Biodiversity and Pollinators!

Doing our part for biodiversity and pollinators!

It was a real thrill a few weeks ago to spot this creature, likely a hummingbird or sphinx moth, on our little grapefruit tree. I’ve never seen one in our garden before. It made me wonder how it found us only days after we planted the tree. Maybe it was the incredible and enticing aroma of the blossoms. This indication of biodiversity in our urban garden in Austin was so encouraging.

Now, less than three weeks later, the tree boasts tiny little buds, the nascent grapefruit that will take about another 7 months to grow to full size and ripen. If only we can prevent the squirrels from eating them all beforehand!

Good News on Renewable Energy

A Vortex Bladeless wind energy generator in the landscape.

There is good news on renewable energy. And this one is funny, too. A company called Vortex Bladeless, based near Madrid, has developed a small, pillar-shaped wind energy generator that can be used in small communities. Unlike a turbine, it has no blades. Instead, the entire body, a little over 9 feet tall (3 meters), vibrates at a frequency that produces electricity. Aside from the laughs we’ll get from seeing giant vibrators dotting the landscape, this is a great advance for renewable energy. 

David Yáñez, the inventor of Vortex Bladeless, says their goal is to scale up to a 140 m tall turbine with the power capacity of 1 megawatt. The noise frequency is undetectable to humans (though I wonder whether it has been tested on dogs and other animals). It also poses no threat to wildlife or bird migrations. The bladeless generator can fit into places unsuitable to large wind farms. It could eventually be like solar panels on homes: distributed generation at community scale.

What if it’s a hoax?

Notice of this company came to me through the Download from MIT Technology, a free subscription that sends daily updates on emerging technologies. Subsequently I discovered a lot of skepticism about Vortex on the internet. I have neither time nor engineering knowledge to judge whether it is viable or just a hoax. Given that MIT was spreading the news, I took it seriously.

However, even if bladeless wind energy generators flop, there is still good news here. Namely, interest in renewable energy continues to grow, and many people are working to come up with new and better technologies.

What’s wrong with regular wind turbines?

Wind turbines of the familiar type have sadly revealed two major flaws. They pose a danger to birds; and the blades produce vast quantities of waste. Blades last about 20 years, but they are often taken down after only 10, in order to make room for newer, bigger turbines. The steel towers are mostly recyclable, but the blades remain a problem. They are built strong to resist high winds, which means they are not easily crushed or recycled. 

However, there is good news here too. A company in Texas called Global Fiberglass Solutions has pioneered a process to break down the blades and reuse the material for flooring and walls.

At Nature Towns, we will be keeping an eye on both of these technologies that help to further the growth of renewable energy. Renewable energy technology is key to developing self-sufficient, resilient communities and a circular economy.

Maintaining Power in Texas

The Business section of today’s Houston Chronicle leads with Chris Tomlinson’s commentary. The headline (print version): Lawmakers are more talk than action on electricity reforms. 

Unless you’ve been on a media fast for Lent, you probably heard about Snowmageddon here in Texas last month. In Central Texas, 5” of snow fell on Valentine’s night. That photo above shows my Mexican Plum tree in shock from a full-body coating of ice, never before experienced in its tender life in Austin! Happily, it recovered to bloom abundantly just 3 weeks later.

Other parts of the state had more or less ice and snow. But the entire state, including the Rio Grande Valley in the far south, suffered from extremely low temperatures. It was a real shock to people who in some years don’t even experience a light freeze all winter.

We might have enjoyed the fairytale wonderland of blinding white snow, gorgeous blue skies, and tobogganing and skiing in the streets, except that millions of us lost power for hours or days. Hundreds of thousands also lost water service for a week or more, as a result of freezing pipes, power outages, and water plant failures. At least fifty-seven people died, some freezing to death, and others of carbon monoxide poisoning from using unsafe heat sources.

What are They Doing About It?

Not much! The Texas Legislature is in session and vowing to take action to ensure the power grid never fails this way again. The trouble is, this has already happened before. After a massive winter storm in 2011, recommendations were made. But nothing ever really changed, and we had the disaster of 2021.

Tomlinson lays out particulars of various bills that promise improvement. And he points out that most of the bills lack real teeth or detail to achieve their ends.

