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This post is a follow-up to three others I have done on Cuba and Vermont, Perspectives on Energy and Culture: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 - about my visit to Cuba with a delegation of energy industry professionals, and a Cuban colleague’s visit to Vermont where I developed a similar tour.


After lunch with colleagues, we spoke with the Burlington Electric Department to explore how they are able to claim 100 percent renewable energy generation through wind, solar, and biomass energy production and purchase contracts. An increasing renewable energy portfolio is a goal of many states and utilities in response to customer demand. A renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) means that the utility is producing and/or buying a certain percentage of energy from renewable sources (imposed or voluntary)to meet their customer’s electrical demand. Investing in renewables is beneficial in many ways across the economy, but there is a fair amount of free-market smoke and mirrors behind the curtains of this concept because the regional electric grid hosts many types of generators fueled by gas, oil, nuclear, and renewable energies. How much of what source is in the mix at any given time involves complex minute-by-minute accounting that makes it impossible to know where the electrons powering your home really come from.

Electricity is bought and sold each day, each hour, based on availability and market cost. As demand increases (during peak use hours or weather extremes), the cost to purchase the commodity, in this case electricity, also increases. Add to this accounting the notion of Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs (a unit of one megawatt hour of renewably-generated electricity) and things get confusing fast. If a utility owns a renewable energy generator such as a solar, wind, or biomass power plant, the power can be used by the utility that owns that resource, or it can be sold as a REC to other utilities trying to meet their own RPS requirements. Whether to sell, keep, or buy RECs all depends on energy demand and market price. In some cases, a large electrical generator (such as a nuclear power plant) may actually pay into the power market so that they avoid a costly facility shut down and restart if they are underbid by another supplier. In other words, they are paying – not earning – to stay in the power market. You, the end user of this commodity, are insulated from all this fluctuation and your local utility needs a skilled negotiation and accounting team to survive the ups and downs. This is a difficult enough concept for a free-market economist to come to grips with; imagine the perspective of a native from a small island nation where everything needs to be accountable, cost-effective, and transparent in order to exist at all. “Show me the renewable electrons! I want to know what is powering my home!” says the islander. “Impossible!” says the free market power manager. “Ridiculous!” is the reply with the laughter of absurd disbelief.


While I don’t live on an island, I do live off the power grid with solar, wind, wood, biodiesel, and sometimes even homemade biogas. In my attempt to move further away from fossil fuels, I’ve developed a direct, hands-on relationship with the energy harnessed from nature and use to meet my family’s needs. In that sense, the notion of having finite resources is a daily consideration and expectations need to be managed around resource availability.  


Burlington Electric’s manager of power supply took us to Winooski One, a 7.4 megawatt hydro generator. The river was frozen on the surface but under the ice, liquid water flowed through the turbines. Mario braved the cold and frozen fingers to take photos and video of this site, amazed at the power in the apparently frozen river. Hydro resources in Cuba are few and far between as there isn’t the combination of water quantity and elevation required to produce a substantial amount of power.

Then on to the nearby McNeill Power Plant where 1,700 tons of woodchips are burned each day to generate 50 megawatts of electricity. As with Winooski One, some of the power produced is sold as RECs, and some to the local grid. Of course, all the electrons it produces are mixed in with all the other electrons produced elsewhere. The plant operator showed us a live feed of the regional market price to purchase a megawatt hour (one million watt-hours or one thousand kilowatt-hours). As temperatures were predicted to dip to record lows on this night, the wholesale cost of electricity was on the rise as power planners scrambled to ensure that the extra demand would be met.


The next morning it was -21 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 degrees Celsius), a full 30 degrees Celsius colder than Mario had ever experienced, and to which he jokingly believed he could claim a national record for surviving. We entertained him with cold weather tricks like blowing soap bubbles that quickly freeze and can be held in the hand, then tossing a pot full of boiling hot water up into the cold air to watch it evaporate instantly into a cloud. He provided a bit of unintentional entertainment to his hosts as well. Watching a grown man put on winter gear for the first time balances a line between excruciating and comical. If you’ve ever watched a young child bundle up for winter and try to make the school bus on time, you’ll have a feeling for this. His borrowed boots, jacket, hat, and gloves fit well but took lots of time and energy to install on his body. Then there was the checklist of all the things required for the day – phone, notepad, pen, camera; each assigned to a pocket. “This is ridiculous!” he laughed. Winter’s second skin is second nature to a New Englander, but I was beginning to agree with him on this point.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


Read Part 1 in this series here.
Read Part 2 in this series here.

