The Call, Column 53 – Power From the Sun

12 11 2016

(August 14, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Power From the Sun

Solar energy is hands down my favorite renewable energy. I find a simple beauty – not to mention the efficiency – in capturing the sun’s energy directly from the source. What’s more, solar energy systems need few moving parts, they are scalable from a single panel or residential rooftop to a large-scale solar farm, and have a really cool look to them that increases the value and curb appeal of a home.

Today, we’ll talk about the technologies that have been developed to directly capture solar energy – solar photovoltaic and solar thermal. I’ll give you a briefer on the science, and then discuss the current state of implementation and ways that we, as urban farmers, can get involved. Let’s begin!

What we call “light” – or more generally, electromagnetic radiation – is really a stream of little, condensed packets of wave energy called “photons”, which exist as particles in only the loosest definition of the word, but still contain lots of energy. The amount that a particular photon contains is inversely proportional to its wavelength, meaning that ultraviolet radiation contains more energy than visible light, which itself contains more than infrared radiation.

The sun outputs a very specific spectrum of light, which is a combination of visible (the rainbow) and non-visible (infrared, x-rays, ultraviolet, etc). That energy spreads away from the sun in all directions, and a small fraction of it gets directed at half of the outer layer of the Earth’s atmosphere (depending on the time of day). Some of this is filtered and dispersed by the atmosphere, and when all is said and done, roughly 1000 watts hit a one square meter area of ground in direct sunlight. Remember, a “watt” is a measure of the speed of energy transfer or usage, and your phone uses probably 3 or 4 watts while it is on. That 1000 watts/square meter is quite a lot!

The question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years is: how do we make use of that energy? Agriculture was our species’ first big answer to that question, when we figured out how to deliberately capture the sun’s energy in a chemical form (“Calories”) that we could use to fuel our bodies, feed our animals, and heat our homes.

We’ve developed a variety of different technologies since that time, which have culminated with the two centrally important methods for capturing solar energy that I mentioned above: solar photovoltaic and solar thermal.

What’s known collectively as “solar thermal” is really a group of different technologies and building methods, unified by the underlying goal of capturing sunlight as usable heat energy. This idea is as old as human society, and is really easy to see in day-to-day life: leave a bottle of water out in the sun for a few minutes and observe the change in its temperature (don’t drink it after); or take note of which rooms in your house are the warmest when all heaters and air conditioners are shut off (hint: it’s the rooms with exterior walls with direct exposure to the sun).

There are a couple of basic types of solar thermal technology that are used all around the world. Solar architecture takes advantage of that “south-facing-room” effect, designing buildings that more effectively absorb the sun’s warmth in the winter, and do not absorb it in the summer. The knowledge that underlies this is as old as construction, but has recently made a comeback in the developed world.

Concentrated solar thermal is an up-and-coming technology, which utilizes mirrors and lenses in a variety of geometries. These concentrate sunlight into super-heated steam, which is most often used to drive a turbine and produce electricity. These require large areas and lots of direct sunlight, which makes them good candidates for desert development.

And of course, there is solar hot water. This is one I’ve mentioned before, when I visited Greece back in summer of 2014 and made note of the fact that nearly every house has a system of this type on its roof. This technology captures the sun’s energy by running water through a specially-designed (though easily made-at-home), dark-colored collector panel. The water heats up, and is stored for use throughout the day, either in a boiler or a separate tank that is often part of the standalone unit. These systems are hugely effective at producing large amounts of very hot water, which in turn is an effective way to store heat. There is a similar type of system that uses air instead, and which sometimes takes advantage of the way that air expands when it heats up.

Solar photovoltaic is a much more complex – but also more versatile – technology, which turns sunlight into electricity. Solar cells are thin sheets, usually made of silicon with small amounts of other elements deliberately added in, that turn light particles from the sun (photons) into electric current. When solar cells are connected together correctly, and then through output wires to some other electric circuitry, they form what are commonly known as solar panels.

Solar photovoltaic panels are the sleek, dark blue fixtures that I’ve been delighted to see popping up on houses in our area. The commercially-available ones are around 20% efficient – a similar fuel efficiency to the gasoline engine in your car – which means that, with an accompanying bank of batteries (so the energy can be stored) or a connection to the electric grid (so it can be sold back when it isn’t being used), the rooftop of a typical residence can supply 100% of that house’s electricity needs!

There are very few solar hot water fixtures in the United States, but I’ve started to see quite a few photovoltaic arrays on roofs in our area, and know of huge solar farms (fields of panels) that have been, or are being, built as I write this. We are  pretty far behind the energy-conscious folk of Europe, but the next few decades will be exciting as the solar industry in the United States grows by leaps and bounds. So what can we, as urban farmers, do to participate?

Passive solar architecture is probably the easiest way that we can take advantage of this amazing renewable resource. At its base, it’s as simple as knowing which curtains or blinds to open – and which to keep closed – depending on the season and outside temperature. There are retrofits that can be done to your house – adding insulation, changing your windows, sealing points where it’s open to the outside air – that increase its overall energy efficiency, partly by taking advantage of passive solar architectural design. And of course, if you’re in the process of building a new house, you’ll reap huge dividends by incorporating passive solar architecture into the design!

