Another Windy Day

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Our one fallen tree, toppled into the woods

Last Sunday we had some wind. Lots of people had some wind. OK, lots of wind. Strong wind. Hurricane-force wind. It didn’t really start up until after dark. We went to bed. We slept little.

Wind buffeted the house. Meaning, the house literally shook. I have not felt wind like that here before. It whistled through windows and any other crevice it could find. It blew stuff around outside. We tried to sleep, but it was just too dang loud.

In the morning we saw our aluminum porch chairs scattered on the lawn. Another chair, plastic, was in the neighbor’s field. While searching for it, my wife discovered the flipped trampoline. The wind lifted that puppy up and tossed it against the garage. Imagine what would have happened if it had blown into the field. It might have rolled right into town.

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Unfortunately, it didn’t fare well. It’s frame is made from steel tubes. Several of those tubes are bent and ripped. Not safe. We managed to right the thing, four of us leveraging it to standing again. It looked, however, pretty sad.

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Sad trampoline

The thing is, it is still windy. The wind has not kept up constantly but we have had some stiff winds every day for a week. Right now, trees wave back and forth. Hang on to your hat. I have been to the lake a few times this week to look for shorebirds and waterfowl. Whitecaps. Rain has fallen frequently among all this wind. At least the convection is keeping things somewhat dry.

Some of our neighbors had their power restored only yesterday. We lost ours for less than a day. That makes hygiene easier. Plus checking the weather. I baked blueberry raspberry muffins this morning. Electricity makes that possible. Eating a hot muffin and drinking hot coffee while looking out over the windblown field makes for a fine Sunday morning. The wind keeps blowing and the house still stands.  On to next week.

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Snow Day Follow-Up

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So it turns out we did have a snow day after my last post. The snow fell fast and wet and heavy overnight and it was a slick morning. Schools all over were cancelled. Only Burlington and South Burlington stayed open. They rarely close. Everyone in our house stayed put.

Everything was coated with snow because the snow was so wet when it first fell. And that wet snow was heavy, so it meant lots of dropping trees, then lots of broken branches. I walked out in it as it fell early in the morning. It was beautiful. The river gurgled under the bridge, and a few chickadees whistled. Otherwise it was quiet. Few people were out so even the sound of cars was rare. I like that kind of morning.

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Snow clinging to branches

The town plow came by a few times later in the day and we flopped around out in it for a while. As it got dark, the power went out. We rarely lose power. Green Mountain Power is great about keeping lines clear and the power on. So when we lose power it means power lines are really getting the what for.

We lit candles and stoked the wood stove and cooked pasta on the camp stove. We were cozy and set. Power did not, however, return the next morning. It was not until over 24 hours later that our lights came back on. We were fine, of course, and it made us realize how much we rely on electricity. The real bummer was not having water. Since we need electricity to pump water up from the well, no power means no water. We melted snow on the wood stove to flush toilets and we had filled a few bottles to get us by, but we did need to truly be careful with our water usage.

Many people were without power for many days. We had a second snow day and over the weekend we drove Route 17 over Appalachian Gap, the pass through the Green Mountains. We saw lots of dark houses and lots of power company trucks. We were, as always, lucky. We have nothing to complain about. We got to go skiing that weekend. We have first-world problems.

It looks like rain will wash away the snow by Christmas. We could get a couple inches of rain. That will make things soggy. It is officially winter. I wish that meant we would get only snow when precipitation fell. That, I am afraid, ain’t happening.

Droopy trees on the trail

Droopy trees on the trail

Harvest Festival

Harvest Festival Entrance

Harvest Festival Entrance

We took a trip across the town line to visit Shelburne Farms today.  They were hosting their annual harvest festival.  It was fun, literally, for the whole family.  I took the two kids last year and we spent most of the day there.  They were excited to visit again and this time Mom came along as well.  I was expecting many people to be there.  The place was packed when we arrived:

Full Parking Lot for the Harvest Festival

Full Parking Lot for the Harvest Festival

You can see the farm barn in the distance.  There were lots of cars.  Maybe that speaks to our car culture.  It also says something about how many people were there.  My guess is that few of those cars carried only one person.  There were families galore there.  This was because Jon Gailmor sang and there was a play (a musical version of Romeo and Juliet) put on by the teens of Very Merry Theater and there were all kinds of fun activities for kids of all ages.  The animals were all out and one could spin yarn and pet a llama and do a leaf rubbing.

Llama Ready for Petting

Llama Ready for Petting

And there was food, too.  Maple Wind Farm of Huntington was there, serving grassfed beef and pork kebabs and hot sausages.  Island Ice Cream offered seven different ice cream pops.  And the corn line was, as last year, worth waiting in.  They had a pick up set up just to toss in corn cobs for composting.  They dished out hundreds of fire roasted ears of corn.  The one I had was, no kidding, the best I had had all summer.  Damn tasty.

