Springtime in Atmau

The river thaws.  Boats and boardwalks reappear from under the ice.  Tundra becomes saturated in The Floating Village once more.  Sunset comes at 10:30 pm.

 

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“Breakup” begins.

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Ice fishing is over.  Nets will soon be cast.

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New Arctic Pipe construction.

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Pleasant days for a walk around the island loop.

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Melt-water ponds over the boardwalk.

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Frozen tundra becomes impassable muck.

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Late sunsets low on the horizon.

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Heat Pumps and Tesla PowerWalls: How Vermont follows New Jersey’s Lead

On May 18th, 2015, I attended an invitation-only forum in Washington DC, “Driving Energy Efficiency with IT.” C2ES Driving Energy Efficiency with IT

The CEO of New Jersey’s largest electric utility was a featured speaker. The utility is PSE&G, and the CEO’s name is Ralph Izzo. One of his most important jobs at the time was to figure out how to change PSE&G’s business model and create new revenue streams.

Izzo, like utility CEO’s across America, was under pressure.  Electric utilities were losing money to the onslaught of the solar revolution.  The century-old business model — selling electricity — wasn’t working anymore.  

Net metering offers tidy savings for homeowners, but one person’s gain is another person’s loss.  Utilities were on the losing side of net-metering.

Appliances as Revenue Streams

Izzo had come up with a solution.  From the small podium on the 9th floor of the Capitol View Conference Center, the CEO of New Jersey’s largest utility leaned forward and said, “Do you remember Ma Bell?”

Ralph Izzo

Izzo’s vision for the future meant going back in time more than 30 years.  Before 1983, Bell Telephone/AT&T owned almost every phone in America, attaching a rental fee to customers’ monthly bills.  Few people knew it, but that’s how it worked.  PSE&G sees this as a good thing.   Izzo’s “new” business model positions electric utilities as home appliance sales and leasing dealers. It’s a new take on the old Ma Bell model.

“I want to own every appliance in every house we serve,” Izzo said. “I want our customers to lease their heating and cooling systems, their refrigerators, and their dishwashers from PSE&G.  The customer pays a small monthly lease and we’ll take care of everything else.”

Vermont follows New Jersey

So what does this mean for Vermont?  Well, Green Mountain Power has adopted New Jersey’s appliance sales and lease business model.  GMP is in the appliance business, selling or leasing heat pumps, Tesla PowerWalls, and a suite of eControl and eWater smart products.

Leasing is convenient for those of us who can’t plop down $5,000 for a whole-house heat pump.  But it’s important to read sales/lease contracts, know who owns what, and who controls the on/off switch.  The feel-good, save-the-environment sales pitch should be just one of several factors in your energy decisions now that you have a plethora of environment-saving options.  You can be green and at the same time, become a smart energy shopper. 

Smart Meters & “eControl”

smart-meter

Taking the appliance model another step, Ralph Izzo said he wanted to control appliance energy usage through smart meters.  PSE&G could generate a lot of savings if they could control customer usage. Demand Response creates efficiencies throughout the system, balancing supply and demand across the entire grid.

So what is Demand Response?  Do you remember when utilities would ask customers to turn down air conditioners in sweltering temperatures to help prevent a blackout?  Now utilities don’t have to ask for your help.  With your consent, outlined in a sales/lease contract, they can turn down your heat pump when you’re not home by way of your smart meter.

The question is, are customers given full disclosure before the contract is signed?  Do customers clearly understand what they are agreeing to?

For example, Green Mountain Power sells or leases Tesla PowerWalls — basically a big, lithium battery which can store electricity produced by your solar panels.  Through a Demand Response agreement, GMP can “borrow” energy from your Tesla PowerWall when it needs it — most likely in the evening when solar panels stop producing energy and demand increases.  They recharge your PowerWall when demand is less.  How can you tell if GMP is proposing a Demand Response program?  Well,  you’ll need to read the fine print of every contract you sign, and ask a whole lot of questions.

Tesla-Powerwall

Some folks get creeped-out by the thought of a utility remote-controlling their thermostat, as if there’s a home invader entering through the electrical panel.  But there’s no conspiracy theory here.  A utility can respond to electricity demand more efficiently if it can turn off air conditioners in houses during the day.  This type of Demand Response program helps everyone — and the entire grid.  You get a notification via a smart phone, and all’s good.  However, if you don’t like the idea, don’t agree to the terms.  Just ask, “What’s in it for me?” and request an answer in dollars.

