Thursday, November 10, 2016

Chickens earn their keep

This summer I built a chicken tractor. You can read more about that here. 

I built the dimension to be the same width and half the length of our backyard 5'x16' raised garden beds. The 5'x8' tractor fits neatly on top of the sides of the beds.

This allows me to put the lightweight tractor over a bed, and then after stuffing the birds in there (they haven't figured out how to get up into the beds and the tractor on their own) they scratch, poop and generally make a mess of the garden. This is EXACTLY what I want. They till the soil, eat bugs and leftover seeds and plant material.






Sunday, November 6, 2016

So this, err, these, happened today

My day job is to teach small business owners how to use social media. So I know that cats rule the Internet. Forgive me for a moment to veer from sustainability, permaculture and community building to share with you photos of the newest additions to our urban family.

More about their story later - for now, enjoy kitten bliss.



Saturday, October 15, 2016

Part 5 - Making the Decision to Add Solar to our Urban Roof

This is the last of a 5-part series about how buying a diesel vehicle in 2013 resulted in an electric car and renewable solar panels on our house in 2016. 

If you'd like to read all the parts of this series, you can see them here.
Part 1 - How Volkswagen is Helping us Repay the Planet for Its Sins
Part 2 - Our Search for a Cleaner Car
Part 3 - Buying a Used 2016 Chevrolet Volt
Part 4 - A Lesson on Creating Clean Energy at Home
Part 5 - Making the Decision to Add Solar to our Urban Roof

After seeing my friend Claire's photovoltaic (PV) array, I asked around and did some research to see what it would take to have a system installed on our urban home. I found three main solar panel installers. I met a representative from HH at Claire's house (learn more about Claire and her PV system), and asked them to come to the house to see if we had enough sunny roof space to make a viable PV installation. I liked them because Claire liked them and I trust her and because they were offering a group buy discount to anyone who was a member of Fair Share, our local community supported agriculture (CSA) coalition.

However, because a solar array is not cheap (more on this in a moment) I decided this construction decision required a second quote. Full Spectrum is the second company I invited to review our situation. They won the City of Madison request for proposal to be the preferred installer for their MadiSun program. They also had a group buy discount.

Both representatives were pleasant and professional. The Full Spectrum quote came in a little cheaper with a few additional benefits, and he seemed to understand the energy requirements needed to generate power for both the house and the electric vehicle. Being part of the MadiSun program gave me additional peace of mind. I accepted their offer and signed a contract, and sent a respectful note to HH indicating we had selected a different vendor.

The nuts and bolts of installing residential solar


The roof on the "bottom" faces southwest, not ideal,
but not a deal-breaker.
We have a southwest facing roof. In the photo at right, our house i the big one in the upper center. LOTS OF ROOF SPACE.

The ideal roof faces south, but our southwest orientation would work and in fact benefits the utility a bit. Late afternoon in the summer is when they experience high demand for energy use (think air conditioning). A solar array on our roof will produce electricity later into the day than a strictly south-facing roof, generating energy at peak demand times.


We have some shade on the southeastern part of our roof (you can see the shade in this photo) from our neighbors gosh darned red maple (I have harsher words, but this is a family blog). But enough of our roof is clear that we are a good candidate for a PV array.


Full Spectrum charges a Volt from panels on their shop roof.
The next thing was to determine the system's generating size. We provided the installer two years of utility bills to help determine our annual electricity usage. Fortunately, we've had our two roommates for one of those years, so the bills should reflect accurate energy use. We also told Mark from Full Spectrum about the planned Chevy Volt, and he crunched some numbers to figure out how much more energy we'd need to create and how much larger a system we'd need to build to power the car. Our project engineer, Mark, had a good idea about the vehicle needs because Full Spectrum has a Chevy Volt!

Here's how the contract works out:
The installer calculated that we would need to create 6 kilowatts of energy to cover our home and electric vehicle (EV) needs. Here is how we arrived at the final purchase price:
Approximate installation plan.



