Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pellet Production Coops?

With the LIHEAP pilot project up and "running" I have recently been turning my attention towards production, which is an entirely different beast it seems.

The in-state pellet production plants I have heard of are scattered, but for kicks let's list them here:
The Burlington Free Press recently reported on a new start up in North Troy, VT. It would site on 10 acres of land.
There's Rick Barstow of Adamant, VT who plans to sell grass pellets this fall.
Roy Petraw has a small-scale pelletizer (though i've misspelled his name).
Andy Boutin may be going into this business
And the Rutland-owned Bixby folks may produce pellets this season.

All that is to say, there's just a handful of entrepreneurs at this point. Ideally, pellet manufacture plants would be a farmer/logger-owned co-op to ensure that they get a fair price for their product. But where do you start? No one's really got a sellable grass pellet at this point, so where do we start?

Well, there's one player I left out which is a family from Addison County. If I can find enough investors he'll issue bonds (or something like that), so that he can purchase the necessary equipment and begin production. Within a few years the bonds will have expired and the investors will have made a better-than-bank interest, and the family will be free to take on other partner-owners who would also have material to be pelletized. So basically we'll move from single-supplier to multiple supplier, from wood-pellet to mixed pellet, and from investor-owned to farmer/logger-owned, which all seems yummy to me.

Of course... it all sounds so simple right now... :)

Monday, July 28, 2008

KSTF Summer Meeting 2008

I just got back from the KSTF Summer Meeting with all the fellows, and while it was amazing for many different reasons, ultimately what matters is how this will affect my classroom. There are three major things that I’m taking away from this meeting, two of which came unexpectedly after all the official sessions were over, after the post meeting games were played and I decided by chance to go to the bar.

Take away piece #1 from April Luehman’s session on Blogging for the Classroom
I’m starting class blogs.
Yes. Blogs – plural. One for each, and inspired by April’s model, I’d like to have the onus of authorship distributed to the students. “We are co-constructing a physics textbook for the world” as April likes to say. So every day a different student will be responsible for blogging the day’s notes, and jotting down some notes as to what we did. Then students will be required to participate through commenting at least 2x a month either by asking or answering a question. Parents will have access to this but not authorship rights. And all comments have to be approved by me, the admin, before they actually get posted to reduce spam.

Prior to students blogging, they’ll need to sign a safety and civility contract - cause we don’t want them posting last names, or non-relevant material. I’ve stolen April’s contract to base mine off of.

I requested a site through April, which will be free which includes unlimited storage space and access to surveys (which is usually NOT free), so I can do online homework. She hasn’t sent me the approval yet, but I’m excited to get started setting that up.

We need to be teaching the next generation responsible online conduct, and so what better way than … in school! Likewise, this model of blog use is very postmodern in that the students are both the teachers and the learners, and the motivation for learning physics comes through personal relationships.

Other examples of class blogs: Accelerated 8th Grade Blog, PIB Physical Science

Take away piece #2 from Glen Botha of San Francisco
I’m adopting Glen’s electricity project
Glen said that he bought something called the Kilowatt on ebay for $20.00 which you can put around the electric cord of any appliance and it will tell you how much current is flowing through it. He was then able to determine at his own apartment that he pays $7 a month for his tevo, and that its standby mode doesn’t really change the rate of electricity use.

He listed every single appliance in his house, its wattage and an approximation of how many hours it’s on per day or per month, and then calculated what his electric bill should have been, and then compared it to what his electric bill actually was.

Then. He made his students go through that process: list every appliance, its wattage and hours of use, and predict your electric bill and then compare to the actual bill.

He did the same for his gas bill, which was $10-12 every month, even for months during which he was gone all month. His bill never changed! So he called them up to ask why that was, and they said it was probably he pilot light. So he researched pilot lights and found out that the amount of therms required to run a pilot light amounted to approximately $11/month. He had found it! They suggested he have someone come turn off the pilot light since in SF, CA they never need heat (it’s not connected to their hot water). The guy came over and instead suggested he cancel is heat – and so that is what he did.

Through doing this project with his class, Glen’s students discovered that for some households their xBox360 cost them more than their refrigerator per month. He said one student started limiting his play to a couple hours a week, motivated not by his mother, or that it’s not good for him, but because his family was really poor and it cost them some quantifiable amount of money to play. He found out that some students who were paying $400/month in electric bills were eligible for a more cheaper rate and was able to lower it to $80/month. He did have to get parents to sign a waiver to release their electric bill and he only had one parent object, so he gave the student his own apartment to analyze.

