Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fuelish Fantasies

I admit I get tired of playing the stereotype "doomsayer" - "voice crying in the wilderness" - etc.

It isn't any fun, in fact, saying things people don't want to hear. They call you names in return.

Ten years ago, I was one of the very few scientists willing to say, in public, to an audience of farmers- "Ethanol from corn is a bad idea." I made no friends.

Here we are, however- with even the farmers (who have the most to lose) now admitting that ethanol from corn "has limits" regarding how much of a fix it is for anything. And no, I don't blame the farmers for the ethanol rush- they rely a great deal on "experts" to suggest good directions for them.

We're already past "Peak Ethanol." Ethanol Glut Why? Because folks ignored the fact that technologies must be INTEGRATED; all the pieces have to fit into the real world, somehow. Ethanol has a dozen aspects where the concept will NEVER integrate with the needs of humans, or the world; but the one that has currently caused the price of ethanol to drop, and has caused plans for new ethanol plants to be canceled was obvious all the time; and talked about, and explained, and ignored: the corn is in the Midwest; the demand for fuel ethanol is on the coasts. You can't move enough of it, fast enough, to make it work.

A) the major existing fuel pipelines mostly run north/south
B) you can't put ethanol into the existing piplines anyway; it will corrode them.
C) you have to move ethanol via truck, or train
D) there aren't enough trains; or trucks - OR TRACKS OR ROADS.
E) nobody is building new tracks, or roads, or is intending to in the future.

We KNEW all this. And yet- neither our beloved government; nor our beloved universities, nor our blessed free enterprise system prevented us from idiotically going down this path. What stopped it was- hitting the end of the trucks and trains. They're full, and going as fast as they can, and the ethanol producers are already producing more than they can handle.

What does the future hold for ethanol? It's still kind of a sacred cow, out here in corn country; badmouthing it will not make the neighbors smile at you. But the reality is, everyone knows its days are numbered, and as a growth industry- it's over.

The new fantasy the experts are selling is that all those lovely corn ethanol plants will one day be converted to producing... ethanol (what transport problem!?) - but from switchgrass, instead of corn.

I'm sorry. I really am. But just as ethanol from corn was never going to work-

Ethanol from switchgrass IS NEVER GOING TO WORK.

Or Butanol, or "bio-crude", or whatever; from miscanthus, or hybrid willow, or "cellulose".

The systems required do not work; and cannot be made to work; this is a blind alley; a waste of resources needed to find real solutions.

So why so much noise? There's money to be made "developing" the new energy messiahs. $$$8-). Otherwise sensible people can just get sucked right into the fantasy when you wave million$- billion$ - of dollar$ at them. And, this fantasy perpetuates the delusion that we can still have all the SUV's we want. Lots of people are hanging on to that mirage for dear life.

I'm wincing as I write this; because I know I'm going to make a bunch of people angry. I really don't enjoy that, it's no fun being a target, and angry people seldom listen in a reasonable fashion. That, however, is exactly the problem; this entire discussion is not taking place reasonably- it's highly emotional, with a careful avoidance of rational dissection.

Here are the multiple reasons, in order of intractability, in modest but not complete detail. And for those of you not aware, this IS an area where some consider me an "expert" - I've been asked to speak at multiple conferences, including one specifically on "cellulosic ethanol".

Barrier #1) Fire.

This is part of what is making me write this post now; the very recent awareness we have that fires do happen- and may not be controllable. Perhaps people are primed to LISTEN. If it's very dry; and very windy- we are helpless in the face of big wildfires. (And again, in 2008)

This is a moderately good growth of switchgrass:
(Photo borrowed from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, pix/Jpegs/03246.jpg).

Look at the picture- then see yourself touching a match to the base of that dry grass. This stuff is HUGELY more flammable than corn, or wheat; both of which sometimes burn before harvest. It's the definition of tinder- explosively flammable when dry.

Assume that the whole fantasy is in full swing- you'll wind up with hundreds of grass-to-ethanol processing factories around the country. Each of these processing plants will be surrounded by... hundreds of thousands of acres of .... switchgrass. Millions of acres, altogether.

Close your eyes, and see it: hundreds of thousands of contiguous acres- of DRY grass. 8 feet tall.

