Electric three-wheeler at the Energy Fair

This vehicle, called the Rahtmobile by its creators, is a prototype electric three-wheeler car. It’s a close approximation of a velomobile, and it does have pedals, but the driver’s effort charges the battery, rather than driving the wheels. I thought it was quite well done for a prototype and am eager to see further iterations.

Here’s how it works: the driver sits in the middle, and there’s room for a passenger behind. The driver can pedal and juice up the batteries, extending the estimated 40-60 mile range. Top speed is estimated at 80-90 mph, so it is capable of highway travel. The power is transmitted to a hub motor in back.

The body is a custom carbon fiber layup, the frame is custom, the rest is a mixture of off-the-shelf components like ATV suspension parts and LED bicycle lights. Overall it’s an intriguing approach to an electric commuter vehicle that has the potential of being useable year-round.

However, I’m curious about how it would handle severe winter weather. I also think that making room for a couple bags of groceries would be ideal. What do you think? Does a two-seater electric commuter make sense?

A semi-homebrew electric 3-wheeler at the Energy Fair.

A semi-homebrew electric 3-wheeler at the Energy Fair.

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What the Hell is Permaculture?

Permaculture continues to fascinate me. Bill and Becky Wilson from Midwest Permaculture delivered several workshops at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Energy Fair, and I attended nearly all of them. So what the hell is permaculture? You can find a complete description here, but my short version is this: permaculture is a design system that integrates sustainable agriculture and sustainable building to produce sustainable human culture. Permaculture practices heal the earth, and provide sufficient resources for living today, while not taking from future generations.

One example: creating a “food forest.” Build a swale to catch and hold water so the soil moisture is abundant. Then you can plant a variety of food-producing trees and shrubs, such as hickory, oak, hazelnut, apple, and walnut. Next work in smaller plants like blueberries, grapes, and gooseberries. This food forest will produce an abundance of food each year with no planting and minimal work. It’s also a resource for lumber, supports the honeybee population, and may provide meat from game and/or domestic animals. It’s a productive, robust, and sustaining system. And after you get it going, you reap the harvest without planting.

Bill’s own rain garden is another great example. His house has no basement and sits on a flat lot, so clearly this project is easier than one dealing with a basement or a steeply sloped lot. He directed the flow from the home’s gutters to the front yard, where he contoured the land into a slight swale or channel so the water flows slowly through the front yard, across the side yard and next to a substantial berm that directs the flow, and out to the back yard. All along this path the water is seeping into the ground, maintaining soil moisture, and recharging the ground water. This is treating rainwater as a resource, and not waste. And by planting perennials near the swale, the plants rarely need supplemental watering.

These are some tenets of permaculture that bear repeating:

  • wastes become resources
  • productivity and yields increase
  • work is minimized
  • the environment is restored.

Bill also talked about hugelkultur, which is a German method of burying logs to create a highly fertile area. After a few months, the bacteria growth explodes as the wood decomposes, and they produce an abundance of nitrogen, which feed the roots of the plants you plant there. Here’s a video of hugelkultur construction.

This is just a fraction of the workshops I attended at the Energy Fair, but is a good example of all you can learn.

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A Permaculture Approach to Renewable Energy

Last weekend was the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s 23rd annual Energy Fair in Custer, Wisconsin. Over the course of the weekend I attended 11 workshops, on topics such as Wooden Cities, Suburban and Urban Permaculture, Small Scale Permaculture Farming, From Foreclosure to LEED, Getting to Zero, Lifestyle Entrepreneurship, Sustainable Living Simplified, and A Permaculture Approach to Renewable Energy, which has really stuck with me.

First, presenter Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture talked about rocket mass heaters. I’ve read about these before but haven’t seen them in action. The story with these devices is their efficiency and ease of construction. They use only 25% of the fuel of an equivalent wood stove for the same heat output. They usually are built with a cob bench/seating area as thermal mass.

