Thursday, August 28, 2014

Heeding the Atmosphere's Check Engine Light

Published in the Sun Aug 27, 2014

Suppose at your annual checkup you found that your blood pressure, steady for years at 120/80, had suddenly risen to 170/115.  Wouldn’t you be curious what caused the increase?  Wouldn’t you be worried about possible consequences?  So the doctor walks in and you start to ask what you should do but she interrupts, ”Blood pressure is natural.  Without blood pressure you would be in shock and die.”

True, you ponder, but more is not always better.  Doesn’t untreated high blood pressure lead to strokes and heart disease?  The doctor continues, “Maybe you will be fine.  We don’t know for sure that you will have a stroke.  Ninety seven percent of doctors think that very high blood pressure should be treated but I think that blood pressure is very complicated and we should not be interfering in this process which is beyond our capacity to control.  Let’s leave the outcome to Providence.”

At this point you, a prudent patient, will most likely want a second opinion, but some people would really rather continue with the current carefree lifestyle and enjoy the potato chips, so they happily accept the comfortable message of denial.

You have surely figured out that I am not talking about blood pressure.  The silly story above is a metaphor for our situation with atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).  For the last 800,000 years the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has remained steady at about 280 parts per million (ppm).  Since humans began burning fossil fuels for energy, atmospheric CO2 has risen sharply and now hovers around 400 ppm.  Not that 400 ppm of CO2 is intrinsically dangerous; far from it.  A classroom full of children, all exhaling regularly, will easily top 800 ppm.  So if nobody is dropping dead, what’s the big deal?

The rising CO2 level is like our atmospheric check engine light has come on, telling us that something has seriously changed and if we don’t get to the garage pretty quick there could be some permanent damage.  For an example, over 60% of the calories that people consume are from rice, maize, and wheat.  All three crops were developed during the last 10,000 years in a constant atmosphere of 280 ppm CO2.  We don’t know yet how they will respond to a changing climate.  If you like to eat, and seven billion of us do, that could turn out to be a very important question.

Human nature being what it is, we deal with day to day emergencies as they come up and frequently ignore situations that might cause problems in the future.  Global climate change involves organic chemistry, and who can do chemistry during these times of cross border terrorists and Ebola fever? 

Dr. Joshua Long, professor of environmental studies at Southwestern, has a personal stake in keeping Texas’ climate healthy.  His family owns 600 acres of ranchland in Bastrop county, on which they raise grass fed beef.  Josh would like his 5 year old daughter, and her children, to continue ranching.  But if central Texas continues to get hotter and drier, cattle ranching will no longer be an option, and the Long family might have to sell out to developers, replacing the green pastures with endless rows of single family dwellings with xeriscaped yards.

Dr. Long, a geographer by training, studies how people interact with their local environment.  He is currently writing a book on Texas environmental policy:  what made us choose this particular path for development, why do oil and gas provide 15% of our gross state product?  Why does Texas, with an abundance of natural gas, burn so much coal that we emit more greenhouse gas and mercury pollution than any other state.  He is interested in figuring out how we might chart a new path into the future that would be just as lucrative, but more sustainable, than the one we are on now.  I asked him to define the overused word “sustainable”.  He laughed because there are 26 million differing opinions about Texas environmental policy.  Dr. Long, who calls himself an independent voter, laments the idea that Democrats are considered pro-environment and Republicans pro-business, a dichotomy that makes no sense.  A businessman has to protect his resources and an environmentalist has to make a living.  We all worry about water and lament the invasion of bastard cabbage.  Surely we could find some common ground on stewardship of the atmosphere.

On Thursday, September 18 at 7 pm in the main sanctuary at First United Methodist Church, Dr. Long will conduct a seminar titled “What’s The Big Fuss About Climate Change?”  He will discuss likely effects of climate change in Texas and discuss actions we might take to mitigate adverse effects.  People of all political persuasions are welcome to attend and participate in a lively discussion of science and politics.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Coping With Texas Heat

Published in the Sun June, 2014

Dwight Richter of Georgetown checks out an outdoor shower on the Cool Home Tour
Even though I was born here, I believe that Texas is barely fit for human habitation in the summertime.  Every winter when the sky is blue and the air is cool and dry, I fantasize that the coming summer will finally be the one in which a sturdy fan, a tall glass of iced tea, and a hefty dose of ecological self-righteousness will suffice in lieu of air conditioning.  In the spring, the balmy breeze through the open windows is soft as a caress, the rustling trees and the thrum of cicadas are a lullaby, and I feel kinship with a benevolent Mother Nature.  People thrived here for hundreds of years without air-conditioning; surely I am no less hardy than they.

But every year, usually in May, a deathly still day arrives when the humidity tops 80 percent and the temperature has climbed into the mid nineties.  Sweat runs down my back even if I could sit perfectly still, but I can’t sit still because of a cloud of blood-sucking mosquitoes.  Mother Nature is no longer benign, but rather an uncaring dominatrix awaiting my eventual return to compost.  I cannot save the planet in this infernal heat.

