Cuba and Vermont Perspectives on Energy and Culture, Part 6

Reader Contribution by Paul Scheckel
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This post is a follow-up to five others I have done on Cuba and Vermont, Perspectives on Energy and Culture: Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 – 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. Learn more in The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook!

Jasper Hill

Jasper Hill Farm is a clandestine world treasure that you could drive right by even if you had a map and GPS (forget about cell service here). This is a success story of two brothers who started with 40 dairy cows and went on to win the title of “World’s Best Unpasteurized Cheese” for their Bayley Hazen Blue at the 2014 World Cheese Awards in London. Here you can see the entire process of making cheese from grass to cow to milk to cheese. The crew constructed underground cheese aging caves where each cave is specifically controlled for environment and inoculated with the right culture.

They didn’t stop at great cheese though; Andy and Mateo are working to close the loop from food to energy by converting the farm’s waste products to energy in their Green Machine. Cow manure is separated into liquids and solids. The solids are composted, the heat generated from decomposition is used to heat the green house, and composted manure fertilizes the soil. The liquids are combined with waste whey from the cheese making process and put into an anaerobic digester to produce methane gas that is burned to heat water. On this record breaking day of cold, we also enjoyed fresh greens from the greenhouse which gains heat from both the sun and from the manure composting on the other side of a mass wall that stores and re-distributes the absorbed heat.

That night at dinner Mario said “I’m worried that I’m not sweating. It’s bad for the skin.” Another hidden-in-plain-sight difference in what’s engrained in us as ‘normal’. When I was in Cuba, I didn’t stop sweating and I found it annoying and uncomfortable.

“You are sweating” we told him. “You just don’t feel it because the air is so dry in the winter that sweat evaporates before it has a chance to bead up.” I was reminded of my southern California cousins who came to live in New York City for a summer. They never sweat in their home climate and were uncomfortable and embarrassed at how they were constantly sweating in the unfamiliar east coast humidity. 

Unnatural Timekeeper

Friday, our last day together, would be a long one. After an extended breakfast conversation came the ‘ridiculous’ process of dressing for winter. We were late before we left and this day was already over-planned. I wanted to do it all! I don’t know how I ended up as a tour guide and event planner, I’m usually the one who’s late for everything and now I find myself in the unnatural role of timekeeper and whip cracker. I was very aware of taking up people’s time during their workday, and was continuously surprised at their understanding welcome despite our consistent lateness. I wondered why we do it. Our lives are so busy, bills keep coming in, clients are waiting, and nobody stood to earn anything from our visits. As an introvert, I know I have shortcomings around social graces, but I was getting an education in building a social economy of my own, learning from the grace of both my guest and our hosts.

Better World Workshop

On the way to The Better World Workshop in Bradford VT I took a wrong turn on a dirt road. Ahead was a hitchhiker and Mario asked if lots of people hitch rides here. “Maybe not as much as they once did.” I replied. “In Cuba, everybody hitches a ride and everybody picks up riders, all the time, every day.” I recalled that our tour busses and taxis in Cuba were always stopping to pick people up. We picked up the rider who set us down the right road to Bradford.

Engineer Carl Bielenberg has been developing biomass based renewable energy systems for nearly thirty years. At the Better World Workshop, he is currently developing a small biomass gasification system for rural villages in developing countries called the Village Industrial Power (VIP) generator. Gasification is the process of heating biomass to combustible temperatures and controlling the air to the combustion chamber so that the material doesn’t burst into flames. Controlling combustion in this way allows for an extremely clean, efficient, smoke-free source of heat. The VIP burns a variety of biomass types ranging from wood to corn, or even nut hulls, making it a versatile power producer in almost any region of the world. The heat produced is used to operate a simple steam engine that powers a 10,000 watt electrical generator, while waste heat is used to heat water.

South of Bradford, and on the way to our next stop, is the King Arthur Flour baking center in Norwich Vermont where we enjoyed a delicious lunch from their café. As we pulled into the parking space he asked “What is that noise? It sounds like it’s coming from the car.” I sighed inside, because I hadn’t told him that the car had suddenly lost power and the engine light was on. Not hearing anything unusual, I asked him what it sounded like. “A squeaking sound.” All I had to offer was an unknowing shrug and sighed to myself. Walking across the parking lot after lunch we stopped to wait as a car backed out of its spot. “That’s the sound I heard!” he exclaimed, pointing at the front tire. It was the sound a tire makes as it slowly rolls over fresh snow. We both laughed, but I still didn’t know why the engine light was on. While he was busy talking to Carl about the VIP I slipped out to get the error code off my OBDC scanner. Vague as usual. Was it the $25 fix or the $900 fix? In the end, it was right in the middle. With 230k miles on my VW Jetta TDI, repairs are inevitable, but the maintenance cost is still less than new car payments.

Next week, final installment: The Energy Innovation Center and Mario’s message.

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