Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dandelion Ecovillage, Urban Planning, & Bloomington, Indiana

I’ve just returned from an overnight trip to Bloomington, Indiana where I witnessed an important step in the formation of Dandelion Ecovillage (a.k.a. Bloomington Cooperative Plots), and a fascinating interface between the “mainstream” urban development regime and the ecovillage “socio-technical niche”. Over the summer, I discovered the young Dandelion community through fellow Dancing Rabbit work-exchanger, Kim Kanney and her friend Danny Weddle. Kanney, Weddle, and several others have worked persistently with Bloomington urban planners, planning commissioners, and common council members to re-zone a 2.23 acre parcel on Bloomington’s west side from R-S (residential single family) to a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to accommodate an ecovillage that will include several small cabins, a cooperative house, an orchard, and space for raising chickens and goats.

I find Dandelion both promising and extraordinary: promising because the founders of the community have purchased land and successfully navigated a complex and costly urban development process in a methodical and transparent manner; extraordinary because Dandelion has the potential to fulfill the role of an “intermediate” socio-technical niche that can demonstrate innovative living practices while simultaneously translating these practices to a progressive citizenry in Bloomington, Indiana.

Ecovillages very commonly withdraw to rural areas, where they can avoid the structures of urban development regimes that render unconventional design choices nearly impossible. Settling in ‘institutionally thin’ rural areas allows ecovillage and other intentional communities to avoid the land-use regulations, high land costs, and NIMBYism common in suburban and urban communities. Land-use regulations like zoning and subdivision regulations, for example, serve well to segregate land into different ‘uses’ (e.g. for housing, business, industry, education, recreation, etc.) while dictating the density of buildings on a parcel, the number of unrelated adults occupying those buildings, the distance between buildings and the edge of the property, building height, floor area, parking requirements, where-and-what types of trees can be planted, amongst many other minutia that offer a relatively narrow window to exercise creativity in the built environment.

Ecovillages very often aspire to integrate residential, commercial, agricultural, recreational, and institutional land-uses, sometimes in the SAME BUILDING. Unconventional social structures (e.g. food cooperatives) and experimental building practices would almost certainly violate zoning and subdivision codes in most American municipalities.

The Dandelion community will integrate diverse uses, diverse social structures, and (potentially) experimental building practices without having to withdraw—spatially—from the mainstream. The 2.23-acre site is bordered by single-family housing, a railroad track, and a cemetery. When I visited the land briefly this afternoon, I found that the narrow frontage on a dead-end street opens up to a cozy, dynamic landscape that is buffered well by trees on all sides. The multiple uses envisioned on the site will be a tight squeeze, to be sure, and I’m very excited to see how the physical community evolves.

Most exciting—at least for this student of urban planning—is that the Dandelion plans have received legal blessings from the City of Bloomington’s planning staff, plan commission, and city council, in large part because the founders took exhaustive steps to iron out potential conflicts with neighbors and decision-makers prior to public deliberation. As one city council member suggested last night, such a bold plan would probably not have survived without careful and conscious communication amongst the Dandelion founders and city staff over the last year. In order to accomplish their goals, Dandelion had to petition the city to rezone the site from R-S (residential single-family)—probably the zoning that claims the most acreage in contemporary American cities—to a Planned Unit Development, a customized zoning district that allows city staff and petitioners to craft unique, detailed, often mixed-use, site plans.

Members of the Bloomington Planning Department presented the community’s plans to the city council with such grace and articulation, demonstrating a masterful understanding of city ordinance and zoning history. The evening made me proud to be a planner. Amongst the more interesting findings of the city’s planning and engineering staff was that the community’s plans would actually mitigate storm water runoff and traffic.

Opportunities for public comment elicited only supportive remarks from residents including multiple participants of the Occupy Bloomington movement, who marched in on the city council session, seemingly by coincidence. The meeting concluded with overwhelmingly positive remarks from council members, who reaffirmed the city’s dedication to sustainability and even seemed to cheer on the Occupy Bloomington crowd. Common Council President Susan Sandberg offered her blessing to the project, commenting that she plans to devote her next term (should she be re-elected) to diverse housing opportunities, including housing that allows residents of different income levels and of “all kinds of preferred lifestyles” to live in the city. She commented that while ecovillage life is not for everyone, “… it is for you [Dandelion members]” and that the planning department has worked hard to make sure that such a lifestyle works well in the city. The evening made me proud of planning, ecovillages, and democracy all at once.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Curing my chronic illness.

If hay fever is the worst chronic affliction from which I ever suffer, I will consider myself blessed. But hay fever it is an inconvenience from which I will likely suffer for the rest of my life. From mid-August until the first frost of the fall, clogged sinuses, jolting sneezes, a dampened sense of smell, and a dependency upon decongestant medication become a daily reality. In my twenty-seven years, I have ingested thousands of anti-histamine and decongestant pills, endured scratch testing followed by years of allergy shots (I stopped them when I was twelve), and have in more recent years fallen victim to “sneeze attacks”: several days of the year on which my sneezing is so violent and constant that I wake up with sore neck and facial muscles the following morning. The first three to four consecutive sneezes are pretty funny. But the following seven are tough to manage. Especiallyin public. As climate change looms upon all of humanity, it is not necessarily the floods, droughts, intense heats, and more frequent lethal storms that scare me most (although the absolutely do scare me). Rather I a most afraid that a warmer, moister climate will usher a new paradise for ragweed, my number one nemesis.

I have come to grips with the fact that I will mostly like be tied to allergy medication for the rest of my life. I tried Allegra (made me drowsy), Claritin (didn’t really work), and have felt satisfied with Zyrtec for the last six years or so. I’m also thankful that I can now access this medication over-the-counter, but even so, it’s an expense I’d rather live without it. Earlier this summer, my complaints were overheard by my friend Liat. Liat—one of the most independent, resourceful, and endearing friends I’ve made in several years—has an insatiable appetite for understanding, eating and using wild plants. While I don’t remember her exact response to my wails of allergy woe, I recall that it was something akin to, “What are you allergic to? Ragweed? Well duh. You need to make a ragweed tincture.”

I had heard of tinctures from multiple ecovillage friends. I knew that individuals made tinctures to ease nerves, help induce sleep, sooth poison ivy, or even enhance mood. The possibilities, I imagine, are limitless, but I was never aware that allergies were an ailment that a tincture could remedy. In my case, the tincture will serve as a sort of immunization to ragweed allergens. Liat suggested, firstly, that I collect ragweed leaves (of which there is no shortage at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage), dry them, and drink Ragweed tea. This, of course, is not a tincture, but was a useful introduction of ragweed into my system before ragweed flowers and causes me real problems.

