Tag: energy

Giving farmers a new crop: Solar Farms and expanding BTM methods for farmers

This is a guest post from Lena Stenvig, an undergraduate student at Michigan Tech. Lena is studying Computer Science and minoring in Environmental Studies. Lena took the photos included in this blog post. She can be reached at lsstenvi@mtu.edu

The cherry orchard at Garthe Farms LLC

America is all about its family-owned farms. From its popular food chains serving America-grown burgers to its corn-mazes in the fall attracting people from all around, none of it would be possible without the original small-town humble farmers that do their job equally for supporting their families and for the love of what they do every day; but now our farmers need help. When people moved away from their family farms over to less body-intensive jobs for work, fewer farms began producing more product on more land. Even so, many farmers struggle to produce enough crop to sustain themselves and their family. Around 91 percent of farming families have at least one family member working at a job that is not the farm. This is where Behind the Meter, or BTM comes in.

Behind the meter is a means of producing your own energy so that you are not pulling all of the energy you use from the grid, and as a result pay less for your electricity bill. A popular technique to behind-the-meter is installing solar-panels in one’s yard on upon the roof. In this way a household can produce green energy to lower its carbon footprint and can save on the electricity bill. A typical household has room for a few solar panels. Enough to sustain itself for most of the summer months, but usually not enough when the winter heating bill kicks in. A modern American farm has much more land than your typical resident. Even if most of it is used for farming, there are certainly space that could easily be allocated for a small solar farm. Having worked for Garthe Farms LLC this summer, a cherry farm deep in cherry country near Traverse City, MI, I have seen first-hand where and how this can work. My uncle, Gene Garthe, runs this farm and in recent years invested in four large solar panels that sit in empty space near the driveway nearing the farm house. These four solar panels produce enough energy to run what electricity is needed for the farm, and that is all they desire and need.

Despite producing plenty of energy via solar, Garthe Farms is not a emissions-free facility. Large machinery is used to harvest the cherries from their trees. There are three machines that are necessary in cherry harvesting: the Shaker, which shakes the cherries from the trees, the Catch Frame, which catches the cherries shaken by the Shaker and conveyors them into a tub, and the tractor that takes the tubs when full to the loading dock and brings the Catch Frame a new tub in which to fill more cherries. All three of these machines require diesel fuel to run, and as much work as one can complete towards electric vehicles, it is not economically feasible at the moment to make a machine that chugs through an entire tank of fuel in eight hours of work to operate on an electrically-rechargeable battery. To make up for their fuel usage, perhaps it is better that farms simply produce a form of green energy that can make up for the amount of fossil fuels they consume.

Cherry harvest in motion: The Shaker (far) moves to the next tree while the Catch Frame (near) is receiving a new tub in which to place the harvested cherries.

In this way farmers can reverse the BTM method. If they can produce their usual crop while also producing energy in either the form of solar or wind, they can sustain their household while also receiving return on what they put out to the grid. This can work if they can have some of their own personal solar panels to run what they need to on the farm, and then working with solar or wind companies to lease certain areas of their land to be utilized for said energy production. For wind, this is easy by simply taking up a small portion of land for each windmill. The minimally invasive turbines do not take up much room on the farm and do not hinder the crops from receiving enough sunlight. Solar panels can prove to be trickier. Because of their method of energy production, solar panels would not work well in a field full of crops that also require sunlight in order to grow. For farms that grow plants that take up less room per unit such as potatoes or corn, placing solar panels in spare spaces around the field while mostly utilizing wind power might be the best option. For farms like my uncle’s, it is a different story entirely.

Much of a cherry orchard’s area is taken up by plants and grasses that grow below the trees, and the trees stand spaced approximately ten feet apart within each row. Each row stands about another twenty five feet apart. Where some farms may be only able to place solar panels near roads or at the end of rows, orchards may place the panels in these locations are more. If one row of trees were to be replaced with solar panels, the loss of trees would be fairly minimal while also adding enormous potential for solar production. Even without removing trees, placing solar panels at the end of rows would not affect the production of fruit while also receiving gain on solar production.

