Yearly Archives: 2013

Terra Preta. Who Knew?

Ideas to consider.

Many ideas to consider.

“All the world’s problems can be solved in the garden.” –Geoff Lawton, permaculture pioneer.

I just read “The Biochar Solution”, by Albert Bates. I’m not sure I can fully recommend it, as his argument strikes me as a bit scattered and slightly less than incisive. BUT, that being said, there’s an awful lot to consider here, and an amazing number of things that I’d never heard of before. Terra preta? Salt-water greenhouses that distill fresh water from the air? The UN’s Billion Tree program? Step-harvesting? Pre-Columbian Amazonian cultures that rivaled the Inca and Aztec? So while I don’t feel inclined to uncritically endorse all of his ideas, the topics in the book are fascinating, and they have added some nuance to both my vision of ideal agriculture and to potential solutions to the world’s CO2 problem.

Here’s his idea in a nutshell (it’s kind of hard to summarize, the flip side of good storytelling could be called “rambling”). First, Spanish explorers in the mid-16th century, forced by privation to descend the entire length of the Amazon from the Peru side, encountered tremendous Amazonian civilizations that were built in harmony with nature, and whose farming was based on the intentional improvement of the soil by making a form of charcoal and plowing it into the earth to transform thin Amazonian soils into rich “terra preta” soils, with depths in some places of many feet.

Terra_Preta wikimedia by Rsukiennik

Terra preta, or “dark earth”, soil on the right. Such soils were created through human activity over millennia.

These “garden cities” and the surrounding countryside in Amazonia may have supported a population of 30 million or more, according to Bates. Then came the plague of diseases from the Old World, brought by the Europeans, which decimated American native populations with such rapidity that they lost virtually their entire culture, in addition to 99% or more of their populations. All of that incredibly rich soil, now abandoned, was very rapidly overgrown with jungle trees and vegetation, to such an amazing degree that it sucked so much carbon out of the air that it cause the Little Ice Age of the 17th and 18th century. Bates holds that the Amazonian methods were an exception to the story of agriculture as it has been practiced in virtually every other civilization and time (including our own), whereby the agricultural methods are ultimately so destructive to the soil that the environmental underpinnings of the civilizations fail, causing collapse. (Related post– “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“). He extrapolates further from this, and writes that not only can the methods be revived and used again, but that the intentional “farming” of carbon can actually stabilize or even reverse climate change, if fossil fuel use can be brought under control.

Quite fascinating. All of this is plausible, if not completely proven. Recent scientific inquiry, much of it in just the last few years, seems to concur with his position on pre-Columbian Amazonian civilizations, though there isn’t full consensus on the issue. (A few articles– Scientific American, “Lost Garden Cities: Pre-Columbian Life in the Amazon“, and The Washington Post, “Scientists Find Evidence Discrediting Idea that Amazon was Virtually Unlivable“.) Terra preta soils certainly exist, and apparently, even under the lowest estimates, cover thousands of square miles of Amazonia. Analysis has concluded that these soils were definitely created by human activity. Whether that activity was intentional or not is apparently also debated, some (like Bates) holding that it was clearly intentional, others that it was more an inadvertent result of normal kitchen fires and wastes and varied forms of slash-and-burn agriculture. As to whether reforestation in the Americas helped trigger the Little Ice Age, some researchers do seem to feel that it was a contributing factor, and perhaps a major one. (Stanford article here.) If this was indeed true, then it would lend credence to Bates’ ideas that a concerted effort to sequester carbon—to remove it from the natural carbon cycle—would have a similar effect, and could reverse or stabilize global warming. Again, there are experts in all of these fields who would agree, but there are certainly others who would argue about the particulars.

A 45-minute-long BBC production entitled “The Secret of El Dorado”, that touches on most of the topics in this post. It’s more even-handed than Bates’ book, and fairly convincing—

At the root of this entire story is charcoal, or, in the parlance of enthusiasts, “biochar”. (Biochar being charcoal that is contaminant-free and therefore useful as a soil amendment). To make charcoal, woody materials or other biomass is exposed to heat in the absence of oxygen, where they off-gas volatile compounds (“wood gas”) in a process known as pyrolization. The gasses can be burned, and if this off-gassing process is allowed to continue the original fuel remains behind as nearly-pure carbon, or charcoal. Cultures around the world have made charcoal for millennia, and many still do so today for use as fuel, and particularly for use as cooking fuel. But, if that charcoal is added to soil as an amendment, it effectively sequesters the carbon it contains, because the carbon in biochar is chemically “recalcitrant”, or resistant to change (as opposed to “labile” carbon, which is what most of the carbon in soils typically is, in humus and other plant matter). As such, it can remain unchanged in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years (and the existence today of these black soils, 500 years after Columbus, certainly seems to give evidence of this). Combining this form of carbon sequestration with afforestation (planting trees), and the raising of carbon levels in soils as a function of organic farming and/or permaculture could measurably reduce atmospheric carbon. According to Bates and others, the idea of actively sequestering carbon in this way could save humanity from rising global temperatures.

Charcoal vendor, Zambia, 2009. Environmental groups around the world report charcoal production as a major pressure on forests.

Charcoal vendor, Zambia, 2009. Environmental groups around the world report charcoal production as a major pressure on forests.