At the same time, I collected several dozen ragweed leaves, chopped them up into fine tiny pieces, stuffed-stuffed-STUFFED them into a pint jar, and then filled the interstices with vodka. Vodka is apparently very effective at absorbing the properties of whatever is immersed inside it. “Let it sit for at least a month. But ideally for six weeks,” Liat advised, “And then take two drops under your tongue every day.”

Well, a month has nearly passed and, indeed, the bright green leaves that I deposited inside the glass jar on July 27th are a sickly yellow-green. Tomorrow is the day my long-term, sustainable, anti-capitalist, potentially drug-free allergy treatment begins, although I imagine I’ll keep up the Zyrtec for a while. I’m also trying to immunize myself to regional pollen by sweetening my morning’s coffee with local honey. It’s delicious AND remedial. Should these treatments work, I’d like to think I can one day live free of my ragweed enemy. Now I just have to find a way around dust, mold, and bird feathers…

UPDATE: I've begun the healing process, taking two drops of the tincture per day. Some pictures below:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Building Bridges to Sustainability: Dancing Rabbit and the Milkweed Mercantile

Below is column I wrote on behalf of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage published in the Memphis Democrat, a local northeast Missouri paper:

In the summer of 2010, I arrived at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage to help for six weeks on a natural building project. In the course of these weeks I grew fascinated with a community brave enough to experiment with the comforts of modernity that most Americans take for granted. This short six-week stay was just long enough to inspire me to completely change the focus of my doctoral dissertation research in Urban Planning at the University of Illinois. I have since reoriented my professional and academic life toward investigating Dancing Rabbit and other similar ecovillages, as well as promoting its mission of community-based sustainability.

In departmental seminars, college lectures, high school assemblies, meetings with municipal urban planners, and even dinner conversations with my friends and family, I’ve attempted to explain how residents of Dancing Rabbit have built a fifty-plus member community that generates its own electricity from the sun, cultivates the vast majority of its water from the sky, builds its homes using only recycled and/or locally harvested lumber, recycles all of its organic waste, and survives in rural Missouri with only three shared vehicles.

I returned this summer as both a researcher and an employee at the Milkweed Mercantile Eco Bed & Breakfast— a fascinating business that I will discuss further below. I’m finding that even as a life-long environmentalist and advocate for social change, daily life at Dancing Rabbit is a challenge for me. While I am each day more and more encouraged by the successful (and sometimes unsuccessful) experiments in which the “Rabbits” have engaged, I have also encountered the challenges of routine change that come with new, more sustainable ways of living. For example, the amount of electricity I feel comfortable using is heavily dependent upon yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s weather. Even as I type this article, I am reminded of the ‘low’ level of energy available in the community’s common house that has resulted from a rather old and inefficient refrigerator (soon to be replaced!) and seasonally higher number of energy consumers. I’d very much like to wash my clothing at some point this week, but I am finding that this season’s energy shortage may force me to wash my clothing by hand—a relatively time consuming and unfamiliar task to a middle class suburban man.

My excitement about Dancing Rabbit is, in part, the result of my concern for the long environmental and economic emergency of global climate change. All available information I can access paints a rather pessimist picture of the coming decades. But here’s some good news: I am convinced that the vast majority of the physical technology needed to overcome the humanity’s environmental challenges already exists. Humanity has already invented all of the “stuff”— the solar panels, wind turbines, solar ovens, composting toilets, etc.— that we need to live comfortably at a lower level of impact on the earth. The real challenge now is how we use this stuff and how we live together, and this will require some routine change. Routine change is hard. Overcoming the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century will require lots of it, but I’d personally prefer experimenting with small routine changes now than be forced to make terribly uncomfortable routine changes when, for example, gasoline prices approach $10/gallon, or a new climactic reality overwhelms even our “emergency” resources.

For ideologically motivated folks like the residents of Dancing Rabbit, routine change is the new reality. For the vast majority of humans, however, routine change is a taxing endeavor. I have trouble imagining most of my friends and family living at Dancing Rabbit for even longer than one week, let alone a lifetime. This summer, however, I have been encouraged by my experience at the Milkweed Mercantile Eco Bed & Breakfast (The “Mercantile”) and its role as a “bridge” between the radical routine change in the Dancing Rabbit community and guests exploring new ways to live more “sustainably”. It is only appropriate that such a transitional space would manifest in a B&B. The facility exposes guests to energy, water, food, transportation, heating/cooling, and feeding systems of noticeably different, yet comfortably similar dynamics. A guest at the Mercantile, for example, will find many of the same comforts they would find in any other B&B: clean white sheets, large comfortable beds, impeccably clean bathrooms, a delicious and hearty breakfast, a hot shower, running water, a pleasant selection of cold beer, wireless internet, and yes, light switches connected to functioning lights.

More observant guests, however, will realize that all the electricity is generated by solar panels on-site, all the water is harvested from rain and purified on-site, the air is “conditioned” by straw bale insulated walls, the water is heated in a wood-fire furnace, the food is mostly grown locally, and everything that falls in the toilet is recycled— after a long and careful composting process. Managing such a business and keeping it affordable (under $100/night) for guests is far from conventional. Each morning, for example, my responsibilities include closing the windows of the B&B, a seemingly counter-intuitive routine given the summer’s extreme heat and that the building has no air conditioning unit. But closing the windows effectively traps the cool evening air inside the highly insulated walls so that the air in the inn remains cool relative to the heat outside. Staff at the Mercantile must also monitor rainfall, rotate the compost container, make cooking decisions based on the weather, collect burning material for the water boiler, and make sure to do the inn’s laundry in time for it to dry in the afternoon sun.

