The Call, Column 52 – “The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

31 07 2016

(July 31, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

Let me tell you a story. I was working in my garden a few months ago, replanting that bed of greens that had, yet again, been visited by my resident woodchuck. I happened to look up at the right time, and I noticed that the chickens were taking a break from their determined pursuit of bugs, and were instead watching me work. It was as if they were questioning what I could possibly be doing, putting so much effort into digging the soil, just to pass up the tasty worms, beetles, and crab grass already there for the taking, and instead plant small, fragile annuals that, by the looks of it, I had no intention of immediately pecking (err, eating) down to the root.

I imagined them saying something of that nature; and in response, I found myself both full of pride – that I regularly participate in humanity’s long tradition of hard agricultural labor in order to grow food – and resentment – because they, like every other animal on Earth, do not.

Today’s column is going to be much deeper and more emotional than you’re used to. I’m going to start by being really honest with you about one of my most deep-seated behavioral quirks. I’ve always had a problem with time, and specifically a hyperawareness of its passage. It probably started some time in high school, when my meticulous need to control things and my focus on academics turned into a constant awareness of “how much time is left before ___” (“bed”, “this assignment is due”, “the summer ends”, “I die, statistically speaking”) and a tendency to write exorbitant to-do lists as a record of everything that I want to accomplish in that time.

As the years have passed, and my time is increasingly spent on responsible adult activities (high school, then college, then grad school, and now working two jobs), these quirks have gotten worse. There are a lot of things that I enjoy doing, and others that I feel it is my civic or human responsibility to do. And so to make sure that none of them get overlooked or forgotten, I obsessively keep track of them with lists – I currently have at least five separate ones, including a four-year-old Word document that is perpetually opened on my laptop. Inevitably, all of the things on my lists do not get done in the ridiculous timelines I set for them, and with my urban farm and various related hobbies and political involvement and social life and trying to work towards my central life goals, the lists tend to grow rather than shrink.

I try to accomplish as much as possible each day, but with the cropping up of unforeseen daily tasks, my constant awareness of the limitedness of the time I have to do those tasks, and the fact that I always carry some form of to-do list with me to remind me of all I have to do…I often get overwhelmed with whatever I’m doing, and frequently end up feeling that I haven’t accomplished much of anything. This leads me to be more conscious of my time, and more vigilant with my writing of lists. And the evil cycle continues.

I would imagine that everyone has anxieties similar to these, albeit probably not as pervasive as those I’ve just described. So why did I just throw all of this at you?

Our early human ancestors – whose bodies and brains we still inhabit, like it or not – spent no more than a few hours a day hunting or gathering their food. The rest was spent in recreation, in exploring the huge, wonderful world around them. The anxieties I’ve discussed above are but one of the products of modern, Western society, where the threat of not fitting into the group forces otherwise social, recreational, natural, biologically-wild animals – yes, us, human beings – to conform to a rigid definition of what responsible life looks like, deviating so fiercely from our adaptive behaviors. We are forced into a mold of taxpaying, law-abiding consumerism, where our natural inclination to explore, create, and revel in the lives we’ve been given, living in and for the present moment with a clear mind and no anxieties about what’s to come and what hasn’t yet been done, is squashed; rejected, in favor of the faux security of a society which only values us insofar as we make our tax, loan, and insurance payments, and buy cheap plastic goods from foreign sweatshops.

In thinking about this column, I kept returning to a few lines from my favorite poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. It’s very short, and you can read it at http://tinyurl.com/berrypeacewild, which I strongly suggest you do before continuing.

The poem is about Berry’s concern for the degradation of human society and the Earth; and about how he finds solace in uncivilized nature. He describes how he comes “into the peace of wild things/ who do not tax their lives with forethought/ of grief”, and rests “in the grace of the world”.

Consider stress. There are three major types: acute, which occurs irregularly over a very short time, like what is felt before asking someone on a date; episodic, which is made up of acute stressors that happen frequently and regularly, like an alarm clock blaring every morning; and chronic, which is the result of long-term situations and becomes an underlying feature of daily life, like debt.