This year I made it until June before admitting that I am indeed less evolutionarily fit than my forebears.  My grandmother used to sleep under a wet sheet to stay cool, but I have more convenient options.  With a reluctant twist of the thermostat I both increased my carbon footprint and sealed myself into a habitable pod, like an astronaut on the Space Station.

It hasn’t always been the case that a house was meant to seal us off from the hostile environment.  For thousands of years people lived mostly outside and a shelter was considered adequate if it kept the rain off and the predators out at night.  But being human, and by nature chronically dissatisfied, we gradually demanded more.

First we began to cook inside, even though the smoke was deadly until chimneys were invented.  Then, however crazy it sounds, we decided to poop indoors, which clearly required other technological innovations.

Sometime in the latter half of the twentieth century we decided we needed more space; about a thousand square feet per person would be very comfortable.  To remind us of our European roots we put a steep roof on the house to shed snow (no matter that there wasn’t really any snow), decorated with a stylish Italian façade, and surrounded the house with a lawn like an English manor, which looks appealing and would be perfect for grazing sheep or croquet, but you can’t play in the grass because of chiggers, so it is only useful for mowing practice.   Next we wanted a perfectly modulated indoor climate, even though heating and cooling a home accounts for almost 50% of residential electricity usage.  And to top off the absurdity of our housing desires we build this modern version of a house several hundred copies at a time on rocky pastures where there is not enough water to support one cow per five acres.

On June 8, almost the same day that I turned on my AC, I also visited some of the homes on the 18th annual Cool House Tour, sponsored by the Texas Solar Energy Society and Austin Energy Green Building.  The purpose of the tour is to showcase new homes and remodels that have been designed to be energy efficient and comfortable, with less negative impact on the environment.  These houses are technologically advanced, but because they are all one-off projects, they are creative far beyond anything you might find in a tract home.

HausBar Farm was one of the most popular homes on the tour.  Sitting on less than two acres in east Austin, this working urban farm has space enough for a large garden, dozens of hens, ducks, and rabbits, and even a donkey.  A 30,000 gallon rainwater tank provides irrigation for the vegetables and animals and a 22 kilowatt solar array covers a pole barn in the yard.  Although the house is efficiently insulated and air conditioned, the owners can stay cool outside on either a shady screened porch or a shady patio beside an inviting swimming pool.  Shade is absolutely the first, most important step in energy efficiency for Texas.  Keep the summer sun off the walls and windows and make the roof light-colored to reflect the heat, and you have gone a long way toward reducing energy costs.

A kitchen on the patio allows the farmers to do their cooking outside in warm weather, so the house stays cooler.  A shower is also located on the patio.  A regular feature at scout camps and Caribbean resorts, outdoor showers put the excitement back into bathing, while also keeping humidity out of the house and lessening the load on the AC unit.

Another home on the tour economized on space.  The young professional couple packed lots of luxury into 903 square feet.  The small size means they used less material to build, and will spend far less to heat and cool.  They will not have to waste a lot of time cleaning either, and will have time and money to do the fun things they want to do.  Less is more.

Texas can be a hostile environment, but with a little imagination you can find clever ways of dealing comfortably and efficiently with summer heat, without having to sleep between wet sheets.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Notes From the Wrong End of a Stethoscope

Published in the Sun June 1, 2014

I have recently accompanied my father, who is 84, on some of his medical excursions, which has been an enlightening experience, and not in a particularly good way.  As a former practitioner of medicine, I am used to being on the other end of the stethoscope; the end with all the power and prestige.  Being the patient, or even the patient’s family member, is a different kettle of fish.

Here are some things I have noticed about the medical profession when viewed from the supine position, and I would be willing to bet that I am not the only person with these experiences.  First, old people can still speak regular, adult English.  A medical assistant interviewed my dad in a high-pitched, patronizing voice “Are we taking our medicines?“ and “How is our blood pressure today?”  When she got to “Are we having trouble walking?” my dad, who started several businesses and has multiple patents, turned to me and asked sarcastically, “Does she have trouble walking also?”  Save the baby talk for patients under four years old.

Another puzzling thing happens if a patient or family member questions a recommendation for yet another invasive test or increase in medication.  The doctor’s eyes narrow suspiciously and you can almost see a little text box over his (or her) head flashing the alarm “Noncompliant patient-Beware!”  You might think a little caution would be in order, since medical errors and complications are the third leading cause of death in the US, responsible for somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000 premature departures annually.  Doctors and hospitals are almost as deadly as cancer and heart disease.  Remember that old saying, “He was at death’s door and the doctor pulled him through.”  There is wisdom in those old sayings.  One of the first things I learned in medical school was the adage, “Primum non nocere.”  First, do no harm.  It was a solemn reminder that every medication has side effects and any procedure can go wrong.  Another saying I learned in medical school, and a personal favorite of my dad’s, is “All bleeding stops eventually.”