It has to be big, mature, and dry- for any of the fantasy to work. It turns out that if you cut it when it's green, you seriously weaken the roots- no crop next year. And if you cut it when it's green- you'll either have to use it right now, or spend energy drying it, so it won't rot.

Are those huge fields of dry grass going to burn? Yes, they will; and many times, the fires will be uncontrollable. Lightning. Sparks from harvest machines. Bubba, on Saturday night, after 8 beers, because it's fun. Revenge, after getting fired from the plant. Arson by hirelings of the petroleum industry. Arson by your switchgrass ethanol competitors, to bump their profits up. Terrorists, perhaps.

And. What will be the cost of maintaining fire fighting teams enough to pretend to cope with such fires? Lots of fire teams. Add the cost to the price at the pump, and be aware that just like in California last week, sometimes they're powerless. And sometimes firefighters, and others, die.

Will such fields always burn? Of course not. Will they burn often enough to make the whole proposition uneconomic? YES. Not only the grass will burn, of course- how many houses did we just lose in California? Any switchgrass growing region will be uninhabitable. Would you live in a house, raise your children, surrounded by switchgrass? I wouldn't.

Other cellulosic feedstocks will have similar fire problems, even hybrid willow. In order to be economic, these intrinsically flammable materials have to be grown in the highest density possible- increasing the fire hazard. Regardless of climate, a dry spell will occur; and Bubba, or lightning, will go to work. The profits will be out the window, the company will fold, the system will shut down.

In my trial discussions on this point, the responses have been:

a) "Well, you could put in firebreaks." Flames from mature switchgrass typically rise 50 feet into the air. Take a look at any of the videos coming from California last week- wind driven fires will jump almost any break you can make. Switchgrass is virtually designed to generate airborne sparks- the myriad leaves burn loose, then take flight on the fire generated winds- burning. Bubba, I guarantee, will wait for a windy night. And in any case, allotting substantial ground to firebreaks will cut into the economics- your grass resource will be even more diffuse; transport even more expensive.

b) "Oh, I don't think it will be that big a problem." See California. Ecologists have warned for DECADES that this was a bad place to build homes like this; it was bound to burn, out of control, some day. We knew it. (No, I don't really blame the folks who moved/built there- I DO think they have a right to expect the "government" to adequately warn folks of danger; that didn't happen. The scientists DID; the government didn't.)

"I don't think so" is hardly an adequate response. In this world of global warming, we can count on warm weather- and dry periods; getting worse.

c) "Look, technology is astonishing these days; we'll figure out something later." See nuclear waste. This is the attitude responsible for so many of our problems these days. We have to stop accepting it in the planning phases. "I know coal is dirty, but we'll figure it out..." Etc. The idea that we can solve any problem eventually, is not proven. See cancer.

d) "How dare you run down my fantasy! You have to give these things a chance! You're just being mean!" sigh. No, I'm not. I'm being a parent. I want Smidgen to have a real chance at a future- and I want hard answers to hard questions. I'm sorry if you think I'm kicking your puppy. But you don't actually have a puppy to kick- it's imaginary, and its legs were broken before I got here.

Barrier #2) Storage.

What? I hear you say. What has "storage" to do with all this? Nobody ever mentioned storage before.

Nobody mentioned fire, either.

We're talking here about setting up a large scale industry. All the pieces have to fit together.

If you build a fuel making factory, I guarantee you it will need to run 360 days a year in order to make a profit. Could you build a car factory and run it for 2 months a year? Nope. Corn-ethanol plants run 24 hours a day; as many days as they can. These kinds of biological fermentation processes are hard to start; hard to shut down; best kept running.

Dry mature switchgrass is available to cut in the field for at most 2 months out of the year. February-March-April, depending on your latitude. If you're going to run your factory the rest of the year, it's going to have to be running on grass you have stored somewhere, somehow.

Many tons, per DAY. Can you just bale it up, and leave it in the field, the way they do hay sometimes? Eh. Not very well- if it's sitting in the field; no grass will grow where it sits; and somebody will have to come get that bale, with a tractor, at some point- driving over the growing grass. Those are significant costs to the system. Baling is not free- it has to be done exactly right, or the bale will be subject to wetting in the rain- which will make it start to rot. Your fuel value is disappearing, as it sits there. Hay bales are sometimes wrapped in plastic these days, to slow the wetting problem. More expense; more plastic. Could you store the bales somewhere else? More land. And a roof- piles of wet hay are a favorite source of fires- the heat of composting can build up to the combustion point. That's a really big roof- expensive.

