Monday, May 25, 2020

The Relevance of Tallship Training in the 21st Century

Memorial Day is a good day to tell of a most unexpected visitor to Philly this past September. The literature calls it "America's Tallship", the Barque Eagle, and shows it plying the open seas in full sail.

This is what it looked like, docked behind the performance stage at Penns Landing. Specs show the three masts to each be 15 stories high, on a ship 300 feet long. Nice relict from a bygone era, it seemed,

but as we approached, a group of young sailors in military uniform greeted us and invited us on board to have a look around. Their look of happiness and pride seemed too genuine to be a product of disciplined show. And, yes, the ship actually does sail, touring the world, with a mission of training leaders and spreading goodwill.
Why would the Coast Guard train its future officers on a sailing ship built in 1936? Their website explains:

"Because the ways of old still have much to teach. The conditions and situations that you face under sail can’t be replicated either in a classroom or aboard today's modern ships. 
"On board Eagle, cadets find themselves suddenly out of their element. Totally dependent on wind, waves and currents, they quickly learn how these forces of nature affect a vessel. They become skilled in ship-handling, decision-making and meeting unexpected challenges. They learn the importance of crew members working together to handle the ship safely."

With 23 sails and 6 miles of rigging, the ship requires all 55 crew members working in harmony just to come about. Sailing teaches a deep understanding of and respect for the forces of nature and the power of collective action. These are the profound lessons Americans once grew up understanding as part of life, back when we partnered with nature, before we turned most work over to machines, and grew so powerful and isolated from nature that we thought we could dominate and ignore it. Even farmers far from the sea still needed to respect the forces of nature, and bring many hands to the task of raising a barn.

In a sense, the pandemic is reteaching forgotten lessons about respecting the forces of nature and the power of collective action. It's also broadening our understanding of what it means to serve and defend our country. We've learned the hard way that it's not enough to pay a military or build a wall, then pay periodic solemn respect for heroes while the rest of us do our own thing as we please. We're in this together, military and civilians, and will be saved or harmed by the collective sum of our individual actions.

There are a few quirks and ironies to this iron-hulled tallship that should be pointed out. It was built by the Nazis and originally used by them to train sailors, prior to being confiscated by the U.S. as war reparations after WWII. And even though it has half an acre of sails, it still is fitted with a diesel engine that provides about half the power.

Still, I stepped off the Barque Eagle with a deepened pride and sense of connection to those in uniform who on this ship step back into a previous era to learn lessons that continue to gain in relevance as time passes and numbers swell.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Picking Up Litter During a Pandemic

Local environmental groups--the Watershed Institute, DR Greenway, Friends of Princeton Open Space, Friends of Herrontown Woods, Friends of Rogers Refuge--are encouraging people to pick up trash while out for walks. The pandemic changes the dynamics of this activity, so Sustainable Princeton offered a protocol, below, that includes gloves and a mask.

The urge to intervene in public spaces varies considerably from one individual to the next. My habits of intervention probably began when my father offered my brother and me a nickel (or was it a penny?) for every tin can or bottle we could bring back from the woods. It must have been a throwback to WWII, when every little scrap of metal was needed for the war effort. With the investment of only a dollar or two, my father incentivized me for a lifetime, not only to pick up trash but also to keep sidewalks and nature trails free of obstruction. The act is motivated by an empathy for those who come after--a sense that we are guardians of the future, be it the next person to come along or the next generation.

The most dramatic evidence that not everyone is invested with this instinct came when I'd walk my daughter to grade school. One time, a sidewalk close to the school became blocked by a fallen branch. It wasn't large, but was enough to force parents and kids to walk around it, onto ground that could get muddy after a rain. My instinct was to bend down and move the branch, but I decided instead to leave it there as an experiment, to see how long parents would passively tolerate being inconvenienced. Finally, after two weeks, I couldn't take it any more and spent the thirty seconds required to push the branch out of the way.