At one of my dad’s appointments with a cardiologist, the doctor suggested another coronary arteriogram with possible stents.  I asked, because I did not know the answer, if placing another stent in an artery that had previously been both bypassed and stented could reasonably be expected to provide benefit.  He said he couldn’t be sure unless he looked, but hastened to add that we could also just wait and see how Dad would do on his medications.  Not discussed in our conversation, because cost is almost never discussed, was that an angiogram would cost at least $20,000.  For $20,000 it seems like there should be some reasonable expectation of benefit, wouldn’t you think?

The subject of cost poses the most difficult ethical question in medicine today.  How much intervention is appropriate at the end of life?  Patients who are placed on hospice or palliative care as they approach death spend many thousands of dollars less than those who continue medical therapy.  Interestingly, the hospice patients also live longer.  Patients with heart failure, like my dad, live almost three months longer on hospice than they do if they continue aggressive treatment.  This fact is often used to extol the virtues of hospice care, but I think more likely it illustrates the hazard of futile interventions in the intensive care unit.  More hospital humor – The risk of dying in the ICU increases exponentially with the number of specialists required.  But here is the real good news:  proactive discussions (and written instructions) between you and your physician about how you want to spend the last few months of your life increase your chances for a pain-free, dignified death in the company of your family and friends.

My dad likes to say that he has already lived as long as most people can expect to live, so he is getting ready for his next assignment.  Whenever he hears the siren of an ambulance he grins and says, “There goes another meat wagon without me in it.”

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Solar Power Helps Environment, Pocketbook

Published in the Sun May 7, 2014

Bill Stump puts the finishing touches on the racks fro a solar array on 18th street

In 1973, when the engineering department at UT finally decided that students could use calculators in class, my husband Bill put his slide rule in the drawer and we headed to the University Co-op for a major purchase.  He picked out the deluxe calculator that could do square roots as well as add, subtract, multiply, and divide.  That was all it could do, but it set us back more than $200, which was about 50 date-night enchilada dinners at El Patio.  These days you can get a free calculator on a key chain, but that’s the way technology evolves.  The early adopters pay more.

Another technology with a plummeting price is photovoltaic solar panels, as I can attest from personal experience.  In 2006 we bought ten solar panels (a 2 kilowatt system), with the required DC to AC inverter and roof racking, for $12,960.  We installed them ourselves, which requires at least one person who understands electricity, and several others who are not afraid of heights.  If you don’t have the right kind of roof you will also have to put bolts through the roof, in which case you will definitely need somebody who understands roof flashing, because you will not like your solar panels if the roof leaks.  After a $2000 tax credit from the federal government, our cost was about $5.50 a watt.

Please note that this cost of $5.50 per watt has nothing to do with the cost that you might pay your utility company for a kilowatt-hour of electricity, which is about 11 cents.  A watt of generating capacity will produce a watt-hour of electricity every hour that the sun shines, day after day, for the next 30 or 40 years, maybe longer.  There are no moving parts to wear out, and maintenance is close to zero.  For the last seven years those ten panels have produced an average of 215 kilowatt-hours per month.  At night, or when the house is using more than the panels can provide, electricity is supplied by the grid.  During the day when nobody is home the panels are putting electricity back into the grid and the meter is essentially running backwards.  The switching back and forth all happens automatically.

This year we purchased a much bigger solar array for almost exactly the same price that we paid for the small array eight years ago.  The panels are getting more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity, so now we can get 5.6 kilowatts of power in 21 panels.  Even including the racks and inverters, the cost has dropped to $2.13 per watt.  Let’s say we get 750 kilowatt-hours per month from this new array.  At 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, the array would be producing about $82.50 worth of electricity a month.  Over 30 years that equals $29,700 worth of electricity.  If the market price of electricity rises, so does the profitability of the panels, because the sunshine stays free.  It won’t be too long before utilities start charging their customers more for electricity consumed at peak demand hours in the late afternoon, and that is exactly when panels are producing the most energy.

The precipitous drop in price of solar panels explains why last year 3900 megawatts of new solar generation capacity were installed in the United States.  Of new electricity sources installed in 2013, solar was second only to natural gas.

Of course the really cool thing about solar panels is that they produce clean electricity from sunshine, which is plentiful to the point of being a nuisance.  After the panels are built and installed, there are no CO2 emissions, no particulates, no smog, no mercury, no fracking, no water consumption, no noise, and no toxic spills.  Texas has all this energy from the sun relentlessly beating down on us.  Might as well get some benefit from it.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Friendly Will Baptist Church and its Tribulations with HARC

Published in the Sun April 9, 2014

Pastor Rudy Williams and the Friendly Will Baptist Church

In 1945, the members of Friendly Will Baptist Church built their church building on their own property at the end of 14th Street, right beside the old railroad tracks and across the street from the cotton gin.  On the east side of the courthouse the streets were paved, but Friendly Will was on the poor side of town and their part of 14th Street was just a gravel road with a drainage ditch beside it.  The war was ending and people didn’t have much.  Black people had even less.  No architects drew up plans for the church building.  The men of the church who had building experience just did the best they could with what they had.  They made a rubble foundation for some stone walls held together with plaster.  They hammered together some two by fours to make trusses for a roof.  Where the two by fours weren’t long enough, they spliced them together.  They ran electricity to the building, but made do with outhouses instead of indoor plumbing.

