Update on solar net metering in Indiana

Earlier this year, the Poor Handmaids joined thousands of other Hoosiers opposing SEA309, which curtailed solar net metering for customers of Indiana’s investor-owned monopoly utilities. Here’s the original statement from our Provincial Team (our leadership council of four Poor Handmaids). Some of the worst provisions were removed or edited, but the bill ultimately passed.

Joining hundreds of other citizens to lobby against SB309 in the Senate chamber, with Sr. Loretta and Sr. Mary Baird.

The legislation spurred several “solarize” campaigns throughout the state (including Northern Indiana), where homeowners and businesses used group-purchasing to get solar panels installed before terms changed at the end of the year.

Further good news is that the press and attention generated by this bill accelerated the formation of a constituency that is now paying attention to energy policy in the state, which is still far behind where we need to be. The science tells us that where we need to be, within my lifetime, is zero carbon.

This year, several important press pieces have put these pieces together. Rather than commenting on each of them, I post them here for your review.

Vice news recently did a great piece (and video!) on Franciscan sisters in Oldenburg, IN who are helping deploy solar in southern Indiana. Very inspiring, and I called Sister Claire to arrange a meeting to see if I can replicate her strategy! “A Franciscan nun is leading a fight for solar energy in Indiana.

David Roberts at Vox does a phenomenal job at capturing the scale and breadth of the current energy transition, as well as updating readers on the latest with climate science and policy: “Utilities fighting rooftop solar are only hastening their own doom.”

Lastly, the IndyStar just released four pieces covering the SEA309 saga and some subsequent investigations:

New Indiana solar law could cripple small businesses and customer saving

How Nevada ruined its solar industry – and what it’s doing to fix it

How other Midwestern states treat solar consumers (with video)

Indiana politicians got thousands in gifts while pushing solar policy

Where did Frida Kahlo park when she came to Plymouth?

Last fall,  I’ve attended an Active Living Workshop in Plymouth, hosted by Discover Plymouth. It has sparked a group of local residents to talk about ways we can make Plymouth safer and healthy by accommodating all modes of transportation, not just cars. To the extent that walking, cycling, and mobility are incentivized with infrastructure, we become a healthier community.

The group has already submitted applications for a couple grants. We recently attended a Complete Streets Workshop in Nappanee. What are complete streets? “Complete Streets are streets for everyone. They are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities. ” Click here to learn more.

One of the spin-off groups focused on artwork and decided to spruce up the alleyways. Frida Kahlo in Plymouth… who wudda thunk it?!

Photo by Yolanda’s Bar and Grill

But, on to the more pressing manner at hand. In re-imagining mobility around Plymouth, we need user input for people who live, work, or visit downtown. Is that you? Click here. It only takes a minute. This was posted 2 weeks ago, and I’m not sure how long they’ll keep it up, so don’t do it later, click now 🙂

fall seed sorting

It’s harvest time. Not just for pumpkins, soybeans, and corn. Many native grasses and wildflowers have mature seeds ready for the picking.

It’s a big job, so we always appreciate some help.

Ancilla College students lending a hand

Seeds are picked according to species (carefully!), dried, and stored.

Fresh seeds of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

“Letting nature take it’s course” is a common refrain. As a rule, there are many that are worse. But it’s not a good excuse for being scientifically lazy. What we do know is that humans, as they’ve been doing for thousands of years, have an active – not passive – role to play in managing landscapes. We can do it foolishly or wisely. Seed collection, mixing, and planting allows us to help usher in diverse communities of native plants that would not otherwise be present, even with many decades (or centuries) of waiting.


Maria Center residents and staff helping with seed cleaning.

When native seeds are collected, there are unwanted pods and chaff that it is helpful to remove. In order to “make hay while the sunshines,” we don’t often have time to do that in the field… it’s more effective to just get the seeds inside and dry before they fall to the ground.

This leaves rainy day work to be done. I appreciate having help from the residents of our independent living community, the Maria Center.


Think you extract the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds without sending the feathery pappus flying? Good luck!

Seeds are organized by species and stored in a cool, dark place.

Lots of future Monarch butterflies… we hope!

The next step is creating custom mixes of seeds based on soil type and land management goals. Sow during the dormant season. Then do it again!


LimeBike – a review of South Bend’s new bicycle rental company

When I first heard about LimeBike, South Bend’s new bicycle-rental business, I’ll admit that I grimaced a bit through a curious smile. I really want initiatives like these to succeed, but watching several of them stumble has tempered my enthusiasm. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Details and execution are everything.

After my first ride, I think LimeBike has as good a chance as any to succeed. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and had a hard time coming up with a complaint.

