Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Solar Living Institute's SolFest XIV

Bobby Kennedy Jr. speaks to the crowd at the Solar Living Institute fundraiser I organized at America's first carbon-neutral winery...

With Bobby Kennedy Jr. and Solar Living Institute Founder John Schaeffer...

Parducci Owner Paul Dolan speaks to the crowd about his winery's environmental practices...

Bobby Kennedy Jr. with Congressman Mike Thompson...

Bobby Kennedy Jr. and Ed Begley Jr. listen to Paul Dolan's wise words...

Book signing...

Book signing...

After months of planning and anticipating, the Solar Living Institute kicked off its 14th annual SolFest last weekend in Ukiah, California. As part of my overall contribution to SolFest, I was responsible for organizing a fundraiser with Environmental Advocate and Business Leader Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in support of the Solar Living Institute’s educational programming. Kennedy was named one of TIME Magazine’s “Heroes of the Planet” for his success in helping Riverkeeper lead the fight to restore the Hudson River, and was an early advocate for the benefits of solar energy and greater conservation efforts. He currently serves as senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper, and is a partner in the clean tech work of Silicon Valley’s VantagePoint Ventures.

The fundraiser was held at Parducci Wine Cellars, America’s first carbon-neutral winery – and one of the first organic/biodynamic wineries in Mendocino County. After Kennedy’s speech at SolFest, he joined us at the winery for a reception, book signing, and performance by a local a cappella singing group. It was amazing to meet so many dedicated people in the local community and beyond who’ve made important contributions to expanding and promoting the use of renewable energy. I was particularly inspired by a few local trailblazers:

  • Parducci Owners Paul Dolan and Tim Thornhill are pioneers in the art of organic and biodynamic wine making. Their dedication to sustainable winegrowing practices has had a huge impact on Mendocino County’s reputation as a sustainable winegrowing hub. Through their commitment to responsible land stewardship, sustainable viticulture and green business practices, Parducci Wine Cellars is now regarded as the nation’s greenest winery and the first carbon-neutral winery in America.
  • Solar Living Institute Founder John Schaeffer is a pioneer in the North American solar industry. John’s company Real Goods Solar, which he founded 32 years ago, has installed more rooftop solar than any other company in the United States with over 6000 homes solarized.
  • Yokayo Biofuels Founder and Owner Kumar Plocher guided his company from its inception in 2001 to its current existence as a biodiesel producer and distributor that makes fuel from recycled restaurant fryer oil. Kumar represents sustainability-minded small-scale producers and distributors focused on local/regional resource management and a decentralized energy model.
  • Hollywood Actor and Environmental Activist Ed Begley Jr. has been an environmental leader in the Hollywood community for years, in addition to rocking out as a mainstay in all of my favorite Christopher Guest films. He currently has a reality show about green living called Living With Ed on Planet Green.

Thank you to everyone who helped to make this event a huge success!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Live Power Community Farm

Happy September Everyone! To kick off the harvest season, the interns recently participated in a late summer harvest at Live Power Community Farm -- a 40-acre, solar electric and horse-powered biodynamic/organic farm that provides fresh, high-quality food for 160 households in the San Francisco Bay Area and Mendocino County. Founded in 1973 by Stephen and Gloria Decater, Live Power was a trailblazer in the sustainable and community-based food movement through its Community Sustained Agriculture (CSA) program, in which food production is planned for a specific member community that pays its operating expenses. This innovative cooperative approach to food production revitalizes the culture of land stewardship by creating a conscious, mutually supportive relationship between farmers, consumers, and nature.

Live Power has been a Demeter Association-certified biodynamic farm since 1987. The biodynamic principles of agriculture originally described by Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1924 emphasize understanding and respect for the earth as a living being. Biodynamics was the first organic movement, and is now among the largest network of organic farms worldwide. Biodynamic farming practices recognize and work harmoniously with cosmic and natural forces to leverage their activity in soil cultivation and food production. Biodynamic practices result in greater overall health and balance, preserve soil fertility, and produce nourishing food with high nutritional value.

Live Power Community Farm is located at 1400 feet elevation in Round Valley, Mendocino County. The valley, with a local population of about 3000, has the largest Native American reservation in California and is surrounded by the Eel River and the Mendocino National Forest.

For more information on Live Power Community Farm, please visit: www.livepower.org

Sunday, August 1, 2010

GRID Alternatives' Solarthon 2010

Solarthon 2010 Participants...

Our installation team...

Installing some racking equipment...

Justine installs her first panel!

Lifting the panels onto the roof...

View from the roof...

I am a very happy woman. Yesterday, I participated in an event called Solarthon 2010, where teams of volunteers from the San Francisco Bay Area installed solar pv systems in a community development with low-income families. The event was a fundraising block party sponsored by an organization called GRID Alternatives, a local non-profit that is dedicated to empowering communities in need with renewable energy and energy efficiency services, equipment, and training.

