Wind In Our Hair – And Our Future

We get no broadcast, cable or satellite television at my homestead. Being in a cut-off cove in a sheltered depression on the southeastern slope of Mount Mitchell and smack up against the Blue Ridge continental divide (less than 5 miles uphill to the west), the “public airwaves” don’t reach us. Cable is never going to come half a mile up our driveway just so we can watch the SciFi channel, and satellite package deals are well out of our budgetary range. What we do have is a combo VCR/DVD player and 20 years’ worth of accumulated movies, PBS/BBC special series collections, etc.

windWe go for weeks without actually watching, but when the family’s here or during those dark months when we can’t be working or playing outdoors, we indulge frequently. One of my all-time favorites to view again and again is the 2-volume VCR version of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. And I am not alone among my female family members and friends in never tiring of enjoying the stunning physical presence in that movie of Native American actor Rodney A. Grant as the character “Wind In His Hair.” I want to make this connection between a contemporary fictional role model of the once fierce and free natives from whom our mostly British “founding fathers” stole this vast nation, and the technology that will play a lead role in this vast nation’s energy future: Wind.

More and more of those towering 1.5 Mw land-based wind generators are dotting skylines across the country, primarily in the midsection’s Great Plains from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande’s separation of the U.S. from Mexico. As the generators are increasingly installed we’ve been hearing a lot of astroturfed complaints (those funded by the fossil fuels and nuclear industries but intended to look like ‘grassroots’ Mom & Pops). The windmills are ‘ugly’. They make too much noise. They can’t provide ‘baseload’ power when the wind’s not blowing. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Old King Coal and the Nuclear Priesthood aren’t making all that much headway with their anti-wind and solar PR campaign, as homesteads, villages, towns and cities happily increase their reliance on renewables to power our energy future.

Renewables don’t contribute hefty amounts of CO2 and particulate pollution that contributes to millions of human deaths annually and climate change that will kill millions more. There is no nasty waste product of generation that needs careful disposal and management (in the case of nuclear, for at least 10,000 years AFTER we’ve toasted our breakfast bagels), no chance of meltdowns or explosions that amount to the Mother Of All Dirty Bombs, no ever-increasing mercury poisoning, cancer rates and pollution-caused pulmonary dysfunctions, no imperialistic wars of aggression to be fought by our children to steal the natural resources of other people’s countries to enrich fossil fuelish greedheads. Wind and solar ‘spills’ will never cause whole swaths of valuable territory will never become “exclusion zones” unfit for human habitation for hundreds of years. And unless you happen to be standing next to a concentrated solar boiler when it overpressurizes, or directly under a wind tower when it falls, accidents aren’t at all likely to kill you.

I heard this week about a very cool new offshore wind project (pictured above) planned to serve Megalopolis – the dense U.S. population zone between northern Virginia and New York – that is exciting. The Atlantic coast of North America enjoys a wide and stable offshore continental shelf that is only 50-150 feet deep, which allows offshore turbines to be well anchored. The west coast drops off steeply and is notorious as an earthquake zone, so offshore wind there is not as feasible with current technology. Though I’m sure appropriate technology will be developed soon to take advantage of Pacific winds to supplement what can be done with solar in the desert southwest and southern California.

The Atlantic Wind Connection project for Megalopolis includes a series of 4 to 15 Megawatt wind turbines placed 15-18 miles offshore so they can’t be seen from the beaches and connected with a HVDC [High Voltage Direct Current] backbone grid and 4 feeds to the mainland along the route.

HVDC is better for transmission of generated electricity over long distances on land or from generators offshore because it loses less of the power along the way. HVDC cables also generate virtually no electromagnetic fields, offer better flow control, minimize environmental impact, and have other advantages as well. As an additional plus for the project, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory confirmed in late December of 2011 that wind power is now at $33 to $65 per megawatt-hour and still falling, positioning wind to quickly become the most cost-effective means of generating electricity.

Even better, a nationally supported effort to manufacture, install and operate renewable energy systems holds great promise to provide literally millions of jobs at a time when unemployment levels have been far too high for far too long – a way to help get us out of this long economic depression and thrive in the future for having built the new infrastructure.

There is of course no guarantee that this country’s political system is at all capable anymore of planning or doing for the future health, prosperity and security of the people. Rather, it’s obvious that there’s not a national politician of any Party or philosophy at any level of government right now with enough vision, courage or chutzpah to even try. Fortunately, there are corporations, financiers and investors willing to step into the breech and do what government won’t do. It will be up to us – We the People – to insist that our elected leaders do what is necessary to support and promote the necessary change-over from fossil fuels and dangerous nuclear power to renewables. And if they are too timid to take a stand, it’ll be up to us to replace them with people who will do the right thing.

