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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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April 30, 2016

Earth Day Arises

Much more than a bike expo, the fabulous Radix Center farm,
and an upcoming radical act of civil disobedience
approved by the local authorities

This is a long article in three parts, jump to the part you want to read:

  1. The Bicycle Expo and the future of transportation
  2. Learning to farm in the City, touring the Radix Center
  3. Stopping the oil bomb trains with our bodies... well, not my body

Just a few years ago hardly anybody gave a damn about Earth Day. If you go back to the end of the last Century, this Spring day devoted to environmental action and awareness was usually ignored, considered by most to be merely some kind of leftover hippie ideology. Go back even further to the first Earth Day in 1970 and the original concept was roundly mocked and sneered at, an attitude exemplified by singer Joni Mitchell’s classic anti-environmental song Big Yellow Taxi, which presented concern for environmental problems as a kind of minor mental illness.

No one with half a brain is sneering at Earth Day any longer. Our land, our air, our water, our oceans are being poisoned to death by Corporate terrorism and by endless war. The younger generations who have yet to live most of their lives are very alarmed at the mess their Baby Boomer elders have left them. As a result, even the stupidest among the most powerful people on this planet now feel compelled to give at least lip service to solving the desperate condition of our environment.

Meanwhile, in the middle of May the South End of the City of Albany is going to become world famous for an act of environmental activism. As we all know by now, Albany is the terminus for fracked Bakken Fields oil transported by bomb train cars to the Port of Albany, which is then loaded onto barges for transport to Atlantic coastal refineries. While the dangers of a Lac Magantic style explosion have quietly become unlikely, the threat of massive spills and relatively lesser explosions still remain and an awful lot of people, including most of our civic officials, want to see the elimination of the train oil pipeline in the Capital District.

The Solar Powered Easily Rechargeable Astonishingly Practical ELF
The Solar Powered Easily Rechargeable
Astonishingly Practical ELF

1) The Bicycle Expo

This year April 22 fell on a Friday. Locally, activities devoted to Earth Day spanned the entire week, with major events falling on both weekends. The Saturday of the first weekend I went to check out the Bicycle Expo in Washington Park, which turned out to be about a lot more than bicycles.

Actually, I saw very few bicycles. There was a much advertised bicycle parade in the morning, which I missed, but I was told by a participant that it was kid-themed and involved going around in a big circle down by the Lakehouse. And sure, some of the vendor and display tables were devoted to bicycle parts, gears and derailleurs, stuff like that.

The most interesting bicycle, which more properly should be called a tricycle, was the ELF, which was available for test rides along the park footpaths. It was first developed several years ago by some former auto engineers in a garage in Durham, North Carolina. You can buy a one seater for $6,000 or a two seater for $8,000, the name ELF is a fine bit of marketing, an acronym for Electric, Light and Fun.

Interior Of The ELF
Interior Of The ELF

Looking at this thing I realized this is very much the future of urban transportation. It’s an enclosed compartment made of a lightweight composite and a sturdy looking aluminum frame. The driver sits like in a car and pedals as one would with a recombinant bike. But there is also a battery powered electric motor that brings the ELF up hills easily, and with pedaling on the straightaway can easily go over 30 MPH.

The lithium ion battery charges easily and is supplemented by solar panels on the roof. I asked the owner about charging the battery while pedaling, that feature hasn’t been added yet. You see that recharging feature with some “hybrid” automobiles, apparently this hasn’t been scaled down yet for this vehicle. Besides, you know a feature like that will drive up the cost.

The only problem is that electric bikes are currently illegal in New York State, it seems they don’t fall into any of the traditional road regulatory categories. You can buy one but you can’t drive one because you can’t register it. In fact, it was probably illegal to demonstrate the ELF in Washington Park because technically it’s a motorized vehicle and does not belong on the footpaths.

It appears that there is legislative resistance to legalizing and regulating electric bikes for the road because certain legislators in our State government are following the leads of certain moneyed elites who don’t want to see this further blow to the profitability of their fossil fuel Corporation investments. Meanwhile California has legalized e-bikes, once again our moribund State government is way behind the West Coast. I’ve heard reports of e-bikes being used routinely and illegally by bike messengers in NY City, the only question is how much longer until the foolish elites are forced to back off and allow their portfolios catch up to reality.