The owners of the Mercantile comment that a more sustainable living situation does not require deprivation. Indeed, my experience living and working at Dancing Rabbit has exposed me to an abundant, rewarding, and fun lifestyle that simultaneously offers me the chance to be a better global citizen. While I do not expect the world to dive into radically new living practices overnight, I do think that radical change is necessary if we expect to avoid catastrophic change in the next few decades. I’m hopeful that places like Dancing Rabbit and the Milkweed Mercantile can offer solutions that allow humanity to live together peacefully, abundantly, and in good health for millennia to come. I would also encourage any individual, with even the slightest curiosity in environmental innovation, to take a tour of the community and/or spend at night at the inn.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Erecting a Wind Turbine Tower, Ecovillage Style*

Yesterday was an inspiring day 'on the farm' at Dancing Rabbit. I was fortunate to participate in the erection of a 100 foot, 3,000 watt wind turbine tower (actually a former communication tower capped with a giant steel tube and a wind generator): the culmination of a year-and-a-half of site analysis, land clearing and base preparation. The electricity generated by the turbine will supplement the existing PV solar array at the Milkweed Mercantile, my place of summer employment. I joined community members Tom and Kurt around 10AM by helping to bolt the top-most segment of the tower to the bottom three segments. It was at this point that the process grew increasingly crazy and improvised. The length of the lowered tower blocked the entrance road to the community, and we were forced to re-route the UPS truck to the 'visitors' entrance.

(The turbine tower on its side. The vertical post sticking out of the base and into the air is called the 'gin pole' which acts like a giant lever. We used a cable crank (forgot the technical name of the tool, but it's not terribly technical) to raise the tower inch-by-inch.)

Throughout the process, we were followed by a two-man documentary crew that is traveling the country and visiting different intentional communities. It was nice talking to others that had visited Earthaven Ecovillage. Nice gentlemen, for sure. I hope their video succeeds! Before we raised the tower, we had to bolt the turbine and generator to the top, and bolt the blades to the generator. The blades are quite light (less than ten pounds each), but the generator is HEAVY: we guessed about two hundred pounds. It took three of us to connect it.

(Above: Tom and I tighten the wind turbine blades as the camera crew looks on. In the background a car jack and some stacked two-by-fours are holding the entire turbine tower off the ground.)

(Above: The community enjoyed the view of a turbine tower at funny angles throughout the day).

Once the head was fastened, we began to raise the tower inch by inch. Our first obstacle - of which there is no picture- was that the gin pole began to bend to the east. As we began to raise the tower, it looked as if the lever hoisting the tower upward was going to snap on its side, which would have been disasterous. So we had to tighten some cables and mess with some bolts to straighten it up. Even with the gin pole straightened, I was honestly afraid that a relatively thin piece of steel could not support the entire weight of the tower PLUS the turbine head (the later for which the gin pole was not designed).

(Above: Look at me mom! I'm single-handedly raising a wind tower. Each crank of this shaft brought the tower a few more inches closer to ninety degrees.)

The real problems began as we ran out of cable toward the end. This is tough for me to explain without more detailed pictures or technical jargon, but simply stated, the system we were using did not allow for sufficient cable to raise the tower all the way. So we had to improvise and create multiple new connections along the existing cable. You can see from the picture below that the process was anything but scientific. It involved raising Tom and Thomas in a tractor bucket, extra cable, some chains, a come-along, some webbing, and whole lot of hope and trust. As the evening endured, members of community came out to watch, help, and cheer us on. At a certain point, the gin pole was close enough to the ground that we could manually push it down into its final position (even this was not without its hiccups as the bolts on the ground did not perfectly align with the holes at the base of the tower. Fixing this involved whacking the bolts with a mallet to move them a half-inch.)

This entire process was, to me, very symbolic of ecovillage life and the strength of living in community. No one amongst us (certainly not I) was an 'expert' at turbine tower installation. None of us were being paid much at all. At multiple points in the day, I was sure that we would have to lower the tower, start over, or just plain give up. We made plenty of mistakes, and had to make up for the mistakes of other before us. We had to improvise, think on our feet, and take advantage of the limited resources we had (e.g. a tractor and a rusty chain). When we needed extra help from others in the community, it was easy to find.

By the end of the day, I realized I was foolish for ever doubting that the community members with whom I was working couldn't get it done. These individuals are amongst of the most resourceful, skilled, and intelligent I have encountered. As we move forward into an increasingly uncertain future in which the very climate we take for granted undergoes violent and unpredictable changes, it is from places like this and people like these that new and optimistic ways of living will emerge.

*Thanks to Alline Anderson, Milkweed Mercantile owner, who took pictures, cooked dinner, and cheered us on.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Living Simply, at a fraction of the size and cost.

Great little article about a woman who chooses to live simply (in a very small home) so that she can accomplish what she sees as the most important things in life. Click here to see a video tour of her house. Of course, the transition comes with some behavioral changes, but it probably pays off when your house costs only $10,000!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Neighborhoods at Earthaven Ecovillage

While Earthaven Ecovillage is, in fact, a single community, it is composed of multiple neighborhood clusters that distinguish themselves spatially, socially, and structurally. On the mid-May afternoon that I arrived at Earthaven, I was surprised at how few dwellings I could see standing at what was, quite obviously, the community center. Indeed, the geography and foliage of the place allow each neighborhood to hide behind riparian buffers, on top of hills, and even deep in the woods. These neighborhoods are officially recognized entities with Earthaven, and offer eating and dwelling arrangements that suit the diversity of Earthaven inhabitants. Although my research is far from making clear conclusions, my observation is that Earthaven is currently experiencing a lull in home construction. While I believe the reasons for this lull are various and multi-scalar (some economic, some social ) I believe construction has slowed, in part, because the diversity of housing at Earthaven allows for individuals and families to change housing as their life conditions change. With ample and diverse housing, a growing family (or fragmenting family) has many potential alternatives if their existing housing arrangement is less than ideal.

Below, I highlight four of Earthaven’s built neighborhoods. The community has fourteen designated neighborhoods, several of which remain in the planning/dreaming/still forested stages. To read more details about these neighborhoods and the neighborhoods I have not covered below, please visit Earthaven’s neighborhood webpage.

The “Gateway” Neighborhood

I’ll begin at the beginning—my residence for the summer—Gateway Farm. Gateway lies at what I would consider the “outskirts” of the community. In fact, on my daily walk into the community center, I actually have leave Earthaven property and re-enter the community through the front “gate” (actually, a rusted gate that is never closed). Gateway’s structures consist of three buildings: Brian Love’s (my host) home, the “Micro Hut” and the Gateway Barn. After clearing the formerly forested land and processing the timber into lumber, Brian and his business partner constructed the barn and their respective dwellings from said lumber. Today, the “house” and the Micro Hut overlook a field of sheep circumscribed by a creek and a wooded hill. Energy for all structures are provided by solar photovoltaics mounted on the south face of the Barn, and all water is fed, by gravity, from nearby springs. In later posts, I’ll describe some of the more detailed features of Love’s house.