I’ll let LimeBike themselves introduce the concept:

It’s a challenge. Indiana does not (yet) have a well-developed cycling culture. South Bend is flat, but hot/cold temperatures and precipitation can be hurdles to entry. For LimeBike to success, several things need to be in place at once:


*ease of use (renting/returning/user experience)

*cycling infrastructure

*availability of bikes

South Bend is the closest city of any scale to The Center at Donaldson. As such, it’s where many of us visit for food, healthcare, sporting events, and arts. My review here is of a daytime visitor, not a resident. Though you shouldn’t ask me actually fix a bicycle, I have a lot of experience biking year-round in Indiana towns and cities.

I had driven to downtown South Bend to celebrate Mass with a friend on a Sunday morning. Afterwards, I had one hour to burn until an event that was also downtown. I walked about 0.7 mile to a grocer to grab a bite to eat. On the way, I passed about 5 LimeBikes. Availability and distribution of the bikes is key for users to develop the expectation of bikes always being convenient.

There was a LimeBike at a bike rack right at the grocer. I pulled out my cell phone, opened the app, made a few taps, and a lock over the back wheel made a metallic “click” as it unlocked. I quickly adjusted the seat, tried out the bell (rung by a quick twist of the handle bar), and was off…

South Bends network of “Complete Streets” are designed to safely accommodate all users: pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. This lowers one “barrier to entry” for wary cyclists.

The bicycles have a single, fixed gear. Your top speed is therefore limited, as well as your ability to climb hills. Adding 3-speed models would expand the usability of the bikes, but I quickly learned to simply adjust my cycling effort to the road conditions.

I wondered if they would eventually add an electric assist drive to the bikes, expanding their speed and utility even further. Of course, that would add cost and complexity. Hmm… could they be powered by photovoltaic solar cells on the bike? Perhaps too expensive?

As I pondered all this, I saw a pop can on the side of the road and figured I would throw it in the cup holder in the basket over the front wheel (which was very handy by the way). Looking closer at the basket, I realized that it did indeed appear to have a PV solar cell integrated into it.

The cell doesn’t power the bike’s propulsion, but presumably this is how power is supplies to the modem somewhere in the frame, which makes the networked, smart-sharing feature possible. Something has to also power the lock to be opened and closed. This should take relatively little power. Smart solution.

I was coming up on 30 minutes, the end of my ride. The service is $1 per half hour, but new users get a free ride to try it out. I ended up at the Century Center, and found another LimeBike parked between the bike lane and the road. I figured I would just leave mine next to the other in case two folks wanted to ride together. Not having fixed docking stations really increases the flexibility of the network. You just leave the bikes… anywhere.

I took out my phone, made a few more taps, and ended the session. The bike wheel locked up again. I was provided a summary of my ride, including distance and route traveled.

In the end, it delivered exactly what I wanted: affordable, clean, healthy, and convenient transportation.

LimeBike recently announced that they received a fresh infusion of investment and will be expanding. They also have a job posting in management in South Bend. I look forward to seeing what they can do.

If you want to take a ride, ask me for a referral so you can try for free 🙂

a warning on shifting baselines

It is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it. -Wendell Berry

The Guardian recently highlighted a very disturbing trend: the potential widespread loss of insects across massive swathes of the world (Germany in this study, but trends are similar in the U.S. and elsewhere). Subsequent Guardian posts can be found here and here. In sum, there was a 75% drop in insect mass within the last 27 years.

Insects (class Insecta), of course, are among the planets most successful group of organisms and form the base of the food chains for many vertebrates, like ourselves. The are millions of species, still millions of which have not been formally described by Western science.

One particular phenomenon we must guard against is the idea of “shifting baselines.” As a child growing up in the 90’s, I saw occasional monarch butterflies here and there during the summer. I did not see, however, the massive clouds of many thousands that would roost overnight at my grandparent’s Iowa farmstead. What I consider “natural” or “normal” is in fact a much diminished state, or may even be a temporary stopping point in a trend of long decline. Ask anyone over 50 years old about driving through the country in the summer… they would describe a windshield splattered with bugs, fireflies in great numbers, swarming moths around the outside lights.

(Here’s a TED talk on shifting baselines as it relates to ocean ecosystems).

We are trying our best to aid pollinators and insects in our land management. We are sowing filter strips along the waterways with native grasses and flowers. A pollinator patch is being installed. Additional plants species are being added here and there. On tillable acres it is more difficult.

Sr. Mary reaches for the seeds of Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum), a purple-flowered native plant that supports dozens of insect species.

I don’t want to dwell on the topic too long, for the news is not good, especially as I think of the baseline we’ve left for my kids to discover. Instead I should return back to the work there is to do. However, I came across another article that I thought provided an interesting addition to the news on insects.