The resulting church was rustic.  It looked a bit like a Spanish mission, except that the missions were about 200 years older and a lot fancier and sturdier.

Fast forward 68 years and the Friendly Will congregation has grown from 60 to 250 members.  Fourteenth Street has been paved, the railroad tracks are gone, and the cotton gin has been replaced by apartments.  A Jack-in-the-Box has popped up on University.  The church has added youth programs, women’s groups, counseling sessions, prison ministry, and an addiction recovery ministry.  Even though indoor bathrooms were installed long ago, and a meeting room was added in the 1980’s, the facility is no longer big enough.  After thousands of dollars of attempted repairs the roof still leaks.  The rubble foundation is collapsing so the floor is a rolling landscape of hills and valleys.  Once a skunk crawled under the floor to die, and worship had to be cancelled until the smell aired out.  According to Pastor Rudy Williams, people come to visit the church, but seeing the wavy floor, the crooked windows, and the holes in the ceiling makes them ask, “Is this all you’ve got?”  Often they don’t come back.

The congregation has been collecting money and pledges for a new church building to meet their needs.  They hired Jimmy Jacobs Construction to design a 7400 square foot building, and applied for a permit to demolish the old church.  A building inspector from the city came out, and what he found was so far out of code that he condemned the old church as structurally unsafe, locked the doors, and told the pastor to conduct services elsewhere.

You would think that a demolition permit would be a cinch once the building is condemned as an imminent threat to public health and safety.  Wrong.  Enter the Historic and Architectural Review Commission (HARC).  This board gets to pass judgment on renovations, alterations, maintenance, and demolition of any building that appears on a list of “historic” priority structures, as the Friendly Will Baptist Church does.  Even though the church owned this piece of property since 1936 and built the building with their own hands, used the building for 68 years, maintained it as well as they could with limited resources over that entire period, and now find themselves evicted from their too small and unsafe facility, the HARC said that they could not tear it down, but should instead look for the $2 million required to salvage the cute faux Spanish mission facade.  Or move to a new location.

HARC told Pastor Williams that the church was an asset to the African-American community.  Williams knew that in its present condition, it was a not an asset, but a liability.

This story sounds like way too much interference in private property decisions.  Time marches on.  We should be happy when people want to upgrade and modernize a bit of our city, especially in the historic district.  Old properties are expensive enough to own without somebody else telling you what you can do and how it has to look when you finish.  As it is now, property owners are so reluctant to deal with the piles of paperwork that they procrastinate on needed renovation.  Take a drive through Old Town to see many examples of “demolition by neglect.”  A rebellious homeowner who ignore the rules and begins his project without a blessing by HARC risks being punished with a stop work order, delaying progress for months.

Rather than a regulatory commission, what if we had a group of donors who would reward property owners who voluntarily meet certain historical and architectural guidelines?  They could call themselves Lovers of Architectural Victorianism Investing in Sustaining History (LAVISH) or Citizens Artistically Saving our Heritage (CASH).  Then we would have people standing in line to keep gingerbread trim on the honeysuckled verandas of old Georgetown. 

The Friendly Will story has a happy ending.  The congregation appealed HARC’s decision, and the city council approved the demolition permit.  Friendly Will gets a modern facility which will truly be an asset to the community.  The old church’s cornerstone and some of the stones from the façade will be used to construct a memorial to those hardworking ancestors who meant to build a church, not a monument.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Driving Electric - Politely

Published in the Sun March 26, 2014

An electric car does not “fill up” as quickly as a gasoline car.  Gasoline is such an energy marvel.  You just pour into your tank and “Voila!” you can drive for hundreds of miles.  Of course, this convenience is the magic of fossil fuels and why we are so loathe to switch to alternative fuels.  A battery, on the other hand, takes some time to recharge, which is why recharging stations are not located at gas stations.  There is nothing to do at a gas station while your car charges, unless you really love fountain drinks, Ding-Dongs, and dirty restrooms.

Car charging stations are best located where people hang out for a while.  Georgetown was pretty smart about their charging stations.  There are a couple at the recreation center, one at the library, and two separate locations downtown.  (There needs to be one at Wolf Ranch as well, and at Southwestern.)

Every new technology develops an etiquette for its use, but sometimes that etiquette is slow to appear.  The etiquette for cell phones is still evolving, which you know if you have ever tried to talk to someone who is using his cell phone under the table, a situation which makes me want to grab the phone like a teacher confiscating a furtive note passed between students.  “Now Jeremy and Marissa, let’s share your little private conversation with all the other children.”

