Monday, August 26, 2013

Sidewalk Omelets

Published in the Sun August 24, 2013

A Failed Experiment

Last week I foolishly tried to pick up a big steel chain that had been lying in the sun all afternoon.  It was hotter than the brass hinges of Hades.  I had to kick it along the ground to keep from losing the skin on my hands.  It made me think about that old saying about being hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk and wonder if that can actually be done.  Not willing to trust the people on You Tube about this important question, I decided to do the experiment myself.

At 3:00 on a sunny afternoon I placed a cast iron skillet on my driveway and let it heat up for 15 minutes.  An infrared thermometer told me the pan was 163 degrees.  The iron skillet holds more heat than the concrete, which was only 150 degrees.  I added a little butter and it melted nicely before I broke an egg into the pan.  Nothing happened.  I stirred the egg around, thinking that would help the process, and let it sit out in the sun for thirty minutes.  No scrambled egg for me.  It turns out the liquid in the egg cools the pan enough to keep it from cooking.  The egg started to dry up, and congealed into an unappealing tan colored slime, but it was definitely not cooked.  Oh well, I can cross sidewalk omelets off the bucket list.

Complaining about the heat is a major recreational pastime in August, but of course Texas is not even one of the hottest places.  Last July, the average high in Baghdad was 115, and often they suffer over 120 degrees.  How would you like to live there without air conditioning?  In January of this year, during a particularly bad heat wave, southern Australia had to add a new color to the weather maps:  a bright purple representing 125 to 129 degrees Fahrenheit.

But just because there are hotter places doesn’t mean we don’t have a legitimate complaint.  As I write this we are up to 30 days past the 100 degree mark and August isn’t half over.  Having satisfied my curiosity about eggs, I started wondering what is normal for 100 degree days around here.  The National Weather Service has kept records on Austin since 1898, and over that 115 year period they say that the average number of 100 degree days is thirteen.  You read that right:  When you look at the whole period since 1898, the average number of 100 degree days in a summer is 13.

Here is the number of 100 degree days we’ve experienced over the last few years:

2012 – 35
2011 – 90
2010 – 22
2009 – 68
2008 – 50
2007 – 3
2006 - 34

So it’s not your imagination.  It really has been hot lately.  But not quite hot enough to cook an egg on the sidewalk.



Saturday, August 10, 2013

Por Vida!

Published in the Sun August 10, 2013

Joe Kerby, Brittaney Kerby, Melissa Cammack, Erin Rigney, and Marcus Cooper
at the Hutto McDonald's owned by the Kerbys
When I first heard that Williamson County was ranked the healthiest county in the Texas I was a bit surprised.  We have wonderful people here, of course, but health-wise they strike me as somewhere in the average range, which is of course where most of us rank in pretty much everything.  It turns out that the health department did not actually go around and check everybody’s blood pressure or put people on treadmills.  The evaluations of county health are made by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, with the cooperation of state and local health departments.  Instead of doing check-ups on people, they look at statistics such as premature death rates, how many people smoke or are obese, teen pregnancy, unemployment rates, and even air pollution.  They also counted doctors and dentists in the area, and how many people had health insurance.

To come out on top of all the counties in Texas, Williamson County obviously did very well on most measures, but I was curious if there was any category in which we flubbed up, so I called Dr. Chip Riggins, the executive director of the Williamson County and Cities Health District (WCCHD).  He confessed that in the category labeled “Percent of All Restaurants that are Fast Food Establishments” we scored 56%, which is worse than the Texas average of 52% and considerably worse than the national benchmark of 27%.  As a county, we really enjoy hamburgers and French fries.

If a woman goes to a certain drive-through establishment in Georgetown for lunch and orders a bacon cheeseburger with mayonnaise, a medium order of onion rings, and a small chocolate shake, that one meal would satisfy her entire daily calorie and sodium requirements, with twice as much fat as recommended.  If she makes a habit of that meal, and also continues to eat breakfast and supper, over time she will gain weight, and quite likely develop heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.  This is such a familiar progression that we have come to regard it as normal aging, which it is not.