  • $20,000 for panels, inverters, labor and an extended warranty
  • - MadiSun discount. By attending a MadiSun class on how the program works, we were eligible for this discount. I don't know how much it took off the price of the system.
  • - $2,400, rebate from Focus on Energy 
  • - $6,000, 30% renewable energy federal tax credit. For those who aren't tax accountants, this is a credit against our taxes in the next year. That means if we owed $10,000 in taxes, and the system costs $20,000, we would pay 30% of $20k, or $6,000, less in taxes.
  • $11,600 we have to pay after rebates, tax credits and discounts.

Now, we don't have $20,000 laying around, and even after we get the rebate, tax credit and the discount, we will need to come up with about $17,600 this year until we get the tax credit with our 2016 refund in early 2017.. We decided to take out a home equity loan of credit, which at today's interest rates is relatively cheap money. Still, it's an expense, and we will have about 10 years of payments to make. This will be a new loan, and new loan payments that we didn't have before the solar installation.

But without doing any funny math, I'm about to show you how to make this loan payment go POOF! bye bye. 

Remember those solar panels on the roof and the meter that runs forward and backward? If we size the system correctly, we will make just as much energy as we need each year. This means that the electrical portion of our utility bill will only have a gas charge plus the utility charge to be connected to the electric system. There should be little or no charge for electricity. Our bill will be literally $80-90 less each month. And remember our new Chevy Volt? No gas, or at least very little. Poof! No gas station trips, no money for gasoline.

What this means is that we will effectively send money to our credit union money for the loan and interest, and not send the utility roughly the same amount of money. The loan will be paid off in 10 years, and the panels will continue to produce energy for 20 more years.
This mean we will create emission free energy for 30 years, and cost-free energy for 20 years. Literally, free.

We do have one other expense. Our electrical service (the electric line from the street to our house and the breaker panel in the basement) are just on the cusp of being overwhelmed by the new PV system requirements. When adding circuits to accommodate charging the car we risked taxing the service. So we will pay $1,750 to upgrade to 200 amp service and install a new panel and electric meter. It's something we've thought of doing anyway, and any real estate agent will tell you that 200 amp service makes an older house much more sellable. And, any costs associated with installing PV service are also eligible for the 30% federal tax credit. This means the $1,750 upgrade that will make our house more salable down the road will cost us $1,225.

Let's be clear, you're helping me do this
The things that make this affordable are the federal tax credit, the Focus on Energy rebate and the group buy discount. Yes, we are using YOUR tax dollars to fund this. Another perspective is that I'm using the federal tax dollars I pay to help install sustainable electricity generation on our rooftop, and your tax dollars are going to build roads and fund the military.

Another way to think of it is that all of our tax dollars are going toward generating energy which, with enough residential installations, our local utility won't have to build another power plant (that would cost all of us more in utility rates) or the utility won't have to buy expensive energy during peak demand times because we have people generating energy for them.

However you slice it, this scheme is federally subsidized. Personally, I'd rather my tax dollars going to a distributed energy production system than corn subsidies, bombs or more roads.

Our system will be installed in early November. I'll be sure to write about it and include lots of photos.

If you'd like to read all the parts of this series, you can see them here.
Part 1 - How Volkswagen is Helping us Repay the Planet for Its Sins
Part 2 - Our Search for a Cleaner Car
Part 3 - Buying a Used 2016 Chevrolet Volt
Part 4 - A Lesson on Creating Clean Energy at Home
Part 5 - Making the Decision to Add Solar to our Urban Roof

Part 4 - A Lesson on Creating Clean Energy at Home

This is the fourth in a 5-part series about how buying a diesel vehicle in 2013 resulted in an electric car and renewable solar panels on our house in 2016. 

If you'd like to read all the parts of this series, you can see them here.
Part 1 - How Volkswagen is Helping us Repay the Planet for Its Sins
Part 2 - Our Search for a Cleaner Car
Part 3 - Buying a Used 2016 Chevrolet Volt
Part 4 - A Lesson on Creating Clean Energy at Home
Part 5 - Making the Decision to Add Solar to our Urban Roof

Here's the story synopsis so far; we own a VW Golf TDI that pollutes much more than VW claimed. VW has offered to buy the car back, and to replace it, we decided to buy an electric/hybrid Chevrolet Volt. Now we are figuring out how to power it without adding ANY carbon to the atmosphere.