Though there are a few litter bugs out there, most litter on the streets is unintentional, the collateral spillage that happens during curbside collection of recyclables. The recycling bins Mercer County has Princeton using are of small capacity and lack lids, making them more prone to spillage. If strong winds coincide with recycling day, bins on the curb can capsize, spilling contents into the street. Rain then directs the litter down storm drains and into local waterways.

Therefore, cleaning up a streetscape or naturescape is largely an opposition not between good people and bad people, or the thoughtful and the thoughtless, but between intentionality and unintentionality. When it comes to nature and the planet in general, unintentionality is winning, particularly given the widespread ideological bias against intentional collective action to solve collectively created problems. But the pandemic has dramatized the importance of intentional, collective action to minimize the unintentional spread of the coronavirus.

That said, here are the guidelines being recommended locally for picking up litter during a pandemic:

The next time you go outside or take your dog for a walk, grab gloves and a bag, and pick up trash. You can pick up litter during a walk around the neighborhood, in your backyard, in the street, in a nearby park or anywhere else you see trash on the ground.

When you participate, be sure to exercise
social distancing and follow these guidelines:
  • Do this activity alone or with your family or the people you are living with, not with friends or other groups
  • Wear gloves and a mask
  • Stay 6 feet apart – be sure to give people plenty of room to pass around you
  • Exercise caution on trails where the paths can be narrow; step off as needed to ensure that the 6 feet distance is maintained
  • Do not congregate in groups!
  • Wearing brightly colored clothing if picking up litter along streets
  • Dispose of gloves and trash properly and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water when finished

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Princeton's Passeggiata and the "Slow Yard" Movement

Hidden behind the pandemic's grievous toll has been something of a flip side, a reawakening amidst the sorrow, what my friend Ron described to me as "a glimpse of a kind of beautiful world." He went on to explain:
"With humanity on pause, you can sense everywhere nature's resurgence - and it's all across the globe. It's as though the entire planet is heaving a great sigh of relief. Clear skies, and quiet; Robins can hear worms underground again. But even on the social plane, there's a sense in which people are rediscovering the pleasures of strolling, of encountering one another - even at the required distance - without car-bubbles and speed sealing them off. Have you noticed the passeggiata that has been taking place in Princeton's streets lately, in the early evening?"

"Passeggiata"--I had to look it up. In other words, Princeton's streets, largely freed of cars in the evening, are becoming the shared public space they always had the potential to be. Most front yards are meant to be experienced with "car-bubbles and speed," that is, rapidly if at all. Nothing much more than turf and some static shrubs.

A few yards, though, reward slower passage. A recent leisurely bike ride up Ewing Street was rewarded with these scenes from people's front yards: a cautious congregation of old chairs social distancing,

a wooden pony trying out its new legs,

its head fashioned from a serendipitously shaped piece of red cedar with ears, a mane, and a mouth.

A repurposed birdbath provide fairies with a spot to shelter in place. The ladder is a practical touch. How else would the fairies be able to take part in Princeton's passaggiata every evening?

That's a Wishing (the earth) Well on the right--a circle of fencing with an inner column for composting food scraps, surrounded by a leaf corral. It's designed to hold and separately compost lots of leaves and food scraps. No odor, and no work other than retrieving the compost every autumn before new leaves fall.

All of these front yard examples involve reuse--making something positive out of what would otherwise be viewed as a negative. Like finding some pleasure in an evening stroll amidst the tragedy of a pandemic. Posting about this on facebook, it occurred that the slow food concept could be extended to "slow yards" that are best experienced at a slower pace.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Renewable Energy for Princeton -- Real Electrons and Abstract RECs

After researching the Princeton Community Renewable Energy (PCRE) program that takes effect on May 6, I can say with some assurance what it will not do.
  • It will not affect PSEG's profitability, since PSEG does not generate electricity. Instead, it makes money from providing the wires and other infrastructure needed to deliver electricity supplied by someone else. Each customer is free to choose a supplier. In this case, Princeton is choosing our supplier for us, unless we opt out.
  • It will not change the source of the electricity that comes into our houses. The electrons that power your appliances and light bulbs are largely produced from fossil fuel and nuclear plants, and will continue to be. If any of the electrons you're using are renewable, it's probably because one of your neighbors has solar panels that are feeding solar energy electrons into the grid.
What Princeton's PCRE energy program will do is require the chosen energy supplier to buy Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) for 50% of the electricity participating customers buy. Understanding what that actually means is not easy. The concept is abstract, and its benefits vary. RECs are defined by Sustainable Princeton as "the industry-standard means to assign a financial value to the environmental benefits of clean energy production." Requiring the supplier to buy them will "support the development of renewable energy generation," and "accelerate the installation of renewable energy infrastructure faster than would otherwise happen."