In this, I believe, lies the key to understanding the “peace of wild things”, and why it contrasts so starkly with the discord of modern civilization. The only real type of stress that exists in the wild is acute – an attack by a predator, being temporarily unable to find food or water, a scary or threatening weather event. The prevalence of these stressors is even naturally reduced over time, because they represent evolutionary pressures that are solved with migration, adaptation, collaboration, and (infrequently) extinction.

These wild things, ranging from the most intelligent primates (other than us) and dolphins, to the simplest microbes and plants, “do not tax their lives with forethought of grief”. They live in a habitat for which their species has become well-adapted over time, and which itself has been shaped by their species, that provides them with the food, water, shelter, and community they need to survive. As it’s said in one of my favorite verses from the Gospel of Matthew (6:26-27), “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

The “despair for the world” that Berry describes is, I believe, a perfect surrogate for the chronic and episodic stressors that define modern human life. In my world, those are my various to-do lists and my hyperawareness of the limitedness of time, which tend to make my behavior so reactionary and filled with forethoughts of what’s to come, that it’s almost always impossible to live in the moment.

And then, I step outside. I walk in the woods, or through my garden at sunrise; with no phone, no to-do list, no way of telling the time. “I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

There’s a reason that Jesus often went off into the quiet of natural areas to talk to the Father; why Thoreau relished his quiet existence on the bank of Walden Pond; why studies consistently find medical benefits to time spent in nature, even without any component of exercise. We are wild things.

That imagined conversation with my chickens sparked an awesome awareness that happiness, contentedness, the removal of chronic stress lie outside constrains imposed by human society. I’m still sort of working through this awareness, and it has manifested itself as an overwhelming desire for adventure, for breaking arbitrary rules (note I didn’t say “laws”) and living in such a way that my behavior and recreation is dictated by what I want to do, right now, in this place, rather than by what I have to do.

To truly be happy, we have to spend time in nature; away from to-do lists, from our phones, from the worrying that, as Matthew alludes, blinds us to the amazing, natural Creation around us, while adding not a single hour to our lives. We have to spend time amongst contended wild things, and learn from nature by going into nature. We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 51 – Go With the Flow: Energy from the Wind and Water

31 07 2016

(July 17, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Go With the Flow: Energy from the Wind and Water

Think back to the last time you walked outside on a blustery day, feeling the great force as the wind gusted around you; or the last time you swam at the beach, being bounced around forcefully by the motion of the waves and currents; or even (if you were lucky enough to live somewhere where the water wasn’t toxic), dropping a little toy boat into a stream as a child, chasing after it as the flowing water quickly took it away. These are all examples of fluid motion, where the energy present in the flow of air and water makes itself obvious, by moving something (or someone) that would otherwise be standing still.

For our first true installment of this exciting series on renewable energy, I want to talk about a category of energy technologies that are similar both because they harness energy from the motion of fluids in the environment, and because they use the same technology to do so: wind power, hydropower, and ocean energy.

As always, let’s start with a little background. Air and water are what chemists call “fluids”, materials whose molecules move freely when a force is applied to them, which (if you remember back to high school chemistry) are primarily gases and liquids. On Earth, the forces that move air and water around come mostly from the sun’s energy. For example, when the sun heats the air or water in one area more than that in an adjacent area, the pressure and temperature of the fluid is different in the two areas and it flows to try to equalize itself, creating ocean currents and wind. And when the wind blows over the surface of the water, it transfers some of its energy to the water, creating waves. And when the sun’s energy causes the water to evaporate upwards against gravity, and it rains down, accumulates at a higher point than it started, it ends up flowing downward (towards the Earth) as a river or stream.

All of these are examples of the sunlight turning into some sort of “hidden” energy (that’s totally not a scientific term, but in it are included “potential”, “thermal”, and “internal” types of energy) in stationary air or water, which then gets turned into the more visible “kinetic” energy of moving air or water. And from this fluid flow, either in the air, or freshwater streams and rivers, or the ocean, we have technologies which can extract massive amounts of energy with little disruption to the ecosystem, and essentially no negative effect on the environment! How cool is that?