If we are to look closer at our American farms and examine the issues they face today, and if we can only look at the potential they hold for energy production, we may not only be able to solve the growing problem of farms going bankrupt, but also for finding a place to produce greener energy without disrupting land that is not being used and additionally would ecologically be better off as it is. In this way farmers can continue to do what they love, and not have to work more than they have to in order to pay bills and keep their farm from dying. With this I might say the path onto greener pastures might just be creating greener pastures.


Your Role in Progressing Toward a Soft-Energy Society

Photo by Meghal Janarda

This is a guest blog post from Zoe Reep, who is an undergraduate mathematics major at Michigan Tech. Zoe can be reached at zkreep@mtu.edu

As our society has grown in population, technology, and abilities, so has its need for energy. And as our need for energy has grown, we have been forced to step outside of early methods of capturing and extracting this energy. Over time, society has shifted from reliance on muscular and biomass sources such as animal labor and firewood in the 15th century to a reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas in the late 20th century (Evolution of Energy Sources).

Figure 1: Graph representing the evolution of energy sources across periods of time (Evolution of Energy Sources).

In the late 1900s, influential writer and scientist Amory Lovins took a critical look at the future of our energy sector in his essay “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?.” He proposed that there are two ways in which society can proceed: the hard path, society’s current path characterized by intense fossil fuel consumption and lack of regard to the environmental effects of such consumption; and the soft path, the path that Lovins believed to be the better alternative characterized by renewable energy and the commitment to energy conservation and efficiency.

Those in support of the hard path argue that fossil fuels and nuclear energy alone can sustain our ever-growing population, with its ever-growing desire for energy, if we simply alter our extraction, conversion, distribution, and usage methods to be more efficient. Proponents of the hard path believe that society should focus on providing incentives, such as tax breaks and subsidies, for fossil fuel companies to encourage the exploration and extraction of coal, uranium, and petroleum. Following the decline of the availability of fossil fuels, these hard-pathers support a shift to nuclear power. Typically, those in support of the hard path envision a future of expensive, centralized systems (Newton).

In contrast, those in support of the soft path hold the belief that a reliance on solely fossil fuels is not only unsustainable in the long run, but dangerous. They believe that creating and sustaining large, concentrated facilities for power production enables powerful companies to dictate energy’s place in society and turns energy into a socioeconomic issue. Instead of these centralized systems, proponents of the soft path favor more local energy retrieval methods, such as solar panels on buildings or the use of wind turbines on properties. Additionally, soft-pathers would like to see society slowly transition from a heavy reliance on fossil fuels to a more dispersed reliance on renewable energy sources such as hydro, geothermal, solar, and wind power (Newton).

Lovins views sparked a time of controversy, but also brought up an important issue: which direction is the direction that we need to move in order to ensure that our successors have the same abilities to live full and meaningful lives as we do?

We’ve reached a point where it is difficult to argue that there isn’t something wrong with our current energy industry. [Check out https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels for a look at the increase in fossil fuel consumption. Think our current methods can keep up with the ever-growing demand for energy?] Scientists and researchers have been presenting more and more evidence that our current path is unsustainable and that we might even reap the irreversible consequences of our procrastination and selfish desires in our lifetime. It is beginning to seem that the majority of people recognize the correlation between the dependence on fossil fuels and Earth’s degrading environment and atmospheric conditions , so what’s stopping us from converting to a more sustainable alternative?

We have grown increasingly dependent on energy and the comforts and commodities it supplies to us. We believe that others will find an answer for us, and that the answer will allow us to continue our life of ease. We hold the assumption that our own individual efforts will not produce change, since we are merely a single ant in the midst of a ginormous colony.

I tested a thought that I had on my Energy and Society class. I wanted to see if, when provided the education of why change was important and the means of producing that change, my peers would change small areas of their life that they had grown up comfortable with to benefit the world around them.