So what is proper etiquette for car charging stations?  It should go without saying that if you drive a gasoline car (yes even a hybrid), you should never park in a charging spot.  Even if you resent the concept of electric cars and believe from the bottom of your heart that God created parking places for pickup trucks, you should still never park in a charging spot.  Almost 96,000 electric vehicles were sold in the US in 2013, and more electric vehicles on the road means more people are looking for a charge.  Somebody might be arriving from another town and counting on that charging station for enough electrons to get home.  Round Rock Nissan sold 40 Leafs last year, practically in Georgetown’s backyard.  There are currently over 400 Tesla owners in Texas.   Leaf owners are rather mild-mannered and usually don’t react if you hog the electric parking spot, but you do not want to mess with someone who drives a Tesla.

Last week I took my Leaf to the Arboretum.  I can make it back from the Arboretum on one charge, but charging allows for some extra side trips and a margin of error.  There is one charger with two designated parking spaces in the parking lot behind Barnes and Nobles.  A Leaf was hooked up to the charger but had finished charging, as indicated by the lights on the dashboard, a code that Leaf owners can easily recognize.  The second designated space was occupied by an SUV, in spite of the fact that the parking lot was virtually empty.  Let’s give the driver the benefit of the doubt and say that when he parked absolutely no other spaces were available, and he must have gone into the Cheesecake Factory whereupon he suffered a massive heart attack, and was even now lying prostrate in the ICU, his recovery hampered by extreme guilt over preventing me from charging my car.  I parked on the far side of the SUV, thinking that just maybe the cord would reach.  Touching somebody else’s car in a garage breaks some kind of modern automotive taboo, but the other Leaf was definitely finished charging, so I unplugged it, swiped my own Chargepoint card, and tried to stretch the cord past the heart attack victim’s SUV.  It was not to be.  The cord was about three feet too short.  I thought about leaving a note but decided that would not improve my karma, and besides, he had probably suffered enough already.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Creativity Can Shape the Future of Georgetown

Published in the Sun March 12, 2014

Where do we want Georgetown to be heading over the next 10 years?  When planning a journey, it is possible to go to the airport and buy the cheapest ticket you can find to whatever destination is on sale.  It’s possible, but it is not the best way to end up in a fabulous location, and it is certainly not the best way to conduct a business trip.  A better scheme (and the one most of us use in our personal lives) is to decide exactly what we would like to do and then figure out how to get to the place we want to be.

So with the subject of goals for Georgetown in mind, I asked a few friends to think “out of the box” about what would make Georgetown an even better place to live.  Here are some of their very interesting ideas.

Tamara Hudgins wrote, “Why the Recreation Center is closed on Sundays baffles me.  People who work have two days to recreate.  Why prevent us from recreating on Sundays?”  The people should rise up and demand Sunday recreation.

Celeste Adams wants Georgetown to be a “Green City,” promoting energy and water efficiency in new commercial buildings.  She suggests that we apply for an Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps Fellow to help create financial strategies for energy and water management.  Climate Corps Fellows have worked with mega corporations such as AT&T, Facebook, Apple, and various cities including Dallas, Atlanta, and Cleveland.  Celeste would also like to see native, drought tolerant landscaping and LEED certified buildings.  If she had her way, city tax exemptions would only be considered for businesses that meet strict efficiency standards.

On a roll, Celeste also suggested a solar powered city bus system.  Since a solar powered bus would have to be electric, and I had never heard of an electric bus, I almost dismissed her suggestion.  But then I read that just this week California’s King Canyon Unified School District began picking up students with an electric bus.  Celeste was way ahead of me.

A lot of people want buses, especially buses that go from Sun City to Wolf Ranch and the Square.  If not electricity, city buses and official vehicles could run on natural gas or propane.  We have a company right here in town, CleanFuel USA, that specializes in propane vehicles.  Bill Snead at Texas Crushed Stone is planning to modify some of his heavy equipment to run on natural gas.

Jonathan Dade, an Army veteran who in two weeks will be cycling in the Ride 2 Recovery from Houston to Fort Worth to benefit injured veterans, wants Georgetown to become more veteran friendly, especially for young veterans and their families.  Maybe we could let veterans use the Rec Center for free on Sundays!  Of course what really makes a city veteran friendly is to have jobs for them, and awesome places where they can afford to live.

Speaking of jobs, I read recently that Tesla Motors, the luxury electric car company, is looking at Texas as a possible location for a lithium-ion battery factory which would employ 6500 people.  Wouldn’t it be cool to lure those tech jobs to Georgetown?  They could hire veterans.

What about expanding our system of bike trails into the neighborhoods off Leander Road?  The bridges across IH 35 are definitely hostile to cyclists.  Only the most intrepid cyclist would attempt to ride a bike from Leander Road to Wolf Ranch, and I certainly wouldn’t let a child try it.  Sam Pfiester and Jack Garey are already working on a scheme to extend the bike trail along the South San Gabriel all the way to Garey Ranch.

Davin Hoyt noticed that the students at Southwestern don’t have a grocery store within easy walking distance and suggests a healthy co-op style market in that area.  A number of people would like to see a Trader Joe’s in Georgetown.  My daughter Kimberly wants a healthy eating place with an indoor playground for kids.  And when, oh when, are we going to get a combination bookstore/coffee shop/brewery on the Square?

