Wednesday, September 15, 2010

So, Where’s the Answer?

Two related, yet not related, stories popped up in my local papers today. The theme of both is the same; harnessing the wind to produce electricity. One is a story about big money, the other about not so big money. One is about pumping money into the pockets of people we’ll never know—for who knows how long. The other, about pumping electricity back into the grid—now—on a manageable budget.
First, about the fat cats who need lots of food. According to a story in this morning’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, a new industry is about to launch here. The Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., was formed a year ago to seek developers for a wind turbine project off the shores of Cleveland. Today, they announced three major players have been signed up, headed by the Bechtel Development Company of San Francisco. These are the same folks that brought us Hoover Dam, the Chunnel and thousands of other major projects. They, and their partners, will build five turbines for a demonstration project, seven miles off shore at an estimated cost of $100 million.
Stay tuned. The above story will take a while to develop. The other story is about what’s happening now. That story appeared in my local paper, The News Leader, here in Sagamore HIlls. It’s about a local dentist who has installed two vertical wind turbines at his office to generate electricity, at a cost of about $15,000 for each. I saw these turbines a day or so after they were installed and first thought they were art work.

The 30-foot-tall vertical axis turbines will produce about 2,500 kilowatt hours per year in an average 12 mph wind. This equates to around a quarter of the average energy needs of a residential home.
According to the news story, Dr. Davidson figures that wind generated electricity will cover about 10 percent of his energy needs. But here’s the cool part, Ohio, like many states, has what’s called net metering. That means, if you are producing enough energy to reverse your meter, the energy companies credit your account. You’re essentially selling electricity back to the company when you’re on vacation, for example. Bundle that with a federal 30% tax credit and state rebate incentives and you recoup the cost of your wind turbine in about five years, according to IC Green Energy, Vermilion, Ohio, the producer of these vertical axis turbines ( The company can install a complete system in five or six hours.
I know, not everyone can have a 30-foot-tall wind turbine in their front yard. Many people can, however, and they can also be pumping electricity back into the grid for the rest of us.
So what’s the answer? On one hand, we have a mega-cost project that will bring mega-watts of power, and hopefully mega-jobs to our area. On the other, we have a family-owned business, already producing machines that can help the average home owner cut energy costs—and with a good looking machine at that. As Bob Dylan pointed out nearly 50 years ago, the answer, my friends, to this and so many other problems, is blowin’ in the wind.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Long Way to Flutter By

Monarch Butterflies pause during their 3,000 mile migration

When you find yourself running low on energy; or maybe lost without a map, consider the Monarch butterfly, please.
Susan and I made the hour-long trip to Mentor Headlands State Park along Lake Erie’s shores this morning to bird the fall warbler migration. Along with the birds, we found ourselves in the midst of a massive Monarch butterfly movement as the insects moved from northern territories—by the thousands!—to their wintering grounds in the Transvolcanic Plateau region of Mexico. Depending on how you measure it, many of these half-gram insects will travel nearly 3,000 miles before they hibernate.
When you start reading about these butterflies you bump into all kinds of words you might not otherwise associate with light-weight insects. “Hibernate in caves,” for example. That’s what they do. Like bears and other hibernators (chipmunks and groundhogs come to mind) they slow their heartbeat and take a nap—like some of my retired friends.
The principal tree they like in Mexico is the Oyamel fir. We’ve been fortunate to see the hibernating Monarchs in this country near Santa Barbara, California, when they over winter in the Eucalyptus trees near Goleta.
Here, in northeast Ohio, we’re fortunate to see the bulk of migrating Monarchs from the eastern part of this country, and Canada, pass right through. Most of the insects move east of the Great Lakes then turn a southwesterly direction. When we get strong winds from the north, as we’ve had the past few days, the butterflies flutter by in prodigious numbers.
Today, thousands of them rested on trees throughout the park. I thought it interesting that of the larger fly catcher species we saw, Great-crested Flycatcher for example, no one was eating Monarchs. It was as if the birds and insects made a pact: We’re all in this migration boat together, so let’s all pull on the oars. Something like that.
It’s been estimated that about 300 million Monarchs head to Mexico for the winter. Theirs is not an easy life. If they don’t get eaten or whacked by a car along the route, there’s all kinds of stormy weather and loss of habitat to deal with once they get to Mexico.
Unlike migrating birds, the Monarchs have never travelled the route they will follow. Previous generations have died off before the journey begins. Many that start are more than three generations away from those that previously made the trip. Since its wintering grounds were discovered in the high mountains of Michoacan State west of Mexico City, scientists have studied how this critter with a tiny brain, migrates out of Mexico in the spring, moves up to its breeding areas where it produces several generations, then migrates back again to an area that the year’s last generation has never been to.
The exact purpose of their migration and their ability to make the trip at all, remains an intriguing subject for scientists studying them today. I don’t understand the mechanics or biology of the Monarchs’ movement, however, I do appreciate its beauty. Seeing them, by the thousands, is a bonus, maybe our reward, for getting out and birding.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Way Off the Beaten Track

This summer, Susan and I developed a taste for getting off the interstate highways during our travels. Among our discoveries have been Lucas, Kansas, the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas, with its Garden of Eden and other assorted oddities. But that’s another story. Recently we found ourselves (geographically speaking) in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. This (really) tiny town is best known for its name and not much else. Well, it is known for having elected a dog as it’s mayor—twice.
Rabbit Hash’s population varies from four to 40 people, depending on how the city boundaries are drawn. There are a couple of antique stores and two, and I use the term loosely, cafes. The most intriguing store is the General Store (where one of the dog-mayors was banned from entering by the health department). Because of flooding (the town is literally on the banks of the Ohio River) there’s not an unwarped board in the building. I think there is probably one example of everything ever built in the world jammed into that building. There’s so much stuff, floor to ceiling, that there’s no room for anything. The nostalgic aroma of sandalwood incense permeates the place, a feature I’m sure, missing when the first settlers washed up on this south bank of the river in the mid-1700s.
What piqued my curiosity was that, without spending a penny, we had a fun hour or so poking around in history—indoors and out. While across the river, in Rising Sun, Indiana, was “anchored” the Grand Victoria riverboat casino. I wondered if the folks on the boat were looking across the river and enjoying their experience as much as we.