The Texas power generation system is unlikely to change much. Charles Blanchard, the head of natural gas research at an energy trading company, writes that it is uneconomical for Texas gas companies to winterize their best-producing wells, let alone all of them. In some cases it might make more sense simply to abandon the wells, resulting in further reduction of supply.

Do it Local, Do it Better

If getting the Legislature to act is like trying to move Mt. Fuji, there are better ways of doing things on a more local level.

In this era of climate whiplash, you can be sure that storms like Uri, which caused the Great Texas Blackout, will occur again in future. We are designing Nature Towns with a major focus on resilience. The pilot project will certainly incorporate renewable energy. And we intend for future projects to be entirely off-grid, with multiple sources of electricity generation so residents are never exposed to the risk of freezing to death in their homes.

Blanchard concludes, “This crisis was an unwanted side effect of the Grand Texas Bargain of low taxes, low spending, minimal oversight of public services by elected officials, and residents generally fending for themselves. …The central question Texans must answer can be boiled down quite succinctly: Would you write a check tomorrow to prepare for another cold snap that might not come again in your lifetime? Or, phrased differently, will you or your plumber be crawling under your house to wrap your pipes?”

Designing for Resilience

It is so much easier and cheaper to design resilience into a system in advance than to try to retrofit after the fact. Designing resilience in advance is exactly what we are doing at Nature Towns.

Now that it is indisputable that temperatures here can fall well below freezing (it was 8 degrees F on one of those days last month), we know that water lines will need to be buried 6’ down, just like in Canada, where winter is always frigid. Houses will need insulation appropriate to sub-freezing temperatures.

We also need to recognize that Central Texas temps can reach well over 100 degrees in summer — I remember 112 once in September. Whatever systems we put into place in Nature Towns will be weatherized for extremes of both hot and cold temperatures. 

Environmental Protection for People

Furthermore, we are designing to enhance the environmental protection of each town against weather extremes. The earthworks for broadacre permaculture practices performed at the start of each development will control and store rainwater to both protect residents from floods and provide an independent water source even through 2 years of drought.

The Nature part of every Nature Town will feature dozens of deep ponds – about 32 acres’ worth at minimum – constructed to reduce evaporation, ringed with trees and protected by floatovoltaic panels. This water will also help to moderate temperatures in the town.

In every regenerative farm in a Nature Town we will plant hundreds of thousands of trees. Some are tall native shade trees such as pecans and oaks; others will be livestock browse and forage. Aside from the obvious benefits of the beauty they provide, these trees together will drastically reduce the urban heat island effect experienced in other cities and suburbs.

What Can You Do?

How can you help Nature Towns move forward with our pilot project? Buy a membership to support the project and secure your timestamp to guarantee you the option of living there. Meanwhile, Texas residents: Write or call your legislator and demand real action on the Texas power grid. Then cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Obscure Body Blocks Energy Efficiency Progress

How many of you have heard of the nonprofit International Code Council? If I ever had, I’d forgotten it. Yet this private consortium, which has a huge impact on energy efficiency for buildings, wields undue influence over our lives.

The ICC oversees building codes for the United States and several other countries. Many state and local governments apply ICC codes for building construction within their jurisdictions. Buildings currently account for over 40% of total primary energy consumption in the United States, energy used for heating, cooling, and cooking.

Obviously, improving the energy efficiency of buildings can significantly reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. A number of states, and cities such as Austin (with its climate protection program), are moving toward all-electric buildings, homes pre-wired for electric vehicle charging, and increased renewables in their energy generation portfolio – when they aren’t being thwarted by the fossil fuel industry. These changes would reduce our contributions to climate change.

The energy codes that govern energy systems and insulation were previously subject to a vote by the city and state governments that implement them. But just recently, the ICC stripped local governments of their right to vote on future energy efficiency codes. 

How did this happen?

The ins and outs of how this state of affairs developed are complicated; but as in many such situations, if you follow the money you find the explanation. In 2019, cities around the nation enlisted officials from their energy and sustainability departments to join the ICC. They realized that improving building energy efficiency would be an excellent way to reduce climate change emissions. Membership in the ICC would allow them to influence the codes that determine building energy standards.

