The back door to renewables—Part 1: Why we did it

The back door to renewables—Part 1: Why we did it

By Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl

President/Vice President Illinois Renewable Energy

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 someday to convert to savannah), 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 smelled like onions. Using an old botany book, we identified it as garlic mustard, originally from England. It had been in North America for more than 200 years. We soon realized that it was spreading wildly, 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 garlic mustard, it has enhanced the native flora, which are flourishing in great carpets on the forest floor. Eventually, we resorted to spot use of herbicides.

As we exhausted ourselves trying to eradicate the scourge, we wondered why, after more than two centuries, it had suddenly exploded. Our theory was that changes in the overall ecosystem, probably the atmosphere, had caused plants such as garlic mustard to suddenly increase in numbers after years of being relatively unnoticed.

Then we discovered research in Minnesota that 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 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 energy 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 encouraged them to consider it for their own lives. Of course, we were asked whether 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.

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