Americans consume one-third of our daily calories outside of the home.  If we are going to eat out that much, we need to order healthy menu items.

This is where the health department steps in with a little assistance.  ¡Por Vida! (which means “For Life”) is a new WCCHD program helping participating restaurants identify menu items that meet strict criteria for calorie, fat, and sodium content.  Items that pass the test are marked on the menu with a special ¡Por Vida! logo.

Melissa Cammack, Director of Healthy Communities, Erin Rigney, a registered dietician, and Marcus Cooper, Marketing Director, all from WCCHD met me recently at the McDonald’s across from Hutto High School.  Joe and Brittaney Kerby, the owners of this and several other McDonald’s restaurants in the area, have volunteered for the ¡Por Vida! program and are rolling out the new menu stickers and promotional pamphlets this week.

Joe and Brittaney are in their 30s and are regular exercisers.  Brittaney recently completed a five kilometer race, running the whole distance, and is now training to get her time below 30 minutes.  When she brings her two sons to the McDonald’s she makes them eat oatmeal and lets them split an order of fries for a treat.  Joe eats at the restaurant every day.  The Southwest Salad is his favorite, fresh lettuce topped with fire-roasted corn, black beans, tomatoes and tortilla strips, but when Brittaney is not watching he will sometimes enjoy a triple cheeseburger.  Brittaney has studied nutrition and is really enthusiastic about the ¡Por Vida! program.  She says that a lot of people just don’t know that McDonald’s carries healthy menu items, but she admits that hamburgers still sell better than salads.  I ask her if the cashiers are going to counsel people not to buy large shakes to go with their salads and she looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind.  “It’s about having a choice,” she explains diplomatically.

Everybody else has already eaten, but I have come hungry to taste-test the healthy choices.  Joe brings me a small hamburger, a small fruit smoothie, and a Southwest Salad.  Marcus takes the hamburger off my hands, and the rest of them stare at me while I eat.  There is a package of Paul Newman salad dressing, but Erin tells me that the dressing isn’t counted for the ¡Por Vida! sticker so I play by the rules and squeeze some lime juice on my salad.  Even without dressing the salad tastes really good and fills me up, and the price is just $3.99.  I wash it down with the Wild Berry Smoothie.

To qualify for a ¡Por Vida! sticker, a meal must meet the following criteria:

            <700 calories

            <23 grams total fat

            <8 grams saturated fat

            <0.5 grams trans fat

            <750 milligrams sodium

The one weakness of the ¡Por Vida! criteria is that the content of sugar is not specified.  That’s how the Wild Berry Smoothie can qualify.  On the other hand, most people should be able to figure out that the Wild Berry Smoothie has more sugar than the salad.  The ¡Por Vida! literature that Erin brought for me recommends water as the preferred beverage.

Other area establishments that are participating in ¡Por Vida! are Carino’s Italian Restaurant, Catfish Parlour, The Egg and I, and the Wesleyan at Estrella.  The folks at WCCHD intend to recruit more eating establishments into the program soon.  They want to hang onto that Healthiest County designation.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Soaking Up the Sun in Georgetown

Published in the Sun August 3, 2013

One of the proposed solar farm sites, the decommissioned landfill.  At the bottom left is the road crossing the San Gabriel at the east end of the park, and at bottom right is the wastewater treatment plant.  The solar panels are inserted into the photo with computer graphics.
Jim Briggs, general manager of utilities for the city of Georgetown, is a no-nonsense kind of guy when it comes to electricity.  He wants to keep your lights on, and he doesn’t want people calling him at the end of the month complaining that their electric bills are too high.  Mr. Briggs also wants Georgetown to invest in more renewable energy.