Visit to the U.S.

In 2014, Mario was invited to visit to the U.S. to share his experience and learn from ours as a guest of the non-profit organization Community Solutions. I had given Mario copies of my books The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook, and The Home Energy Diet, and we kept in touch on a professional level over the years. He reached out in advance of his trip and now it was my turn to play the host, at least for the Vermont portion of his travels. When you live in a place, you never seem to do the things the tourists do unless you have company, and this would be a great excuse to visit some of the attractions I had always wanted to visit in Vermont. Thus was borne the First International Vermont Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Exploration Tour. I reached out to colleagues for thoughts and recommendations, and pared the long list down to a more manageable three-day tour. Vermont is a leader in many ways throughout the energy sphere in the U.S. and the accompanying entrepreneurial spirit we encountered was truly inspiring.

Moving Heat with a Heat Pump

Our first visit was a home inspection where an air-source heat pump was recently installed. The concept of intentional year-round space conditioning is foreign enough to a native of the Caribbean region, but to consider that there is enough heat to squeeze out of the air with the temperature hovering around 0°F, and then deliver it to the indoors at a temperature of around 100 degrees F seemed implausible! The proof was in the infrared thermal imaging camera Mario held for the first time. A $3,000 electronic test instrument is not an option in the Cuban economy.

On our walk across the parking lot to lunch at Burlington’s , he insisted that I take an infrared photo of his freezing cold cheek.

We were joined at lunch by several friends and colleagues, all welcoming him to America, asking questions and trading stories. Mario reminded us to be careful about calling ourselves Americans. “I am also American, as is everyone living throughout North, South, Central, and Latin America.” The obvious is not always so without the proper perspective.

Next Week: Burlington Electric Department - 100 percent renewable grid electricity for an entire city.

Click here to find all of Paul's blog posts.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Read Part 1 in this series here.

While in Cuba, we visited various cultural and energy related sites, and were introduced to the many fine vices offered for pleasure. These included Havana Club dark aged rum, and fine tobacco rolled into cigars and properly lit with a wooden stick, not a match. A burning match will introduce an unacceptable sulfur taste to the smoker.


Poverty is rampant, opportunities limited, and the results of dire circumstance are partly manifested in acts of desperation like scams and prostitution. There is much potential for social and economic growth in a developed Cuba, free of the U.S. trade embargo. Despite hardships, Cubans retain a strong community spirit and a powerful desire to achieve. To put a mildly positive spin on the result of the embargo, one could say that ‘poverty preserves’. Cuba was once the playground of the U.S. and one development plan from the late 1950s would have lined the coast with hotels and casinos. The existing seafront promenade in Havana along el Malecon is a regular gathering place for many people. On the other hand, poverty destroys. Havana loses several buildings every day due to neglect. Eighty percent of Havana was built during the first half of the 20th century, and much of it went up in a hurry. As these older buildings crumble, they are replaced by the government with cinder block row housing. All housing in Cuba is government housing. Historic Old Havana’s buildings date some 500 years back to Spanish occupation and are being actively restored, or at least spared from ruin. With improving relations between Cuba and the U.S., there is an opportunity for thoughtful, planned growth. Mario remains determined that Cuba will not lose its identity; that the culture will thrive, and change will be slow, considered, and deliberate as outside investment opportunities increase.

What Cubans Want

Among all the people we spoke with, nobody really understood what the embargo is all about. Lasting over 50 years, the U.S. led embargo is the longest act of aggression in modern history. A substantial part of the problem seems to be disgruntled and disenfranchised Cubans in Florida, and perhaps they are justified in holding a grudge against the Castro regime. Trying to explain to Cubans about the Electoral College and the powerful place Florida holds in the policy making of the entire country is met with confusion. How could this be so in America? Everywhere we went, people implored us, “isn’t there something you can do?” Cuban people consistently cite only five desires:

1. Let Cuba live.

2. End the blockade.

3. Stop spending counter revolutionary money in Cuba.

4. Free the Cuban 5 (done in late 2014).

5. Accept our differences, be engaged as friends.

I will add to this list the need for high speed internet access! The country currently lives with the equivalent of dial-up speeds and only a small part of the population has any access at all. Getting online was so painful that after two days of attempting to communicate with family and friends, I gave up. Ten days in the dark. Try it sometime; it’s an oddly debilitating freedom.

