Monday, December 2, 2013

Local media follow-up from Skagit Valley Herald

Our newspaper did several stories on us in the early years; recently they decided to check in again to see where we had ended up.  The result was some fine journalism, a comprehensive article that ran on the front page of the Sunday paper a week ago and found here.

Monday, September 2, 2013

People Eating Tasty Animals

In honor of Labor Day barbecues, and as a way to get a post up exactly a year after my last entry, I give you my attempt to put American consumption of meat and animal products in perspective.  Take a group of one hundred average Americans; how many animals do they need to support their meat, egg, and milk habits?  Well, over the course of one year:

  • three dairy cows
  • one hundred laying hens
  • ten beef cows
  • thirty-six pigs
  • one hundred turkeys
  • two thousand chickens

That's right--besides the cows and hens that produce milk and eggs, you and your ninety-nine friends require the slaughter of dozens of large mammals and several thousand birds!  The meat consumption numbers are in the chart below (note the huge rise in chicken, nearly tied with beef at sixty pounds per person per year), but the underlying reality is lots and lots of animals being raised in anticipation of slaughter for our enjoyment.

Behind these animals are others, too: several dairy replacement heifers and a bull, a couple sows (mother pigs) and a boar, a couple dozen chickens and female turkeys with a few roosters and a tom (male turkey) for continuing to grow the population.  As farms (or, for pork and poultry, the huge industrial operations that have replaced farms) grow larger, these animals move further out of our view, but they're still waiting to feed us all the same.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A gallon a day

I recently ran across the latest gasoline-usage data for Washington and Oregon presented by the Sightline Institute.  The headline of the report was that consumption continues to decline; while ten gallons a week was normal in the 1970s, "during the average week in 2011, Washington residents consumed 7.3 gallons of gasoline per person. In Oregon, weekly gas consumption totaled 7.1 gallons per person...[this was the] lowest level since 1962—back when a gallon of gasoline cost 31 cents.  Similarly, per person gas consumption in Washington fell to its lowest level since 1965."

The trend is encouraging, primarily stemming from less driving.  "Annual vehicle mileage per capita has fallen by 13 percent over the last’s as if every driver left their car in the garage for a month and a half each year. These per-capita declines have offset population growth, leading to a virtual flat-lining of total driving on state roads for most of the last decade."  After substantial improvement in mileage in the 1980s, cars haven't gotten that much more efficient in recent years; since they continue to last longer, even new fuel-economy standards will take a long time to have an effect.  However, raw mileage reductions aren't over; "demographic trends provide good reason to believe that miles driven per capita will continue to fall. Once drivers hit the age of 45, they drive less."

When I checked my gasoline-purchasing records, I found that I too use at least a gallon of gasoline every day.  That means I buy six pounds of highly-concentrated liquid energy,  mix it with oxygen and combust it, producing about eighteen pounds of carbon dioxide, day after day. This energy is extracted as crude oil from Alaska or Alberta at great expense, transported to Northwest Washington, refined, and made available to me for about four dollars a gallon--a ridiculously low price relative to the amount of work the gasoline does moving my 3,000-pound car around, but adding up to billions of dollars a year as a cost to our region.  Hopefully, I can find some efficiencies and become a part of trend--that or just get older, when I will drive less too!

Monday, January 2, 2012

"23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism"

I bought this book by Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang a while back after reading some reviews online; with the paperback coming out in two weeks, we should see another round of comments soon. Written after the 2008 financial crisis, "23 Things" is a crisp read that hammers home its message that economics is about good policy, not using reverence to the free market to accept bad outcomes.

As a renewable-energy entrepreneur frustrated by our nation's lack of a plan to power itself while we continue to deplete our resource base AND spend billions buying from overseas, this book was a breath of fresh air. Our society isn't doing much to prevent the next financial crisis, either, but "23 Things" carefully places the blame in the proper place--with the policymakers rather than the free market to which many profess their devotion.

I've put together a selection of points from six of the "Things" that support my contention that the United States needs to get serious about domestic production of renewable energy equipment and capacity, using government policy to drive this production as quickly as possible:
Thing 1. There is no such thing as a free market
"Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them." We accept that we aren't allowed to buy and sell human organs, unapproved drugs, or court decisions; other rules can be made to further policy goals, rather than simply accepting outcomes and crediting the "invisible hand".
Thing 7. Free-market policies rarely make poor countries rich
"With only a few exceptions, all of today's rich countries, including Britain and the US--the supposed homes of free trade and free market--have become rich through the combinations of protectionism, subsidies, and other policies that today they advise the developing countries to avoid." China's explosive economy, with all its government controls and restrictions, resembles the United States during its late-19th-century growth into the world's richest nation; we don't necessarily have to play by different rules today, and we certainly shouldn't force desperate countries in crisis to do so.
Thing 9. We do not live in a post-industrial age
"It looks as if we are spending ever higher shares of our income on services not because we are consuming ever more services in absolute terms but mainly because services are becoming more expensive in relative terms." We buy more goods than ever, but more rapid productivity growth in manufacturing means goods are also cheaper than ever; we can pretend that these goods are destined to made elsewhere, or we can work to retain our vital manufacturing sector.
Thing 12. Governments can pick winners
"Decisions that are good for individual firms may not be good for the national economy as a whole." Especially in East Asia, the development of heavy industry (which has succeeded at the expense of the United States) was driven by governments rather than private business; the narrower and shorter-term focus of American businesses mean they can't and won't compete.
Thing 17. More education in itself is not going to make a country richer
"What really matters in the determination of national prosperity is not the educational levels of individuals but the nation's ability to organize individuals into enterprises with high productivity." Even if every worker in America graduates from college, it won't matter if they all end up working in finance and health care while we buy goods made elsewhere.
Thing 19. Despite the fall of communism, we are still living in planned economies
"Modern capitalist economies are made up of large, hierarchical corporations that plan their activities in great detail.... Therefore, the question is not whether you plan or not. It is about planning the right things at the right level." No corporation would operate completely guided by fluctuating market prices, so we shouldn't expect society to do so either.

