“Are you sure you’ve got a good grip?”
“Yes, but if you don’t hurry up, I’m going to pass out and drop you.”
It was 1974, and my friend Larry was holding my ankles as I lowered myself over the edge of the manure pit at the Lariche chicken farm in Wolcott, Vermont. I held a bucket, intending to scoop up the disgusting liquid slurry.
Antoine Lariche thought I was crazy, but he said to go ahead if I really felt like it. I tried to explain to him that his vat of chicken shit was a potentially valuable resource, that he could make methane gas out of it in an anaerobic digester – that is, if he could figure out how to cap it to keep oxygen out, avoid explosions, and retrieve the gas. Lariche laughed and, in his French-Canadian accent, said, “Ah, bien sur, you make the gas and come back and tell me how it works.”
The manure was about six feet down, so now Larry held on as I dangled over the edge with my bucket. Trying not to breathe, I managed to get nearly a full bucket, and Larry pulled me safely back over the edge. “You’re lucky I held on,” he said. “I really did think I was going to lose my lunch.”
I took the bucket home and tied a big garbage bag over the top, sure that it would fill with methane gas in a day or two, and that would be my proof-of-concept experiment. Then I would figure out how to create a full-scale version so that I could heat my house or get someone to help me rig my car to run on the stuff. I was inspired by Harold Bate, a British tinkerer who ran his car with biodigested gas. I had read about him in The Whole Earth Catalog, a big hippy-dippy paperback with all sorts of interesting ideas, including the recipe for home-made yogurt that I used.
This was in the middle of the first Energy Crisis, and I was trying to be a good back-to-the-land hippy in rural Vermont. My methane experiment failed when it rained the next day, leaving my garbage bag deflated in a puddle of water atop the bucket. I ended up spreading the chicken manure on my garden.
But I never forgot the idea, and four years later I wrote an article for the Burlington Free Press, “There’s Methane Gas in Them Thar Landfills,” about a Vermont landfill run by Louis and Lawrence Rathe (pronounced “ratty”). The Rathe brothers, who never made it through high school, produced enough gas to heat their homes and several outbuildings.
“The principle involved is called anaerobic decomposition of organic matter,” I wrote. “It means that ‘swamp gas,’ commonly called methane, is produced by rotting matter when no oxygen is available. And 75 feet of buried garbage produces just that condition.”
In those days I was an elementary school teacher, then later an academic librarian, but in my spare time I wrote freelance articles for local newspapers. In September 1975 I wrote “Wood Stoves Are Back in Style” for the Lamoille County Weekly, touting the virtues of old-fashioned wood stoves:
Those charming names came from Victorian stoves that were being pulled out of old barns, polished up and refurbished because of the rising price of oil. Today’s wood stoves are far more efficient, but the virtues about which I rhapsodized back then are still valid, and as long as the wood burned is replaced by other trees (and here in Vermont, it is), it is renewable energy. I still live in Vermont, and I still love heating with my wood stove.
Today, we face not only a new energy crisis, but growing evidence that our use of fossil fuels has produced enough greenhouse gases – notably carbon dioxide and unburned methane – to raise the temperature of the earth’s atmospheres and oceans. Scientists predict that, unless we kick the fossil fuel habit, we are likely to face catastrophic consequences of climate change — a perfect storm of flood, famine, disease, drought, environmental devastation. growing refugee populations, and conflicts over scarce resources. Not only that, we are likely to run out of oil and natural gas by the end of this century. Coal will still be plentiful, but it is the worst fossil fuel pollutant.
Most people are aware of these looming problems, but shifting to renewable energy sources while maintaining our current lifestyles will be challenging and perhaps impossible. The problems can seem insurmountable when viewed globally. But here in Vermont, whose citizens have always taken pride in their flinty independence, pragmatism, and respect for the environment, there are encouraging experiments and examples of renewable energy that could inspire other states and nations.
