solar ribbon cutting + blessing

Wow, what a week!

Our good friends Steve Owen & Jeff Deal from the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy came all the way up from North Carolina to help us celebrate the commissioning of 556 kW (DC) / 488 kW (AC) of photovoltaic solar.

We were blessed to start our consulting relationship during Phase 1 of our solar journey back in 2017. Given the distance, we had done all the work via e-mail, file-sharing, and videoconferencing. But we soon found that we had missional commonalities between our communities, and realized this was no ordinary project.

We set an aggressive finish date of Sep. 1 and scheduled the ribbon cutting for the fall equinox of Sep. 23. The amazing team at Green Alternatives, Inc. (in collaboration with Wellspring and Renewable Energy Systems) did everything in their power to hit the completion date. I really wish every project I did worked out this smoothly! After seeing projects languish in delays that can be measured in trips around the sun, Jeff & Steve were flabbergasted at how we went from ground breaking to flipping the switch in just 16 weeks. The utility meter was swapped out in the 11th hour, and we energized the system just 1 hour before the ribbon cutting, under a cloudless sky.

From the Poor Handmaid’s decision point of committing to the project until the blessing was less than 12 months. Now we boast what is (to my knowledge) the largest solar array of any Indiana university or college.

Did I mention what an amazing project team we had?

Few projects are this fun! We loved having the crew lodged on site & dining with us during the installation.

Ok, back to the ceremony! After hearing a few words from each of us in regards to the project, Ancilla College President Dr. / Sr. Michele Dvorak led a blessing of the panels with students and staff, complete with water from the Heilborn Chapel in Germany.

I have to credit our amazing new Marketing Coordinator, Jessica Craig, for planning the event. She had done enough boring ribbon cutting ceremonies in previous work that she knew she had to put a creative twist on this one. True to form, she sure did it! Instead of lopping the ribbon with oversized scissors, we loaded up staff, kids, and Sisters in electric cars & golf carts and drove right through it! You can see a video clip on Facebook.

After the event, we held a panel presentation on the project which filled in a little more details. Steve & Jeff took a quick trip in to Plymouth to tour the REES Theatre renovation, where they have solar ambitions (AIRE wrote about it here, and about Ancilla College here). We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting and conspiring together, wondering how we could amplify this message and facilitate and inspire even more projects.

The 41 kW (DC) / 40 kW (AC) rooftop installation at the Lindenwood Retreat and Conference Center.

I wanted to maximize the exchange between AIRE & The Center at Donaldson during our brief time together, so we also squeezed in some guest instruction at two classes at the college, in microeconomics & in ecology.

Lastly, they finished up with a more broad perspective on the energy transition by delivering a Lampen Lecture at the college. They blogged about it here, where they also posted the text.

Now that the project is live, we get to watch the clean electrons roll in!

A snapshot of the monitoring dashboard online.

Just in the first week of production, the arrays have produced as much energy as my small rooftop array (17 panels) has produced since I had it installed in August 2017. It’s finally clicking in my brain of how big of a scale we are working on. We can be very proud of this!

1,392 panels (110 more panels at Lindenwood)

Sorry, I’ve just got so much to post! Here’s Steve & Jeff standing by the Phase 1 installation across the lake, which powers our w̶a̶s̶t̶e̶w̶a̶t̶e̶r̶ Water Reclamation Facility. I’ll be blogging more about integrating pollinator habitat in with solar arrays in the future.

Lastly, what’s the impact of Phase 2 of our solar project?

With the annual solar production, you could:
*charge 262 million AA batteries
*power 66 average homes for a year
*drive 2.8 million miles in an electric car
*power a 9W LED light bulb for more than 10,000 years

Pollution avoided annually:
*547 tons of CO2 (equivalent to planting 54 acres of forest)
*saved 334,408 gal of water, 562 lbs SO2, 894 lbs NOx, 34 lbs VOCs, 29 lbs particulates

As it stands, we’re now sitting on 638 kW (DC) / 560 kW (AC) of solar panels across The Center.

What’s next?!

DCFC ASAP! a fast-charging experience with our electric car

I’ve written about our transition to electric vehicles a few times here, but I just realized I’ve never introduced the latest addition to our fleet.

We’d had the Nissan LEAF in our shared fleet for almost 9 months now. Unlike my plug-in hybrid that is gas+electric, the Nissan is electric-only. The 40 kilowatt-hour battery is rated at 150 miles of range, depending on weather and driving speed.

Our motor pool is used for everything from runs into Plymouth (8 miles), to the airport (110 miles), or across country. The LEAF fills a nice slot for local daily runs or trips to regional cities like Warsaw, Elkhart, South Bend, or Hobart. It can also go further (more on that in a bit). A few people were hesitant at first, but they generally found driving the car to be surprisingly normal. The responsive & smooth acceleration that the gear-less electric motor provides just means you have to watch the speedometer a little closer! Plus, no stinky stops at the gas station, just 5 seconds to plug in when you’re done.

Our LEAF is on the right, and a visitor’s Chevy Bolt is on the left. Our station is designed so that two cars can charge at the same time.

So far we’ve covered around 6,000 miles in the LEAF. That’s displaced 170 gallons of gasoline compared to a 35 MPG car. It runs instead on the electric grid, which is combination of wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear, and coal.

But with a little planning, the LEAF can do even more. It addition to the standard charging port (“Level 2”) that adds about 25 miles of range per hour, it is equipped with a direct current fast-charging (DCFC) port called CHAdeMO. Don’t ask me about the initials, I just know that it works!

DCFC is designed to charge fast enough to make longer distance highway usage possible. On the LEAF, it charges up to 50 kW, so it can add around 90 miles of range in 30 minutes. Newer LEAFs charge twice as fast (100 kW), and Tesla – which is the industry leader – can now charge up to 250 kW for brief periods.

Well, since I pushed us into EVs I figured it was on me to be the guinea pig. This March, I was delivering a talk at the Indiana Academy of Science meeting in Indianapolis. I saw that there was a DCFC at the Keystone Mall, which was on the way to my destination downtown. It was 104 miles away. The range of the LEAF is 150 miles in temperate weather, but it can be quite reduced in the cold, so I was a little worried. I drove slowly and kept the cabin temperature reasonable, and rolled into the mall with 14% battery remaining.

I can’t figure out why is says 53 degrees F, because it was spitting snow on the road.

I was pretty anxious as I was cruising down on 31 and relying on just a single DCFC station to get me downtown. This is the dreaded “range anxiety” among first-time EV drivers. There’s really no way to alleviate it except from experience. Most drivers report that the anxiety subsides with familiarity (time), and that was certainly the case with me. I just needed to know what the car was capable of, and have a reasonable backup plan. I’ve found that Nissan’s range-remaining estimator to be a little optimistic, so I discount that number in my mind for extra margin.

I plugged the car in, activated the charger from an app on my smartphone, and slipped into the quiet mall to use the restroom.

By the time I got back from the other side of the mall, the charging session had lasted 16 minutes and had boosted me up to 41%. I was ready to go downtown. Since my coffee-swilling self needed a bathroom break anyway, I didn’t really spend any extra time waiting.

Ideally, I would’ve had a reasonable option for Level 2 charging for the car while it was parked for 8 hours, like the station we have here at The Center. Then it could’ve went from 41% to 100%. With a little extra planning I could’ve found a way. Unfortunately, the downtown Indy charging scene still leaves a lot to be desired, so I did not.

After a wonderful day of nerdy goodness among fellow scientists & practitioners and a dinner break at an old friend’s house, I went back to the mall to top off before heading north. I was down to 8% by that point, and I needed to charge up to at least 95% to make it all the way home. Unfortunately, as the battery fills up, the charging rate slows (it’s an unavoidable battery-chemistry-physics-thing). I knew this ahead of time, so I had planned to get some steps in by walking the mall.

I have to say it was an ace move by Tesla for locating a showroom in a mall with a non-Tesla charging station.

The Model 3 sedan.

When it comes to EVs, there’s Tesla, and then there’s everyone else trying to catch up. Their mission “is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” and they’ve done that by setting the bar for which other manufacturers are now aiming.

One of their strongest advantages at this point is their supercharging network. The superchargers typically operate at 100 kW and faster. They are designed as a network across the U.S. interstate system, evenly spaced so that there is always a charging option on the highways. You plug in and the network recognizes your car, billing your account automatically. You go to the bathroom, grab a coffee, and you’re more or less ready to go.

The Tesla Supercharging Network, which spans 1,604 locations and 14,081 charging stalls worldwide. Map generated on

Unfortunately for us, this network is for Tesla vehicles only. Nissan, GM, Toyota, and other manufacturers don’t own and operate a network of DCFCs. When you look at the CHAdeMO charging map (used for the LEAF), there’s no central planning agency or company that ensures there are evenly-spaced stations throughout the interstate system. Some are free & located at car dealers. Others are run by private companies, but seemed to be clustered around metro areas. The federal government, so far, has not stepped in to remedy this market failure yet.

The CHAdeMO charging network. It can be managed with a little planning, but still has a long way to go.

Meanwhile, as I pondered the trials of being an early adopter, I kept poking around the Tesla Model 3.

The Model 3’s front truck, a.k.a “frunk.” EVs don’t have engines, they have motors. The batteries lie flat in the floor underneath the car.

The Model 3 was the 3rd step in Tesla’s “Master Plan” published in 2006

  1. Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
  2. Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price
  3. Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car

These steps correspond to the Roadster, the Model S, and now the Model 3. While Tesla got established as a luxury car manufacturer, they are now moving into mass production. The Model 3 is now shipping around 14,000 units per month in the U.S. and is currently the 3rd best selling car in California, ahead of staples like the Honda Accord and Toyota Corolla.

Most surprisingly, the total cost of ownership of a Model 3 is now on par with… the Toyota Camry.

Yep, read that again. The secret hasn’t yet trickled out to the average car buyer yet, but we are quickly approaching the tipping point when EVs will not only be the less polluting option (and improving annually as the grid cleans up) but also the less costly choice.

Meanwhile, back to my mall walk…

After an hour of charging, I was ready to head home.

Even though it was the best bang-for-the-buck at the time we were deciding on a purchase one year ago (and will continue to be useful regardless), the 40 kWh LEAF is already getting superseded. A 220 mile range is becoming the minimum for new EV models. Batteries continue a steady downward march in pricing. The charging network is slowly improving, though we desperately need a boost in the non-Tesla infrastructure (more news on that I’m hoping to share in the coming months).

I expect to look back on this time like we now view party line phone system my parents used growing up on the farm, a system that people certainly managed to make work, but would ultimately be a transition phase to the next step.

Since March, I’ve tried out a few other DCFC locations as well. There’s one we used at Bosak Nissan on US 20 & I-94, getting a quick top up after visiting Sojourner Truth House. The photo below was a quick fill-up at a Wal-mart in Lafayette, IN. I went in to the bathroom, answered some e-mails on my phone, and got back on the highway.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the college has been using a Honda Clarity plug-in hybrid that has logged almost 12,000 miles, but that’s for another post. Until then, charge on

“Charging into the Future”… get it? 😉

Climate Leadership Summit #4 at Goshen College

Liz Symon (Moontree Studios) and I took a trip over to Goshen College yesterday for the 4th annual Climate Leadership Summit, organized by Earth Charter Indiana. There are lots of workshops, summits, and conference, and only so many days in the year, so I try my best to make them worth my while. Having attended the last summit, I knew that CLS would be a can’t-miss event.

Liz has an extensive background in ecological & justice work in South Carolina, so I wanted to get her connected into the Hoosier scene. She was back with her tribe!

[this is where I’d normally put a photo of people milling together at coffee break, or even a photo of Liz & I… but I didn’t get anything like that! oh well…]

Our day started off by walking into the sanctuary of College Mennonite Church. Seating is in the round, and in the balcony was the college chamber choir, singing For the Beauty of the Earth, a rendition of Psalm 23 and other earthy melodies. It was very appropriate for the theme and the audience. I remember the first time I heard Mennonites sing, at a friend’s graduation at Goshen College. I grew up with the United Methodist hymnal, so I was pretty proud of my musical heritage. But the four-part harmony that is a part of their liturgical tradition is unmatched. I would post my scratchy iPhone recording I took, but it wouldn’t do it justice!

We heard from several speakers, from IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute, Purdue’s Climate Change Research Center, as well as some engineers, authors, and mayors of Indiana cities.

Dr. Jeffrey Dukes reviewing the latest climate science & its impact for Indiana.

Indiana University has developed some great tools for municipal leaders to use to make their communities more resilient. I was struck by the practicality and non-partisan approach of the summit, which is why I think so many leaders have found it useful.

We also heard from David Orr of Oberlin College, who founded The Oberlin Project. He zoomed out from the details of climate science & sustainability and gave a cautionary address about the decline of democracy in the U.S. and Europe, together with the increasing amount of wealth that is being redistributed to the top 1% and 0.1% of society. It was a moving call to action to re-engage with and defend our democratic heritage.

At lunch we heard from several children and high schoolers. Earth Charter Indiana has done some very ground-breaking with youth across the state. Youth-led initiatives have been responsible for the adoption of several municipal climate recovery resolutions. Read more here and here.

Afterward, we went on a tour of the Goshen College campus to see all the work they’ve done in decreasing energy usage and implementing renewables.

We started off in the parking lot, looking at electric vehicles. I brought our Nissan LEAF to put on display for comparison to the other models avaialable (see here for our chronicles with EVs; more to come shortly).

And not only cars. There are also more and more options available for electric lawn mowers, from residential push mowers to commercial riding mowers. The commercial market is moving increasingly towards electric options. There are a lot of concerns about hearing loss, air quality effects, and noise pollution associated with gasoline blowers, weed whackers, and mowers.

We then moved to the athletic facility. The best in sustainable design is simple. Sometimes it’s just a giant fan, running at low horsepower, mixing air.

This monster is made by – who else? – the Big Ass Fan Company (really).

We then saw the 2012-ish installation of a solar thermal hot water heater. The market is now moving more towards photovoltaic solar, even for hot water needs, but this was a really good design for it’s time. It was well engineered & well cared for, thus is still provides lots of hot water even during the winter.

And now I’ve got a notepad full of new people to connect to, book titles to look up, and projects to start. Par for the course for these summits and workshops. Time to get busy!

vegetation monitoring

Monitoring ecological restoration sites is what I used to do as a consultant. Despite the bugs, relentless sun, and travel, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Actually, sometimes I even enjoyed the bugs, sun, and travel! A double-edged sword to be sure. But I felt very fortunate to pay rent by looking at plants and thinking through ways to make restoration work better.

there are worse places to be, I suppose…

Some sort of monitoring is crucial to ensure that we are actually doing things right, or at least actively learning from mistakes (that’s another forthcoming post). Ecological systems are incredible complex. We can’t assume just because something is lush and green that it is “healthy” or is meeting the restoration goals we have. We have to get out in the field and understand what is going on before we can pass judgment. (Chris Helzer highlighted the importance of this in a recent post).

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) puts on a show, with Goldenrods (Solidago species) setting the background.

Field visits, whether intense and formal, or quick and casual, are also important moments for serendipity. Sometimes, we just happen to catch something new or interesting, which expands our knowledge as naturalists or inserts new factors into our stewardship calculations. These, of course, are usually observations that individuals in pre-industrial societies knew from an early age, but even full-time ecologists have to constantly struggle to put the pieces together.

For example, by wandering around my yard in the evening, I found groups of bees and wasps congregating on branches pretty motionless. I didn’t know why. A little Googling let me to the answer: turns out that male bees and wasps typically don’t return to the nest after they hatch, and they have to roost overnight like birds. This can be inside a flower, or together on a branch. Who knew? Not me, until I starting seeing it in the evenings.

Being humans with only so many hours in the day, and days in the year, we are also limited to how much data we can collect. Believe me, I’m the kind of strange person that wants to collect it all, and populates Excel sheets on the weekends with some of my free time. (No, I haven’t found a cure for this malady yet… other than interspersing it with idle time in the backyard with my kids).

A simple water-proof monitoring notebook. Each species has a 6 letter acronym. “RUDHIR 50” stands for Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan), which covered approximately 50% of the plot.

For obsessives like me, we often have to take a step back and weigh the cost of gathering more data, for it will come at the expense of other work. I was in the field recently and decided after 7 of 84 vegetation plots to stop sampling. As I thought through the objectives of the rather long-term project, and the time it would take to do a quality job on another 77 plots, I realized that having this year’s data would not really reveal much of interest for the primary research question, so I stopped. Perhaps a more meticulously planned experiment would have realized this before the experiment began, but better late than never. (There are almost always some course-corrections in the flow of a project).

a post marking a transect in one of my prairie research areas

One project that required less formal monitoring was the pollinator plantings we made to buffer the waterway from the farm activities. These were planted in spring of 2017 and we receive annual rent payments on these buffers from the NRCS. This was the 3rd year of growth, so we should be able to really start seeing a transition from annual species to the perennial plants we hope will cover the buffer.

the work of Sr. Mary

Collecting detailed vegetation data would be overkill for this project. We don’t have a research project attached to it, and the NRCS requires only some basic and periodic maintenance of the site. But I like to walk the buffers several times throughout the year to see how the site is progressing, and to catch any problematic weeds early. I take some photos, make some notes in a field journal, and type them in to the project folder when I get back to the office. It’s a helpful way to see how my thinking about a site changes over time.

excerpts from my field notes

The first two years of establishment for herbaceous perennial species is always nerve-wracking. It looks like a failure. But plants are putting their energy into root development and waiting to burst up. Towards the end of the 3rd growing season, you start to see “results”.

In the photo below (8/9/19), Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) are providing nectar and pollen to the passing Swallowtail butterfly. Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus) is a grass that establishes quickly and forms the bulk of the vegetation here. The seeds of these plants will provide winter food for wildlife, as well as cover. Their roots hold the soil at the edge of a slope. All of them suppress annual weeds that can become problematic in the adjacent field, which is used for annual row crops.

I was very happy to stumble upon these vigorous plants. This was the same spots were I saw Sandhill Cranes foraging the year before.

I was also pleased to see evidence that the plants were being munched on, with some caterpillars frass (poop) collecting in the depression by the stem. Native plants feed the native food chain, all the way up to us.

The Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) was in bloom, providing nectar for a Monarch Butterfly.

Now that everyone can carry around a supercomputer with a nice camera lens in their pocket, getting in the field is just a good opportunity for photos.

a swallowtail nectaring on Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

a bee fly nectaring on Ironweed (Vernonia species)

I was most thrilled to find this Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda puntata) on Sept. 5th. In this very sandy field, it was only the 2nd growing season after seeding. I haven’t found M. puntata naturally occuring on our site, but it is native to the region and is at home in sand. The pink you see are bracts (leaves just below the flower). The flower is yellow and spotted, right next to the stem.

I also took some notes on a small field that we received a grant to plant to forest. We planted 1 year old bare root stems from the Indiana DNR nursery in spring of 2018. So we are now toward the end of the 2nd growing season in the ground. The sycamores did particularly well, and this one was 8 feet tall already!

Field monitoring is always full of surprises. Keep a sharp eye!