Orion Blog, page 2

Concrete Progress: Cow Power

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


Here’s the Vermontiest story you’ve ever heard. Green Mountain Power (GMP), the biggest utility in that state, is making electricity out of cow manure.

Vermont, for those who haven’t been there, is a state that prides itself on being rural and traditional and artisanal—and also creative and progressive and environmental. It wants you to feel that Robert Frost lives around the corner from the Ben and Jerry’s factory, and that it’s always autumn and always ski season and also always maple-sugaring time. And I have to say, Vermont succeeds: look at the rise of Hill Farmstead and the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders. As they say these days, its brand is strong. So I was not surprised, as I drove through the state in August, to see a GMP vehicle with cow power on its side. Vermont is the ideal place to find renewable energy in bullshit.

The story began in the early 1980s, when a few innovative Vermont farmers started to use digesters to consume their cows’ manure. After seeing that these worked pretty well, Norman Audet, of Blue Spruce Farm, began to wonder whether he might be able to get power from the waste that his dairy cows produced day after day after smelly, smelly day. The Central Vermont Public Service Corporation (which later merged into GMP) studied the situation and cobbled together funding. By 2005, Audet’s cows were producing electricity.

Here is how Cow Power works. First, the cows poop—the average dairy cow produces about thirty gallons of waste a day. The manure is collected and put into a digester, essentially a big, covered concrete tub. The tub is kept warm, about 101 degrees, to mimic the temperature inside a cow and allow digestion to continue. (Cow digestion is not 100 percent efficient, so the manure still has stomach bacteria in it.) Digestion takes three weeks. The manure releases methane—natural gas—and leaves behind a mix of liquid and solid waste. The methane runs a generator, much like the landfill gas I wrote about last year. The generator’s excess heat—I thought this was really cool—maintains the cow-stomach temperature in the digester. The leftover liquid waste makes for good fertilizer, and the dry waste, now odor free, makes perfect bedding for the cows. In the old days, farms could bed their cows on sawdust from the local sawmill, but as many of Vermont’s mills have closed, bedding has come to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year for many farms. With Cow Power, farms produce their own, for free. Blue Spruce Farm, as one example, would have to buy a fifty-three-foot trailer of sawdust every week without Cow Power.

How do farmers get this system running? GMP’s project coordinator connects interested farmers with federal, state, and utility incentives. These allow them to buy and install the digester, generator, and other equipment. The incentives amount to about 45 percent of the total cost; the farmer borrows the rest.

Once the generator’s up and running, GMP puts a four-cent/kilowatt-hour premium on the power, which power users can choose to pay. People and businesses that want to support the dairies pay this premium on top of their ordinary electricity bill. The money goes straight to the farmers. Obviously this makes power more expensive, but the extra charge only amounts to about six dollars a month for the average Vermont household. With the four-cent surcharge, the farmers can pay back their investment in six or seven years.

When Vermonters pay the Cow Power premium, they’re also paying for better water and air quality, a little less greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and a lot less manure odor. (I’ve lived in rural Vermont, and I’d pay six bucks a month to avoid that last part alone.) And they’re also paying to support their farming neighbors and to maintain the rural character of the state. Most of the customers who buy Cow Power belong to ordinary households, but the program has also had a lot of buy-in from Vermont businesses, like Woodchuck Cider and Killington ski resort, which get to support their fellow Vermonters while simultaneously becoming more sustainable by using hyper-local power. I am drinking, right now, as I type this, a bottle of Woodchuck Granny Smith cider. I felt it important to do my part.

When Central Vermont Public Service began the program, part of its goal was to build up a form of renewable energy that fit Vermont—and by tapping agricultural waste as a fuel source, they’ve succeeded. As a damp, temperate, wooded state, solar and wind have less potential there than they do in Wyoming or Arizona. By now, Cow Power has expanded to thirteen farms, serving three thousand customers. It could easily go further: there are almost a thousand dairies in Vermont, and the extra income and savings from the program may help them endure when the price of milk is low. GMP (which has a variety of farm-centered sustainable energy programs) is looking to build a similar program in which it would partner with a farm by installing and maintaining generators and selling power; in return it would give farmers the benefits of bedding, fertilizer, and odor reduction.

