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Renewable Energy Co-op Races Toward Milestone Project

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Renewable Energy Co-op Races Toward Milestone Project

An innovative renewable energy cooperative in the Northeast is racing toward a June 1 deadline to finish the financing needed to build Northeast Biodiesel, a refinery that will make liquid fuel from waste vegetable oil collected from area restaurants and institutions.

Co-op Power is a member-owned cooperative that helps launch renewable and energy efficiency businesses that are owned in part by its 475 members.

Co-op Power is a member-owned cooperative that helps launch renewable and energy efficiency businesses that are owned in part by its 475 members (in full disclosure, I’m one) from five states in the Northeast. Its clever hack of the cooperative structure has given rise to a dozen plus such businesses in the last 10 years, from large solar arrays on food coops to crews of workers who tighten up homes and businesses against the elements, creating over 100 new green jobs in the region to date.

Its business model that roots equity in local economies has been written up widely and highlighted by authors like Michael Shuman in his great Local Dollars, Local Sense and in the community-owned power manual Power from the People by Greg Pahl (both essential reading published by Chelsea Green). Groups around the nation have since taken up the coop’s blueprint that leverages member equity with grants, loans and other financial instruments to create member and community-owned renewable energy assets.

The keystone project for Co-op Power is certainly the biodiesel refinery, which will make diesel and home heating oil from recycled vegetable oil collected in the area.

Refusing offers of venture capital and its attendant loss of ownership, the coop has soldiered on in grassroots fashion, raising the needed funds largely from members, friends and angel investors.

As reported this week, the coop “has raised and spent more than $2 million to date for the land, site work, foundation and building, installed tanks, equipment and a biodiesel processor. The group has received a building permit to complete construction. In the past few months, Co-op Power has hired a general manager and has completed final engineering designs and received construction bids. Once funds have been secured, final plans will be submitted to the town for the final permit.”

It needs a final $850,000 to close that deal, which itself is a case study in ‘patient capital.’ Originally projected to be operational in 2006 or 2007, the Wall Street-generated economic crash of 2008 set the bio-refinery plans back by many years when grassroots supporters lacked cash to invest and traditional partners like banks became allergic to new ideas.

Refusing offers of venture capital and its attendant loss of ownership, the coop has soldiered on in grassroots fashion, raising the needed funds largely from members, friends and angel investors. With a startup capacity of 5,000 gallons of biodiesel a day created from used cooking oil, Northeast Biodiesel will sell to the transportation and home heating markets (the fuel is identical to home heating oil and can be blended to a high degree with its fossil-based counterpart). Once operational, the plant should be able to add a second processor within a year, for a total capacity of 3.5 million gallons a year.

Now Co-op Power is looking for new members and partners as it brings its signature project to the next level. While I feel that one shouldn’t use overuse the term ‘amazing,’ this project and the huge community effort it’s taken to get it to this point certainly is.

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The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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