Roasting Corn

Roasting Corn

A Full Grill

A Full Grill

The Harvest Festival, for the second year, coincided with Green Mountain Power’s Energy Fair.  They had a tent set up where anyone present might learn about solar photovoltaics or wind power or solar hot water or LED light bulbs or energy efficiency of all stripes.  I love that fair.  Every year it convinces me that we should heat our water with solar energy and generate our electricity from the sun or wind.  If only it didn’t cost so much to install.  I did learn that we might expect to make money if we used solar for electricity.  We really don’t use that much compared to most homes.  But still, it is a big investment…

Energy Fair Tent

Energy Fair Tent

All in all we had a great time.  Corn, ice cream, caramel apples, a fine sunny day, lots of encounters with friends and neighbors, and a good feeling about where we live and the people who live here.  I hope Shelburne Farms keep doing it. Judging by the number of people there, my guess is that it was popular enough to repeat.  Count us in next time.  At this point, we’ll stay members, and we wouldn’t miss it next year.

Dropping Electricity Use

For a while we were pretty consistent with our electric bill.  We had a bump here or there, a jump in usage that we usually could not definitively explain, but we averaged 400 kilowatt hours per month.   Before we moved to this house two and a half years ago, I paid attention to how much our bill lowered  my checking account balance, but I paid little attention to how much electricity we used.  Not that we wasted electricity–we did what we could to minimize usage.  I just didn’t pay attention to the actual number.

Now I do pay attention.  Our last electric bill posted only 296 kilowatt hours of electricity.  I was pretty happy with that, especially since it was for most of March.  We use more electricity in the winter and March, in these parts, is definitely winter.  In the winter we keep lights on longer.  The heating system, although it is propane, kicks in and uses electricity.  We don’t use the clothesline but rely on the electric dryer.  We bake with our electric oven more.  We make coffee or tea more often.  We just use a lot more energy in the darker days of the year.

So I was proud that we managed to use less than 300 kilowatt hours for the month.  We haven’t changed our life dramatically, but we have made some changes.  The light bulb thing, although it has been drilled into us all so much we are becoming numb to it, makes a huge difference.  Incandescent bulbs waste a lot of energy–you can feel it in the form of heat.  Any incandescent bulb we fave feels to me like it is just spitting electricity into the air.  I feel the heat and I feel energy being wasted.  So we have changed most of our bulbs.  Why not all of them?  We have a bunch of those candle flame shaped fixtures and those bulbs are hard to find in a compact fluorescent version.  But we are slowly getting there.

Every time we change out a couple of light bulbs it seems to make a difference.  The other big difference has been turning down the dryer.  We used to always dry everything on the highest setting.  Once we turned it down to the medium heat setting we could see a difference on our electric bill right away.  We do wash lots of clothes.  We have a couple of small children in the house.  Once we can start using the clothesline again (soon!) we will use even less electricity.

We don’t have cable box on our television that sucks energy 24/7, and now that Vermont has switched to digital–and we still don’t have a converter box–we can’t watch any television at all.  We watch DVD’s but not as often as we might now that the weather is warmer and we are spending more time outside.  We will start grilling soon and use the stove less.  I am hoping that on one of these bills we be able to get it down under 200 kilowatt hours.  That may be tight but it is possible, I am sure.

I am glad we don’t have a 5,000 square foot home.  That would make our challenge even harder.  I still see people who leave light on all the time, even when they are not home.  That just seems like kind of a Duh!  I try to avoid the Duhs.  Next month–going for 280.

Your Uneventful Town Meeting

Things started pretty much on time.  I was there on time but lingered outside for a few.  I found a seat as the moderator was reading the warning for the meeting.  I didn’t miss anything I already knew.

The first two articles were to be voted on the following day at the town hall.  The first was the school budget, the second was a vote to remove the position of town auditor.  We are supposed to have three auditors but no one has run for it since 2004.  Not a critical position, apparently.  Or a desired one.

I was curious about what discussion might ensue regarding the budget.  There was some discussion about salary increases for town employees.  The budget called for a 5% increase in all salaries and a few people expressed concern that this was too high.  It does seen high.  Who gets 5% when most people have a freeze on their salaries?  The general budget passed anyway.

Other discussion points were why we need a new dumptruck after only ten years (they get worked hard and repairs begin to outpace the value of just paying for a new one), why the police budget included funds for a new car when it did the last two years as well (it is a regular part of that budget to plan for a new purchase every other year) and the wind turbine at the library.  This last started producing power last year but the electric line in that budget goes up every year.  “Is this thing getting us anything?” someone asked.  It provides 10% of the library’s power even as more use of the library means more electricity use.  That was installed at no cost to the town, so it is all essentially a gain.