In a vote taken in December 2019, a strong majority of members opted to require increases of up to 14% in building efficiency. But the ICC is heavily influenced by the construction and gas industries. The National Association of Home Builders, which had previously supported more participation in ICC by local governments, now called the record turnout “voter manipulation.”

At this point, local governments have lost their right to vote on the codes entirely. Instead, the building codes will fall under a separate “standards” process that will give industry more control over the outcome. It should come as no surprise that the gas industry is uninterested in energy efficiency measures that will significantly cut gas consumption and its profits

Locking in High Carbon Footprints for Decades to Come

This is a terrible development for all of us. What a surprise to learn that these people can have such a negative influence over how our buildings perform and affect our shared environment. Not only are the ICC members not our elected representatives, but they have now shut out of the decision-making process the people who are closest to us citizens. 

It is tragic news because most buildings, once constructed, will stand for at least 40 years, with very real effects on our local air quality as well as global climate change. Each year about 1.5 million new houses are built in the United States. The ICC’s irresponsible decision means that the vast majority of those homes will be constructed with larger-than-necessary carbon footprints that are enshrined for decades into the future.

Reason for Hope

The good news for you is that Nature Towns will be constructing all homes to the highest energy efficiency standards feasible. One of our many goals is to enable you, as a resident, to reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible. With energy efficient buildings, shops and services located within walking distance, nature close by, and an organic regenerative farm sequestering carbon on your behalf, you will be making great environmental strides without even trying.

Floating Solar and Nature Towns

North America is in just beginning to adopt floating solar technology. The US Department of Energy has been promoting the technology, but we need more project developers who can further the technology and partnerships required. Asia is much farther along with installing floating solar than we are. Floating solar is a key technology for producing energy while also reducing evaporation.

Below, a video on the latest North American floating solar development. What team will develop Texas’ first floating plant? We would like to be part of that project.

At Austin’s longitude, around 48″ of moisture can evaporate in a year, while our average rainfall is around 32″. That means that we can be perennially dry.

In Nature Towns, we are very aware of the threat that evaporation rates have on water storage. If we are to have truly regenerative places in this region, we need more surface water storage ponds. And those ponds need floating solar for reducing evaporation. Less evaporation means more control of local water balances, essential for regenerative agriculture. Using green municipal bonds, each Nature Town can invest approximately $3.2 million in water storage in the form of multiple deep ponds per project.

Can farmers make the difference?

One of the most distinctive features that truly distinguishes Nature Towns from sprawl is the long-term role of the farmer, or as we prefer to say, the steward. Long after the developer and construction teams have built the last house, the farmer remains, producing the community’s food, maintaining the trails and nature with livestock, and maximizing nature (the community’s ecosystem services) on behalf of residents.

However, the farmer can do so much more to make a difference to the residents and the community. The fact is that a steward will own and regularly operate equipment that is very similar to that used by municipalities.  

Benefits:

  • Stewards can use tractors and specially designed agri-tourism wagons to provide visitors, children, and mobility-challenged residents with regular tours of the high-quality park surrounding each nature town.
  • They can provide local recycling services, increasing the frequency of pick-up to once a week, and/or picking up a broader range of materials to recycle, such as batteries.
  • Stewards can transfer spent materials, such as food scraps from residents or sawdust from mushroom production, to the livestock or compost facility daily.
  • Dog parks are more frequently maintained with wood chips so that residents can use fewer plastic bags.
  • Storm cleanup happens faster, and debris can be chipped and composted almost immediately.
  • Stewards have skid steers for breaking up ice on the streets during a freak winter storm, like that experienced in Texas in February.  
  • They can use skid steers to change the trails (variety) and improve hills for the kids’ BMX trails in a pocket park.
  • The same skid steers deliver supplemental fuel such as propane or wood pellets for heating homes when emergency heat is required to supplement electric/solar heat pumps.  

Learn more

This is not by any means a complete list. Subscribe to our blog to learn more about the benefits of Nature Towns in upcoming articles.

Nature Towns designs to ensure family security, which means providing for a community’s food, energy, water and climate security. We plan these necessities into your community and real estate (Residential and Commercial) so that you receive them when you buy your home. That value-added approach to residential real estate development, if designed properly, doesn’t cost you more than you are paying now.  

