Monthly Archives: April 2013

Growing Local Food in Cities

A few weeks back when talking about food systems and our preference for local and/or organic foods, a few people pointed to the “impossibility” of growing sufficient volumes of such food for the urban masses. Yes, this is a challenge, but I have to disagree on “impossible.” There are well documented examples elsewhere of using brown-fields and rooftops for urban gardening and also commercial scale farming. Many of them use vermiculture (yes, that’s with worms) to quickly turn high volumes of food waste into beneficial compost for these urban farmers.

Last week I got to visit an exciting and new urban food demonstration project happening just a few blocks from downtown Lexington KY. Food Chain is a non-profit that recently took up residence in an ex-bread factory (alongside a great micro-brewery, a new micro-lot coffee roaster, and some other arts studios/offices) that just got their small-scale indoor integrated farm running in the past five weeks. The project is fearlessly led by Rebecca Self and Mims Russell. They soon expect to have a consistent monthly production of 125+ lbs of Tilapia and even more hydroponically grown vegetables, to be available at local restaurants and retailers. This aquaponic method is great example of re-thinking farming, a la (one of my favorite topics) Systems Engineering. All the nutrients needed for the green veggies are conveniently derived from the fish waste by naturally occurring bacteria that covert ammonia into nitrates (see this video of it). The water is fully recycled, with only about 1% daily loss (due to transpiration and evaporation) plus the water content of their harvest. Currently, the main inputs are electricity (for the pumps, space heating and artificial lighting) and the fish feed, plus some daily labor (it’s a farm!), seedlings and the fingerling fish (currently provided by the nearby Kentucky State University aquaculture program). They’re already thinking about how to reduce those inputs, possibly via solar thermal and PV, and using the spent grains from the brewery as a majority (but not all) of the fish feed. I previously visited a similar scale teaching system at Berea College that uses a greenhouse for natural sunlight and passive heating (but therefore also has seasonally variable production volumes).

My forward plan: volunteer my time to help reduce their inputs further (e.g. solar technologies), and expand their outputs to other food products (using that vermicompost), including mushrooms grown on more of that brewer’s grain. Oh, I guess I have never mentioned here that another hobby we greatly enjoy is mushrooming – cooking and eating them, of course!, but also foraging for fungi in the wild and growing some at home. Yes, that’s fun-gi-culture! So it’s sure to be fun!, and I’ll try to keep you up to date on our progress. – Jack

Solar 2013

I attended my first annual conference of the American Solar Energy Society in Baltimore last week. The ASES conference was a roller coaster of emotions and learning for me…

Overall, I see ASES as a strange (but I think healthy) mix of academics, industry and advocacy. I got the clear impression that the technical papers and academic presentations are the core of ASES (and you can see this in their excellent publication, Solar Today). The engineer in me loved these talks, but I was there representing the Kentucky chapter, and therefore I found myself most aligned with the advocacy side. A real insight I gained was how much the US solar industry is suffering, even while installations are booming! In Asia and Europe, where government policies for clean energy are clear and incentivizing rapid increased production, their engineering and manufacturing have already ramped up. With such a large increase in global supply, even with increased demand, prices for solar system components (mostly for PV) have declined by >60% over the past three years. As a result there are relatively few remaining manufacturers here in the US, even though the solar cell was originally invented at Bell Labs (59 years ago this month, and the same year ASES was established). Certainly there are some very innovative US solar companies, and some segments are doing well, such as in financing, monitoring, mounting & racking, and of course local installers. It is mostly the local installers who have created the boom in solar jobs – over 119,000 US jobs and growing at 13% annually. And solar advocacy is likely a primary cause of this, mainly through state by state legislative policy changes, known as an RPS, that require electric utilities to acquire and distribute energy from renewable sources, rather than their historical default of fossil fuels that release carbon and other pollutants into our atmosphere. This was highlighted in an excellent presentation by Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.


You’ll notice that KY is not one of the 29+ states with an RPS. It’s a hard politically when ~93% of KY’s electricity is produced by burning coal and current electricity rates are 5 to 9 cents per kwhr. But the really scary news is that these very successful policies are now under threat of being reversed by the fossil fuel industry and climate deniers. This is hugely depressing, as has been our efforts in KY to move toward greater sustainability. It was also sad to hear how ASES itself is struggling financially, and that just when national support for advocacy is needed, it may not be in a position to help (there are some positives).

OTOH, I was greatly inspired by many of the people of ASES, lots of highly intelligent and motivated individuals, both the old-timers [thanks to many for sharing your insights and time with me last week] and the many young professionals now driving us forward. The breadth of success stories and innovation in passive, thermal, transportation, modeling, as well as in PV is exciting to me. I found the huge accomplishment of solar in Germany (with about the same solar resource as Alaska) to be inspiring and evidence of what humankind can achieve when there is consensus for action. I also enjoyed the Skype™ presentation by Bill McKibben, president and co-founder of Yet also I am troubled by his stark testimony on the lack of consensus here in the US of A – having to be arrested to bring public attention to the issue of climate change seems so last century…

So, taking advantage of my recent efforts to make this blog more visible and interactive [porting to WordPress was another cause for no new posts last week, sorry], I open the floor to all of you. What do you think of solar energy? Why have we not made much progress? Will we soon? What actions have you taken? Or what’s keeping you from taking action? Please let me know your thoughts.180px-Buerstädter_sonnensegel

And remember: when there’s a fuel spill of solar energy,..
it’s called a Sunny Day!  – Jack

Do you GIS?

I have come to the belief that Geographical Information System (GIS) is the next Excel – i.e. a tool that will become indispensable in everyday life, and most especially to an engineer.

