Category Archives: Energy

Cooling and heating at the same time!

About air conditioning:

In the late 1970s, 23 percent of American homes had some form of air conditioning; today, 87 percent do. We have become so addicted that 9 out of 10 new homes are built with central air. We spend $40 billion a year air-conditioning our buildings, says the EPA, and cooling our homes accounts for 17 percent of household energy use.

In return, we get — well, I’ll let author Stan Cox say it: “Air-conditioning buildings and cars in the U.S. has the climate impact of half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. That exceeds the total annual carbon dioxide emissions of any one of these nations: Australia, France, Brazil, or Indonesia.”

Wait, you mean the thing we use to get through the record heat is … helping to cause the record heat? I believe that is what the kids call ironic.

Via Grist


Solar Air Heater!

Solar Hot Air Heater!

The new solar air heater leaning up against the well/shower house where it will likely be installed as it is a near perfect south facing wall. Thermometer reading after just a minute behind the air outlet? 100 degrees and that’s with outside air of 48. NICE! My guess is that this would easily heat our little shower house to a comfortable 70+ degrees on sunny days during the winter. A big thanks to Rick for building it!

Update 1: Went back out to get another temperature reading, 110 degrees! From what I’ve read online they can be expected to output air between 100-130 degrees or more on sunny days. Even on cloudy days they will put out air that will warm a space though obviously not as effectively.

Update 2: As of this update (1pm) it is 50 degrees outside and the current reading is 120+ (my thermometer tops out at 120) that’s a 70 + degree gain.

So, cost on these, is 4×8 plywood, 2×4, paint, caulk, silicone, tempered glass assuming it is all bought new probably $100-150. My guesstimate is that in one winter the savings on electricity would be $300-500 depending on the use scenario. Cost on keeping our well/shower house heated to 50 degrees this winter has probably been $60-80, maybe more. To keep it heated to 75 for comfortable shower house temps would have been MUCH higher, easily $200+ as it would require an actual heater, not just the two heat lamps I currently use. Using the solar air heater, I think we’ll be able to keep this structure heated to at least 75 on sunny days, for free next winter.

Roger Ebert reviews Collapse

Not only does Roger Ebert write an excellent review of Collapse, but does a fantastic job of explaining peak oil, the issues surrounding it and what some of the details will look like in real life.

I have no way of assuring you that the bleak version of the future outlined by Michael Ruppert in Chris Smith’s ‘Collapse’ is accurate. I can only tell you I have a pretty good built-in B.S. detector, and its needle never bounced off zero while I watched this film. There is controversy over Ruppert, and he has many critics. But one simple fact at the center of his argument is obviously true, and it terrifies me.

That fact: We have passed the peak of global oil resources. There are only so many known oil reserves. We have used up more than half of them. Remaining reserves are growing smaller, and the demand is growing larger. It took about a century to use up the first half. That usage was much accelerated in the most recent 50 years. Now the oil demands of giant economies like India and China are exploding. They represent more than half the global population, and until recent decades had small energy consumption.

If the supply is finite, and usage is potentially doubling, you do the math. We will face a global oil crisis, not in the distant future, but within the lives of many now alive. They may well see a world without significant oil.

Oh, I grow so impatient with those who prattle about our untapped resources in Alaska, yada yada yada. There seems to be only enough oil in Alaska to power the United States for a matter of months. The world’s great oil reserves have been discovered.

Saudi Arabia sits atop the largest oil reservoir ever found. For years, the Saudis have refused to disclose any figures at all about their reserves. If those reserves are vast and easy to tap by drilling straight down through the desert, then ask yourself this question: Why are the Saudis spending billions of dollars to develop offshore drilling platforms?

Ruppert is a man ordinary in appearance, on the downhill slope of middle age, a chain smoker with a mustache. He is not all worked up. He speaks reasonably and very clearly. ‘Collapse’ involves what he has to say, illustrated with news footage and a few charts, the most striking of which is a bell-shaped curve. It takes a lot of effort to climb a bell-shaped curve, but the descent is steep and dangerous.

He recites facts I knew, vaguely. Many things are made from oil. Everything plastic. Paint. There are eight gallons of oil in every auto tire. Oil supplies the energy to convert itself into those byproducts. No oil, no plastic, no tires, no gas to run cars, no machines to build them. No coal mines, except those operated by men and horses.