Using Vermont – the 45th state in land size and second only to Wyoming in fewest residents — as a microcosm, The Mouse That Roars (Renewably) will explore such solutions while profiling the innovative, stubborn, and sometimes maniacal individuals who are pursuing small hydropower, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, battery storage, electric vehicles, locally grown foods, and energy efficiency. Until Vermont finally joined the United States in 1791, it was an independent republic. While some residents still feel that we would be better off seceding, the state is inextricably bound to other New England states, nearby Canada, and the global village. Rather than turning inward, most Vermonters are committed to making their own small corner of the world a better place and leading the rest of the world to do the same. A few examples:
As a long-time Vermonter, I will write in the first person as I explore the green nooks and crannies of the state and meet innovative energy pioneers. The chapters will be short, filled with dialogue, characters, and a sense of place. The Mouse That Roars (Renewably) will be entertaining, provocative, and timely.
The transition to green power will not be easy, however. Take my personal situation, for instance. I may heat partially with wood, but I rely on my oil furnace for my primary heat in the winter. I have installed solar hot water panels, but photovoltaic panels won’t work well in my location (too many trees), and geothermal or a small wind turbine would be too expensive. Or take transportation. I love to sail and kayak on nearby Lake Champlain, hike the Green Mountains, and bike rural roads, but I still drive my gas-guzzling Toyota Camry. I need it, for one thing, to buy food at the supermarket. Even though I have a large garden and put up beans, tomatoes, squash, eggplants, Swiss chard, and the like, I couldn’t survive just on my own produce.
Similarly, on a statewide level, Vermont currently gets a third of its electricity from Hydro Quebec, a third from Vermont Yankee (an aging, leaky nuclear power plant in Vernon, VT), and most of the rest from the New England power grid, which means electrons produced by burning natural gas in Massachusetts and Connecticut. We do get some electricity from our own hydropower dams, solar arrays, methane generation, wood chip burning plants, and wind turbines, but it is a relatively small amount. Vermont Yankee, which has made splashy headlines in the last year with its tritium leaks, may be closed in 2012 (if Entergy, its Louisiana-based owner, fails to prevent the closure in federal court), at which time Vermont’s carbon footprint and its electrical rates are likely to rise dramatically.
Yet the rest of America can learn from tiny Vermont, where people know one another and their politicians, where town meetings really do work, and where innovative, pragmatic self-reliance is a way of life. In 2008 Vermont was ranked number one in the nation as the healthiest place to live for the seventh time in eight years, and Burlington, its biggest city, has repeatedly been ranked as the greenest city in America, so we must be doing something right here! Ultimately, The Mouse That Roars (Renewably) will provide inspiration and positive examples of how we can change our world for the better, caring for one another and our planet.
Lori Barg, a carpenter and Ph. D. geologist who specializes in “fluvial geomorphology,” moved to Plainfield, VT, in 1996. Starting with an old dam in Plainfield that had provided power for a 19th century sawmill, she tried to get a permit to produce electricity with it. “I learned the hard way the absurd amount of permitting needed to use gravity to make power. Vermont was born on hydro, and there are hundreds of usable dams and rivers in the state.” She is fighting to put them to use.
David Blittersdorf, a Vermont native, first tried his hand at wind power as an eighth grader. “I stuck some blades on the roof of our sugarhouse and attached it to a bicycle generator. It had too much drag, but in a huge wind it actually lit up a little Christmas tree light.” That was the start of a lifelong passion with wind and alternative energy. In 1982 he founded NRG Systems, which has become a world leader in wind monitoring systems. Ironically, few wind farms have been built in Vermont, though that is changing. In 2004 David’s wife Jan took over as CEO of NRG Systems, when David started a new company, AllEarth Renewables, which makes AllSun Trackers to allow solar photovoltaic panels to follow the sun. He also spent $6 million on R&D for home wind turbines, but he has not been able to establish a market for them.