Above: A souther view of the Gateway neighborhood. I'm currently inhabiting the attic in Brian Love's house (left). The Micro Hut (right) is a 11' x 11' home with a full kitchen, bedroom, office, and den. Yes, it can be done, and not uncomfortably.

Above: The southern face of the Gateway barn boasts an impressive PV array.

The Hut Hamlet

The Hut Hamlet is Earthaven’s oldest neighborhood and home to the community’s first built structures. In the mid-nineties when the Earthaven property was nearly all forest, the founding members began to experiment with natural building in what is currently a thriving, family-filled, and fully functional neighborhood. Originally intended to serve as temporary housing for aspiring full members of the community, the “Hamlet” has attracted several young families with every intention of staying in place as well as new young members that prefer the privacy of individual dwellings to other communal options. The Hamlet is striking in its structural diversity, consisting of straw bale cabins, a cob “mud hut”, several elevated yurts (the inhabitants of which have experimented with different permanent and semi-permanent yurt coverings), one “experimental” multi-unit structure, a wooden hexagonal cabin (the “hex hut”), and other passive-solar structures insulated by straw-clay mix. The neighborhood clusters around a shared kitchen/bathhouse, several gardens, and a playground for children.

Above: A small home and garden in the Hut Hamlet currently serves as a young family of three.

Medicine Wheel

Originally called the A&A (Armstrong & Allison) after its builders, the Medicine Wheel house is the one of the community’s communal living arrangements. The house is currently inhabited by about a dozen men and women ranging from long-time full members to young work-exchangers. The house hosts group dinners, community seminars (I just attended a community sexuality seminar), musical jams, permaculture workshops, and probably other events that I haven’t heard of or witnessed. The structure is made of—yes—recycled apple cider crates and you can still see the original industrial apple cider labels when you descend the stairs. The house is a giant permaculture experiment, and is enclosed in its own garden from which residents eat directly.

Above: A permacultural paradise! Medicine Wheel house is seen in the distance. It's an enormous, three-story, Texas style house surrounded by gardens.

Village Terrace

Village Terrace, or “VT” is a neighborhood of “common wall” structures, or what urban planners might call “multi-family” units. The neighborhood currently consists of two dwelling structures, the V.T. common house and a duplex called “Pokeberry,” one of the community’s newest homes. The buildings are powered by large solar photovoltaic arrays and irrigated by both spring water and well water. The neighborhood is home to community members of various ages and experiences: families with young children, individuals working for the businesses within VT, and some elder couples. Village Terrace also hosts several economic enterprises including a large community garden, Imani Farm, and Red Moon Herbs, one of several businesses inside Earthaven with a clientele that extends far beyond the region. Imani Farm, which lines the northern edge of VT is home to pigs, honey bees, chickens, and one of the most chill dairy cows I’ve encountered. There is one woman who apparently used to take the cow on walks around the community, and for all I know this is not uncommon.

Above: The Village Terrace buildings. The VT common house is in the foreground, Pokeberry is in the distance.

(Thanks again, Klara, for the camera!)

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Earthaven Ecovillage Community Center (Photos Included!)

Hello friends,

Having taken a relatively long hiatus from posting to the blog, it would be easy to assume that I’ve neglected my blogmaster duties altogether. Yet, I’m happy to announce that I’ve been saving up, and that blog postings in the coming weeks will be plentiful, indeed! I’ll be releasing photos and thoughts of and on Earthaven Ecovillage in five different installments devoted to 1) the community center and Council Hall, 2) my current dwelling (Brian Love’s house); 3) Earthaven’s natural beauty; and 4) community infrastructure and other impressive innovations; 5) the community as it presents itself to the “outside world”. Of course, I’ll be devoting time to social conventions and community governance in later blog postings, but due to the overwhelming request for pictures and the relative complexity of community governance, this will come later. Also-a special thanks to Klara Wengman, who supplied the camera.

Upon entering Earthaven Ecovillage property, a quarter-mile journey will usher you to what is quite prominently the community center. It is to this integral, multi-purpose, and ever-developing, corner of the community that I will focus this blog entry. The center of the community consists of the Village Green, the Council Hall, the Council Hall Plaza, a mail shack, and children’s play area. If you’ve read my previous posting about the Beltane celebration in late may, you’ve already been exposed to the community’s Village Green, an open lawn that I’ve seen used as a play field, performance space, ritual observance space, picnic area, and meeting spot—and all in just one month. The oval-shaped lawn is elevated several free from the road, and rimmed by a wall of young trees and a threatening swale of poison ivy (watch out!). Both the subtle elevation and the living plant wall serve to define the space well. It’s simple, elegant landscape architecture. Last night, a group of Earthaven members, guests, and I performed a solstice ritual that began in the Village Green with a meditation circle, and later moved to another “sacred” wooded space in the community. The details of this event will have to wait for a later post, however.

(Above: The Village Green and Maypole)

The Council Hall

Just uphill and to the west of the Village Green lies what I perceive as the most sacred, human-constructed space in the community: the Council Hall (CH). As I write, I’m beginning to realize the extent to which the Council Hall lies at the physical, spiritual, legal, and social convergence of Earthaven Ecovillage. Many of the community’s most inspiring successes (e.g. hydroelectric power) and on-going tensions (e.g. the desirability and/or legal status of flush toilets) manifest physically at this building. In my first several days living at Earthaven, it was to the Council Hall that I would wander in an attempt to integrate myself into community events, and while the space is currently the most accessible building to visitors, it has also witnessed the community’s most private conversations. Within a week of my time here, I was instructed to avoid the Council Hall for an afternoon as community members “threshed” through a private internal controversy. The simultaneous private and public nature of the building yields a layered social complexity unlike any other community building.

(Above: The southern wall of the Council Hall, plus the Council Hall plaza including a covered pavilion for outdoor meals and activities.)

Like most projects at Earthaven the Council Hall is an ongoing experiment, but its initial construction began in 1998, four years after the official founding of the community. The building serves as a meeting space for larger and small groups, an entertainment space (having just hosted an amazing concert by Chikomo Marimba Band), a yoga studio, a communal eating space, the Earthaven office, an internet portal, a DVD/board game/council minutes library, and offers a small kitchen for community events.