Transparency and Full Disclosure

As I mentioned in a recent Front Porch Forum post, “Know what you own, and why you own it.” GMP, SunCommon, and other energy product/service providers don’t have an obligation to teach you the ins-and-outs of the renewable energy business.  In fact, Vermont’s new REC policy puts the average solar panel buyer/leaser at a huge disadvantage because it doesn’t include any type of consumer protection clause.  If you don’t ask the right questions, you may not get what you really think you get.

And therein lies the problem.  A company comes along and sells you on the idea that you’re going solar and helping save the environment.  The first part is not true at all if you don’t ask to keep your RECs.  The second part is somewhere in the middle of a truth-o-meter.

If you have solar panels on your roof, or if you are a “partner” in a Demand Response program, it helps if you understand the following:

  • You are a solar power producer if you buy solar panels.
  • You are not a solar power consumer if you don’t own your RECs.
  • You are letting a utility “borrow” electricity if you have a Telsa PowerWall and participate in a Demand Response program.
  • You are helping a utility if you let it control your appliances via a smart meter.

Then ask yourself, “What do I get in return?”  Maybe you get something, maybe you don’t.  It all depends on what is written in the sales/lease contract.

If a sales rep talks a rosy talk but doesn’t clarify the details, or if the contract is written almost entirely in small print, then it’s time to learn more and become a smart energy shopper.

Ultimately, here’s what you should understand:  The energy business is complicated, from solar panels to smart thermostats.  You have a lot of opportunities to go green and save money.  Just make sure you read any sales contract before you sign it.  Make sure it’s a good fit for you.

And beware of a sales rep dismissing anyone who suggests folks who advocate for transparency and disclosure are naysayers who don’t want to help the environment.  We’re just folks who want consumer-friendly renewable energy policies in Vermont.

Dawn’s Early Light

February 16th, 2018 —

Just a quick set of pictures to show off Atmau’s mid-winter beauty.  Dawn comes at 9am; dusk at 6:30.  It’s a 9 1/2 hour day with the long side in the afternoon and early evening.  Civil Twilight adds another half our or so.  Pre-dawn begins at 8:41 and dusk ends at 7:25.   So we’re basically almost at an 11 hour day.

Compared to Northfield and other towns tucked in among hills and mountains, I’d say we’ve got a longer day despite the difference in latitude.

How about a comment to let me know when light hits your eyes and disappears over the hills back in the greater Northfield area?  I’m curious how much light I’m missing or gaining between Vermont and Alaska.

Sunrise Sunset Feb 15 2018 day is done

Fly Day!

I’ve logged 16 fly days between Atmau and Bethel since my arrival in August.  It’s only a 10 minute flight.  But this time of year, a scheduled flight could be delayed for minutes, hours, or days. 

The best way to describe travel in the Delta during the change of seasons is with the old saw,  “You can’t get there from here.”  A layer of ice covers the river, so you can’t travel by boat.  The ice is thin, so the river hasn’t yet become an ice highway.  There’s no snow, ruling out a 30-minute snowmobile ride.

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Air travel is the only option this time of year — and fly days are subject to changing weather.  On any given day, or hour, the delta can be covered with fog or buffeted by howling high winds. There’s also mixed precipitation and freezing rain, the kind that would put any airport on weather hold.  

Another useful turn of phrase to describe travel this time of year is, “Hurry up and wait.”  You need to be ready to jump at a moment’s notice, waiting for a lucky break in the weather.  You call the air carrier every half-hour or so to check the status of the flight.  You’re kind of in limbo, not sure whether you’re going to depart at 9:30 am, 4:30 pm, or perhaps try again the next day.  All you can do is keep your luggage and snow gear on hand — and try to relax like everyone else who’s lived here long enough to know you can’t rush a windstorm.  

When the plane is said to be on its way, the next step is to climb into the John Deere Gator for a bumpy half-mile ride to the airstrip.  Then — wait.  Sometimes the flight is further delayed, which means getting a ride back and forth between the village and airstrip multiple times before the plan actually arrives.

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Most flyers know what it’s like to be stuck in an airport.  It’s boring and uncomfortable.  But that’s life.  Now imagine, instead of jockeying for the nearest phone-charger outlet in Gate 18, you’re standing on a gravel airstrip in a 20 mph westerly wind.  Another useful cliche comes to mind:  Dress in layers.    

But for all this, fly day is as exciting as it gets.  Traveling in a single prop airplane is like riding a motorcycle — you can see the world all around you and feel the power of the wind.  A small plane has bigger windows and cruises at lower altitudes.  You can discover the world below as if an explorer, flying only a few hundred feet above the ground.