Gaelan Brown works for GroSolar, a Vermont-based firm that promotes photovoltaic cells. But he’s also exploring another simple method of renewable energy to heat his water. With the help of students from Yestermorrow, an innovative Vermont school for building green structures, Gaelan is heating water for his house with a pile of sawdust and mulch, with plastic pipes in buried loops. The slowly decomposing organic matter heats the water, which is pumped at small expense into the house. “I learned about this from a French guy named Jean Pain, who did it back in the 1980s. No one else seems to be doing it, which is a head-scratcher to me.” True, he will have to build a new mound every couple of years, but he can use the decomposed mulch as fertilizer.
Gail Busch spent most of her career exporting eggs and cement to developing countries and designing interiors for exclusive Manhattan clients. In 2004 at age 64 she moved to Vermont to be near her divorced daughter and four grandchildren. She ended up founding Algeponics, a company that hopes to revolutionize the world of biodiesel by cheaply growing algae and extracting oil from it. “I had always been interested in turning waste into something useful, even when I was decorating. I would turn something garbagy into something nice.” She has indeed figured out how to grow algae in a pilot program using effluent from a dairy farm and is working on oil extraction methods. And she’s managed to convince various granting agencies to fund her.
Claude Chevalier, geothermal installation at his home.
Paul Boivin, former dairy farmer who grows corn and dries it for fuel as Golden Harvest.
Dave Dunn has been working with dairy farms to help them use electricity more efficiently for over 20 years, but in the last few years he has been helping Vermont farmers make their own electricity through biodigesters that convert cow manure into methane fuel and fertilizer. He started the “Cow Power” program at Central Vermont Public Service Corporation that has garnered international attention.
Bob Foster pioneered methane production from cow manure during the first energy crisis (he began generating electricity on his Middlebury farm in 1982) and is one of the few farmers from that era who are still doing it, despite obstacles thrown up by utilities and regulators. He uses the bi-product to produce Moo Doo, a balanced compost for organic gardeners, often making more money from it than from either his milk or electricity.
Ben Hewitt, 38, is one of a growing number of Vermonters who live off the grid, which isn’t too surprising in his case, since his hippy parents raised him in a home without electricity. With photovoltaic cells, solar hot water, and a wind turbine, he says that he has “made no sacrifice at all” in the quality of his life on a forty acre farm on a dead end road in Cabot, with two cows, laying hens, pigs, blueberries, fruit trees, a wife and two children.
Mari Omland and Laura Olsen, life partners and owners of Green Mountain Girls CSA.
John Irving, runs the McNeill wood-chip facility in Burlington.
Bill McKibben, climate change activist, naturalist, writer.
Matt Rubin, ex-hippy, small hydro owner.
Patrick Leahy, Vermont’s long-time senator and champion of renewable energy projects.
Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s socialist senator who pushes renewable energy.
Peter Shumlin, Vermont’s former governor who promises to promote renewable energy and public transportation.
Paul Schmidt, brews his own biodiesel fuel.
Marie and Eugene Audet, who help run family-owned Blue Spruce farm in Bridport, where they generate electricity through burning methane produced from cow manure.
Introduction: Will include the humorous story of my failed attempt at methane generation from chicken manure in 1974, why Vermont is a microcosm of problems facing the rest of the country/world, and how Vermont’s efforts may provide solutions. When I moved here in 1972, Vermont’s average annual temperature was 43 degrees F. Now it is 48 degrees. Although the issues we face are real and urgent, I plan to educate through entertaining stories rather than lectures.
Chapter 1: Wind Turbines Come to the Kingdom: Vermont’s first wind farm was erected by Green Mountain Power in 1997 in Searsburg; its turbines are still spinning and producing electricity. But trying to get permits and approval for other wind turbines has been frustrating and contentious. The permitting process is notoriously time-consuming, and the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) syndrome frequent. Finally, a large wind project in Sheffield has been approved, as has been the Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell (part of what is known as the Northeast Kingdom). The Harrison family project in Georgia, Vermont, is near approval. This chapter will focus on how Green Mountain Power’s Robert Dostis worked for a year with the Lowell community to allay fears and counter rumors. He took interested town members to New Hampshire to visit wind turbines to demonstrate that they were safe and quiet, then had to take them back after rumors that it was all a fraud, that the turbines were disconnected. At the Lowell town meeting in 2010, the project was approved by an overwhelming vote, but the project remains the focus of heated debate in the region.