The idea can work, of course, wherever there are cows. There are digesters and generators running on dairy farms from British Columbia to Indiana. It makes me wonder if Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, our enormous factory farms, could use their horrible lagoons of cow manure to create power—one such CAFO pumps out more waste in a year than a big city. On an even larger note, turning livestock poop into power could help save the world’s forests. In the developing world, subsistence-farming families often rely on wood to heat their homes and cook their food, but with a digester/generator system, their pig or water buffalo may be all they need. Perhaps Vermont is the future after all.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments. 

“Sensing Place”: A New Exhibition at the Clark Art Institute


The Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is a longtime neighbor and friend to Orion, for reasons of both location—it’s a short (and beautiful) drive north of our office in the Berkshires—and mission. For over fifty years, the Clark has been a home for visual art that explores the connections between nature, culture, and place. A new exhibition, open through October 10, investigates a landscape in flux.

A landscape is more an event than a thing, a confluence of life cycles, organic and inorganic, that overlap in time. Seasons change; living things emerge, reproduce, and die; natural and human actions reshape the topography. In an instant, what was is no longer.

As globalism and virtual technology redefine our once-fixed sense of physical and cultural order, an exhibition at the Clark asks us to consider the meaning of place and our relationship to it. “Sensing Place” takes as its focus an aggregate of pasture and woodlands called Stone Hill that rises just over 1,000 feet at the south end of the Clark campus. Both a scenic view from the museum and a point of view over the surrounding Taconic and Green mountain ranges, it is an upland nature refuge traversed by well-used hiking trails that touch upon the residential neighborhoods surrounding it.

What Stone Hill appears to be today, however, is only the present moment in a 500-million-year period of flux that is still in play. As the exhibition illustrates in maps, objects, time-lapse photos, and videos, this pastoral landscape is an arena of relentless competition among living things for space and sustenance. It is shaped by endless geological shifts and changes in climate.

Organized by Mark C. Taylor, professor of religion at Columbia University, and Henry W. Art, professor of biology and environmental studies at nearby Williams College—both of whom live on Stone Hill’s slopes—the exhibition could have simply been a display of archaeological artifacts. And to some casual viewers it will be. But it is the reflections in wall texts or audio-guide narratives by historians, naturalists, scientists, artists, and philosophers, many associated with Williams, that bring it to life with penetrating, often artful insights:

  • An artist counts multiple human lifespans in the growth rings of a buckthorn tree; a biologist observes birds marking their territories not by physical barriers, but by songs and calls.
  • A historian reflects on the cataclysmic geological shifts 500 million years ago that created mountains here as high as the Alps, now eroded to Stone Hill size.
  • A local farmer describes his family’s long history in agriculture here and how the “side plow,” developed in 1875, allowed for the advance of contouring furrows on the slopes to prevent erosion.
  • Viewers can follow the purposeful tracks of a raccoon, ponder a rifle that killed more than 100 bears and learn how a beaver family created a vibrant wetland through dam building—only to have it revert to meadow once the rodents abandoned their engineering project.

Meanwhile, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert exhibits monolithic soil borings from diverse localities on Stone Hill and ponders the impact global warming may have years hence, as curator Henry Art, the biologist, envisions communities of wildflowers taking turns at life in the annual cycle of seasons. And his curatorial colleague Mark Taylor ponders a cow skull and how bones become records of our lives before vanishing to nothingness.

Whether this tapestry of processes is guided by a supreme intelligence or is mindlessly self-sustaining—and whether globalism and virtual realty are upward trends or downward spirals—are left to the viewer to decide. For Taylor, who once made a study of the final resting places of famous people and has already planned his own (near Stone Hill), the answer is: “What has no place is not.”

Charles Bonenti is a freelance art and architecture critic based in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Concrete Progress: No Driver, No Problem

A promotional still from Google's driverless car project. (No, we're kidding -- that's below.)