Alternative energies and conservation? The problem is the cost of obtaining and using it. Ethanol requires more energy than it produces. Hybrid and battery cars need engines, tires and batteries. Nuclear power plants need to be built with oil. Electricity from wind power is most useful near its source. It is transmitted by grids built and maintained by oil. Wave power is expensive to collect. Solar power is cheap and limitless, but we need a whole hell of a lot more solar panels and other collecting devices.

Like I say, you do the math. Ruppert has done his math, and he concludes that our goose is cooked. He doesn’t have any answers. We’re passing the point of diminishing returns on the way to our rendezvous with the point of no return. It was nice while it lasted. People lived happily enough in the centuries before oil, electricity and steam, I guess. Of course, there were fewer than 6 billion of us. In this century, Ruppert says, there will be a lot fewer than 6 billion again. It won’t be a pretty sight.

This May will mark two years since my move to the homestead and given what I see in the economic sphere I have no doubt it was the right move with fairly good timing. There are alot of folks out there desperately hoping that the economy is recovering. What they don’t understand that even if such a recovery was in process (which is not the case) it could only be a short-lived recovery because the economy is based on oil. If we’ve passed peak (and I believe we have) there will NEVER be a recovery. Call it a collapse or the long emergency, it is here now.

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An animal walking in the woods


Ha! I wrote that line and almost stopped because I liked the title and the simplicity of that one word in answer. But really, this post is prompted by something Greenpa over at Little Blog in the Big Woods wrote. It is something I have meant to write about for a long, long time but never did: that we have let the conveniences of modern day life come between us and the direct experience of nature. It has softened us and dulled us. I suppose I have written about it in a round about way when I’ve discussed living without an air conditioner, fridge, or running water but I’ve not written about it in quite the same way that Greenpa
puts it here:

‘You set up your house so you HAVE to walk at least 100 yards to get to your car?! On PURPOSE??! And the worse the weather, the farther you have to walk??!!!?’

Yes I did.


Because I’m lazy.

Seriously. I’d rather not walk that far, particularly in lousy weather. If I could avoid it, I wouldn’t do it.

That, however, is something I see as an increasing problem in our world; our ever growing insulation from nature. In my lifetime, we’ve seen air-conditioning invented; then become an absolute necessity. There are loads of kids out there who cannot conceive of summer in the city without full air-conditioning.

Besides all the energy load of the machines, and the ozone destroying refrigerants; all the heat pumped out into the city so that meteorologists now see them as ‘heat islands’ on their maps; these kids do not know what it is to be HOT. And to have to deal with it.

Or cold. In winter, we go from our heated houses into our attached garages, get into our pre-warmed cars; drive to the underground parking ramps, scurry to the elevators (heated) and shiver into the offices, complaining about how miserably cold it is, without actually having been outside more than 30 seconds at a time.

As a biologist, I can assure you, we can tolerate a lot of heat; and adapt to a lot of cold, and human skin does not melt in the rain. But more and more, kids are genuinely unaware of that.

I don’t think that’s a good idea. And I doubt it’s good to be so comfortable, all the time, even for folks who DO know it. I really think humans are a part of nature. And I really think we need to stay in touch with the rest of it.

Anyone that knows me or who has read this blog knows what I think about climate change and peak oil. Not only are they very real but they have come to our front door and stepped into our homes. They are here right now.

I’ve chosen do what I think must be done on a mass scale right now (though I’m certain it won’t be) and that is DRASTIC change in how we live our lives. I have chosen to live directly and deliberately with nature as a part of nature. Ultimately I think more and more of us will be forced into this but I’d much rather make the changes by choice. In fact, I relish the intensity and beauty of it. The other night is was sitting in our unheated outhouse at 8 degrees F. Not only did I survive but as I did my business I enjoyed looking out the window at the star filled sky and it was perhaps the most fantastic shit I’ve ever taken. The very next morning I was out there doing the very same thing only this time I was watching and listening as a variety of birds went about their morning business in the branches just a few feet away. Yes my ass was frozen but thanks to the beauty surrounding me this too was a great start to another day.

The fact is that these are the conditions that many all over this planet still live in every day. As Greenpa says above, humans are much, much more durable than we in the “civilized” world realize. Not only can we survive the greater intensity of a life lived more directly, but the experiences deepen our appreciation of the simple comforts that we do have. In truth, if we truly value the ideas of justice and fairness it seems to me that we really should live in such a way that limits our resource use to a level that will allow our fellow humans to live better. Our very survival depends on it.