Solar thermal systems are another really good way for urban farmers to take advantage of free solar energy. They require a little more overhead – either having to buy the panel and water tank or building the system yourself, and then installing it – but when done right, they are capable of providing hot water even in the dead of a New England winter. There is a lot of information on the internet about building or buying these systems, and I encourage you to check it out.

And then, there are solar panels. It is my view that every new house should have solar panels installed on the roof – that’s how promising I think they are. There are quite a few companies that you can contract to install solar panels on your roof, which will allow you to pay them back simply by using the money you would otherwise have spent on your electric bill. In this way, your personal solar array is paid off in less than a decade (and is fully-functional for at least 25 years), without having any additional outlay of money. There are a variety of different financing programs, and

Climate change is one of the most serious threats that we face as a species, and solar energy is and will continue to play a pivotal role in solving it. These types of renewable energy systems really are one of the most democratized solutions to climate change. For a small investment of time and money, almost anyone can take advantage of this free, plentiful energy source, powering their lives while keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

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.

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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.





The Call, Column 38 – Lessons from the Greek Crisis

8 02 2016

(January 17, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Lessons From the Greek Crisis

I am writing this from Greece. Most people in the United States know of the existence of the economic crisis here, but understand very little about what is actually happening. Today, I want to discuss the problems that they are facing in this country, and how they might be relevant to our own economy and agricultural system.

It is the fashionable thing, in ours and other countries in the industrial Global North, to blame the Greek people for the dire economic situation that has crippled their economy and left them with incomprehensible levels of unemployment. But the true causes are so much more complex and appear, at least in my assessment, to be a calculated and largely successful effort to destroy the once-thriving, agriculture- and tourism-based economy of Greece, and turn them into a nation of unwilling dependents to the European Union, and slaves to the global financial system.

If you recall, I wrote a column the last time that I was in Greece (the summer of 2014) in which I praised the country for their significant efforts in energy conservation, alternative energy generation, and small-scale and backyard agriculture. This has always been true of the country, and is even truer as I explore it today. But despite their judicious, conservative use of natural resources, and emphasis on producing their own food and other goods, they have found themselves susceptible to the harms of global capitalism. As I see it, here are some of the main issues that led to this crisis:

The Euro. This is the common currency used by a subgroup of countries in the European Union, and was adopted in 2002. The ostensible goal was to streamline free trade between member countries, but its adoption had the unforeseen consequence of damaging smaller agricultural economies in its membership. Because the exchange value and inflation of the Euro is largely driven by the giant, industrial economies of Germany and other Northern European countries, the use of this common currency subjects Greece and other small, stable, less-industrialized economies to unnatural fluctuations. This has majorly harmed the economic climate of the country, and I believe they would have been better off retaining their old currency, the Drachma.

Easy credit. For a few years prior to the start of the crisis, European banks had been giving easy, low-interest credit, mortgages, and loans to people in Europe. For the hard-working farmers and small-businesspeople in Greece, the availability of this extra capital in a time of plenty provided the opportunity to invest in new projects, and to grow their farms, businesses, and economy. But when the country’s economy crashed in 2010, and wages halved while interest rates rose precipitously, this growth opportunity quickly turned into a game of survival. And in the banks’ view, making your loan payments is more important than buying food.

Agricultural and other regulations. This is where I stop believing the common narrative of a benevolent European Union. In the recent years, the European Union has enacted legislation which had the effect of shrinking the agricultural base of Greece’s economy. Namely, they have begun to pay farmers to not grow food on their land. And they have enacted embargos and other regulations that make it impossible for Greek farmers to sell their crops to other countries, causing huge amounts of waste and, therefore, disincentivizing continued agricultural production. Can you think of any reason why they would do this, to pull a small country’s economic foundation out from under them?

Taxes! In response to the start of the economic downturn, the European Union began to enact “austerity measures” against the Greek people – forcing the government to levy very high taxes on everyone, regardless of income. Let’s take some hypothetical numbers, to better understand the problem.

As a point of reference, unemployment is about 25% across the board, and about 60% for people in their 20s. At this time, the Euro and the Dollar are roughly equal in value. Despite this, before taxes, a person in Greece makes 1/5 to 1/10 the salary of an equivalent position in the U.S. – from about 120 € per week for “minimum wage” to about 400 € per week for a medical doctor. And yet, products cost minimally half as much as they do in the U.S., and often only slightly less.

Across the board, there is a 23% income tax. And after high housing, automobile, utility, and gas taxes, they are left with some 30% of their original income. Thirty percent. Taking a minimum wage of 120 € per week (which is many of the jobs in Greece), this leaves 36 € after taxes. And now, for minimalist survival, they must buy food, water, heating, and (arguably) insurance and clothing. On 36 €, or 50 €, or even 100 € per week…when 1 in 4 are unemployed. Remember this, the next time some talking head blames them.

