Why one should have Engineers for Friends…

Random email I got today:

Here is an observation I made during the power down:

if 1 million people each cut 100 Watts from the grid, that is 100
million watts of load reduced.
Since all power that is generated must be consumed voltage should rise
as the load decreases.
The power companies (Power generators) will need to cut back on
production to keep the voltage from rising to high and burning things
out that are still drawing power from the grid (A bad thing).

So I decided to monitor the voltage with a very accurate meter at my
house during the 8 pm to 10 pm time frame. I stabilized the load at my
house before taking the measurements (I turned off most all loads,
Water pump, Water heater, Most lights, and anything else that could
cause a line voltage drop if it kicked on during the monitoring
At 8 pm the voltage was 120.1
At 8:15 pm 119.8
At 8:30 pm 120.4
At 8:45 pm 121.4
At 9:00 pm 122.4
At 9:15 pm 122.6
At 9:30 pm 122.2
At 9:45 pm 119.9
At 10:00 pm 120.1

All the voltages I measured were well within the acceptable range for
house hold use even during the event.
It was interesting (but expected) that the voltage went up during the
lights out time and returned back to near the 120 Volt range after the
This suggests to me that we (the people who decided to participate)
were able to make a difference by turning out the lights!

Today (Sunday) I have been monitoring the voltage throughout the day,
It has been in the 120 to 121 range all day.
If we did manage to reduce the load by 100 million watts (100
Megawatt), we actually saved even more power than that! Numbers vary
but between 20 to 40% of power generated is lost in transmission
between the power plant and the end user. That is why Obama is pushing
the “Smart Grid”. If the loss numbers are anywhere near close then the
total power reduction of 100 megawatts was actually more like 120 to
140 megawatt reduction when viewed from the generation end!

There is so much to love here – that my friend took 2 hours of his life to take semi scientific voltages measurements on a Saturday night, that he spent hours preparing for it, that he took more time to email it out, but mostly that he is just so damn excited about it all.

Give the Geek in your life a hug – they will likely save us all.

Be the Change.


Garden Plans

It is odd how simple phrases – like the title of this post- change over time.  That seems to be a reoccuring sentiment for me in 2009.  This year is just different; from the Economy to the Oval Office things have caused a huge change in my thinking.  In the past, “garden planning” has meant physically laying out beds in traditional permaculture flow charts, or the last few it has meant laying out the rotation of the crops to ensure maximum bounty / soil fertility.  As time has passed my gardening is becoming more intuitive – I need graph paper less and time with my hands in the soil more.

It is an entirely ineffable thing, but I feel that I can almost know what crop the bed is ready for this year by scrolling through my mental calendar, running the soil through my hands, crumbling it under my nose, and using this aural experience make my call for this year.  Likely I will need both – a structured rotation scheme on paper/pixels, backed up by soil test, but one that is loose enough to be modified subjectively.  This may all just be hubris, but I like it and am going with it.

But more impactfully, the biggest change this year is that it is time for the garden to make money.   Blame this on a combination of Obama’s “pull on your boots” inspiration and the fact that people are getting laid off left and right and I need to ensure these gardens are producing viable products.  That is not to say money is the ultimate goal, but it is a sufficient way to judge if what you are producing is what people want/need.  Here are some key components to that end in my market garden this year:


To readers of this blog, this is no surprise.  I like potatoes and made a huge splash in the local markets by being one of the first in the county to grow heirloom spuds.  Try eating a hand grown Carola potatoes after a lifetime of Idaho russets and you’ll no what I mean!  I sold every one of the 1560#’s I grew last year that we didn’t eat ourselves and made enough to pay off the Grillo and one of its implements in one season.  Damn.  This year we will focus even more of potatoes with over 340#’s of seed purchased and a harvest of 2500-3000#’s expected.  Varieties: Carola, Yukon Gold, Kennebec, Purple Viking and Island Sunshine.  Moose Tubers is our supplier – they ROCK.


Our local resturaunt customer spent the winter reading Kingsolver and Pollan and is All In for local food.  She is looking for as much lettuce and spinach as we can give her.  That will be alot – we are growing a huge variety to test for local affinity.  Spinach Varieties: Space, Longstanding Bloomsdale; Lettuce Varieties: Forellenschus, Red Rapids, Rossa di Trento, Mereveille, Lollo Rossa, Bronze Arrowhead, Grandpa Admire’s – almost enitrely from Seed Savers.