As many of you know, I've been looking forward to this day for weeks, not only because of how passionate I am about the cause, but also because of how excited I was to be involved in a full rooftop solar installation from start to finish. As part of an overall installation crew of over 150 individuals, we broke into smaller teams to install nine 3-kilowatt solar systems in an affordable housing community in West Oakland. It was amazing to get some hands-on experience with a full installation from the racking phase to the commissioning phase, and to meet so many like-minded people who recognized the potential of solar energy to empower communities in need.

I am also proud to say that I won the award for 2nd highest fundraising effort with a total of $1080 raised! I am grateful to everyone who helped me to reach and ultimately surpass my original fundraising target of $1000, and for all of the additional support that I've received over the last few weeks. Thank you!!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lavender Harvest

Ever since my mother made a delicious batch of home-made lavender ice cream a few years ago, I have been addicted to lavender in all its culinary glory. So you can imagine how excited I was to participate in a lavender harvest last weekend at Sunrise Ridge Gardens in west Sonoma County -- a seven acre permaculture garden that grows heirloom fruits, berries, and french lavender. We spent the afternoon cutting, bundling, and hanging the lavender for the following weekend's farmer's market, and will be returning next weekend to learn how to distill the lavender to make essential oils!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Natural Building Intensive

Making cob with clay, sand, and straw...

Retrofitting an old shower house with earth plaster...

Outdoor lecture with Massey Burke...

Cob stomping party!

Cuatro and Massey discussing the benefits of earth plaster...

Applying the first coat of earth plaster to the cob bench...

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am crazy about straw bale houses – not the kind that was blown down by the Big Bad Wolf, but the uber-sustainable ones that use stacked straw bales as a highly efficient insulating material, and in the case of load-bearing straw bale houses, as the structural support and insulation in one fell swoop. Yowza!

As such, it was a dream come true to spend a whole week at a natural building workshop with Massey Burke, Co-founder of the natural building company and school Vertical Clay in Berkeley. The retreat was held at Ingel-Haven Ranch in Potter Valley, a gorgeous 5th generation family ranch that I blogged about a few postings back. The eco-ranch was the perfect setting to experiment with different natural building techniques.

Massey defined natural building as “the art of building durable things with biodegradable materials” and discussed the many environmental, economic, and aesthetic benefits of using local, biodegradable materials to build natural structures. From an environmental perspective, natural buildings have low embodied energy, meaning that little to no energy is required to produce the materials used to create the structure. Second, natural building can be a form of waste reduction, particularly in straw bale and cob structures that use straw (a waste product) as the main building material. From an economic perspective, natural building is often the most affordable option, since most of the building materials can be sourced from your own property or the local area. From an aesthetic standpoint, natural building materials lend themselves to infinite creative variability, producing unique shapes and patterns that are unattainable with most conventional building materials. And last but not least, natural building is a great way to bring together your friends and family to "raise the walls" so to speak, and for this reason is often praised for its community-building potential.

Throughout the week, we turned theory into practice by using natural materials from on-site to build a large community bench and to retrofit an old shower house. The bench was constructed mainly of cob, which is a combination of clay, sand, and straw – the same three materials that are used to make adobe bricks. In both cases, the sand functions as the aggregate that provides compressive strength (resistance to weight forces); the straw functions as the fiber that provides tensile strength (resistance to pulling forces); and the clay functions as the binder that holds it all together. These three basic materials translate into a plethora of natural building styles: cob, adobe, straw bale, rammed earth, wattle & daub, earth bags, and earth ships!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Please Support my Campaign for Solarthon 2010

Solarthon 2010

Hi Everyone! On July 31st, I will be participating in an event called Solarthon 2010, where teams of volunteers from the San Francisco Bay Area will be installing solar photovoltaic systems in an Oakland community development with low-income families. The event is a fundraising block party that is sponsored by an organization called GRID Alternatives, a local non-profit organization that is dedicated to empowering communities in need with renewable energy and energy efficiency services, equipment, and training. This one-day event will help to raise money for community solar projects and bring energy savings to low-income families who need it the most.

I am incredibly passionate about this cause for several reasons. First, I believe that solar energy can be a powerful social policy tool by reducing utility bills, contributing to a healthier and cleaner local environment, and functioning as a source of community building and empowerment -- all of which have important effects on overall quality of life. Second, by training local individuals to design and install solar systems, this project will have powerful effects on the local economy by equipping individuals with the skills and experience necessary to enter the emerging solar industry. Finally, solar power will have long-lasting effects on the global environment, as we begin to transition away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels toward clean, renewable energy sources.

For these reasons, I am thrilled to be participating in Solarthon 2010, where I'll be working directly alongside low-income families to install solar systems on their homes, which will save each family over $16,000 in energy costs over the expected lifetime of the system.

Please join me in this project and sponsor my efforts by making a tax-deductible donation to GRID Alternatives! My personal fundraising goal is $1000, which will go a long way toward reducing energy costs for a family in need. Please help me to achieve my goal by visiting the following link: www.firstgiving.com/emilycwood

For more information about this event, please visit: www.solarthon.org.

For more information about GRID Alternatives, please visit: www.gridalternatives.org.