For the most part, these technologies utilize a mechanical device, called a “turbine”, to harness energy from the flow of air or water. To understand a turbine, first think about a ceiling fan. When you turn it on, it pulls electricity from the electric grid which runs through the wires in a motor, produces rotational motion that spins its blades and forces air to flow downward. Well, a turbine has the exact opposite operation, using basically the same technology!
A turbine, which consists of blades much like a ceiling fan’s, connected to the shaft of a generator, is placed in an area where there is large volumes of fluid flow – above the tree-line where the wind is strongest, in a river or stream where the water all moves in one direction, or in specific locations in the ocean where tide and wave motion are the most pronounced. As the air or water rushes through and past the blades, it causes them to spin, which rotates the shaft of the generator and creates electricity!

As I mentioned above, the three types of energy technologies in this category are ocean power, (freshwater) hydroelectric power, and wind power. Let’s discuss each one briefly below.

Hydroelectric power is probably the most pervasive alternative energy at the present time. At its most basic, energy can be extracted from flowing freshwater by placing a turbine in the stream or river and allowing its rotation to generate electricity – a turbine – or even other forms of mechanical energy – like old-country water wheels. Modern hydroelectricity generally includes a dam built in a larger river, which raises the height of the water on one side (and therefore, the rate of energy capture), and allows it to flow through turbines in its course to the other side.

Modern hydroelectric power technology has been under serious development for decades and currently produces around 3% of the total electricity in the United States, making it the largest single source of renewable energy we use as a country (I know, we have a long way to go). It is used prominently in many other areas of the world. It is hugely beneficial because of its scalability – hydroelectric generators can be installed both in the biggest rivers (for city-scale generation) and the littlest brooks (for home-scale). In addition, it is available anywhere that has a flowing body of water.

“Ocean power” is much less developed at this point in time. It takes two major forms – tidal power and wave energy.

Tidal power is actually driven by the rotational energy of the Earth and the moon, via the gravitational force between them (rather than the sunlight); in practice, the energy is extracted from the overall, vertical motion of the ocean, which rises and falls daily with the tides. There are various tidal generator technologies under development, including tried-and-true turbines, along with others than take advantage of tidal motion.

Wave energy, on the other hand, takes advantage of the overall horizontal motion of the waves and underlying ocean currents; this motion, like most of the others discussed here, is the indirect result of solar energy. This is primarily captured using turbines. But, like tidal power, there have been developments in other, more novel configurations that take advantage of different aspects of the wave and current motion to generate electricity.

Finally wind energy is one of the most endearing, useful, promising sources of renewable energy presently available, and therefore happens to be one of my favorites.

Wind turbines harness the energy present in moving air by much the same mechanism as hydroelectric and ocean power. Wind flows through and past the blades of the turbine – either the familiar looking three-bladed ones, or less-familiar vertical axis, bladeless, and Savonius ones – which spins the shaft of the generator, and generates electricity.

Wind energy is being developed as you read this. The first off-shore wind farm in the country is nearing completely off the coast of our own Block Island – something I am very proud of, as a native Rhode Islander. Both off-shore and on-land wind energy are up-and-coming major energy sources, and should be encouraged at every turn.

The science is in: climate change is happening, and it’s the result of human activity. The biggest challenge of the next few decades is to completely wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, replacing the current energy economy with an even better one, based on renewable energy sources. It is up to those of us who recognize the truth of climate change (I can’t believe that I still have to make that distinction in 2016), who understand the seriousness of this challenge, and who see the promise that exists in renewable energy technologies, to champion their quick and wide-scale development. Whether it’s adding more hydroelectric capacity to the Blackstone River, or funding research for better wave and tidal energy generators, or constructing small-scale wind turbines at our homes and businesses, I call on my fellow urban farmers and environmentalists to usher us into the energy future.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 50 – “Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?”: Deciphering Food Label Claims

31 07 2016

(July 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?: Deciphering Food Label Claims

            Because variety is the spice of life, I’ve decided to break up the series of renewable energy technologies, alternating them with some other columns that I have planned about gardening and food topics.

Today, in preparation for the Independence Day holiday, I want to arm you with the knowledge you need to navigate the tricky world of food labels and claims, in order to make the best decisions possible about the types of foods to buy. There are a whole range of buzzwords used on and around food products, to make us feel good about purchasing them. Some of these are strictly regulated (like “organic”), while others are essentially meaningless (“all-natural”), and others, if you ask the right questions, mean a whole lot more than even organic (truly “sustainable”).

Agricultural Methods

(beyond-organic/sustainable > organic > responsible agriculture > non-GMO > natural)

            These buzzwords apply to both plant and animal agriculture. Let’s start with the least valuable and work our way up.