Take away piece #3 also from Glen Botha of San Francisco
I’d like to further develop Glen’s idea of informing consumers.

What if… What IF! Oi! What if it was commonplace to the informative technology currently found in hybrids in other types of regular fuel cars? People would be able to see that they get significantly better gas mileage at 65 mph than 80 mph. People would see that accelerating rapidly wastes gas, and we could probably reduce gas consumption by a measurable amount simply by making that information immediately available to people.

Likewise, why is my electric meter on the outside of my house in a unit of measure that is not easily interpreted by the layperson? What if instead we put electric meters on the inside of houses and have them read out in dollars per minute or per hour – something that means more to the average person. And they’d be able to see rate of their consumption change by exactly some dollar amount when they shut off a light or unplugged their tevo or turned on their toaster.

Does this device exist? oh yes, yes it does. But why haven't I heard of it. Perhaps I should get one, eh?
Bottom line: Information Is Power.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Project Porchlight at St. Andrew's Christian Church

The other day I ran into Heidi of Project Porchlight, and I mentioned to her that my church would be game for helping pass out compact fluorescent light bulbs (that’s their mission – in order to reduce the demand on the grid and lower our carbon footprint). She suggested that instead of holding a special training for us and giving us a route to go canvas/give away bulbs, she recommended that I just take a bag of bulbs and give them away at my church. Ha! Ok! :)

So this past Sunday, St. Andrew’s Christian Church of Burlington had a collaborative outdoor worship service with Colchester Baptist and First Baptist Church of Burlington (whose basement we currently use) and I gave away compact fluorescent light bulbs. People loved it. (Of course they loved it! They were free, and they’ll save people money, and they’ll help the environment).

I’ve been impressed lately with two things (one of which I'll blog about later): I believe consumers would more easily drive the market towards sustainable choices if sustainable choices were available. For example, if I could choose to have my laptop shipped in sustainable packaging instead of Styrofoam packing peanuts (even if it was like $2 more) I’d choose that. If I could choose biodegradable shopping bags over conventional shopping bags, I’d choose that too. If I could go to a restaurant and have the choice of locally produced or organic food options I would hands-down no question choose that. But I feel that many times those choices just don’t exist. I see it as my job as a consumer to demand better options. This is also effectively what the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative has been doing: creating opportunity for sustainable living where it previously was not an option. Everyone deserves the opportunity to live without polluting. And if polluting is, well, sin, then I believe it is the role of the church to help facilitate these kinds of opportunities. We should be helping people out of their environmental transgressions.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Starting a Farmer's Biomass Cooperative?

Lately I've been dreaming of starting a farmer-owned coop of pellet production, so that even Vermont's micro farmers with just a few acres can ultimately commit to the commercial scale demands for biomass heat and get some share of the profits.

This is of course way beyond the scope of anything I think I've done so far. But then... so is everything else VSHI has accomplished.

I've started dialoging with a few people about the idea and so far the feedback is positive. I've spoken with my CSA farmer (Joe at Screamin' Ridge Farm in Montpelier), pellet guru Andy Boutin, and my roommate the law school student. From all I've gathered from them, it sounds like the next steps are to
1) contact the Sustainable Jobs Fund
2) contact Casella the Garbage and Recycling collectors
3) go visit Andy Boutin's set up.

Meanwhile, I should probably track down David Zuckerman and run the idea by him and Jessie's mom from the Extension service.

... sometimes I wonder if I'll ever be done with this project ... :P :)

Friday, July 18, 2008

An Update on VSHI

Things in the world of the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative have been cruising for some time now. So here's where we're at:

The director of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program sent out a survey to its petroleum consuming recipients, soliciting interest in our pilot program. So far we've received more than 40 surveys back indicating interest (yay!). Now all we need is money to buy them stoves.

How do we get money to buy them stoves? That's where the Carbon Offset Program comes in. Since we're specifically targeting fossil-fuel users and converting them to biomass heat, this warrants a carbon offset since the biomass is a short-carbon-cycle fuel and the fossil fuels are long-carbon-cycle.

At the moment we're selling offsets for $25/ton, but that may be lowered. We've done the calculation like four times, and it comes out slightly differently each time depending on our assumptions. So it will probably end up somewhere in the range of $9-25/ton. The page is about 90% done, and we're hoping to get some big name corporations and legislators to participate. Until everything is up and running I don't expect it to generate a lot of money.

Just a piece on the logistics: Families who receive a stove will be asked to pay us a down payment + whatever they can afford per month until they've paid off the stove. Thus it's not so much a grant as it is a no-interest loan.