The whole process of harvesting, stockpiling, storing- is very far from trivial. What we already know about storing grass, learned from experiences with hay, indicates that scaling it all up to the huge levels envisioned is not at all straightforward. And may just not be economic; ever.

There IS talk of "pelletizing" the grass; milling it into uniform particles, forming it into uniform pellets. Yep, that would make some of the handling easier, but it would add a tremendous amount of energy input to the process (higher price at the pump) and still would not get rid of the need for huge huge amounts of storage space. In order to be useful, the pellets would have to be very hard- or they will crush to dust in the storage bins- more energy inputs, and possibly material inputs- glue.

Ok, this is getting long. That's because we're talking about a really big, complex topic. But I'll try to wrap this up; realize that I'm cutting the discussion down to the bones; there's far more I could be saying here.

Problem #3) "We expect it to be working in 5 years..."

Yes, there are demonstration plants currently making ethanol from cellulose. The dirty little secret, though, is that ethanol made this way is costing 3-5 times more than ethanol from corn right now. The energy inputs are huge, the yields are poor. Can it be done? Sure. Economically? Not.... yet.

I'll give you a hint; when a researcher says "We confidently expect our spiffy new process to be fully commercial about 5 years from now." - keep your investment dollars deep in your pocket, and run. What they're really saying, in researcherese is "we're stuck, we desperately need a breakthrough, and have no idea if or when one will happen."

If they say "We expect to have a product in one year!" - that means they actually have a research direction established. Expect a real product in about 3 years, at the earliest- and a test of real world functionality in 5 years or so. When they say "we guarantee to have this figured out in 5 years" - it means they have no idea which way to turn. Not kidding.

The track record of the "biotech" industry is quite clear. After decades of promises and billions invested- they have virtually no products that work. Truly. Biotech Investment . The Fabulous Promise Of Biotech is pretty much a bust, apart from a very few simple products. The overwhelming reason is that lab-born scientists have a casual contempt for nature, and a universal tendency to underestimate natural complexity and the astonishing sophistication of natural systems. HIV Vaccine Abandoned.

Sorry to be so rude about it. It's their track record; not mine- extensive promises; few deliveries.

In detail, what they're promising now is that "soon" they will find a magic enzyme; or two; or they'll make one, from scratch, that will immediately make it possible to toss raw cellulose (ok, or lignin/cellulose) into their kettle, and have great quantities of (clean) ethanol popping out the other side.

Here's my big chance to become known as a prophet. No, they won't.

Think, please. What is cellulose?

It's a big long string of sugars. Hey, that should be easy.

It's also the basic structural molecule in... bacterial cell walls. And, oh, yes, plant cell walls.

But it's the bacteria that interest me. They've been around for a long long time; billions of years at least. And in all that time, other bacteria, and fungi, and what have you, have been constantly trying to figure out ways to break into the cells, and eat the goodies in there. And the bacteria have constantly been figuring out ways to prevent that. Layer, upon layer, upon layer of attack and defense.

Both the bacteria, and the plants, are extraordinarily good at preventing breakdown of their cell walls. REALLY REALLY good at it. Billions of years, good at it. But hey, we'll figure it out in 5. Take a look out your window. Any trees out there? Grass? They're all made of cellulose, and they are all busily preventing anything from eating their cell walls. Do they succeed? Manifestly, yes, they do. Granted, when the plant dies, the cellulose will eventually break down. But very very slowly, and usually it's the last molecule to go. Ever see a dead tree suddenly turn liquid? That's what they're saying they'll be able to do, in 5 years. Believe me, the fungi and bacteria would do it now, if they could.

The biotech boys are already aware of some of the difficulties, since they've actually been working on cellulosic ethanol for at least 20 years (that's Four "just five years" ), and don't have it working yet. Turns out the cellulose in there is just really hard to get at. If it was a naked string of sugars, it wouldn't be so bad; but it turns out cell walls are incredibly complex; and most of the complexities are... SURPRISE! - kind of specifically there to prevent anything from attacking the cellulose. And.. SURPRISE!! when you break down one barrier... there's ANOTHER one waiting. Well, I'll be darned. Oh. And another. Take a look at lignin, and all the tangles there.