The building is principally circular, accommodating an open wooden floor encircled by off-white tulip poplar trunks. Tulip popular is one of the most common trees in the region and boasts a hand-shaped leaf, the likes of which I had not seen prior to my arrival. The wooden floor is a shoe-free zone and generally vacant of furniture when not in active use. Just inside the tulip popular perimeter sits rocking chairs, benches, and other assorted seats that are rearranged for council meetings that take place every Sunday. At the north side of the circle sits two large white boards, one of which bears the community calendar and to which meeting agendas are posted so participants can keep track of time.

The circle is capped by a yurt-style roof (there is a technical name for this, I’m sure) and the bottom rim of the roof is decorated with colorful reminders of the community’s mission statements. They include, for example, “Practice fair, participatory, and effective self governance” and “Shift from wasteful to regenerative use of resources.”

(Above: The Council Hall ceiling)

(Above: Thirteen banners on the Council Hall walls remind inhabitants of the community's mission.)

Passive and active temperature regulation

The exterior of the building is protected by white plaster, which, according to one source, has been neglected and is in need of repair. The white plaster, however, reflects sunlight away during the summer, keeping the building relatively cool while its vast, south-facing windows allow sunlight to illuminate the open Council Hall floor. The wall on the northern half of the building uses straw bale construction while the southern wall is filled with a clay-straw mix. Straw bale serves as an insulator, a temperature barrier, while clay-straw mix serves both as an insulator and as thermal mass, storing and releasing heat over time. So while the building’s southern wall is constantly absorbing and releasing solar energy, the northern wall traps it inside.

(Above: The plaster finish of the Council Hall sustaining some patchwork.)

The south-facing windows of the Council Hall were designed to allow for passive solar heating during the winter, but the community found that passive heating alone was insufficient. They’ve therefore invested in a wood-fired radiant heat system that resides beneath the wooden floorboards. The same wood burning system that fuels the radiant heat also heats the water in the kitchen, which lies on the north side of the building. According to one tour guide, the new wood burning stove has, “revolutionized” life at Earthaven.

Living roof experiment

I’ve arrived at Earthaven just in time to see the beginning construction stages of the living roof experiment atop the Council Hall. These first steps are the culmination of a decade of discussion and debate surrounding the wisdom of a living roof in a completely pavement-free place. My understanding, however, is that the opposing sides have agreed to move forward with a one-year long pilot project that applies a living roof to one-fourth of the Council Hall roof. I had the privilege of helping to apply layer one: used carpeting. The carpet was recovered from the hallway of an old apartment building, and smells like a year’s worth of accumulated mildew, but after we cover it in sifted dirt and sedums, the smell won’t much matter.

Stay tuned for more postings on Earthaven buildings, foliage, and community governance!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Struggle and Evolution make an Ecovillage

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably well aware of the growing popularity of “green” housing developments and “eco-friendly” consumer products pervading real estate listings, health food stores, and Wal-Mart. I have written and pontificated extensively on the risks of misusing the “sustainable” label as well as the many shades of green that governments across the world have adopted to achieve energy independence or environmental conservation. Surely there is no shortage of impressive advances in urban development that adopt the green label. Suburban projects like Prairie Crossing, a low-impact development in Grayslake, Illinois, or urban projects BedZed (Bedding Zero Energy Development) in South London are important demonstrations of ways that we can live comfortably at relatively lower costs to ecological systems. When I mention to friends or family that I study “ecovillages,” the phrase most often evokes images of “hippie communes” or these contemporary developer-led communities that seem to be gaining a presence in the housing market.

While I can emphatically state that ecovillages are neither “hippie communes” nor developer-led “green” communities, I have struggled to securely distinguish ecovillages from other types of intentional communities. Where, for example, shall we draw the line between ecovillages and co-housing communities? Despite its name, many acquaintances of mine argue that EcoVillage at Ithaca is, in fact, not an ecovillage at all, but a co-housing community because its members work with designers and professional developers to build a neighborhood. Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage and Earthaven Ecovillage, on the other hand, are composed primarily of dwellings designed and built by individual inhabitants themselves.

A recent conversation with an Earthaven inhabitant (and fellow urban planning student) clarified for me the importance of this distinction. In an interview, he explained that many of the ecological innovations that Earthaven demonstrates (e.g. micro-power, local food production, rainwater harvesting, etc) are readily available at developer-led green communities. The difference, he emphasized, was the ability to watch your community evolve and participate actively in its evolution. While it’s true that developer-led green communities offer important innovations, an inhabitant of such a community may or may not be aware of how these innovative systems work, and has most likely not taken part in the production and assembly of such systems. A resident of developer-led green community or co-housing community could most likely proceed with their lives happy to know that their energy is being generated on-site or that their food is locally harvested, but an ecovillage resident has little choice but to be part of these systems and struggle from day to day to adapt these systems to the means of production and metabolism of the community.

For my friend, it boils down to the economics of necessity. It is becoming cheaper and less surprising for people in the mainstream to install solar panels on their roofs or to purchase organically grown food at the supermarket, but it remains abundantly easy to take “conventional” power from the grid on a cloudy day, or pass up the organic aisle in favor of industrially produced food when you find a cheaper or more convenient alternative. In other words, “green” alternatives are a thing of convenience and hobby outside of ecovillages. Inside ecovillages (for the most part), micro-energy, local food, local water, and manure composting are the daily reality for which there is no easy alternative. On cloudy days, you remain acutely aware of your energy consumption and often have no choice but to reduce consumption. When on-site building materials run out or recycled materials are sparse, you cannot purchase lumber grown in Brazil; you build a smaller structure. Turning off the water while you brush your teeth or soap-up in the shower are not just kind or conscientious actions, they’re imperative.

I should mention that even in this ecovillage, residents are still very dependent upon fossil fuels. Earthaven is, according to one inhabitant, “far from food self-sufficient” and currently struggling to determine whether it should strive to produce all its own food or specialize in a few products while continuing to purchase food from outside the community. But it is this type of struggle and evolution that is producing very conscientious citizens and simulating the very uncomfortable decisions that everyone in the mainstream will have to confront in due course.

Living and struggling in a reality with little to no fossil fuels (and substantial pressure to avoid using them) is what distinguishes ecovillages from other types of “green” communities. This reality forces someone like myself, who has lived for decades in a world fueled by petroleum and coal, to undergo a sort of personal evolution; a struggle that forces me to ask, “How badly do I need to shower?” or “Do I really need to chec my e-mail right now?” or confront the fact that despite the fowl smell of my clothing, I cannot use the laundry machine because it’s raining, and there’s neither the solar power to run the laundry machine nor the sun to dry my clothes once they’re wet… (really, I should have planned better).