With all of this, note that Greece has one of the smaller external debts in the European Union and the Western World, around $360B. This is far behind those of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, who are all in the trillions, and yet oddly enthusiastic about collecting from Greece, and pales in comparison to the United States’ nearly $19T debt. Greece is the subject of an experiment in heavy-handed financial asphyxiation, by the ruling nations of the European Union. It’s the 17th century all over again.

It’s also worth pointing out that some of these most austere countries have, in the past, been forgiven of very large reparation debts by Greece. I guess heinous crimes in global warfare are more forgivable than buying food and heating oil for your family.

Does any of this sound familiar? Whether we perceive it or not, the same things are happening in our country. The government is willing to sacrifice the health of small-scale, local economies, based on agriculture and other primary production, for the pipedream of endless industrial growth and the diminishment of distributed production systems. Multinational corporations have taken action, both in their own capacities and using their control of the federal government, to overtake small businesses and farms. Financial institutions have the insatiable desire to own everything and everyone, which is accomplished by easy credit and the resulting mass indebtedness.

All of this has the effect of the people and economy moving away from the land, away from small businesses and primary production. Our nation, like Greece’s to some level, is tending towards big farms, fewer farmers, and commodity crops (we’ve actually been at that last one for four or five decades already). If the situation in Greece is any indicator, these trends aren’t a good sign.

I’m not sure I can offer a good solution to Greece. Exiting the Euro and returning to the Drachma is one that I’ve thought about a lot. But this would leave the Greeks with a horribly devalued currency and, at least temporarily, even more difficulty in buying the necessities for survival. Similarly, bankruptcy would essentially tank their economy. The only solution that Europe and the Greek government seem to entertain is raising taxes further. This is makes people unable to afford food and heating oil, and is therefore literally causing starvation. That is unacceptable.

This is the effect of globalization and the loss of small-scale agriculture. I’m not sure what will happen in Greece. But as I see it, it isn’t too late for us to make changes at home, changes that would preserve our own primary production and might even protect the Greek people from further harm. They are, of course, deeply related to topics we have discussed in the past.

We have to insist on laws at every level of government that encourage sustainable, small-scale, local production – of food, fuel, fiber, and everything else we consume. And we have to fight against laws that harm these systems, laws that deprive us of the freedom to grow our own food (or raise chickens!) and make it more difficult to obtain local, sustainable products.

And then we actually have to grow our own food. And make our own value added products. And buy everything we can’t grow or make ourselves, from farmers and businesses in our localities. And keep ourselves alive without becoming dependents of any financial institution – no bank, investment firm, government, or multinational corporation should be capable of ruining our lives.

There is still hope – both for us and, I have to believe, for Greece. The solution to all economic woes is the most powerful word in the English language: resiliency. When we create production systems that are resilient and not dependent on global capitalism, we are sheltered from power structures with imperialistic tendencies. Individual resiliency is the best, and possibly the only, measure in order to avoid the same fate that is now befalling Greece – the nation where democracy, philosophy, and the Western World itself was born.

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 35 – Paris ’15: Making the Change We Wish to See in the World

8 02 2016

(December 6, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Paris ’15: Making the Change We Wish to See in the World

As you probably already know, last Monday marked the beginning of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (“COP21”), in Le Bourget, Paris, France. The goal of the conference is to reach a comprehensive, global agreement, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, and halt the dangerous climate change that these emissions are causing.

Even if a global plan of action is not formed (the U.S. has been a notable holdout in the past), it does not change the facts: the climate has been altered significantly in the past century; we, and specifically our carbon dioxide emissions from the use of coal, oil, and natural gas, are the dominant driving force of that change; and it is easily the biggest threat that we face to the comfortable existence of life on Earth. Moving forward, we can either intentionally take strategic, preventative measures now, or be forced to take reactionary measures to ensure our survival in the future. Given the devastation that is often caused by a single hurricane, I hope it’s clear which action is the safer bet. And today, the engineer (and potential future political leader) in me is going to get really practical: What can we, lowly human beings on an environmentally-unstable planet, do about climate change?

Mahatma Gandhi famously said that you must “be the change that you wish to see in the world” – this is a good starting point. There is action that we can and must take within our own lives, in our own households, to help slow the progression of climate change.

The first step is to assess and minimize your household energy use. In Rhode Island, National Grid and private companies, like RISE Engineering, offer no-cost energy assessments/audits, where they visit your home, assess your energy use, and suggest ways to reduce your long-term consumption. You can find out more about these programs at their websites. And whether or not you get a formal energy audit performed, there are some key areas in home energy use where a small change produces a pretty huge effect. All of these solutions work for commercial buildings as well.

First, lighting uses between 10 and 15% of a normal household’s electricity, and by switching out incandescent light-bulbs for significantly more efficient LED bulbs, you can reduce that amount by 83% – a reduction of nearly 10% of your household’s total electricity consumption, and a savings of about $8.20 per year per bulb. In Rhode Island, we are fortunate that National Grid heavily subsidizes LED lighting, allowing companies like Ocean State Job Lot and many of the drugstores in the area to sell them for around $3 per bulb, yielding a 100% return on investment in as little as four months, on a bulb that will last over 20 years.