Natural. This word is essentially meaningless in a marketing sense, not regulated by the government or actually applicable to any concrete agricultural method. It has been adopted by large food companies for precisely this reason: it makes people feel good about the foods they buy without requiring much actual attention to food quality on the part of the manufacturer. What the FDA does state officially, is that it won’t object to the use of this term when it is used to designate the absence of artificial ingredients – colors, flavors, preservatives, and other additives – which makes it a bare-bones indicator of suitability for human consumption.

Non-GMO. This one is a tough for me. I am a strong proponent of GMO labeling and, if you’ve read a couple of my past columns, generally against the use of genetic engineering in agriculture because it produces little value for the consumer (or even the responsible farmer), yet introduces an uncomfortable level of risk to everyone involved, and the environment. That being said, this label does little more than “natural” in designating good agricultural methods or food quality. It’s often used on foods for which there isn’t a genetically-modified alternative anyway (non-GMO olive oil, anyone?). And even if not, it tends to be used in order to give consumers the same feel-good sentiment as organic, despite being essentially unregulated and saying nothing about toxic residues, synthetic additives, growing methods, animal welfare, environmental effects, or health in any other way.

Honestly, I also find it a bit disturbing when people equate non-GMO with sustainable agriculture and use it as their sole metric of food quality, when it is by no means the only agricultural issue, nor the most important. The overuse of this label exacerbates that problem.

Responsible agriculture. This one isn’t as much a buzzword as an umbrella of ideas on the spectrum, between industrial agriculture at one end and truly sustainable at the other. It is useful when you can glean more detailed information about a food product either by asking the farmer herself or from a particularly informational food company website, and is generally what you’re looking at when it’s clear that the farmers and manufacturers pay honest attention to agricultural methods in order to reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers, genetic engineering, and unhealthy food additives, and provide for environmental and animal welfare. It includes things like IPM (integrated pest management, where pesticides are used as strategically and minimally as possible), GAP (good agricultural practices) certification, and other similar methods that can be determined by asking your farmer. Only if it’s part of a wider set of methods, I would happily put “non-GMO” into this category as well.

Organic. This is probably the biggest buzzword of all, but is actually pretty strictly regulated by the USDA’s “organic standards”. Among other things, organic farms: cannot use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, nor land which has been treated with this things for a number of years; cannot use genetically engineered seed; and must raise animals without the use of antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and in adherence to arguably minimalist standards of animal welfare. Organic foods must be free from a nice, long list of harmful additives.

Organic is by no means perfect. It leaves plenty of room for industrial agricultural methods to sneak in (there are organic-certified CAFOs, factory animal farms), is an expensive and difficult certification process especially for small farms, and does not provide any incentive to use methods that are above-and-beyond its own regulations. But with that said, organic certification does give consumers a well-defined anchor upon which to base their food choices, and is an important stepping stone in the right direction.

Beyond-organic/sustainable. Even better than organic, though, is truly sustainable, “beyond-organic” food! This is not backed by a legal definition; rather, it is a very broad, general idea that requires us to talk to the people who grow our food and actually understand their methods.

Admittedly, “sustainable” is probably as watered-down of a buzzword as organic, but it is still my favorite descriptor. Simply put, my definition of sustainable agriculture (or anything else) is that which 1) could be performed indefinitely into the future, without permanently depleting the resource base upon which it relies, and 2) when the accounting includes our entire planet and a long enough time period, has a net zero or (better yet) positive effect on the Earth’s balance sheet.

This is a pretty tall order, and more easily-defined on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s not an incredibly difficult thing to do, given that nature has done it for something like 4.5 billion years with far less human cranial capacity than we have today. Let’s look at a couple of broad examples.

At its base, non-intensive annual or perennial (or permaculture) planting is sustainable. When artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are avoided, and the soil is mulched, irrigated with sustainable sources of water, and built up with natural soil fertility methods, this type of agriculture produces plant foods while generating a healthier environment in the process. Again, this is irrespective of whether they are certified organic or not. My friend Christina, and her amazing vegetable and flower operation at Blue Skys Farm, is a perfect example of this. Check them out at http://blueskysfarm.com/. As a side note (and not because I’m at all biased), grain and legume agriculture cannot be done this way at all.