As I have argued before, the United States and the rest of the developed world will not overcome fossil-fuel addition by simply installing solar panels or driving hybrid vehicles. No known technology can effectively displace the fossil energy at the rate that westerners consume. Increases in energy efficiency are always cancelled by increases in total energy consumed or vehicle miles traveled. We need to figure out how to meet our needs by consuming less, and I commend ecovillages for confronting this harsh reality and acting sincerely to solve it.

Thanks for reading! (Pictures will be coming soon. I promise. For real. Just waiting for a friend to e-mail them to me. Yes, I forgot my camera in Champaign. Yes, my cell phone has a camera but the pictures suck. Sorry to keep you waiting, but it’s worth the wait.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Beltane Celebration, Ecovillage People, and Improv Comedy Warm-Ups

‘Twas the evening of the first full moon of May! Know what that means? (I didn’t). It’s Beltane! And if there was a day to be introduced to the Earthaven community, oh boy, this was it. I had seen pictures of similar celebrations and was vaguely familiar with the Maypole celebration, but this was my first time experiencing Beltane myself. I’m still working to gather the details surrounding the occasion, but my understanding is that Beltane is the Gaelic (neo-pagan?) celebration of the coming of Spring, exactly midway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. There are, I have learned, eight such celebrations each year—for each solstice, each equinox, and the midpoints thereof. Beltane, however, takes the cake for flare and significance. It makes too much sense to me that the coming of Spring would be celebrated heartily. Observances like Passover (my personal favorite holiday), Easter, and various celebrations of other ancient peoples recognize the re-emergence of life, a natural renaissance of sorts. And no matter your religion or belief system there are so many things to celebrate this time of year: the end of the school year, the beginning of baseball, the NBA finals, the opening of the farmers market, season finales of your favorite TV show, the start of summer camp, perhaps the start of a fun summer fling?

The Beltane festivities at Earthaven started early Tuesday evening and lasted through early Wednesday morning. Most of Tuesday was a dreary mess—cold, rainy, and lonely. I spent most of the day dreading that the remainder of my time in the community would be equally drab. But the clouds let up around 5PM, just in time for the Maypole dance, and my housemate and I approached the celebration in time to participate. As we neared, we saw the community gathered around a post. Most of the women and a few of the men were dressed as fairies: flowing gowns, wreathes made of branches and leaves, face paint, scarves, etc. In my rain jacket, jeans, and boots, I was surprisingly overdressed.

The Maypole

The Maypole is a narrow tree trunk capped by a spinning wheel out of which radiates dozens of long colored ribbons. Each participant takes hold of a ribbon, and while walking and chanting, weaves in and out of each other to form a variegated pattern up and down the pole. Drummers on the periphery of the celebration keep the pace steady. The chant and the rest of the celebration was led by a woman who is an actual ordained priestess—a modern-day witch—who seems very dedicated to this craft and the celebration. She knew the repetitive multi-line chant inside-out and backwards, but almost no one else did, so people started humming to it and/or making stuff up that seemed to rhyme. Similarly, the pattern on the pole was about as tight and accurate as our recollection of the chant. No one seemed to mind. When the pole was finished, the crowd swarmed around it, touched it, and embraced. It was a giant warm group-hug. This is when I stepped back to watch as an outsider, no quiet comfortable enough to hug a group of strangers.

The Beltane Ritual

After the pole was complete, we drift to the other side of the field to start the Betlane ritual. I won’t elaborate too much on the following ritual, because I don’t remember all of it, nor do I understand most of it, but it involved the following: splitting up into small groups based on our zodiac signs and choreographing a dance to introduce our elements into the energy circle (I was fire, and our dance was definitely the most lame); creating the actual energy circle by compiling our individual orbs of energy into the center and letting it “explode” into a perimeter that surrounded the circle of people holding hands; lots of hand holding; expressing gratitude to our spirit; expressing gratitude to our animal instinct (this involved a lot of growling and clawing at each other); expressing gratitude to our ancestors; expressing hope for the future; disposing of our baggage from the winter; dispatching our hopes for the summer; holding hands in pairs while jumping over a fire while trying to avoid other pairs that are also trying to jump over the same fire; breaking the energy circle that we had originally created; and finally crowning and Jack of the Spring and the Queen of the May to lead us in feast.

Ecovillage People are “Yes, And” People

What I loved about this ceremony, and what seemed clear to me, is that while most of the people in the circle aren’t trained in neo-pagan ritual and didn’t take the ritual as literal truth, they played along, accepted the rules of the ritual, and embraced the activities fully and enthusiastically. Each activity was an opportunity to express something individually and collectively at the same time. In other words, the ritual proceeded similarly to a successful improvisational comedy warm-up. To an outside observer, improv warm-ups (and, I imagine the Beltane ritual) appear silly and irrational, but to a participant, the activity succeeds at empowering individuals in the context of a group. The result is an empowered and affirming collective.

I thought to myself, as I growled and clawed at a fairy-clad complete stranger, “These are yes,and people!” My improv friends reading this probably understand what I’m trying to convey. To everyone else, I’m about to reveal a big secret of improv comedy: what seems miraculous and spontaneous in a successful set of improv comedy is the result of several relatively simple techniques which improvisers are trained to repeat. The cardinal rule in improv is “Yes, And.” When your scene partner offers you a “gift” in a scene, you accept it as truth, and give another gift in return, which they accept as absolute truth. The best improv scene is a giant string of affirmation and gift-giving. When this succeeds it appears as if it was scripted all along and the magic of improv comedy. When it fails (as it often does), you lose nothing and but you’ve learned something and you can try again.

Now, not everything in ecovillages is affirmation and gift-giving, but what I’m beginning to realize is that in trying to craft a radical and positive new reality absent of the daily conventions that help us meet daily needs in the mainstream, inhabitants of ecovillages and other intentional communities need to say “yes” to each other. Jonathan Dawson, author of “Ecovillages,” describes ecovillages as one step “beyond the politics of protest,” or a step towards creating new realities instead of only deconstructing and protesting an old regime.

