Host of the annual Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair  
line decor
line decor


Winter energy challenges
Robert Vogl and Sonia Vogl

 The erratic weather this winter has created some amazing sights and sounds. Warm weather melts the snow and ice only to be followed an intense drop in temperature which refreezes water in the ground creating explosive, earthquake-like sounds.
With the intense cold the water pipes to our outside hydrants have frozen forcing us to carry five gallon buckets of water to our menagerie of chickens, ducks, guinea hens, alpacas and horse.  While we have a heat tape on one of the hydrants, it, too, has frozen. We are concerned that the underground water lines might have frozen as well. The last time that happened was in the severe cold of the late 1980s.
At times, we have filled the bathtub with water to have enough for the next day’s supply in case of an electrical outage.
Considering the frequent icing, the water walk is somewhat treacherous. But since we burn wood we have ashes to scatter to provide surer footing. Metal pull-on boot spikes and Yak Trax also help provide better traction.
So far the electric grid has functioned although ice storms are known to bring down power lines and disrupt service. In that case, we have a solar PV system with battery backup sufficient to power the furnace and well pump and operate the refrigerator, microwave, some lights and computers.
With a wood fireplace insert in place and a wood stove ready for use we need not be concerned with being unable to heat our home. We have not yet needed to use them as the basement wood furnace with an electrically powered blower has been fully functional.
When the electricity goes off, gas furnaces and heat pumps no longer provide heat unless other sources are in place. Some people have installed backup electrical generators so they can continue to heat their homes during an outage. Generators range in size from 3kW to 20kW depending on the amount a homeowner is willing to spend and the size of their electrical demand. It is estimated that an 8 to 12 kW generator could power an entire house.
Others have chosen to have smaller generators, located outside the home to avoid fumes in the house, available on a standby basis. People have targeted their gas furnaces with the smaller 1-2kW systems to provide enough electricity to ignite the gas and keep the pumps running.
An outlet can be installed near the furnace and an appliance cord attached to the furnace which is plugged into the outlet. If a power failure occurs, the furnace cord can be unplugged and then plugged into the outlet at the end of extension cord from the standby generator. 
The size of generator needed requires knowing how much electricity the furnace will demand both at its rated capacity and the surge watts needed to start the motor, which is higher than the operating watts. Appliances such as refrigerators, freezers, sump pumps, water pumps, heat pumps, dishwashers and toasters all require a surge of electricity at the start.
With planning, families can remain warm and dry even in winters like this one.

Auburn Aquaponics Revisited
Robert Vogl and Sonia Vogl

We recently had the opportunity to visit the new aquaponics system designed, constructed and run by students in Tim Bratina’s Auburn High School Sociology class.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Auburn senior and Teaching Assistant Haley McGuire, a poised, cheerful young lady who explained the purpose, operation and ultimate application of the system. She pointed out the many global issues, from overabundant jellyfish in the oceans to global warming, that beg for systems such as this which can produce abundant organic food without depleting resources or adding to pollution.
We then met other students who worked on the multi-disciplinary project: sophomore Rebecca McLine, who drew the plans; juniors Brandon Ginger and La Tre Sowell, who cut and bent the plastic piping.
Last year, we saw their first system which grew a handful of tomatoes, proudly shown in the class video, and perch.
This year, they are raising strawberries from seeds in small sponge plugs which prevent transplanting shock as well as dirt flushing through the system. They have waited to add fish until the water is free of ammonia.  An improvement in design included growing the plants in small pots on towers which reduced the square footage of the system and the weight of planting medium from 150 lbs. to 30 lbs., allowing it to be portable. The system can be easily disassembled and reassembled. Water recirculates through the plant pots and the fish aquarium; fish waste provides nutrients for the plants which in turn provide nutrients for the fish.
After viewing last year’s project, we invited the students to participate in the Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. Initially, they were anxious that no one would attend their program or those who did would ask questions beyond their knowledge level. To their delight, they were well received by their large audience. Both felt good about the experience.
Ms. McGuire reported that the overall experience was excellent and that she benefited from seeing and learning from the other educational opportunities available at the Fair.
This year’s class plans to participate in the 2014 Fair and are happily anticipating August.
At the beginning of the semester Mr. Bratina challenged the class to reach new project goals:
1.    Incorporate red worms
2.    Cut project costs
3.    Cut the square footage
4.    Cut the overall weight of the grow boxes
5.    Try growing fruit
6.    Make the grow units portable so they can be moved from the classroom to other spaces as needed.                                                                                             
To meet those goals they researched how to achieve them and successfully grow foods. Mr. Bratina is happy to report the students met all of the goals and that the open house provided the opportunity to let others know of their successes.
In addition, learnings took place in multiple areas including mathematics, economics, biology, history, politics, and working cooperatively. The students hope their efforts will foster interest in the broader community in developing more local food growing projects to stimulate economic growth and job opportunities.
We think we’ll try a system at home.



Shale gas energy challenges
Robert Vogl and Sonia Vogl

 The arrival of cheap natural gas has adversely affected some plans to expand electrical production from renewable sources and undermines efforts to cut energy consumption in buildings.
The promise of cheap natural gas far into the future appears dubious from an historical perspective. Its prices and availability have varied substantially over the years. 
The claim of a hundred year supply of natural gas is dependent on its rate of consumption. Until the 1970s we were energy independent but those supplies were consumed to maximize short term profits while failing to address concerns over conservation, efficiency, renewable energy, energy security and future needs. Is the same process about to be repeated?
At the federal level a debate has broken out over the extent to which we should be exporting natural gas as it could increase the cost of both natural gas and electricity while increasing the production of natural gas from fracking.
The U.S. Department of Energy has declared that exporting natural gas is in the public interest and it is up to project opponents to demonstrate to the agency that it is not. The exports add to the GDP and support our global political interests.
In order to export natural gas it is first liquefied to reduce its volume. It is an expensive and energy intensive process which adds about 15% to its price. Shipping costs add to price depending on the distance it is shipped. Even with the added costs, exporting is profitable. 
Seventy percent of the exports would come from new production from fracking increasing methane and carbon dioxide releases while intensifying adverse environmental and health impacts. The remaining 30% of gas would be diverted from existing U.S. consumption.
Using low priced natural gas has benefited chemical, fertilizer, steel and paper manufacturers and the electric power industry while expanding job opportunities within the country.
Eastern states import natural gas from other countries and would benefit from a regional pipeline system built to serve their energy needs from U.S. supplies. Increased natural gas consumption is integral to New York City’s plans to reduce air pollution from oil heating systems.
A study sponsored by Dow Chemical suggests that natural gas prices could rise as much as much 41% by 2035 based on prices projected for 2020. Studies by export advocates project 20% lower prices by 2035. Unlimited exports are viewed by advocates as providing the greatest economic benefits due to the higher prices available in international markets.
Under some scenarios of a renewable energy future, natural gas serves to supplement the intermittent output of renewable sources until an adequate storage system is fully developed.
Beyond the question of whether it is in our best national economic interest to consume our energy supplies within the United States or ship them to international markets is whether increased consumption of fossil fuels in any form should be dramatically expanded when faced with the anticipated global impacts of climate change.
Perhaps a sign of the future is that a Minnesota judge ruled in favor of the installation of 20 large solar arrays over the installation of new natural gas generators by Xcel Energy.




Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation

The Rock River Times

Kickapoo Nature Conservancy


Ogle County Waste Management

Oregon Park District

Northern Public Radio

Radish Magazine


Byron Forest Preserve


Patchwork Inn