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Greener goals: Schenectady residents participate in the Step It Up march.

PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle

Local Warning

Individuals and municipalities “step it up” against global warming despite federal inaction

By Nicole Klaas


“We’ll stay on the sidewalk,” Jeff Edwards says as he separates himself from the crowd of people assembling near the corner of State Street and Washington Avenue in Schenectady. “We didn’t expect this many people,” he explains to the uniformed police officer who has stepped out of a parked squad car to remind the marchers to remain on the sidewalk, as they don’t have a permit.

When the walk signal illuminates, Edwards’ attention returns to the crowd. He supervises as those at the front of the pack begin across State Street before he falls to the back. After the first group crosses, the congregation pauses in front of the YMCA to wait for another light change.

As the procession makes its way up State Street, marchers turn their signs—messages affixed to poster board, cardboard cutouts, and elaborate displays in felt or canvass—toward the road. At the front, several marchers grip the top of a large sign painted with the words: “Congress Cut Carbon 80% by 2050 Schenectady, NY 21st District Steps It Up.”

“Step it up.” That’s the mantra at the event, which is part of a national Step It Up 2007 campaign that got under way on Saturday (April 14), in cities from coast to coast. The message at each is consistent: Step it up, Congress, and address the issue of climate change; Step it up, Congress, and commit to an 80-percent reduction in America’s carbon emissions by 2050.

“This is a pin from the first Earth Day,” says Gerald Plant, a man in his mid-40s, pointing to the top of the left lapel of his dark-chocolate-colored blazer. “I was 10 years old.”

Although Earth Day is more than a week after this event, its message of environmental friendliness resonates with Plant and the nearly 100 other marchers who turned out to increase awareness of the issue of climate change.

“Certainly it’d be nice if the federal government was a leader,” says Edwards, one of a three-member team responsible for organizing Schenectady’s march. “Hopefully these rallies all around the country, over 1,300 of them around the country from what I understand, will let our congressional representation know that this is a priority of the American people.”

In the meantime, until the White House decides to pull its weight, Schenectady is prepared to become a leader in the anti-global-warming movement, according to Democratic Councilman Frank Maurizio.

Last month, Maurizio returned from a National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C., with a better perspective as to how other communities are addressing the global-warming problem as well as a call for the city government to undertake its own “green initiative.” The formal effort, intended to make Schenectady more energy-efficient, kicked-off Monday night (April 16) when the council appointed four members to a committee that will study city practices in an attempt to reduce Schenectady’s carbon footprint.

“More than 400 cities in the United States have either adopted emissions standards or are looking at some other kind of energy and environmental guidelines, trying to green their communities,” Maurizio says. “I think more and more municipalities and city leaders are deciding that it’s something that we’ve got to take the lead on.”

In a symbolic display of the city’s support for the global-warming issue, Maurizio, as well as three of his colleagues—Joseph Allen, Peggy King and Barbara Blanchard—are participating in the Step It Up event. Marching alongside their constituents, they chat with residents as the procession continues up State Street, turns left at Jay Street, and makes it way to City Hall.

Below the front steps of City Hall, dozens of Union College students watch as the marchers approach. The students, as part of their own Step It Up project, have created a patchwork banner painted with the words, “U . . . Union . . . USA . . . Unite to Ask: Step it up Congress! Cut carbon 80% by 2050.” The wind whips underneath the cloth as the students expand the banner, so large that it reaches from railing to railing, on the concrete steps.

“Step it up! Step it up!” What begins as the chanting of only a few Union students spreads over the crowd like a wave until, loudly, nearly the entire group shouts in unison. “Step it up! Step it up!”

The marchers, many of whom are huddled in groups on the sidewalk, make their way up the first few steps of City Hall at the request of the event’s organizers, who announce that a picture of the scene will be sent to the national Step It Up organization in Vermont and then forwarded to Congress.

“I’ve never been more proud to be an elected city official,” Maurizio says during a series of speeches that follow. Maurizio has, on more than one occasion, called the council’s new green initiative the most important city business in which he’s been engaged. “It makes sense environmentally. It makes sense fiscally. More importantly, it makes sense morally.”

The city of Schenectady already has a contract with Siemens Building Technology designed to make city operations more energy efficient. The agreement was approved during the fall of 2005 and involves updating city infrastructure such as furnaces, traffic lights and water meters. In the future, the savings from these projects is predicted to reach upwards of $200,000.

“For those who aren’t committed to this from an environmental standpoint, we’re hoping that we can convince them that from a fiscal standpoint it makes a lot of sense, too,” Maurizio says.

“Schenectady—the Electric City—I think we have a special obligation and an historic obligation,” adds councilwoman Blanchard. “We sort of started this use of electricity here, and we’ve manufactured plenty of products that have used up plenty of electricity over the years. I think that’s kind of our obligation, to take firm and definite action at this time.”

Edwards says he is pleased by the actions the council has taken toward reaching the Step It Up goal of reducing local carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Achieving that goal, however, likely will require some cultural changes, he adds.

