Monday, 30 August 2010

Dancing Spirits

The sun has been very subdued over the past 3 years so they've been absent for a long time, but after too long without them we were finally treated again to a majestic display of the northern lights the other day (night).

This time I tried capturing them with my camera, elusive as they are. It didn't work out too bad, as you can see below. In this first picture you can even see the northern lights outlining our solar array and wind turbine, although this kind of solar energy didn't register on our panels:

This second picture gives a better feel of the curtain-like motion that the northern lights often display, gently waving on the solar wind.

We're so fortunate here to have the clear, wide open skies to take it all in. Seeing them in person is quite an experience that never fails to grab you. Everyone who sees them senses something mystical about them, something more than just the solar wind ionizing the outer atoms of the earth's atmosphere around the magnetic poles. The native Cree call them the Dance of the Spirits, and somehow that seems very appropriate.

They also say you can make them move and dance by softly whistling at them, others claim you can hear them. All I know is we look forward to seeing more of them; and I don't think I'll inflict my whistling on them...

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Just Add Water

It's been exactly 1 year since we got help from 24 Ontario Junior Rangers painting the centre's exterior. The Eco Centre is a fairly big place, so painting it was a big job. That didn't stop the girls, though, who were done in 4 hours flat.
This weekend we had the pleasure of having a new group of Junior Rangers whom we asked to give the house another coat and patch up any bald areas. And again they exceeded our already high expectations.

The paint we used was a Milk Paint. Made from, yup: milk; with specific plants and/or berry elements added for a wide range of colours. It comes as a powder, just add water. It's absolutely environmentally safe, doesn't off-gas, leftovers can be safely dumped in the sink or in our field and is easy to work with. Just keep it away from your cats who may want to drink it (ours was constipated for about 2 days). And it's probably the only paint you'll have to put in the fridge at the end of a hot day :-)

Taking stock of how the first paint job had held up after being exposed to our harsh climate for a full year: pretty darn good. There are some minor spots where rain or melting water had been streaming lots, showing in somewhat paler colours and the occasional bald spot. But generally speaking, about 90% looked just fine - especially considering the first paint job was only 1 coat!

This time we added 2 more coats with slightly thinner paint (just add a bit more water) so it would absorb better into the straw bale house's plaster skin.          The girls were cheerful and hard-working and an absolute pleasure to have. They did an awesome job, making the Centre look its very finest ever; good vibes all around.

So here's to this positive group of Junior Rangers and their leaders; also a thank-you to the friendly folks of Homestead House Paint Co. in Toronto for taking the time to be as helpful as they could be and for making us this lovely (and perfectly matching!) colour - and for making a great product in general.

(Junior Rangers: click to download full-sized picture)

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Maintenance Day

Saturday was Wind Turbine Maintenance day. Any wind turbine needs to be checked annually for any wear and tear, loose bolts, unbalanced or chipped blades, things like that; they have a lot of moving parts that get get worked hard year round - unlike maintenance-free solar panels that just sit there, quietly and efficiently making power.

For the past few years we've been combining it with servicing our friend Jane's smaller wind turbine. Frank the Solar Guy is in charge and does any repairs if necessary; he designed and installed both Jane's and our wind turbines as well as our solar arrays, so if there's anyone qualified for the job it's Frank.

As has become a good custom, we started the morning off at Jane's place with a sumptuous breakfast outside on the deck, enjoying the morning's sunshine and each other's company. It creates just the right mindset to start work on Jane's 70-feet tower, lowering it relatively painlessly using a manual winch (except it was a hot and sticky day).
We were glad to see that no repairs were necessary, just some loose-ish bolts in need of some fastening. Pulling the tower up was a bit tougher (hot!) but went just fine.

Next, it was off to the Eco Centre. Our tower is 100 feet tall with a bigger turbine, so here we needed the help of 2 trucks to do the pulling. Our own beat-up truck was one, and the other came with our neighbouring friends Larry and Liz in it who generously offered their help for the afternoon.