We had the best peppers of our life last year.  It may have been just a good year for peppers, but I also think it has to do with it being our first experience with Fedco’s products.  Regardless, we’re hooked.   We had great results with them in the hoop house, so will convert the summer hoop house to almost monoculture production of peppers this year (its only 250 sq ft).  Varieties: Peacework, New Carmen, Valencia, New Ace, and Poblano’s.


Last year was uniformly awful for tomatoes – far to wet early, and far to dry late; blight was rampant.  Very few local growers did much of anything.  But we are undeterred.  The same restaurant that wants all the lettuce is looking for up to 30#’s a week, which is a huge step up for us.  Will likely call in some reinforcements, but as tomatoes are rather easy to grow -in a good year!- we will give ‘r a go. My wife was smitten by many of the new offerings this year and is really on fire in the kitchen of late, so we are experimenting again – will likley winnow this down to about 7 Varieties:  Sheboygan, Speckled Roman, Austin’s Red Pear, Beam’s Yellow Pear, Cream Sausage, Earliana, Eva Purple Ball, Amish Paste, Hungarian Heart Brandywine, Wisconsin 55.  Oi!  Again, Seed Savers.


We have a new business serving us local-vores – an organic bakery has popped up in the town west of us.  It just so happens they are interested in potatoes for potato bread, but also in herbs for their baguettes.  We love their baguettes and have offered a barter system – we grow the herbs, they make them into warm vehicles for goat cheese.  Basil, oregano, rosemary, and a crazy amount of alliums are thusly on the docket.  Also, we are huge salsa fans, so cilantro will have a steady presence all year.


We are also going to try pumpkins this year as they take a bunch of space and I need to fill a 1/4 acre for the rotation at the market garden.  Howdens look good and we will likely interplant them with crimson clover and sweet corn in super wide spacing.  Mia wants to try leeks, and I may try brassica’s again after the moths chased me away 3 years ago.  I will also try for a bumper crop of Sudan Grass just to see it hit 8′ in a season so I can practice mowing with my Scythe- yes I grow cover crops for fun!  We will also have our supply of sunflowers for the kids, and may try a flower cutting garden too.

The plan is to spend an hour of so out at the farm each night on the way home several nights a week.  This is a step up from the weekend only approach last year.  But that approach also killed an embarrassing amount of produce due to simple neglect.  My Monday’s off will likely be focused on the “hardlines” side of my business (rainbarrel, compost bins, raised beds) with hopefuly one or two large rain garden gigs on the weekends.

 The stakes are higher this year, but 2 years ago I chose to follow my heart and form an LLC rather than go for a promotion which would have entailed another 10 hours a week in work.  The money actually works out about the same, but the quality of life is no contest and now I can write off Grillos as a business experience. 😉

This could all be rendered moot very quickly if we actually get the CSE grant, but we are just one small fish of a river full of salmon on that one so we’ll see.  

The world is changing – the things that I have researched and wrote about for years are coming to pass in all their staggering reality.  Some are appaling – the erupting wars in the 3rd world, the 10% unemployment, the palpable fear.  But so many others are so hopeful: people turning inward to family, to gardening, to quality over quantity as we power down our spending.  

May we choose hope over fear this year in our planning.  That change to hope will need some help.  

Be that Change.


Stimulated CSE?

Just to keep you all “in the loop”, I may very well be in the running for a chunk of the Stimulus Package in regards to rural development/renewable energy/sustainable agriculture grants.  I have begun the application process in conjunction with several local organizations that requested proposals based on our ideas.  The front runner is for a grant to fund the start-up for a CSE business focused on producing small scale energy centers (gasifier+greenhouse) as well as a commercial version of our gasifiers.  The business would be located in a 5-10 acre facility whose grounds would be holistically planned (duh!) and use willow coppice for the windbreaks of 8, .5 acre garden plots that would be farming incubators for graduates of local sustainable farming education programs (pay it forward!).  Those plots would also form the test beds to determine the amount of biochar ag land can take and its effects.  

The structure itself would be comprised of a gasifier powered workshop which would include ethanol and biodiesel production, manufacturing capabilities for several dozen gasifiers annually, a half dozen or more energy centers, as well as equipment to produce 20 tons of pellets annually.  Additionally, the south side of the workshop would be a gasifier heated aquaponics greenhouse that would also house the solar drying still for the biomass crops.  The facility would  have a strong outreach component focused on seminars and workshops on liquid and solid biofuel production, aquaponics, permaculture, sustainable ag and gasification as well as anything else someone wants me to talk about.

This is all happening VERY fast, but these ideas have been “shovel ready” for about a year now so the ramp up is do-able.  Switching from welding burn plates to crafting business plans is throwing my brain into fits, but it beats watching sitcoms for sure.

