Renewable Energy Archive

It’s Time to Reinvent Fire!

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

The old fire, the one Prometheus stole from the gods way back when, is undeniably awesome. It heats our homes, cooks our food, and now, in the info-tech-saturated 21st century, it powers our Google mail and our Facebook, arguably the most revolutionary social tools since amish friendship bread…

But it’s also hot, dirty, and you just simply cannot have it without producing greenhouse gasses. They’re sort of automatically part of the equation when you’re burning something. Don’t you remember balancing equations in high school chemistry class? No? Believe me, it’s not possible.

Which is why it’s time to overhaul the whole shebang. And it’s why we’re so excited to share with you our first review for Rocky Mountain Institute’s new book, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era

Hazel Henderson, author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, has just reviewed the book over at Seeking Alpha.

In “Reinventing Fire,” Amory Lovins and RMI are summarizing their case for shifting from digging and drilling to collecting our energy as nature does by photosynthesis and other chemical and thermal processes: from the daily photon shower arriving free from our sun. This book is meticulously researched, relying on their own scientific team as well as many outside studies.

“Reinventing Fire” is an essential, in-depth summary of all the evidence of the great energy transition now under way. …We think the transition is inevitable, a result of better science and technologies and a huge opportunity for a prosperous, fair, equitable, sustainable future for all.

 Read the entire review here.

Solar Interview with Energy Policy Expert Paul Gipe

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

The interview below appeared originally online at

Paul Gipe is an expert on wind energy and energy policy, and is among the foremost advocates for European-style feed-in tariff policies in the United States. He has written extensively about renewable energy for both the popular and trade press, including regular updates on global developments of feed-in tariff policies for his site

His most recent book, Wind Energy Basics: A Guide to Home- and Community-Scale Wind Energy Systems, was published by Chelsea Green in May, 2009.

In 2004, Mr. Gipe served as the acting executive director of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association where he created, managed, and implemented a provincial campaign for Advanced Renewable Tariffs. The campaign sought to adapt electricity feed laws to the North American market and was instrumental in placing the European concept on the political agenda in Canada and the United States.

Mr. Gipe first publicly called for a feed law in the US in his campaign for the board of directors of the American Wind Energy Association in 1998.

Solar Server: How do you feel the disaster at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant is affecting renewable energy policy globally, and particularly national government appetites for feed-in tariffs?

Paul Gipe: Well, I think the most interesting development is in Germany, and I think that we will see if the coalition government will come out with new policies to increase the installation of wind energy in Germany. I think that is one very positive development, elsewhere, particularly in the United States, we still have our head in the sand, and continue business as usual.

Solar Server: In terms of the feed-in tariff policies which have been passed or modified over the last year, which ones do you see as the most promising, and why?

Paul Gipe: I continue to find the German program the model for the rest of the world to follow, in part because they have been able handle the explosive growth of solar PV. And have been able to accept that growth and regulate that growth in a responsible manner by a dialing down of the tariff in interim steps and in creating a growth corridor that they use to increase the degression to reduce the growth rate – the most responsible means of regulating the potentially explosive growth of solar PV.

The next most sophisticated program is in Ontario, Canada, modeled of course after the European programs.

And a very interesting development is that in Uganda. Uganda has a feed-in tariff policy that could be useful to states in the United States. It’s not often that the United States looks to deepest, darkest Africa for a model program, but it might be wise for us to do so.

Continue reading this article at

Wind Energy Basics by Paul Gipe is available now.

Atomic Energy: Climate Fix…or Folly?

Saturday, March 19th, 2011

Nuclear power is on everyone’s minds at the moment as our eyes remain fixed on the crisis in Japan. Earth Island Journal printed the following debate on nuclear energy between Stewart Brand and Amory Lovins in their Winter 2011 issue. Amory is co-author of a forthcoming book from Chelsea Green, due out in fall of 2011, entitled Reinventing Fire.

Nuclear vs. Renewables

In the 1970s and 80s, halting the expansion of nuclear power was a key priority for many environmental groups. But with global greenhouse gas levels continuing to rise, some greens say that carbon-free nuclear power plants deserve a second look. In an energy-hungry world, is splitting the atom smarter than burning fossil fuels? Stewart Brand thinks so, and says that concerns about nuclear waste are overwrought. Amory Lovins disagrees, arguing that cheaper, faster, more effective, more secure climate and energy solutions can deliver the services the world needs.