A promotional still from Google’s driverless car project. (No, we’re kidding—that’s below.)

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


Suddenly, my rear wheels slid on a patch of snow, sending me into the oncoming lane. My Camry spun across the road, tipped over the shoulder, and started to pinball through the trees down the hill. I was sure I was going to die. I didn’t, though—a manzanita bush caught my rear bumper and I sat shaking in the driver’s seat, looking straight up at the sky. I’d been going too fast, getting too casual, and that was why I ended up spinning off the road. It was my fault.

Most of the truly frightening moments in my life have occurred while riding in a car, and I bet yours have too. Almost one hundred Americans die in car accidents every day, and the majority of car accidents, at least 90 percent, come from human error. But still we drive, filling the roadways (86 percent of workers go to work in a car, truck, or van, most of them driving alone) and taking our lives in our hands—not to mention burning hundreds of millions of gallons of fossil fuel. You could argue that people shouldn’t drive cars. Soon, we won’t.

In the near future, our cars will drive themselves. Some of them already do. My daughter—she just turned two—might look at her own children and shake her head as she tells them how, in 2016, their grandparents drove her around themselves. The elimination of 90 percent of automobile accidents will transform travel. No drunk driving, no sleepy driving, no road rage, no texting at the wheel, no speeding in the snow. The personal/economic/cultural/social benefits are obvious too—we’ll be able to work, or read books, or catch up on sleep during the commute. Age, blindness, and other physical disabilities will no longer force people to spend their days at home or rely on a chauffeur. The environmental benefits of self-driving cars are potentially just as transformative.

Driverless cars will burn far less fuel than conventional automobiles. A few years down the road, when car accidents are relatively rare, automakers will do away with the heavy, bulky things that human drivers require for safety—steel frames, for instance—and cars will subsequently become vastly more fuel efficient. The other advance in fuel efficiency will come from cars knowing where other cars are without requiring visual cues, as human drivers do, to judge one another’s behavior. This will let them save fuel in many ways: from drafting on one another like cyclists (this alone can reduce fuel use by 20 percent), to shutting off the engine in traffic jams (or not getting into them at all), to simply parking efficiently. In some cities, 40 percent of total gas use comes from people trying to find parking, which is one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever heard.

The second big environmental benefit of driverless cars comes from slimming down infrastructure. To cope with how bad people are at driving their cars, we have stoplights and rumble strips and concrete dividers and enormous shoulders and parking lots the size of Delaware (they cover a third of the acreage in some cities!), all of which we build and maintain at great financial and environmental cost. KPMG, a big consulting firm that has put together a terrific and very readable report, estimates savings of $7.5 billion a year in infrastructure spending. Over time, the new paradigm could remove millions of tons of concrete from the landscape. Imagine the potential for ecological restoration as we tear up concrete and convert what are now car lanes to human-powered transport. Imagine a dedicated bike lane, once known as “the passing lane,” the entire way along I-90.

The main advantage, though, is that there will be many, many fewer cars on the road—70 percent fewer, according to one expert, with even greater impacts in urban areas. At present, our cars can’t go without us, so they sit unused 90 percent of the time, like microwaves or lawn mowers. A driverless car can give people rides while its owner is at work or asleep, turbocharging the sharing economy by allowing many people—especially poorer people or those who live in dense areas—to rent or own shares of a car rather than buy their own. Zipcar, among others, is already doing this sort of thing, but is hampered by having to use normal cars. Fleet ownership by car-sharing businesses will probably mean better maintenance, too, with the efficiency and safety benefits that that implies.


Some worry about driverless cars’ impact on sprawl—won’t they enable people to live far from work? They might, but in this way they’re not very different from hybrids. While driverless cars will make a two-hour commute easier, they will not make it desirable to spend hours in a metal box, and I would be shocked if they pushed, say, Atlanta, or Mexico City, out much farther. No one wants to spend four hours a day in transit, and many people want to live in vibrant city centers.

