Monday, January 31, 2011

Random thoughts on a winter walk on University Ave

I'm working on a post about the bike sharing program that will be before the city council tomorrow night, but that is going to be a long post. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts on walking down University Ave this afternoon.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Walker kills biomass at Charter St plant: Again penny wise and pound foolish

Too bad that saying is using British currency, because "penny wise and dollar foolish" just doesn't sound quite as catchy. But the wisdom behind it is still the same. You can save a little money now, but find out that your savings are short lived, and you end up spending more money over the longer term.

Yesterday's announcement that our new Governor is finally killing the biomass boilers on the new Charter Street heating plant is just this kind of thinking. He's crowing about saving the Wisconsin taxpayers $100 million by not including the option to burn biomass, as well as natural gas. But heating plants last many decades, and we don't know what the price of natural gas will be in 2020, 2030, or 2050. We are passing up a chance to build a heating plant that could switch its fuel based on the prevailing price, and the fuel could come from right here in Wisconsin, instead of far away via a pipeline.

This power plant will sit on the University campus, a campus that is in the forefront of research on biofuels of all kinds. We are an agricultural state with lots and lots of biomass of all kinds, including waste from agricultural products, street and highway brush cuttings, waste from lumber and paper production, and naturally occurring plants that need virtually no fertilizer, irrigation, or cultivation. Wisconsin is in an ideal situation to both produce biomass and do the research to make sure that the plant is both energy and economically efficient and sustainable.

(How ironic that the Wisconsin Bioenergy Institute announced a grant program the day before Walker pulled the plug on a coal to biomass conversion on the UW campus. The grant they announced seeks a small, older coal or oil-fired facility in northern Wisconsin that could be converted to biomass.)

But that's all gone now. No jobs producing biomass. No home-town heating plant to test the efficiencies. No flexibility in fuel source, should natural gas prices soar. Less fuel security from a local source. All that design work down the tubes.

This seems to be the hallmark of the new Walker administration: It doesn't matter that a project has been planned, designed, voted on, budgeted, and started, we need to kill it if it will save a few dollars next year. it doesn't matter that this project will create jobs here in Wisconsin, if the left likes it, or it benefits Democratic strongholds like Madison and Milwaukee, kill it. Even if the project will possibly save billions of dollars in the next thirty years, we can't afford it now.

This is the sort of thinking that has gotten corporate American into so much trouble: Think only of the next quarter and the dividends of the investors next year. Forgot long term investment that may pay off in ten years, leave those to the Europeans and Asians. We can always play catch-up.

Intercity trains. Biomass heating plants. What's next?

I've been thinking of an analogy that individuals might understand, a decision they might make to save a little money now, but that will mean possibly decades of lost money down the road. Not too many things we purchase can't be changed, sold, or upgraded. If a pair of shoes falls apart, because we saved a little money, well, we are out the price of the shoes. We all know that buying the cheap brand isn't always a bargain.

But as I sit at home, on this frigid morning, in my drafty 1922 house (which I generally love), I think I found the right analogy. I replaced my old, wooden storm and screen windows about 15 years ago. I was tired of climbing up on the ladder each spring and fall to physically change the heavy outer windows. The screens were ripped on some of the frames, and it all seemed too much trouble. I replaced them with new, combination storm/screens, ones that I could slide up and down from the comfort of my house. But I didn't get the really energy efficient, double pane, expensive windows, because I was tight on money. Natural gas was cheap, and I have lived in drafty houses my whole life. "No big deal," I thought, "How bad could it be?"

Pretty bad. Now, because of my decision to save maybe $1000-$1500 on the whole house, my heating bills are hundreds of dollars more each year, and the cost of replacing those windows has skyrocketed by thousands of dollars. But I could actually still replace the windows.

Now imagine building a whole house that is drafty and poorly insulated from the start. Sure, it would be cheaper, but those heating bills would eat up your savings pretty fast. And your heating fuel might get even more expensive. Then you'd be faced with continuing high heating bills, or going back to do an expensive fix, like adding insulation and new windows. Wouldn't it be better to build it right the first time?

Penny wise, and pound foolish, Governor Walker. I hope the people of Wisconsin remember who killed the train and the flex-fuel heating plant. We'll have a new governor by then, but your decisions will be a burden on us for decades.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A winter Sunday in the Arboretum

One of the great joys about living in Madison is the opportunity to get outside and enjoy nature, year round, even if you live in the heart of the city. One way to do that is to visit the UW Arboretum. Every Sunday there are two nature walks, one for adults, and one for families (that is, kid-friendly.) They may take off a Sunday around Thanksgiving or Christmas, but other than that, they run them in all weather and seasons.*

The last walk I went on was a couple two Sundays ago, and it was sunny with calm winds, so despite the temperature in the 20s, it was quite enjoyable to be outside. These walks give me a reason to get my butt out of the house on a wintery Sunday, when it is far too easy to hang around indoors all day. If there is snow, I'm eager to XC ski or snowshoe, but when there's no fresh snow, it's nice to have someone willing to lead a walk.

The topics of these walks vary quite a bit. Some that I have attended were focused on glacial features, prairie plants, spring ephemerals, Indian mounds, fungi and mushrooms, fall prairie plants, and wetland environments. Some of the naturalists are experts on birds, others on plants, and others on insects, but all have a wide variety of interests and knowledge, and they try to answer questions as best they can. The people going along on the hikes often can answer the questions as well, since these hikes tend to attract people generally interested in the natural environment.