Nuclear Power is Safe, Sound…and Green
by Stewart Brand

Since he first published the seminal Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, Stewart Brand has been a leading thinker about how to create an ecologically sustainable society. More recently, he has been encouraging environmentalists to rethink their opposition to geo-engineering, transgenic crops, and nuclear power.

For the definite word on how much to worry about climate change, environmentalists in American have taken to relying on James Hansen, NASA’s outspoken climatologist. When Hansen declared that we must not settle for leveling off carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm) but must take the level down from the current 387 ppm to 350 ppm or lower, the new environmentalist slogan became “350!”

Environmentalists take no notice of Hansen’s views on nuclear power, however. As President Obama was taking office, Hansen wrote him an open letter suggesting new policy to deal with the climate crisis. Hansen proposed what America needed: a carbon tax “across all fossil fuels at their source”; the phasing out of all coal-fired plants; and “urgent R&D on 4th generation nuclear power, with international cooperation.” He warned: “The danger is that the minority of vehement anti-nuclear ‘environmentalists’ could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed such that utilities are forced to continue coal-burning in order to keep the lights on. That is a prescription for disaster.”

Environmentalists have much less to fear from the current nuclear power industry than they think, and much more to gain from new and planned reactor designs than they realize. Hansen is right: Nukes are Green. Here’s how. …more…

Nuclear Nonsense
by Amory B. Lovins

Dubbed one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People by TIME, physicist Amory Lovins has spent 40 years integrating radical energy efficiency with renewable supply. He is cofounder, chairman, and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent “think-and-do tank” that drives the efficient and restorative use of resources.

I have known Stewart Brand as a friend for many years. I have admired his original and iconoclastic work, which has had a significant impact. In his new book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, he argues that environmentalists should change their thinking about nuclear power, and predicts that I won’t accept his nuclear reassessment. He is quite right, because I believe its conclusions are greatly mistaken.

Stewart’s nuclear chapter’s facts and logic do not hold up to scrutiny. Over the past few years I’ve sent him five technical papers focused mainly on nuclear power’s comparative economics and performance. He says he’s read them, and even summarizes part of their economic thesis in his book. Yet he then says, “We Greens are not economists,” and disclaims knowledge of economics, saying environmentalists use it only as a weapon to stop projects. Today, most dispassionate analysts think new nuclear power plants’ deepest flaw is their economics. They cost too much to build and incur too much financial risk. Nuclear expansion therefore can’t deliver on its claims: It would reduce and retard climate protection, because it saves between two and 20 times less carbon per dollar, 20 to 40 times slower, than investing in efficiency and micropower. …more…

Read the original article at Image above left courtesy of Rocky Mountain Institute.

To learn more about Reinventing Fire, visit RMI’s website and check back soon.

Stephen and Rebekah Hren discuss A Solar Buyer’s Guide for the Home and Office

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Stephen and Rebekah Hren authored The Carbon-Free Home a couple of years back, and they’ve just released a new book entitled A Solar Buyer’s Guide for the Home and Office: Navigating the Maze of Solar Options, Incentives, and Installers.

This is an incredibly helpful guide for homeowners and small business owners who are interested in utilizing solar energy but are daunted by the wide array of options, systems, rebate programs and incentives out there (not to mention the intimidating price tag).

In the following video, Stephen and Rebekah give an introduction to the book and their motives for writing it, as well as detailing some of the excellent tips and tools readers will glean from it. Have a look!

Stephen & Rebekah Hren: Obama Sees the Light! Solar Coming to the White House

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Just two weeks ago we were whining and moaning over at Scientific American that Obama had refused free solar for the White House.

In the pantheon of cool presidents, this put him beneath Jimmy Carter, and probably lower than old codgers like the two Roosevelts. Well we’re happy to report he had a change of heart! We like to think Michelle got wind of this lemon of a decision and gave her beau a nice good boot to the rump. Solar for Everyone!