My first exposure to GIS was in the mid-1990s. On a project for PacBell (now AT&T, again), we were building a revolutionary new, fully integrated Operational Support System (OSS) for their ‘new’ network that was going to replace POTS throughout California (I’ll write more about that project sometime soon). But we didn’t get very far with GIS then. A decade later, when Mary Anne was hired to teach Environmental Science at Ramapo College, one of the courses they wanted her for was GIS. She didn’t know much at the time, but with her background in CompSci, she dived in and learned it. She’s been teaching it semi-regularly for nearly 10 years, and continues to do so now at Georgetown. Last year, while on the Wi-Fi project that I mentioned last week, a super talented RF Engineer on the project came up with an analysis methodology using GIS tools. It is a really powerful way to analyze lots of data (and present it geographically), and greatly helped our clients to decide where and how much to build out their networks. I have always been intrigued, but never had the time to learn GIS myself – that is, until now.

I have had a great deal of fun these past 8 weeks, following along on some of the projects Mary Anne’s students are doing this semester (e.g. tromping through a remediated wetlands with a GPS recorder), plus diving into the textbook that she teaches from. I’ve learned a great deal, though somewhat specific to ArcGIS version 10 from ESRI, the company that has most commercialized GIS technology (and is still privately held!). If you’re interested, I recommend “Understanding GIS – An ArcGIS Project Workbook” by Harder, Ormsby and Balstrøm, and published by ESRI. They include a DVD of the software with a limited license and a reasonably complex project to work on over its 9 chapters. It includes discussion of the ‘fun’ parts of any technology project, such as uncertain or changing customer requirements (noooo, I’ve never had that challenge), how to make an analysis easily repeatable and flexible, and even a whole chapter on creating the presentation with the results of analysis. It is a little overly scripted for me, but that likely makes it easier to teach to a general audience (without a computer software background).

When I was a young engineer and anxious to get that first promotion, I looked closely at what others were doing when they got promoted. In those days, business skills were still rare in Bell Labs/AT&T Network Systems, and were ever more important than prior to the 1984 Divestiture. So I focused on developing those more (a.k.a. I turned to the ‘dark side’). For me, that included a rotational program into our sales force (more about that sometime, too), and then coming back to a role in product management. It was there, that I first started using Excel regularly. I developed spreadsheets to track our budget verses actual expenses, our software R&D capitalization/amortization schedule, another for our sales opportunity funnel and revenues, and then put it all together in a product-specific income statement. At the time my peer product managers had no similar insights into these details, as very limited financial information was computerized (and mostly on mainframes). But I could run all kinds of ‘what-if’ business cases or probability assessments, and see the profitability impacts instantly. Since then I’ve used Excel for lots of non-financial things too: engineering performance modeling, net zero energy (NZE) analysis, requirements tracking, contact lists, uncountable charts for presentations, weather analysis, and even a game or two. In 1992, I got that first promotion, and I have always attributed it to my abilities with Excel, bridging technology with business skills. But now that I’m learning GIS, I am wondering, how does an independent consultant earn a promotion…? 😉

WiFi RF Engineering? (not an April’s Fools question)

After the tech bubble burst in 2001, I joined the Lucent Wireless Networks organization as the systems architect and engineering director responsible for 3G data applications. I had a really great group of engineers fighting hard to create the wireless world we actually have today – everything mobile data. And yes, I do mean fighting; because at that time the core power base within the organization was made up of RF engineers, those who had invented the first cellular networks during the 1980s (and earlier), plus their apprentices. They were all *real* engineers, with a deep understanding of the theory, math, technologies and challenges in designing and building cellular wireless network equipment. In meetings they were always devolving into discussions of link budgets, dB, hertz, and erlangs. I was mostly a software and systems engineer; yes, with a strong background in outside plant and voice (aka POTS) networks, but I was a foreigner in their domain, for sure. I suspect a few of them would intentionally take conversations into the deep technical details to a) impress their boss, b) let the one VP, who was an RF engineer himself, take the lead in the conversation, and c) avoid any discussion of the economics or business sensibility of an idea. Well, I learned fast that to thrive in that organization I needed to speak, or at least understand, RF engineer-ese.

In this time frame, Wi-Fi was just getting serious standardization and the PCIMCIA card was its most common form factor; the same form factor as the first 3G data devices. Perhaps that was the cause of the anti-Wi-Fi bias that developed in those RF engineers. Or maybe it was due to only being for short range data transport, and *not at all* related to the cellular business of voice service. But more likely, I suspect, it is Wi-Fi’s use of unlicensed spectrum (after all, you can’t calculate performance when there are multiple indeterminate variables in the RF link budget). So what did naïve Jack do? I became an advocate for fixed mobile convergence and “dual-mode voice service” over Wi-Fi and cellular data, using IMS as the enabling technology… And not long thereafter I moved on to Lucent’s professional services organization.

I smile a lot now, ten years later, with all mobile data devices having built-in Wi-Fi, the industry producing integrated Wi-Fi picocells and implementing of mobile data offload onto Wi-Fi. AT&T and Verizon each have many 10,000s of public Wi-Fi access points in operation for their subscribers’ use. The FCC is adding more free unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi to use. And I spent last year working with several of the major US cable operators on their massive outdoor Wi-Fi network RF designs and deployments. Of course, IMS technology is still struggling in wireless networks and the few dual mode services that have commercially launched don’t use IMS. But at least three of the best engineers that worked for me went on to found their own, or to work at, small cell and/or Wi-Fi startup companies (Meru, Ubiquisys, Airvana). They and many others have made it happen, not me. No regrets here.