Heating, cooling, and refrigeration consume a combined 60% of residential electricity usage. Whether your water heater, refrigerator, air conditioners, and other such appliances are electricity- or gas-powered, there are very efficient versions currently available, which would drastically reduce their energy consumption. And with heavy subsidies from National Grid (https://www1.nationalgridus.com/RhodeIsland), their cost is quickly returned by the savings in energy use. Furthermore, structural efficiency measures (like replacing windows and doors and adding insulation in key areas) can help to reduce heat loss.

In addition, finding ways to supplant current, energy- and carbon-intensive processes with less intensive ones – like switching to a clothes line, or from electric to gas heating – are good ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Also, supplementing or completely replacing fossil fuels with sustainable sources – by having solar panels installed on your roof, or paying a little extra to the energy company in order to guarantee better energy sourcing – may have the biggest effect of all.

Let’s change gears a bit: by driving less, and instead using public transportation, carpooling, and alternate forms of transportation like bicycles, you can significantly reduce your transportation-related carbon emissions. Personally, I take RIPTA whenever I can – on average, one-third to one-half of the times that I go to school in Providence are with public transportation. This and other alternative transportation is often pretty fast, costs less than gas, and doesn’t require parking. Also, because of their efficiency, electric cars (even running on coal electricity) produce less carbon dioxide per mile than gas cars.

Most products that we buy come with baggage, an invisible cloud of carbon dioxide (and other pollution) that was required in order to bring it to your home. By simply buying less stuff, buying used goods (which don’t have an additional footprint), buying locally (to reduce shipping), buying goods whose production methods you know were better for the environment, and throwing away less, you can help to reduce the fossil fuel that is burned by industry on your behalf.

That brings us to a very specific case – the food we eat. The knee-jerk response you’ll hear from some environmentalists is to “eat less meat”, citing a ridiculous, cherry-picked statistic and linking to a tofu recipe. If you couldn’t already guess, I don’t agree with this, and I think it indicates intellectual laziness and unwillingness to look deeper into the issue.

The actual carbon emissions of industrial agriculture come largely from the same place as in every other industry – burning fossil fuels. When industrial grain and soy monocultures are grown year after year, the soil’s fertility must be heavily supplemented with artificial fertilizer – this is made from natural gas, and releases carbon dioxide in its production. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are used in industrial farm machinery and artificial chemical applications. And the off-farm processing of these crops into “food”, and shipping them around the globe, uses fuel as well. When we (unnecessarily and inefficiently) feed animals these cheap grains, the effect is compounded.

Saving more detail for future columns, we need to eat diets that are environmentally-restorative – that have the net, lifetime effect of actually putting carbon into the ground (sequestration) rather than into the atmosphere. That means animal products that are raised on pasture, rotationally-grazed to build the topsoil, and fruits and vegetables that are grown non-intensively, on farms that use organic sources of soil fertility and don’t mechanically harvest, or otherwise in permaculture-type systems.

Buy these foods in season and from your local foodshed to eliminate long-distance transport; and rather than looking for “organic” or “natural”, ask the farmer yourself in order to ensure their practices fit these criteria. And, as always, grow your own using these methods.

We should all certainly make these changes, because they are the most direct and necessary ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s not enough to make them in our own lives, and be satisfied – there are 7 billion other people on Earth, who either already do, or are on the path to, contribute to climate change as much as the average American.

We need to do more than “be the change” – we need to make the change through collective action! We have to champion good politicians who make climate change a top priority. And we have to call and write to make it clear to our leaders (in every level of government) that action on this issue should be taken now, by choice, rather than later, out of necessity.

Whether or not COP21 is successful, we in the United States, with 4.7% of the world’s population that produces an unbalanced 16% of its carbon emissions, need to change our regulatory and legislative climate.

On the municipal and state levels, we need to ramp up incentives for renewable energies – subsidies and grants to consumers who install solar and other alternative energies, the removal of taxes and fees on those projects, and investment by the government itself.

On the federal level, we need comprehensive carbon legislation. Whether that’s a carbon tax on power companies, to incentivize the switch to renewable sources without significantly increasing energy prices, or a cap and trade system, where we catalyze this change through market mechanisms, allowing companies to choose their own paths, or straightforward regulations, directly promoting the use of renewable sources of energy, it has to happen.

We have to stop subsidizing dirty energy. We need to stop sacrificing the lives of our brave servicemen and women in pointless oil wars. We need to stop dragging our feet, entertaining useless politicians who are so blinded by ideology that they are unwilling to spend 1% of our GDP for a few years to ensure that there is a functioning Earth left for our grandchildren.

It’s time to act. In our homes, in our businesses, in our communities; with both our individual and our collective voice, we must demand action before it’s too late. Accelerated climate change threatens the general welfare of life on our planet, and inaction violates the oath that every politician takes to uphold the Constitution. It’s time to act.