Even George W. Bush put up solar at the White House grounds, including the first ever solar electric system, coming in at around 9kW. Carter’s were just solar water heater panels, but they were actually on the White House, an important symbolic gesture that represented a belief in the future of the technology that Bush’s squirreled away PV didn’t give. In fact, it’s believed that the sole purpose of Bush’s solar electric system was actually to remotely power Cheney’s robot brain, stored many miles beneath the swamp of Washington.

This article appeared originally at The Carbon-Free Home blog.

Stephen and Rebekah Hren are the authors of, most recently, A Solar Buyer’s Guide for the Home and Office, available now.

Stephen and Rebekah Hren featured in Scientific American blog

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Sustainable living pioneers Stephen and Rebekah Hren were invited by Scientific American blogger George Musser (Solar At Home) to write a guest blog coinciding with the release of their new book, A Solar Buyer’s Guide for the Home and Office. Here’s the result.

Someone Please Tell the Obamas: Solar Works Now!
By George Musser
Sep 22, 2010 01:00 PM

Editor’s Note: Scientific American‘s George Musser has been chronicling his experiences installing solar panels in Solar at Home (formerly 60-Second Solar). Read his introduction here and see all posts here.

One of the hardest things about installing solar panels is getting good information, so I’m happy to report that a new book by fellow solar bloggers Stephen and Rebekah Hren, A Solar Buyer’s Guide, is coming out in a couple of weeks. I invited them to write a guest blog on where they think home solar technology stands.

Many people feel inclined to wait on the sidelines until some breakthrough makes solar energy “work” or until it becomes “affordable.” Some of those people are apparently the Obamas, who have refused to allow free installation of solar panels on their roof! But even though solar installations are generally not free, they are still a good deal.

We are quite capable of designing buildings and lives in a sustainable way powered by the sun, and much of the basic technology goes back millennia. Yet historically it has taken a crisis of energy supply or ecological devastation to encourage widespread use of solar energy. After they had burned all there accessible forests, ancient Romans developed the heliocaminus, or “sun furnace,” a south-facing room that heated their homes in winter. Similarly, once the British had eliminated their woodlands during the late Middle Ages, they also discovered the joys of solar heating. Access to the sun became a fundamental right in Britain for any building, eventually codified in the Law of Ancient Lights. Today, the impetus comes from global climate disruption and the peaking of per-capita fossil energy supplies.

Hren's 1932 bungalow with various forms of solar energy Why solar has been regarded as a technology of last resort is a mystery to us, because it can be extremely cost-effective. We can harvest the sun’s energy in multiple ways. Instead of just using solar energy to heat our homes in winter, we can heat our water, cook our food, and of course convert solar energy into electricity. You can make your home carbon-free, as we have done with our 1932 bungalow (see photo above), or you can put up a solar water heater or smaller photovoltaic (PV) system that offsets only some of your home’s or office’s fossil energy use.

Cost-effectiveness depends not only on a wide array of varying federal, state, and local incentives, but also on the efficiency of the system. Turning solar energy into heat is simpler and typically more efficient than converting it to electricity, so paybacks on solar water heaters are often quicker than for PV systems, but check out your local situation before making any assumptions. Some areas have spectacular incentives for PV at the moment. While a system of patchwork incentives is obviously less than ideal, until the mammoth subsidies and tax breaks for the fossil fuel industries are removed and a carbon cap or tax is established to account for their detrimental effects, such breaks for solar energy allow it to be on a more level playing field. They help create economies of scale and drive technological progress that should help reduce prices in the future.

Technology is advancing all the time. One very cool gadget that is now being incorporated into solar electric panels is the microinverter, a topic of past Solar at Home blog posts (here and here). These sophisticated gizmos are capable of converting the DC juice being pumped out by each individual PV module directly into AC power right there at the module.

One huge advantage of the microinverter is that it mitigates shading problems on the PV array. When installed on the roof, an array will often suffer from partial shading some time during the day due to trees, another building, chimneys, and so on. Conventionally, the output from an array of PV modules is sent to one main inverter, and even small amounts of shade can have disproportionately large effects on the electricity output due to the way the modules and arrays are wired. Without microinverters, the shading of just one PV module could possibly disrupt production for the whole array. But with microinverters, the production from the shaded modules can be isolated, allowing the solar juice to keep flowing from the rest of the array.

