6.20.2011

The Killer App

The Sunday New York Times cost me $6 this week.

I suppose I could’ve bought a couple Productivity and News apps with that cash, but they would’ve been nearly impossible to use in the front porch sunlight of a Vermont summer morning.

Newsprint, on the other hand, read quite well. No screen adjustment required. No batteries needed.

Don’t get me wrong: I truly and deeply dig my digital world, and have even found myself upping the stakes a bit recently. I just read my first complete book on the tiny screen of my iPhone (“Clash of Kings,” 585p) -- something I've often swore I’d never do – and found that I enjoyed it quite a bit.

But my love for a great newspaper like the Times makes my digital dalliances feel as vapid as a pre-teen crush during the snowball skate at Wheel's Roller Rink. A little impulsive, a little immature, and more than a little superficial.

It’s not the classic intimacy argument that tilts my machine toward newspapers ... otherwise known as the there’s-nothing-like-curling-up-with-a-newspaper-in-bed-on-a-rainy-Sunday line of thought. Instead it’s the plain and stark reality that a newspaper is just simply better at the job of educating by brain.

If it were all about "delivering information," the robots would win hands down every time. But it's about more than telling one story at a time. It's about telling all the stories, all at once.

If it were all about price, the robots used to win every time too. But thanks to the rise of paywalls at the Times and others, the subsidy of online news has finally been removed, and the price is feeling more and more right for that Sunday Times purchase.

The “new” standards of the digital age even back up the dominance of newspapers.

Like “curation” …. after spending weeks immersed in Google Reader, TweetDeck, Facebook, and a few other click-here-for-more aggregates, the beauty of a newspaper design is that you actually start reading the stories that you normally would walk right past in your digital life. We’ve seen the info on how Google is making us stupid, on how Twitter is narrowing our perspective, and how Facebook is spoon feeding us customized marketing messages … but the obvious corollary is how newspapers allow the brain to think: on a diet of rich content, real portions, and flavorful perspectives, that are absorbed by the brain from a broadsheet layout in a way that simply can’t happen online.

Or like “sustainability” … recyclable, reusable, and 100% made in the USA, the daily newspaper doesn’t get the same scrutiny as Apple’s labor practices and green standards, but maybe it should.

On the sleepy little street where I live, each day of the entire year brings the same ritual. Darkness ends, the sun comes up, and my neighbors walk past the house.

Not all the neighbors, just a certain pair. They are retired, proper, and well prepared for whatever weather waits for them. They walk during the glorious sunshine filled days of summer, but they also go in the pissing dark rain of late October, in November’s frequently treacherous days of freezing rain, and during the epic Nor’easters of deep winter.

It’s not the goal of exercise that brings them out of their house. Nor socializing with a furry necked neighbor like me.

It’s the New York Times, waiting for them on the newsstand.

6.03.2011

The high and the low of Vermont's new energy law

Even though we haven't seen the sun much in the last two months, Vermont still has a new energy law that provides a big boost for solar power in the area.

There's a lot of good, heartwarming stuff in there. But there's some very curious stuff, too.

Those curiosities have been a mindbender for the locals around here, as Town Planner types -- including myself -- have tried to wrap our heads around what it means, what it will change, and what we should be doing to gear up for the coming wave.

Two things stand out in the Energy Law, aka H.56.

The first is that the upper limit for "net metered" systems has been raised from 250KW to 500KW. "Net metered" simply means that a given system is supposedly intended to offset your own power needs, with extra juice getting piped back into the grid in exchange for some cash. It's different from a utility scale operation, as well as from an independent "off the grid" system." And for those of you who are trying to wrap your head around what the numbers mean, a single freestanding solar tracker, which is about 25 feet tall and 25 feet wide, puts out a little less that 5KW. So, under this new provision, that little ski house in a field in Vermont can now apply to the State for up to 100 freestanding units in their back pasture.

The key line there is "apply to the State." In Vermont, Town governments and zoning boards have no say in renewable installations, as all approvals come through the State's three-person Public Service Board. Officially, the PSB is supposed to take a community's "Town Plan" into considerationn. But the sole decision as to whether or not to grant a "certificate of public good" to a solar or wind farm rests with PSB. And the handful of precedents to date regarding the PSB indicate that if a Town Plan either too grey or too firm (a hole big enough for even a Bronco running back to squeeze through) the PSB will ignore it.

The second noteworthy blip in the Energy Bill, which hasn't seem much ink that I have seen, is that a lower limit for those "home net metered" systems has also been created. In the new law, systems below 5KW ... approximately the size of a single solar tracker or less ... will no longer need PSB approval of any sort. It's a streamlining thing, meant to take minor issues off the PSB plate, and will surely help speed things up for things like rooftop-mounted systems. But it will also apply to freestanding Trackers.

The way it works is that with a 5KW-or-less system, you just need to file paperwork with the State and wait 10 days. The time gap is just so that the local electric company can make sure it works for them. And if the power company doesn't object, the applicant can put the unit up anywhere they want. It doesn't matter what the local zoning says, what your setbacks are, what your neighbors say, or what your Town Plan says. It's the law.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a green energy proponent from way back. I don't just think that renewables will be part of our future, I know it. But as we take steps toward that future, I also know that there's a ton of room between "not here, not now, not ever" and "anywhere, anytime" that simply hasn't been explored.