“This is not just a green thing.  I’m looking at the numbers.”  Two years ago Mr. Briggs discussed renewable energy with the city council and together they set a goal that by 2030, thirty percent of Georgetown’s electricity would be from renewable sources.  Of course, shifting from fossil fuels to wind and solar energy decreases air pollution and carbon emissions, but there are economic reasons to make the switch as well.  Fossil fuels are not only subject to the whims of the market but are also increasingly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Georgetown no longer uses electricity from coal plants, but 92% of our electricity is generated from natural gas.  It is risky to be so dependent on one source of power.  Natural gas is cheap now, but as it becomes widely used as a transportation fuel, Mr. Briggs believes the price will shoot up.  Two years ago he thought that it would be irresponsible NOT to have renewables in the portfolio as a hedge against rising fuel prices.  He is even more convinced today, because the price for renewable energy has dropped.


Later this month Mr. Briggs is going to ask the city council to authorize him to negotiate contracts for two alternative energy proposals that would push Georgetown past its goal of 30% renewable energy.


The first proposal is for a two to five megawatt community solar farm to be located right here in Georgetown.  Two potential locations are being studied.  One is the old landfill at the end of College Street and the other is near the Dove Springs wastewater treatment plant.  No up-front capital expenditure by the city would be required because, for the first 6 years, the equipment would be owned by Borrego Solar, the company that would design and build the installation.  Borrego would be eligible for the federal tax credits for renewable energy that are not available to municipalities.  Georgetown would agree to purchase all the electricity generated for the first 6 years.  Then in the seventh year we would have the option to purchase the entire solar array for a predetermined amount, and harvest free electricity from the sun for the lifetime of the panels, which could be well over thirty years.


The idea of a solar farm on a landfill is particularly interesting.  What else can you do with an old landfill?  You can’t put houses or businesses on it, but the EPA actually encourages reuse of “contaminated” sites for renewable energy projects.  The panels would be mounted on stone and concrete pads in such a way that the cap of the landfill is not disturbed or penetrated.  It’s like making lemonade out of a landfill lemon.


Here is how the solar farm plan would work for us, the consumers.  Suppose I want to reduce my carbon footprint and use solar energy but there are big trees all around my house shading my roof.  Or maybe my homeowner’s association is stuck in the Dark Ages and doesn’t allow solar panels.  Possibly I don’t have the extra cash on hand to purchase panels.  Rather than making an expensive improvement to my house, I can contract to purchase solar electricity from the community solar farm, without punching any holes in my own roof.  The city will even put a nametag on my solar panels and I can go visit them any time I want.  Then, if I decide to move to another town, I can relinquish the panels and they can be assigned to another solar customer.


A two megawatt solar farm could supply electricity for about 1400 homes.  Actually, it produces more than they would need during daylight hours, so the solar customers would share their solar electricity with everybody else while the sun is shining.  When the sun is not shining, the regular customers would share their natural gas and wind electricity with the solar customers.  Everybody gets all the power they need, whenever they need it.


The electricity generated by a community solar farm would be a few cents more expensive per kilowatt-hour than what we currently pay for electricity, but the price is locked in for 25 years, unlike the price for natural gas electricity, which can vary from day to day.


The second proposal that Mr. Briggs will make to the city council is economically even more compelling.  Out in sunny west Texas on 153 acres of desert, an experienced utility-scale solar company, SunPower, can build us our own 30 megawatt solar array to deliver pollution-free electrons that are competitive with, or even cheaper than, gas generated electricity today.  No up-front costs are required for this deal either.


Since a solar farm is not going to run afoul of the EPA or be subject to any future carbon taxes, the price comparison is just going to get better.  Many things could happen to natural gas over the next thirty years, but we can be fairly confident that the sun will keep shining in west Texas.


Mr. Briggs is an old hand in the utilities business, but he is enthusiastic about these new solar proposals.  “Economically it just makes sense.  It’s the right thing to do, and sometimes you just have to do the right thing.”