Milton Jordan steps way out on a limb and wants to see a city-wide minimum wage in the range of $10 an hour.  He suspects there may be a state law against that kind of innovation but aren’t we in favor of local control?

Georgetown is lucky to be growing and prosperous.  We have a great opportunity to decide which direction we are headed, so don’t keep your out-of-the-box ideas to yourself.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Poverty Hidden in Georgetown Schools

Published in the Sun February 15, 2014

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one square mile, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

John Adams, US President, 1785

Rob Dyer, principal of Mitchell Elementary School, visited one of his students at home last November.  The child lived out a county road in a broken down Winnebago camper with no electricity.  Daddy was working in another town.  A garden hose in the yard provided water.  A toilet in the camper could be flushed by pouring a bucket into it, washing the sewage into a pit behind the house.  Mom cooked on a propane burner in a metal shed attached to the camper.  She was working a minimum wage job as a caregiver, but with an infant to take along with her, a four year old to pick up from pre-k at noon, and a seven year old to pick up in mid-afternoon, it was difficult to make ends meet.  Luckily, Rob and his staff were able to help get the four year old enrolled in Head Start, and Backpack Buddies sent the seven year old home with a bag of food every weekend.  Unfortunately, this family is not particularly unusual at Mitchell.

Most of us like to think of Georgetown as an affluent community:  techies, university professors, and comfortable retirees soaking up suburban bliss between exotic vacations.  Maybe so, but the schools here exist in an alternate universe.  Of the 4,941 students in Georgetown’s elementary schools, almost 57% are economically disadvantaged and qualify for free or reduced price lunch and breakfast.  A family of four with an annual income less than $42,000 qualifies for reduced lunch prices, meaning that thanks to money from the US Department of Agriculture a child pays 40 cents instead of $2.20 for a nutritious lunch.  At Mitchell Elementary in southeast Georgetown, 73% of the children qualify for free or reduced lunches.  Mr. Dyer knows for sure that many of those kids are not gathering around the family table for meatloaf and peas in the evening.  In fact, some don’t get supper at all and are really hungry for a school breakfast the next day.

At this point some reader will be compelled to write to me explaining that dried beans are highly nutritious and cost only $1.20 a pound so there is no reason for any child to go to bed hungry.  Just be forewarned that if you actually write such a letter you will be conscripted to organize and teach the Mitchell dried bean education project.

Due to some special food service grants, Mitchell Elementary is able to provide free breakfast to all students, without regard to their socioeconomic status.  Mr. Dyer prefers the free-for-all approach.  For one thing, nobody is singled out as a free-breakfast kid, and frankly a lot of rich kids are missing breakfast too, just because it’s hard to get breakfast if you are already late for the bus.  He and his daughter frequently enjoy the convenience of breakfast at school.  He points out that when kids start the day well-fed they pay attention in school and have fewer behavior problems.  He seems a bit embarrassed about advocating that lunch and breakfast be provided for all his students as part of the school’s mission.  “I have very conservative values, but there are some things that are sacred, and caring for kids is one of those sacred values.”  He wants his kids to be healthy, happy, and productive, and feeding them is pretty basic to that goal.

Mr. Dyer goes on to explain that many people think poverty means the parents are sitting around watching TV, looking for a government handout.  He knows what his school families are doing, where they are living and where they are working because they have to provide that information when they register for school.  He says the vast majority are working, but a minimum wage job at $7.25 an hour will pay $15,000 a year if it is full time and lasts all year.  Even if both parents worked for that much, the children would still qualify for the lunch program.  Median rent in Georgetown is over $900 a month, or $11,000 a year, which doesn’t leave much left over for utilities and groceries.  Many Mitchell families are doubled up in rent houses, some even in rented rooms, and how do you get to your minimum wage job when the car breaks down?

I asked Mr. Dyer if he could wave a magic wand and get anything for his kids, besides food, what would it be?  He didn’t hesitate.  He would have a city-wide grid of safe, filtered WiFi.  A laptop computer for every child would be the icing on the cake.  That way, even if the home could not afford internet access, the child (and the parents) could be computer literate in this modern world where computer literacy is just as necessary as reading.  To illustrate his point he pulls out a map.  A mobile home community in Mitchell’s district just east of town was an internet desert until a tech-savvy donor installed a WiFi transmitter for less than $500.  Now the kids can keep up with the teachers’ webpages, do their homework and research, and the parents can use it as well.  Over 57 American cities have begun providing some level of municpal WiFi, and the smart ones are basing it on a high speed fiberoptic network that also attracts industry.  Mr. Dyer points out that Belton is setting up a city-wide municipal network through the Belton Wireless Project.  If Belton can do it, surely Georgetown can.  After all, if we are going to demand free wireless in our coffee shops, shouldn’t we insist on it for all of our students?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Recycling Doubles Under Single-Stream

Published in the Sun February 13, 2014

Thursday is trash day on my street.  On Thursday mornings, as far as the eye can see in both directions, the curb is punctuated with 95 gallon bins.  Two sit in front of each house, one with a black lid and the other tan, all arranged neatly against the curb before 7 AM.  Compliance of this degree is rarely seen in our individualistic society, but we are highly motivated to get rid of our trash.

