Article 2: The
Back Door to Renewables*
Part 1: Why We Did It
We came to renewable energy by way of nature and ecology. For years, we've worked with the natural environment and ecological restoration; in the mid 1960s, we started our first prairie planting.
We manage about 20 acres of oak woodland and pasture (that we hope some day to convert to savanna), 20 acres of prairie planted on former cropland, 13 acres recently planted in bottomland forest, and two tiny parcels of original sandstone prairie remnants on our property. We've encouraged native species and tried to eliminate aliens, especially noxious ones.
About 20 years ago, we noticed a new plant appearing in our woods: it looked like a cross between violets and creeping charlie, and it smelled like onions. Using an old botany book, we identified it as garlic mustard, originally from England. It has been in North America for over 200 years. We soon realized that it was spreading widely, developing dense new patches where none had been the year before.
We checked with colleagues who were familiar with it, and soon realized that it was becoming a widespread nuisance, crowding out native flora. In some places almost nothing else grew. We planned strategies for control. Pulling was first. For several years, we spent the first two weeks after the end of each spring semester pulling garlic mustard. Soon we developed allergic reactions, and had to limit our work to two hours a day, dragging out the pulling process interminably.
Burning was suggested as a possible control measure, so in early spring we burned the woods. This has not only limited the garlic mustard, it has enhanced the native flora, which are flourishing in great carpets on the forest floor. Eventually, we resorted to to spot use of herbicides.
As we exhausted ourselves trying to eradicate the scourge, we wondered why, after two centuries, it had suddenly exploded. Our theory was that changes in the overall ecosystem, probably the ecosystem, has caused plants such as garlic mustard to suddenly increase in numbers after years of being relatively unnoticed.
Then we discovered research being done in Minnesota, which supported our theory. Although plants need nitrogen to grow, native plants in some of our ecosystems thrive where this nutrient is limited, while weedy alien species, sometimes being referred to as nitrogen hogs, thrive where it is abundant. Garlic mustard is one of those plants.
Since fossil fuel use is responsible for most of that excess nitrogen, we realized that retaining high quality natural areas required limiting fossil fuel use. Renewable enrage sources were the alternative.
We became officers of the newly formed Illinois Renewable Energy Association. In March 2001, the IREA sponsored a one-day seminar informing homeowners about photovoltaics and encouraging them to consider it for their own lives. Of course, we were asked if we used it ourselves. It was time for us to take action.
A month later, we installed the first half of a 1.5-kilowatt photovoltaic system. The next fall, we completed it.
Next: Our installation.
Note: Recent research indicates that global warming, also the result of fossil fuel use, is changing the majority of species studied in North America and Europe. Warming might also encourage garlic mustard.
* This article was previously published in The Rock River Times newspaper.