Bill described helping his neighbor build a rocket mass heater for the first time. The stove required some tweaks, such as learning how to get it started with minimal smoke, and realizing that the house was too tight with too little air leakage, they added a fresh-air intake for the heater. And they built the whole unit for less than $100. Simple, cheap, and effective.

As for wood, the rocket mass heater requires so little fuel that trimmings can work fine. Rather than cutting, splitting, and drying firewood, Bill mentioned a technique called coppicing to cultivate and harvest trimmings from deciduous shrubs and trees; a little goes a long way! Here’s an example:

Another fascinating topic was downdraft wood gasification. When burned in a certain way, wood produces abundant hydrogen which can be captured and used to power a gasoline engine. A group in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, produced the following video demonstrating the process. I’ll have to look into this more, but it seems like it could be a viable way to power a home generator for electricity production.

As for permaculture, a complete description of the 12 design principles is a little long, but Bill emphasized that permaculture is simply care for people, the planet, and the future, with these benefits:

  • waste becomes a resource
  • productivity and yields increase
  • work is minimized
  • the environment is restored

As always, I learned a lot, from people who are actively doing what they teach. I’ll add more in another post.

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5 Great Things About the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair

All right! It’s time for another Energy Fair! This Thursday, June 14, I’ll be driving to Custer, Wisconsin, for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s 23rd annual Energy Fair. If you’re into sustainable living and building and energy, this event is one of the most interesting and compelling of the year. Besides the camaraderie of like-minded people, you can learn so much through more than 200 workshops, as well as from the vendors and exhibits.

Here are 5 great things that attract me to the Energy Fair each year:

  • 1. Free education at the workshops; it’s incredible how much you can learn from the speakers, and how many workshops there are! In each time slot, there are usually 15-18 workshops happening simultaneously.
  • 2. Inspirational stories from people who have done it (built a wind turbine, or a veggie car conversion, or a tiny home) and from the keynote presenters who are typically working on global issues such as climate change and sustainable agriculture.
  • 3. Great local beer from Central Waters Brewing, a food court where you can meet new friends and chat, and fun musical entertainment!
  • 4. Hands-on demos so you can see how it’s done in real life, by people who do it.
  • 5. Fascinating demos by my friend Roald Gundersen, of Whole Trees fame. Roald uses whole trees and branched columns in his buildings, and has been involved in pioneering research at the U.S. Forest Products Lab in Madison to quantify the strength of branched columns. I’m looking forward to hearing the latest.

In addition, there’s a Clean Energy car show, a Green Home Pavilion, and Sustainable Tables that demonstrate sustainable methods for transportation, home building, and food production, respectively. I’ll see you at the Energy Fair!

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Harvesting Energy from Wastewater

Have you heard of harvesting energy from wastewater? Apparently it’s already happening on a small scale. The city of Brainerd, Minnesota, has been using the heat from the sewer system to heat the Public Utilities Building and keep the sidewalks ice-free. A new partnership of the city, the school district, the public utilities, and a company called Hidden Fuels is now exploring the potential of using the waste heat in larger projects, such as the school system buildings, and at what scale the projects are cost effective.

It sounds at least moderately capital intensive to install, but it seems like an interesting variation of a district heating system. Here’s the story.

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North House Folk School, Lloyd Kahn, and the Cook County Local Energy Project

The North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior, hosted its third Northern Sustainability Symposium from May 4–6. The featured speaker was Lloyd Kahn, blogger, author and publisher of a series of books about handmade houses, tiny houses, and funky shelter. I heard his talk Friday morning about “The Sustainable Homestead,” in which he related some methods he’s used since building his urban homestead in the early 1970s. It was fascinating and well done and I will probably write more about that later. His latest book is Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter.

Lloyd Kahn at the Gunflint Tavern

Lloyd Kahn at the Gunflint Tavern

Another presentation on Friday was done by the Cook County Local Energy Project or CCLEP. This 501c3 group was formed by local residents in 2008 “to coordinate a local response to the worldwide transition away from fossil fuel-based energy sources.” The group currently has one half-time employee and a number of volunteers that research, coordinate, and implement projects with a focus on local energy efficiency and production.