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Climate change and the need for drastic action

Rob Hopkins of the Transition Town movement has an excellent post: about the need for fairly drastic 9% cuts in carbon emissions that we need to avert climate change. His post reminds me of something I wrote nearly a year ago, namely that we need a global recession. Humans have thus far proven incapable of dealing with this issue in any meaningful way. A recession or depression, though very difficult, will force the solution.

From Hopkins’ post:

Last week a friend sent me a stunning, thinking-shifting powerpoint by Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre’s Energy Programme entitled Reframing Climate Change: from long-term targets to emission pathways. If you want a sobering and, frankly, deeply depressing, update on the implications of the latest climate science, this is as good a place to start as any. It looks at the scale of the year-on-year emissions that we need to make, and it is quite something. Given that we need to aim to stay below 450ppm in order to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change (and even that, as the Climate Safety report, issued last week, and the recent testimony from Tim Helwig-Larsen and James Hansen at the House of Commons set out, is almost certainly not enough), what does that actually mean in terms of emissions cuts?

If , Anderson argues, we were to aim for 650ppm with global emissions peaking in 2020, we would need 3% annual cuts starting today. A huge task in itself. If we want to aim for 550ppm with emissions peaking in 2020, we would need 6% annual reductions (which means 9% reductions in emissions from energy generation). If we go for the 450ppm target, which is, realistically, the one that has any chance of preserving a stable climate, we need 9% reductions, every year, for the foreseeable future, starting now. 9%.

9% is just a number though, and as one wades through the climate change literature one is bombared with numbers… but having studied this presentation, 9% is clearly an important one, perhaps as important as Bill McKibben’s 350.  What might it actually mean in practice?   Anderson goes on to look at the rare occasions in the past when reductions have actually been achieved by ‘developed’ nations. Annual reductions of greater than 1% p.a. have, he argues, quoting the Stern Report, only ‘been associated with economic recession or upheaval’. Interesting.

I have little doubt that we have entered a greater depression or what James Kunstler calls the Long Emergency. The landscape of the United States is changing by the day and by the end of 2009 it will be very different place. We can waste resources fighting this inevitability or we can embrace it. I have chosen to embrace it by shifting to a greatly simplified life based on permaculture. I’ll do my best to become self sufficient and to share my surpluses.

What does a simple life like this look like? In the first 8 months of living at my homestead I’ve happily lived on 2-3 kWh a day (the U.S. average is around 31 a day) with no refrigerator, microwave, or other major appliances. I use a couple of compact fluorescent lights, a laptop, and, on occasion, a television. I haul water from a well and use 3-5 gallons a day. I cook with propane or wood stove which is also my heat in the winter. All humanure is composted for use on fruit trees after 2 years. I drive to town once a week. Next years expanded garden should produce much of my year’s food. If I can preserve it properly maybe most of my food. When the food forest has matured I’m hoping to be able to produce all my food for the year except for the rice and wheat.

Having lived a similar life at the deCleyre co-op in Memphis, TN I have little doubt that a great deal can be done on any suburban or city lot. Striving for a smaller carbon footprint and greater self reliance can happen anywhere though certainly those with more land can grow more. Washing clothes by hand and hanging to dry can happen practically anywhere as can food preparation from scratch.

The key is to take a hard look at what we use and assume as the normal, needed appliances. We often don’t need them, but have gotten used to them. The 9% reduction discussed in the article above is a very large cut from what we currently use. It will require that we all garden, reduce driving to only essential or emergency trips, and drastically reduce our consumption. In other word,s 9% is not accomplished by the easy stuff like changing light bulbs. It means little or no air conditioning, heating in the winter to 55 or 60 rather than 72. Imagine cutting your electrical use by half and then cut that in half again. Now cut it in half one more time. Anyone can do these things but it will not be easy and it will require commitment to drastic change. It really is that simple.

One last thought. For those that want to believe that we can solve this problem with technology. It is NOT going to happen that way. Sure, we can build out solar and wind power capacity and we should. But that is only part of the answer, probably the smallest part. The largest part will be the drastic conservation that we can all do RIGHT NOW without any government legislation or infrastructure change.

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The right way to burn wood

An excellent site for those that use wood as a primary source of heat. Actually, good for anyone using a wood burning stove but especially important for those that burn alot. Wood provides all the details for burning wood most efficiently. If you’re concerned about climate change and I hope you are this is a site worth reading through.

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Understanding the Greater Depression

Want to get a better foundational understanding of the Greater Depression that we have now entered? Here are a few blogs I’d suggest you read every day or at least a few times a week.