Using microinverters, PV array wiring is faster and more straightforward, and the power is easier to shut off in an emergency. Microinverters also allow web-based production monitoring of individual PV modules, providing entertainment when the office gets slow. Maybe no one explained these nifty things to the White House.

As the novelist William Gibson quipped, the future is here now; it’s just not widely distributed yet. The technology to harvest solar energy effectively is already available, but it’s up to us to make its implementation a priority, despite what our First Family does. From high-tech gadgetry like the new microinverters to the more prosaic technologies that can heat our buildings and hot water, solar energy is varied in what it can accomplish. There’s no need to wait for some theoretical time in the future, because solar power is here and ready now.

Photo: The Hren’s home, courtesy of them

Stephen and Rebekah Hren are the authors of The Carbon-Free Home, and, most recently, A Solar Buyer’s Guide for the Home and Office, available now.

Citizen Powered Energy Handbook, An Excerpt

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook; Community Solutions to a Global Crisis, by Greg Pahl.

In this excerpt, the problem of fossil-fueled energy is summarized, as are many renewably-sourced solutions. Pahl makes a point of distinguishing large, corporate renewable energy installations from community-scaled, community-supported models. Even in progressive, environmentally-attuned places like Vermont, towns can find good reasons to oppose sustainable energy projects that are out of scale with their needs.

Pahl says,

“Don’t get me wrong, given the choice between a large, corporate-owned coal-fired power plant or a large, corporate-owned wind farm, the obvious choice is the wind farm, regardless of who owns it. And…there is no question that large companies are going to have a role to play. But that’s no reason to exclude smaller…community projects that are far more effective in promoting distributed-generation strategies.”

Read the entire excerpt from Chapter 8: The Community Solution.

Claim your energy independence! Get a copy of this book in our bookstore.

Feed-in Tariffs Best for Spurring Investment in Renewable Energy, Says SEMI

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

By Paul Gipe

Originally published on his blog at

The world’s semiconductor manufacturers have now waded in with another of a cavalcade of recent reports on why feed-in tariffs are best for spurring investment and innovation in renewable energy.

The reports, papers, and briefing notes on the role of feed-in tariffs are starting to pile up. If reason alone won’t prevail in the North American policy debate maybe the sheer weight of reports will.

The latest is SEMI’s white paper Advancing a Sustainable Solar Future: Policy Principles and Recommended Best Practices for Solar Feed-in Tariffs.

SEMI (Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International) is the trade association representing the semiconductor industry. They’re not exactly bit players on the world stage of industrial development.

The association’s release by its PV Group announcing the report summarizes its contents succinctly.

“The White Paper shows that feed-in tariffs are the single best policy approach to spur growth of the PV industry. The continued spread of national feed-in tariffs that are stable, transparent, and substantial will fuel the rapid PV market growth the world requires and support new investment in the emerging solar economy.”

To reassure reviewers that SEMI was serious about its views on feed-in tariffs, the report opens with a specific statement that the trade group’s board of directors authorized the report.

As any good business report should, the white paper clearly states SEMI’s position. SEMI “supports the development of feed-in tariffs as the most effective means to ensure sustained growth for the PV industry and rapidly realize the benefits of large-scale solar energy deployment.”

Lest they be labeled cranks on the far margins of energy policy, SEMI was quick to note the “proliferation of feed-in tariffs” globally and that SEMI was “pleased to join other industry organizations that support feed-in tariffs, such as the International Solar Energy Society (ISES), the European Photovoltaic Industries Association, Solar Alliance, and many others.”

The heart of SEMI’s report are simple clear explanations of key design features of successful feed-in tariff policies that policy makers can emulate. These “best practices” include.

  • tariffs differentiated by technology,
  • tariffs based on the cost of generation,
  • equitable rules on interconnection and the sale of generation,
  • fixed-price tariffs with long-term contracts, and
  • predictable degression of the tariffs over time.

The latter is particularly important for solar PV, the most expensive of the new renewable technology being developed today.

In North America, only Ontario, Vermont, and possibly Washington State come close to SEMI’s best practices requirements. Neither California’s so-called feed-in tariff nor the “voluntary” tariffs in the upper Midwest would qualify.