That's what happens, given a couple billion years of microbiological warfare.

Oh, and, just incidentally. Suppose the Biotech Boys DID come up with a magic enzyme, able to eat any cellulose, anytime? Wouldn't that be a nifty thing to turn loose, accidentally, on the world? Every hear of the nanotech "Grey Goo" nightmare? Say the magic enzyme accidentally gets incorporated into a wild fungus... (not at ALL unlikely) which gets out into the woods... how about "Brown Slime", as the end of the world?


We haven't even gotten through all the major non-scifi barriers; like #4- Water - and #5 -Plant Disease in a Huge Monoculture - #6 - Food (UN:Biofuels Criminal), and Transport...and on, and on.

My point - is not that all research on cellulosic ethanol should cease. My point is- we had really better be looking for other answers to our problems. This one is very very far from being a sure thing. If I were an AntiBushkovite, I'd ask when was the last time any good idea came out of Bush's mouth. And claim that his optimism on switchgrass is abundant reason to abandon it immediately. But I won't go there.

My plea is for hard, hard thinking, before we commit our hope and precious resources to blind fantasies. We don't have time or resources to waste. We need more discipline in our projections for the future. Does this work? Does this fit in place? What happens next? And next?

And next?

The only workable solution within sight for our energy disasters, and global warming, is that we must all use much less.

And as long as we indulge in the insane dream of an SUV in every garage- in India, Africa, China, and Mexico- we will not face the reality that we all must learn to live quite differently, and soon.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Zen Firewood

Today, I'm fondly remembering yesterday.  Yesterday I "made wood", pretty much all day.  Yes, in spite of the crummy back; forced by the additive realities of cold weather, an approaching trip away for me, leaving Spice and Smidgen at risk from a non-existent supply of dry wood, and an incoming rain storm- now or never.  And the reality that the more you rest, the weaker you become- inviting re-injury whenever to attempt to start working again.  The back is not back; but being careful, I could manage, and the need was critical.  I succeeded; excellent firewood was brought into the shed; enough for now.

Today I burned up my accumulated spiritual energy tackling FEMA, formally filing the claim for the flooded mowers.  That was a mixed experience- the invitations to do it all on the web uniformly ended in "failed to load page" - or something similar.  Eventually with great trepidation I resorted to the phone- and met Lydia; who was a delightful and competent person.  Whew.  The end result of all the filing and filling in of blanks is that the NEXT set of forms to fill should arrive in "from 7 to 14 days" - if they can figure out why my zipcode is not the one the computer insisted on automatically putting in.  Lydia assured me she'd tell "them" about the zipcode glitch.  One can hope.  At any rate- our claim is now "in the system"; we have a number.  Whew.

The process of getting in a pickup-load of wood, (we bought a replacement for the stolen truck; had to) with a dicey back, reminded me forcefully of the tremendous amount of art involved in firewood.  And, I will arrogantly admit, I am an artist where firewood is concerned.  I love the whole process; from finding the tree, to the whiffs of smoke; and even the spreading of the ashes back in the forest.  And the warmth; the hot coffee, pot roast, soup, new bread, and warmed hands.  At every step- there is a great deal to know; right ways, wrong ways, easy paths, and hard ones.

My being out of shape with the iffy back enforced the practice of the art: artfully done is easy; and effective; carelessly done is hard work, inefficient, and dangerous.

First- the tree.  I'd been watching this tree for at least 5 years, with firewood in mind.  It was dying 5 years ago; dead 3 years ago; and drying out since then.  Ready, now.  This was a 60' tall red elm (Ulmus rubra); also called slippery elm; one of my favorite trees, for many reasons.  Killed most likely by the "Dutch elm disease", which is still very active here; red elms die much more slowly than American elms, though; and some don't die at all. 