On the flip side, the system of exclusively pasture-raised livestock is sustainable, and far beyond organic. The equation is simple: a herd of grass-eating animals (cows, bison, buffalo, sheep, goats, llamas, rabbits, etc) + healthy pasture + freshwater + the farmer’s ingenuity = meat + more animals + healthier pasture + the same amount of freshwater. This system is not only sustainable by every metric, but actually yields a healthier biosphere. That’s probably why the Earth was populated with billions of these animals prior to the expansion of humankind (which is true, despite the best attempts of certain agenda-driven, anti-scientific advisory groups to ignore this fact). This type of animal agriculture is perfect, pretty much irrespective of whether the meat is “certified organic” (which would really only further guarantee no use of hormones/steroids/antibiotics, something that can easily be verified with the farmers). Aquidneck Farms in Portsmouth is an example of this. Check them out at http://aquidneckfarms.com/.

As a quick final note, I want to make it clear that none of the above words are necessarily synonymous with “healthy”. I will talk more about nutrition sometime in the future, but I want to point this out in response to a debate that I had on Facebook a while back. Sugar is sugar, grain flour is grain flour, soy is soy, and refined seed oils are refined seed oils, and all of these things are unhealthy, period. It doesn’t matter if they’re GMO or natural or organic or sustainably grown, they are unhealthy. And I would go so far as to say that the improvement in health made by removing them from your diet altogether is far superior to that made by switching from conventional to non-GMO/organic/whatever. Conventionally grow vegetables and factory farmed eggs are healthier for a human body than organic cane sugar or organic tofu. Choose organic, sustainable foods for the many good reasons above; not as the sole metric of healthy food.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 49 – The Future Looks Bright: The Age of Renewable Energies

31 07 2016

(June 19, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Future Looks Bright: The Age of Renewable Energies

I’ve written almost no columns about renewable energy. That is the stunning realization that I made this morning, while brainstorming a topic for this week’s column. I wrote a little about solar energy a few years ago, about nature’s material and energy cycles last spring, and a few times about climate change over the years. But we have never actually discussed the interesting science behind the wide array of renewable energy technologies that are coming onto the market, or their amazing value to urban farmers, environmentalists, and homeowners alike. Given that energy technology was basically the motivating topic of my electrical engineering degree, you can probably appreciate how surprising it is to me that I haven’t written more. It’s time to change that.

Today’s column will be a briefer on renewable energies in general. And in the coming weeks, we’ll address each type of renewable energy – solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, geothermal, tidal and wave, hydropower, biofuels, and wood – at their various scales of implementation. As quick primer: a watt-hour/BTU/joule/calorie (with any prefix, i.e. tera/giga/mega/kilo in front) is a unit of “energy”, the capacity of a system to do some physical “work” (movement, heat, light/radiation, chemical reaction); whereas a watt is a unit of “power”, a measure of energy-flow per second. So when we speak of total energy usage or storage, we use the first one (i.e. my electricity usage was 500 kilowatt-hours this month), whereas when we talk about the energy continuously used or transferred by something, we use the second one (i.e. my smartphone uses 4 watts). With all of that said, let’s get to answering the question: What are renewable energies?

There is nothing new under the Sun. This verse from Ecclesiastes is my favorite quote, probably because of how it beautifully it underlies the entire study of agriculture, the environment, and economics. Our Earth is a closed-system chemical reactor, which consists of basically the same physical materials that it did at its Creation, 4.5 billion years ago. And in terms of energy, other than the small contributions from the nuclear reactions in the Earth’s core (about 0.027% of the total) and other astrophysical phenomena, essentially every single bit of energy that enters the Earth’s atmosphere comes from one source: the Sun.

Solar energy drives every natural process on the surface of the Earth, called the biogeochemical cycles (of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, water, and rock). The comingling of these material cycles produces the non-biological natural phenomena that we experience on a daily basis – wind, rain, evaporation, humidity, flowing water, and weather events of every type – which makes them all indirectly solar-powered. And the direct influx of sunlight, together with these cycles (indirect sunlight), is also the sole energy source for pretty much all of Life on Earth, from the smallest microbe to the blue whale, and every plant, animal, fungus, protozoa, and bacteria in between (with the notable exception of certain deep-sea and volcanic ecosystems, which utilize the Earth’s geothermal heat as their driving energy).