Toward that goal I will be posting more about the latest developments and deployments of renewables going forward, and providing information of particular interest to homesteaders who want to go off-grid or become suppliers themselves. Do stay tuned!

USDA: Sequester Impacts

Sequester_ImpactsWe homesteaders are among the citizens who pay a good deal of attention to the programs and operations of both state and federal agricultural departments because they can directly affect us (for good or ill). We often make use of our state ag departments’ extension services for education in things like beekeeping, land use, community ag promotional programs, etc. And we keep track – often with some trepidation – of the various ways that the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] can make or break our attempts to make our livings off the land and the work we put into it. Under this rubric come permissions and restrictions for selling our produce and other home-grown products to the public, to local and regional government programs, food banks, schools, etc., as well as all those expensive and tiring hoops we must jump through to obtain and keep certifications for organic labeling, etc.

We live on and off the land, and must keep ourselves abreast of the tricks of that trade. In this blog I have expressed some reservations about Tom Vilsack, who was appointed Secretary of Agriculture by President Obama some years ago, due to his corporate-friendly policies. Particularly in regards to Monsanto’s agri-chem and GMO activities, which are a considerable threat to organic producers. He has also been somewhat less than supportive of local producers being allowed to supply raw and processed foods to local schools and food banks, which we see as an important part of the ‘locavore’ – “Eat Local” movement. Buying and eating foods grown and processed close to home removes one of the most environmentally insidious government-subsidized cost-adds to our food supply – the costs of transporting foods grown in other states, regions and countries from farm to processor, and from processors to market. Almost all of it accomplished by the burning of fossil fuels.

The U.S. government has been operating for some months under what is known as “sequester,” one of those hostage threats Republicans in the U.S. Congress used to try and get their policies enacted despite being unable to win actual elections on the merits of their ideas. This seq uester has cut spending levels across the board fairly drastically, and crippled many government agencies and departments to the point where some of their most important jobs don’t get done. USDA is one of those crippled departments.

For example, the sequester has slashed government subsidies to school districts to help support their school breakfast and lunch programs. At the end of this month (October) schools will have to provide their own funding exclusively, though the government claims they will be reimbursed at some point. If the sequester is ever recinded, and now presuming those same Republican hostage-takers won’t keep the entire government shut down indefinitely while crashing the world’s economy by refusing to pay the bills for appropriations they’ve already allotted from the budget.

Concurrent drastic cuts and cut-offs to both the SNAP (Food Stamps) and WIC food programs are cutting deeply into the ability of families – many of them working full time but earning minimum wage – to put food on the table. With neither school feeding programs or food assistance from the government, a great many people will simply have to do without. We know that doing without food isn’t a particularly healthy way to live, but at least one party in our political system doesn’t think that’s a problem. I presume they and their families eat very well, thanks. We certainly pay them enough for that.

Both SNAP and WIC will run out of funds nationwide by mid-November. Just in time for the holidays! Funding for rental assistance has also been cut, and no new farm/business loans are being processed. Farmers who had previous loans through USDA and have sold this year’s crops can’t get the checks cashed because county offices for the Farm Service Agency are all closed. A freak autumn blizzard in the Dakotas killed thousands of cattle and horses, but the conservation arm of the USDA cannot help to get the dead livestock buried. This is obviously a serious issue for the immediate health and well-being of both rural dwellers and healthy livestock.

From here on, until and unless our government flunkies in Congress wake up and do their too well paid jobs, we are all on our own. Severe weather affecting farmers and ranchers will not be mitigated by the usual government emergency loans and/or mobilization of resources. Families going homeless and hungry through the winter will not be aided, nor will they or their pets or any farmer’s lost livestock get buried when they finally die. Hell, in another [not ag related] outrage of Congressional shananigans, the families of our soldiers dying in Afghanistan and elsewhere are no longer receiving the ‘death benefit’ they are entitled to, so not even our war dead are getting buried if the families don’t have cash on hand.

This situation is obviously untenable and cannot keep going for long, but I see no signs that the radical reactionaries in Congress are willing to do anything whatsoever that might save the nation from absolute ruin. If something doesn’t give very soon, by the time agricultural America gets started planning the spring crops there may be no national government at all and no help for anyone to access adequate food.