One such project, the subject of a fairly detailed presentation, is “Forest Biomass Heating and Electricity.” This project examined in detail the ability of Cook County to use biomass, basically different forms of woody material from the forest, for generation of heat and electricity. The study compared the use of woody biomass to the continued use of fossil fuels, and the results were highly encouraging.

Cook County has abundant woody biomass available on state, federal, and private land. The current harvest is 75% below the estimated sustainable harvest. The current waste amount of 8,500 dry tons is sufficient for district heating in Grand Marais or Cook County. At the sustainable limit, the waste would total approximately 23,000 dry tons.

My own summary of this study would emphasize the following:

  • After investments in infrastructure for district heating, Cook County and Grand Marais can meet all heating needs with currently and locally available waste biomass. At maximum sustainable harvest levels, three times more waste biomass would be available for use.
  • Emissions for all heating options would be under allowable thresholds.
  • Infrastructure investment is needed and can be expensive; installing pipes that carry hot water for a district heating system can cost $180-200 per foot. The payback period for some parts of the system may be more than 20 years.
  • All options studied in this plan have lower annual operating and maintenance costs than existing fossil fuel heating systems.
  • Spending money on a local resource, rather than fossil fuels, would keep more money circulating locally; “In other communities, $0.26 – $0.86 re-spent locally for every dollar spent on local bioenergy fuels.”

I am impressed by the work of this group, which includes an impressive mix of studies and hands-on projects, such as the projects below, and summarized at their web site here:

12 Simple Steps for Energy Efficiency Program

Energy Efficiency Home Audit House Party Program

Angry Trout Cafe Heat Recovery Project

North Shore Ride Share Website

Cook County Community Center Planning Committee

Energy Curriculums for Local Grade Schools

Grand Marais Recreation Area Bathhouse Solar Hot Water Installation

Grand Marais/ Cook County Energy Planning Process

Home Energy Savings Workshop

I enjoyed the Northern Sustainability Symposium tremendously, and feel that I learned a ton of great info. I will definitely return.

Floating cabin at the Folk School

Floating cabin at the Folk School

Carving in Grand Marais

Carving in Grand Marais

 

Grand Marais harbor and the Folk School

Grand Marais harbor and the Folk School

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4 Ideas for Greener Cities

For the first time in history, a majority of humans live in cities. How we make and use our cities has a major impact on how healthy the planet is, and how healthy and happy we are. I want to explore some options for creating greener cities, from the personal level to the city level. What are the most sustainable options for greening our cities?

Make greener yards

One step that may not be obvious is improving our own yards, where we must reduce the use of pesticides on lawns. According to the group Beyond Pesticides, “Suburban lawns and gardens receive more pesticide applications per acre (3.2-9.8 lbs) than agriculture (2.7 lbs per acre on average).” (http://www.beyondpesticides.org/lawn/factsheets/facts&figures.htm.) Many commonly used lawn chemicals have never been tested for their effects on humans, pets, and wildlife. We don’t know if they’re relatively safe or not—but they’re sold and we use them anyway. Of those that have been tested, some are linked with cancers of various kinds, birth defects, reproductive effects, liver and kidney effects, and endocrine system effects. Some are linked with increased risk of cancers in dogs, and are toxic to beneficial insects and birds.

That said, it’s reasonable to presume that all chemicals are potentially dangerous, even if used as directed. Therefore, minimizing the use of all chemicals is beneficial, and eliminating the use of as many chemicals as possible is preferable. I would distinguish between pests we should address for health reasons, such as mice and roaches and mosquitoes, and pests we simply dislike, such as crabgrass.

Eliminating the use of chemical pesticides, however, won’t remove the need for them. Fortunately, we have some options that are less toxic and nontoxic. Search for “nontoxic pest control” and you’ll get some ideas. The most crucial step, and possibly the most difficult, is managing your expectations. It may not be possible, for example, to have a thick, green, weed-free lawn without the dreaded “four-step program” of fertilizer and pesticide. So get over it—this fertilizer and pesticide combo is exactly what we need to eliminate! It’s time to accept that heavy use of chemicals comes at a high price, and that you can choose to use nontoxic methods.