Site Visits

There were a number of meetings with businesses and the electric utility, a visit to the country's sole photovoltaic (solar electric or PV) panel manufacturing facility, and a tour of a community hydroelectric generating station, among many others.


This hydro power plant uses a 30 kilowatt Russian generator to power a village of 57 homes. For perspective, 30 kilowatts would be enough to power three to five average homes in the U.S. The school in this village had PV panels and garners power priority so that when power is low, the community can at least meet some basic needs with the school serving as community center. This autonomous approach to power generator is uncommon in Cuba as there are few hydroeletric projects, and 95 percent of the population is connected to the national power grid. Ninety five percent of electric power produced is from oil-fired generators, with most of the remainder produced from sugar cane waste, or bagasse.

It's Complicated

Our guides and hosts often answered our questions with what became almost a joke, if it had not been true. "It's Complicated." Ask a question and there often is no clear answer. Everything in Cuba is complicated. The country is a political football and daily life changes in reaction to political events. There are two forms of currency, and daily encumbrances with the embargo hinder infrastructure repairs due to lack of parts and supplies. Jesus, our tour guide, told us “you can’t understand what it’s like to live here after only a week. Cubans are re-inventing things every day and we don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. It’s like untangling a bowl of spaghetti, you can pull out one noodle but you still have a bowl of spaghetti.”


Click here to read Part 3: Visit to the U.S.

Paul Scheckel is the author of The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook. You can read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts by clicking here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


“C’mon, Mario! Let’s get to the car!” I shouted through the collar of my coat as the winter winds picked up. The temperature was already in the single digits.

I turned around to see him just standing there, frozen still, looking down at the ground.  What is he doing?  I thought. My fingers were numb and I was feeling a bit impatient.

“Is this ice?!” He called out to me. I stopped and smiled, laughing at my impatience in the face of his childlike wonder.

“Yes, that’s ice!” He tested the frozen puddle with his foot, sliding it carefully over the unfamiliar glassy surface and handed me his camera so I could take a photo of him standing on solidified water. Then we both ran to the car to get out of the cold.

It was January 7, 2015. Mario had just arrived in Burlington, Vermont, from Cuba, and he had never experienced temperatures below freezing. I met him almost four years prior to this visit when I traveled to Cuba on a tour with other energy efficiency and renewable energy professionals. The tour was organized by Solar Energy International, a renewable energy school for which I taught a week long sustainability class, with travel logistics provided by Global Exchange. Mario is a specialist in Technology and Environmental Information at the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment in Havana. He was one of our professional connections and guide for the Havana portion of our delegation, where he helped us to understand how Cuba responded to the economic collapse of their best trade ally, the old Soviet Union. Their ruin quickly led to Cuba’s own economic collapse in 1989, a time they euphemistically refer to as The Special Period (it was essentially a depression). Things were hard enough already with the U.S. embargo in place since 1960, and now Cuba had lost over three-quarters of its oil imports. Over the next four years, energy use in the country dropped by half.

This is the first in a series of weekly postings about my visit to Cuba with a delegation of energy industry professionals, and a Cuban colleague’s visit to Vermont for a similar tour. Along the way we learned about efficiency and renewables, and some striking contrasts between ourselves and our countries were revealed.

Paul Scheckel is the author of The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook.

Next Up: Visit to Cuba

Click here to read Part 2 in this series.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


In my previous blog post I mentioned how Jonathan Taggart and I recently completed a book and a film on off grid living in Canada. For this post I want to talk about the film and what it's all about. I'll begin by showing the film's trailer, which can be seen below or at our website, Life Off Grid.

Life Off Grid trailer from Jonathan Taggart on Vimeo.

Condensing 65,000 miles of travel across the country, almost three years of research, and nearly 200 interviews into 1 hour and 25 minutes wasn't an easy feat. But the process of selection says a lot about the things that mattered to us as film-makers.