“People would have to really be thinking about low-emission vehicles,” he says. “I think transportation is a big piece of that, so working on alternative-fuel vehicles and hybrid vehicles and not driving when we don’t have to. I think probably the best thing we could do in the Capital Region is get light rail.”

On a smaller scale, Edwards adds, habit changes such as buying local—because the goods don’t have to be transported across the country or the globe—and using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs can help, too.

One Man’s Trash

A Cobleskill professor is working to convert your waste into renewable energy

By Chet Hardin

Think about all of the bio-degradable trash produced by your household every week. All the junk mail, yard clippings, threadbare underwear, and table scraps. Now think, “What if I didn’t have to throw all of that away, adding to the stinking heaps in a big, growing landfill? What if I could power my toaster with last week’s lasagna?”

“I think about that every time the garbage truck pulls up in front of my house right here in the village of Cobleskill and I add my five pounds of garbage,” says Dr. Douglas Goodale. “I think, ‘Why would I want to send that to a landfill when I could turn that into energy?’ ”

Goodale, a professor in the Plant Sciences Department at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, has good reason to wonder about such things. He is the lead investigator in Cobleskill’s three-phase “Bio-waste Conversion to Bioenergy Through Gasification” project funded in large part through a grant of $1 million secured last year by U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty (D-Green Island). The money will fund the first phase of the ambitious project.

If successful, Goodale and his industry partners will have created a system that is able to take all matter of biowaste and turn it into a green source of energy.

The concept behind the project, as Goodale tells it, sounds pretty simple: Burn biowaste at a high enough temperature that it vaporizes the trash and neutralizes any impurities released in the process. The resulting byproduct, a gas known as syn gas, would be a clean and powerful source of energy.

Gasifiers, similar to Goodale’s system, have been around for 50 years. The technology and concept are not terribly groundbreaking.

“So why hasn’t anyone done this before?” he asks. “Heretofore the scientific community, the research community, hadn’t figured out a way to make a clean gas.”

The process of burning waste in other gasifiers typically produces unwanted products, such as hydrogen sulfide. That is where Goodale’s project, he says, is so revolutionary. The patent-pending gasifier built by his industry collaborator, New Jersey-based Biomass Energy Solutions, Inc., will convert the sulfurs in the waste into a granule that will settle to the bottom of the gasifier.

“So now, instead of having hydrogen sulfide, stinky gas,” he says, “we have a precipitate that has sulfate in it. And we can take that sulfate and apply it to the land as a fertilizer, perfectly safe to the land.”

The prototype of BESI’s gasifier, a rotary kiln, will stand 9 feet tall and 6 feet long and will look like a cylinder. The waste will be fed into the top of the kiln, and move down to the bottom, where the syn gas will be piped out of the system and the granules will be collected.

“That is one of the take-away messages,” he says. “There are very few air emissions.”

Plus, the options of how to deal with this gas are exciting. The gas could be used to make steam heat or to make electricity. Ultimately, he says, they will be working on the question of how to convert the gas into a liquid fuel.

“Just lower the temperature a little bit and it turns from a gas to a liquid,” Goodale postulates, “a great substitute for gasoline.”

“Being able to take waste and turn it into an alternative energy that reduces our dependency on fossil fuel—that catches the eye of everybody.”

It certainly caught the eye of McNulty.

“I go over to the college quite frequently, and I talk to the college about all their different needs,” says McNulty, “but that was one of them that particularly interested me because of my commitment to alternative-energy sources.”

Goodale recalls an early conversation that he had with McNulty, in which they discussed what society might do, and what his college might do, to handle the growing volume of waste.

“I said, ‘We have such a growing size of landfills, we have such a growing pile of waste at the end of every day’s work, we need to do something different in order to handle it in a way that is just more than taking that animal manure and spreading it on the field. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could employ this same technology in a military setting?’ And he picked right up on that.”

McNulty submitted the request for funds with the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense. The only one to come through so far is the Department of Defense.

“We are pursuing all of the different options,” McNulty says. “The Defense Department is interested in it because it potentially has a military application, for soldiers out in the field on assignment, as far as using their solid waste to try to produce energy.”

The gasifiers could be deployed as a mobile unit, Goodale says, and the soldiers in field would able convert their biowaste, including their bodily waste, into energy.

“We can take it to Iraq or Afghanistan or Korea or Germany or wherever we are.”

But for Goodale, the ability to reduce the volume of materials going to the landfill, or going to waste in a field, while increasing our options for renewable, green energy, is his main drive. It seems almost too good to be true.

As an example, he points to SUNY Cobleskill. Every day, the Cobleskill cafeteria feeds 1,800 students. “How many tons of garbage is left after that process every day?” Goodale asks. And it’s not just human waste. Animals themselves create plenty of biowaste. One mature cow can produce 13 tons of manure a year. On the Cobleskill campus, there are 115 milking cows, a dozen or so calves, plus 90 horses, 24 sheep, 24 goats, and a few pigs.

