Signs of Sustainability

We have a long way to go, but we're making progress. Here are some signs that we are moving towards sustainability.

September 8, 2014

Heating with Wood Pays Dividends

Tompkins Weekly 9-8-14

By Guillermo Metz

Looking out the window, it’s 80 and sunny. But night-time temperatures all summer have periodically dipped into the 50s. Even if there’s no proven relationship between the two, I shudder to think what that means for the coming winter.

With summer, they say it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. With winter, it’s not just the cold but the cost of keeping warm. Last winter was a long, cold one that caught many people off-guard. Particularly for those heating with propane or oil, the high costs of heating put an unexpected dent in many residents’ budgets. But it’s never too late to do something about it.

A winning combination is to make your home as energy-efficient as possible and then heat it with a pellet stove. Typically thought of as a space heater, homeowners around the county have shown that you can heat most of your home most of the year (or all of it) with a pellet stove, as long as the home is energy efficient. For most homes, that means increasing the insulation and air-tightness. Having an energy audit performed is the first step to finding out how energy efficient your home is, and in making it more energy efficient. Energy audits are still free for NYS residents making less than 200% of the median area income. You can find more information at www.upgradeupstate.org.

A significant issue with any wood-burning device is making sure emissions are kept at a minimum. By design, most pellet stoves have lower emissions than wood stoves, and reaching their designed emissions and efficiencies is much easier, since you’re using a much more standardized fuel.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County was going to run a wood stove to pellet stove changeout program aimed at retiring old, inefficient wood stoves for cleaner-burning pellet stoves. Instead, working with agencies at the state level, we are supporting a state-run initiative that aims to do the same thing, with an even bigger rebate. Renewable Heat NY is now offering $1000 rebates for changing out your old wood stove for a pellet stove. You can find more information at http://www.nyserda.ny.gov/Energy-Efficiency-and-Renewable-Programs/Renewables/Renewable-Heat-NY/Residential-Wood-Pellet-Stove.aspx. In an attempt to help lower-income homeowners with their heating bills, there is also an income-eligible option for homeowners who are heating with propane or oil but who do not have an old wood stove to turn in. And you don’t even have to be the homeowner to apply: if you’re renting a home with an old wood stove, you can (with your landlord’s permission) change it in for a pellet stove and receive the rebate.

At CCETC, we’re also going after some of the worst offenders: outdoor wood boilers. We’re piloting an outdoor wood boiler to pellet boiler changeout program aimed at replacing five OWBs with pellet boilers, with a rebate of $4000 each. Renewable Heat NY will add an OWB changeout to its program in 2015, with homeowners being able to upgrade to two-stage gasification, high-efficiency wood boilers (for an estimated rebate of $3500) or to an advanced pellet boiler (for an estimated rebate of $4500).

Homeowners new to pellets often ask about where the pellets come from and if demand can be met if significantly more people turn to heating with pellets. Most pellets are made almost exclusively from waste wood from sawmills, and though there have been periodic shortages the past few years, there is plenty of local wood to support a growing industry. Last winter was cold. Really cold, much of the time. No one anticipated that, which meant shortages for all kinds of fuels, including pellets. This year, pellet mills are ready. And as the market for pellets grows, the supply side will become even more secure.

Another program we are working on is bringing bulk pellet delivery to the Southern Tier. This will provide homeowners with a scenario much like liquid heating fuels. Someone can deliver pellets to your home on a schedule and put them into a container much like an oil or propane tank. From there, you can use a pail to transfer pellets to the pellet stove. No more picking up one-ton pallets or lugging 40-pound bags.

Perhaps more importantly, bulk delivery will enable larger end-users, from homes to large commercial entities, to heat with fully automated pellet boilers. These very clean-burning, highly efficient appliances can be fed pellets automatically through pneumatic or augured systems so that the end-user doesn’t have to do more than empty the ash pan, often as little as once a month.

Properly used, wood stoves are also a good option for heating, especially if you have a ready supply of wood. But if your wood stove is more than 20 years old, it’s time to upgrade to a newer one. And no matter what vintage your stove, always make sure you don’t burn anything other than clean, dry wood, and a little bit of newspaper to start the fire.

Whether you’ve been heating with wood or wood pellets your whole life or are considering it for the first time, sign up now for our next Learn to Burn workshop, September 10, 6-8pm. We’ll cover the Renewable Heat NY program, how to best buy and dry firewood, what to burn and what not to burn, and all the latest technologies, as well as basic tree identification and woodlot management. Call 272-2292 or e-mail me at gm52@cornell.edu to register (there is a sliding-scale $10 fee but no one will be turned away and everyone will be entered for a chance to win a moisture meter).

Guillermo Metz is Green Building and Renewable Energy Program coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

September 2, 2014

Global Warming Theories Confirmed

Tompkins Weekly 9-1-14

By Richard W. Franke

“Is the Earth’s climate changing? The answer is unequivocally ‘Yes.’” So wrote the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2001 Third Assessment Report. The IPCC’s 2001 report reflected an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming was occurring and that human activities – in particular the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere – was a major cause. The Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports have confirmed and elaborated the 2001 document.

The IPCC’s 2001 confirmation of human-induced global warming resulted from 142 years of scientific research. In 1859 the Irish physicist John Tyndall had discovered the “greenhouse effect” in which CO2 reflects certain wavelengths of solar heating back to earth. In 1895 the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius noted that the smoke from industrial factories was likely to eventually warm the planet.

For the first half of the 20th century most geologists and others focused on trying to explain the onset and decline of ice ages. But in 1960 the American chemist Charles Keeling announced measurements showing that C02 in the atmosphere was increasing at a rate much faster than had been thought earlier. This returned interest to what Arrhenius had said at the beginning of the century about smoke from industrial stacks eventually warming earth. Over the next 41 years increasingly intense and elaborate scientific undertakings unfolded to test the possibility that human activities were changing the atmosphere and thus the planet’s climate.