Would you like to ensure that you have food, energy, water and climate security?  Subscribe to our newsletter to learn more.

Our food system is getting more fragile

The Central Texas food system is just 1% self-sufficient (i.e. locally supplied), and Winter Storm Uri exposed new fragilities. Supply chains for grocery stores, dependent on faraway producers, had bare shelves – if they were even open are getting more fragile. Trucks could not get through the icy streets to replenish supplies.

At the end of the week, as temperatures gradually rose and the ice began to melt, our local farmers market was mobbed. We sold out of eggs fifteen minutes after opening. Vegetable producers had lines with at least 30 people for the first hour.

One way to improve resiliency and decrease our fragility is by increasing our local food production. But farming is hard work at the best of times. Freezing snow and ice storms make it that much harder, especially in regions like this one where we are unused to such conditions for more than a day or two at a time (and previously, only once every two years or so). Finding scarce parts to repair systems after the disaster is nearly impossible for the first week.  That parts scarcity makes our farms more fragile.

One of our friends, a local producer of milk, pork, and eggs, suffered cascading failures at his farm. The power went out early on, shutting down his milking machines. Cows not milked for five days dry up. This means that his income from dairy production has ceased for the next nine months or so, until those cows have calved again. He had a generator, but it needed to be powered with the tractor. The tractor had fuel, but it wasn’t winter diesel, which meant that the fuel gelled up due to the cold.  It will take weeks for some of Jim’s core business activities to recover. That is fragile.

We need a more secure food supply, and that requires financial investment. However, the commodity industry that created this system (i.e. over-extended supply chains), which leaves us reliant on importing 99% of our food to the region, cannot solve the fragile problem it created. And we cannot rely on local farms to be there for us only in disaster times. We need to support our local farmers throughout the year. So now we need to invest in new partnerships with our farmers. In return, they can provide us with increased ecosystem services and long-term food security.

Please consider donating to these GoFundMe campaigns to help farmers whose operations were devastated last week.  

To learn more about our local food producers, check out these links:

Nature Towns designs to ensure family security, which means providing for a community’s food, energy, water and climate security. We plan these necessities into your community and real estate so that you buy them with your home. That is a value-added approach to residential real estate development and if designed properly, it doesn’t cost you more than you are paying now, and makes your family’s security less fragile.

Would you like to ensure that you have food, energy, water and climate security?  Subscribe to our newsletter to learn more.

We are all on microgrids now.

Winter Storm Uri revealed many uncomfortable truths about the infrastructure of Central Texas. For one thing, we discovered that we all live on microgrids when it comes to our electricity. If you were fortunate enough to live on the same electrical circuit as a critical service such as a hospital or police station, then your zone (i.e. microgrids) had electricity. Otherwise, you were just out of luck and out of power for up to 6 days.

Will this knowledge impact your next real estate transaction? Will potential buyers ask, “How did your house fare during Uri? Did you lose electricity or water?”  Will properties that enjoyed uninterrupted electric connectivity increase in value?  Will those that didn’t have electricity face less demand when selling their homes? Will these things matter in the red-hot Austin real estate market?

Suffering

The suffering during Winter Storm Uri was immense. Dozens of people died of hypothermia, while others died of carbon monoxide poisoning from using heaters in unventilated spaces. Thousands lost running water as their pipes exploded in the freeze (often incurring huge plumbing expenses this week – if they can even find someone to come), and thousands more lost water as the city shut down major parts of the system. The rest of us just suffered the gnawing, biting cold, as we shivered in the dark, trying to think through all of the new problems that need to be solved to avoid experiencing this again in the future.

Maybe this is as simple as having a generator in the garage. But that assumes you have a garage and the cash to purchase necessary supplies, and it all adds more work, maintenance, fuel costs, and other challenges for the homeowner.  Is there a better way?

Microgrids are small area networks of producers and consumers. In the best case, microgrids can be self-sufficient. This concept has been growing within the electricity industry as people look to become more independent from the big grid. With solar panel costs and battery storage costs decreasing as fast as they have, and smaller size wind turbines being developed, it is becoming economically feasible. Big energy engineering companies such as Siemens love providing the software and control systems for these projects.