We had spent the previous class walking around campus and discussing areas that we felt could be improved, through methods such as user awareness or the implementation of more efficient systems,  to lessen energy consumption. The general consensus seemed to be that there were many aspects of our college life that, with a little change, could lower our energy consumption significantly and if only people knew about these areas, or acted on these areas, we would be in a much better position, energy-speaking.

I used a topic that I knew would strike controversy and that my class would be resistant to: food, and the environmental effects of the current animal agriculture industry – and our consumption of the proteins stemming from it.

Before I began, I asked my class whether they were vegetarian. This elicited several skeptical looks and maybe one or two hesitant “I once was…” or “I tried at one point…” I then provided them with some basic education on the negative effects of the animal agriculture industry through short videos. These videos walked my class through the water, land, and fuel consumption required to create even a single patty and informed them of the emissions and other land-and-water-degradation that results from a mass animal agriculture system.

Following the videos, I asked a very straightforward question: “Who is going to become vegetarian?” When that didn’t receive a response, I decided to cut them a little slack: “Who is going to change their diet?” That received a couple grunts.

I then posed one final question, which is what I want to leave you with today: if you’re not going to make the change, even after being educated about the issue and being provided means to pursue this lifestyle change (even if it is more expensive than the alternative, “normal” route), then what makes you think that anybody else will?

Stop believing that change will occur only when everyone buys into the change; start the change, and help people buy into it. Your actions are important and do create discussion. They have the potential to incite change. If you agree that this energy path we are taking is in fact unsustainable and quite dangerous to rely on, then step up, alter your lifestyle (yes, you might need to give up some of your comforts), and encourage others to do the same. And if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the generations to come.

Zoe Reep.


Off-Grid Energy

This guest post is provided by Alannah, who is a Sustainability Science and Society undergraduate major at Michigan Tech. She can be reached at amwoodri@mtu.edu

Photo by Kevin Stace

Hi, I am Alannah Woodring a third year Sustainability Science and Society undergrad. Off grid energy production is intertwined with sustainability. These are systems that individuals use to generate their own power removing the need for energy companies. This gives individuals independence, no longer needing to be connected to the energy grid. Most commonly through solar panels residents and communities can create their own micro grid.

Since I was in Middle School, I have considered living in an off grid in a tiny house, earth ship, converted shipping container or other forms of alternative housing. The main reason for this is to reduce my footprint and my overall individual consumption. Currently, in my free time I draw up blueprints for tiny houses and modular homes. My first blueprint started in 2014 and I keep sketching up new ideas. One element all these living spaces have in common is an off-grid energy system. To accomplish this, I would have solar panels with battery reserves create my own energy system. There would also be the ability to connect to the grid if needed. Having the on and off grid flexibility is a necessity when having a mobile living situation. Beyond my desire for an off-grid system there are many possibilities to aid in energy issues within the United States and help developing countries who lack access to energy.

Photo taken in Windsor, California by Kirsten Dirksen. “Agile villages for fire victims as templates to fix CA housing?”faircompaines.com. October 20, 2019.

Off grid energy systems could be applied to places that have a failing energy infrastructure. In California during the beginning of October 2019 widespread organized blackouts occurred by Pacific Gas & Energy (PG&E). This was in hopes to reduce the possibility of widespread fires during a few very windy days.

This blackout affected more than 500,000 people. With the usage of micro grid systems people who would not have been affected by strong winds could have left their power on but since they are all part of a large grid majority of people got their electricity shut off. During the 2017 wildfire PG&E was to blame resulting with an 11-billion-dollar settlement that was reached this September. Shutting off the electricity in October was to prevent a wildfire to the magnitude that was seen in 2017. As conditions worsen in California due to climate change the current energy infrastructure is showing a growing number of problems.