Matt Clarke (editor), Jon (director), and I (producer) decided to build the film's story around two central questions: why and how someone lives off the grid. The answers do not come from our voiceover words. Rather, it is directly through the voices of about two dozen individuals living across Canada (most of the Canadians, some of them American and British expats) that we manage to share a wide variety of experiences and perspectives on what life off the grid means.

Told as a road story moving from the West Coast to the East Coast — passing by the North Coast along the way — the film introduces at least one family per province and territory and gives viewers an intimate and candid peek into their homes, land, and life.

It's not the kind of documentary film one would expect. Most of the movies and shows on off-grid living that I have seen sensationalize off-gridders and their homes, or at least make highly selective production choices by focusing only on individuals and families living in the most dramatically unique conditions. In fact, for the last two years I have been getting periodical requests from Canadian, American, and British TV production companies asking me to put them in touch with the most outlandish "characters." Sorry, I regularly say, I only met "normal" people.

Interesting as that may be in the TV listings guide — after all it must be hard to compete with the Kardashians and Gold Rush — that kind of sensationalism was never of interest to me, Jon and Matt. Instead we wrote an earnest and sober story that portrays off-grid living in Canada for what we found it to be: diverse, complex, nuanced and, most of all, beyond the stereotypes.

The reality on the ground — one that probably would not make for a conventional "reality" show, but maybe for a truly realistic one — is that off-grid living isn't (just) for the bold, the wild and the adventurous. It is, in fact, for just about everyone. Depending on motivations, available capital, regional conditions, climate, and personal lifestyle preferences one can live off the grid in the most diverse ways.

For example, the documentary shows that certain individuals manage to recreate high levels of domestic comforts and convenience in their off-grid homes — levels of comforts similar to those experienced in urban and suburban grid-connected homes. Other individuals and families, instead, choose to do with less and in the way end up reinventing what a home means. In our mind there are no hierarchies among these individuals: no off-gridder lives a more inherently interesting or authentic life than others. All simply live their lives by choices of their own making.

And living life by choices of one's making, to us, is really the point of off-grid living.

The movie, by the way, is currently touring film festivals so it's not available for viewing anywhere other than in the film festival cities. To stay posted on where the movie is being played, and when it's (hopefully) coming to a big or small screen near you, you can keep up with our blog, Life Off Grid, or follow us on Facebook.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Are you wondering if solar power is a good choice for you?

The answer is yes, if you are a home owner with sun exposure. The question of solar power should not really be a question of cost – it is a renewable energy resource issue. With Photovoltaic (PV) panel technology you can tap into the amazing world of free totally renewable energy from the sun. The sun is the main source of heat for the entire earth in the form of solar radiation. So much energy that at times can oversupply energy. For example, when solar flares hit the earth and cause power grids to fail due to overwhelming their capacity. The NASA site and provides solar flare warnings for different areas of the country. In our book on DIY Photovoltaic Solar Power for the Homeowner now available on Amazon (and available through our website we talk about protection methods and details on a faraday cage).

Faraday Cage 

You generally cannot find a better more reliable source of power on the planet that solar. Even where we live, in the Pacific Northwest, we get an ample amount of power. As we discuss in our book, PV panels are even more efficient in cold winter environments than hot southern U.S. climates — up to 40 percent more power has been experienced - this more than makes up for the loss of sun energy in the winter. Our book gives real data on temperature effects and how this correlates best to PV panel surface (using a temperature gun) temperature, often 65 degrees Fahrenheit higher than outside air temperature.

Farday Cage opened 

Why use natural gas, propane or other irreplaceable resources? Once these are used up they are gone. You should leave these non-green energy sources for people that cannot go totally green with solar Also, burning fossil fuels is bad due to the hazardous exhaust emissions, transportation pollution and hazards of taking the fuel to market, explosion and fire hazards. Consider how the magnitudes of the problems multiply with millions of users.

The main cost of a PV system is initial installation. However, this is a onetime up front fixed cost. There is very little repetitive cost over the life of the system. Batteries (an option for energy storage – which we chose to use) are most likely the biggest expense. Battery purchase can be minimized with very little degradation in the system. Compare this to fossil fuels with big lifelong transport and delivery subject to increasing cost and hazards. Trucks, trains, and pipelines all have these risks. The sun comes up every morning though for most of us.