Under The Hood Of The Tesla Electric Car
Under The Hood Of The Tesla Electric Car

Another item prominently displayed at the Bike Expo were electric cars, not hybrids but real honest to goodness electric cars. What was interesting to see was how the designs for electric cars are only slowly pulling away from the traditional gas powered autos. For instance, if you don’t need a combustion engine then you don’t need to fill up the inside of the hood of the car with an engine.

This was the first time I’d inspected a Tesla up close. These suckers get from 200 to 300 miles on a single charge, and they charge pretty fast. The first ones that were built a few years ago, which I was looking at, cost around $80,000, but I understand there is a new model coming out for $35,000. The price is coming down, but for this new run of cheaper vehicles I’m told there is already a year’s worth of back orders.

It was somewhat disconcerting to stare under the hood of a Tesla and see... nothing, storage space. The electric motor is about the size of a loaf of bread and is located near the rear axle. I hear the newer models will have a second motor near the front axle which will make it an all-wheel drive vehicle. The batteries are placed along the bottom of the car from front to back, I’m told they are easy to remove but you need a lift.

The Tesla Is Definitely A Babe Magnet

The Tesla Is Definitely A Babe Magnet

Next to the fabulous Teslas were several electric cars manufactured by leading auto Corporations, these looked downright laughable next to the Teslas. I mean, why load up the compartment under the hood if you don’t have to? In addition the specs on these things, range and charging time for instance, are downright jokes next to the Tesla. In the next few years I expect our concept of what a car is supposed to look like is going to transform radically, thanks to the Tesla and thanks to the ELF.

Some ten years ago I strolled on down to underneath the Empire Plaza to see the much-touted hydrogen fueled car. It looked exactly like a gasoline vehicle, no imaginative redesign. It was surrounded by people going ooh and ah.

Some time before that I had discerned that there are two massive probably unsolvable problems with hydrogen cars, so bad that we really can forget about a “hydrogen economy” in the foreseeable future. One is that hydrogen is much more explosive than gasoline (remember the Hindenburg disaster?) so much so that static electricity can ignite it and kill you instantly along with everybody who happens to be nearby while you are attempting to fuel the vehicle. Think about traffic accidents. The other unsolvable problem is that manufacturing hydrogen takes much more energy to produce it than it stores, which makes it a ridiculous idea to start with.

The Tesla Is Definitely A Babe Magnet

Learning Basic Solar Electronics At The Bike Expo

But see, the federal government is subsidizing the “hydrogen economy,” the Cheney/Bush administration committed some $1.2 billion of our taxes to this boondoggle, and recently Mr. Obama is trying to force automakers to prioritize development of hydrogen cars. Why? Because the Corporations can control distribution of hydrogen. They’re terrified of the looming prospect of of electric cars powered by solar panels which would make the consumer independent of energy control by the elites.

Meanwhile the feds are not spending a dime to create the next generation of full spectrum solar panels. Why not? Because when small, inexpensive solar panels that generate lots of electricity even in the middle of a snowstorm are developed, which will be sooner than you think, the entire current energy infrastructure will instantly become useless and obsolete.

So being my usual obnoxious self I questioned the woman who was demonstrating the hydrogen car. In front of all those admiring people I asked loudly, “Why not put all that research money into developing an electric car that charges quickly and travels far, and eliminate the middleman, you know, skip that wasteful production and distribution of dangerous hydrogen?” She tightened her jaw and in a flat voice declared, “Electric cars will never be practical.”

Urban Farmer Scott Kellog Conducts A Tour Of The Radix Center Greenhouse

Urban Farmer Scott Kellog Conducts
A Tour Of The Radix Center Greenhouse

2) Touring the Radix Center

The next weekend after the Bike Expo I visited the fair and open house at the Radix Center, the model urban farm located at Warren Street across Lincoln Park from my house. It had been some years since I had toured the Ecological Sustainability Center as it’s called, which is spread over several formerly unwanted abandoned formerly industrial lots. It was looking very interesting last time I toured it, lately it has become downright impressive.