This is how imagination and personal evolution work, I think. Sometimes, it’s appropriate (or imperative) to suspend the rules of normality, just to see what happens. Sometimes, a newer, better “normal” emerges from this temporary suspension. I’ve come to realize, both in ecovillages and in my day-to-day life in Champaign-Urbana, that my favorite people are also “Yes. And” people. Despite my occasional moments of austerity (especially when discussing politics) I tend to be a goofy person. I tend to cling to people that are willing to play along as I let go of the mainstream momentarily. I’m also excited because, for the first time, I’ve pegged in writing why (good) urban planning and (good) improv comedy are the same: they both have important rules and lofty aspirations, but sometimes these rules need to be responsibly and consciously bent, and sometimes these aspirations need to be re-imagined.

Monday, May 16, 2011

New Earth Living: An Experiment in Ithaca

Tompkins County, NY and EcoVillage at Ithaca were recently awarded a large grant from the US EPA to incorporate grassroots techniques into county-wide climate planning. This is a fascinating development, and deserves extra attention. One of the three funded experiements is "New Earth Living" a development slated to be built upon public land and intended to use the most cutting-edge design and resource management techniques to create small urban ecovillages.

Here's more info:

Welcome to Earthaven Ecovillage!

After a year of anticipation, a bittersweet farewell from friends and family in Champaign-Urbana, and a dangerously insufficient night of sleep, I departed for Black Mountain, North Carolina yesterday around 6:30AM, an hour of the day at which public radio is still broadcasting British news. It was probably the combination of excitement, sleep deprivation, and the droning voice of a British radio announcer that resulted in me driving west out of town, toward Springfield, Illinois, instead of east toward my destination, Earthaven Ecovillage. “No way to start a long road trip, let alone the summer…” I thought to myself. I turned around. Fortunately, I would reverse course only one other time the entire road trip, literally yards away from my destination, when I accidentally pulled into the driveway of a private residence and the bellicose glare of a man that indicated to me—in no uncertain terms—that I didn’t belong…

My twelve-hour drive started in perhaps the most boring landscape of the United States and progressed into one of the most beautiful. I probably could have finished the trip in under eleven hours had I not stopped to take several short naps—again, I don’t recommend barely sleeping the night before a day-long road trip. The flat grade of Illinois/Indiana transitions to rolling hills in Kentucky, which grow into a mountain vista in Tennessee. By the time I entered North Carolina, I was driving through that mountain vista, and the road was immersed in a vertical landscape of trees and granite. For a flat-lander like myself, such a scene is distracting and, at times, enough to induce salivation.

I hoped to arrive at Earthaven before dark, and I pulled in just short of 7PM, with light to spare. After winding up and down hills, I arrived at a wide-open entrance gate and a gravel path that meanders through a narrow canopy of trees, past several homes, twice across a narrow creek, a small play field, and finally to a gravel parking lot and a visitor’s kiosk. If you’ve driven in to Camp Agawak (my sister’s summer camp) in Northern Wisconsin, you’ve experienced a similar scene.

Unfortunately, my host and I hadn’t made detailed plans about where and when to meet, so I escaped my car for a moment to look around. Immediately, I noticed the relative silence of the place. Were it not so neat and beautifully well maintained, I’d have thought the place was abandoned. My short walk revealed plants I’m not used to seeing, including a small patch of bamboo, and other species I known I’ve never seen in the Midwest. I encountered several small clusters of homes, and what appeared to be the community “center”: a circular, white plaster complex, the large windows of which revealed a circle of chairs on an open wooden floor. This is where meetings happen…

When I finally encountered another human and enquired into the whereabouts of my host, they revealed to me that, in fact, my host lived just outside the community gates I had entered and that I should exit the gates, turn a corner, and climb up a hill. Following these directions, I arrived at my home for the summer: a three-story, off-white plastered house that overlooks an accompanying guesthouse, barn, and field of (recently shorn) sheep. The property and pasture is surrounded on four sides by trees, and a small stream cuts through the southern edge, effectively forming the edge of the sheep pasture.

My host still missing from the scene, I was greeted by one of the other four tenants with whom I’ll be sharing the house. After a brief introduction I inquired: “Where’s the bathroom?” The bathroom, which I found, is absolutely gorgeous and unlike any ecovillage bathroom I’ve ever seen. The entrance is filled with indoor plants, a granite countertop, a shower enclosed in stone and glass, and a toilet like any I’ve seen in the suburbs of Chicago. As far as I can tell, the water is pumped from the stream that descends from the surrounding mountains.

The house itself is equally impressive. A foyer, sitting room, full kitchen and dinning area, three guest bedrooms, a master bedroom with a full bathroom, and patio off the master bedroom. I’m sleeping in the attic, which was chilly last night, but I anticipate it will become ridiculously hot by the end of the summer. I have a small porch of my own which overlooks the barn and pasture. The construction of the home is timber frame (still not sure what’s insulting the place, but it’s not straw bale), and apparently all the wood was harvested from the property when the land was cleared for grazing. My host is quite the builder. He and a friend were able to clear the land, complete the house, the barn, and the guest house in about five years.

Electricity? You bet. All solar photovoltaics, and it’s enough to power a flat-screen television and my computer just about whenever. Today is cloudy day, and the power meter currently reads “91” out of 100. Internet? Yep- Ethernet connections throughout the house. Cooking? Primarily an alcohol stove with a wood stove backup which my host tries to avoid using in the summer.

Thanks for reading. Things are bound to get very exciting here. More blog posts later—pictures to follow.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Future of Energy (in 500 words)

As the environmental and national security repercussions of the “age of oil” grow too large to discount, governments around the world face pressure to explore clean, affordable, and renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, no existing energy source can affordably and cleanly displace petroleum (the world's current leadings source of energy) at least given our current rates of consumption. Even if human ingenuity developed an ideal energy alternative in the coming years, ever-changing political, demographic, and geological conditions render impossible the ability to predict future energy crises—few could have predicted the climactic consequences of greenhouse gas emissions prior to the middle twentieth century, for example. “Solving” today’s energy crisis will require two important endeavors: 1) reducing total energy demand, and 2) building a low-impact, diverse, and resilient energy system.

Every energy source to which humanity has access poses some ecological, economic, and/or geopolitical cost. Deciding where to invest research and infrastructure is a matter of balancing these costs. First and foremost, however, solving our current energy crisis must involve investing in “nega-watts” (Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 2000), or increasing whole-system industrial efficiency, clever building design, urban development that reduces the need for automobile trips, improvements to the national energy grid, the localization of food systems, etc. Reducing the demand for energy will render feasible relatively clean energy sources that seem financially infeasible today.