Sites which focus on the economic system specifically:
Chris Martenson
The Automatic Earth
The Market Ticker

Sites which discuss a broader range of issues (peak oil, self reliance, homesteading, climate change, suburbia…) related to the current collapse and what will follow:
Casaubon’s Book
The Archdruid Report
Club Orlov
James Kunstler

Here’s a little sample from November 7 post from
The Automatic Earth: Debt Rattle: Hocus Focus:

Obama’s chief of staff is a former Freddie Mac board member and fervent supporter of the invasion of Iraq. Many of the ‘experts’ are, or have been, Goldman and Citigroup execs. These people like the power and the money they have gathered while driving the economy into the ground. They’re not going to give that up just to build a financial system that would better serve the people. They’ll build one that best serves them.

Sure, some loose ends will be tweaked, but mostly they’ll spend the nation into a depression by attempting to salvage corporations that would have long since died if it were not for America’s 21st century version of Mussolini’s corporate fascism, and the unlimited access to the public trough it provides.

The broke man in the street will be broker, until he’s broken, until he lives in the street, his last hard earned penny squeezed from his hands and dumped into banks, insurers and carmakers that have zero chance of ever turning a profit again.

The taxpayer will be taxed, and will be forced to pay until (s)he can pay no more, if need be at the barrel of a gun, until (s)he no longer has a job, a home, dignity or a future. And then the growth machine will spit her out. Whoever can’t produce or consume is a write-off.

We’ve spent too much, and now we’re broke. Let’s spend more, and lots more, ‘cause then we will be whole again. Double or nothing, it’s all we know.

The dice will come up nothing.

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Climate change, global depression and consumption

Apparently there is talk that Al Gore might be head of the EPA in the Obama administration and just over a week ago Gore wrote up a dream list which was published in the New York Times.

One of my current favorite authors, Sharon Astyk, in her post A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change wonders why there is no mention of lowering consumption. This is something I’ve written about before. Earlier this year I wrote that, in fact, a global economic recession was exactly what was needed as a way of forcing the lowering of consumption and thus a lowering of climate impact. From Sharon’s blog:

Quick – what’s not on this list?  I bet you noticed, too – there’s no mention of consumption, either as an economic issue or at the personal level. Rather like coming out of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ we’re left with the message that there’s nothing for us to do other than lobby our fearless leaders.

What’s wrong with that?  Addressing climate change manifestly requires policy solutions – but again we see ourselves trapped in the false dichotomy I discuss in _Depletion and Abundance_ between public and private.  There is no question in the world that consumption is a policy issue – 70% of our economy depends on consumer spending and personal consumption.  Yet again we are being told that ‘personal action’ is something you do in the dark that makes no difference, while the really important stuff happens at the government tables.

In fact, in reality, we know differently. At US government tables we’ve seen exactly 0 major policy shifts so far – yes, we had the worst president imaginable, but that doesn’t change the fact that under Clinton, when Gore was vice-president, we saw the same zippo.  At the same time, as consumers have slowed their spending, we’ve seen projections of world oil use fall dramatically – for the first time in decades, we are expecting an actual contraction in the use of oil.  Earlier this year, actual driving miles fell dramatically – as much as 6% year over year.  Now these things were in reaction to high prices – but they were consumption decisions made by private households that in the aggregate made more real difference in the impact of our emissions than all the treaties we’ve violated or refused to sign.

The assumption, of course, is that we make changes for economic reasons, but that we’d never make them for ecological reasons.  My answer to that is simply this – no one has tried asking Americans to make major shifts in their lifestyle for the good of their country and their ecology in 30 years.  We assume we know that this would never succeed – in practice, we don’t have the slightest idea what would happen. 

Consumption is not simply accidentally left off the table by people who underestimate its power or prefer only to focus on legislation, it is left off because thinking about consumption undermines some of the presumptions of wholly technical and policy solutions. In fact, if we addressed consumption, we might have to change our basic assumptions about what we can accomplish.

 Think about Gore’s list above in relation to consumption.  The first thing, of course, that jumps out at you is the claim we have to bail out the car companies, even though, as Deutsche Bank announced, GM is worth nothing – its stock is worth absolutely nothing.  Think about that one for a second, and consider what has to underly our presumptions that we should bail out a car company – underlying it is the assumption that we will all be buying cars again fairly soon – shiny new electric ones. 