This is a project of Scott Kellogg and his partner Stacy Pettigrew. A while back Mr. Kellogg told me that when he was a lot younger, he and several other folks took over some abandoned lots in a burned out industrial neighborhood in Austin, Texas and created an urban farm that lasted ten years. But their success helped fuel gentrification which made the land that they had appropriated valuable again, so they were forcibly evicted so as to accommodate land speculators and all of their work was destroyed.

Not completely discouraged, Mr. Kellogg made his way to Albany’s South End and, having learned from his mistakes, made sure this time to secure ownership of the lots and to partner with the City government as much as possible. As a result we now have a small working farm in the neighborhood which provides both farm produce and educational opportunities for both kids and for any adult who wants to imitate these urban farming techniques on their own properties or indoors in their apartments.

Testing A Soil Sample For Lead

Testing A Soil Sample For Lead

The fair featured tables devoted to food and farming by various concerns. At one table I was induced to eat a pile of kale and a roasted beet, neither of which I normally eat and had to force down my throat. I tried to get the taste out of my mouth with some store bought cookies, but I did not go across Warren Street to buy a hotdog at the fundraising table for AVillage. I still don’t know why people willingly eat kale and beets if they are not starving but I suppose they’re good for you.

During the prior few weeks Radix, AVillage and the new Community College were distributing lead soil testing kits, the samples of which were analyzed at a table free of charge. This was done by “baking” each sample with x-rays for 30 seconds in a machine that looked kinda like a toaster oven. The folks operating them didn’t know how the machines work, but I assume they use a klystron tube just like a microwave oven but tuned to x-rays instead of microwaves.

Some Of The Raised Bed Plots

Some Of The Raised Bed Plots

Mr. Kellogg conducted tours of the grounds and of the big greenhouse. When I last toured the Center much of the lot was still unused and there were patches of asphalt all over the place. At that time he assured me that he had plans for every square inch of the place, which has turned out to be quite true. Although the Center is not quite running out of space yet I could see that happening in the near future.

What Mr. Kellogg is doing is not merely demonstrating new farming technologies and techniques to urban residents, but perhaps more importantly he is educating his neighbors about interconnected systems, how they work to create sustainable food production. For instance, there’s the aquaculture tank loaded with a variety of fish, the water kept clean by fast growing water hyacinth which eats the ammonia generated by the fish, and the hyacinth produces oxygen for the fish. The tank provides a steady supply of fish and also fresh hyacinth to feed the animals.

Yes, there is a pen with chickens, ducks and goats, a bit crowded but they all seemed content coexisting together. They certainly looked well-fed and happy that day. We were assured that the animals were for eggs and milk only, they were not slaughtered for meat. I know that’s true because most of the animals had names, farmers who raise animals for meat never do that because they don’t want to get attached to the animals.

The Duckapoopalator In Action

The Duckapoopalator In Action

He is enthusiastic about duck eggs, which are much larger than chicken eggs. The problem with ducks is that unlike chickens they need a lot of water, but the damn things habitually poop in their water. This makes intensive farming of ducks in a confined space difficult. Mr. Kellog’s solution to this problem is simple and elegant, a device he calls a Duckpoopalator.

Very simply, the water basin for the ducks is drained by a small electric pump into a stand of willow bush, which is fast growing and can get as high as 30 feet. The willow acts as a filter eating the duck poop, and drains into another tank that in warm weather also contains hyacinths to further filter the water, which we saw that the animals eat enthusiastically. Then the water trickles back into the duck tank clean again. Very simple.

Explaining The Compost Heating system

Explaining The Compost Heating system

Another even more impressive experimental system was developed by a class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to heat the big greenhouse during the winter. Right outside of the building is a round compost pile inside a wire fence about 4 feet high and maybe 15 feet across. Compost piles generate heat in their interior, when they are this big the temperature in the middle of the pile gets up to around 165 degrees fahrenheit.

The compost pile is composed of layers of plant material, sawdust and other stuff to maximize heat, and tubing filled with plain old water spirals through the interior, which is pulled into the greenhouse with a pump. Mr. Kellogg tells us the water that arrives in the building is about ten degrees hotter than what comes out of the passive solar heating tanks filled with water that sit along the upper level of the greenhouse. As a result of these systems the small conventional heater is only used on the very coldest of days in the winter.