Many California residents cannot afford to rebuild after the fire, and it is estimated that 3,300 people decided not to move back after the 2017 fire. For others who decided to move back they are choosing to live in 480 square feet homes renting for $950. Community members are coming together to get temporary housing permits for those effected from the wildfire. Through the usage of a micro grid system these small homes could have not been affected by blackouts and this would reduce the chance for wildfire if their energy infrastructure was to be built underground. Having power lines above ground does not have to be the status quo but it is the system that the United States is used to having. Coming up with solutions using off grid energy systems to combat rising issues from climate change should be considered widely as climate change is predicted to worsen conditions.

Another potential for off grid energy systems is in counties that do not have energy infrastructure such as power lines already in place. It can take many years for widespread grids to be established in rural and remote areas. By using off grid energy systems rural communities who would have had to wait many years for access would be able to produce energy in a matter of months. This adds self-sufficiency within energy production for developing countries who often lack the complete infrastructure needed to maintain systems.

Furthermore, here is a ted talk that outlines the expansive sustainable potential of off grid energy systems. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20adDr7Felw

There are many companies like Powerhive that are helping people in rural areas who cannot afford the initial cost of power lines to be connected to their communities. They instead install solar panels in rural areas to connect communities that would not have access to electricity otherwise. Electricity is a necessity for life within our globalized world. Rural areas surfer the most from inequalities and access to electricity can help bridge the gap. When I was in high school deciding what I wanted to major I knew proving energy to remote and rural areas was always a possibility. I hope that I can work within off-grid energy systems sometime in my life.

Source: Powerhive, Powerhive: Resilient Energy Infrastructure for Off-Grid Communities. August 10, 2016

When having an off-grid energy system individual become more aware of their energy consumption. They look at the peak times they consume energy. With having this system, they can avoid peak energy price changes that electric companies charge.

In Tyalgum, Australia they are a community of a little more than 300 members. They are choosing to have their own off grid energy system to have independence from energy suppliers and go carbon neutral. In Australia much of their energy mix comes from fossil fuels as they have large reserves in their country. The carbon lock in cycle can be observed in Australia. Members of the Tyalgum community feel Australia does not have a progressive enough stance on incorporating renewables, so they have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Reasons for switching to off grid energy systems can be ranging from reducing natural disasters amplified from climate change or just wanting to reduce carbon emissions. No matter the reason for wanting off-grid systems they can help mitigate climate change issues while providing energy justice to people who previously had none. Benefits come from small scale energy generation that many would not consider since off-grid is not a common practice. With more knowledge surrounding off-grid energy individuals can think of energy as a public good. Fossil fuels are not sustainable and rethinking the current energy infrastructure can create a new sustainable blueprint for the future.


Managing Split Incentives as a Better Way to be Energy Efficient While Renting?

Brendan Beecham is an undergraduate Computer Science major at Michigan Tech. He can be reached at blbeecha@mtu.edu.

Understanding the Need

In the present-day variable economy, split incentives could be used as a method of lowering the overall energy bill for a renting tenant. By sharing the cost of energy between the landlord and the tenant, the difficulty that arises with paying for high-cost energy services is mitigated. This in turn allows the renter to use the saved money to pay for other goods and services and inspires sustainable living through spending less on utilities.

Source: nucherenonagel.com

The power of utilizing split incentives comes from the motivation from the landlord and tenant to be energy efficient. If the landlord accepts one lump sum fee from the tenant as a substitute for the tenant paying the utility themselves, they have much less reason to be mindful of how much energy they use. On the other hand, if a tenant pays their own electric bill every month themselves, the landlord might not see it as worth their money to install energy efficient lights and appliances. This is where split incentives shine.

When each party in the landlord/tenant relationship is responsible for their own half of the electric bill, there is much more pressure to be energy efficient. This is present in many more cases than just rental housing, but for simplicity I will focus on just the landlord/tenant relationship instead of hotels or big businesses.

Affordability For Those That Need It

Split incentives are especially important when discussing energy poverty. This is where lower income renters will end up allocating significantly more of their household income to energy bills than other renters. In this case, split incentives can cripple the financial stability of that renter and affect their quality of life. Additionally, this renter’s landlord will most likely be affected by the instability of the renter’s financial situation, which could lead to possible missed rent payments and cause for both parties to be in an unstable financial relationship. Implementing split incentives effectively can help both the renter and the landlord.