By reducing the number of steps between direct sunshine and energy useful for human activity, energy media like solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, and ambient heat geothermal pumps yield relatively low environmental costs. Tidal energy, a product of centrifugal and gravitational shifts on our planet, can also deliver electricity at relatively low environmental costs. Our future energy systems should rely principally on these systems. Relying on these energy sources, however, requires a re-imagination of the energy grid and the scale at which most USA regions produce energy. Building a low-impact, diverse, and resilient energy system is impossible at current geographic scales. In addition to posing large security risks, large regional-scale coal, nuclear, and gas plants lose the vast majority of energy as heat through the walls of the facility and the transmission of electricity over long distances. We can capture this efficiency by localizing energy production at the neighborhood scale, and investing the difference in further research. By investing in energy research with the savings incurred through captured efficiency, we are more likely to avoid energy crises in the future. If we invest in constant research and infrastructure that is not cost prohibitive to clean, replace and/or upgrade, we will transition from a boom-and-bust energy economy to a resilient and responsive system of energy supply. Of course, solar, wind, ambient geothermal, and tidal energy present their own caveats. Each requires space, and may result in localized environmental problems. I am convinced, however, that relatively localized problems are more likely to be solved by concerned neighbors than are geographically diffuse dilemmas that fossil energy has caused.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Herman Daly on the rhetoric of "Sustainable Development"

I'm currently re-reading Herman Daly's "Beyond Growth" (1996) and found his thoughts on the rhetoric of "sustainable development" pretty refreshing:

Sustainable development is a term that everyone likes, but nobody is sure of what it means. (At least it sounds better than "unsustainable nondevelopment.") The term rose to the prominence of a mantra- or a shibboleth- following the 1987 publication of the UN sponsored Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future, which defined the term as development which meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of the future to meet its needs. While not vacuous by any means, this definition was sufficiently vague to allow for a broad consensus. Probably that was a good political strategy at the time- a consensus on a vague concept was better than disagreement over a sharply defined one. By 1995, however, this initial vagueness is no longer a basis for consensus, but a breeding ground for a situation where whoever can pin his or her definition to the term will automatically win a large political battle for influence over the future (page 1-2).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

EPA political drama in detail offers a great history of environmental regulation in the US, dating all the way back to plain 'ole nuisance laws. The piece warns that Republican's current efforts to strip the EPA of power will most likely result in even more federal regulations from the courts.

More on the EPA, climate change, and congress.

An article on the BBC News website outlines the efforts of house republicans to essentially strip the Environmental Protection Agency of authority.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Massachusetts released a report concluding that the EPA's recent power plant directive, alongside anticipated measures limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic substances, would create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Monday, February 7, 2011

GOP Congress to clog the EPA with investigations

If congress can't pass a law to stop the EPA from regulating carbon emissions (an action deemed constitutional by the supreme court), they'll do whatever they can to impede progress, including occupying everyone's time with committee interrogations.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Obama's Changing Rhetoric on Climate Change

A recent CNN post explains the rhetorical shift that Barack Obama has undergone in the two years between his time as a candidate and now. One crucial shift is his talk on Climate Change. While he is surely hoping to take action on the issue, his new political circumstances will require him to do so with a bit more stealth: re-framing the issue as one of "job creation" and "energy independence" instead of carbon reduction and environmental integrity. These issues have enormous overlap, but I'm not convinced that addressing the issue as one of job creation or energy independence will spark a reversal of GHG trends sufficient enough to avoid the positive feedback loops projected in the coming decades. While I think the rhetorical shift and ensuing agenda leaves much to be desired (e.g. "clean" coal is FAR from clean), it's probably the best option at the national level now. Here's the excerpt on climate change:

In his first address to Congress, in February of 2009, President Obama said, “I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.”

By his 2011 State of the Union the words “cap,” “carbon” and “pollution” were gone. Instead, Mr. Obama made this call, “I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.”

The push for a much higher level of renewable energy has run throughout candidate and President Obama’s speeches. But note the way he has changed how he describes his goal, talking about the positive “clean energy” and no longer the negative “pollution”.

As for cap-and-trade, the change in Obama speech goes back to the death of the proposal in the Senate last year. Faced with another Congressional roadblock on cap-and-trade, the president is no longer talking much about the idea but he is more quietly pushing for carbon caps to be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The "Green" Tory Government

David Cameron's Conservative government has pledged to be the "greenest government ever," an encouraging gesture from the European nation with the third worst track record on renewable energy. An article from the Guardian discusses the UK's ambition to generate 15% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. The market evidence is encouraging, as the UK ranks #4 in the world, at $114bn, for projected investments in renewables between 2010 and 2020. Unfortunately, it seems that the Tory government is more interested in investing in nuclear energy, which is at the tail-end, a carbon free technology, but hardly environmentally or economically sound. Additionally, the UK claims that it must still extract oil from deep waters west of the Shetland Islands in order to ease the nation's transition away from fossil fuels. The process, claims energy and climate secretary Chris Hunhe, is akin to changing the direction of a large, dinghy oil tanker.

Hey, at least the UK has an energy and climate change secretary...

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Do you know where your electricity comes from? Probably coal.

Do you know where your electricity comes from? I was recently wondering this myself. While I was relatively certain that the electricity in Central Illinois comes principally from burning coal, I was curious to what extent Champaign, Illinois relies exclusively on coal and how my region compares to other parts of the nation.

One quick google search later, and I discovered that the EPA maintains a site that divulges which energy sources, and a what proportion, your regional energy company uses. One warning: this data is from 2005, so some sources may have changed in the last six years.

It turns out that the vast majority (83.2%) of electricity consumed in Central Illinois and St. Louis (at least the energy produced by Ameren IP) comes from burning coal. The United States as a whole relies on coal for about 50% of its electricity. Chicago (Commonwealth Edison) is also heavily dependent on coal for electricity, weighing in at 72.8%. Most of the rest of Chicago's electricity comes from nuclear plants. Interestingly, I found that the City of Los Angeles, which generates its own electricity, offers a relatively mixed portfolio of electricity sources including 9.4% from non-hydroelectric renewables and only 11.9% from coal.

I took some time to look up the electricity sources of some of the regions you (yes, you!) might be reading from. They're summarized in handy pie charts below (click to enlarge). Enjoy!