The average American generates 4.4 pounds of municipal waste every day, 1606 pounds every year.  A family of four would generate more than 3 tons of waste annually.  Being orderly people, we want that waste to go away promptly so we are not buried under a mountain of junk mail, food boxes, and yard trimmings.  Of course, the trash doesn’t really “go away”, as in disappear forever.  It just changes location.  The final destination for Georgetown trash is the Texas Disposal Systems (TDS) landfill and recycling facility at Creedmoor, southeast of Austin. 

In the fall of 2012, Georgetown began single-stream recycling.  When the 95 gallon recycling bins first arrived, many customers complained that they were too big and wanted to trade them in for smaller versions.  At my house there was no complaining.  We fill that sucker every time.  The trash, on the other hand has diminished to approximately one small kitchen bag a week.  In fact, the kitchen trash usually gets taken out because it is stinky, not because it is full.  Friends have told me that they generate so little trash it seems a waste of effort to push the bin down the driveway every week.

I asked Verna Browning, Community Relations Manager at TDS, how we are doing at single-stream recycling.  In the month before the new bins were delivered, Georgetown recycled 244 tons of material.  We have more than doubled that amount to 503 tons in December 2013.  That means about 6000 tons of material were diverted away from the landfill this past year.  Sun City seems to be doing the most recycling, which should give the rest of us some competitive motivation to get on the stick.

Although the recycled materials have economic worth as raw materials, the real savings comes from preserving landfill space.  Building new landfills is outrageously expensive.  Wasting stuff has never been a really good economic strategy.

In addition to recycling, Georgetown elementary schools are also composting their lunchroom waste.  The children are taught to separate their trash as they leave the cafeteria.  Food, milk cartons, and napkins go for composting.  Water bottles and aluminum cans go into single-stream recycling.  What can’t be recycled goes into the trash.  This small discipline on the part of these young children results in about 7 pounds of waste per child per month being diverted from the landfill.  In the middle schools, which are not yet composting, less than 1 pound per student per month is recycled.  You might look at these numbers and ask why the middle schoolers are recycling so little, or you might also ask why the little kids are wasting so much food!

Ms. Browning has three reminders for readers who want to be good recyclers.  First, 13% of the stuff that gets put in the recycling containers is inappropriate and belongs in the regular trash so look at the list of recyclable items at  Styrofoam cannot be recycled so please put it in the regular trash (or better yet, don’t use Styrofoam.)   If you recycle boxes, be sure that all Styrofoam inserts have been removed.  Second, if you want to recycle your plastic bags and plastic film wrappers, they must be put into a yellow stuffer bag available from the city.  Putting them inside another plastic bag is not good enough because the bags break and jam up the recycling equipment.  If you don’t want to get a yellow stuffer bag then all plastic films and bags must be put in the trash.  Third, yard waste composting will begin in March.  Yard waste must be put in compostable paper bags or in a container clearly marked “Yard Waste” in big letters.  If your leaves are in a black plastic bag, they will go to the landfill.

Gardeners consider bagged leaves a valuable commodity for the compost pile.  Bags that contain only leaves are welcome at Getsemani Community Garden at the corner of Church and East 20th Street.

These items DO NOT belong in recycling bins:  Styrofoam, loose plastic bags, hazardous waste (chemicals and paint), pet food bags, pet waste, lightbulbs, batteries, aerosol cans, motor oil containers, coat hangars, clothing, garden hoses, potato chip bags, wine corks, single use coffee cups, yard waste.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Win-Wind Deal for Georgetown

Published in the Sun January 25, 2014

If you are interested in renewable energy, something extremely remarkable happened in Georgetown last year.  Our fair city, with no fanfare whatsoever, approved and signed a contract with a wind farm that could provide over 85% of our electricity when it comes on line in 2015.  That much wind power in our portfolio will definitely put us on the top shelf of cities committed to renewable energy.

Georgetown has entered a 20 year agreement with EDF Renewable Energy for half the power produced by Spinning Spur 3, a 194 megawatt wind farm under construction in Oldham County Texas, 50 miles west of Amarillo.  Garland Texas is taking the other half.  (Spinning Spur 1 is partially owned by Google, which has a long-term goal of 100% renewable energy.)  Jim Briggs, general manager of utilities, can’t disclose the exact price we will be paying when the wind farm is completed, but it is very competitive with electricity generated from natural gas.  So competitive in fact, that Mr. Briggs expects he will eventually be able to decrease customer rates for a kilowatt-hour of electricity, lowering our utility bills.

West Texas wind power has recently been selling for historic low prices, as low as $28 per megawatt-hour (2.8 cents per kilowatt-hour) and Georgetown’s cost for wind energy is now locked in for the next 20 years at today’s low price.  In contrast, the price of electricity from natural gas fluctuates every fifteen minutes.  It is cheap when demand is low, but when the weather turns bad and demand skyrockets, like it did during the recent Polar Vortex or like it routinely does on August afternoons, wholesale electricity prices frequently shoot up to $500/megawatt-hour, and in a real pinch can go as high as $5000/megawatt-hour.  It doesn’t take too many hours of the high prices to burn through anything you saved with cheap gas during off hours.