Black butterfly wings offer a model for better solar cells.” The idea of biomimicry is imitated nature’s design into our human products, services, and systems.

Biomimicry has a history in many commercial products. Whether or not this particular design eventually turns into a commercial product is besides the point. I found the poignancy and symbolism of a solar cell based on a butterfly too powerful to resist. It encapsulates some of the fundamental challenges of our time. Fatalism can too often be an cop-out. The world we build is to a large degree our own choice.


Indiana Promise campus visit (kids and pollinators)

Last month we hosted some 1,500 kindergarten and 1st graders from across Marshall County for “Walk Into the Future,” a whirlwind tour of academic life at Ancilla College. In conjunction with The Center at Donaldson, it was organized by Marshall County Promise, encourages all students to prepare for their future by opening a 529 savings account and saving for their future education needs.

It’s these unique partnership opportunities that I think makes The Center at Donaldson a very unique place.

Each class made quick rounds at various stations. I had the “nature table.” Since I only had 5 minutes with each group, I tried to keep it simple. I put out my college insect collection and a colorful map of N. America’s native bees.

A representative fraction of N. America’s 4,000+ species of native bees.

I tried to make the connection between food and bees. Y’all like apples and blueberries and strawberries and almonds, right? Each one started as a flower. Only the flowers that got visited by bees made fruit. Take care of the bees!

Who’s ever eaten an apple?

There were already little kids who knew about pollen and nectar. We gave them each a paintbrush and had them visit a flower (audibly buzzing as they went) to pick up some pollen. Then they “flew” over to another bucket of flowers and pollinated another one. Now that flower could make a fruit, nut, or seed. We get to eat, and all the wild animals get to eat.

It’s not very often we get to speak into the lives of little kids. They grow up pretty fast. The broad outline of our conception of the world is shaped at a very young age, and it’s important to teach them that our fate is tied to these small, hard-working, underappreciated neighbors.

We read a lot about future calamities in some far off time. 2100 … by 2050, etc. Scientists are now telling us that the decisions we make today (in regards to the atmosphere, nutrient cycles, etc) will actually reverberate for centuries.

It’s important to remember that these “far off” dates are within the lifespan of little ones we have already named. By 2050 my daughter will be in the middle of her career. By the end of the century, Lord willing, she may still be in the land of the living and in need of clean water and healthy food.

As Wendell Berry wrote, “Invest in the millennium.”



a brief moment for beauty

Monday we were doing some chainsaw work around the edges of an oak woodland, getting fire lanes prepped for the prescribed burning season. Cutting fire lanes allows us to more quickly and safely cover more ground with the same amount of staff. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention…

Most of the flowers by now have turned to seeds. Pollinators are migrating, hibernating, or receiving their final meals before dying as adults. At this time, we usually turn to colorful leaves for the fall splendor beauty. But leaves don’t have all the color yet.

But in a wet patch in the woods we stumbled across several of these beauties:

Trying my best at a quick phrase to describe the scene in a few words, I came up with this:

Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack uses color as a bully pulpit

Not my best work (or my best photo), but it’s the first thing that came to mind.

I at first thought that these were fruits of Arisaema triphyllum, (Jack-in-the-pulpit) though I had a suspicion that I was wrong.  When I returned the following day to collect seed I noticed that the shriveled vegetation was still attached. It was distinctive enough that I realized it was Jack’s cousin, the Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium).  I’ll take the seeds to a less biodiverse patch of wet woods to help spread the population.

Here’s what the leaves look like during the summer:

Unedited photo by Bob Gutowski ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arisaema_dracontium#/media/File:Arisaemadracontium.jpg) CC BY 2.0

There’s a lot of tension, chaos, and pain in our world right now. It’s important to not forget why it’s all worth struggling for. There is beauty all around us, but we have to slow down and contemplate it, to relish in its own sheer lavish existence.

Make time today for a walk, for a sit, to pick up a seed or watch the birds. Your soul needs it.

Drive Electric Week (addendum)

A few weeks prior to Drive Electric week (see previous post), a few residents of the Maria Center (our independent senior living center) took a trip up to Mishawaka to visit Dave. I met Dave at an event last year. He built a “Passive House” from scratch and worked as his own general contractor. His goal is a fossil fuel-free life, and he has a room in his house specifically dedicated to teaching about sustainable living technologies. Now retired, he volunteers his time spreading this message.

A solar electric home. (The foundation isn’t crooked, it’s just my lack of photography skills).


The home is powered by 10KW of solar panels, which supplies fuel for his heating (geothermal + heat pumps), air conditioning, appliances, and vehicles. There is no natural gas hook up at all.