I have no idea where this will go, but it sure is fun!

Thanks in advance for all the good energy… if I make it to the State review level I will be asking for you to call you Congressman!


Saving the World… Dirty Jobs Edition

Right.  So saving the world isn’t all about cute seals, swanky organic clothes, and sexy Tesla electric cars.  We’ve built a gasifier that can burn just about any carbon source from wood chips to cow pies to straw if its pelletized.  We also have alot of diversity in our CSE which is one of its primary strengths.  Put those two together, add some beer and weird things are bound to happen.  So a few weeks ago we were talking about available local waste resources that could be potential feedstocks, and one of our members happens to run my town Wastewater Treatment plant…. You can see where this is going and I don’t blame you if you stop reading now.  But for those looking for ,erm, unique solutions to the coming energy crisis, please do read on!

This past Monday I got together with several of the more intrepid members of my CSE and met up at our local Sewage Treatment plant to see if we could find a better mix of the leftover sludge that wold burn.  Weeks ago we ran about 10#’s of sludge through the gasifier and the results were not the greatest – it was too wet and our plant treats the leftover solids with lime to kill off the ecoli, etc and the high mineral content didn’t agree with the gasifier -rock dust doesn’t burn so good.  


We hope that adding in some other carbon sources that the village has in abundance (chips and leaves) we can raise the carbon content and it will burn better.  Here is yours truly shlepping chips into the augers (BIG augers… like 18″ diameter!) that they use to move the Bio Solids around.

About the sludge.  Lets be clear about this: these are Class A Biosolids, which means they are clean enough to be certified for use as fertilizer for food crops if need be.  The Biosolids are thoroughly processed, and are now no more human waste than my finished compost is still a melon rind.  Still, I get it that its gross… 

 The issue is that due to the lime, it funks around with the soil PH if you add too much or too often.  


So we are sitting on alot of it.  Like enough to fill the All Purpose Room at my kids school – and that is just since November in a town of 2000 souls.   If we can get this crap (pun intended) to burn we could literally power the entire Municipal yard on sh/t.  [The jokes alone almost make this job worth it –they just never get old!] So that is why 5 relatively normal men are throwing perfectly good wood chips into an auger full of perfectly good Biosolids on a bright Monday Morning.  No one ever said saving the world was easy.

the-biosolid-recipe-resizeWe struggled to get the mix right for awhile.  The augers were set to move the Solids expeditiously filling each gap in the auger almost completely, so there wasn’t enough room to mix in the chips.  Once we slowed the intake of the sheets of drying solids, we were able to get something closer to a 50:50 mix of chips to processed waste which was our goal.  The scale of this study is getting significant, we are rapidly moving from backyard tinkerer to players on a municipal scale.  If we are able to make the recipe work, we could be only months away from setting up a test scale gasifier on site.  How exciting!  But I am getting ahead of myself.


The steam coming off the mixed pile shows how wet the mix still is – we estimate it to be over 70% moisture.  That is about 4x too wet to burn – we like our fuels to be in the 15-18% moisture range.  We were able to mix up this good sized pile in about 30 minutes, so the equipment is certainly efficient enough.  Next up will be to set up some solar stills to see how rapidly we can dry the mixture without any energy inputs, and then see if  it can burn well.  

In the mean time, we have 2 concerns.  The Biosolds are about 1-2% nitrogren and adding all that carbon will almost certainly turn this into a giant compost pile – the piles of pure BioSolids are already sitting at 90 F all winter on their own as a result of residual benign bacteria chewing on it – and we just inoculated our solids with all sorts of good bugs.  That would mean we would be losing carbon to the air in the exhalations of the bacteria until it dries.  If that becomes an issue then we will need to dry the Solids before we mix them to prevent the bacteria from firing up.  The second concern that many of us voiced is that in taking the wet BioSolid and mixing in leaves, straw, and chips we end up with a mixture that looks remarkably like cob.  Depending on the binding strength present in the sludge we may very well have just made a 2 ton impressionist sculpture on the municipal grounds when this all dries/hardens.  Let’s hope not!

This may end up being one of our more notable failures, but Edison managed to create 10,000 ways to *not* make a lightbulb so we are due for some flops.  But if we pull this off we may be on to something.  