And because we have no say in the matter, as biological organisms bound to the surface of the Earth, everything that we humans do is powered by the Sun as well. Did that catch you off guard?

You see, the Earth has this rather curious ability to store small amounts of sunlight. This is underlain by the process of photosynthesis, where plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria convert sunlight into chemical energy. These energy-containing chemicals circulate through the Earth’s ecosystem, and over long timescales, a small fraction of them are converted by geological processes into hydrocarbons, stored deep in the Earth’s crust. That’s right: even fossil fuels are sunlight, from a very long time ago.

And that, readers, is where we went wrong. Ever since we discovered that certain rocks could be burned, but mostly over the past 150 years of economic explosion, we have built up our global society by depleting the limited stores of ancient solar energy that we suck out of the Earth’s crust. That energy took hundreds of millions of years to store, and in the span of seven generations, we have used a good majority of it. It’s been used, of course, to drastically increase agricultural production and general quality of life (and, therefore, survival rates), thereby growing our population by nearly six billion people (a factor of about 6) in 150 years, about 0.000002% of our time on Earth. And in using it at such a rate, we’ve released huge swathes of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, triggering dangerous global warming in the process (scientific fact which needs no further justification).

In retrospect, that may not have been the best idea. But it happened, and there’ll probably be 10 billion of us to feed, clothe, shelter, and keep warm right about the time when the oil wells run dry and the effects of climate change become a serious threat to our survival. Oh well…as long as someone profited handsomely, I’m cool with that.

Just kidding. Well, not about the oncoming end of the Age of Petroleum; no, that’s definitely something we have to look forward to. But I’m kidding about my contented acceptance of our self-inflicted, greed-driven fate as a result. That’s not going to happen if we have anything to say about it.
You see, the ball of fire in the sky continuously dumps 173,000 terawatts of power (on average) into the Earth’s atmosphere, a bit over 14,000 times as much as is used by all of human society. That is contemporary solar energy (in stark contrast to the dinosaur juice we currently use to power our lives), and we see it every day in the sunlight, the wind, the flowing of freshwater, the movement of the tides and ocean currents, and in the foods we eat and wood we burn. Wait, don’t those sound familiar? Solar, wind, hydro, tidal, bio…those are the various forms of solar energy that we find on the surface of the Earth, and also happen to be the various renewable energy technologies available.

That’s clearly no accident. The following renewable energy technologies have been developed to tap into the various forms of contemporary solar energy, which will be free and available forever, without harming the Earth’s environment or further ballooning our dependence on dirty, finite resources.

Solar photovoltaic panels use silicon semiconductor technology to convert sunlight into electricity. Solar thermal systems use air, water, or other fluids to capture sunlight as heat energy, which is used as heat itself, or to run a turbine that generates electricity. Wind turbines use rotating generators to convert the energy stored in moving air into electricity. Tidal and wave generators convert the energy stored in moving ocean water into electricity. Hydropower systems similarly turn the energy stored in moving freshwater bodies into electricity (i.e. hydroelectric) or mechanical energy (i.e. water wheels). Biofuels, like wood burning, anaerobic digesters, algal biofuels, and ethanol generators, employ various chemical and biological mechanisms to convert the chemical energy produced by photosynthesis into various forms of usable chemical energy (i.e. equivalents to natural gas and other hydrocarbons), or directly into heat. Geothermal systems are the only renewable energy technology that is not solar-powered, but instead utilizes the heat energy escaping from the Earth’s core to either produce electricity or as heat itself.

There is a huge variety of very powerful renewable energy technologies at our disposal. This diversity, if we take full advantage of it, will help to prevent us from falling into the same trap in which we currently find ourselves, over-dependence on one technology. Most of these technologies are well into their maturity, ready to be implemented as desired. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at each of these renewable energy technologies in detail: its science, benefits, drawbacks, and current state of implementation, as well as what we as urban farmers can do to get involved. At some point, we’ll also talk about the operation of the electric grid, (including the fact that renewable energies actually reduce the price we pay for electricity), and how these technologies fit into our economies at every level. This is probably my favorite topic to write (and talk) about, so I look forward to exploring it together with you.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.