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.

Earth Day at Disney World

We took a fairly last minute family trip down to Florida this week.  We had only planned it a week out.  This made for some good pricing for us.  We stayed at Disney World resorts.  I had never been there and, although I probably would not have picked that place to visit, with all the beautiful places in the world waiting to be visited, I am glad I went.  We happened to be there on Earth Day, which felt like living irony.  Disney World is one of the last places I might think of as embodying the spirit of Earth Day and I was on the lookout for how the two might meet.  I did find a few things.

Disney World promotes that the place offers lots of shopping.  On its constantly looping television channel a perky young woman asks “Like shopping and dining?  Well you’re in luck, cause there’s tons of it.”  Oy.  Our excessive consumer culture thrives there.  All that shopping means tons of one-use bags, of course, but Disney is trying hard on that front.   They really are pushing the cloth totes they have available at every check-out counter.  Apparently they have a goal of eliminating plastic bags altogether.  They still need to work on not selling lots of plastic crap, but getting rid of plastic bags is a good step.

We flew into Orlando.  From the airport we caught a bus to our resort/hotel.  We visited the Magic Kingdom theme park (I still can’t get used to calling it a “park” which to me means a green space to take a walk or to have a picnic) on Wednesday;  we took a bus to get there.  We checked out other sights by taking other buses or the monorail.  We didn’t get in a car until we got back to Burlington and drove home from there.  Granted, Disney could have worked to place more things closer together so walking is more of an option, but that buses transport visitors, rather than personal cars, is pretty big.  They have limited parking, and the bus system really is convenient (I was wishing that our own public transportation system in Vermont could be so easy and reliable), so they got that one right.

On Earth Day itself, there was some kind of Earth Day themed event, although I never saw what it was.  I did see the parade/street party which, I have to admit, was pretty spectacular.  It was a show of shows.  The announcer at one point reminded everyone that it was Earth Day.  It wasn’t much but at least it was an acknowledgment of the day.  “Who wants to be Green?” he shouted.  A limp cheer rose from the crowd.  It was better than nothing.

The Magic Kingdom does have recycling bins.  They sell too much bottled water, but at least those bottles can be recycled.  Since many places I visit simply don’t offer the option of a separate bin for recycling, it was good to see.  At one point while I was standing at a curb, a man passed me and said “excuse me I just need to toss this,” then reached over the popped his empty water bottle into the trash.  It is one thing to offer a recycling bin, and another to overcome the general apathy against using them.  People need to drink water, and lots of it on a hot day in Florida when they are walking far more than they typically walk, but bottled water just isn’t the answer.

One way Disney addresses this is by offering a plastic reusable mug.  We purchased a meal plan that included a mug for each of us.  We could fill it with hot or cold beverages as much as we wanted.  This included water, but also soft drinks, coffee, tea, juice.  It was a good deal, financially, and they must save tons (literally) of waste with those mugs.  They probably save a lot of money by hauling less trash and by purchasing fewer disposable cups.  That one seems a win win.  Even if one does not purchase a meal plan, the mug can be had for $15.  That would pay for itself with a few drinks.

There were a few other things, like the towel policy that most hotels have adopted these days, so I have some optimism.  Disney has a long way to go (do they need to leave all the doors open at the shops when it is 80 degrees and the air conditioner is running?) but they have made some visible steps to cleaning the place up.  Waste costs, in money, time, lost opportunities, clean air and water.  Disney has moved forward in reducing some of this waste.  I applaud that.  I hope they continue to move forward, as they have a large, captive audience.  If they can get millions of people to at least think about recycling and to stop using their cars, if only for a few days, they can make a difference.  Imagine what they could do if they leveraged themselves fully.  Solar panels on the Magic Kingdom castle anyone?

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.

Stars, Sunrise, Headlamp

I rose early yesterday morning to run. This time of year it can be hard to do that. My wife had to leave by 7:00, which meant I had to get up, change quietly in the dark, stretch, run, and then be back in time to be in charge of the children before she split. Problem is, the sun doesn’t rise until about 7:30 these days.

It was, as you might guess, dark when I got up. I planned ahead, as I tend to do when I want to run early, by laying things out the night before. Changing and stretching and donning the reflector vest wasn’t too much of a chore. It was about 29 degrees outside, so I added gloves and a hat to my outfit.

It was dark but I had my headlamp. It is an LED headlamp and I have had it for a year or so. The thing is a winner. It is bright, easy to turn on and off with gloves and the batteries last forever. In fact, despite hundreds of hours of use, the batteries were the original ones. That, it turned out, was a mistake.

The stars were at their brightest. It was just before the sky got light but after many artificial lights had been turned off. Plus, the moon was down. So the stars stretched across the sky, the constellations chasing each other in their endless evening game. I was, although I have seen this many times, stunned. I do not see the night sky enough. Some people almost never see it. It makes me feel small in the scope of the universe, yet it also makes me feel a part of that universe. It isn’t a bad way to start the day.

As I ran in the dark, the sky gradually grew brighter. I ran without a light most of the time. In fact, what blinded me most to seeing my way was light. There are two street lamps on my route and both of them make it difficult to see, since they ruin my night vision and create a black hole on the far side of their glow. i wish they were not there. I can imagine why they were installed, as they are both next to barns. I don’t know why we need to burn electricity for them all night these days, however. It seems like that isn’t necessary. I sure wouldn’t want to be trying to get to sleep in one of the houses beneath them.

It was early enough that I actually passed no cars. That is rare. Typically I turn on my light so cars can see me better. I turned it on at a couple of key points to make sure that anyone out with an unleashed dog might see me, but not for cars. I also turned it on when I passed the street lamps. It did not, however, help me much.