Stop wasting water

Another option for greening our cities is changing how we use and manage water. According to NASA’s Ames Research Center, lawns are America’s largest irrigated crop (WorldChanging page 160). This is a colossal amount of water and offers great potential for improvement, as much of that water is wasted. At the same time, many areas of the country experience seasonal water shortages, partly due to lawn watering, and most of the continental U.S. is now abnormally dry to in extreme drought. To put it simply, many areas of the U.S. do not have adequate supplies of water due to drought and/or a growing population, yet people continue to waste water on their lawns. And even worse—it’s usually drinking water!

At the city level, city officials are making changes such as using permeable paving surfaces to allow water to drain back to the aquifers, requiring grading and contouring of developed land to allow draining into the soil and minimizing draining into storm sewers, encouraging conservation with tiered pricing, and restricting lawn watering.

At the personal level, we have quite a few options, as well. Stop watering your lawn; let it fend for itself on rainwater. Reduce the size of your lawn and landscape with drought-tolerant plants. Collect rainwater with rain barrels and use for your garden and landscape first, and for your lawn last. If you must have a lush green lawn, determine how much water your lawn needs for your climate conditions and be sure not to overwater. Plant appropriate species of turfgrass for your climate. Consider installing soil moisture sensors to help you regulate the amount of water you use, and if you have an irrigation system, keep it well maintained and leak free. In some areas, you could even divert graywater from the washing machine and use it for irrigation.

Let it go

A third suggestion for greening our cities is strategic laziness. Let’s plant millions of trees and shrubs, and then relax. Let’s stop demanding a manicured look and let nature decide what works and what doesn’t. A perfect example is the land along our highways. Why do highway departments mow so much grass? They waste a lot of fuel and man-hours doing so, and prevent trees from sprouting and growing naturally. Most of this land should be a maintenance-free native landscape. Sure, areas next to intersections should be maintained for visibility and safety, but I see no reason why cloverleafs must be mowed in their entirety. Some people will complain, as they want it all to look tidy like their lawns at home, but many of us prefer the natural look. It’s cheaper and healthier, anyway.

This idea of strategic laziness pertains to cities, as well. I noticed in Berlin, Germany, that the amount of urban vegetation was much higher than, for example, Minneapolis. I saw more weeds and grass growing in sidewalk cracks, and more “unmanicured” shrubs and trees on property boundaries. That translates into less gas-powered maintenance, and less herbicide use. In contrast, here in Wisconsin most homeowners keep their yards very tidy and have plenty of lawn area with too few shrubs and trees. They maintain their yards with gas-powered mowers and spray glyphosate to keep it all weed-free. They prune and shape shrubs into tidy round balls. Lots of room for improvement. This is anecdotal, of course, but would be interesting to study further.

When we talk more specifically about the urban forest, or our city trees, the benefits of a city filled with trees are well documented. Our urban forests are crucial to making our cities greener, as they:

  • sequester carbon
  • improve air quality
  • moderate heat and save energy
  • moderate high winds
  • filter water and moderate erosion
  • increase real estate values
  • as well as providing benefits to people such as calming us and helping us slow down a bit.

References herehere, and here.

Urban trees are beautiful and functional

Urban trees are beautiful and functional.

Greening our urban waterways

Last for this post is our abused urban waterways. What’s left of them, anyway. So many have been filled in, paved over, straightened, turned into open sewers, and treated as dumps, but the potential for improvement is huge, and it’s crucial that we improve them. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has created the Urban Waters Movement to do that, by working with communities to reduce pollution entering rivers and to repair the damage. Many urban waterways are being restored to a more natural state and are once again accessible to people, with parks and trails and access for fishing and paddling.

Urban waterways, though damaged, can be revived.

Urban waterways, though damaged, can be revived.

As the world becomes more and more urban, we have unmatched opportunities to green our cities. These ideas are just four of many, but would have substantial benefits.

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What makes a livable community?