Now, computer-driven cars can make people nervous, and understandably so. We’ve all had our computers crash on us; I’ve even seen someone dress up as Apple’s rainbow pinwheel of death for Halloween. A crash in (or hack of) the steering program, for example, would be utterly terrifying, and the biggest challenge I imagine for this system (other than political resistance) is the socio-cultural backlash after the first bad accident. But computers are much better at computing than people are at driving—your car is already run largely by computers. On that snowy commute of mine, my Camry, with data on just how much friction there was between tires and snow, would have gotten me to work on time. My main concern with driverless cars, honestly, is of a panicked person overriding his car’s driving program and getting into an accident on his own.

The biggest driverless project that I’ve heard of comes from our friendly masters at Google, who, along with running the world, have been putting specially designed autonomous cars on the road (with backup drivers, just in case) for the last six years. The cars have sensors that allow them to accurately read the area around them all the way down (claims Google) to “seeing” shopping bags blowing in the street at a range of two hundred yards. Google’s cars are ridiculously cute—like a combination of R2D2 and Thomas the Tank Engine. They have driven 1.9 million miles, and there have been zero accidents while the cars drove themselves. (The total accident tally? Fourteen, eleven of which were rear-enders by a human-driven car. It’s been suggested that these humans were on their phones at the time.) Obviously these cars are not yet being driven in the most challenging of conditions—but the networking effects that will make driverless cars that much better aren’t in place, either.

There’s more. Just this month, Uber announced that it will receive a fleet of driverless vehicles. This is a natural next step, partly because much of the expertise that has pushed this technology forward emerged from Carnegie Mellon, which entered into a collaboration with the ride-sharing app back in 2015. If you live in Pittsburgh, where the university and something called the Uber Advanced Technology Center are located, you may, as soon as you’ve finished this column, be able to order up an autonomous vehicle and go see a Pirates game. If you’re nervous, never fear—the cars will have human attendants to make sure that they don’t make mistakes.

So, we’re doing this. Legislatures are debating how to regulate driverless cars. Futurists are ecstatic. Insurance companies and emergency room doctors, surely, cannot wait. Some people will be sad; America is a car culture, and many people love driving. There will always be some who drive, just as there are still some who ride antique bicycles. But we may see—I think we will see—a future full of much safer and cleaner transport options.

There’s a ton of great information out there about driverless cars. Some good places to look, beyond what’s linked in the story:

Google’s website dedicated to self-driving cars.
The Oatmeal’s typically enjoyable description of riding with Google.
The Economist’s intelligent analysis.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments. 

Coming Soon: The Summer & Fall 2016 Double Issue of Orion

An issue of Orion on press.

As summer’s heat peaks and falls away, it feels natural to pull together the things that’ve grown during the season of growing – whether they’re fruits and vegetables, stories and memories, or writing and art. It’s in that spirit of harvest that we’re excited to announce the next issue of Orion, a special double issue of the magazine, containing the journalism, essays, poems, and visual art that have germinated and come to fruition during the long, hot days of summer.

In the coming weeks, check your mailbox, your favorite bookstore, and our website for the next, special issue of Orion, in which you’ll find a collection of voices discussing the intersection of race and the centennial of the National Park Service; a report from an indigenous community in Panama making bold moves in the face of climate change; an essay on the unexpected communities of motherhood; images of the dinosaurs of Manhattan; and much, much more.

For those who’ve been eagerly awaiting the next issue, we thank you for your patience, and for those who’ve just discovered Orion, we can’t wait to share the summer’s bounty with you.

Concrete Progress: Pipe Realities

A view of the inside of a Lucid Energy pipe, with turbine visible.

A view of the inside of a Lucid Energy pipe, with turbine visible.

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


The only truly clean energy I’ve ever heard of keeps the lights on in Portland, Oregon. A little energy company called Lucid Energy, melding technological innovation with forehead-slappingly obvious design, is generating power by putting turbines in municipal water pipes. Lucid Energy is showing the way to the future, but it has, at the same time, made me a liar.

