Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Ideal Integration of Trees and Solar Panels Remains the Exception Rather Than the Rule

Why is Princeton not covering its homes with solar panels? There's always an excuse. The roof may face the wrong direction, or it's shaded by trees, or the shingles are too old, or the owners are just there for a few years and see solar panels as something longterm. Meanwhile, our houses remain part of the climate problem when they could be part of the solution. Each person's decision seems minor, while the collective impact threatens our future. Solar is essentially free now, but the lack of a strong community call to action has made it hard for most of us to get beyond excuses.

These three photos--taken in different directions from the same spot--tell a story indicative of our curious response to climate change's urgency. The first shows an ideal integration of trees and solar panels. The next two show how investment in the rest of the neighborhood is shunning solar in favor of additional investment in fossil fuel delivery.

The first photo shows the perfect way to combine trees and solar panels to give a house optimal cooling and energy production. The house faces south, so it has the perfect orientation for panels on the roof. But how about those trees in front? Well, they are a kind of tree that doesn't get very high--some sort of crab apple or ornamental cherry perhaps, the kind that stay low or can easily be trimmed back to keep them from shading the panels. Though not as large as an oak or maple, they nonetheless are providing the many benefits of a tree. They are evaporating water through their leaves, which cools the air around them, and their roots and branches are sequestering carbon they take in from the air. Many native tree species would work well in this niche: redbud, flowering dogwood, hawthorn, red buckeye, musclewood, pawpaw.

Though the trees aren't high enough to shade the roof, the solar panels are providing a complete and effective shading, while also generating renewable electricity. Smaller trees are safer than big ones around a house, and cheaper to remove if they need to be taken down and replaced. So there's a lot to like about this setup.

Meanwhile, look down the street and you see a long line of houses also perfectly oriented, and without any trees getting in the way. Perhaps because I grew up on WWII movies, they look to me like battleship row--structures that could be defending our country by generating renewable energy. And yet they stand idle. The first one there, with the metal roof, was reportedly designed with solar panels in mind, yet they were never installed.

Solar panels on a roof are one way of saying the future matters, that we need as a people to become producers as well as consumers. In economics, sucking fossil fuels from the ground is called "production," but it's not. It's extraction. It gives us present comfort and mobility, but takes from the earth and takes from our future. America will truly start "making stuff again" when our houses begin producing as much energy as they consume.

That big metal plate in the street in this third photo shows that not only are most houses not producing energy, but the infrastructure for natural gas delivery is being updated and improved. PSEG is installing higher pressure lines that, according to one of the workers, will prevent moisture from infiltrating. PSEG presents this nearly $2 billion investment as good news, emphasizing that old, potentially leaky pipes are being replaced. But the NJ Sierra Club came out against it. Most of the money appears to be going to expanding fossil fuel distribution at a time when radical reductions are needed.

People emulate their neighbors. If enough people get solar panels installed, others will think it's the thing to do. Trees and solar together, like that first house--an obvious solution remains the exception rather than the rule.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Another Summer of Messy Streets and Ordinance Violations Begging for a Solution

We have a little dog named Leo, and though he didn't seem very interested in the solar eclipse two years ago, he does take an enduring interest in walking the streets of Princeton,

which gives me as longtime designated dogwalker the opportunity to update my ongoing report on the state of streets in our fair town.

Frequently, not just in the fall but almost year-round, the streets are lined with piles large and small of yardwaste, detracting from whatever beauty residential neighborhoods might have.

The state of New Jersey long ago made clear a preference for containerized yardwaste. Page 71 of New Jersey's "Model Ordinances" recommendations for municipalities states (emphasis added):
The owner or occupant of any property, or any employee or contractor of such owner or occupant engaged to provide lawn care or landscaping services, shall not sweep, rake, blow or otherwise place yard waste, unless the yard waste is containerized, in the street. If yard waste that is not containerized is placed in the street, the party responsible for placement of yard waste must remove the yard waste from the street or said party shall be deemed in violation of this ordinance.
This makes it sound like Princeton's program of loose yardwaste collection is completely out of step with state guidelines, but then the state provides a bit of latitude. Under Section III: Yardwaste Collection, the state's recommended town ordinance reads:
Sweeping, raking, blowing or otherwise placing yard waste that is not containerized at the curb or along the street is only allowed during the seven (7) days prior to a scheduled and announced collection, and shall not be placed closer than 10 feet from any storm drain inlet. Placement of such yard waste at the curb or along the street at any other time or in any other manner is a violation of this ordinance. 
Given the state's clear preference for keeping streets free of yardwaste, and an ordinance that limits the time any yardwaste can sit on the street to one week, what is Princeton's collection schedule? Regard below the complex schedule for yardwaste pickups that Princetonians are supposed to scrutinize and time their gardening with. Note that there's a 3-6 week gap between pickups in the summer. That means that residents have no way to legally dispose of yardwaste for many weeks. What happens is that residents throw yardwaste in the streets anyway, in violation of state and local law.

Further complicating disposal and collection, residents are asked not to mix leaves and brush at the curb. Brush is used to make woodchip mulch. A good mulch lasts a long time, but if leaves are mixed in with the wood, the ground up mulch breaks down too fast.