The light produced by my headlamp was pretty much doodly squat. Twice I thought it was off and discovered it was on when I put my hand up to the bulb. The batteries, AAA, a year old and well-used, were at their end. That is pretty amazing if you ask me. Heck, even if you don’t ask me it is pretty amazing. Imagine if we switched our home light bulbs to LED bulbs. Forget those twisty fluorescent jobbers. LEDs would last even longer and use even less energy. One of these days they will be cheap enough.

As I got close to home the glow in the east was gathering. It was still dark but not as dark. The sunrise was not far off. I have not been running early lately. I finally am ready, physically, to get back to it. It isn’t easy. This is, after all, the darkest time of the year. But I will do it. If I want to run enough, I don’t have another time that will work.

Tomorrow I will go out early, but not as early as yesterday. I may just see the sunrise, and the early glow on the brown fields. On the other hand, I might just get rained on. Either way, I will get in some miles and feel good about it. And it will be a safer run now that I have a new set of batteries in my headlamp.

Snow on the Ground

Last night snow fell and the sunrise seeping through the gray clouds let us see an inch of snow stuck to the trees, the grass, the road, the roof, everything.  I rose early and ran in the dark.  The darkness seemed brighter for the fresh snow, wet from fall’s warmer air and unfrozen ground.  Fall and winter have begun their discussion over who gets to spend the night.  We need to get our snow stakes planted, so the snow plow driver knows where to aim, before the ground gets too hard.

I drove to Montpelier today and was stunned repeatedly my the morning’s beauty.  I feel that way a lot, but this was a doozer.  I passed through the Winooski River Valley that cuts through the ridge of the Green Mountains and felt small with the beauty of this world looking so new.  The first true snow of fall has a clarity to it.  Leaves still cling to branches and green still dresses the ground.  The cover of snow says winter is on the way and let’s celebrate with an art show.  The snow on the mountains is the show’s highlight.

I went to a workshop this morning where we discussed the power of stories.  One element of this was the identification of “significant events” in our lives.  I have had some that would qualify for sure–running fifty miles, climbing Mount Shasta, kayaking whitewater, having children.  But I also listed rising in the morning, and my children’s laughter, and weather.

Like saving energy in a home, where there often isn’t one change that will make a huge impact, but where many small changes will add up, those small everyday moments add up to significant events.  I think about the weather each day, and not just to see what to wear or what my commute will be like.  I watch the sun rise, or admire the late day light on the hills, or feel the wind on my cheeks.  I find power in these moments daily, and their sum adds to more than any one event in my life.

Today’s snow was money in the wonder bank.  After I got home, after my elation that I got to see the wet snow still clinging to the trees rather than slumped to the ground as I had expected, my children wanted to bust out the sleds.  It wasn’t the slickest sledding, with grass patched through the white across the hill, but they had a blast.  They laughed a lot and so, of course, did I.

Who knows what things will look like in the morning?  I love that I cannot know until there is enough light to see it.  Sure, I can look at the weather forecast, but it won’t tell me if the last of the goldenrod will still carry snow, or if the maple will have shed its leaves in the night, or if the crescent moon will peak out from the line of low clouds.  For that, I have to wait.

Clothesline Success

The rain stopped some time in the night but we ended up getting a lot of it, 3/4 of an inch to an inch.  Things were wet this morning.  But the sky was clear and the wind blew.  It was a perfect day for the clothesline.

I got the first load of laundry in early and I was out by 10:00 AM.  OK, this may not sound early, but the sun doesn’t swing around to hit the clothesline until after 9:30, so it was just about right.  I ended up getting in three loads of laundry and hanging it all on the clothesline today.  The first and second loads were not a problem but by the third load I was running out of space.

We have one of those spider web type clotheslines, what they call an umbrella dryer.  I had to pull down some of the lightweight items that were dry from the first load both to create enough space and to provide the clothespins to hang everything.  We had waited all week–longer actually–to do laundry and we lucked out with the weather.  I just needed to puzzle out how to make room for everything for our family of four, including children who love mud.

Here is the basic set up:

Umbrella That Won't Work in the Rain

Umbrella That Won't Work in the Rain

The thing is, I love to use the clothesline.  It is meditative, I suppose, whatever one may think of that term.  I love the smell of wet clean clothes and the feel of sun and wind as I hang them.  I like to take the time outside to avoid using the dryer.  We have a dryer and we use it, but I am not a huge fan.

I like the clothesline because our clothes feel better when they have dried in the air.  I like it because our clothes last longer.  I don’t need to iron my shirts if I hang them out.  And best of all, we save energy.

Whenever I use the dryer (think January, cloudy, light snow, ten degrees) I have pangs at the electricity we use.  The clothesline gets the job done for free, with no air pollution and no wasted energy.  Is that a bargain or what?  My breakfast fuels the job, rather than Hydro Quebec’s dams or Vermont Yankee’s nuclear plant.  Seems smart to me.

I did spend some time today strategizing how to get it all done.  If the laundry stays out too late, the dew sets in and the drying gets negated.  I zipped out ten minutes before we planned to leave today (for a Halloween parade no less) to make sure I took down everything I could.  But in the end it all got dried, folded and put away for the next wearing.  I took the last pair of jeans down just before the sun ducked behind the trees.

I did wear mud boots to hang the shirts and towels and sheets.  The rain may have ended, but it left behind some saturated ground.  At one point I dropped a dish towel.  It was instantly muddy.  Now that’s a functional towel, I thought, if it can soak up moisture that quickly.  I held off on hanging that one.  It made its way back to the laundry bin.  It will have its day in the sun the next time.