Meanwhile I'm meeting today with Garth of CVCLT to discuss how to engage landlords in this transition as well as brainstorming how to convert my condo complex, the apartment complex next door and across the street. Actually I should probably go so I'm not late :) Wish me luck!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Collaborating with other Physics Teachers

After the 7am-11pm intense week at Engineering Camp I flew to Portland, Oregon to meet up with two other Knowles Fellow physics teachers (Zach Ronneberg, and Bradford Hill) to work on streamlining our curricula, adding essential questions, and exchanging ideas in general. And basically it was a wicked sweet time. 

As a result of this week I will be: 
  • adding a unit on thermo, where we'll build some kind of cool sun-energy device like a solar oven, hot dog cooker, or parabolic trough type device. We'll heat up water, use Q=cm(T2-T1).  It'll be great.
  • using OmniOutliner to track my curriculum (hazaa!) 
  • Oh yea we built these IR diode devices to use in conjunction with a Wii remote to function like a SmartBoard, only for about $50 instead of $2,000. hAha!  
  • I've got a ton of essential questions now
  • My unit on Egg Bungee Jumping is now "differentiated" 
  • I've decided to go with the "learning is not optional" motto. So that when students get done they still have to work on something - even if it's grabbing a Scientific American from the back of the room. This is critical for differentiated instruction to be functional.
Other things I learned include: Portland O is pretty much just like Vermont only more populated. Similar values. Similar zoning laws. Similar lifestyles (frisbee, raspberry picking, Subaru-driving). 

I'd say at least 30% of the benefit of being a Knowles Fellow is hanging out with other Knowles Fellows, cause they're so driven, interesting, and bursting with ideas. So that made this  trip one of the best Summer Professional Development things I've done through Knowles yet. 

Governor's Institute of Vermont for Engineering

Yet again, I've spent too much time away from blogging and more than I can communicate has transpired.

So let's start with the the Governor's Institute of Vermont for Engineering. (more pictures available at this website!)

This was a packed week of fast paced, hard-playing, frisbee-loving, explosion-watching, and project-building. 130 kids, half from VT, half from around the country and the world gathered at UVM to study aeronautical engineering, robotics, or renewable energy systems and sustainability. We had presentations from such illustrious figures as John Cohn, Kerri Bernstein, and Lt. Governor Brian Dubie, all the while working on some project of their choosing. I worked with the Renewable Energy and Sustainability strand, which had a lot of fascinating projects. Here are a few sketches of my favorite projects:

1) The 4-inch Nozzle Boys
A guy in Montpelier has developed a retro-fit for your home fuel oil burner to burn pellets instead. Unfortunately, you need a 6-inch nozzle to make that happen, and most standard oil burners have a 4-inch nozzle. So these guys took a 4-inch pipe and burned pellets through it to see how efficient that process could be. Well... I should say, most of the work was done in the construction of the device and not the data taking, but they did learn a whole lot through building it. We actually got Jock Gill and Andy Boutin to come up and play with these guys for a couple days, and they had a blast!

2) the solar trough
This group constructed a parabolic trough, lined it with sections of flat mirror and then put a copper pipe along the focal line. They measured the temperature increase over time and the observed the drop in water level over time, and were able to do some yummy calculations from that. I just heard today that an article using a similar principle was published in a recent version of IEEE, only the device was a mile long, but could generate an enormous amount of power.

3) Emergency Stoves or Stoves for Humanity
The problem: in emergency situations people gather fuel to burn in open fires which are not very efficient. If you have two large tin or steel cans you can remedy this. So this group focused on a simple two-can stove design that could be built using only a bottle opener and a can opener (which one would assume you'd also have), and created a cartoon that could be printed on the cans (without words) so that people anywhere would understand how to construct such a device.

The United Packaging Adjustment Cooperative came out of this group, which was inspired by Dawn Densmore of UVM. She has been working to reduce packaging in the US through working towards requiring packaging information to be printed on the package. The students designed a logo that could published on a label that would include the %recycled content, the %recyclability, the average distance traveled by the product, and the %of the package by weight compared to the product - all hoping that the information available will pressure industries to package products more reasonably.

All these groups and more were judged by a panel at the University Mall in Burlington and given awards in a variety of areas. Sssshhh don't tell, but my dad and ex-boyfriend were on the panel *gasp*!

I got a real kick when one of the kids was like "check out that guy's beard", referring to my dad, "tell me you don't want that beard! That is so cool". Haha. Thanks kid.

My other favorite moment was the Condiment Duel at the Sandbar State Park, where Andrew challenged me to a duel so I got to use strawberry sauce and i made him use whipped cream.