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 and Times, Column 30 – And God Saw That It Was Good – Where Faith Meets Environmentalism

29 09 2015

(September 27, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

And God Saw That It Was Good – Where Faith Meets Environmentalism

We’ve talked a lot about the environment – the problem of global climate change, the issues surrounding human waste production, and the environmental harms of industrial agriculture. In these and many other columns, I’ve quoted verses from the Bible as defense for my calls to action, and have used a more general spirituality to motivate a new environmental ethos. These parallels, and my frequent citations of them, are not an accident.

I am firmly of the belief that how sustainably we interact with Nature – the global climate, each local ecosystem, and our fellow living creatures – is a central, indispensible component of our religious beliefs. Not only is this treatment a reflection of one’s faith in a Creator God but, I would argue, a foundational responsibility of ours, as human beings living on this planet.

As a bit of background (if you couldn’t already guess), I am a Christian. And while I am not Catholic, I see the Office of the Pope as one of the most important, venerable leadership roles in the global Christian community and indeed, in global political leadership as a whole.

I, like so many others, have been delighted with the progress that Pope Francis has already made in matters of social and environmental justice. A central theme of his papacy has been the proper treatment of the Earth: this was the subject of his second encyclical, Laudato Si’, and has been a major discussion topic of his visits to the U.S. Congress, White House, and United Nations over the past week.

In light of the Pope’s visit, and his encouraging call to action on global climate change and environmental protection, I would like to make my own bold call to action: Environmental protection and sustainability are necessary components of Christianity. Here’s why:

  • The Earth belongs to God, and it is inherently good. In Genesis 1, the description of each era of Creation ends with some variation of the bold assessment, “God saw that it was good”. The story poetically describes the creation of all physical reality, beginning with the Big Bang and cyclically narrowing in scope to the Earth, its environment, and a few grander classifications of life. It is implied that each component is essential to the function of the greater whole, but it is stated very clearly that each is good and necessary in its own right. In countless other places in the Bible, notably in the Psalms of David and the Book of Job, it is made clear that God finds beauty in the functioning of the Earth and the diversity of its life, and that unadulterated Creation is the yardstick to which we must measure human successes and failures.
  • Flourishing, sustainable life was and is a central goal of Creation. Through Genesis 1, God’s basic commandment to each set of created beings is that they are to “be fruitful and increase in number”, filling ecological niches all throughout the Earth and building Earth’s fertility and solar energy capture. The inherent sustainability of this ecosystem is summarized in God’s promise to Noah and the Earth (Genesis 8): that the cyclic, regenerative nature of the days and seasons would not ever cease.
    In the familiar parable of Matthew 6, similar in nature to Psalm 104, Jesus emphasizes the idea of Divine Providence – that every creature, from the birds, to the flowers and grasses, to human beings, have their needs met by a divinely-created and –maintained ecosystem. This principal is what Wendell Berry has more recently termed “The Great Economy”, where the very nature of the Earth is to create and maintain life while actually expanding its ability to do so.
  • Human beings were created as caretakers of this good Earth. In Genesis 2, we are placed in the Garden of Eden with the explicit instruction to “work it and take care of it”, to enjoy the bounty of Nature while working to improve it. Even the command to have dominion over the Earth and to subdue it speaks to this general goal – that we must work against the harsher elements of the ecosystem but together with the constructive ones.
    This idea, that human intervention can improve Nature, has actually been borne out by Allan Savory’s ideas of Holistic Management. Through the “technologies” of holistic land and resource management, our footprint can become a monument of carbon sequestration, topsoil growth, and biodiversity. That is our purpose here.
  • It is possible to harm the Earth with our bad decisions. In Numbers 35, God commands the Israelites, “Do not pollute the land where you are…Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell.” Warfare is given as the immediate example of this pollution, but from here arises the idea that we are spiritually connected to the land, and that our actions have lasting effects.
  • God does not want this. Ever. The Bible is full of examples of self-imposed limitations – placing boundaries on our expansion and exploitation, even when Nature or our abilities would not otherwise do so. A case in point comes from Deuteronomy 22, where we are given the cryptic commandment: “if you come across a bird’s nest beside the road…do not take the mother with the young.” We can enjoy the products of Nature, but we must stop ourselves short of destroying the source of these products – in this case, the mother bird. Especially as human populations were expanding (and in all the time since), the need to stop ourselves from destroying the well while pumping the water is one central to our lives on this planet.
  • But we have disobeyed. We have harmed the Earth. Climate change and generalized environmental destruction were not really occurrences in biblical times – but they are now. And the prophecies given in Isaiah, particularly in Isaiah 24, sound eerily like a description of global climate change.
    Anywhere we look, harm is being done to the Creation. Loss of biodiversity, exploitation of limited natural resources, depletion of topsoil and freshwater reserves – these are all the products of human activity, and will all be further exacerbated by climate change.
  • It is our duty to act; inaction is the same as opposition. In the well known parable of Matthew 25, Jesus states firmly that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Ignoring a problem here on Earth – whether it be one of social welfare or environmental protection – is akin to ignoring God. Beyond this, climate change and other environmental problems are issues social justice and welfare. By inaction, we are allowing others – often those who did not cause the problem – to suffer. God has deemed this unacceptable.
    At the White House last Wednesday, Pope Francis called us to action on climate change, deeming it “a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” In front of Congress on Thursday, he made a bold statement, that “now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at…protecting nature.” Just as the verse above tells us, it is our duty to act, and inaction is unacceptable.