Chapter 2: Here Comes the Sun, Every Now and Then. Vermont is notorious for its rainy summers and long winters, during which the sun dips fairly low on the horizon. Nonetheless, solar power is booming in the state, with recent tax incentives and many companies offering to install photovoltaic panels and solar water heaters. David Blittersdorf, who made his fortune and reputation with NRG Systems in Hinesburg, which makes wind sensing equipment, is CEO of the new AllEarthRenwables, which makes his Solar Tracker, which uses GPS and a small motor to turn solar panels to follow the sun every day. As a younger man, Ed Butler, CEO of Sunrise Solar Services, put up solar panels on the White House roof for Jimmy Carter in 1979.
Chapter 3: Cow Power and Other Uses of What Comes Out the Other End. In 1982, in the wake of the first Energy Crisis, Bob Foster of Middlebury was one of the first dairy farmers in the country to produce methane from his cows’ manure, despite no incentives or support from electric utilities. Frustrated by low prices, he took his electricity off the grid but continues to power his farm and nearby buildings, and mixes other vegetation with his digested manure to make Moo Doo, a retail compost. Now, thanks to Dave Dunn of Central Vermont Public Services Corporation, the state’s largest utility, the Cow Power program is encouraging farmers to install biogesters and sell electricity into the grid for a 4 cents per kilowatt-hour premium. The chapter will feature Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, where the Audet family pioneered as the first Cow Power farm. The number of Vermont dairy farms has declined from over 11,000 in 1950 to less than a thousand today, so this program is important in helping the struggling farmers. The chapter will also feature the use of human waste to produce methane for electricity at the Essex wastewater treatment facility.
Chapter 4: Algoil. There is a small white portable greenhouse set up near the Blue Spruce Farm biogester in Bridport. It is a test facility to grow Chlorella algae in the nutrient-rich liquid byproduct of the methane production. Gail Busch, the entrepreneurial grandmother CEO of Algeponics, plans to produce biodiesel by cracking the harvesting oil from the algae. They are indeed filled with usable oil, and ExxonMobil has spent $600 million on algae research, but no one has yet come up with a commercially viable method of growing and harvesting algae. Algeponics can grow the stuff, but can Busch and her inventive team of researchers come up with an environmentally friendly, non-chemical method of extracting the oil? She is confident, and if she succeeds, it would be a huge advance for renewable biofuels.
Chapter 5: Golden Harvest Heat from Corn. As readers will have gathered by now, dairy farming is not an easy way to make a living. That’s why Paul Boivin of Addison sold his cows in 2003, but he still grows feed corn. He dries it, then burns it in his Magnum Flex-Fuel furnace to heat his home. Through his business, Vermont Golden Harvest Biofuels, he sells fuel corn and furnaces as an alternative to oil. Corn provides 20% more heat than wood pellets. He hopes to provide some diversified income to struggling dairy farmers who can sell their corn, too.
Chapter 6: Wood Chips in Burlington. John Irving helped to create and now runs the McNeil Generating Station, which went into operation for the Burlington Electric Department in 1981. BED conducted studies to find a fuel source that would be locally available, reliable, cost-effective, non-polluting and publicly acceptable. Wood scored high on all counts. Using wood fuel as a generation source would put money back into the Vermont economy, improve the condition of the forests, and provide jobs for Vermonters. So railroad carloads of wood chips arrive daily at the plant. But the day I visited, it wasn’t running because of a fire in the huge ash-cleaning part of the plant. Nor is it very energy-efficient. Still, it’s renewable, because the wood comes from branches and tops left by loggers, or left-overs from sawmills.