What is a resident supposed to do with non-woody yardwaste (called "leaves" in the schedule) from May through September, when no pickups are scheduled? Below is a collection of photos that provide an answer, taken along a two-block stretch of Linden Lane and Ewing Street. Essentially, the streets become a storage area for leaves and other herbaceous materials from the garden, mixed in with a few sticks.

The infrequent collections mean that state and local laws are regularly being violated, and the yardwaste that finally gets collected is likely contaminating the brush composting process at the Lawrenceville composting center. The town's collection program seems out of sync with resident's gardening habits, and makes it very hard to adhere to state and local law. Princeton is not the only New Jersey town that struggles with this problem, which has only increased over the years.

How many residents along a two block stretch currently lack a good way to legally dispose of yardwaste during the summer? Here's a count:

2nd pile








10th (Piling leaves/brush loose on the lawn kills the grass)







This appears to be mostly brush, but lots of leaves mixed in.

17th - piled too close to the stormdrain. Containerization would avoid this violation of ordinance.


19th -- This one includes a flower bouquet.


21st -- another violation that could be avoided by containerization



24th -- a mix of wood and herbaceous yardwaste.

25th -- containerization of non-woody yardwaste ("leaves") would avoid not only the clogging of the stormdrain but also the unsightly scar in the grass where a pile of yardwaste had sat too long.

One of the piles above later got grass clippings added to it. The town forbids putting grass clippings out for collection, because their high nutrient content could pollute local waterways, but some homeowners do it anyway.

And the fall's first pile of leaves in the street, blocking half the lane, in mid-August. These are probably leaves from a sycamore. Some species of trees, susceptible to this or that disease, tend to drop some leaves in the summer. The town's schedule doesn't have these leaves being picked up until October.

In the past, I've suggested that the town make large compost carts available to residents so that they can containerize much of their yardwaste and put it out on the curb for one of the weekly pickups. Nearly all of the piles shown above would easily fit into a large compost cart, so that they could be stored by the resident out of sight, rather than marring the streetscape for weeks.

These compost carts, widely and effectively used elsewhere in the country, have in Princeton been uncharitably described as either too small to hold sufficient yardwaste to make a difference, or too large for residents to store on their property. Why, when they are widely used elsewhere, would they somehow be both too large and too small for Princetonians?

In the meantime, our streets remain messy much of the year, with numerous violations of state and local ordinances. For gardeners who don't want to have a compost pile or leaf corral, there needs to be a convenient way to store and legally dispose of yardwaste.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

How Trails are Born: Princeton Students Vote With Their Feet

Here's an example of how the world can become more sensible when a lot of people literally vote with their feet. This newly installed walkway next to Whitman College at Princeton University was first a well-worn dirt path, made by countless people cutting across the lawn on their way to the Dinky. The institution finally yielded to all those voting feet, and laid down the asphalt.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Princeton Council Decides To Acquire a Food Waste Bio-Digester

Princeton's council members voted 4-1 to acquire a used bio-digester from MetLife. Though the machine is being given to Princeton, the municipality will have to spend about $20-25,000 for transportation and repairs. Princeton will later decide whether to actually use the machine. It would cost an estimated $316,000 annually to collect and compost participating residents' foodwaste. During public comment, some citizens spoke in favor of the acquisition, but interestingly, three of Princeton's most devoted environmentalists questioned the wisdom of acquiring the machine, despite their support for composting in general. In addition, the one dissenting vote came from council's liaison to the Environmental Commission, Eve Niedergang.

Here are my notes from watching a video of the presentation, discussion and vote. (The topic essentially consumes the first hour and a half of the video). As far as I could tell, no examples of successful programs elsewhere in the country utilizing the Brome digester were offered. Though MetLife reportedly used the machine for three years, no details were given on its dependability and the quality of the product. Council members made clear that they were voting only to acquire the machine. The considerable expense of using it will be decided in future votes. Now would seem to be the time to also be closely considering alternative approaches that could prove to be lower tech and lower cost. No mention was made of a backup plan if the machine were to break.

