Archive for January 3rd, 2007

Buck Stopped Here

BuckAt least, that's what I infer from this bit of graffiti on the fence at the end of the Berkeley Pier. My son and I biked back there yesterday, to continue pondering the possibilities of a windmill farm on the Pier. We're hoping that Berkeley will commit to providing its own mostly green energy -- possibly including windpower -- and we're calling our quest Project Quixote.

Will it happen? We don't know. We're not experts. Okay -- we're way not experts. But we want to do something about global warming -- something real -- and this is what we're trying. Plus we dig windmills.

As I mentioned in my previous blog item about this stuff, my son and I recently spent a fascinating few hours with energy expert Paul Fenn, who is a friend of my brother Jake's. Paul and his family live in the Canyon, which I believe is just outside of Berkeley (I'm really bad with geography), and they are totally "off the grid": that is, they receive no electricity from anyone. Their home is lit with kerosene lanterns, and they have no plumbing, so they use an outhouse. (Paul invited us to visit, and we plan to; I just want to fast for about 48 hours beforehand.) The prospect of raising two small children in those conditions is not one that I would wish for myself, but there's something fiercely admirable about their ability to do so.

"How do you use the telephone?" I asked.

Paul explained that the "old" phones supply their own electricity.

Indeed, whenever I've called, I've gotten this tinny, scratchy outgoing message -- it sounds as if they're using some pre-Edison equipment or something.

But even though Paul and his family live in these Luddite circumstances, it would be a drastic mistake to take him for an opt-out, antisocial, anti-government type. Paul writes laws. His "community choice" laws -- allowing each municipality to choose its own energy sources -- are the on the books in California, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, and (if I'm reading my scrawled notes correctly) Massachusetts. He's also written a bunch of energy laws for San Francisco.

"What about Berkeley?" I asked -- focused as I am on my beloved home base.

Turns out, he said, he tried five years ago to get the Berkeley city government to back his alternative-energy plan, but was unable to get anything going. And the problem right now, he explained, is that there's a window of opportunity that will soon close, due to existing power contracts. In fact, according to my notes -- which, admittedly, became especially scribblicious at this point, as we were now strolling along the Ohlone Greenway -- Berkeley may only have a year or less to act.

San Francisco recently committed to achieving 51 percent green power by 2017. And it seems to me that, given our Free Speech history and the fact that our sandals have 15 percent greater traction, we Berkeleyites ought to be able to match that.

But how? I wondered.

  • Would we need to try to pass some sort of ballot measure?

    No, Paul explained -- our city government could simply take over power-providing duties using its power of "eminent domain."

  • How might such a project be funded?

    Through bonds, which could be secured by ... (Here my notes become somewhat illegible -- possibly a byproduct of the grand mal-type seizures that begin to afflict me whenever anyone starts using words like "fiscal." I realize that this is something that I must get over, if I am to be any sort of a citizenly mensch.) Well, let's just say "bonds" for the moment, and leave it at that.

  • Could all the energy be provided by windmills?

    No -- only about a third (which is a lot, actually!). The rest could be provided by other technologies -- for example, something called a solar concentrator, supplemented by a hybrid steam-gas turbine.

  • Might the windmills be a hazard for birds (as I'd heard somewhere)?

    This, it turns out, was a major concern when Paul approached the Berkeley folks several years ago. He says that there are a variety of windmill designs, and some are bird-friendly.

  • Could Berkeley really do this on its own? (Generating your own power seems like a really big deal.)

    Yes it could, he said. But even better would be a collaboration between, say, Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, Vallejo, and Emeryville. He explained that it's best to have a wide variety of energy consumers: some residential, some industrial, etc. With several East Bay cities banding together, you could have a nicely diverse assortment of electricity-users.

As Paul drove off in his biofueled car, I thought: Phew! So this is the kind of stuff the grownups have been dealing with all my life!

Pier ViewAnd a couple days later, as my son and I stood on the Berkeley Pier, near the spot where Buck had once stopped and made his mark, I felt giddy -- with excitement at the possibilities, with fear of failure, and with awe at the beauty of this place.

I can just follow my instincts and do my best. Let's see what happens.

3 comments January 3rd, 2007

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