Monday, March 29, 2010

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Montgomery Woods

This posting is dedicated to my dad -- nature photographer extraordinaire xo

I met a farmer last week who explained to me why he'd recently made the move from Montana to the Golden State: "California is home to the world's oldest tree, the world's tallest tree, and the world's largest tree. Enough said."

In this vein, I've decided to take a trip to all three, starting this past weekend with the world's tallest tree in Montgomery Woods State Reserve, about 25 miles northwest of Hopland. Towering at over 360 feet tall, these giant Redwoods reach for the sky like peaks of a cathedral.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Solar for All

Since I haven’t written about anything policy-related yet, I would like to profile an exciting new initiative that we’ll be launching next week at the Solar Living Institute. First off, I get very excited about the prospect of using renewable energy to fulfill social policy objectives. There are a number of reasons why I am drawn to renewable energy, most of which have to do with economic and environmental issues. But with the right mix of idealism and pragmatism, I believe that renewable energy can also 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. With this in mind, I am thrilled that the SLI is participating in a new project called Solar for All California, which will train a group of 18 displaced and unemployed individuals (50% from local aboriginal groups) to install 3 kW solar PV systems on 150 low-income single family homes.

The project is being coordinated by North Coast Energy Services (NCES), the LIHEAP (i.e. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) provider for seven counties in Northern California – and includes a collaborative team of local governments, solar companies, non-profits, economic development organizations, and local aboriginal groups. The SLI is providing the training and certification for the 18 individuals selected for the installation component, and Real Goods Solar (SLI’s partner company) will be installing the systems and hiring the trainees as full-time employees after project completion. Funding for the project came from the Department of Community Services and Development, State of California.

In addition to the socio-economic benefits associated with the project, the solar installations (and some weatherization measures) are expected to generate a 50-90% reduction in energy consumption per household, and result in a carbon emission reduction equivalent to removing 3300 cars from the road!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Meet the Chickens

Rosalina and Sheila

Rosalina and Sheila


The Twins

Rosalina and Carmelita

Ol' Crooked Leg

It's my first week on chicken duty, and I've spent most of my early mornings shooting portraits of them. On a daily basis, the chickens supply us with over a dozen of the most delicious eggs I have ever tasted. They also provide an endless source of entertainment throughout the day.

Monday, March 22, 2010

San Francisco Farmer's Market

One of the first places I like to go when visiting a new city is the local farmer's market, which is often a microcosm of the city's values, practices, and beliefs. The Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market in San Francisco is undoubtedly the most stylish farmer's market I have ever been to (take that, Prenzlauer Berg!) The market is run by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting a sustainable food system. After waiting in the half-hour lineup for the trendiest cup of organic coffee in San Francisco (this place epitomizes the concept of slow food -- they french press AND filter each cup of coffee individually!), I fluttered from one vendor to the next, admiring the design of the signage and labeling attached to each stand and food item. I would seriously recommend this place just for the signs and labels. Which one is your favourite?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Daylight Savings

A few people have asked for more photos of the Solar Living Centre, so I've posted some of my favourite on-site features. Solar 2000 is our 132 kilowatt solar array that straddles the south side of our property and a neighbouring vineyard. It was the first grid-connected solar array built in California to sell exclusively into the deregulated electricity market of the late 1990s, and is my all-time favourite backdrop for photo shoots. In addition to Solar 2000, the property has a number of off-grid solar photovoltaic and thermal panels that supply clean energy and heat to the SLI offices and the Real Goods flagship store, which is the centre piece of our property.

The Real Goods store is located in the central oasis and was built to maximize the use of passive solar design -- in the summer months, the building is shielded from the intense summer sun through a combination of overhangs, outdoor grape arbors, and a central fountain with a "drip ring" that provides evaporative cooling qualities. In the winter months, the building is insulated from the outdoor air through super-insulating straw bale walls.

The north side of our property contains a beautiful organic garden where we celebrated daylight savings tonight by transplanting baby radishes from our greenhouse into our freshly dug garden beds. Next to the garden is our heart-shaped pond (I am not joking) that is home to a number of friendly ducks, including Frank who is pictured above.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How to Make and Use Biodiesel

To celebrate my new driver's license, I took my first SLI workshop today on how to make and use biodiesel out of recycled vegetable oil. Recycled oil can be converted to biodiesel in a fairly simple process that is similar to making soap -- you simply mix the oil with a bit of methanol and potassium hydroxide to create a chemical reaction that produces fuel for use in diesel engines. Diesel engines are generally more efficient and long-lasting than regular gasoline engines, and making your own biodiesel (or sourcing from a local producer) is a far more sustainable option than fueling up the standard way. Also, using recycled waste products (from restaurants, etc.) means that you can avoid the long-standing debate over whether to use/displace valuable cropland for fuel production.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Bee Keeping, Tree Hugging, Whale Watching

Friday was our first community orientation day, and we spent the morning learning about our on-site organic/biodynamic garden that supplies the interns and staff with most of their food. I assumed there would be some lettuce and a few fresh herbs, but I wasn't prepared for artichokes, asparagus, peaches, pears, cherries, plums, quince, chard, kale, beets, garlic, and an entire mini-forest of pecan trees and blueberry bushes! In the afternoon, we got started on weeding the asparagus bed and snacked on a few stray stalks in the process.

On Saturday morning, we drove out to John Shaeffer's property (i.e. Founder of the Solar Living Institute) to help with some bee maintenance in anticipation of an upcoming workshop where we'll be separating a bee colony into two. John's house was spectacular -- completely off-grid and constructed with super-insulating rastra blocks that are made from 85% recycled styrofoam and 15% concrete. The home's clean energy comes from a few rooftop and ground-mounted solar panels as well as a mini-hydro source from a nearby creek.

On Sunday morning, we drove through the Navarro River Redwood Forest to the Mendocino Coast for the annual Whale Festival, where some 20,000 gray whales migrate north from the birthing grounds in Mexico to their winter home in Alaska. We didn't see any whales, but had an incredible picnic on the coast!

Friday, March 5, 2010

First Impressions

After three days of customs issues, I finally arrived at the Solar Living Institute around 3:00 yesterday morning and slipped right into bed in my new passive solar straw bale cabin. When I woke up in the morning, I was struck by the beauty of the land and the design of the space that I will be living and working in. The SLI is a gorgeous 12-acre permaculture oasis surrounded by organic vineyards in a fertile valley along the Russian River. The site itself is designed to showcase a variety of renewable energy technologies, including a 132 kW solar array that supplies the site with most of its clean energy. Just down the railroad tracks, the town of Hopland has a population of 800 but still manages to have about 10 wine tasting rooms and a local brew pub!