Photovoltaic and Cabinet back view 

In our book you will find a buildable 8 kW PV power system that is very affordable. The payback is normally as fast as 6 to 8.5 years. After the system is paid for it is pretty much cost-free every day! That free concept is not usually talked about, but if you do a lifetime analysis it approaches that compared to any other power systems. The picture above shows our three forty foot rows of movable PV collectors and the battery bank and inverter cabinet. The complete instructions for building and wiring this system are included in the book.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



infrared image of a cooked turkey

You know that warm, cozy, sleepy feeling you get after an over-sized meal shared with too many friends and family to fit around a single table? It's some gossip to share in the kitchen, but I will never know the truth of it. My compulsion is to doze off on the couch between two over-stuffed uncles watching the game, where I’m lulled into the safety of sleep by vague murmurs and laughter from the kitchen and the drone of the TV. The post-holiday dinner coma is a comforting part of a familiar holiday tradition. What could possibly be wrong?

Indoor Air Quality

When I do home energy inspections, one of the things I investigate is the air quality inside the home. This involves testing for carbon monoxide (CO), relative humidity (RH), and carbon dioxide (CO2). CO is produced when fuels are not completely burned. A concentration of 0.01 percent CO in air is harmful to humans and 0.3 percent is deadly within minutes. RH is a measure of how much moisture is in the air. RH affects our comfort, but too much moisture in the wrong place can lead to mold growth, which also affects our health. CO2 is a normal result of fuel combustion, and is also a byproduct of our own respiration. CO2 concentration in outdoor air is about 0.04 percent, and the air we exhale contains about 4 percent CO2. These are pretty small numbers, but incredibly important ones if we’d like to stay alive and healthy.

Telaire CO2 meter 

Breathing 101

Humans need air that contains at least 20 percent oxygen. Lucky for us, nature has provided us with 21 percent. The main ingredient in air (78 percent) is nitrogen, and the remaining 1 percent is spice in the soup. Mess with the spice, and you ruin the entire meal! The mechanism for removing excess nitrogen from our bodies is through urine, but there is no such efficient biological mechanism for removing most airborne poisons that may be contained in that surprisingly important 1 percent. When CO2 concentration in the air we inhale reaches about 0.12 percent, many of us will start to feel sleepy and maybe head-achy. Not a health risk, but you won’t be functioning at your best. I’ve measured CO2 levels in meeting rooms and school classrooms in excess of .3 percent, eight times higher than normal! Ever wonder why some meetings put you to sleep? Or why your kids are wet noodles when they come home from school? It might not be the presenter’s fault, open a window and let in some fresh air!

The Food Coma

What does all this have to do with your holiday meal? During one family thanksgiving gathering, I got out my CO2 meter to test the air while dinner cooked in the gas oven. The CO2 level in the house quickly shot up to over .15 percent, so we turned on the bathroom exhaust fan. It helped a little, but not much. We needed a large range hood, vented to outside to make a real difference. The CO2 level was closing in on .2 percent and yawns were exchanged by all. Two windows were opened to allow cross ventilation, and within minutes the CO2 levels dropped. But that was just phase one. Cooking complete, windows closed, and fifteen people all exhaling in the dining room meant that CO2 began to rise again. We’ve always blamed the amino acid tryptophan, present in many foods, but I realize now that all those holiday meals at grandma’s house were accompanied by an invisible and unknown poison that put us all to sleep. We were all lethargic from poor indoor air quality, and all we could really manage to do in that environment was watch TV.

A Delicate Mix

The air we breathe is a delicate mix that is easily thrown off balance. Very small changes in its composition can dramatically affect our health, how we think, feel, and behave. Global warming aside, atmospheric CO2 is a pollutant, levels are rising, and our bodies are reacting along with the planet. We are like lobsters that have been thrown into a pot of cold water on the stove top. The heat is on, and we can feel something slowly changing. How long before we start clamoring to get out of the pot?

Get Efficient, Stay Healthy

This year, do your part to keep the flame on the lobster pot low! Check out the Homeowner’s Energy Handbook for ideas. As you tighten up your home for energy efficiency, don’t forget to add a ventilation system for fresh air. Meanwhile, do yourself and your guests a favor by opening a window or two while you’re cooking and entertaining. You’ll be glad you did, and I bet it will lead to more engaging time spent with family and friends.

Paul Scheckel is the author of "The Homeowner's Energy Handbook" and The Home Energy Diet

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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