I’ve always appreciated pilots.  Their job might seem glorious, but it’s often tedious and stressful.  This is equally true in the delta, but taken up a notch or two.

The airport in Bethel (BET) is the busiest in the state.  It serves a large, low-population region with high transportation needs.  Pilots fill in for the lack taxi drivers, UPS trucks, and postal delivery carriers.  They carry villagers to doctor’s appointments and the AC grocery store.   They deliver Amazon packages and the daily mail.  And they do it in all kinds of weather.

If you talk to anyone in the airport business they’ll assure you, “If you can fly Bethel, you can fly anywhere.”  I’ve been told that BET pilots are in high demand from carriers all over the world.  

I don’t doubt this, having flown in the co-pilot seat from time to time.  These people know how to fly with the wind blowing in all directions.  It’s a little scary the first time the plane lands almost sideways to the runway as the pilot crab-walks a landing.  See for yourself.  Here’s a 38 second video I took last Thursday morning.  

But you get used to it.  When you see the pilot jiggling an instrument or reflexively jerking the stick, you know he’s not any more interested in crashing than you are.  He’s feeling out the wind, rapidly adjusting the speed of the prop and the angles of the flaps and rudder.  He’s in the groove, like a skier dancing through moguls, or a pitcher eyeing first base.  You’re in the hands of a pro, unlike any you’ve ever relied on before.

Today I’m returning to Atmau, two days weathered in.  Fortunately, I’ve been housed at the Old Mission House B&B.  I’ve had the whole place to myself for three nights — enough time to write a glowing Yelp review.

It’s 9:45am, a beautiful morning with the orange twilight of dawn resting on the horizon.  My carrier is Renfro aka Yute Airlines.  The picture at the top of this post is from Thursday, November 16th.  This next one is only four days later.  The weather, as you can see, changes quickly.IMG_20171120_095128487.jpg

I’ve heard the road paving jobs are finishing up back home in Northfield.  Carrier Roasting is opening on East Street next to Good Measure.  A general sense of momentum is growing in Northfield, with reasonable progress and dissent along the way.  One of the most positive turnarounds I’ve observed over the last few years is the number of young families becoming engaged in local affairs.  The NCDN and Promise Community teams; the people showing up, rolling up their sleeves, experiencing trials and triumphs as they strive to improve Northfield.  We have a legacy of young families who’ve done this type of work for generations.  It’s good to see a new generation stepping up to the plate.  : ) 

 

The Lop-Sided Day

I have to plan phone calls home to the East Coast carefully, separated by 4 time zones.  7am seems to be the best time to reach someone during business hours — corresponding to 11am Eastern.  Time is an an interesting concept in Alaska because, if all time zones were equal, it would span 3 hours difference from Juneau to the Atmautluak.  This was the way time was divided in Alaska in 1966, according to the Alaska Historical Society.

Southeast [Alaska] would have Pacific Time; Yakutat would observe Yukon Time; most of Alaska west of the border with the Yukon Territory would fall in Alaska-Hawaii Time; and the Aleutians and western Alaska would be in Bering Time, three hours behind the Southeast.

In 1983, four time zones were shrunk to two, and later, to a single time zone.  At noon, the sun is almost directly over Juneau.  But solar noon doesn’t arrive in Atmautluak for another few hours.  As a result, we have a lop-sided day.

Sunrise Sunset

 

Tomorrow we have only 2 hours of daylight before noon, and five for the rest of the day.  The photo at the top of the page was taken about 10 minutes before 5pm, roughly 20 minutes before darkness fell across the horizon.

If there’s a preference between light on one side of the day vs. the other, I prefer it to be in the afternoon.  In Vermont we’re used to going to work in the dark, and so there’s really no difference here.  It’s the going home in the dark that’s a bummer on the shortest days of the year — and luckily, our afternoons are long enough to at least get a peek of the sunset when the work day is done.

Daylight on the shortest day, winter solstice, will begin at 11am and end just after 4:30pm.  I can live with that.  My lunch break is at 12:10, so I will be able to go for a walk in the morning sun.  At 4pm, I’ll walk home with time to spare before the sun sets.

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9:23 am.  November 14, 2017

I’m told winter is coming a little late this year.  Some of the locals can’t wait for the river and tundra to freeze.  Transportation is a lot easier as the land becomes navigable by snowmobile and the river’s ice-highway by truck.  I was taken by surprise when someone said, “I can’t wait for winter — I’ll be able to ride in a warm truck!”  Prior to winter, travel is by boat, or by waiting on the air-strip for a plane to pick you up.

The river froze over a couple of weeks ago, then thawed completely.  Ice floes are gathering today — and it’s not likely we’ll have an open river much longer.

