Tag: Local sustainability

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.


Tiny House Living at MTU

The latest Humans of Michigan Tech story features Sydney, an undergrad who lives in an ambulance turned tiny home. The story barely touches the surface of the environmental, economic, and personal benefits that can come from tiny home living. Tiny homes are a great example of how environmentally responsible living is also economically beneficial – Sydney doesn’t have to pay rent or utility bills and can take advantage of the shared systems like showers and internet provided by the college campus. Sydney is not the first MTU student to live in a tiny home while completing a degree here – a student who built a tiny home on a trailer used to live in my yard, before she graduated and moved away from Houghton. There have even been discussions of developing a community of tiny houses on campus! Sydney and other students who have lived in tiny homes demonstrate that it’s possible, even in the cold snowy climate of the UP. Her story makes me wonder – How many students would live like this, if provided the opportunity to try? How can we teach more students about this possibility? What are the barriers in our way of making more environmentally and economically sound investments for qualify living through tiny homes and access to shared systems? We’re proud of you, Sydney!


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.


Tech Forward! On Sustainability & Resilience

Michigan Tech has ambitious plans to address the future of education, the contexts in which education operates, and the objectives and aims that a University education serves, given the expected disruptions resulting from external factors (you can read more about Tech Forward here). Discussions and meetings in the fall 2018 semester (you can read more about that process here) resulted in the announcement of big, broad Initiatives intended to create plans for proactively addressing the challenges faced by MTU, Universities, and the societies in which we live. One of the Initiatives is focused on Sustainability & Resilience, and the Working Group has been meeting regularly to discuss possibilities, priorities, and the principles that should guide Sustainability & Resilience activities at MTU — What do you think? What do you think Sustainability & Resilience should look like at MTU?


Bringing Solar Energy Technology to Campus

Have you ever used solar energy to charge your laptop or cellphone? Have you ever had the chance to watch a battery’s charging meter go up as it takes in power from the sun? Would you like to learn more about the efficiency and potential of solar electric technology?

A study is about to begin on campus involving solar energy technology. Goal Zero is a leader in portable solar equipment technology, and eight of their systems are now here on campus. Two of these systems are meant for larger scale use (for a family or group housing situation); six of them are smaller, relatively portable, and meant for individual usage. A collaborative project between Dr. Joshua Pearce’s lab and Dr. Chelsea Schelly of the Department of Social Sciences, the goal of the project is to temporarily install these systems into Greek housing, shared student houses, dorms rooms and university apartments so that students can get firsthand experience using solar energy technology. After they’ve spent some time living with solar electricity, participants will be asked about their energy behaviors – how they use and think about energy. This project was recently discussed in the Lode.

Solar electric technology provides one means of decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels and localizing energy production. Participating in this study will provide students with exposure to the latest in portable and small scale solar electricity generation, and will provide researchers with information regarding how technology impacts our energy behaviors and attitudes. If you live in Greek organization housing, share a house with other students, or would be interested in participating as an individual, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact cschelly@mtu.edu.


Wendell Berry: Writing the Poetry and Economics of Ecological Responsibility

[This is a post from Katie Snyder, a PhD student in Rhetoric and Technical Communication here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

As far as I can tell, there’s not much conversation between economists and poets of late. This is unfortunate, in a way, because both are so closely attuned to the inconsistencies of human emotion. Economic news reporters, for example, will discuss “nervousness” in the market, or “optimism,” as if “the market” had feelings of its own. Poets, at the same time, are deeply concerned with emotive experience, adhering to schemes of rhythm and sense.

But it’s hard to find someone who can engage intelligibly in economics and poetry at the same time — harder still to find someone who can articulate a meaningful relationship between these two in the context of current ecological crises. Maybe there are more examples than one, but Wendell Berry is the best I can think of at this point.

Berry, now 79, is a poet and farmer, among other things. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, and winner of myriad writing prizes and awards, he’s taught and farmed and served as a local activist for most of his life. His writing is lovely and unexpected. Read, for example, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

Last spring Bill Moyers interviewed Berry as part of an ecologically-themed conference at St. Catharine’s College, located outside Louisville. The interview aired in Oct 2013 on Moyer’s program, and highlights the pragmatic and humble logic of Berry’s perspective.

Berry argues, for example, that it should be little wonder that the industrialized world finds it increasing difficult to keep human beings “employed.” He says that one of the two goals of industrialization was to replace people with machines, and points out that we’ve met this goal quite successfully—though politicians are loathe to make that connection. Berry says its his job, because he has “no power,” to call out this kind of inconsistency.

The suggestion that he has “no power” should be clarified however, because he believes that “the people” have power if they choose to take it, and that ecological damage can only be reversed in local and long-term schemes developed by communities who are devoted to their land. It is out of this commitment to rehabilitation and reclaiming that he advocates for the 50-year farm bill.