Energy poverty is an issue that arises from the infrastructure and behavior of the energy industry as it stands today. This is a huge issue. Until people are able to afford the energy that they need to take part in society, the thought of living efficiently is much less a choice for some than it is a requirement. There is hope, however, as the idea of split incentives is a versatile one and can help to push forward renewable energy technology.

Source: thebalance.com

Creating A Better Transition For Renewable Energy

Split incentives could be managed in ways that create energy poverty solutions, but they could also be helpful in mitigating the cost of installing renewable energy solutions like solar panels. Where many cite the initial sunk cost of installing solar panels as the number one reason for never transitioning to using renewable energy solutions, a program that effectively splits incentives could mean a lessened financial impact on each one of the parties involved, the renter and the landlord. While no tenant wants to pay for their landlord to install solar panels out of their own pockets, a cooperative action as well as the promise of lower energy costs in the future could cast a much more appealing light on the transition. In fact, this is not unlike the benefits that come from a government incentive program, one that gives tax breaks to parties who install renewables or who have a portion of their power grid being powered by renewables.

Sharing the Cost to Save Energy

Split incentives may mean that landlords have no reason to invest in energy efficiency or renewable energy, because they don’t see the benefits of lower utility bills themselves. By acknowledging and effectively managing split incentives, the solutions for reducing energy poverty and the transition to renewable energy can be streamlined. Like with most improvements to infrastructure systems, it is the programs that are put in place to reduce sunk costs and reduce risk on one party that will push forward for the most change. No landlord will front the cost of installing solar panels if they know there is no incentive to do so. In most private rental situations, there will need to be a push to get an incentive.

Source: energynews.us

The cost of renewable energy installation makes it a very unrealistic option for most tenants, even those in long term rentals. Even with the price of solar panels dropping as the market expands, for many tenants, the cost of installations are still too high, and the split incentive of renting (when they might not directly benefit from the reduction in utility expenses) is a huge barrier. While renting is an increasing trend in the housing market, tenants won’t want to put money into rental housing, since they don’t own it and won’t see the benefits from the housing value. Most renters are less financially well off that their landlords, so spending their income to install solar panels for the benefit of the landlord is not likely.

Conclusion

Split incentives can be managed in ways that have the potential to improve quite a few factors that all relate to energy and the way it’s used in rental housing. Dividing the costs between the landlord and the tenant could provide a stronger reason to be more energy efficient for both parties. Most importantly, incorporating  sustainability into the way we live is quite a daunting task, especially if money is an issue. So to share the burden with others is possibly the biggest leap to see the biggest benefits. Whether it is minimizing the energy footprint that we are leaving, or attempting to save money to be able to afford the everyday essentials in life, managing or leveraging split incentives to provide maximum benefits and incentives to both landlords and tenants is a smart first step.


Household Sustainability, for the average Joe

Someone recently shared with me this news story about two men in Ontario who are going “off the grid” this summer as an experiment in sustainable living. They live in a two-bedroom apartment in a community of over 350,000 people, but they have unplugged their fridge and turned off their hot water heater in order to live without conventional electricity. In addition, they have started a garden and a worm composting system and are planning to avoid throwing trash “away” all summer. However, these two aren’t planning to go without their smartphones. A Canadian company called Goal Zero is sponsoring their experiment in sustainability by providing the equipment necessary to charge phones and computers as well as turn on some lights with portable solar power. Calling themselves “Sustainable Joes,” they are documenting their summer experiment on youtube and Facebook, and have a website where you can learn more about their project and their vision.