There are a few things we can do. First and foremost, call and/or write your congressional representatives and let them know this obstructionism must stop. Now. Let all your friends and family know how important it is that our representatives face harsh pressure on these issues. Get involved with your county and state electoral organizations and help draft decent candidates to challenge die-hards in next year’s elections. Think hard about running yourself if you believe you can do a good job, everyone you know will be thankful.

Get together with your homesteading and farming neighbors and meet with your community aid organizations (like Lions, Kiwanis, 4-H, etc.) to expand community shares programs, community gardens and crop set-asides to go directly to local food distribution services and schools for feeding hungry people. Do as much fund-raising as you can – host events, give public presentations, lobby county and state governments as well as local businesses and corporations – to replace necessary funding for programs to help our communities.

If we go ahead and act as if the federal government is no longer in the business of serving the people, we can make concrete plans to serve each other. Then, when (and if) the dust in Washington settles, we may find ourselves much more committed to each other and much more capable of doing for ourselves. Which, in the end, may be the best lesson the political class in D.C. could ever be taught by ‘We The People’.

Hurricane Sandy: Solar Plan-Ahead

Hurricane_SandyWe all watched in dread fascination as Superstorm Sandy hooked a hard left right where predicted off the coast of northern Virginia to slame full-force into northern New Jersey and New York City just days before Election Day. Its storm surge was every bit as devastating as predicted, and its 1,000-mile-plus wind field wreaked havoc and whipped up 30-foot waves on Lake Erie (20-footers on Lake Ontario). The storm whipped an arctic front around the back side and dumped feet of snow on southern Appalachia. Tens of millions lost electricity in the storm, and some have still not been reconnected.

As we usually see in Florida and along the Gulf coast during hurricane seasons, home supply companies quickly ran out of portable gas-powered generators and other emergency supplies, even before we were treated to the appalling spectacle of a wind-whipped inferno taking out more than a hundred homes in Queens, which was above the surge and thought it was safe. I’m sure we’re all gratified that good forecasting and serious pre-storm planning as well as pre-placement of relief personnel and supplies kept the death toll down to less than half a percent of Katrina’s toll back in 2005. But we also learned that for all those portable gas generators that were sold to people who knew their electricity would go out, the attendant problem of gas stations being unable to dispense gasoline without power rendered most of them entirely useless.

So I’m passing along an interesting blog article entitled Use solar to survive the next storm. Now, solar panels atop a pole in the yard aren’t any more likely to survive hurricane-force winds or 14-foot waves than your bird house is. But houses in New Jersey and New York that had rooftop solar panels fared very well – there are reports of considerable damage to shingles and gutters and such, but so long as the entire roof isn’t taken off, the solar panels up there should be fine.

Now, we know that solar panels won’t provide any ready juice in the middle of the night, or when the kind of deep, rain-drenched clouds a superstorm brings are between you and the sun. But for emergency purposes you should have some batteries already charged and ready to take over at least a minimum of lighting, radio, charging of PCs and cell phones, perhaps even running your laptop or iPad for up to date information. Even your basic surge protector for computer equipment – the kind with an undersized car battery with converter built-in and plugs will serve the purpose until the sun is shining again. You can set it up to draw its full charge from the solar panels normally, even if your panels are wired into the grid. While that wiring is done, just insist on a switch that will allow you to use the solar panels exclusively whenever the grid is down.

Here are some nifty portable solar generators that would in this storm have proven way more useful than a gasoline generator you couldn’t get gas for, once the next day dawned. Goal Zero offers emergency solar kits in personal, family and household sizes. Home Depot and Lowes have a variety of solar products and generators too, and the prices are getting more reasonable every year. Cabela’s outfitters offers portable solar generators too, a little tougher-built and a little more expensive. Truly industrial-level portables with steel containers of batteries are available through several companies, those by Mobile Solar are impressive, can even be sized for off-grid living.

We homesteaders don’t generally live in big cities, but there are urban homesteaders all over the place these days coming up with sustainable means of living in cities. How about having street lights with solar panels and batteries? Solar powered stoplights and such as well, to switch over from grid whenever there’s an interruption?