Community seems to be a popular concept right now. People all over the United States are realizing that sprawling, monolithic, and unsatisfying development—the kind that has been dominant for the last half-century—can be modified and improved. Dozens of books have been written on this subject, and from many different perspectives, such as transportation, health and fitness, land use, and so on. What is happening to drive this awareness and desire for change, and what makes a community livable and pleasant?

Well, from my perspective, the desire for a real “community” springs from the crap so many Americans have to live with. In between the “bucolic” countryside and the walkable urban downtown is a mess of development that is entirely car-focused. Christopher Leinberger, in The Option of Urbanism, calls it “drivable sub-urban” development. We also call it sprawl.

It’s made up of gigantic neighborhoods of similarly styled houses, and nothing but houses. Then across a busy four-lane highway, a “big-box” retail center, with acres of asphalt parking lots. It’s low-density, large-lot development that gobbles up open land. Walking or riding a bike in these areas is either unfeasible because the distances are too great, or the heavy traffic on multi-lane streets and highways discourages anyone not driving a car. It’s either too far or doesn’t feel safe. It’s not healthy, either.

Since 1960, “the overweight population has doubled, the obese population has increased 5 fold and the population with extreme or morbid obesity has increased by a factor of nearly 12!” (Downey Obesity Report)

According to the Centers for Disease Control (2000), “In the USA the proportion of children who walk or bike to school declined between 1969 (42%) and 2001 (16%) resulting in less exercise.”

Why we ended up with this development is a topic for another blog post, but people can see that drivable sub-urban development is not healthy, and for many it is not pleasant. Let’s look at an alternative model for development, one that is designed for humans and not cars.

The American Institute of Architects has created 10 Principles for Livable Communities that help us make our communities pleasant, functional, and human centered. Check out the Center for Communities by Design for more information and more detail on these principles.

1. Design on a Human Scale
Compact, pedestrian-friendly communities allow residents to walk to shops, services, cultural resources, and jobs and can reduce traffic congestion and benefit people’s health.

2. Provide Choices
People want variety in housing, shopping, recreation, transportation, and employment. Variety creates lively neighborhoods and accommodates residents in different stages of their lives.

3. Encourage Mixed-Use Development
Integrating different land uses and varied building types creates vibrant, pedestrian-friendly and diverse communities.

4. Preserve Urban Centers
Restoring, revitalizing, and infilling urban centers takes advantage of existing streets, services and buildings and avoids the need for new infrastructure. This helps to curb sprawl and promote stability for city neighborhoods.

5. Vary Transportation Options
Giving people the option of walking, biking and using public transit, in addition to driving, reduces traffic congestion, protects the environment and encourages physical activity.

6. Build Vibrant Public Spaces
Citizens need welcoming, well-defined public places to stimulate face-to-face interaction, collectively celebrate and mourn, encourage civic participation, admire public art, and gather for public events.

7. Create a Neighborhood Identity
A “sense of place” gives neighborhoods a unique character, enhances the walking environment, and creates pride in the community.

8. Protect Environmental Resources
A well-designed balance of nature and development preserves natural systems, protects waterways from pollution, reduces air pollution, and protects property values.

9. Conserve Landscapes
Open space, farms, and wildlife habitat are essential for environmental, recreational, and cultural reasons.

10. Design Matters
Design excellence is the foundation of successful and healthy communities.

It’s interesting to note that most of these principles, if not all, are simply a return to the way we used to build cities. Not all of us have forgotten what makes a livable community.

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The Option of Urbanism: Investing In A New American Dream

The Option of Urbanism: Investing In A New American Dream

copyright 2009 Christopher Leinberger, 176 pages

Author Christopher Leinberger lays out the history of suburban development in the United States, and how we got to the point where nearly all new development has been “big-box” retail, “power centers,” and “large-lot” homes. In addition to his analysis of “drivable sub-urban” and “walkable urban” development, Leinberger weighs in on the causes of the 2008 recession.

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Suburbia…where the developer bulldozes the trees, then names the streets after them. Creative Commons license by Daquela Manera.