You see, for years and years I’ve said, to my friends and my colleagues and my students: there’s no such thing as clean energy. While pretty much anything is better than fossil fuel, all our alternatives have their problems. Wind? Dead birds and virulent NIMBYism. Solar? Ask the Mojave Desert tortoise, and then try to dispose of the panels responsibly. Tidal? Let me know when it’s really real. Nuclear? Please. Hydro? Well, we’ll get to hydro. You might mention energy conservation, and conservation is great, but it is not, in itself, a way to produce energy.

Now, I am wholeheartedly in favor of many of these options—especially solar—but as we develop alternatives we also need to wrestle with their impacts. But the LucidPipe Power System doesn’t really have impacts.

Portland’s water starts in the Cascade Mountains, east of the city. It flows down from the hills and into the Bull Run River, spills through a series of reservoirs, gets channeled into pipes and through purification facilities and distribution centers, and then runs out the faucets of Portlandia. The whole thing, from rain to distribution center, is gravity fed; the Bull Run watershed starts almost five thousand feet above downtown Portland. The system provides Portland with (so it claims) “the best drinking water in the world.” Note: I used to live there and I can tell you that the water is indeed pretty good, just like everything else there is to eat or drink in that city.

The Bull Run system also provides a whole lot of head. Head, in terms of hydropower, is the vertical distance water drops before it passes through turbines: more height, more head, more power. This sort of power is exactly why people build hydro dams, but hydro brings landscape-scale ecological destruction. Dams block fish from swimming upstream, stop silt from traveling downstream, and flood the valley above them. As fish go downstream, they can get churned up by hydro turbines. But when you put the turbines inside pipes, all those problems go away—no fish, no silt, no nothing. Just running water and spinning turbines.

Workers in Portland, Oregon, prepare to install a Lucid Energy pipe below ground.

Workers in Portland, Oregon, prepare to install a Lucid Energy pipe below ground.

In 2009, Lucid Energy began, as twenty-first-century companies do, in a start-up incubator. In 2010, the company piloted its power pipes in Riverside, California, east of LA—the turbines there keep streetlights on. This is the coolest thing about Riverside. In 2015, Lucid Energy installed its turbines in Portland. Each of the four turbines produces fifty kilowatts, adequate power for about seventy-five homes. The turbines are controlled remotely; you can stop them if there’s a problem or velocities are too fast, though they work well within the bounds of normal flow rates. Right now, Portland’s pipes are on pace to produce 900 megawatt-hours per year, the sort of thing that could power a neighborhood. But this is only the beginning.

The potential market for Lucid’s clean, efficient power is enormous, because along with energy, nearly everyone needs new pipes. America’s municipal plumbing, like much of the rest of our Baby Boom Infrastructure, is in need of billions and billions of dollars of upgrades and maintenance. We lose two trillion gallons of drinking water a year because of leaky piping. So as cities replace old pipes (or as growing communities lay new ones) picking pipes that produce power seems like the obvious choice.

Now, Portland’s LucidPipe system was expensive—though Lucid notes that installation was especially tricky due to neighborhood location, and that lessons learned will reduce future costs by as much as half. Most cities do not have much public money to spare. If they did, America wouldn’t have a huge backlog of leaky pipeage. In Portland’s case, the money for Lucid’s system came from private investors, who will reap the profits from selling the power and share with the city. They expect to make $2 million over the next twenty years. This is similar to solar-panel leasing, where power companies rent your roof to put up panels. It seems like a reasonable way to transition to sustainable power, although it would be simpler if cities were able to buy the pipes and distribute the power themselves. As more and more states create Renewable Portfolio Standards—the requirement that a certain portion of each utility’s energy come from renewable sources—the demand for pipe turbines will grow as well.

This scheme should be useful literally everywhere that relies on gravity-fed municipal water systems. San Francisco, New York, Denver—any number of other cities around the country and world. San Antonio, Texas, and Johannesburg, South Africa, are in talks with Lucid right now. And beyond this current technology, the company is working on smaller turbines that might work in the pipes closer to your house. The best thing is, this source of energy will never stop as long as people use tap water. As long as snow falls on the mountains and melts into rivers that run down to the city, the turbines will spin.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.