That is, underlying the assumptions of a Gore-style New Deal is the idea that we can do temporary bail outs because our consumption is going to go back up – only this time we’ll be consuming green products, including our electric cars.  There are several problems with this – the obvious one being that it isn’t clear what will fund our ability to buy these new cars in the coming years.  The assumption is that the new green jobs will do so – and perhaps that’s true, but there’s a ‘turtles all the way down’ quality to this analysis – the new deal will give us the ability to make these shifts, and the money will then only be spent for good (despite the fact that historically, the more we spend, the more we consume)….I’m not convinced anyone knows how that might happen.

Sharon offers many details in her thought provoking analysis of the energy input vs return in the massive renewable energy program that the Gore approach entails. I encourage you toread her post in it’s entirety.

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Peeling the Onion: What’s Behind the Financial Mess?

Sharon Astyk has peeled back the layers of the current economic collapse… an excellent essay worth checking out.:

What is reducing the amount of productive work accomplished, and moving the money increasingly only into a few pockets?  It is the high price of food.  And what is the root cause of the high price of food?  Well, the single biggest factor, according to a number of studies, including the UN studies, has been the move to food based biofuels.  So if we peel back the onion one more layer, what we find is that one of the major factors slowing the economy has been, well, oil.  The rush to biofuels is a response to tightening oil supplies and rising costs, and the aggregate effect has been to push up food prices all over the world, while doing pretty much nothing to increase energy security, reduce greenhouse gasses or do much of anything else useful.

I’m no economist, and I don’t pretend to be.  But I wonder, when we peel back the layers of the onion later, and look at the history of this Depression, I wonder if we’ll see that in fact, what happened was that we squeezed out the lifeblood of the very thing we’d built our economy upon – new workers/consumers who could be counted on to grow the economy outwards and upwards.  We could have forseen this – but we chose not to – we chose, as we struggled to keep our lifestyle intact on the backs of the world’s poor, not to see that we stand on their backs, and it is people…all the way down.  In killing them, we killed ourselves. It may be that besides the tragedy of starving millions of poor people, we may also have brought down our own system, simply because we did not see, did not realize that the poor matter more to us than we like to admit.

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Food Forests

Currants and GooseberriesAs the summer has begins to move into fall I continue to learn about forest gardening, permaculture, and ecological gardening. Reading a variety of books and websites as well as hands on work in our own gardens, I’m developing a much better understanding of these ideas. I’m no newbie to gardening and have been doing so for the past 20 years, but there’s no doubt that in these past few months I’ve learned a great deal not only about permaculture design but also about the natural processes and systems that our design is meant to mimic.

The folks over at Edible Forest Gardens offer this somewhat philosophical description of Forest Gardening:

As Masanobu Fukuoka once said, ‘The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.’ How we garden reflects our worldview. The ultimate goal of forest gardening is not only the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of new ways of seeing, of thinking, and of acting in the world. Forest gardening gives us a visceral experience of ecology in action, teaching us how the planet works and changing our self-perceptions. Forest gardening helps us take our rightful place as part of nature doing nature’s work, rather than as separate entities intervening in and dominating the natural world.

The author of Gaia’s Garden,Toby Hemenway, has this fantastic description of the encounter of western observers of the original food forests:

Until the late 20th century, western anthropologists studying both ancient and current tropical cultures viewed equatorial agriculture as primitive and inefficient. Archeologists thought the methods were incapable of supporting many people, and so believed Central and South America before Columbus—outside of the major civilizations like the Aztec, Maya, and Inca—held only small, scattered villages. Modern anthropologists scouted tropical settlements for crop fields—the supposed hallmark of a sophisticated culture—and, noting them largely absent, pronounced the societies ‘hunter gatherer, with primitive agriculture.’ How ironic that these scientists were making their disdainful judgements while shaded by brilliantly complex food forests crammed with several hundred carefully tended species of multifunctional plants, a system perfectly adapted to permanent settlement in the tropics. It just looks like jungle to the naive eye.

The managed forests of the Huastec Maya in northeastern Mexico are packed with up to 300 plant species, including 81 species for food, 33 for construction materials, 200 with medicinal value, and 65 with other uses (the numbers add up to more than 300 since these are multifunctional plants). In these forests, Maya farmers often create different subpatches that concentrate specific guilds of domestic species (such as coffee guilds) amid a background of natives. And all the while, they are tucking small gardens of bananas, chiles, manioc, and other edibles into any clearings. The managed-forest stage may last for 10 to 30 years. Then the cycle begins anew. Since the whole process is rotational, any given area will hold swiddens and fallows at all different phases. This complexity would understandably delude a cornfield-programmed anthropologist into thinking he was looking at raw jungle.

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