In addition to the best design practices, the report also summarizes the tariffs for solar PV worldwide. While most in the trade are aware of the solar PV tariffs in Germany, France, and Spain, many do not know that the former east block offer far more aggressive tariffs than typically found across North America outside Vermont and Ontario. Here’s a sample of tariffs from the former east block converted to US dollars with the contract terms.

  • Bulgaria: $0.62/kWh, 25 years
  • Croatia: $0.68/kWh, 12 years
  • Czech Republic: $0.74/kWh, 20 years
  • Slovakia: $0.41/kWh, 12 years
  • Slovenia: $0.61/kWh, 15 years

Even more surprising is what some sunny European countries pay. These are countries that don’t get the same press attention as Spain.

  • Italy: $0.71/kWh, 20 years
  • Portugal: $0.62/kWh, 15 years

It should be reassuring to Ontarians that SEMI’s research confirms that the Ontario Power Authority’s tariff for rooftop systems less than 10 kW, $0.76 USD/kWh, while higher than anywhere else in North America, is substantially less than that being paid in sunny Italy and Portugal for an equivalent yield.

To reiterate their findings for both the media and policy makers, Dan Martin of SEMI’s PV Group emphasized in their release that “There is now broad consensus among both the renewable energy policy-making and the financial communities that feed-in tariffs are one of the most powerful solar energy policy tools available.”

Policy endorsements don’t get much stronger than that.

The question now becomes how long will we have to wait before the wind and geothermal industries issue similar unequivocal conclusions.


Passenger Trains: The Future of Transportation?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Our friends over at PlanetGreen recently interviewed author James McCommons about the future of passenger railroad. They wondered: is it bright?

With the doom and gloom of climate change and the frightening post-peak oil reality, it’s hard to understand why the US is so far behind the times when it comes to trains. Whatever happened to the days of cross-country landscapes zooming by from a sleeper car? Or how about just plain old common sense, sustainable mass transit? It’s crucial to consider the future of transportation in this country. So while we’re shelling out gazillions in gas money (depleting what little reserves we actually have), passenger trains are rusting on their tracks–and what a waste it is.

Planet Green spoke with author James McCommons, whose new book Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service asks–quite rightly–why has the world’s greatest railroad nation turned its back on the form of transportation that made modern life and mobility possible? And, more importantly–what can we do to revive it?

Planet Green: During the crazy year of 2008–when gas prices reached $4 a gallon, Amtrak set ridership records, and a commuter train collided with a freight train in California–you spent a year on America’s trains. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to the system, and what made you want to spend a full year learning more about it?

James McCommons: I’ve been an Amtrak rider since 1975 when I was going to college, so I have long experience with the current system and used it to travel all over the country in the intervening years. Although I’ve had some great train trips, many were marred by late arrivals, missed connections, and traveling on run-down equipment. In 2007, I took a cross country trip on the California Zephyr that was both wonderful and frustrating, illustrating many of the contradictions of rail travel in America. At the end of that trip, I asked myself, “Why hasn’t the rail system gotten any better and is there any hope that it ever will?” I took a sabbatical from my teaching position at Northern Michigan University to research and write the book. As a side benefit, I got to ride a lot of trains and see a lot of country.

PG: What surprised you most about the U.S. train system?

JM: That it isn’t entirely dysfunctional. In regions of the country, such as California and parts of the Midwest, where Amtrak is supported by states and where their departments of transportation have worked out cooperative relationships with the big freight railroads–who own nearly all the tracks–Amtrak actually runs a pretty good service. I was gratified to meet people–including some at Amtrak–who understand passenger railroading quite well and know what needs to be done to move it forward.

DOTs [Departments of Transportation] in Wisconsin, Washington, North Carolina, and Illinois are starting to see rail as a solution to their surface transportation problems. These DOTs understand that they have to be more than just highway departments because we can’t move people and goods efficiently by just building more roads and adding lanes to the interstates. So they are beginning to build rail expertise in their staffs, putting money into infrastructure, working with the freight railroads, and even purchasing trains themselves because the feds and Amtrak can’t supply the rolling stock. Amtrak simply operates these state-supported trains. These states and their corridor services are really models for what can be done across the nation.


Read the entire article here.