Georgetown will be contracting for so much wind power that during the early morning and late night hours we won’t be able to use it all, and excess power will be sold to ERCOT at a profit.  During the mid afternoon, the wind won’t quite cover all our demand, so that is when we will fulfill our other old contracts for fossil fuel energy.  Of course mid afternoon is a wonderful time for solar generation.  As some of those old energy contracts expire, Mr. Briggs is looking for some competitively priced commercial solar projects to cover that expensive midday gap when cities and businesses scramble for enough electricity to keep the air conditioning on.

Besides not emitting greenhouse gases and not being dependent on a global fuel commodity, wind energy has another great advantage for a hot, dry state.  It does not require water.  Coal fired power plants use hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water every year for cooling.  Fracking for natural gas also requires large amounts of water to be injected into the wells.  Ironically, Texas may run out of water before we run out of natural gas.

One might well ask how Georgetown became a green energy city so suddenly and without the usual civic angst that might accompany a convention center or a drive-through hamburger stand.  A number of stars aligned to create this “windfall.”  First, Texas has installed a lot of wind turbines, leading the nation in wind energy.  Since wind farms do not have big batteries, when the electricity is generated it has to be sold.  Second, competitive renewable energy zone (CREZ) transmission lines were recently completed and allow electricity from west Texas wind farms to be brought to the population centers such as Dallas, Houston, and Austin.  Third, and most fortuitous for us, the federal production tax credits (PTC) for wind energy were set to expire on December 31, 2013.  To be eligible for the PTC, EDF Renewable Energy had to have contracts for Spinning Spur 3 in place by the end of the year.  In other words, a little breeze blew Georgetown Utilities through a very narrow window of opportunity to purchase clean energy for less than dirty energy would cost.  Thank you, Mr. Briggs and the Georgetown City Council, for not closing the window.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Table Saw Story

Published in the Sun January 19, 2014

Habitat volunteer using a table saw without safety guards
As an occasional but timid user of a table saw, I was fascinated by the picture in the January 8 edition of the Sun which showed a man, presumably a Habitat for Humanity volunteer, ripping a small piece of wood on a table saw.  All blade guards and safety devices have been removed from the saw.  The man is not identified, but the wrinkles of his hand suggest he is a carpenter of many years experience.  He is wisely using a stick to push the wood through the saw, but his left hand is holding the wood steady, and is about an inch from the blade.  He appears to have all his fingers.

I personally know two experienced carpenters who have lost multiple fingers to encounters with saws.  One of them is Matt Scavarelli, the father of my son-in-law.  Matt’s story occurred on March 26, 1989 at 8:05 pm.  He remembers the time exactly, because his wife had just yelled down to his home shop that he should quit for the evening.  Matt, a carpenter for almost 40 years, was working late trying to finish some kitchen cabinets for a client.  He told his wife he would make just one more cut.  He was ripping a piece of wood on a radial arm saw, which is generally a safer saw than the table saw in the picture.  Suddenly the wood “kicked back” and he felt like he had slammed his right thumb is a car door.  Then he looked.  Half his thumb and index finger were gone, and his middle finger was hanging by some flesh.  At that moment he was sure his career was finished. 

In the emergency room the surgeon gave him a choice.  He could have the three fingers amputated, or he could undergo multiple surgeries to reattach the fingers, but they would most likely stick out uselessly and never function properly.  Matt chose the amputations.

The accident was physically and psychologically devastating.  Matt had been working with power saws since he was a kid and had never had so much as a splinter.  He had lost all fear of his equipment.  That confidence, combined with hurrying to finish up and the fatigue of a long day, caused an accident that put him into rehabilitation for a year.  He was right-handed, so he had to learn new ways to do everything, from zippering his jacket to picking up small objects.  He had to learn to write.  He learned to use his carpentry tools again, but his hand was so weak he needed a lighter hammer.  He still can’t properly open a bag of potato chips.

Matt had to rehabilitate mentally as well.  As he describes the process, you mourn the loss of part of your body the same way you would mourn the loss of a friend.  The loss was made even more difficult by phantom pain in the missing fingers.  He had suffered with arthritis in the tip of his index finger.  After the accident he could still feel the pain of the arthritis, even though the affected joint was gone. 

Matt is also self-conscious about his hand and notices people staring at it.  It’s awkward at social events.  People are reluctant to shake a hand that has three fingers missing.

Habitat for Humanity is a super organization that has done wonderful things in Georgetown.  I hope their volunteers will be very careful with the saws, put the safety equipment back on, and keep their hands away from the blade.  An estimated 4000 amputations a year in the US result from power saw accidents, mostly fingers of course.  Although he still uses power saws in his work, Matt has retained a healthy respect.  As he puts it, “The machine has no conscience.”