Elm has a bad reputation as firewood- because of American elm, and some of the other species.  Mostly elms make good fuel; if you can get it into the fire before it rots.  Most elms are treacherous to fell; they can be huge, but riddled with rot only a year after they die, making the top into what loggers call a "widowmaker" - while the tree is falling to the north, a huge chunk of the top may break off under the stress- and fall south; on you.  Red elms don't do this; they can stand dead for 10 years, and never rot at all.  Elm in general is one of the rare woods that actually dries out while standing in the woods; an oak can be dead for 6 years and will be wetter than the day it died, red elm is as dry as if put through a kiln, all but the bottom 5 feet, 2-3 years after it dies.  Most elms are renowned for being "unsplittable" (unless you've got a heavy hydraulic splitter) - the fibers intertwine; but red elm usually splits like oak, straight and straightforward.  (Ok, I said usually.  Yeah, I've run into some that were hard to split- but I've now learned to identify those before felling; you can see it in the skin of the tree.)  And, finally, elm is supposed to stink when burned; the farmers' name for American elm around here is "piss-elm", for that reason.  Red elm, though, smells like incense; and the freshly split wood to me smells just like a shop-full of Japanese wood carvings; something I remember acutely from my childhood.

No one disputes the fuel value of elm; it's good hot wood regardless of species.  I'll burn American elm if I have to; and rock elm any time I can find a small one dead for exactly one year.  But those trees are essentially unforgiving; 10 things have to be exactly right, or you're wasting your time.  Red elm is my friend.

These days, much of our firewood comes from trees we planted ourselves; that's a different process, a different art; and includes drying wood already cut.  But we got 15 inches of rain in August.  All our cut, stacked new wood is now soaking wet, no matter how dry it was in July.  So it's back to the Big Woods, where the red elms are dry, no matter what; the standing trees have no end-grain exposed to absorb the rain, so it just runs off.

Second- felling.  Don't guess; don't hope.  You really need to KNOW where it's going to fall when you cut it.  Sure, I learned a lot of that the hard way, including fun experiences like dropping a pine right on a pickup truck (not my fault, but I was there!) and having trees tangled in neighboring trees so it took 4 years for them to come all the way down.  Those things are ALWAYS avoidable; caused by just a little carelessness, and often by being in a hurry.  Don't hurry.  Really.

This tree was leaning a little the wrong way; oh, about 7°.  Solution; a rope, and some people pulling on it.  Sometimes just one person pulling will be all you need; just a little insurance.  In this case, we needed more- it was a heavy tree, headed right for a 4-year tangle if it went where it was leaning; 3 people.  60 foot tree- 100 foot rope, so your pullers are out of the reach of flying branches.  1" polypropylene rope.  NOT nylon rope, it stretches, most of the force you apply just gets lost in the stretch.  Natural ropes like sisal are not bad; but they rot in time; I've had this same polypropylene rope for 30 years; it's the same one I built the house with, and probably still has 90% of its original strength; no sign of wearing out.  Made a slip-noose with a bowline knot; the forces you're dealing with here are very large, it's easy to wind up with a knot jammed so tight after the tree falls that you can't untie it; bowlines never slip, and are always easy to untie.

I ran the chain saw, Spice, Middle Child and MC's spouse were on the rope.  Smidgen was in the truck, watching from well away.

It didn't go as smoothly as I'd like.  I prefer a deep notch, more than 50% of the trunk, for a leaner like this.  When I started the felling cut from the back, I yelled "PULL" - but when the tree finally started to shift- it sat down on the chainsaw blade; falling the wrong way.  Not moving, but not good.  "PULL HARDER!"  And, luckily, 3 people pulling harder was enough to move it off the saw, and get it falling the right way.  Whew.  But not quite as planned; it was supposed to drop on the road, but because I miscalculated the cut a tad, it dropped just to the side- slightly hung up in a small hop hornbeam tree.  But workable.  Hey, the top of the 60' tree wound up 15' west of where I wanted it to be; so sue me.  In retrospect- yeah, I was a little hurried on the cut.  Don't hurry.  I knew that, of course, which is seldom enough for us humans.  Ah, well, I gave Middle Child an opportunity to smirk at me a little; since he's a perfectly competent man with a chainsaw himself.  That's a good thing; I figure I owe my children plenty of amusement, since they've amused me so often.

Third- disassembly.  Once you cut the tree down, you cut it up, a source of perpetual humor for me.  Now, I was alone; not the preferred policy for safety purposes, but reality for any farmer; sometimes you have no real choice.  So when you have to work alone; you get really really careful.  And slow.  And these days, with a two-way radio in your pocket.   Chainsaws are fantastically powerful tools- which means they can kill you in a second if you do something stupid.  Slow down.  The crummy back meant going slow, too- don't overdo.  Who could ask for better meditation?  Chainsaw Tai Chi.