 Before I eat, I say a prayer of thanksgiving for the work of the sustainable farmers, the sacrifices made by the plants and animals, and the indispensible value of the Earth and its ecosystems, for providing me with sustenance. This is a sincere prayer, and one whose value I hope others can see.

For much of human history, we understood Nature – and God – enough to know that the two are inextricably linked; that God is the maintaining force behind the natural world, and that the global ecosystem is capable of providing for all of our needs, if we make our goal to protect, rather than destroy.

As a Christian, and more generally as a human being who believes in the Divine power that drives our material world, it is my duty to be an environmentalist. Pope Francis, the leader of the largest Christian church in the world, shares this belief. Do you?

I’d like to give a quick shout out to the North Smithfield Garden Club. Two weeks ago, I had the honor of being invited to speak at their monthly meeting about natural pest and weed control methods. They’re a great bunch, committed to the beauty and productivity that comes from growing a garden, and guess what? They are looking for additional members! Shoot me an email if you are interested, and I can put you in touch with their President, Jo-Ann McGee.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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 and Times, Column 9 – My Big, Fat, Greek Experience

19 06 2014

(June 6, 2014)

The Urban  Farmer

My Big, Fat, Greek Experience

Since last fall, we’ve discussed a nice array of topics – from solar power to vegetable gardens, and GMO seed to climate change, I’ve tried to start conversations about subjects that are not only practically important to the modern urban farmer, but also significant on a societal level. But the questions that besiege my mind and, I expect, those of a great many of my readers, are of a more far-reaching, systemic nature: What are the faults of our modern food system? How can we inspire people to grow their own food, conserve resources, and build communities? Can urban agriculture really make a dent in the food supply? These are important questions, alas essentially impossible to cover at length in this column. But I think we may be able to tackle one of the most basic, but fundamental questions of urban agriculture: What does a complete, functional urban agricultural system look like?

As most of you don’t know, I’ve spent the past two weeks in Greece. Since arriving here, I’ve been immersed in a culture that values agriculture and conservation, and where a large number of people raise their own food. There are four places from which I have gathered inspiration, all in the northern Macedonia area of the country. Sevasti is a small village, surrounded by farmland, which is the home of a large number of Pontian Greek Protestants (my great grandparents included) who settled here after being supplanted during the recession of the Ottoman Empire. Kolindros is a small town, also surrounded by farms, which was one of the few areas that stood though the 400 year Ottoman occupation of Greece. Katerini is a mid-sized city, with a population slightly higher than that of Woonsocket, and with an incredible urban agriculture sector. Thessaloniki is a large city, east of Katerini, with a size and population density comparable to that of Boston. I have family in all of these places, and have experienced firsthand the system of urban agriculture that exists within and between them.

So what exactly do I mean by a “complete, functional urban agriculture system”? Urban agriculture is when many individual elements, like chickens, vegetable gardens, and solar panels, are put together in order to reach a more complex goal, often having to do with some measure of self-sufficiency, increased food security, and a smaller environmental footprint. For this to be complete and functional, by no means does it have to supply organic food and clean energy for all of a household’s needs – that’s very difficult, especially given the limited space in an urban setting. Rather, a complete and functional urban agriculture serves as a buffer to food price-spikes and shortages, making a household capable of supplying all of its needs for a short time, and otherwise making a measurable dent in its needs long-term. Finally, there are two levels in which this can be considered a system. On the level of individual household, all of the elements should function in harmony. But on a higher level, when many households in a community participate in urban agriculture, it creates opportunities for the sharing and trade of products, skills, and ideas. This is a complete, functional urban agriculture system, and is basically what is already being done in Greece. In order to visualize and understand Greece’s system, it makes sense to divide it into three overarching motivations – conservation, production, and community – and look at examples that I’ve seen in my travels.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived here was how actively the population conserves their resources, namely water and electricity. Nearly every house – from the country homes of Sevasti to the apartment complexes of Thessaloniki – has a clothesline of some sort, and very few have electric clothes dryers. Many of the houses also have big (insulating) windows, allowing natural light to be used in lieu of electric lighting, and most appliances are designed to use as little energy and water as possible. Furthermore, most homes in highly populated areas, and nearly all in less populated ones, have solar hot water heaters on their roofs. Showering and other tasks that require hot water are planned according to when it is available during the day (from after sunrise to before sunset), and everyone is very conscious of their use of hot water and other resources, because they recognize them as limited and valuable.