Simply put, after World War II, the United States entered a phase of massive economic growth and embraced the “drivable sub-urban” development model with gusto, to the exclusion of other types. This type of development is familiar to us all: low density, large lots, acres of asphalt parking lots in front of chain big-box retail, restaurants, and office parks. A car is virtually required to get around, as the low density of development makes public transportation unfeasible, and the distances and interruption of freeways and multi-lane highways make biking and walking unpleasant, inconvenient, and often dangerous.

In contrast, “walkable urban” development is largely just returning to a more localized way of living, wherein people don’t need a car to live day to day. Walkable urban development has been the standard worldwide for centuries because people had no choice but to work and shop within, say, a quarter-mile to a half-mile from home.

The story gets more interesting when Leinberger addresses the link between the recession of 2008 and the “structural change” in how we build and develop. The “built environment” represents about 35% of our total economy—the largest single chunk. The recession of 2008 coincides with the “structural change” of public preference shifting from primarily drivable sub-urban development to walkable urban development. In other words, the shenanigans in finance and real estate popped the bubble at the time that the public’s preference towards walkable urban development was reaching critical mass.

To be sure, drivable sub-urban development will continue to be built, and walkable urban development never completely went away. But now we know that drivable sub-urban development has done poorly in the recession, losing value, while walkable urban development has done fairly well. There is massive over-supply of drivable sub-urban property, and great demand for walkable urban property, leading, of course, to falling prices in suburbia and rising prices in the urban neighborhoods.

Leinberger references Arthur C. Nelson, professor at the University of Utah:

“There were 54 million large-lot single-family houses in 2000 and Nelson projects that upward of 22 million will not find ready buyers when it comes time to sell, which implies much lower prices.” This is the market at work.

With a surplus of obsolete drivable sub-urban housing now and for the next few decades, our society faces a few associated problems. When people fled the cities for suburbia, they left behind housing stock that was constructed more robustly than most suburban homes of today, which have been “value engineered” to look impressive from a distance, but which almost certainly will not endure over time. Vinyl and hardboard siding, vinyl windows, cheap asphalt shingles, low-end furnaces and air-conditioning units, vinyl flooring, and drywall and chipboard walls are not going to last like the housing stock built in 1915. These will be high-maintenance homes.

And because of the low density of suburbia, public transportation is not very cost-effective and so mostly non-existent, so residents need cars to get around. When gasoline prices rise, driving becomes even more expensive. So the housing itself may become cheap, but maintaining it, and getting to and from work and shopping, will become relatively more expensive.

If sub-urban housing loses more and more value, people stop maintaining it, as there’s no financial incentive to spend money on a house that you cannot recoup at the time of sale. That causes financial pain for homeowners, as their largest asset stagnates or declines in value; for banks, as lending for a depreciable and hard-to-sell asset may not make sense; and for municipalities, as the tax base shrinks and needed services go unfunded.

In the past, families with children drove demand for sub-urban housing. However, families are projected to decline to only about 25% of U.S. households in 2040, and few people without kids will want a large-lot house in suburbia. As always, demographics is destiny, and the shift from drivable sub-urban development to walkable urban development has the potential to be painful for suburbia.

Leinberger concludes with five steps he says are necessary for walkable urbanism to thrive across the country. The details can get a bit dense, so I’ll summarize:

1. Zoning must change to support mixed use development.

2. Financing must adapt to the challenges and opportunities of walkable urban development.

3. Government must end subsidies for drivable sub-urban development.

4. Government must invest in walkable urban infrastructure, such as rail transit.

5. Government must intensively manage walkable urban areas to ensure that it’s done properly.

While reading this account, I began to wonder where the opportunities will be found, and to consider a niche for some large-lot sub-urban homes. Do they have the potential for supporting self-sufficiency? It seems to me that an industrious family, for example, could create a market garden, woodshop, or other home business on their one-acre sub-urban lot. I’m not the first to consider this possibility, of course, but it’s interesting so I’ll come back to it in another blog post.

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