The most recent hike was much less focused on a particular topic, and we went only a short distance to Longnecker Gardens to generally check out winter conditions. We looked at some animal tracks, talked about the birds and animals that can be seen in winter, and kept an eye out for anything else that happened or came by. Winter is a great time to get to know trees by their shape, since most are bare of leaves and it is very easy to see the branch structure. Unless you are used to looking at trees, you tend to think of evergreens as conical, and other trees as having a straight, thick trunk branches splitting off and getting smaller as you go up. We sort of think of a tree as being a stick with a fluffy crown of leaves. That's how kids draw trees, right?

But from across an open area like Longnecker Woods, and without the leaves, you can see the structure of the trees, and see how some are tall and skinny, others a more chaotic jumble of branch sizes, and still others having multiple trunks coming from the ground.

You can also see the birds and animals in the trees much more easily. Red tail hawks are very common in the Arb, and they love to hunt the snowy areas with only scattered trees. Twice we say a hawk swoop down from a tall tree along the edge of the gardens, but we didn't see wither one catch anything. It also seems to be easier to hear the bird calls, since there is less ambient noise in winter, and the sound isn't muffled by the leaves. While our guide was talking, I kept hearing a bird calling over the ridge, but of course, it stopped as soon as I asked if anyone could identify it.

But we did get a great treat a few minutes later, when a call came ringing over the snow from the edge of the forest. It was almost like a laughing sound, and as a matter of fact, some humans laughed on the other side of the gardens just after the bird had finished calling. They sounded like they were echoing the bird's call. I had heard the call before, but couldn't quite place it. From the volume and distance, we figured it was a pretty good sized bird, not a chickadee or nuthatch-sized. “I think that might be a woodpecker of some sort.”, I suggested. Finally, one of our group spotted something up in one of the tallest trees on the forest edge. With the small binoculars our guide had in his pouch, we took a look. Red head, definitely woodpecker-shaped. It was a pileated woodpecker!

So despite the winter, I recommend the Arboretum walks, whether you go on the longer adult walks or the shorter family walks. I have never failed to learn something, and it's just nice to be outside in the woods with a few like-minded souls.

* Our guide said that the two weather conditions that will cancel the walks are lightening, and temperatures significantly below zero plus wind. He said that earlier this year he took a walk with two brave souls when the temperature was around 40 degrees, and there was horizontal, pouring rain. He said they had a great time just watching things blowing around out on Curtis Prairie.

Madison libraries are great, except the wi-fi.

I wrote this yesterday (Sunday), but didn't post it until today, because... well, if you read the post, it will become obvious.

I love the Madison Public Library system, and and I've been using the (relatively) new Sequoya Library quite a bit in the winter because of the south and west facing windows, which allow me to sit in the sun during the afternoon. Finding a place to sit and work, preferably a place with comfortable chairs and without a requirement to spend a great deal of money has been a quest for me for several years.

It happens that my house doesn't get much afternoon sun, and I like to get out of the house to work. It's far too easy to stay home when the weather isn't great, and I'm more productive when I work outside my house as well. There are simply too many distractions at home.

Now I don't mind buying coffee or a sandwich to pay my way for the chair I'm occupying, or the wi-fi I'm using, but it's surprising how few coffee shops have sunny afternoon seats. It also happens that, due to my short stature, typing at a table is often uncomfortable. A livingroom-style chair is more comfortable, because I can put my laptop on my knees to work. Yeah, I know I'm asking for a lot. That's why I like the sunny corner of the library so much.

There's just one problem. The Madison libraries seem to have a really hard time keeping up their wi-fi network. This the second Sunday in a row that I have been unable to log on to the internet at the library. Now, there are some advantages to this, when I'm trying to get work done. Just as at home, no internet means fewer distractions. But sometimes I need to get onto the internet to get a piece of information for my work, to link to a resource or to check my sources. A public library should be a place that has free and abundant computer access.

And lest someone suggest that simply use the computers at the library, they are all occupied, and users are restricted to ½ hour. It's OK with me that they limit the time per person, we all have to share common resources, but that's why I carry my own laptop. Libraries across the US routinely have free internet access, sometimes even when the library is closed. I enjoyed a wonderful early-evening summer hour sitting outside the Burlington, VT library, checking my email and looking up tourist information, a few years ago. The library had closed at 6 PM, but I sat on the bench outside and had no problem logging on.

And one more note on how people use libraries in Madison. There has been much debate about the need for a new central library, or whether libraries are no longer needed, now that “everything is available on-line.” The Sequoya Library is jammed right now: 3:30 PM on a lovely Sunday afternoon. Some people are reading the paper, others browsing magazines, others reading library books or even their own books from home. There are parents with kids browsing, playing games, or surfing the internet in special sections set up for kids. A group of teen girls are studying (or gossiping, or both) over in the sunny corner. In the “youth” area, another small cluster of middle-school kids are studying. All the public computers are occupied, and finding a free chair or table is a challenge. Both the staffed and self-checkout counters have waiting lines. Sounds to me like a public libraries, including all the books, papers, magazines, CDs, DVDs, and written public information that everyone thinks are “all available on the internet,” are all very much in demand.

Now, if they could fix the wi-fi, it would all be a happy scene.