The bill proposes to move away from monoculture and return more crop diversity and more people to rural lands. Berry admits this proposal would take patience … and faith … and hope. But he is adamant that we must try. Even in the face of impossible odds he says,

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we are going to succeed or not. The only thing we have a right to ask is, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?’”

And while these are philosophical and spiritual and ethical questions, Berry points out that they are also very pragmatic economic questions. Toward this end, he is intensely critical of modern capitalism. He argues that its “natural logic” is to take as much as you want, by whatever means you can devise—and this logic is simply unsustainable.

Berry’s love for, and obligation to, nature plays out in his economic perspectives as much as in his poetry.  He says his writing gives an account of “precious things,” most of which are now in danger of falling away. His hope is that we can again begin to see the world in terms of its preciousness—its sacredness—rather than simply in terms of its immediate economic value.


Dollarocracy and transitions to sustainability

John Nichols and Robert McChesney have a new book out, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. They discuss the many problems created by the infusion of massive money into our elections, particularly the erosion of locally-produced journalism (replaced by political ads) and the impact of that loss on the ideas that we discuss in our society. In their recent interview with Bill Moyers, I was struck by something that John Nichols said:

“Dollarocracy has the ability to animate dead ideas. You can take an idea that’s a bad idea, buried by the voters — Dollarocracy can dig it up, and that zombie idea will walk among us.”

This has profound implications for the ability of communities and regions to begin their transitions to more locally-based sustainable systems. When we are forced by the interests of wealthy elites and corporate interests to discuss (and defeat) the same bad ideas over and over again, it leaves us no time to discuss the transformative ideas that will lead us to more economically and environmentally sustainable systems. When we have to discuss the solvency of Medicare in every election cycle, we have no time to discuss local heath care cooperatives. When the national conversation about the continued malfeasance of Wall Street distracts us from the benefits provided by our local credit unions, we have a harder time supporting our Main Streets.

National conversations will always be important; we talk about ourselves first and foremost as Americans. However, the volume of national discourse has overwhelmed our local discourse, and we need to focus more attention on our ailing communities and what we can do to strengthen them, especially against the winds of monied outside interests.


Living Sustainably? The case of burning wood

The coming of the colder weather means that the wood stove in my living room has been brought back to life, and I have spent several nights already this fall watching the fire flickering through its glass front. I, like many of my neighbors and I presume many other residents of the UP, burn wood at home as a source of heat. Although there’s another heating source in my home (propane), I prefer to use the wood burning stove. Yet I’ve recently been reading up on the down sides of burning wood, and have been contemplating what it means for living sustainably.

There’s a lot of science out there about the harmful emissions from burning wood. One report claims that it could be as harmful for you as cigarette smoke or as toxic as what comes out of a diesel tailpipe. Apparently, some physicians in Utah have even proposed banning wood burning stoves in the state (although at least one Utah resident is starkly opposed). The Environmental Protection Agency has set emissions limits on wood burning stoves, and recommends using only newer, more efficient, EPA certified stoves. Yet despite concerns about their negative environmental impacts from emissions, people are arguably driven to burn wood for heat for economic reasons – it’s less expensive than other, fossil-fuel derived heat sources.

The appeal of a wood burning stove, for me, goes beyond economic considerations. Burning wood for heat means that the individual or family seeking heat becomes entirely responsible for their own comfort. Instead of having to pay a monthly bill and rely on a system of technical experts, invisible technologies, and far away bureaucracies, burning wood for heat requires that we rely on ourselves. Burning wood as a heat source mirrors, to me, what energy expert Amory Lovins said long ago when contrasting energy systems on the “hard path” and the “soft path” – it puts energy usage into the hands of the user, making us reliant on our own knowledge, experience, and participation.

At least, that’s always been my experience with using wood as a heat source. Perhaps I would feel very differently about it if I’d ever had to pay for wood to burn, instead of relying on resources on my private property. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to land with suitable wood to burn, a real issue of justice that I would be remiss to ignore. Nonetheless, when I look at the flickering firelight in my wood burning stove, I can’t help but contemplate how we define, measure, and pursue sustainability. Is it just about emissions calculations? Do issues of ownership matter? I am interested in pursuing alternatives where individuals and communities can take more ownership and be more responsible for the resources we all depend upon – like clean water, healthy food, and enough energy to provide for our needs and comforts. Does the concept of sustainability captures my concerns about social organization or community resilience, or do I need to look elsewhere for a concept that more accurately represents my interest in ‘sustainable’ living?


UP Landscapes exhibit at the Beaumier Center at NMU

A new art exhibit, “U.P. Mosaic: A Working Landscape and its People” will open this month on the Northern Michigan University campus. Although the information is not yet up on the Beaumier Upper Peninsula Heritage Center‘s webpage, you can find details about the events on opening day (October 26th) through the Marquette Monthly magazine. The exhibit will run from October 26 through January 15, 2014, and will be open 10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday.