BIG news for NW Indiana

I know I’m behind on blogging, but there was some big news that dropped yesterday:

NIPSCO Eyes Plan for Cleaner, Lower-Cost Energy Future

Northern Indiana Public Service Company LLC (NIPSCO), a subsidiary of NiSource Inc. (NYSE: NI), announced today as part of its future electric supply planning process, that analysis shows the most viable option for customers would include moving up the retirement of a majority of its remaining coal-fired generation in the next five years and all coal within the next 10 years. Likely replacement options point toward lower-cost renewable energy resources such as wind, solar and battery storage technology.

Here’s the full press release, and the presentation slides if you really want to geek out.

Sunrise over Moontree, Sep 14, 2018

It’s clear now that the trend is inevitable (it’s been already clear to energy analysts for some time). Very few technologies will be able to compete with free fuel. It’s now a matter of finding the right mixtures of various fuel types, integrating that with usage patterns across a grid, and deploying them. The politics and social dynamics are probably the most difficult piece of the puzzle.

We already know we will make the transition to renewable, low/no-carbon energy this century. So… why not do it quickly? The science is telling us that to avoid the worst of ecological degradation, we have to do it fast, much faster than the current pace.

This means rapid deployment of renewable energy and increased research and development.

It means the complete electrification of the transportation system. We know that electric vehicles produced today will continue to get cleaner for every year of their ~20 year lifespan. Further investment in any fossil fuel infrastructure runs the risk of becoming obsolete, as well as morally dubious.

If that sounds drastic, that’s only because of how slowly we’ve been adjusting our frames of mind to the challenges that scientists are continually revealing to us. In this light, rapid transformation is the most conservative, cautious action we can take; doing nothing becomes radically irresponsible.

As always, I return to the words of Pope Francis in Laudato si’ (2015), a beautiful synthesis of science and faith:

We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the less harmful alternative or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition. In recent decades, environmental issues have given rise to considerable public debate and have elicited a variety of committed and generous civic responses. Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world. Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities. (par. 165)

The news isn’t always so cheery, but yesterday was a good day for our children’s world.

(Bonus: Also yesterday we saw this from our neighboring state: “AEP Ohio filed plans for the single largest clean energy development in Ohio history – at least 900 megawatts of new wind and solar generation, would more than double the amount of utility scale clean energy in the state.”)

first solar array tilting

Our solar arrays were installed this June by Ag Technologies of Rochester, IN. Their SolarCAM(R) system allows us to tilt the arrays four times per year to maximize solar production. As the sun appears lower on the horizon in the fall and winter, we tilt the arrays up (steeper) to be perpendicular with the rays.

We actually like that the system is not automated. That would mean moving parts and motors, parts that will inevitably fail and need to be replaced. If you can put up a pop-up camper, you can tilt these arrays.

Interestingly enough, the tilting schedule is not evenly spaced across the year. We tilt on or around August 24 (37 degrees), October 7 (45 degrees), March 20 (back to 37 degrees), and April 18 (12 degrees). This is a function of the sun’s altitude on the horizon. All of these values can be calculated for any zip code, at any date in the future at this Navy website. Your tax dollars at work!

I’m blessed to have an ecological intern this fall from Ancilla College’s Earn to Learn Scholarship Program. I’m looking forward to working with Trace, providing him with a diverse set of experiences, and getting some extra jobs done that have been on my to-do list. We didn’t waste any time… after we met each other yesterday, we went right out to the fields to get tiltin’…

habitat update: fire effects, new bees, and an Unexpected Cycnia

Lots of odds and ends here… I apologize for the random nature of things, but I thought you’d enjoy hearing about this and that.

1) “Iron plant”

Sr. Mary and I were at the Moontree Lodge the other day and she pointed outside and said, “What’s that purple plant down there? I’ve never seen it there.” I took a look, it was Ironweed, (a Vernonia species, I forgot to check which one). “Did you plant that?” “Nope, it just showed up!”

Just before the tree line are several ironweed plants topped with deep purple flowers.

Ironweed is often found in pastures. We don’t hardly need to seed it, as it’s pretty common on the landscape and manages to show up often. However, this spot was just burned this spring. I have a hunch that the spring burn, which damaged the European cool-season grasses we are trying to eradicate, gave an edge to the ironweed and it took off.

The plants were a good six feet tall!

The more flowering species, the better. If we have dozens of species, there will always be something providing nectar and pollen throughout the long growing season. Sure enough, there were several Monarchs nectaring on the Ironweed. (It’s been a great year for Monarchs, if you hadn’t noticed).

Read more about this plant at this great ecology blog: A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

2) The (honey) bees are back

Speaking of all those flowers, we thought we could turn some of that nectar and pollen in honey. We found a new friend who needed a flower-rich space to put his bees for the season. In return, we get pollination of our flowers (which leads to seeds we can harvest in the fall). Honey bees aren’t native to this continent, but these “white man’s flies” have been naturalized her for several centuries.

I’ve been playing around with my smartphone’s slow-motion video feature. It’s actually just a video shot at 120 frames per second, then you can do some editing afterwards. Anyway, I’m not a great photographer, but I thought I’d throw up my first take:

3) Unexpected Cycnias

You learned about these somewhat rare moth caterpillars from Cassaundra Bash’s recent guest post. So did I… I had never heard of them!

Imagine my surprise then when I found some of these the very next week, munching away on some butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), which is an orange-flowered native milkweed species. Since I’ve scanned hundreds of milkweed plants for Monarch and Tiger Moth caterpillars, it is probable that cycnias have passed before my eyes… but I had never truly seen them. This is a reoccurring part of ecological education. Once your eyes are opened to a particular plant, or your ears opened to specific birdsong, etc, you start finding it everywhere. Imagine what else we are missing right in front of us!

That was… well, Unexpected!

As I was researching some basic facts about these guys, I found a researcher’s 2015 blog post, where she was soliciting observations of the Unexpected Cycnia from across the continent. Of course, I e-mailed her and was now doubly pleased to contribute a very small piece to our body of knowledge about this incredible world.

4) More Butterflies

Ok, thanks for reading this far. As a special gift, check out this slow-motion sequence I observed in my backyard. After you click the link, pause the video. Hit the gear icon and change the settings so that you are watching in HD (720p), then click to open in full screen. The real big surprise comes in at about 23 seconds!

 

more to milkweeds than just monarchs! (guest post)

Please enjoy this guest post by the Ancilla College Director of Library Services, Cassaundra Bash. I was very pleased when I learned that Cass was an insect enthusiast, and I’ve learned a lot in conversations with her. She graciously offered to write up a post to share with you all.

Have you ever wandered past a big stand of milkweed, thinking how peaceful and quiet it is, with perhaps only a monarch butterfly or two flitting over it?  Ever thought that perhaps the only thing out there munching away like hermits are monarch caterpillars?  Monarchs are synonymous with milkweed in most people’s minds, but there is another common caterpillar that relies heavily on the plant.  They may not have the stateliness of a monarch, but the milkweed tiger moth, also known as the milkweed tussock moth, makes up for it with another trait we humans find endearing.

Fur.

Alright, it’s technically hair, and some people can be allergic to the hairs.  (I myself seem to be sensitive to it, but only after they shed it to make their cocoons, meaning that handling the crawling caterpillar is safe for me, but I wear gloves handling the cocoons or risk itchy, irritated fingers and palms.)  And like any insect that partakes of a milkweed meal, these caterpillars, like monarch caterpillars, have learned to incorporate the milkweed’s poisons into their own defenses.  Like monarchs, any animal that eats a bitter-tasting milkweed tussock moth is likely to feel ill afterwards—and they learn to leave these caterpillars alone.  And if taste isn’t enough of a deterrent, these caterpillars bear some of the typical insect “danger” colors: black, orange, red, and yellow are all colors that insects use to warn other animals that they are dangerous in one way or another.  The black and orange of a monarch adult is so successful that the monarch mimic, the adult viceroy, “borrows” the color scheme and general pattern to fool birds into thinking it’s a monarch.  (Viceroy caterpillars mimic bird droppings, as some other caterpillar species do—but that’s a topic for another post.)  The black and orange mixed in with the white, so similar to cat lovers that I’ve heard some people call these caterpillars “calico”, is just a continuation of the warning coloration.

Ironically, the moth isn’t all that colorful and, aside from an orange body, the wings are pretty much a soft grey or brown (depending on who you ask and perhaps on color variations in the population—mine tend towards the grey), but then that makes sense—they’re nocturnal, and their main predators are bats, which aren’t known for being sight hunters.  But these moths have, as adults, one trick that they’ve developed that works as well for the adults against bats as the coloration warning works against birds when they’re caterpillars.  The moths have the ability to create a clicking pattern that the bats can hear and, after eating a distasteful tussock moth adult, will learn as a future warning against eating more of this species.

 

While monarchs lay their eggs singly, preferring to spread out their offspring across an entire field of milkweed, the milkweed tussock moth lays her eggs in clusters on a few plants.  This means that an entire milkweed plant may have dozens of tiny furry caterpillars, all eating and growing together.  This may provide some protection from predators and parasitic species that might want to pick out an individual among the crowd; it’s a lot harder to do that when the caterpillars are bunched together, even before they get their warning colors (very young ones are cream-colored, as seen below).  Eventually, as they get closer to the time to make their cocoons, they will start to separate and spread out, but by then, they’ll have gotten their distinctive warning colors.

 

You may be worried about competition between monarchs and milkweed tussock moths, but fear not—neither one is aggressive towards the other and I’ve raised both monarchs and milkweed tussock moths in the same tank.  While competition over a single plant means that the small herd of tussock moths will crowd out an individual monarch, both species, as caterpillars, can and will move to a fresh plant if necessary.  As long as there is enough food, the caterpillars will feed around each other, and in fact some scientists have pointed out that it seems as if the tussock moth prefers the older, tougher leaves on the bottom while the monarch prefers the tenderer leaves on top.  But that’s another reason why it’s so important to have large stands of milkweed; both species are native and deserve the opportunity to flourish and thrive, and without milkweed, it won’t happen for either.

I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that there is a third, less common (at least here in Indiana) moth caterpillar that relies on milkweed: the unexpected cycnia.  I kid you not; its name really is unexpected cycnia.  Most years, I never see them, but every so often, in late summer or early fall, I’ll find their caterpillars, usually on a special species of milkweed that monarchs and tussock moths use as a last resort because all the other milkweed species have turned yellow and dropped their leaves.  This milkweed species is called the whorled milkweed, and it looks like a small, spindly pine tree that saps like a milkweed if damaged.  Unlike other milkweed, this species sends out tough, shallow roots like strawberry runners, popping up a stem every so often.  And since it grows tall and narrow, I let mine come up anywhere it likes in my pollinator garden, because it doesn’t compete much with any of the other plants for sun or water, and it’s extremely drought-tolerant, which is why monarchs and tussock moths fall back on it in times of need.  Like the tussock moth family, the cycnias also have fur, but not so much that it completely covers the orange warning color of their bodies.

 

In addition to these three species, I’ve also found giant leopard moths and banded woolly bears feeding on milkweed—though not exclusively or even commonly, as they tend to be general feeders of various other native plants including plantain, violets, honeysuckle, dandelions, stinging nettle, and many others.  In addition to caterpillars, at least two types of beetles also eat milkweed exclusively, and milkweed is a favorite of the appropriately-named milkweed aphid, which in turn draws ants that “milk” the aphids for the sweet honeydew they produce, ladybugs that eat aphids, spiders, pollinating bees, and parasitic wasps and flies that look for hosts for their young.  While a stand of milkweed may look like a calm and lonely spot, it’s really quite the bustling metropolis of the insect world.

first impressions of two solar installations in northern Indiana

Our solar arrays have been in for over a month now, so let’s check in on the systems.

Moontree Studios (7.1 kW DC power)

So far, things are performing as expected. As much as I want exciting things to happen, the panels are actually kind of… boring. No moving parts to lubricate or replace, just electrons flowing. And boring infrastructure is good, because that means it’s working and we can focus on other things.

Photo (and install) by Ag Technologies of Rochester, IN.

Our intention with Moontree is not to take the buildings “off the grid.” While interesting in an experimental sense, there’s not really an advantage in doing so for us. We partner with the grid with a bi-directional exchange of electricity, allowing us to deploy renewable energy at a cheaper cost (therefore, to install more of it). We didn’t spend any money on batteries. At the peak of the day, we are credited for excess electrons that are sent back to the grid and will feed the next available building. When we are running a deficit, we draw from the grid. This arrangement is called “net metering.”

In the end, we expect the Moontree Gallery and Shop to be 40% solar powered, 25% wind, and the remaining 35% by the grid (that’s another post, but you can see real-time grid data here).

Nevertheless, I thought it would be neat to see the solar and wind production data on a single chart. The two systems are from different manufactures, running different software, so it was… tricky. But nothing that a little time with an Excel sheet couldn’t fix! (Just don’t ask me to do this for each day).

Don’t worry too much about the units on the vertical (y) axis. Just looking at the relative values across the course of one 24-hour day.

The orange line shows solar production. The “perfect” curve of solar production we would get on a day with no clouds… the power output steadily rises until midday, plateaus, then descends with the setting sun. On this day, there were clearly a few clouds starting around 11:30 AM.

The wind is a little less predictable. Some days have virtually no wind at lower altitudes. Others are quite productive. For this day, the wind starting picking up around 3:30 PM and provided power through midnight. Again, the nice thing about net metering we as individuals don’t really care when the power is produced, just how much total by the end of the month or year. Each day’s chart will look different.

Wastewater Plant (75.52 kW DC power)

Our less visible solar installation is about 10x the size of the Moontree array. We located it in an adjacent cattle pasture, which we determined was better than any of the alternatives we had examined (roofs, parking lots, etc). Sheep routinely graze under solar arrays in Europe, but cattle are simply too big and powerful (and curious). So after the install was complete, we put up the fence. It was a team effect, and we all learned a little something. The solar production has already “paid off” the financial cost of the fence, and probably the ecological debt of the metal panels and wooden posts.

Following the example of some pioneering solar installations, we plan to eventually replace the pasture grasses under the panel with low-growing native wildflowers to give a boost to pollinators, including the honey bees just down the road at our greenhouse. Solar honey… what’s sweeter than that?!

I took a few readings of the electric meter to make sure everything is tracking properly. We have been pushing on to the grid about 45% more electricity than we have been pulling. That’s a good feeling! And it was as-designed… we will use up these credits on our bill as the days get shorter and cloudier and production begins to drop. After a year, we expect the system to cover about 80-90% of our energy needs for the plant.

Photo by Ag Technologies, right after installation.

Killowatt-hours and voltages and such can get a little confusing. So let’s put it in a more tangible way: in the the first 5 weeks of production, the wastewater arrays have produced enough energy to run my home for about 2 years. Cool!

I look forward to coming back next year with a full year of data. My home array just had it’s first anniversary, so I’ll be posting that data soon.

Electric car charging station attracts passing motorists

This article appeared in the June issue of Ripples, our internal publication on The Center at Donaldson.

Electric car charging station attracts passing motorists

When we received a grant from the Marshall County Community Foundation to install an electric car charging station, we had three goals: offer charging as a service to co-workers, use the infrastructure for our own fleet, and provide some electrons for visitors as well.

I was walking by the other day and saw a new car plugged in at the station, a Chevy Bolt with out-of-state plates.


Curious, I snapped a photo and left my card on the windshield. The next day I got an e-mail from Stacey, the driver:

Thanks for letting us stop and charge!  We met the nicest people during our visit at the center.  Sister Mary bought my husband and I lunch and Rachel and Matthew at MoonTree showed us around the campus, gallery, and art studios. What a cool place that you guys have! Our visit exceeded our expectations and we stayed much longer than we expected just because we were having a good time.” 

It turns out that Stacey had found our charging station on a smartphone app and made a pitstop here on her way back from Chicago. Matthew later explained to me,

They were quite pleasant people, a former army serviceman and artist and his wife, an architect.  They had talked about how they are moving out of the Chicago and onto a farm.  We talked about agri-tourism and eco-tourism and how we had prime location and resources for both and how his family farm ended up making enough money to keep the farm profitable doing fall-time agritourism (corn maze and pumpkin patch).  All in all, quite the serendipitous encounter and a testament to something as simple as an electric charging port attracting certain type of people with similar values and ecological considerations.”

Sometimes, all it takes is a little “spark.” Here’s a big THANK YOU to all the departments and co-workers who make The Center at Donaldson a place of ministry and hospitality.

Some great design work by our communications department!

One year later… how’s the blog doing?

After one year on the job, I started a blog. It’s been a year already! Let’s see where we are at.

My inaugural post promised 3 blogs a month. I’m proud to say I only failed once on that account, in January (2 posts). Hopefully I made up by averaging 1 post per week, for 53 total. Ok… a few were just advertisements for local events and such, but hopefully I’m getting you something to really chew on at least once a month.

The top three posts have been:
1) a post on the latest research about the diversity of macrofungi in Indiana (237 views)

2) my summary of what it was like to live with a used electric vehicle for a year (115 views)

3) our press release announcing our solar energy installation (81 views)

There are 48 subscribers, more than I had hoped! Six have joined in the last 6 months. Unfortunately, the majority of posts have fewer total views than I have subscribers… which suggests maybe people are getting the e-mail notification of a new post but never opening or reading it. Maybe I need to create more sensational (“click-bait”) titles! 🙂

As for the investment of time and energy into the site, I like the steady (and light) pressure of having to publish something regularly. It pushes met to keep communicating and writing. It’s part of what I’m supposed to do (and besides, I enjoy it! Shhh…).

Moving into the second year, I don’t particularly have any new goals or objectives. I like the balance I’ve struck so far.

But… you are the readers. What would YOU like to see over the next year? Longer posts? Shorter ones? Less scientific lingo? More? Guest writers? Leave a note in the comments section. Thanks for reading, please share!

Now, since this is my blog, I’m going to post two pictures for no particular reason other than I think they are beautiful.

3 fat Monarch caterpillars on a single Butterfly weed plant, Plymouth, IN

 

One really adorable child! Growing up far too fast.

Pollinator patches abuzz with activity

Last year, we established half a dozen pollinator patches across our campus.

We have a lots of landscaped (mowed) ground here. Mowed areas provide space for recreation and walking, and give a sense of openness that we all enjoy in landscapes around our buildings. However, there’s eventually a limit to the space we need. We found several nooks and crannies of mowed lawn that were better served as wildflower patches. Together, they amount to about 2/3 of an acre.

The benefits of replacing small patches of lawn are several: less labor and fuel spent on mowing, more visually interesting space (varied texture and color changing over time), pollinator habitat, carbon sequestration, and water infiltration, to name a few. Mowed lawns are not ecological dead zones – far from it – but they don’t match the ecological services provided by a biodiverse mix of native plants.

All that is true, but I still think the highest benefit is beauty. As Emily Dickenson wrote, “The only Commandment I ever obeyed — ‘Consider the Lilies.”

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is an annual or biennial plant that bursts into bloom in the early stages of a restoration.

Also, there are all kinds of mysteries hidden in the many connections between the soil, plants, insects, and air. Just today I read about spiders flying on balloons of silk, lifted by electrostatic forces when wind is absent, flying thousands of feet up in the air. WHAT???! What other wonders might we be neglecting or harming in our ignorance?

As Pope Francis noted in Laudato si,

It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place… But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.

Indeed.

I’ll be doing some more formal plant surveys later, but today at midday I simply went to poke around the flowers and snap photos. (Please excuse the poor photo quality… I didn’t take a nice camera out, just my smartphone). The prominent pink/purple flowers are Wild Bergamont, aka Beebalm, aka Monarda fistulosa. For scale, the flower heads average about 2″ diameter. I was struck by the diversity of life just within a small space.

Enjoy.