Thursday, March 25, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

Spring Chicken

Spring time, when people's thoughts turn to gardening and chickens. At my daughter's school they just had their baby chicks hatch. For Traverse City, Spring means the first ever Tour de Coup. The meeting is Saturday March 20th over at The Commons: TC's 1st Tour de Coup Meeting

Other chicken links to get your Spring going:
Grit: Keeping Chickens Healthy: What You Need to Know

Re-Nest: How To Build a Backyard Chicken Coop

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Biomass Follow-Up

"The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed" -William Gibson

[this is a follow-up to my first TCLP biomass post]

I am one of those people who six months ago thought a biomass power plant was a great idea and a way to generate sustainable energy. But after studying the situation I have come to believe that the best solution is a natural gas power plant for the base load, using behavioral economics to encourage conservation, and pursue more wind power.

And that is the point of my opening quote. There was a lot that I thought I knew as a science and tech geek (I studied biogeochemistry in grad school and in my job now make the Internet work) but as I read about biomass I discovered new information that just has not been distributed yet. How are the board members of TCLP expected to know these things? They're volunteers with busy lives. So I hope the information I distribute here is helpful.

Here's what I now believe would be the best approach for Traverse City Light and Power.

1. Build a natural gas power plant as a transition to the 30 by 20 plan.

Because natural gas is clean, efficient, available, can be replaced by biogas, and has half the carbon dioxide emission of coal.

WaPo editorial: A natural choice
But existing gas-fired plants are running at only about 25 percent capacity, in part because many are switched on only when demand spikes. The Congressional Research Service reports that doubling the use of existing plants could replace about a third of coal-fired power, getting America a third of the way to its goal for 2020. For reasons of infrastructure, that might be too optimistic a scenario. But BP -- which has a stake in natural gas -- estimates that retiring the 80 dirtiest coal plants and replacing them with gas-fired power would get America 10 percent of the way to its 2020 emissions target and increase domestic gas consumption by only 5 percent.

Voices: Natural gas can lead the way
Burning coal for electricity accounts for more than 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Natural gas emits only about half as much carbon dioxide as coal for a given amount of electricity generation. Thus, for the electrical power sector, offsetting 40 percent of coal-fired electrical generation with the existing excess capacity for electrical generation from natural gas-fired plants would meet the stated goal of the Obama administration (and Congress) of at least a 17 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020...

...Using gas to generate electricity would also reduce other types of pollution: It produces only a tiny fraction of the sulfur oxides, particulates and formaldehyde, and none of the mercury that comes from burning coal. Substituting natural gas for coal also eliminates the many environmental problems associated with the disposal of both coal mine wastes and the 130 million tons of fly ash produced each year in the United States alone, as well as the health impacts and healthcare costs related to mining and burning coal.

2. Plant biomass feedstocks (poplar, switchgrass, etc.) now as carbon offsets to the natural gas plant. Then as technology improves this purpose-planted biomass can be harvested and used without impacting the forests over the next 30+ years.

3. When putting out the RFP for the natural gas power plant, include engineering work for biomass pyrolysis and/or anaerobic digestion to produce biogas (methane) on-site.

The advantages of pyrolysis are that the byproducts are biochar which can be sold to farmers as a soil amendment, bio-oil which can be further refined, and bio-gas which can be burned for energy in the gas fired power plant. And this bio-gas burns without the ash and other byproducts that green biomass does.

See: Scientists see biochar as promising fuel source

4. Continue to develop and pursue wind power capacity as reported in the Northern Express: The rush to Biomass

Also consider novel hydropower options as I detailed in my first post about biomass.

5. Offer credits to rate payers for conservation, efficiency, and distributed power generation.

TCLP could cut demand by 5% by changing the billing statement. TED 2010: David Cameron Shows How All Electric Bills Should Be
Utilities Finding Peer Pressure a Powerful Motivator
Using Peer Pressure as a Tool to Promote Greener Choices
in one study, researchers asked each of four groups of utility customers to cut energy consumption for a different reason — the good of the planet, the well-being of future generations, the financial savings, or because their neighbors were doing it. By comparing electric meter readings, the researchers determined that only the last message had any effect, eliciting a 10 percent drop in consumption. A subsequent study found that when electric bills compared a customer’s energy consumption against the neighborhood average, profligate customers scaled back. In fact, the social norm was so powerful that thrifty customers also responded, by splurging. The weirdly effective fix was to add a smiley face to the thrifty bills — like a gold star from teacher.