There are big tanks that collect water off the sloped roof, these supply pretty much all the water for the operation. Rainwater is very clean and unlike municipal water does not contain chlorine, which is not a substance you want to add to things that depend on beneficial bacteria because chlorine kills the germs. Even so, last year Radix finally got a City hookup of water, I’d be interested to know if there are plans to purify that water for use on the farm.

How To Farm Edible Mushrooms At Almost No Cost

How To Farm Edible Mushrooms At Almost No Cost

One thing that interested me was mushrooms. The local coffee shops actually pay Mr. Kellogg to pick up their used coffee grounds, which among other things he puts into five gallon buckets with the paper filters and uses them to grow edible fungi. Since The Wife and I drink a lot of coffee (it’s good for you, you know) and I just throw the grounds on our backyard mulch pile, I’m thinking about experimenting with some buckets in the basement. Mushrooms grow in a matter of weeks on coffee and cardboard in darkness, all they need is water.

On the Way to See the Bees

On the Way to See the Bees

One tragic note, it seems the honeybees which Radix uses for pollination did not survive this past winter. Mr. Kellogg did not seem sure why they perished, but honeybees are dying probably because of neonicotinoid pesticides or perhaps because of genetically modified plants that are engineered to produce Bt bug toxins. As Mr. Kellogg put it, “Honeybees are an invader species, but even after 400 years they are still not adapted to all the native North American organisms.” I thought that was a generous assessment.

Recycling the Honey

Recycling the Honey

In any case, he has a new collection of hives, the bees are a curious darker color than the ones I’ve known. He says they range up to two miles, but I haven’t seen any in my neighborhood on the other side of the park yet. (Honeybees are tame and will not sting unless massively provoked.) He had the combs produced by the late lamented bees draining honey into buckets so the new bees could collect the honey for their own use.

And that’s just some of the amazing things to see and learn about at the Radix Center, there’s a lot more. I highly recommend taking one of their monthly Saturday open houses, Mr. Kellogg conducts very entertaining and informative tours of the farm, and also conducts workshops and classes in urban farming for anyone who is interested. In addition Radix partners with the surrounding community, providing recycling services and in particular working with youth groups.

3) Stop the Bomb Trains!

Later that afternoon I went over to the Greater St. John’s Church Of God In Christ (or St. John’s COGIC) over on 4th Avenue near the entrance to the Port of Albany, a spacious building which was built just a few years ago. The congregation is presided over by Pastor McKinley Johnson, son of the legendary Jack Johnson, who during the middle of the 20th Century led black folks from Mississippi to settle in the South End of Albany. (This is why we have an annual Mississippi Day celebration in Lincoln Park, not because anyone wants to go back to that third world country but so that folks can remember what they left behind and appreciate what they now have.)

Bishop Charles E. Blake Of Greater St. John’s COGIC Declares The Church’s Strong Support For Opposing The Bomb Trains

Bishop Charles E. Blake Of Greater St. John’s COGIC Declares The Church’s Strong Support For Opposing The Bomb Trains

Along with about 50 other people at the church I attended an informational meeting about a social justice action being planned for nearby that may have far-reaching international implications. Seriously. The plan is to occupy the railroad tracks and stop the explosive oil trains from delivering their loads in the Port of Albany. As of that day of the meeting I understand that some 800 people, some from very far away, had already signed up online to participate in this action. I’m sure there will be a lot more than that showing up on May 14th.

What I learned at the meeting is that during the action nobody is going to get run over by the trains and nobody who behaves reasonably is going to get teargassed by the cops and dragged off to jail. The organization that has organized this, (Three Fifty Dot Org as we call it) in partnership with local activist organizations, has been very careful to meet with local officials and law enforcement to make sure there will be no unnecessary confrontations. And it’s important to note that the trains don’t speed through here like they do in the suburbs, if somebody gets run over there will be hell to pay by the railroad.