Princeton has hired a consultant to answer people's questions about the program. When I sent a question to the help desk (, I was told that "purchase of RECs does not change the amount of renewable energy being produced in real-time." Rather, the program will "create the incentive for more renewable energy to be built in the future." (fuller quote further down)

In other words, Princeton is not buying renewable energy. Instead, it is encouraging the building of renewable energy in our region and elsewhere in the country. A government article entitled "The Role of Renewable Energy Certificates in Developing New Renewable Energy Projects" states that "the importance of RECs in building new projects varies."

When I tried to give input on Princeton's sustainability plan, I approached the problem of renewable energy from a physical perspective. Renewable energy falls on Princeton in the form of sunlight. We can capture that energy with solar panels, trees, and by capturing solar energy through our windows in the winter. To physically reduce our town’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, we need to utilize that solar energy. The approach instead seems to focus on encouraging others to produce the energy elsewhere, through RECs. Though this is laudable, it's not the same as actually reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions.

There's a lot of misinformation out there. Michael Moore's recent movie, "The Planet of the Humans," is a shockingly skewed polemic, but buried within its willful distortions are a good point or two. Renewable energy is not perfect. Giant wind generators and fields of solar panels are industrial installations that can radically alter the landscape. They are a great improvement over fossil fuels, but if built in quantity, their impact on ecosystems can be substantial. 

These realities suggest that Princeton would best reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from electricity use primarily by minimizing consumption through efficiency and good energy management at home, and maximizing its own production, mostly through rooftop solar. Rooftop solar does not disrupt habitat, and in fact provides shade that can keep a building cooler in the summer. Encouraging production elsewhere through buying RECs is beneficial to some extent, and I'd encourage residents to participate, but it is less certain in its overall impact. 

Even on cloudy days, electrons from your neighbor's rooftop solar array are pouring into the wires outside of your home. Some of those electrons then enter your home and power your furnace, A/C, refrigerator, etc. Those solar panels will keep producing renewable energy for many decades. You can get them installed for free, essentially by leasing your roof for energy production for 20 years, or you can buy a system that will pay for itself in around seven years, after which all the energy produced is gravy. That, for me, is real. 


Average home electrical use in New Jersey: 700 kWh per month. How does your management of your home energy use compare?

A fuller quote from the town's consultant:
The PCRE program requires that the program supplier purchase and retire an additional amount of RECs above and beyond that required for compliance with the State’s RPS. By requiring the purchase and retirement of additional RECs – taking those additional RECs out of circulation - this mechanism takes additional supply of RECs out of circulation, thereby creating the need for additional RECs to be created in the future to satisfy future requirements, and providing the financial incentive for development of future renewable energy projects. Thus, purchase of RECs does not change the amount of renewable energy being produced in real-time; rather than taking renewable energy away from other customers as you postulate, a program such as this will actually create the incentive for more renewable energy to be built in the future.
Followup questions I asked the consultant, with no response as yet:
  • I think what you're saying is that if Princeton and other entities enter into contracts that require an energy company to buy and retire more SRECs than are currently available, then the company is obligated to purchase those SRECs at some point in the future when they become available. But the contract has a fixed end point. Who will enforce the company's obligation to buy and retire any SRECs not purchased during the duration of the contract?
  • The links below suggest that there's some question as to how much SRECs encourage the development of renewable energy projects, and also say that the SREC program will be ending in NJ. Does the ending of the program affect Princeton's contract?
This link suggests that the role of SRECs in encouraging the development of new renewable energy projects seems to depend.