimes they're connected radially outward, sometimes there's more than one heat source, but everybody's connected. This is commonplace in Northern European countries. Duke Energy built and runs such an operation in St. Paul, MN.

The Vermont State Capital Building is currently heated by a woodchip burner/boiler across the street with pipes of hot water running underground. This boiler needs to be replaced pretty soon (it was installed in 1962), and they thought, "why not expand the boiler system there to heat many public buildings in Montpelier?" This makes sense, right? It's more efficient, you stop using fossil fuels, stop sending money out of the state. It's better for everyone. Buuuut it's going to cost like 10 million dollars to dig trenches to lay pipe, staff the boiler room, get the larger boiler, etc. Yuck.

My fiery student and I went to this meeting because the high school is on the list to receive heat from this central heating plant, should it ever come to pass. But by the end of the evening we both decided that it was a mess that we didn't want to get involved with: The head of the District Heating project told us privately at the end of the meeting that he would probably die before this project went into effect. He was joking, but I think we all knew he was right.

This means we're all out pursuing pellets as a heating method for the school now, and I'm very thankful for that clarity. We're hoping to get an estimate with Jock Gill on Tuesday. * whoop *