The 2016 used Chevrolet Volt we purchased in September.
The 2016 Chevrolet Volt gets somewhere between 40 and 50 miles per charge, and then fires up a small gas engine to power the battery that actually moves the wheels. At my workplace, the company is offering free charging as part of a pilot electric vehicle program. I spoke with the person in charge of the electric vehicle (EV) program and while they don't have any plans to end the pilot, as more people by EVs, they may start charging a fee to juice up or it will get increasingly difficult to find an open charger due to demand. At a commercial-grade charger, tt takes about four hours to fully charge 50-mile battery. With two stations, that means about four cars can juice up in a typical 8-hour work day.

So for now I could charge the vehicle at work. BUT, the power I get there is still from a coal or natural gas-fired power plant emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

We could go start to purchase energy from the Madison Gas & Electric (MG&E) green power program. This allows us to pay a premium for sustainably-generated electrons. Now, I know that the electrons made on a wind farm in Iowa, or from a solar array far from Madison aren't actually going to come to my house, but the point is that we're paying a premium so that sustainable electrons are being made somewhere. However, what's the actual return on investment (ROI) of the premium paid for those electrons? There is less carbon in the atmosphere. And we're encouraging our local power utility to do more such sustainable projects. But I'm thinking about an actual dollars and cents ROI on an investment into clean energy.

As I pondered a replacement for the Volkswagen, I took a tour this summer that opened my eyes to Claire Strader had an open house and I had always wanted to see her garden and yard. She's a farmer, so I wanted to see how she took her big-scale farming knowledge and applied it to an urban lot. I saw her lovely front yard vegetable gardens, her orchard in the back and a few busy bee hives. And then she told us to turn around and pointed out the the new solar photo voltaic (PV) array that had been installed on the roof just weeks before. Roughly a third of her total roofdirect current (DC) electricity. An inverter converts it to alternating current (AC) which is fed into the local utility's power grid. An electric meter on her house tracks energy created and used.
was covered in panels. These panels capture sun and generate
new possibilities. A friend of mine,

"This is all fine," you say, "until a cloudy day or at night, or even in winter when the days are short." You are right, all of these things are still true even when you put a PV array on your house. So, what does Claire do when she wants lights in the winter or at night?


During the day, she generates and adds electrons to the utility's network and other people use it. When adding electricity to the grid, her meter runs BACKWARD. At night, and on cloudy days, Claire uses electricity from the utility network and her meter runs forward, counting up kilowatts used. And the next sunny day, it runs backward again. Do you see where this is going?Each month the local utility sends Claire a summary of the electrical energy she created and the energy she used and they reconcile. Maybe Claire used a few more kilowatts than she made, so she sends some money to the utility. And if Claire made more than she needed, the utility pays for the excess energy.

Well then, cover the entire roof with panels you say! In fact, Claire had lots of room to add more panels. Not so fast. Our local utility, MG&E sells energy to Claire for $.13 a kilowatt, but buys it back for $.04. Since it costs more than $.04/kilowatt to install panels, but less than $.13, it makes sense from a return on investment point of view to put on just enough panels to cover all your power needs, but not to overbuild the system. MG&E will pay you for it, but for pennies on what you pay to install the panels.

In the next segment of this mini-series, I'll write about what we decided to do to power our Chevy Volt without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

If you'd like to read all the parts of this series, you can see them here.
Part 1 - How Volkswagen is Helping us Repay the Planet for Its Sins
Part 2 - Our Search for a Cleaner Car
Part 3 - Buying a Used 2016 Chevrolet Volt
Part 4 - A Lesson on Creating Clean Energy at Home
Part 5 - Making the Decision to Add Solar to our Urban Roof





Part 3 - Buying a Used 2016 Chevrolet Volt

This is the third in a 5-part series about how buying a diesel vehicle in 2013 resulted in an electric car and renewable solar panels on our house in 2016. 