The second, far more significant element of the Greek urban agricultural lifestyle is widespread, distributed production of food and energy. Nearly every available space (I am not exaggerating) is put up to vegetable gardens and fruit or nut trees. It is normal to grow at least a few tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants, and large, grassy areas are considered by most to be an irresponsible use of water (unless, of course, they have goats or cows to graze them). For any tree in a residential area, there is probably a 50% likelihood that it is a fruit or nut tree – olives are the most common, but are closely followed by grape vines, figs, cherries, walnuts, and kiwis. In Katerini (a larger city than Woonsocket), at least two households per block has happy, healthy chickens in their backyards. And with all of their agriculture, Greeks make a pretty good approximation of organic, or “biological” as it’s called here – in vegetable gardens and commercial farms alike, GMOs are basically forbidden, Integrated Pest Management programs are often used in lieu of significant pesticide application, and ruminant animals (cows, goats, sheep) are most often fed grass. What’s more, you can’t drive for more than five minutes without seeing a large solar photovoltaic array on the roof of a home or business, even despite a pretty significant tax on the systems.

Finally, community and coproduction are concepts that still play a significant role in the Greek life. People walking on the street greet each other because they know each other, or want to. Homegrown fruits, vegetables, eggs, and honey are shared between family, friends, and neighbors, and there is a definite, almost tangible sense of a social safety net that comes from a strong community. Many population centers are surrounded by farms, and the people have a clear understanding of 1) how their continued existence is dependent on this agriculture, and 2) how to eat seasonally and locally, such that a good part of their needs can be supplied by their locale.

In a more esoteric sense, life here is generally slower, and more meaningful. The people work hard, and for much more than 40 hours per week, but busy-ness in one’s personal, social, and familial life is not glorified as it is in other parts of the Western world. Few households have more than two cars, because gas is twice as expensive as in the United States, cities and towns are designed for walking, and people are not in a rush to leave where they are. The idea of a home economy is not dead here – it is not uncommon for the ebbs and flows of a household’s functioning to include olive-oil-pressing, winemaking, and all sorts of food preservation.

Since 2009, Greece has suffered financial recession unmatched by most other countries in Europe. Many point their fingers at the country, blaming the people’s lifestyle for their economic woes, but the truth is so far from that. Greek industry is still relatively young, not having had much time to grow after being freed from Ottoman occupation not 100 years ago, and being in the middle of two world wars, and the receiving end of a military dictatorship since. This, coupled with a new currency (the Euro) that came at a horrible time, and financial austerity measures levied by a disconnected and uninformed European Union, have resulted in a country with a 50% youth unemployment rate and a necessarily bare-bones standard of living.

I came to this country, and into the writing of this column, with the intent of finding an innovative, novel Greek model upon which we could construct our own in the United States. I’ve found that system – definitely innovative, but far from novel. This system has helped the people here to get through 5000 years of the woes that come with human civilization. And that system persists today, the remnant of the historical homesteads, which are an integral part of the Greek culture. Whether as a way to save money, to provide for a little food security, or to lower their environment footprint, people in Greece widely practice urban agriculture because they see it as a necessary, important, valuable part of the human experience.

And that it is. I’m writing this article from the front porch of my grandmother and aunts’ home in Katerini, watching their neighbors working in their garden, which takes up their entire 1/8 acre backyard, and tending their many chickens. The garden, the fruit trees, the chickens, the solar panels – this production, and the conservation and community that come along with it, are some of the most basic components of human life, unquestioned for millennia because they are necessary for our survival. And despite the loss of this systematic pursuit in the normal American life, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t, or that it won’t again, be the norm. We, as humans, as global and local citizens, as living beings who require food, water, shelter, and energy, should learn to be more like the Greeks – or the French, the Japanese, the Australians, the Ethiopians, or the Chileans. We must be co-producers in our agricultural system, and we must be producers in our own right.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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 and Times, Column 8 – Here Comes the Sun

14 05 2014

(May 2, 2014)

The Urban  Farmer

Here Comes the Sun

If the blooming daffodils, sprouting mint, and budding trees are any indication, the cold weather has finally, begrudgingly broken, and summer is on its way. And, barring the cloudy and particularly wet spring we’ve been enjoying, there is one thing that comes to everyone’s mind this time of year: the summer Sun. In this month’s column, I want to discuss an urban farming practice that is near and dear to my heart, the subject of much of my education and about 15% of my thoughts – solar energy.

Before I get to the techie discussion, let’s talk on a global scale. All matter (physical “stuff”) is perpetually cycled around the surface of the Earth, with basically nothing being gained from or lost to space. These cycles are driven by what is essentially the only external “input” that our planet receives, light from the Sun. The movements of the water and wind, the Caloric energy in food, and the heat of the air are all the indirect products of solar energy, making its way to Earth.