At any rate, for those of us who know enough science to be expecting increasingly violent weather from global climate change need to ensure our emergency supplies and power are well thought-out. It seems to me that NOT having to rely on the power company that’s been cutting service personnel for years to increase profits is better than sitting in the dark for days or weeks at a time. It also seems smarter to NOT have to find a source of gasoline in the aftermath of a hugely destructive event just so you can plug in your computer and charge your cell phone. Whether you just want an emergency supply or are able to install an ample rooftop array you can switch over when the grid goes down is of course dependent on your situation. But all of us should be thinking solar for this aspect of emergency planning.

Ginseng: New Research & Income Opportunity

GinsengResearcher Sang-Moo Kang at Georgia State University’s new Institute for Biomedical Sciences reports that ginseng can be used to treat flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). I have touted in this blog the scientifically demonstrated benefits of elderberry preparations as effective anti-virals and immune system stimulants, so am now happy to add ginseng for something more [scientifically] significant than just general tonic, energy-booster and libido stimulant, the traditional uses of ginseng.

Kang joined university and research institute partners in South Korea for a collaborative effort to document the health benefits of ginseng. Which is also purported to have anticancer, anti-inflammatory and immune modifying properties.

We all know the health and economic ravages of seasonal influenza, which kills 250,000 to 500,000 people world wide every year. Some of us actually remember stories from our parents and grandparents about the horrific toll of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed 50 to 100 million people. That was 3-5% of humanity, which makes it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Given the viral propensity to mutate until it can best an average immune system, such not-quite critters present a constant hazard for life on planet earth.

Modern medicine, interestingly enough, does not have any kind of pharmaceutical toolkit of defenses against or treatments for viral infections. There’s oseltamivr phosphate [TamiFlu], and that’s about it. It’s not that effective at prevention or treatment, and side-by-side clinical trials during the swine flu epidemic a few years ago had elderberry tincture ahead on both preventing infection and shortening time/lessening severity of infection. The use of plant-based alkaloids and other compounds to promote health and heal illnesses is as ancient as humanity. Modern pharmaceuticals, however, are based on the chemistry of those alkaloids and compounds exclusively, ignoring any and all other compounds found in the plant sources that may aid the efficacy in select applications. Don’t let them fool you – there’s nothing ‘primitive’ or ‘unscientific’ about the knowledge of plant-based pharmacopeias. Just because our ancestors learned by observation and experiment instead of molecular manipulation it doesn’t mean what they learned is any less respectable.

Senate Passes Outrageous New Farm Bill

New_Farm_BillYep. As of this writing, February 4, 2014, the U.S. Senate has passed a new Farm Bill that has gone way out of its way to exclude any real farmers as well as more than two million people who rely on food stamps to eat, and channels all the supposedly ‘saved’ money back to Big Agribiz as crop insurance rather than crop subsidies. As you can see clearly on the chart over there on the left, no money is actually “saved.” All these new non-subsidy subsidies and millions of hungrier Americans will cost us all 58% MORE over the next 10 years.

The cuts to SNAP benefits (food stamps) in the bill are $8.7 billion over ten years (about 1% of the entire program). It also repeals $4.5 billion in annual direct cash payments based on acreage – planted or not – and put that money into subsidized crop insurance that benefits the big players. The Environmental Working Group estimates that just 10,000 policyholders receive over $100,000 per year in subsidies for the insurance (some over a million dollars), while 80% of the rest of the nation’s farmers will receive a mere $5,000.

Another program that will suffer under this new bill is Price Loss Coverage, where farmers are guaranteed a baseline price for 14 crops if the prices dip below a certain level when it comes time to sell. The raises the floor price, guaranteeing that the bigger players will receive more no matter how much of a glut there may be in the market. Another part of the bill will cover ‘shallow’ losses not covered under crop insurance deductibles, thereby ensuring full coverage for any crop losses suffered.

Moving away from direct payments and toward indirect insurance subsidies is an example of what author Suzanne Mettler calls “the submerged state.” So many federal social programs lurk underneath the surface that the public cannot get a good handle on who benefits from government largesse. “Appearing to emanate from the private [insurance] sector, such policies obscure the role of government and exaggerage that of the market,” Mettler says. And the vast majority of these programs benefit the wealthy, refuting the conceit that the rich boldly succeed without a government safety net protecting them

The bill is also cleverly crafted to ‘lock-in’ an overall rise in commodity prices that will be paid for by the taxpayers on April 15th and at the grocery checkout line. The disconnected political class probably thinks they’ve brilliantly crafted yet another shift of costs onto the middle and working classes in this country, while at the same time reducing government aid to the working poor, disabled, retired, and very poor so that they can pay more for food too. Just never forget, There Is No Inflation (our government tells us regularly). And since they refuse to count the costs of food, clothing, shelter or transportation, it works out great on their balance sheets.