If you'd like to read all the parts of this series, you can see them here.
Part 1 - How Volkswagen is Helping us Repay the Planet for Its Sins
Part 2 - Our Search for a Cleaner Car
Part 3 - Buying a Used 2016 Chevrolet Volt
Part 4 - A Lesson on Creating Clean Energy at Home
Part 5 - Making the Decision to Add Solar to our Urban Roof

The Chevrolet Volt was high on my want list in 2013, but at that time a new one was running close to $40K, and even after federal tax credits it was just beyond my price comfort zone. At the time, buying used hadn't crossed my mind.

Here's your one-paragraph introduction to the Volt. The vehicle operates as a plug-in pure battery electric vehicle until its battery capacity drops to a predetermined threshold from full charge. From there its 1.5-liter internal combustion engine powers an electric generator to extend the vehicle's range as needed. The Volt's regenerative braking contributes to the on-board electricity generation. Under the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the EV range is 53 miles, and its EPA rated fuel economy in charge-sustaining mode is 42 MPG. Thus, it's like a Toyota Prius in that it's a hybrid electric/gas with regenerative braking and other power saving features. But it's also like a dedicated electric vehicle like the Nissan Leaf or the Tesla in that the drive train is pure electric. The gas engine does not drive the wheels, it powers the battery that drives the wheels. And thanks to the 40-50 mile range, it's entirely possible that except for longer or out of town trips, the average American commuter wouldn't have to put gas in it much at all.

Contrary to when I bought the VW, this time buying used was definitely on my mind. I started looking at used Volts. Anything in the 2013-15 range was definitely affordable. If we added a couple thousand dollars to the VW buyback payout, a used 2016 was possible too. Jay and I decided to pursue one. For my birthday in July we test drove a 2015 and a 2016 Volt. The body style change between 2015 and 16 is significant, and the newer model gets about 10 more miles to a charge. We both fell in love with the 2016 during the test drive.

The 2016 Chevrolet Volt we bought in late September.
I set up a few automated online searches and started getting notified when used Volts came on the market. My uncle, also in the VW buyback situation, was also interested in a Volt, so we talked about our searches. One day he called to tell me he bought one, and that the dealership had a nearly identical twin. I called the dealer but by the time we got in touch, it was already gone. The salesman told me he'd keep me in mind if he got another one in. A few days later he called me about a 2016 with 2,000 miles. I bought it sight unseen.

Now, you ask, "What on earth does this have to do with being an urbane farmer?" Nothing really, unless you consider all the things I do as an urban farmer is part of an overall strategy to be sustainable, including care for the earth, people and financial sustainability. Buying an electric car that we will likely put very little gasoline into is sustainable. NOT putting out the nitrous oxide from the VW Golf TDI is sustainable. And powering it with electricity is, well, that's questionable.

I've read that while the actual electric vehicle doesn't put out any emissions, that power to move the car is created somewhere. In the midwest it's mostly from burning something, coal or natural gas. There are some wind farms around, but it's still a small portion of the overall power generation portfolio. So, I started to think about how could we power this vehicle in a truly sustainable way. I mean, buy not contributing ANY CO2 to the atmosphere either out of the tailpipe or out of a power plant smokestack.

In our house, Jay and I have a saying, "If a project starts with changing a door handle, it will end with a bathroom remodel." True to our saying, selling our Golf and getting a Volt indeed ends up with a the equivalent bathroom remodel. Stay tuned for the next chapter of this mini-series that explains how and why.

If you'd like to read all the parts of this series, you can see them here.
Part 1 - How Volkswagen is Helping us Repay the Planet for Its Sins
Part 2 - Our Search for a Cleaner Car
Part 3 - Buying a Used 2016 Chevrolet Volt
Part 4 - A Lesson on Creating Clean Energy at Home
Part 5 - Making the Decision to Add Solar to our Urban Roof

Part 2 - Our Search for a Cleaner Car

This is the second in a 5-part series about how buying a diesel vehicle in 2013 resulted in an electric car and renewable solar panels on our house in 2016. 