Once again, it sounds like things are going well in Northfield.  I couldn’t help but notice Saturday it was warmer here in the Y-K Delta than in Northfield, Vermont.  We were at a balmy 36 degrees while folks back home were at a windy 27.  Seems a little upside down.  : )

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First Freeze

A little before 10am the sun rose behind clouds as if through sheer fabric curtains.  A glaze of ice spread over the river in the night, and this morning the gray light of a northern dawn reflects onto boats along the shore.  Yesterday’s wet tundra has become a hardened, walkable surface.  But it doesn’t feel cold.  The air is still, and I’m warm beneath the same ski jacket I wear on the slopes of Vermont.  My rubber, felt-lined Kamik boots arrived in the mail yesterday, as did Amara’s winter gear.  I scan the cold scene while feeling toasty warm.

Atmau isn’t desolate in winter.  It’s actually more accessible as the river becomes an ice highway and the snow-covered delta becomes a snow-machine playground.  School travel costs for sporting events drops.  Transportation by plane is no longer required.  Coaches drive athletes from village to village, using the fleet of district-owned Suburbans.  One of the teachers says happily, “I can’t wait for winter.  We’ll be able to ride in a warm truck!”

No one in the school is allowed to travel without winter clothing after October 1st.  I’ve heard one person complain about the policy, having traveled when the temperatures were too warm for heavy parkas.  But you never know if the weather will change, so the policy seems like a good idea.  For example, our volleyball team left for a meet by boat Friday afternoon.  Today being Sunday with the school closed, I haven’t heard if they’ve already returned.  If not, they’ll probably have to come back by plane.  [Update:  Good news — the team got back home yesterday.]

Boat owners were caught off guard from the First Freeze.  Temperatures are set to rise into the 40’s this week, long enough for them to get their boats out of the water.  See pics below.

That’s the latest news from Atmau.  : )

 

The Floating Village

As you may recall, I’ve taken a teaching position in a small village of Southwestern Alaska.  I’ve been incredibly busy since my first day of arrival on August 2nd, almost every weekend occupied with professional training or cross country meets.  One of my athletes made it to the state finals in Anchorage, but we’ll save that story for another day.

I’ve kind of fallen in love with Atmautluak, aka, Atmau.  It’s beautiful and peaceful.  There are plenty of challenges for me to dive into.  My mind is occupied with all of the things a first-year teacher juggles.  But when I look out my very large window, I see a place of wonder and contrast.

Atmau is a Delacroix Island of the North.  It’s a fishing village lying in one of the largest river deltas in the world — larger than the Mississippi Delta itself.  Two of Alaska’s largest rivers — the Yukon and Kuskokwim — form the Y-K Delta with endless swirls and pockets of fresh, muddy water.  Part of the region is protected as the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.  The Refuge alone covers an area three times the State of Vermont.  The total area of the Y-K Delta is roughly the size of Louisiana.  Atmau, like Delacroix Island, lies just above sea level.  Unlike Delacroix, it’s 80 miles from the ocean by navigable water.  Still, Atmau is a buoy in the tidal plain, even this far away from Kuskokwim Bay.  The river flows in both directions, following the ebb and flood of the Bering Sea.  IMG_0624.JPG

The back and forth of the slow, flat river is a metaphor of a village that seems, for outsiders, a place of contrasts.  The landscape is beautiful, but trash litters the boardwalks.  There’s open water everywhere, although municipal water must be filtered and allocated on a daily basis.

Water, mud, and permafrost dictate the layout of infrastructure and day-to-day living.  Homes and buildings are raised on piling foundations hammered down to the permafrost.  Atmau is a floating village.   There are more boats than four-wheelers, and there are no cars.  (Well, there’s this one sinking into the muck.)

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Boardwalks make up the island’s primary road system.  Wide enough for a person to stand aside as a four-wheeler passes, the walks may be flat, wavy, or partially underwater.  One step off the boardwalk and you may be up to your knees in mud.  At best, you’ll be standing on a spongy surface of tundra marsh.

And then there’s the outdoor basketball court.  Basketball is pretty huge in the Lower Kuskokwim School District.  In the summertime, when the school gym is unavailable, this is where kids shoot hoops:

IMG_0248.JPGPretty cool, eh?

That’s all for now.  I’ve heard good things are happening in Northfield.  A good night was had by all at the second annual Night on the Common.  Northfield Falls is now a Designated Village Center, which puts it in the same position as the Common area for development and grant opportunities.  The Promise Community playground concept is evolving.  Keep up the good work, Northfield!