Take a Trip Down Memory Lane…And Get On A Train

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons

California Zephyr: here come your game boys and microwaves

The odyssey began in early 2007 when I got a magazine-writing assignment that would take me from my home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Seattle, Washington. I could have flown, but I asked the editor if she would pay for a train instead. Sure, she agreed, if the cost didn’t exceed a jet. It was a bit more, but I made up the difference because it was a chance to climb aboard a long-distance train again.

I also wanted to bring along Kelly, my oldest son, then thirteen, to introduce him to the landscapes of the West and to train travel, too. He barely remembered the trip we had taken from Toledo to Harrisburg when he was five, and I had not been on a train since.

When we boarded the California Zephyr at Chicago’s Union Station that March, I didn’t know this one trip would encompass so much of the promise in, and the trouble with, passenger-train service in the United States today. Having ridden Amtrak for some thirty years, I knew we would likely encounter some poor service, missed connections, long waits, and run-down equipment. Still, the train offered great scenery, the camaraderie of fellow passengers, a reprieve from driving or flying, a great safety record, and an exotic experience.

So few intercity passenger trains run today that most Americans have never boarded one. Amtrak doesn’t come through their town, or it comes just once a day—perhaps in the middle of the night—or every other day. Rarely is the train on time, and more recently, it’s often been filled and with no available seats. Where I live in the Upper Peninsula is isolated, and no matter how great a renaissance rail may undergo in this country, I don’t expect a passenger train will come that far north again for a long time.

Until 1969, the Chicago and North Western Railway’s Peninsula 400 ran between the Upper Peninsula and Chicago, making the trip in about six hours, an hour quicker than I can drive it doing the speed limit. But no more. The nearest railhead for a passenger train to me today is Milwaukee, 273 miles to the south. There, I could pick up the Hiawatha, an Amtrak success story. Making seven trips daily to downtown Chicago and back, the Hiawatha is a corridor train between major cities that are too close for efficient air service and connected by a deteriorating interstate highway filled past capacity.

The departments of transportation in Illinois and Wisconsin subsidize the Hiawatha service and have spent millions building stations and helping the Canadian Pacific expand its track system to accommodate both freight and passenger trains. The DOTs want to lure some commuters off the roadways, and also give people another mode of travel. The trains run on time. They are clean, filled with passengers, and increasingly popular since gas prices skyrocketed in 2008.

We boarded the train at the Amtrak station near Milwaukee’s airport, Mitchell Field, having left our automobile in long-term parking. Commuters jammed the Hiawatha, tapping on Blackberries and yakking on cell phones. An attendant wheeled a cart down the aisle, and I bought a coffee and opened a newspaper. Frozen farm fields rolled past the window. Now, all we had to do was sit back and ride—first to Chicago, then to Sacramento by sleeping car, and then, after a few days in California visiting a childhood friend, north through the big woods and Coast Ranges to Seattle. Thousands of miles, eighty-plus hours on the rails, a panorama of western landscape, and a melting pot of human characters to encounter along the way—the trip guaranteed adventure. I told Kelly, “By the time we get home, you’ll know you’ve been somewhere.”

I had pulled him from school for ten days. He carried a knapsack of comic books, an iPod and Game Boy, school texts, and a thick folder of homework. But he was too excited that morning for algebra and instead peered out the window looking for the Sears Tower and Chicago skyline.

At Union Station, we checked our bags at the Metropolitan Lounge, reserved for first-class sleeping-car passengers, and went upstairs to the Great Hall with its Romanesque columns and hard, wooden railroad benches.

Because of its central location in the Middle West, Chicago has long been a railroad town. At one time, the city had five railroad terminals, but Union Station was the busiest. In the 1940s, it handled more than 300 trains and 100,000 passengers a day. Today, it’s still busy, with commuters riding Metra and a few thousand passengers traveling on one or another of Amtrak’s 50-odd trains that run in and out of Union Station each day.

The Great Hall was cut off from the regular flow of passengers when Amtrak remodeled the station in 1989 and moved its waiting areas and lounges belowground. Amtrak constructed the comfortable, classy Metropolitan Lounge for first-class passengers, but herded its coach passengers into the unimaginatively named Lounges A and B, which are frequently jammed with passengers and luggage, and claustrophobic in comparison to the airy, cavernous Great Hall. Veteran passengers flee to the hall and wait up there for their trains, but unsuspecting newbies, who want to stay close to the boarding areas, miss one of America’s great indoor spaces.