Railroad Tracks At The Entrance To The Port Of Albany:  Where The Action Will Take Place On May 14

Railroad Tracks At The Entrance To The Port Of Albany: Where The Action Will Take Place On May 14

The very interesting thing revealed by these meetings is that just about everybody in authority supports this action! I’ve heard from various sources that the organizers, which include former Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro, have met with Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, who strongly supports the action, and have met with Albany Police Chief Brendan Cox to coordinate security. I even heard a story that Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan wanted to go down there to give a speech but was talked out of it by her advisors because there’ll be acts of civil disobedience and that might not look good if The Mayor was present.

I’ve also repeatedly heard that most first responders, the cops and the firefighters and the medical people are all in favor of this action to stop the oil trains from unloading in the Port. The reason is very simple. If some of these oil “bomb trains” explode or if one of these barges tips over and spills millions of gallons of Bakken Crude into the Hudson, it’s the politicians who will have their butts on the line and it will be the first responders who will have to pick up the bodies and deal with a mess that may very well be impossible to clean up.

The organizers met with Port of Albany chief commissioner John Bulgaro to plan for the disruptions, and I’m told by a reliable source that the port commissioners are less than enthusiastic about the oil that’s moving through the port. It seems that the port only makes money off the actual loading of oil onto the barges. The rest of the operation, which takes up much space at the port, does them no financial benefit, and if there is a spill or an explosion the port could be knocked out of service for an indefinite period without much compensation.

Henry And Maeve Of Explain The Upcoming Timeline Of Actions

Henry And Maeve Of Explain
The Upcoming Timeline Of Actions

A detail that needs to be mentioned is that the oil moving through the Port of Albany provides few if any jobs to the citizens of Albany. It only takes two persons to load the oil onto the barges, and these jobs are provided by outside contractors that are not located in the City, and of course the crew of two on board the barges are Global employees brought in from far away. Thus, in return for all this risk to our greater community and to our local environment, we don’t get any jobs nor do we get any substantial financial benefit.

And of course there are the local citizens who live in the South End who will be murdered and made homeless by an “accident.” Running these unstable bomb trains so close to densely populated neighborhoods reflects a long standing attitude toward the South End, that those of us who live here are not important and our lives don’t matter. Well, for the last fifteen years the citizens of the South End have been developing pride and have been learning to fight back against planned degradation of our community, this with the help of homegrown organizations like Greater St. John’s and AVillage, and of course People of Albany United for Safe Energy (PAUSE.)

Last year I reported how the explosive gases that the irresponsibly murderous fossil fuel Corporations fracking in North Dakota had been loading onto the train cars had been quietly eliminated, thus eliminating the possibility of a horrible explosion like those Corporate frackers caused in Lac Magantic. But a more conventional type explosion, as happened in Virginia a few years ago, is still all too likely. And both Global and Buckeye, the two big oil movers situated at the port, are still angling for the installation of dangerous heating equipment so that they can bring thick, gooey low quality Canadian tar sands oil onto the Hudson River.

Greater St. John’s COGIC Could Get Blown To Bits Along With Many Nearby Neighbors If The Bomb Trains Explode

Greater St. John’s COGIC Could Get Blown To Bits Along With Many Nearby Neighbors If The Bomb Trains Explode

After a lull in the number of trains clattering through Albany due to the collapsing price of oil, South End residents are reporting that the number of train bomb cars is on the increase as oil prices increase again. This is because a federal law prohibiting export of domestic oil. which has been in place since 1972, has been quietly repealed and now oil can be exported and dumped on the world market. Albany is now the terminus through which oil is sent out of this country by these speculators.

So despite the falling demand for fossil fuel world wide, the Corporations are now depleting US stocks of oil, which has the effect of artificially driving up the domestic price of gasoline at the pumps. This exporting of oil has caused the onerous Corporate tax on each barrel of oil to reappear and steadily climb. Or, as the Associated Press (AP) and other Corporate Media outfits put it, the price of oil and the price of gasoline at the pumps is “recovering.”

Now, despite official approval there’s no way I’m going to be lying down on no damned railroad tracks or risk getting dragged off to jail, I plan to be there to watch and cheer and snap photos but that’s about it. But on the day before, on May 13, there’s going to be another action I expect to happily join. That is, if the weather is good and the temperature of the Hudson River is high enough for me to tolerate.