And this is not a concept to be taken lightly. That sunlight is responsible for almost everything that happens on Earth. And life literally runs on sunlight, because certain creatures (like plants) take in energy through photosynthesis, and others (like animals) consume them in order to get it themselves. Being animals, humans must eat plants, fungi, and other animals in order to obtain energy, but unlike the rest of the natural world, we also use energy for other purposes. We use it in our cars, to heat our homes, to run the economy, and to transfer information. Yet we are still bound by the fact that our world’s only source of energy is sunlight. Except, that is, for fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels were created over millions of years, when the bodies of plants and animals were buried and compressed, and their carbon-rich biomass (whose energy came from sunlight) was turned into coal, oil, and natural gas. By building our modern society on the foundation of fossil fuels, we’ve come to rely on an unstable energy supply and an unsustainable economic model, and we are harming our environment and have begun to change the climate.  At this point, our only hope is that big ball of light in the sky.

Now, I’ll give a little technical primer on how a solar energy system works, a jumping-off point so that you can investigate it further. There is a lot of solar energy hitting your roof constantly, energy that a solar (photovoltaic, PV) cell will convert into electricity. Solar cells are assembled into panels, which are themselves combined to form a solar array, to the power specifications of (for our purposes) the residence. The output from a solar array is “direct current” (DC), which means that the current only flows in one direction through the wires. A charge controller extracts this energy, and can charge a bank of batteries for short-term storage, or feed the electricity to an inverter, or both. The low-voltage, DC electricity fed to the inverter is turned into higher-voltage, “alternating current” (AC), which means (you guessed it) that the current switches between flowing forward and backward through the wires. This AC power can be used to run regular household appliances, and can also be fed back to the grid through a special service panel (and possibly through something called a bi-directional or net meter), to be sold to the electric grid. This can be done only with the consent of the electric company, from whom the net meter and service panel are obtained. The energy stored in the battery bank, at the command of the charge controller, can later be fed through the inverter to either the grid or your devices, for times when the Sun is not shining.

If I’ve done my job right, you are probably asking yourself, “What can I do to bring solar energy into my life?” The answer is simple: install a solar energy system! A complete system can be bought outright for $10,000 to $20,000 (depending on your home’s geographical orientation, and how big of a system you want to install). This option has the highest capital cost, but will cost the least over its lifetime. Alternatively, there are a variety of financing options – ranging from a low-interest loan (from a willing bank or a solar energy company) to a “rent-to-own” system where you essentially pay with your electric bill savings. There are many companies in Rhode Island that offer these options, which also provide a free assessment of your home’s solar energy potential and a system pricing estimate. But that’s not all. The federal government provides a no-cap, 30% tax credit of the total purchase and installation price of the solar energy system (along with other renewable energy systems). State governments often offer grants or tax credits as well – Rhode Island’s grant has been depleted for this year, but is expected to be restored next year, with a 25+% subsidy of the price after the federal deduction . These incentives amount to a nearly 50% subsidy, drastically reducing the cost of a solar energy system. (More information can be found at http://www.dsireusa.org/).

In addition, Woonsocket’s City Councilman Roger Jalette constructed and passed an ordinance, 13-O-22, which established a “payment in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) for solar energy systems. This allows commercial entities to install solar photovoltaic systems, and pay a very small fee per kilowatt of capacity installed, rather than seeing an increase in their property taxes with the value of the system. This is a huge step in the right direction of making solar more accessible to our citizens. Councilman Jalette should be applauded for constructing legislation that is both good for the environment and for business, and we should advocate for similar measures to be enacted for residences in the very near future.

Solar photovoltaic is a pretty remarkable source of energy. The electricity that your solar array produces releases no carbon dioxide or any other pollutant. Solar democratizes energy production by giving citizens the capacity to produce their own power, and stabilizes the energy supply by allowing us to rely on our own, sustainable natural resources, rather than importing quickly-depleting fossil fuels from countries with which we have less-than-perfect relationships. No wars have ever been, nor will ever be, fought over solar energy, yet for every dollar of your taxpayer money that has gone to fund solar projects, 72 have gone to subsidize fossil fuels. And while an oil spill is an environmental nightmare, a “solar energy spill” is simply a nice day.

Home energy production is the definition of sustainability, and indeed, is urban farming at its best. Solar energy gives each one of us a chance to opt out of the unsustainable system that we were born into, instead allowing us to feed our innate desire for security and self-sufficiency. Solar makes financial sense, with its significant return on investment. It makes environmental sense, with its elimination of climate-changing fossil fuel emissions. It makes urban farming sense, because it connects us more deeply to the amazing, one-of-a-kind world of which we have the honor of being a part, and allows us to live a high quality of life, without stealing from our grandchildren their ability to do the same. To give some perspective, all of the fossil fuels on Earth represent just 20 days’ worth of solar energy, but enough solar energy hits the Earth in 40 minutes to power our world for a year.

Before we wrap up, I want to draw your attention to an event happening later this month. On May 24, 2014, people all around the world will be rallying against genetically modified food, in the annual March Against Monsanto. I will be among them, and I hope my readers will be as well. More information can be found on their website, http://www.march-against-monsanto.com/, and on their Facebook page.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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.