Another 5-10% of demand could be eliminating per household by killing "vampire" power with devices that completely turn off electricity.

There are 11,000 households. A Smart Strip cost $30. Meaning TCLP could buy two Smart Strips for every house for about $600,000 and achieve up to 10% reduction in electricity consumption.

What I like about this plan of mine is that if natural gas becomes too expensive TCLP could pyrolisize more biomass. If biomass becomes too scarce TCLP could purchase more natural gas.

Arguments that have been made against natural gas is the expense and the fact that it is a fossil fuel. However, if and when the cost of carbon pollution is accounted for, as seems likely, coal will become cost prohibitive versus natural gas. And in terms of being a fossil fuel and therefore a carbon source, carbon offsets can be planted to account for the carbon emissions of a natural gas plant and the power plant can be transition to a carbon neutral biogas plant.

A good argument against biomass is the engineering studies apparently only consider the client's power plant. Not five others too. Or competing with biomass to make diesel fuel (Engineered E. Coli Bacteria Produces Road-Ready Diesel)

The Record-Eagle had an editorial about questions that need to be answered before the biomass plant is constructed: Questions on biomass

These are good points.

And I read the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) done by R.W. Beck. I know this report tells TCLP that biomass is affordable and available. However, I read the full IRP. The price of natural gas forecast does not include the recent discovery in Appalachia. Regardless, the forecast shows the price only eclipsing the current price for natural gas in 2020. And the biomass price forecast only includes the currently operating biomass plants and what DTE and Consumers Energy are expected to use.

But other things were left out and a consultant needs to be asked these questions:

- What will be the price of biomass if there are more than five biomass plants in northern Michigan and two or more cellulosic alcohol factories?

- Is there enough biomass to support multiple energy and alcohol fuel users?

- The first time Michigan's forests were cleared it was with horse and sledge and done in the winter. What impact will road building, trucking, and heavy machinery have to the forest soil structure? What will be the impact to nutrient cycling in the forests if the litter is removed? Will the forests regrow or will they be like ski resorts that have found their slopes cannot support the former flora? (See: Ski resorts rethink bulldozing for trails)

Once these questions are answered, the benefits of natural gas are examined, and the possibilities of biogas from the pyrolysis of biomass is considered, I believe the answer as to what to do next will be clear.

Other links that may be of interest:

IPR: TC Mayor Weighs In On Biomass

Converting Coal Plants to Biomass

Thursday, March 11, 2010

From Here To There By Bike

Look what Google has done: Biking directions added to Google Maps

and as The Atlantic explains: Why Google Maps' New Biking Directions Could Be Huge

I tested it to see if it would put me on the Leelanau Trail for a trip from Traverse City to Suttons Bay:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Thoughts On Free Community Internet Service

this post originally appeared at my site TC Tech Notes: Free Internet*

(*there's no such thing as a free lunch)

Traverse City Light and Power is planning on becoming an ISP for the Traverse City area with a mix of WiFi, WiMax, and fiber to the premise (FTTP). See: Utility moves forward with free Internet

and: getting wireless broadband here – Feb 10

and: Traverse Bay EDC Regional Broadband Initiative Update (beginning on pg 15)

The service provider offering to help with this is Cherry Capital Connection.

They have set up a web site in conjunction with their partners: Coalition 4 Limitless Broadband

And they are offering help to many of the communities in northern Michigan due to the amount of money the federal government is offering to establish broadband in rural areas.

However, it seems that it wasn't too long ago that Traverse City was considering their own cable service to compete with Charter but a consultant told them it was crazy due to the costs and so the project was abandoned.

Now TCLP is considering entering into competition with the current broadband providers (basically Charter and AT&T) with a product coordinated through Cherry Capital Connection. It is easy to complain about Charter and AT&T, yet Charter offers a 25 Mbps x 3 Mbps cable modem and AT&T launched 3G cellular service last summer. And by the end of this year Charter will be offering 50-100 Mbps connections for most customers thanks to DOCSIS 3.0. By the end of next year Verizon will offer a wireless 4G service and AT&T will be right on their heels.

According to the TCLP report, the wireless service for the greater TC area would be based on WiMax. This immediately seems like a problem as the industry is moving to LTE for 4G service even though WiMax was first.