Chapter 7: Biofuels and Gunk. Paul Schmidt of Burlington describes his “homebrew” biodiesel project, using ethanol and lye, including its hazards and challenges. “Until your oil tank is clean, it’s going to clog up your filters as it loosens all the gunk,” so you have to change filters frequently. Others retrieve used vegetable oil from restaurants to heat their homes or run their vehicles, but the supply is limited. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is running its delivery vehicles on biodiesel made in Canada from soybeans, and Cabot Creamery is experimenting with a switch to biodiesel for its trucks.
Chapter 8: Dam, Dam, Dam, and Run-of-the-River Hydro. Lori Barg, who lives in Plainfield, runs Community Hydro, consulting on micro-hydro projects around the state. She also owns and runs her own hydropower project. She is determined but frustrated that so many unused dams (over 1200 in the state), built for mills or flood control, remain untapped for electricity. She also insists that we do not need to build more dams in order to use “run-of-the-river” technology to harvest energy from Vermont’s many streams and rivers. Yet the regulations are discouraging. “Hydro is the only renewable with federal regulations,” Barg observes. “I often feel like I’m hitting my head against a wall. It’s just so obvious – I mean, Hello, water, gravity, power!” Matt Rubin owns several hydro dam sites that do produce electricity in Vermont, and this chapter will feature him and his projects as well. Other examples and characters to come.
Chapter 9: Claude Chevalier’s $500-a-Month Oil Bill and His Geothermal Solution. Claude Chevalier of Highgate Center, near the Canadian border, was distraught when oil prices soared to $4.80 a gallon in 2008. “Using my limited math skills,” he says, “ deduced that I would be spending $6,000 for oil to heat my house that winter. Unacceptable.” He ended up installing geothermal heating by digging a deeper well near his house and is delighted, having saved $7,500 in his first two years. “This isn’t theory, it really works. I love green tech and save the planet and all that, but if it doesn’t have this kind of green [money savings], I’m not so inclined to be in favor.” More on his system, installers, how it works, etc.
Chapter 10: Efficiency Vermont: Keeping Out the Cold. Explains how Efficiency Vermont came into being and works. Story of my hiring Ashton Thermal to do an energy audit on my 1964 ranch and the resulting work (and up-front expense and ultimate savings). Profile of John Ashton, former long-distance trucker, who became fascinated by infrared technology and got into consulting. “But I quickly realized that no one was going to pay me just to do infrared studies – they wanted me to fix things.” Discussion of how much energy can be saved (40% or so) by simple efficiency and plugging air leaks, etc.
Chapter 11: Grow Your Own. Example of town of Hardwick, once a down-and-out mining town, now a mecca for local food and fine restaurants. Also covers the manufacture and sale of food trading in part on the Vermont “brand” — Cabot Cheese, Vermont Butter and Cheese Company, several micro breweries, ginseng growers, maple syrup, Lake Champlain Chocolates, King Arthur Flour, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, and now 14 wineries. And back yard gardens, community gardens, farmers’ markets, food-sharing coops, locavore restaurants. But also recognition of how much still comes from far away via the supermarket or Costco.
Chapter 12: Storing Your Own (Batteries, Ponds, and Other Way to Hoard Power) Dynapower of Burlington is doing innovative work on batteries to store power from solar and wind. Others use such unreliable renewable sources to pump water uphill to ponds, then release it to create power when needed. [RESEARCH TO COME]
Chapter 13: The Smartening of the Grid. Vermont has received a $68 million grant to implement a “smart grid” state-wide over the next three years. Meter readers will lose their jobs as newly installed household meters (already in place in Johnson at Vermont Electric Coop) send information back to the utilities. Customers will be able to trace peak and off-peak usage by the hour. Features Chris Dutton, charismatic young CEO of Vermont Electric Coop and visionary Tom Evslin, novelist and just-retired Chief Technology Officer for Vermont. “The smart grid is going to be the internet of energy,” he asserts. “We can’t predict what the results will be, but when you join suppliers and customers in an ad hoc way, there’s no telling what will happen.”