But not to worry, some say, because all those “food insecure” children who can’t get enough to eat at home get all those free lunches at school, right? And sometimes breakfast, though many state legislatures are trying to impose severe budgetary limitations on that sort of thing as well. And then there’s the kids of working people who don’t qualify for free school meals, but who have trouble paying for them anyway. Why, just last week in Salt Lake City, Utah, 40 students at Uintah Elementary School had their lunches taken away from them after they’d sat down to eat, and promptly thrown in the trash. That’ll teach ‘em!

Honestly, it looks like the more the ‘haves’ in this country have, the less they want the ‘have nots’ to have. It’s a mean, mean climate out there, about which most of us can only shake our heads in despair. Still, things like this just make it more imperative that we homesteaders and small farmers and other independence-oriented folks make efforts to reach out to each other and our broader communities, work together to ensure the well-being of all even in our limited environs. Please check out some of the posts linked below about the political maneuvering, and about ways to help deal with hunger in your community…

Informative Links:

“Peak Food”?
Politicians Harming Americans. Again.
Hunger in the Heartland
Feeding The Hungry [3-parts, linked]

Some Good News Projects

Tiny Houses for the Homeless

nbc15 WMTV MadisonVolunteers graduated into social/political activism via Occupy Madison [Wisconsin] have been working to deal with homelessness in their community. What they’ve come up with are tiny houses of 98 square feet. The Madison Common Council – city council – voted to amend the zoning code to allow the tiny houses, so long as they have wheels and towbar, to be set up on private property, or to be parked on the street so long as they are moved every 48 hours to a new location. Though the non-profit is seeking permission from area churches to allow longer term parking in their lots for up to three of the tiny houses at a time.

The tiny houses have a bed, kitchenette, bathroom and storage, and the group is hoping to complete ten of them before the end of 2014. At some point they’d like to purchase land on which they can create a 30-unit ‘village’ of tiny houses for the homeless. Community donations are covering the ~$3000 cost in materials, the construction is all-volunteer. One of the first recipients has spent countless hours helping to build his own soon-to-be residence.

“There’s no comparison between having a place to go at night, and close the door, and sleep comfortably, and not freeze to death or have your possessions stolen. There’s no substitute for that” says Luca Clemente, one of the project organizers.

No word on whether the units come with ‘hookup’ ability for a water supply and electricity, or if they’re using waterless composting toilets (these are surprisingly nice) and perhaps a rechargeable battery for lights.

Tiny homes a little larger (and not on wheels) are occupying a tiny housing development called “Quixote Village” in Olympia, Washington, on a 2.17 acre lot leased from Thurston County for $1 a year. Residents will pay 1/3 of their income toward rent to the non-profit Panza, which grew out of the faith community that has been supporting Olympia’s homeless encampments through the years. After having spent a couple of years or more in roving tent camps allowed temporarily by area churches on their lots, for many these tiny homes represent a stability they’ve not enjoyed for a long time.

There are 30 150 square foot “cottages” on the lot, all with heat, plumbing and electricity, and each one comes with a front porch with tiny garden space. Two of the units are handicap accessible. They boast a bed, a desk, half-bath and closet. There is a common clubhouse with stocked kitchen, laundry facilities, showers, mailboxes and a large common room with television and fireplace. The bus stop is nearby, and an 8-passenger van was donated to the village.

In Olympia the village is zoned as permanent supportive housing, and meet the city’s building codes.

Even better, the idea of tiny houses for the homeless is apparently one whose time has come. Austin, Texas has launched a project called Community First! Village that will house up to 200 chronically homeless citizens on 27 acres sprinkled with a mix of tiny houses, teepees, refurbished RVs and mobile homes, launched on crowdsourced funding and volunteers.

There will be a 3-acre community garden, a chapel, a medical facility, a workshop, a bead and breakfast, and an Alamo Drafthouse outdoor movie theater. Could it be that after so many decades of endemic homelessness in America due to the ever-widening ‘income gap’ and imposed austerity policies that cut off unemployment benefits, food stamps, disability and fixed pension benefits, etc., is there finally to be locally-inspired kindness shown to the (politically determined and enforced) chronically poor? Sure would be nice to think so.

And as such community projects are built and occupied, it’s an excellent seeding ground for urban homesteading on a cooperative scale. That’s a good thing for everyone.