“That’s a lot of manure. I don’t know how much gas I am going to get,” he says, laughing. “But we’re going to find out.”

Flippin’ cookies: A visitor to Empire Solar Store puts the sun to good use.

PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle

No Sun, No Fun

A new store is banking on the power of buying green

By Alexandra Hoefinger


When cruising down Route 9, about a mile south of the town of Malta, you can now spot a flashy, blue-and-purple solar panel propped up on the ground outside a two-story, square gray building. The panel partially powers the renewable-energy retail store Empire Solar Store. The store, a first of its kind in New York state, kicked off its grand opening Saturday (April 14) with a huge draw of customers, a display of functioning solar-powered home appliances, and chocolate-chip cookies baked in a solar oven. Owned and run by Scott Blood and his wife, Carol, Empire Solar Store is the ninth and newest member of the USA Solar Stores family.

Within the first two hours of being open, the store welcomed more than 40 people of all ages, who at times had to stand nearly shoulder-to-shoulder in order to fit inside.

“Daddy sells solar panels,” Blood’s 4-year-old daughter, Corrina, says. Beyond solar panels, he also sells wind turbines, solar-powered hot-water systems, bio-diesel, pellet stoves, compact fluorescent lightbulbs, energy-saving refrigerators, washer-dryer units, and solar-powered attic fans, among many other things that can be used to make a household economically and environmentally efficient.

Shawn Sauer came from Pittstown to scope out the new store because, he says, he is interested in anything that will reduce costs and energy waste. He wants to learn in person about solar- and wind-energy systems.

“I’m strongly considering making the switch,” Sauer says. “I’m ready to do it.”

“It all just makes sense,” says Patty Insogna. She came to the grand opening with her family to find out more about ways to help save money and get more solar energy for her house. Energy conservation is a family affair not only for Insogna, but for many other people looking for ways to power down their lives. Lorinda Lassone and her daughter, Nicole, are particularly excited about the solar oven that baked the chocolate-chip cookies.

“It would be great for when we go camping,” she says. “It even looks like a suitcase.”

Also among the first customers was Tim Garrahan, who is interested in working for USA Solar Stores as an installer of solar- and wind-energy conversion systems. He’s happy to have found a company that is enacting the conservation ideas that he’s been thinking about for quite some time. He’s also happy to have found a jug of biodegradable chain oil at the store, so that even the chainsaw he uses to cut the wood for heating his house can be lubricated by renewable resources.

David Bonta started the Vermont-based retail business in 2001 with the intention of making renewable energy available and accessible to people via a hands-on experience with “cool gadgets,” he says. The stores work to accommodate everyday people, not just contractors and architects.

“The best thing,” Bonta says, “is to see folks from all walks of life come in, not just electricians and plumbers. We get artists, writers, teachers, stained-glass makers, and all sorts of other people.” He is also pleased by the storeowners’ varying range of backgrounds. He feels that with each new store, the company’s reputation and knowledge base improve tremendously.

Before Blood began researching solar energy about a year ago, he had a cushy corporate job with a background in copy-machine repair. “I was mad as hell and not going to take it any more,” he recalls. “I was sick of wasting energy, sick of the government controlling oil, sick of soldiers dying in the Middle East. It’s not just an environmental issue anymore.”

Blood had always wanted to run his own business, and within four months of contacting Bonta about a New York branch of USA Solar Stores, he had purchased the building, installed a solar panel to provide it with a kilowatt of electricity, and set up a room full of merchandise and informational pamphlets. He says that he wanted to be located in Malta because with the Saratoga Technology and Energy Park and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), “Saratoga County is the center of the universe for renewable energy right now.”

In the coming months, after three more stores open on the east coast, USA Solar will stretch to the west coast and beyond with stores opening in Los Angeles and Hawaii. Blood jokes that there should be some sort of solar-powered airplane to get out there, as fuel intake and air emissions from airplanes do sort of undermine the idea behind the business of energy conservation.

How big will USA Solar Stores grow?

As far as Bonta can extend himself, it seems.

“It’s really a mosaic of cultures and skills,” he says. “All of us have the sense that the world is threatened and we’re all coming together at the table now. And I feel like a music composer, bringing together all different instruments.”

The current solar stores in Vermont and Massachusetts have been incredibly successful—from the first hour the first store was open, Bonta says he knew he “had the tiger by its tail.”

Even in the recent St. Patrick’s Day snowstorm, an overwhelming crowd of people turned up to the opening of Green Works Solar Store in Groton, Vt., according to owner Brad Vietje. “People were waiting in line to pay with credit cards,” he says, “and I didn’t even have the machine set up!” Since then he has still had a considerably large flow of interested customers and installers visiting the store.

Here in the Capital Region, Empire Solar Store has had an “unbelievable response in the past week,” says Blood. On a bulletin board by the door, Blood has posted a photograph of his daughter with a huge grin. He hopes that in the future, customers will bring in photos of their children so that they can be posted on what will turn into a community message board.

As Corrina Blood says when she answers the phone, “It’s always a sunny day at Empire Solar Store.”

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