No, really.  Cut exactly here; the right size for the stove; cutting here will not make the remaining trunk suddenly shift and kill me; it avoids that knot, which will dull the chain, and leaves 2 more adequate pieces before that fork, which will have to be cut apart differently...

Thoughtless cutting will quadruple the work- the piece won't fit in the stove- etc.  Slow, think ahead- pays huge dividends.

My back is complaining- change the footing, so the angle of the weight of the saw is eased.  Rest.  Must not push the back too far.

Much of the trunk must be split to go in the stove.  Swinging the ten-pound splitting maul is another art; you can let the maul, and gravity, do the work; or try to force it through the chunk with all your muscle.  I'm lazy; I'd SO much rather do it the easy way.  Swing-toss it up in the air; tug it down in the right direction- and DON'T think about aiming it.  This part gets seriously zennish.  If I'm paying no attention to aiming the maul- I'll hit the chunk dead center.  I mean exactly dead center, I'll stick the blade of the maul right into the center ring of the tree.  Every time.  Until I start paying attention.  And if two strikes are necessary to split it; I'll stick the maul smack in the crack from the first split; every time; unless I'm paying attention.

It's absolutely fascinating for a biologist; how is it that the mere act of focus results in such consistently poor performance; where paying no conscious attention results if absolute precision from truly daunting variables?  This chunk is not the same as the last; it's not the same shape or size, not in the same place, the ground under it is tilted; my footing is different: and with no "higher" processing, I hit it exactly right; over and over.  It's a joyful thing, when the chunk splits effortlessly; and funny, when I start noticing, and start missing; and joy again when I successfully manage to NOT pay attention once more.  It IS art, and the result of years of splitting; I started splitting firewood when I was 14 or so.

Fourth- tossing the pieces into the truck.  Again- it can be easy; or hard.  I toss two or three or four at a time, depending on size; swinging the weight of the wood like pendulum weights; releasing so it goes into the box, not over, not short, and not through the glass on the truck cab...  Bend over; stand up- swing; release (not throw); use the arm momentum to get back down for the next pieces.  More Tai Chi, sort of; rhythmic, steady, purposeful.

Fifth- getting the wood from the truck into the shed, out of reach of rain or snow.  This involves my macho wheelbarrow; a 10 cubic footer, with TWO wheels, and a trip of 100 feet, very slightly downhill.  Load the barrow; don't smash the fingers (gloves!), wheeling, guiding; don't tip it!  Balancing; don't let it run away; dump into the shed; toss again, into the final pile.

Done.  No rain, yet.  Back, arms, hands tired- but not hurt.

Satisfaction.  And some cramping in my hands, while falling asleep.  :-)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

micro update

Not dead here, just buried.  Partly with visitors; first family, then by a long-time friend who traveled a very long way to be here- to help.  Thanks, Jerry.  :-)  

You were a huge help- got lots of stuff done that had been dangling, waiting for the extra hands.  The side effect though, was some brain fog- re-focus here, re-focus there.  Now I've gotta re-focus again, on coping with just us.  And, for extra fun, I sneezed this morning.

Ha ha.  If you've had your back go out, you know a sneeze is not amusing, and indeed it put my partially recovered back back into spasm.  Hopefully minor, it doesn't feel like going back to square one- but it's definitely a problem.

Meanwhile- the weather is apparently Augember.  Late August temperatures, but November rain patterns; day after day of gray drizzle.   Nov/Dec is when we need our backup generators the most, usually- it's common to have weeks of no effective sun; Jan/Feb are VERY sunny, usually, and though the hours are short, the power is good- something few people know is that photovoltaic panels are more effective- the colder it is.

This is not a minor effect- you get around 1% more power for each 3°C colder than "rated" temperature.  Usually panels are rated at 25°C (which is pretty fakey- in full sun, in summer, they're probably running more like 50°C- which means a lot less power).  In winter though; it's pretty common to have bright sun- often bouncing off snow; very cold temps; and wind- so the panels may be running at a temp of -30°C; which should mean around 20% MORE than "rated" power output.  I learned this the hard way; by boiling my batteries one nice February.

See?  Brain fog.  Starting to ramble.  Today we've got 12 hours of sun and wind- before the rain starts again.  Have to get some firewood in before the rain comes back; we ARE needing the stove now.  The Little House has big windows, by design, and in 50°F weather it will heat nicely, if it's sunny- but if it's drizzling day after day, it gets miserable without the stove.