I wrote almost two years ago about the energy overhaul needed in the United States; with energy usage on the rise again and oil prices increasing, we need good policy more than ever.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Abundance and Industrial Solutions

Thanksgiving provides an appropriate occasion for more thoughts on food waste. Of course, it's our everyday patterns--not our feasts--that should determine how we deal with waste, so here is my own food story.

Once or twice each day, I put four teaspoons of ground coffee into an unbleached filter and make a half-pot of coffee. The next time around, I have to dispose of a wet filter full of depleted grounds weighing several ounces. While one day I might toss an apple core and the next some lettuce scraps, the coffee filters are my heaviest and most consistent waste stream, one that for some time was going straight to the landfill.

Why didn't I use a recycling service? Waste Management charges $100 a year to pick up a green waste bin. It's not hard to find ways to dispose of grass clippings and I have no desire to add to the profits of a multi-billion dollar company (new motto: "Think Green") when they already make $200 a year disposing of my garbage; so, for years I tossed my food waste in the trash bin.

A little over a year ago, I shifted my habits--not with any new service or source of information online, but with two simple tools I'd noticed others using. I set up a common back-yard composting bin, and purchased a beautiful vented stainless-steel pail for food scraps. Now I put each day's coffee filters in the pail, along with bits of fruit and vegetable waste. The pail sits on the counter next to the coffee maker, breathing through its filters and avoiding the odor that can result when the process of biological breakdown starts prematurely indoors. Every couple days, I go out to the back yard with a food-scraps pail and my favorite four-tine garden fork. I open the top hatch, through which I've been loading compost bin for the last year. I re-mix partially-decomposed previous layers of organic material, add in fresh food waste, and cover over with wilted grass clippings. The middle of the bin continues to cure, but I'll dig out the compost at the bottom through the side hatch and put it into the garden next spring in lieu of a branded bag of material purchased at a big-box store.

Now I don't need another huge truck getting four miles per gallon roaring up to my curb every week or two. I don't need to pay another utility bill for the privilege of sending away food I already paid for to be turned into compost that someone can try to sell back to me later. Better yet, I'm much more aware of the flows of organic material through the kitchen and the yard.

Our industrial economy expends huge amounts of effort and diesel moving material around. As long as green waste recycling is treated as only marginally different than our current model of paying to make stuff disappear, it lacks long-term sustainability. Our developed-world level of wealth allows us the luxury of not thinking about waste beyond the comforting thought that someone else is recycling a bit of it.

It is ridiculous to package food, distribute it, bring it home, fail to eat it, haul it away from the home, and then finally try to salvage all this wastefulness by recovering a bit of energy or fertilizer. If we really value renewable electricity and soil amendments, we could take a cue from Europe and just skip the whole wasting-food step altogether. The Germans harvest two million acres of food-grade crops every year and feed them straight to anaerobic digesters, producing over a gigawatt of electricity and building up their soils at the same time. Or we could work to make our waste volumes as small as possible and process them with equally small-scale backyard or neighborhood-level systems. The savings, and the sustainability, would slowly but surely grow in abundance.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Farm Power Rexville Open House

Three years ago was a beautiful October day in Northwest Washington, a perfect day to break ground on our first manure-to-energy project. Today the weather is miserable, but at Farm Power Rexville the digester bacteria are happily making biogas in their 100F slurry environment. While after years of operation we often take our manure bacteria for granted, we want to celebrate their hard work with an open house; we know many of you have already seen the digester, but as always--you’re invited!

The facility will be open from 10 AM to noon next Saturday, November 5th, at 18866 Beaver Marsh Road, Mount Vernon—here is Google map of the digester location. Please come, bring shoes that can get dirty, and any more questions you may have.

In other news, the USDA finally announced this year's Renewable Energy for America Program awards, and our two Oregon projects made the cut. The green power industry is looking at a few lean years coming up, but we are thankful for the opportunity to get a couple more digesters in the ground while we can.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Seattle Times on Farm Power

The deputy business editor from the Seattle Times came up to Rexville a few weeks ago, and the resulting story came out today. The video attached to the story (also available here) combines nice views of Skagit Valley's tulip fields while I talk about the value of manure in an agricultural system! The Times also created a great visual representation of the digester, which I've attached at left.