Seriously, I wouldn’t sh/t you on this…



This is a reoccurring theme in my life right now, and hence keeps popping up on my brain dumps here.  I am firmly convinced that we are in the throes of the converging crisis of an over stressed Ecosystem caused by over consumption of Cheap Energy leading to an overstretched Economy.  More importantly, I believe we are currently in overshoot – that the crisis of the past year in both Energy and Economy are only the first signs that we have, in fact, overshot the holding capacity –or Peak– in these areas.  Overshoots are permitted by what is essentially enertia allowing the momentum of a course of action to continue to produce expected results even though the sustainabilty of those actions has been exceeded.  This is exasperated by tendencies of complex systems like our global Carbon Cycle to be slow to show visible change until the buildup causes that change to be radical – we can dump CO2 into it for a half a century before we begin to see any measurable result at all – and at that point irreversible temperature increase is inevitable.  That is Overshoot.  

Economic Bubbles act in a very similar way.  For decades we have all blithely consumed and bought bigger houses/cars/dogs as we all marched along to the tune of unceasing Progress and Prosperity.  But for most of early 21st Century the housing market was in Overshoot (Bubble), with prices climbing higher and higher until the system could no longer sustain it and it came crashing down. That is another trait of overshoot.  The build up typically goes unnoticed, humans are seemingly designed to blindly accept good fortune. Because of this, the decline (Crash) comes as a shock like a 2×4 to the head.  In something as psychological as Economics this shock further adds to the problem by causing a panic.

The problem with Overshoot scenarios is that the disruption to the cycle often causes deeper lows than would be seen in a more stable system.  The panic of the Great Depression forced the world through a much tougher time than a more gradual descent if they had made corrections BEFORE the crash.  The Carbon Cycle will be the same.  Had we made the changes necessary 30 years ago at the first soundings of alarm, hell even at Kyoto, we may have avoided the incredibly critical Tipping Points like the melting of arctic ice and the lose of the Albedo Effect.

Then there are the more personal forms of Overshoot.  I am very prone to throwing myself into worthwhile ventures – local food, local energy, community building… if it looks like it will build a better world and is actionable, I’m in.  I’ve got alot of energy, and I only go to work 4 days a week, but of course everyone has limits.  I overshoot mine about every 4 months on average.  I overcommit to the point that I have to shut down for a week or three to recharge.  That’s not a very stable system, so I am working on that.  Of course, if you have read this blog much you know that I am failing on keeping myself in check more than ever.  If you need to wonder why, reread the first paragraphs of this post again – we got some Big Problems staring us down right now.  Having spent much of the past 3 years working on these issues, it is very hard to say no when so many people are coming calling now that the sh/t has hit the fan.  Suddenly everyone wants to know more about growing food on little inputs or producing energy with little capital from local resources.  It is virtually impossible for me to say no to all the people calling for action, for talks, for committees.  But, of course, I can’t do it all and I am burning out.  Worse than that, even if no one else was coming calling, I am by far my own worst enemy.  I want to do it all – grow more food, start making biodiesel and ethanol and make pellets and raise tilapia and learn to weld, and… and… burnout.  

And how does one choose?  I used to think I could let life help me choose.  What is right would be what Gaia cleared the way for.  But now I have more “clear” options than I can clearly wade through.  Without much effort I could be making biodiesel, growing 10x more produce, or erecting greenhouses powered by gasifiers on shared land.  With a bit more effort I could be doing them all on my own thanks to the bottom dropping out beneath the price on ag/commercial land around here.  But I have to choose.  And right now the CSE/Energy is winning.  Growing local food seems to have a smaller skill set needed than producing local energy.  Gaia has given me a slew of options, but when I look at what is unique to me – to my *now*, it is the incredible group of individuals in my CSE group.  Engineers, Electronics specialists, Permaculture Pros -people that get personal emails from John Ikerd and David Blume.  People that have worked on Antarctic research stations.  People that are smart and skilled enough to be able to do just about anything they damn well put their mind to and more importantly don’t care if no one has done it before.  And best of all, they don’t mind me coming along for the ride.

I will likely still try to do it all.  But when I weigh the pros and cons – the energy side is winning.  That means that the Market Garden will need to run on the same or less energy – I still think I can eck out almost double the harvest by focusing on the Big Vigorous Veggies that can deal with my neglectful farming practices.  but I also want to firm up the home front, so the permaculture aspects of the home plot will not go neglected, and I gots to pay for all this somehow so the LLC will get more time too.   Crap, this is a mess!

But Monday’s are Energy Days.  This week we are touring our local Municipal Sewer Utility to look into the feasibility of implementing a gasifier on site to burn off their processed waste to create heat/energy/biochar from good ol sh/t.  Its carbon, it’ll burn.  Never though I’d say this, but I am looking forward to burning some crap tomorrow.

Take Care, and try to maintain sanity a bit better than I am .  This will be a marathon, not a sprint.  We need runners, and we need runners that will finish strong.  Be the change.


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