Kelly and I sat on the benches, tilted our heads back and looked at the winter light filtering through the overhead skylights. Homeless people slept on nearby benches, their faces and hands obscured beneath soiled jackets, sweaters, and blankets. They resembled long piles of unwashed laundry. They smelled, too. Train terminals offer refuge during the day, and in my travels I encountered homeless lying in Oakland’s Jack London Station, sleeping upright in the art deco chairs of the L.A. terminal, and squatting in corners of New York’s Penn Station. Kelly’s sad expression and stolen glances at those men were disquieting. What could I say?

We boarded the train as an ice storm whipped into the city, jamming up rush-hour traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway and delaying flights out of O’Hare and Midway. Sleet pelted the train as it gathered speed through the western suburbs and onto the frozen cornfields of northern Illinois.

After the conductor punched our tickets, we walked forward to the dining car and ordered dinner. While we ate, the storm morphed into a full-blown midwestern blizzard. Looking into the blur of snow, I told Kelly stories about other train journeys.

His mother, Elise, and I, were once aboard a train traveling from Detroit to Chicago. The locomotive stalled for hours in a sweltering cornfield. And there was that cold night we spent riding across Kansas when the heat failed in the sleeping car. As compensation, the sleeping-car attendant brought us bottles of red wine, which we drank in sleeping bags zipped up to the neck.

In the early 1970s, Amtrak ran the “Rainbow Trains.” The consists—a technical term railroaders use as a noun to describe the composition or arrangements of the locomotive and cars—were a hodgepodge of old, hand-me-down equipment inherited from a dozen different railroads. The toilets, known as “holes in the floor,” flushed right onto the tracks, and you could watch the wooden ties rushing by underneath. In 1978 on the Sunset Limited in west Texas, I watched cooks working over smoky stoves fired by charcoal briquettes. The air-conditioning and exhaust fans had broken down, and the dining attendants threw open the windows at the ends of the car to clear the smoke. Heat from the Chihuahuan Desert blasted through the windows, and I ate with an old railroader who reckoned the engineer had the train running 95 to 105 mph.

I was in college then, on my way to Arizona to drive an elderly aunt and all her belongings back to a retirement home in Pennsylvania. In the lounge car, I met Sigrid, a blue-eyed, freckled blond running away from a possessive boyfriend in Florida. A friend had gotten her a job in California on a sprawling farm in the San Joaquin Valley, where she was to stand at the row end of a broccoli field and vector in crop-dusting planes.“I’ll need to wear an aluminum suit with a mask. You know, because of the pesticides. And I have to wave these flags to signal the pilot.”

“Those are semaphores,” I said, remembering a vocabulary word I’d picked up in an English class.

During a fueling stop in El Paso, we stepped onto the oven heat of the railroad platform and took pictures of one another standing outside the stucco-covered station. We drank cold beer in the lounge car as the train ran through Deming and Lordsburg.

In Arizona, right at dusk, we reached the ranching town of Benson. I was the only passenger getting on or off. The conductor looked me over and said, “Young man, this will be easy. We’re going to slow the train to a crawl—but not stop. When I say ‘now’—you step off. Take a big step forward and then turn around and I’ll toss your knapsack.”

When I caught the pack, he gave me an approving nod and then windmilled his arm at the engineer leaning out from the locomotive. The train throttled up toward Tucson. These days, Amtrak employees aren’t allowed to step on or off moving trains, but back then a lot went on, including running trains 100 mph over tracks rated at 50. Nowadays with global positioning systems on every locomotive and central dispatch—where a person thousands of miles away can track a rolling train like an air-traffic controller—there’s less freelancing.

When I looked up, Sigrid had her face pressed against the back window of the train. She waved good-bye. A dust devil scurried along the tracks. My aunt was nowhere in sight. I glanced across the street to a feed store where some good old boys sat on a bench regarding me as another long-haired curiosity.

Sigrid got smaller and smaller and then disappeared into the desert. And I knew I should have stayed on the train. Even now, I wish I had.


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