Nature Towns designs to ensure family security, which means providing for a community’s food, energy, water and climate security. We design these necessities into your community and real estate so that you buy them with your home. That is a value-added approach to residential real estate development and if designed properly, it doesn’t cost you more than you are paying now.  

Would you like to ensure that you have food, energy, water and climate security?  Would you like to live in a microgrid? Subscribe to our newsletter to learn more.

New water grid risks exposed

Winter storm Uri – aka Snovid – revealed a new risk to residential water supplies in Central Texas: Our water lines/grid, whether on private property or the city’s, are not buried deeply enough to withstand extended freezing weather. When these systems were built, nobody expected to experience almost a week of below-freezing temperatures coupled with widespread loss of power. 

Has it ever occurred to you that our water grid is a supply system, much like our electricity grid?  Now we know that our water grid is susceptible to breaking in ways it was not designed for. In the Quebec snow storm of 1998, high voltage electrical transmission lines and towers crumpled like paper toys. A deep freeze can do similar things to Central Texas water lines if they are not buried deep enough in the ground. This is common knowledge in places that regularly freeze in winter, such as the northern US and Canada, where the water system is buried 6’ underground.  

How much will it cost to make Central Texas water grid resilient against freezing?  Retrofitting always costs much more than new installations. That is going to be one massive infrastructure spending bill and will massively increase our taxes and fees. It seems that climate change just blew its way through our door and left a big scar.

It’s always more capital-efficient to build new infrastructure (i.e. water grid) properly up front than to retrofit. Disaster management expert Samantha Montano says, “For every one dollar the federal government spends on mitigation, there are six dollars saved in response and recovery costs.” We can assume the ratio is similar for local efforts; even if it is only three dollars saved in recovery costs, that is significant. Uri just gave us a new design mandate that will be critical if we are to provide uninterrupted water security for homes through the next major storm.

Nature Towns is designing to ensure family security, which means providing for the community’s food, energy, water and climate security. We can design these benefits into your community and real estate so that you buy them with your home. That is a value-added approach to residential real estate development and if designed properly, it doesn’t cost you more than you are paying now.  

Are you interested in gaining more food, energy, water grids and climate security just by choosing the right location to live in? Subscribe to our newsletter to learn more.

(Photo Credit: Pintrest / Eugene Roose Link)

USDA Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG)

What: USDA’s Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) provides matching funds grants (i.e. 50% reimbursement) for adding value to farm commodities.

How much: Maximum $75,000 USDA award for planning projects (desk studies only) for a budget maximum of $150,000

When: Applications due March 22, 2021.  Awards announced September 31, 2021. 

Duration: 10-12 months

Planning grants are vital to many other USDA grant programs, including awards such as the sister grant of $250,000 (anticipated application date of March 2022) for operations and many other large USDA grant programs.

Why: The USDA wants to incentivize projects that build robust and sustainable economies through strategic investments in infrastructure, partnerships and innovation.  Key strategies include:  Developing the rural economy, harnessing technological innovation, supporting a rural workforce, and improving quality of life.

Who: Patrick Van Haren and Karin Ascot of Nature Towns have successfully applied and won over $1.5 million from the Value-Added Producer Grant program, in both planning and operating grants.  Planning grants answer critical questions and produce the essential feasibility studies for more extensive USDA programs.  They do not commit the producer to any operational or asset activities and only pay for crucial consultant work to validate the proposal.  

Rationale: Use the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program to evaluate the feasibility of creating Nature Towns (an advanced form of Agrihoods) on your site, whether it be one, or a master plan for multiple.  

The study pays for:

  • A detailed market study for your preferred location(s), 
  • Feasibility study for both the town plan, as well permanently conserving the green infrastructure around the town, 
  • Detailed business plans/models for the development, estimated costs for the construction of the green infrastructure, and long term operation of the farm by the applicant or alternative steward.  

Nature Towns shall complete the reports in time for the following year’s application round for $250,000 operating grants (anticipated in March of 2022).

We have a maximum of 4 slots for these applications, so please contact us at your earliest convenience. Click here to book a time slot.