For more on this topic see:
GigaOm: LTE vs WiMAX: A Little 4G Sibling Rivalry"

NetowrkWorld: Cisco exiting WiMAX
"It's obvious now that mobile carriers are going to deploy LTE," says Laurence Swasey, principal of Visant Strategies. "There are no economies of scale with mobile WiMAX. Mobile WiMAX never materialized like many thought it would. Cisco is just staying on top of where the market is going."
Computerworld: LTE speeds faster than expected in Verizon trials

As the commercial wireless industry is planning on using LTE instead of WiMax I wonder about the cost and long-term viability of WiMax as a 4G service. The world's largest cellular manufacturer, Nokia, compared WiMax to Betamax. And if a company as big and dominant as Cisco is leaving the WiMax business should Traverse City be getting into it?

Additionally, other technical issues include:

- does Cherry Capital Connection have experience with fiber deployment? Do they have the engineers who are familiar with multimode, singlemode, GBIC's, SFP's, and attenuation? There is a reason Charter installed Munson's dark fiber - this is complicated work and needs experienced fiber engineers to deploy and maintain.

- will it be explained to city residents and visitors that they will need special equipment to connect to the WiMax service since WiFi enabled devices like laptops and iPhones won't work with WiMax? I think it is important to point out that if Traverse City chooses to use WiMax for community Internet, and all the wireless companies choose LTE, then when we buy our 4G iPhones and other Smartphones we won't be able to use the 4G service from TCLP.

- will TCLP be leasing or selling WiMax connection equipment so city residents can connect? Will there be any companies manufacturing this equipment five years from now?

- who will assist city residents with technical issues and who will fix the system when it breaks?

- who will pay for antenna removal if this venture fails? Portland, OR recently tried offering free wireless Internet in the city and after the project failed there was no one left to pay to dismantle the system. See: Portland set to dismantle, donate abandoned Wi-Fi antennas

And to be honest, the whole rush to get community Internet service just seems a little "off". For example, in the TCLP report, Wireless 2020 (the company whose model was used to select an Internet provider) is listed as an independent company and Rob Franzo as a consultant at Mitten Communications "in Traverse City". However, Mr. Franzo is listed on the Wireless 2020 web site as part of the team. The phone number he gives in the TCLP report is a number for C4LB so is there a conflict of interest there if the company he works for, Wireless 2020, selects a firm owned by his friend? And if you do a web search for Mr. Franzo's "Mitten Communications" nothing is found. Wouldn't a Communications company have a web site and a list of clients?

Overall this seems like another example where TCLP is rushing into a decision that is not in the best long-term interest of the community.

The fact is, anyone who wants fast Internet can get it. Mr. Moore may complain, but fiber will cost a lot more when it has to be run for one person versus simply plugging in another fiber to a Cisco switch - that is what happens in rural areas without economies of scale. As more businesses get fiber connections from Charter the price will plummet. Plus, with Charter coming out of bankruptcy and rolling out DOCSIS 3.0 for most customers it is likely that within two years anyone with a cable connection will be able to order 100 Mbps Internet service. Rather than complain about Charter why not complain about AT&T refusing to offer their U-Verse service in northern Michigan, or complain about Verizon not rolling out their incredible FIOS product?

Competition will bring improved Internet service, but I do not believe it is something TCLP should get into as if they choose the wrong technology then it is the city residents who will have to pay for the mistake making free Internet a huge loss.

New York Found Closing Broadway Was A Success

A year ago I posted: To Speed Up Traffic New York City Is Closing Broadway Avenue

NYC is making this a permanent change and looking to expand the concept.

See: Broadway Pedestrian Plazas in New York City Made Permanent

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Nice Time To Focus On Good News

Since there has been plenty of complaining about biomass and other unresolved issues, here is some good news to celebrate:

@DowntownTC: Old Town Parking Deck anticipating to be Platinum LEED certified. Includes solar panels, green roofs, electric car outlets & bike lockers.

The Traverse City GIS Department is using ESRI software to make available the Tax Parcel Viewer.

And this news which will have a big impact in my life: TC to get year-round flights to Denver (now I am hoping for a Rockies - Tigers World Series)

[update 3/06/2010] New eateries, stores move in downtown

A Renewed Excitment
What makes Northern Michigan such a perfect place to own a restaurant? Everything. I think those who have lived up for many years may have become numb to what is up here. Often I am asked somewhat incredulously why I would leave Vegas and the enviable position I held to move to "this". I answer the same every time, "because it is world class up here." The jobs our farmers and produces do warrants, no demands, of us excellence. It falls on all of us to take the embarrassment of riches we have up here in terms of raw product and present it as perfectly as it is given.