Scientists made use of the amazing technologies coming out of labs and workshops around the world. Weather balloons, rockets and satellites made it possible to accumulate vast new tables of measurements across increasingly large stretches of the atmosphere. Computers – primitive and clunky at first – grew faster and smaller and made possible calculations that would not have been feasible without their digital circuits. Mathematicians discovered “chaos theory” which indirectly helped establish the possibility that small changes in some element of earth’s climate could bring about large effects – sometimes called the “butterfly effect,” referring to the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in one area could cause movements that turn into a tornado several hundred miles away. Nuclear testing – in what might be its only positive contribution to the world – left behind numerous isotopes that provided scientists tracer atoms to follow how the oceans absorb heat. Through it all Keeling’s measurements of the steady march of CO2 levels provided an anchor that kept bringing the debates back towards greenhouse gases.

One of the most important new sources of data came from ice cores drilled in Greenland, Antarctica and in some glaciers. The drill at Vostok in Antarctica went down 3,623 meters (11,886 feet) revealing over 400,000 years of climate history. Vostok and other ice cores helped establish the close connection between CO2 levels and world average temperatures. Scientists learned that forest cover might play a significant role in regulating greenhouse emissions – a discovery of great importance today. They also learned about the massive movements of water in the giant ocean circulations and came by accident on the danger of the ozone hole and its connection to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as propellants in some spray can products.

Another key was the development of climate modeling. After a slow start resulting from slow computers and limited data, modelers by the 1980s with better data were able to almost capture the climate in a set of mathematical equations. This allowed for the eventual predictions starting in the 1990s of the likely temperature effects of particular parts per million of CO2.

From 1960 to the ground breaking 2001 IPCC report hundreds of scientists wrote thousands of papers, attended hundreds of conferences, traipsed across deserts and ice caps, puzzled over equations that at first wouldn’t solve and engaged in all sorts of other knowledge enhancing activities. Many changed their minds several times about big issues but in the end about 97% of those most qualified in the field of climate science have joined the consensus reported by the IPCC.

Richard W. Franke writes about the history of sustainability. He is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.

Sources:

Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2006. Field Notes for a Catastrophe. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Speart, Spencer R. 2003. The Discovery of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

August 26, 2014

Rachel Carson: A Sustainability Pioneer

Tompkins Weekly 8-25-14

By Richard W. Franke

Rachel Carson might never have used the word sustainability, but her well-known book “Silent Spring” sounded a warning that uncontrolled and careless overspraying of chemical pesticides could damage the web of life. Indeed, the very title of her book refers to the first chapter: She describes a fictitious town in which spring arrived but no birds sang.

“Silent Spring” is one of the first popular scientific statements supporting the idea that humans are part of nature, not its conquerors, and that we should use science and technology to maintain or strengthen rather than to weaken or break the strands of the web of life.

“It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth—eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings.”

“The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment.” “Water must be thought of in terms of the chains of life it supports. …”

“The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance. …”

“Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.”

Carson was one of the first to publicize the accumulation effect, in which very small amounts of DDT sprayed over large areas eventually led to amounts, sometimes hundreds of times larger, in animals higher up the food chain as larger units consumed smaller ones and the DDT became stored in the animals’ fat.

Carson also realized that natural biological processes of mutation make it possible for insects to develop resistance to human attempts to wipe them out with chemicals. This results in more massive sprayings, leading to more resistance and/or the introduction of ever-more poisonous chemicals leading only to further resistance. Carson suggested that insects—because of their short life spans—were likely to mutate more rapidly than humans can invent new chemical killers. Even in 1962, evidence indicated that as many as 140 insect species had become resistant to DDT.

Furthermore, even when successful, destruction of one pest might only result in the expansion of another that had been its prey. One example is the spider mite that sucks chlorophyll out of evergreen needles. When the U.S. ForestService sprayed 885,000 acres of western forests with DDT to control the spruce budworm, the forests turned brown, at first mystifying the Forest Service. Then it was discovered that the DDT had also killed most of the ladybugs that are the natural predator of the spider mites in that area.

By their very nature, chemical controls are self-defeating, for they have been devised and applied without taking into account the complex biological systems against which they have been blindly hurled, Carson states. She notes that the chemical barrage [of pesticides] has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric, on the one hand, delicate and destructible; on the other, miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways.

If we substitute “geology” for “biological systems” or “fabric of life,” would Carson’s warning apply to hydrofracking in the Finger Lakes region? Will geology strike back by poisoning our drinking water as the price of a paltry few decades of natural gas extraction?

The final chapter of “Silent Spring” offers some of Carson’s alternatives, broadly lumped into the category of biological controls. These included male sterilization of undesirable insects, use of natural repellents, lures, ultrasonic sounds to repel certain insects, species-specific bacteria or viruses, importation of natural enemies and restoration of the populations of predators, including birds, bats, spiders and some small mammals that all engage in effective insect control.

Some of these alternatives amount to human interference with naturally evolved systems. Aware of this, Carson explained that any alternatives should be “based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong.”

Today we might say that Carson understood the need to maintain biodiversity. But it was not just species biodiversity; it was biodiversity of the elements and the networks and systems of the web of life that she recognized as crucial to the existence and quality of human life. Organic farmers today make use of many of the ideas Carson advocated. Her emphasis on connections among the elements of the web of life also makes Carson one of the first science writers to present to the public a systems view of nature and of our place in it.

Rachel Carson is both ancestor and heroine for all of us struggling to create and leave behind for our children and grandchildren a world of sustenance and beauty.

Richard W. Franke is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.