I find the story of these Sustainable Joes fascinating. For me, it will be interesting to watch them throughout the summer, with several questions in mind. Not everyone can purchase (or would be willing to purchase) portable solar systems ranging in cost from $500 to $2,000. How many companies would be willing to provide these things for free just to get the word out about their product or to demonstrate its feasibility, and how much energy could we save if more households or communities had solar charging stations for our phones, tablets, and e-readers? What will these Sustainable Joes experience as a sacrifice (like cold showers and cold food), what will they experience as empowering (like, as they say, not being a slave to the power outlet), and how could their portrayal of their experiences as limiting or liberating affect how other people perceive more sustainable lifestyles? What kinds of things will these “average Joes” talk about when documenting their experiment as part of their desire to encourage other people: will they talk about money saved or carbon kept out of the atmosphere, will they share only what worked for them or also what doesn’t? What does it look like to live sustainably in the modern world? I spent almost two years without a refridgerator at one point in my life, but have never gone without the Internet.

The Sustainable Joes experiment demonstrates that a more sustainable lifestyle is within everyone’s reach, and that more sustainable household practices can change both our lifestyles and our attitudes in unexpected ways. Perhaps most importantly, they are leading by example, encouraging us to examine our own lives and ask – what could we do to help develop a more sustainable now?


Green Film Series 2013

Here is the schedule (copied and pasted here) for the 2013 Green Film Series at Michigan Tech. All movies are shown in G002 Hesterberg Hall, Michigan Tech Forestry Building, and start at 7pm. Coffee, dessert, and a facilitated discussion occur in the Atrium (just outside the room) after the event. The cost is free and open to the public, although a $3 donation is suggested. Teachers may earn 0.6 SB-CEU’s for attending four of the five films.

January 17th: River Planet – explores the very different environmental, cultural and social issues around how humans and wildlife interact with six major rivers on our planet. Run time: 29 minutes. Discussion Facilitator: Evan McDonald, Keweenaw Land Trust, will discuss local efforts to protect and steward the Pilgrim River Watershed – a local area highly vulnerable to unchecked future urban development.

February 21st: Last Call at the Oasis – Be it through consumption or contamination, water is becoming more scarce globally, including in the United States. Run time: 108 minutes. Discussion Facilitator: Dr. Alex Mayer, MTU Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

March 14th: The Strange Disappearance of the Bees – Across the globe, the disturbing mass death of bees has more than just beekeepers worried – at least 1/3rd of the world’s food relies on bee pollination. Run time: 58 minutes. Discussion Facilitator: Melissa Hronkin, Apiarist and Proprietor of Algomah Acres Honey Farm.

April 18th: Switch – Join energy visionary Dr. Scott Tinker as he explores the world’s leading energy sites, from coal to solar, oil to biofuels, many highly restricted and never before seen on film. Run time: 98 minutes. Discussion Facilitator: Dr. Wayne Pennington, MTU Dept. of Geological  Mining Sciences  Engineering.

May 9th: Chasing Ice – Acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog ventures to the Arctic to document the melting of ice mountains using state-of-the-are time lapse photography. Chasing Ice depicts a photographer trying to deliver evidence and hope to our carbon-powered planet. Run time: 76 minutes. Discussion Facilitator: Dr. Sarah Green, MTU Dept. of Chemistry.

The film series is co-sponsored by the Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative, Michigan Tech Center for Water & Society, Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and Keweenaw Land Trust.


Green Film Series: “Into Eternity”

Green Film Series Addresses Nuclear Waste
The Green Film Series presents “Into Eternity” from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Thursday, June 21, in Forestry G002.

Admission is free; a $3 donation is suggested. There will be coffee, dessert and a discussion.

The one-hour film explores what the long-term storage of nuclear waste poses for human civilization.

The discussion facilitator will be Wayne Pennington, chair, Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences.

For more information, see Into Eternity.

The Green Film Series is partially funded with a grant from the League of Women Voters of the Copper Country, Friends of the Land of Keweenaw and the UP Environmental Coalition.

Sponsors are Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative, the Keweenaw Land Trust, the Michigan Tech Center for Water and Society and the Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

For the schedule of upcoming films, see Green Film Series.