  • A Brome 1624 model, worth $300,000 new, used for three years as a symbol of MetLife Stadium's sustainability efforts, then discontinued when new management took over. Has been sitting unused for 2 (?) years. An internet search yielded no results for the machine make and model, but exploring this site could prove instructive: https://www.bromecompost.com/en/. Princeton University's digester is a different make.
  • MetLife needs to get the biodigester off of its property soon, and gave Princeton a deadline for deciding whether to accept the gift. 
  • The biodigester will be transported to a MetLife partner, Premier, which will do minor repairs, e.g. rust and dent removal, then the machine will be moved to an as yet unknown location in or around Princeton. In a report by town manager, Marc Dashield, council was told that the cost for transportation, repairs and assembly would not exceed $25,000. The town would then need to decide whether to use the machine or try to sell it. 
  • The machine's capacity can be checked in the video (16 cubic yards?, per month?, expandable to 24 cubic yards with an extension?)
  • A big problem with Princeton previous foodwaste collection program was that the foodwaste had to be hauled long distances for composting, at sites in Delaware or Pennsylvania. The aim with the biodigester is to locate it either in Princeton or on a nearby farm. The River Road facility is one option.
  • Matt Wasserman, former Princeton Environmental Commission chair and longtime president of Sustainable Princeton, would be the project manager.
  • Different options for private or public operation were offered, with estimates of costs. Though the most expensive option would be for the municipality to haul and process the foodwaste, the town has found private operations to be undependable.
  • The total cost per year is estimated to be $316,000 ($14,000 debt service on a $110,000 vehicle, $5000 for fuel and maintenance, $162,000 for two employees, $35,000 for education, $100,000 for processing)
  • $69,000 could potentially be saved in reduced landfill costs
  • Cost would work out to $165 per household per year, with half of that being paid by taxpayers, half by the participant
  • It was repeatedly stated that the vote to acquire the machine would only cost $20-25,000, some of which could be recouped by selling the machine, if council later decided not to move forward with using it. It was explained that MetLife preferred to take a tax writeoff by donating the machine, rather than try to sell it. If nothing else, it could be sold as scrap.
  • local farmers buy compost currently for $50-100 per cubic yard from Vermont Compost
  • Dwaine Williamson views the decision in terms of risk and potential reward, and doesn't see much downside.
  • Tim Quinn trusts our professionals to mitigate any potential risk
  • Eve Niedergang said that the more she dug into the details, the more concerned she became. Running the Princeton University digester is a full-time job. It requires a structure, which must be heated in winter, plumbing, etc. Another structure would be needed to house the compost while it cures for 4 weeks. Would runoff be an issue? She is concerned about the municipal staff and council time being devoted to the project with no guarantee of success. She sees many unknowns, and has found the project to be much more complicated than she expected. A digester is not the most ecological way to deal with foodwaste. She sees the potential for a cascade of expenses for an approach that ultimately may not work.
  • Dwaine responded by emphasizing the urgency of the decision, given MetLife's deadline. He assumes we can sell the machine, and sees the vote as very narrowly defined as acquisition only, not actual use.
  • Mayor Liz Lempert said that NJ Dept. of Env. Protection has committed to a 50% reduction in food waste being landfilled in the state, with no plan on how to reach that goal. She said that Princeton U's use of a digester suggests that they decided it's a good idea. She believes the Brome digester doesn't need to be indoors, and thanked Josh Zinder, the local architect who made Princeton aware of the MetLife digester's availability. She pointed to lessons learned in the past, particularly that we need to be in control of the process.
  • Eve pointed out that the numbers presented at the meeting were not available to council members until that afternoon, leaving no time to look at them. She asked why the town is projecting 2000 participants in year 4 when Princeton was only able to find 900 participants for the previous version of the program.
  • Liz defended the need for a curbside collection program by pointing to the strong interest shown (council chambers was filled twice during previous meetings to discuss the subject), and said that surveys show that many residents are not willing to compost in their backyards.
  • Though David Cohen voted to acquire the digester, he said Princeton needs to be ready to cut the program off if it proves unfeasible. We "can't be led down the primrose path." He also mentioned distributed collection centers as potentially useful, regardless, for people who live in apartment buildings and can't participate in curbside collections.
  • Councilmember Fraga said she tends to be an optimist, and so is supporting the acquisition.
  • Bainy Suri: We're not setting the right example. She mentioned Bergen County was making backyard composters available to residents at low cost. It doesn't make sense to replace a pilot program with another pilot program. This program is not scalable, given the limited capacity of the machine.
  • Another longtime environmental advocate in town agreed with councilmember Niedergang's concerns, and said that the information being used to make the decision was not available to the public prior to the meeting. There has not been enough research done. We need to be more sophisticated, and focus more on education and reducing the generation of foodwaste. Are there any examples of a digester working elsewhere?
  • Another local environmentalist said that councilmember Niedergang made good points, called for public/private partnerships and education.
  • Another longtime local environmentalist recommended "centralized composting in open rows," as opposed to the containerized digester. She pointed to stubbornly low participation rates in the previous foodwaste collection program, resistance of residents to being charged extra for composting and less for not, the inconvenience of multiple pickup days between trash and compost. She said that a digester rated low in comparison to other potential actions that could be taken to reduce the amount of foodwaste being landfilled.
  • Joshua Zinder was enthusiastic about his previous experience with curbside foodwaste collection, which he said had reduced his trash by 50%, and sees foodwaste collection as the start of something bigger. "We should be a leader."
  • One resident supportive of the acquisition said that his backyard composter had quickly filled up. (The compost process greatly reduces the mass of material, so it's not clear how his composter could have filled up unless it was undersized and wintertime, when decomposition is slowed.)
  • There was about a 50:50 mix of positive and negative comments by the public.
Related posts on this website can be found by typing "compost" into the search box, or going to this link: https://princetonprimer.blogspot.com/search?q=compost

Designs for a homemade leaf corral and critter-proof foodwaste composter can be found at this link.

Town Topics reported on the meeting at this link.