Our host models his induction stove, an efficient and all-electric way to cook with the speed and control of natural gas.


So – back to driving electric. In addition to the many features of the house (you’ll have to hear him for the full speech), his driving needs are electrified as well.

The Maria Center residents had fun learned about his Tesla Model S. The batteries which fuel the car are hidden across the entire bottom of the vehicle body. The electric motor (not an engine) is, I believe, somewhere below the rear seats. That leaves a gap in the front of the driver where we are used to putting gasoline engines. Now you can put luggage there.

The Tesla “Frunk” (front trunk) gets a thumbs up!

The concept of re-fueling is simple: you just constantly top off the vehicle at home. The Tesla Model S has a large battery, thus eliminating any daily need to visit any local fueling station, of any sort, ever. Long regional or cross-country trips are handled by Tesla’s nationwide network of supercharging stations located strategically on the freeways.

It’s a bit counterintuitive to how we usually expect to refuel with gas, which we can’t refuel at home. But what it ultimately means is we’re always “topping off” our car each day. We won’t have to replicate the current gasoline fueling infrastructure in its entirety, since the majority of us have fueling infrastructure in our home (electricity).

Upgrades will be needed, however. We’re keeping an eye on VW’s $2 billion infusion into America’s charging infrastructure, called “Electrify America.” It’s the cost the courts forced them to pay for lying to the public about how much their diesel cars were polluting. The emissions cheating scheme is thought to be responsible for some 5,000 premature deaths in Europe.

Our host explains car charging. He almost never needs to charge in public. No more gas station visits.

Drive Electric Week

I recently attended a National Drive Electric Week event in South Bend, organized by South Shore Clean Cities. It’s a public and informal way for the public to learn more about EVs (electric vehicles).


The “falcon wing” doors of the Tesla Model X stole the show.


The event was a hybrid (sorry, couldn’t resist) of enthusiasts from the public with car dealers and the Clean Cities. I brought my own Ford C-max Energi to show, and was joined by other makes and models, including the Mitsubishi i-Miev, Nissan LEAF, 2 BMWs, and Tesla Models S and X.

Members from our Provincial leadership as well as our transportation department came along too, on the look-out for something that could fit our mobility needs. Unfortunately, the dealer turn out wasn’t as strong as hoped, so we didn’t get to test drive anything.

Right now, EVs are typically split into two categories: PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles) and BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles). (The Dept. of Energy has a nice publication here. I’ll try to summarize below).

PHEVs can run on gas or electricity, which eliminates “range anxiety”. When the battery is depleted in a PHEV, it switches seamlessly over to a traditional gasoline hybrid (like a Prius). Electric as fuel is cheaper (like paying ~$1.00/gallon gas) and doesn’t fluctuate like gasoline. The drawback of a PHEV is that EV mileage is still somewhat limited you have to replicate the cost of both powertrains in a single vehicle.

A PHEV (Ford CMax Energi) sipping fuel at the Niles, MI public library


BEVs run solely on electricity. Thousands of parts from the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) are eliminated and replaced with a simple electric motor (it goes from ~2,000 moving parts to ~20). Just think: no more messing with oil, oil filters, coolant, transmission fluid, spark plugs, alternators, radiators, etc. Ironically, I’m at a Toyota dealer right now waiting on them to change the coolant and transmission oil in my Prius! The largest constraint for a BEV at the moment is price, range, and model availability. Each of these are improving annually. Electric vehicles are expected to reach “price parity” with conventional ICE vehicles within just 8 years. In some fleet situations, they already have a similar TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) because of their reduced maintenance and fuel costs. The market is still small but growing around 40% per year.

Tesla Model S, a BEV. The 6th and 7th seats are rear-facing and are definitely for kids only.

I’ll post a few links below for further reading. Several nations now have announced deadlines to eliminate sales of ICE vehicles in favor of EVs. Major corporations and electric utilities are pushing the market forward, and manufacturers are announcing plans to electrify much or all of their lineup. A LOT has changed even just in the last year. Now, I have to get back to getting our EV charging stations purchased (I’ll save that for another post).

China wants all electric cars, will it work? Reasons and reactions

10 Big-Name Corporations Launch 100% Electric Vehicle Campaign At Climate Week NYC

Morgan Stanley Says EVs Will Reach Price Parity With ICE By 2025

Tread in the Shed, Sept. 23

If hurricane Harvey didn’t make it clear enough, watersheds are incredibly important. We need to know about them, and to recognize their realities when building our lives.

It just so happens that folks in the Marshall County area can learn about their own local watershed at this great event, hosted by the Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District.  Don’t forget to RSVP!