Daily Scene At Ezra Prentice Homes On South Pearl Street

Daily Scene At Ezra Prentice Homes On South Pearl Street

This is being called Hands Across the Hudson, a chain of kayaks stretching across the river. I’m assured this is a symbolic act only, again no way am I putting my kayak containing my body in the path of an oil barge being shoved by a tugboat. Those suckers are big. Supposedly when we are all in position we are going to put down our paddles and link hands, which will be kind of hard to do even in calm water. Plus there will have to be so many kayaks that they are touching each other’s sides, but there may be that many kayaks present, we’ll see.

Also I’m not exactly sure where the launching point for this is supposed to be, somewhere on the Rensselaer side of the river not far from the Port. The Wife and I often shove off our boats at the mud flats at Island Creek Park in the South End of Albany, that would be close enough to the action. We might do that because I suspect there will be quite a crowd trying to get their boats into the water all at once, I hope the organizers are on top of that.

But at the root of these demonstrations is the position of PAUSE, that we the taxpayers should not be subsidizing the declining fossil fuel Corporations. Instead, we should be directing our tax dollars toward the rapidly expanding renewable technologies that have already made some fossil fuel applications obsolete. And that is the message at the bottom of these actions planned for May 13 - 14, we need to stop encouraging these fossil fuel corporations to endanger our lives and instead spend our taxes on building a better, safer renewable infrastructure.


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Posted by:David Camp
Posted on:05/02/2016
Agree the hydrogen-fueled vehicle utilizing internal combustion is undesirable. Electric vehicles (and other equipment) have more torque and are quiet. Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, however, are even better. Hydrogen safety and synthesis are ultimately non-issues. Hydrogen can be produced using renewables from water via electrolysis, among other methods. The Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle is now being tested on California roads with forty hydrogen dispensaries expected by the end of this year:

Posted by:Dan Van Riper
Posted on:05/02/2016
Dave - The hydrogen car I'd looked at all those years ago had hydrogen filling a tank like you would a gasoline car, which is terrifyingly dangerous. If you forget to ground your body while filling the tank the vehicle will explode into a fireball. Not maybe, it will.

The Toyota in the link you give, as I'm reading it, is fueled by a removable bulky looking sealed tanks of hydrogen that have to be replaced every 312 miles (so they say.) These tanks are made of polymer on the inside, carbon fiber body and glass fiber polymer on the outside so that they are less likely to explode. These fancy things are discarded when you need to refuel with a new tank. In addition the vehicle has a whole row of emergency leak features that don't make me feel very safe, especially in an accident.

This tank fuels a fuel cell which has to be replaced once in a while, which in turn fuels a power control unit, which passes through a "boost converter", all this to run an electric motor and... drumroll please... it runs a battery like the ones that run electric cars, which from their description is absolutely necessary! All this to run an electric motor.

Plus, all this complication does not address the basic problem, producing hydrogen uses more energy than it stores. In current practice, large amounts of fossil fuel are burned to produce hydrogen. Recent articles I've read say that despite all kinds of taxpayer subsidized research, this problem of big net loss of energy is not going to be solved in the near future and may never be.

Imagine these vehicles on the road, maybe some of them are getting old and unreliable, or they are made by manufacturers who are less than rigorous with their safety standards (as Toyota claims to be) or despite all the testing or because of age or knocking around one of the safety backups fails. You have instant fireballs that vaporize the riders happening all over the place. The vehicles would make great targets for terrorists.

So why not skip all the middleman technology and skip the bulky tanks and skip the severe safety problems and skip the burning of fossil fuels and sidestep the control of hydrogen by the Corporations and just directly fuel the batteries with electricity, which is readily available from the grid or can be collected for free from the sun?

Posted by:David Camp
Posted on:05/07/2016
In the Toyota Mirai, the hydrogen fuel tanks are not changed-out, but refilled at the pump through the side of the car, like gasoline is now. In any case, both fuel cells and batteries need to be tested by consumers (as is now ongoing), to see which configuration ultimately proves to be the most desirable.

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