Off to the woodpile.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Hopefully this won't scare anyone off from trying to go greener- but... we just got hit by lightning; for the second time this year.  First one took out the well pump for the greenhouse.  This one took out the solar array for the greenhouse.  

Yes, the whole dang system is professionally grounded for lightning.  Lightning, alas, can ignore your nice grounds if it feels like it.

This is what it looks like; melted junction boxes, with cooked diodes.  Every panel in the array got something melted. 

On the up side; that solar array has been working; flawlessly, and with NO maintenance (unless you count wiping snow off) for 14 years.  Not so bad, really.

But it's a major headache at the moment.  Yes, it IS covered by my insurance this time.  With some deductibles, of course.  The problem for me is; this particular model of panel is of course no longer made.  And newer panels- aren't the same size/shape.  So they won't fit on the existing mount.  So I not only have to find new panels, but erect a new rack.
In my spare time.  ha ha ha.

The storm, of course, came when the hot weather finally broke- and it went from 85°F on one day, to 45°F 24 hours later.  hm.

This array is the main power for the greenhouse.  We do have a small diesel backup generator; mostly for the odd week when the sun never shines at all.  But it's now urgent to get this done before freezeup, since installing it probably requires pouring some new concrete, for a new mount...


Thursday, October 4, 2007

September- no stove.

Time has been sneaking past me here; perhaps I could blame it on the medications for my "out" back.  Or just the blur of constant work.  Our harvest is still going on, and will for a while yet.

The back is better, but not entirely back.  Slogging on.

I was tickled by several of the recent comments here - one stating they liked the glimpses of real life best, and I could leave out the general discussion; another glad to see I was making "real" posts again, after a bit of an enviro rant- must be doing something right; if all parties are equally happy and displeased!

I'll continue to write both- partly because I need both for my own sanity.  It does get frustrating, pushing on icebergs and not seeing anything happening.  The rants help blow off steam, and who knows, may even reach a person or two.

So- a bit of the real world, here; it's October.  And for the first time since I built the Little House- we didn't have the wood stove in operation during September, not once.

In a normal year, there's a week or so of cold, often rainy weather, when we crank up the woodstove for the first time of the season; we need to stay warm.  But not this year.   We had rains; but they were warm, and came all in one day, not slowly over 3.  It never even occurred to me to light the stove.

The woodstove is a huge part of autumn and winter.  It changes how we cook (you can't bake potatoes on a propane burner - or pies) - changes our work- the need for wood, and feeding the stove takes precedence over almost everything, when it's zero outside.  It changes our eye on the weather- if a storm is coming, we need to get wood under cover in the shed, before it gets wet, or buried in snow.

I enjoy it immensely.  A tick of the seasonal clock.  I love sitting where the radiant heat warms me- chilly on one side, over-toasty on the other.  I love splitting wood, in fact, and doing all those little chores involved in keeping my family safe and warm.

So it was a shock when I noticed it was October; and no stove.  Yes, I'm afraid it really is global warming, our constant companion, again.  Actually, I know for a fact that I've burned far less wood in the past 3 winters than was usual in the '70's and '80's.  

Doesn't mean I don't still have to prepare and think ahead for a "real" winter- that can still happen, of course.  My biggest problem with wood last year was... mud.  Usually we move firewood to the house on snow sleds.  I arranged things originally so the wood yard is out in the sun- and uphill from the house.  The wood dries nicely out there, and it's pretty easy to get a sled load, and just guide it as it slides downhill to the house.  But sleds don't work well on mud- nor do wheelbarrows.  I had to just carry it in my arms more times last year than any other I recall.

Changes in our lives; here now.

So- the video here is just for fun; and because I've just figured out how to include video, since I updated my browser.  It's around 18 megabytes; hard on a slow connection- ...  This is Smidgen, of course; running for the pure joy of it- it's a new concept for her.  Then to my surprise, she stopped- and started to sing.  I was so lucky to catch it.  Can you tell what she's singing?

Boy, I gotta tell ya.  That's a dangerous clip for me.  I'm afraid I could just sit here and watch it over and over.  Probably not quite so dangerous for you- but I'm her daddy.  It was pretty tricky running backwards and using the camera-