The biggest discussion item was a petitioned article to vote to close the Yankee Nuclear Power Plant when it is scheduled to close in 2012.  There were some strong feelings on both sides, including discussion of how to replace the power that the state would lose and how much electricity costs might rise without the plant.  Ultimately it got a yes voice vote.  Many other towns voted on the same article and passed it.  I voted yes on this one.  What would we say if there were an accident down the line with this oldest (in the world) of active power plants?  This sure is bad to have all this radioactivity all over the place, but it sure was worth it to save a few cents per kilowatt hour?

And that was about it.  We voted to support local charities and the land trust and to set aside funds for conservation.  And it was good to see at least a sampling of fellow Hinesburgers.  Not enough people were there, of course, given the town’s population, but at the auditorium at Champlain Valley Union High School was mostly full.  It didn’t run all that late but, nonetheless, the voice vote to adjourn was the loudest of all.cy

Final Solar Class

I attended the last of three classes at Champlain Valley Union High School last night for a short course on solar photovoltaic installation.  Overall the whole thing was worthwhile.  I know much more than I did before the class.  I am ready to make it happen.  Oh, but that huge price tag.  Ouch.

Would it pay off?  If you look at just the financial pay back it is hard to judge just how long it would take to break even.  It is easy to do the math with some assumptions.  If you keep the cost of electricity static, it would take maybe 20 years to balance the initial investment with monthly savings.  That is a long time.  If the cost were a little lower, then maybe it would be a no brainer.  But the cake is big.

If we invested in a solar system it might cost as much as $40,000 to install a system that would generate all the power we use now, before any incentives.  A system might cost less, given some other assumptions, and we might invest in a smaller system.  There are lots of variables.  Even a $20,ooo price tag would be huge, however.  If we figure in interest, since we would have to finance a system, the cost grows.  It is the right thing to do, but it is hard to swallow such a huge investment, especially when it means saving maybe 60 bucks a month.

We just started the refinancing process.  We will save more than $60/month  just by getting a lower interest rate on our mortage (4.5%!) but that is a bigger loan.  The scale thing just makes such a big difference.  If incentives were high enough that we could reduce the initial cost and the time to breaking even, I would be ready to make it happen.  We just can’t afford to do it right now.

I will keep my finger on the pulse of what might change with alternative energy (What’s up with “alternative” for wind and solar, anyway?  Shouldn’t coal be considered alternative?).  Until the cost goes down, or we get a big influx of cash, however, it ain’t happenin’.  I could use a little of that stimulus over my way.

Solar Class Take Two

I went to the second of three classes last night to learn about photovoltaic power, presented by Gary Beckwith of the Solar Bus.  I learned a few things.  I feel that I have a good basic understanding of solar power but there have been lots of holes in my understanding.  Those holes are getting filled in.

Here is one thing I learned.  I had the idea that a grid tied system meant you would generate your own energy and what you did not use would be sent back to the grid, and you would get paid for that power.  If the power goes out, you still have power.  Not so.  With a grid-tied system, if the grid goes down, so does your system, so no power, even if the sun is shining.  This makes sense from a safety perspective.  If the power goes out and someone is working on the power lines, they might get shocked if your system is sending power out.

You can set up a battery back-up system, but this needs to part of the plan from the start.  Modifications are not simple.  An off-grid system relies on batteries.  Any electricity goes into the batteries and you always draw from the batteries.  With a “hybrid” system, electricity comes from the panels themselves and the system only draws from the batteries if the grid is down.  Phew.  Who knew things were so complicated?

I also learned that Vermont’s incentives for installing solar power only apply to grid-tied systems.  A self-contained system won’t qualify for any tax credits.  And not only does the system have to have the ability to feed power back to the grid, but it needs to be installed by only qualified installers.   No DIY of you want to get a tax credit.  Maybe that will change.  It seems silly not to offer tax credits to any system that reduces fossil fuel use.

If we made some efficiency changes a system for our house might cost $20,000 before any tax credits.  We talked last night about how long it might take to make that back.  Who knows, really?  It would depend on lots of variables, but we are talking twenty years before the energy would be pretty much “free.”  Of course, we wouldn’t do it just for financial reasons, but it would be nice if the cost were a little lower.

Gary thinks that even if we made no changes in technology, the cost of solar systems could be cut in half just with increased production and economies of scale.  But not enough people are creating demand because the systems cost too much.  A Catch-22.  I would love to see increased tax (or other) incentives for installation of alternative energy systems.  Then perhaps we really could make the investment.

I would love to install a system that integrates a wind generator and solar panels so we could generate energy most of the time.  I’ll see what our last class has to offer.  Already, I have enough information to think about solar energy in a more informed way.  One of these days, we will take the plunge and make it happen for us.  When “one of these days” might be, well, that remains undetermined.  Until then, I will continue to try to just use less energy.  That won’t cost anything.