If you'd like to read all the parts of this series, you can see them here.
Part 1 - How Volkswagen is Helping us Repay the Planet for Its Sins
Part 2 - Our Search for a Cleaner Car
Part 3 - Buying a Used 2016 Chevrolet Volt
Part 4 - A Lesson on Creating Clean Energy at Home
Part 5 - Making the Decision to Add Solar to our Urban Roof

In 2013 while I was doing vehicle research to replace an aging 2002 Chevrolet Prism, I set several parameters:
Car buyers may start to wonder if they can believe carmakers' claims for emissions level

  • Compact vehicle, don't like big cars.
  • Small but not cheap.
  • A vehicle we could plan to own for a very long time, (I'm talking 20 years). 
  • 40+ mpg. 
  • I (stubbornly but not wisely) had my mind set on buying a new car (figured this was the one and only time I would do so)
  • Price range was not to exceed $30k. 
After 18 months of on and off research and test drives, in March 2013 I bought a VW Golf TDI.

The Golf TDI met all the above requirements, plus it's fun to drive and has a very useful hatchback. Then we learned it's literal dirty secret. VW laid out three options:
  • Keep the car and don't get the emissions fixed. Get a check for $5,500, which basically represented the devaluation of the car post-scandal. Not an acceptable option.
  • Keep the car and get it fixed. They'd still send us a check for $5,500. Then at some unspecified time in the neari(ish) future, they would install an emissions fix that would likely reduce performance and mileage, and would take up half the small trunk space. Not a great option.
  • VW would buy the car back. They offered us $23,000. This is the pre-scandal used car price plus $5,500 for the inconvenience. I thought the offer was fair. We chose to sell it back and use the money to buy another car.
Some might add there is a fourth option, and they'd be right. We could sell the VW back and NOT buy a second car. Jay and I talked about options to go to a one-car family, but we're not quite ready to make that leap.  There are too many things that take each of us in opposite directions, and things like going to the gym, at 5:30 a.m. in the winter is not not going to happen by bike or bus. I think with some serious thought and consideration, and preparing ourselves to make some tradeoffs we could do it down the road. In fact, I think when our 2004 Honda goes, we'll seriously consider it.

For now though, off to the car market we go. Come back for the next entry about the 2016 Chevrolet Volt.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Part 1 - How Volkswagen is Helping us Repay the Planet for Its Sins

This is the first in a 5-part series about how buying a diesel vehicle in 2013 resulted in an electric car and renewable solar panels on our house in 2016. 

If you'd like to read all the parts of this series, you can see them here.
Part 1 - How Volkswagen is Helping us Repay the Planet for Its Sins
Part 2 - Our Search for a Cleaner Car
Part 3 - Buying a Used 2016 Chevrolet Volt
Part 4 - A Lesson on Creating Clean Energy at Home
Part 5 - Making the Decision to Add Solar to our Urban Roof

2013 was a big year for me. Jay and I bought our first home together. I got a new hip. I turned 42, which for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fans IS significant). And after a year and a half of research, more than a dozen test drives and lots of talking with people, Jay and I bought a Volkswagen Golf TDI. It's a diesel, EPA 40 mpg and on long trips we get close to 42-43. The big deal about this car is that VW promoted this as a "clean diesel" that got good MPG, very nice performance and clean emissions, something that hadn't been available in a consumer vehicle.
I bought a new 2013 VW Golf TDI thinking I'd keep it for20 years. 
Now we're figuring out what to replace it with.

Then last September the truth came out - VW lied. They had rigged the software in their engines to fib about the emissions when the car was being tested, but then programmed to burn inefficiently when running, releasing 40 times the nitrous oxide than the EPA allows. Not 4 times, not 10 times, 40 times. They said they were sorry. They sent us a $500 Visa gift card for Christmas. And last month, they offered to buy the car back. Since our vehicle is relatively new (a 2013) and only has 40,000 miles, we got a fair buyback offer and we took it.

Sometime this November, at the same VW dealership where we bought the car, we'll sell it back to them. They'll send a check to pay off the loan to the bank and give us a check for the difference. And then, we'll have a decision to make. Buy another car? Keep the windfall? 


We decided to make lemonade, a lot of lemonade, out of this literal lemon. I'll let you know how tasty it is in another blog entry.