Chapter 14: Grid? What Grid? Living Off the Grid. [STORIES OF BEN HEWITT AND OTHER VERMONTERS WHO ARE NOT CONNECTED TO ELECTRIC GRID, TOTALLY SELF-SUFFICIENT, FUNNY STORIES OF EMERGENCIES AND COPING, UNEXPECTED EVENTS AND NATURAL DISASTERS – RESEARCH TO COME]
Chapter 15: Of Town Meetings, Selectmen, and Energy Committees. There are over 100 town energy committees in Vermont, composed of dedicated volunteers who are pushing for renewable energy from the grassroots. Joanna Miller coordinates them at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. Examples of their achievements – community heat project in Montpelier using wood chips, household efficiency campaigns, solar panels and wind turbines in schools, along with curriculum changes to focus on renewable energy and climate change. Profile of Duncan McDougall of Waterbury Local Energy Action Partnership (LEAP), a town energy committee that formed its own non-profit agency, worked with schools, is doing an energy inventory of the town, pushing a bike-pedestrian system, holds an annual energy fair, and aims to be declared the “greenest town in Vermont.” But in other towns, such as Richmond, the energy committee bit off too much, got discouraged, and “sort of fizzled.” Examples of working with selectmen, getting measures passed at annual town meetings, etc. Also profiles of some of the other energy-related non-profit organizations in Vermont and what they’re doing, such as Renewable Energy Vermont, whose director, Sue Allen, in a keynote speech at a recent REV conference, observed, “We have a very small budget, and we’re a small state with a lot of opinions.” Vermont ranks ninth in the country for volunteerism.
Chapter 16: The Troubles of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. Vermont has the highest rate of nuclear-generated power in the nation. Nearly three-quarters of the electricity produced within the state comes from Vermont Yankee in Vernon, owned by New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation. As a result, Vermont is one of only two states with no coal-fired power plant. But Entergy officials lied about underwater pipes leaking tritium and other radioactive substances, and there is nowhere to put the nuclear waste, which is buried near the Connecticut River. The state legislature has voted against relicensure in 2012, and the plant is very likely to be decommissioned that year, at which point Vermont will have to replace the power by buying it (much more expensively) from other New England states that use fossil fuel for generation. But the owner, Entergy, has sued to prevent closure. Chapter includes profiles of state politicians who are champions of renewable energy and bitter enemies of Vermont Yankee, including U. S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy and Governor Peter Shumlin.
Chapter 17: You Can’t Get There From Here: The Transportation Challenge. The old Vermont joke has a tourist asking directions and being told, “You can’t get there from here.” But it may not be so funny. The most daunting challenge for those trying to kick fossil fuel is the need to travel for work within the rural state. Coming of electric cars in the next few years will help, but greater need for use of trains, trolleys, and other public transport. Example of such free community transport in Stowe, Burlington, and elsewhere. Electric bicycle rentals. [MOST RESEARCH TO COME]
Chapter 18: Keeping the Green Mountain State (and the World) Green. WRAP-UP CHAPTER, ESSENTIALLY HOPEFUL, BUT REALISTIC ABOUT CHALLENGES AND URGENCY.
Mark Pendergrast has written numerous books that have been recognized as the comprehensive works in their respective fields. Pendergrast says (only half-joking) that he might have earned an honorary Ph.D. in epidemiology, public health, astronomy, physics, business, economics, psychology, and international relations for his disparate works. See www.markpendergrast.com for detailed information on his books. His work on Inside the Outbreaks and Japan’s Tipping Point led him to conclude that the biggest future threats to public health involve the issues he will address in The Mouse That Roars. He lives in Colchester, Vermont.