Thanks so much for your support!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Cafe Gratitude's Be Love Farm

This past week, I organized a field trip down to the Be Love Farm in Pleasant Valley, owned and operated by Matthew and Terces Engelhart, Founders of the Café Gratitude restaurant chain in the San Francisco Bay Area. Matthew and Terces are trailblazers in the American sustainable food movement, so it was an amazing privilege to be welcomed into their home to learn more about their philosophy and business model. In exchange for a gorgeous lunch of home-made tortillas with various beans and greens from their garden, we spent the day helping to grow organic fruits and nuts that supply the bulk of their restaurants in the Bay Area.

Cafe Gratitude's mission statement reflects a business style that is rooted in a deep connection to the community and land that provides the energy to grow their food:

"Café Gratitude is our expression of a world of plenty. Our food and people are a celebration of our aliveness. We select the finest organic ingredients to honor the earth and ourselves, as we are one and the same. We support local farmers, sustainable agriculture and environmentally friendly products. Our food is prepared with love. We invite you to step inside and enjoy being someone that chooses: loving your life, adoring yourself, accepting the world, being generous and grateful every day, and experiencing being provided for. Have fun and enjoy being nourished. Welcome to Café Gratitude!"

To learn more about Café Gratitude, please click here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Agriculture Day in Willits

One of the best parts of my job is getting to teach little kids about sustainable living, and (more often than not) learning from them about what it means to live sustainably. Over the past two months, I've met dozens of 8-10 year olds who've taught me all about what it means to live off the grid, to build natural structures, to raise animals and grow vegetables organically... and the list goes on. Needless to say, it is a constant source of inspiration in my life these days.

Yesterday, we had the privilege of participating in Agriculture Day in the town of Willits, where we taught 400 Grade 2-4 students how to make adobe bricks using natural materials from the earth and how to bake cookies using a solar oven. Between hands-on sessions, I met two 9-year old beekeepers named John and Clay, who were demonstrating how to make honey from their backyard hive. Watching little kids teaching other kids about the benefits of homesteading was pretty amazing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Urban Homesteading: How to Raise Backyard Goats

Urban homesteading is super trendy right now in the Bay Area, where just about everyone seems to have a few backyard chickens or goats these days. Since we had the chicken part down pat since Day One, we decided to adopt two baby goats last week to go through the process of raising our own meat in a sustainable manner. Not surprisingly, it has generated a bit of controversy among the organization's vegetarian donor base, but we strongly believe that if we eat it, we should know what's involved in raising and processing it. So we built a large pen under one of our solar arrays, picked up some goat feed, and adopted two little bucklings of about six weeks old.

In addition to being a great source of meat, raising a small goat herd can also be a powerful method for landscape management, as goat grazing controls a lot of unwanted weed species like poison oak, which is pervasive in Northern California at this time of year. Another benefit of raising goats is all of the fantastic by-products that you can make with their milk and whey, such as cheese, yogourt, ice cream, and soap!

For more information on the benefits of raising backyard goats, please visit www.supergoat.org.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How to Design and Install Grid-Tied Solar Systems

To complement the off-grid course I took last month, I spent all of last week in an intensive 40-hour solar photovoltaic design and installation workshop, focused primarily on how to design and install residential and commercial grid-connected solar pv systems. The course was designed to prepare students to sit for the NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners) Entry Level Exam, which I took on the final day of the course. Through in-class demonstration and hands-on practice, I was able to learn the basics of pv system sizing and wiring; racking and mounting techniques; installing/connecting inverters, charge controllers, meters, and safety disconnects; ground fault protection; and battery sizing. It was great to finally learn some tech talk and get my hands dirty with an actual rooftop solar installation!

Like the off-grid course, the highlight of the week was getting to know the 28 individuals who traveled from across the country and world to do the workshop:

Manuel from Aruba, who plans to start a small solar business on his island community; Mario from Miami, who wants to add solar installation services to his clean tech company and expand its presence across the country; Oliver from Ecuador, who hopes to bring solar electricity to a local indigenous group; and finally Justin and Brian, two brothers from Oregon who are the first men in their family to defect from the logging industry to follow a new career path.

p.s. For my technically-inclined friends, the other highlight of the workshop was undoubtedly when I was the first in the class to calculate the AC power output of a polycrystalline solar module by multiplying STC wattage x irradiance factor x derate factors... all with a Grade 11 math education! If I could do it, anyone can.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Monday, April 12, 2010

Magruder Ranch

We've just entered into the little-known rainy season in Northern California, so we bundled up and went on a field trip to Magruder Ranch -- a 5th generation family ranch that raises 100% grass-fed beef and lamb and acorn-finished pastured pork. The ranch supplies a number of restaurants in the Bay Area that pioneered the sustainable food movement, including Alice Waters' famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Located on a gorgeous 2400-acre property in Potter Valley, the Magruders are slowly converting their ranch into a retreat destination for rural weekend getaways and workshops on sustainable farming and cooking. We look forward to helping them transform their gorgeous property into a one-stop-shop for sustainable meats and retreats!

Please visit their facebook page to learn more about their vision and farming practices.