Once everything was hooked & cabled up, the tower came nicely controlled down. We were again happy to see that no repairs were necessary, except for the tail vane that showed some micro cracks from too much play between the vane and the tail rod. An extra rubber  washer would help, which Larry made from recycled parts of one of Jacomyn's old rubber boots. They're even green, eco all the way!

By the end of the afternoon the tower was back up again; the wind had picked up, so we spent a few satisfied minutes just watching the turbine spin and make power. Boy, does that ever feel good!

Beers, snacks and lots of good food shared with excellent company was the perfect finish of a great day. If only it was possible to do all our maintenance chores this way, the world would be a better place...

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Spread the Word!

This week we received an email from the Green Party of Ontario about the province's spectacularly successful MicroFIT program which put Ontario at the top of the list of governments who take solar power seriously. Was it getting too successful? Please read...

"Last year, the Ontario government announced the MicroFIT program as a follow up to the Green Energy Act. Under the program, citizens who installed small solar energy projects (up to 10 kilowatts) were entitled to sell power to the grid under a 20-year contract at a rate of $0.802 per kilowatt hour. The government publicly said that this rate was to apply for both roof mounted and ground-mounted solar panels and would stay in place until a planned review in September 2011.

However, over the July long weekend, Minister of Environment and Infrastructure Brad Duguid decided to make a sudden change without warning. He announced that the feed in tariff for power from ground-mounted projects would be reduced by 27% to $0.588 per kilowatt hour. At the time of his announcement, there was a backlog of nearly 10,000 applications from citizens awaiting approval for ground mounted projects.

This cut is being imposed by the Liberal government and will potentially set back community based solar power in the province by years. Not surprisingly, demand for solar projects collapsed following the unexpected announcement, leaving solar installers and distributors to lose millions in inventory and training costs. The cuts also penalize thousands of Ontarians, mainly farmers, who took the government’s word and applied for MicroFIT contracts. In many cases, they invested tens of thousands of dollars based on the price advertised by the government. The present government's deception will be remembered for years and undermine the credibility of the efforts of any future government to support community renewable energy.

The MicroFIT program is administered by the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) which closed its period for comments on the rate cut yesterday. Ultimately, the rate cut will be a cabinet-level political decision which is likely to be finalized over this next week.

Given the short amount of time before the proposed cuts are finalized, we are asking for five minutes of your time to (...) send an email to your MPP to advise them/her of your opposition to these destructive cuts. The text of a model email is available at the GPO MicroFIT campaign web site."

'Nuff said; please follow up, no matter how you vote. Thanks!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Winds of Change

We get hundreds of visitors through the Eco Centre for house tours, and we always enjoy having them; some even become friends. We're in our third summer now, long enough to notice some shifts in the questions that get asked. Some questions will always be the same, but other questions emerge or disappear depending on what's in the news or is talked about.

This summer I noticed a new recurring question: "How come your wind turbine is so small?" At first it surprised me (after all, the tower is a solid 106 feet/33 metres tall), but then I realized these visitors were expecting a wind turbine big enough to power an entire village; you know, the type you see on the news and in glossy magazines. Those 250 feet tall monoliths dotting entire mountain ranges, their massive white wings gently wooshing along.


So understandably, when see see our "little" turbine with its measly 6-feet wing span, well, some visitors may not be too impressed. Of course they understand when I explain that this turbine is only designed to help power 1 super-energy-efficient house, not an entire village or subdivision of power hogging homes.

But it made me realize how even over these past 3 years some conceptions have begun to change. When our Eco Centre just opened and our wind turbine went up, it made the regional media. It was something new, an inkling of green things to come. Since then, wind farms have gone up all over this part of the province, some highly successful, some hotly debated. And all of them much in the public eye.

That wasn't the case only 3 years back. And it makes me happy. Sure, there may be some misunderstandings about wind energy's different applications, but  I'm sure that'll change, too. Point is, things are a-changing.
Wind energy has become a household word; most of us now know what a wind turbine does and why. Most of us now "get it". And that's a good thing. Let's hope things keep changing in this direction, and who knows where we'll be 3 years from now!