Bates isn’t alone, apparently there are whole groups that exist to promote biochar and related forms of carbon sequestration, such as the “International Biochar Initiative“. One huge proponent is Nathaniel Mulcahy, founder of WorldStove, (oddly pictorial website here). His organization makes simple pyrolizing cookstoves for poor people around the world (their tagline is “A Million Stoves”). The stoves burn cleanly and help avoid the soot inhalation that kills up to four million people every year, they are efficient, and, they produce biochar. (Apparently their high efficiency makes up for the fact that some of the potential energy in the fuel remains as charcoal). When the charcoal is used as a soil amendment (or better yet, first used in composting toilets and then as a soil amendment) then the use of the stove actually becomes carbon negative, as long as the fuel was sustainably harvested.

Rural outdoor kitchen, of an inefficient design.

Rural outdoor stove, of an inefficient design. Smoke inhalation from such stoves that are used indoors contributes to the death of over 4 million people a year.

If millions used these efficient stoves, they could potentially improve the health, sanitation, and food production of poor people around the world, and sequester carbon at the same time. It’s a pretty bold vision, and Mulcahy and his company are active in poor regions around the world, including Haiti after the earthquake of 2010. Below is a video demonstration of a stove like the ones the company makes. This one is “homemade”; the precision parts of the factory-built stoves burn even cleaner, with a nearly invisible blue flame. Once the stove gets to operating temperature, it is wood-gas that is burning, as the woody fuel pyrolizes—

Not all environmental groups agree with the vision of the biochar proponents. One such group is Biofuelwatch, a UK-based group that opposes most large-scale uses of biofuel, fearing for the safety of both forests and natural areas, and of the rural peoples who live there. Charcoal production already puts pressure on forests around the world, and I can understand their fear of what might happen if biochar as a soil amendment was given international sanction as a measurable carbon offset. Biochar proponents, however, point to the tremendous amounts of agricultural wastes that exist worldwide, such as rice straw, that could be utilized without any negative effect on forests.

In the end, as with everything else, the truth is often nuanced and far from the extremes. IF the source fuel for biochar was gathered sustainably, the use of biochar in agriculture seems to fit in very well with sustainable paths forward. As the world (hopefully) switches to regenerative, sustainable permaculture of the type espoused by Mark Shepard and others, huge amounts of carbon will be captured and stored in the trees and soils of these systems. According to Mark Shepard, these systems also produce more woody biomass, in the form of nut shells, pruned and coppiced wood, etc., than can generally be used. Such waste biomass would be perfectly suited for biochar production, and the resulting amendments could be added to the soil during keyline plowing or during planting operations.

One last video, if you’re interested—small-scale production of biochar. Pretty amazing, note the near absence of smoke once the kiln reaches gasification temperature—

So, I’m not sure that you need to read the book. But, you do need to add the word “biochar” to your vocabulary, and we all need to keep it in mind as perhaps an important part of new permaculture systems, and perhaps even, if Bates is correct, as a carbon sequestration option that might help “save humanity”.

 Terra preta image: Rsukiennik, Wikimedia Commons.
Charcoal vendor image: CIFOR; Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/45423546.
Rural kitchen image: CIFOR; Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cifor/8620660813.

Global Warming for the Skeptical

Alpine flowers---earlier every year.

Alpine flowers—earlier every year.

I saw some hyperbole on a website the other day, warning of sea level rises of 35 meters by the end of the century, due to global warming. I’m not so sure. But, that’s not to say that I think that the planet isn’t warming, because I’m even more unsure about the claims from the other extreme that nothing is happening, or that, if it is, humans don’t have anything to do with it. The truth is somewhere in the middle here—the planet is clearly warming, and human activity is nearly certain to be a major cause.

But while I do have an opinion, I’ve got plenty of friends, relatives, and acquaintances that are confused, misinformed, or misguided about the issue, and often end up not knowing what to think. It’s easy to see why—vested interests have purposely obfuscated the issue, political elements have ignored or ridiculed inconvenient data, and statistics have been used incorrectly by all sides. Worse, the warnings of a few degrees of warming, set to occur over decades, often don’t strike fear into people’s hearts. My post about Mr. X’s devil’s-advocate views (“Mr. X on Global Warming“) sums up the more rational side of this position.

BUT, I think common sense can help us out here. Leaving the graphs and trend lines and statistical margins of error aside, there are quite a few changes in the world that are clear to see and aren’t in doubt, and when taken together shed light on this issue. In no particular order–

— Glaciers are in retreat the world over, at rates that are astounding the scientists that study them. Photography provides clear proof of this. Some images from the US Geological Survey–

Grinnell Glacier USGS cropped

Sperry Glacier USGS cropped

Identical changes are occurring worldwide; many more images can be found at USGS and elsewhere on the web, such as the National Snow and Ice Data Center. And it isn’t some tiny fluke, the melting of glaciers is massive and ongoing.

— Arctic sea ice is melting. Despite the flap the other month instigated by a skewed report in the U.K. by David Rose, the Arctic is melting (see post “Et Tu, Time?”). Many reputable groups expect the Arctic to be nearly ice-free in summer by mid-century, and nations around the polar circle are scrambling to position themselves to take advantage of new oil exploration and shipping opportunities. Articles such as this one from Business Insider, “China Begins Using Arctic Shipping Route that ‘Could Change the Face of World Trade’” are easy to find. It isn’t just number and graphs—it’s reality above the Arctic Circle. Reports that polar bears, notoriously good swimmers, are drowning for lack of sea ice aren’t being fabricated out of thin air.

— Sea levels are rising, the oceans are getting more acidic and warmer, and reefs are dying. It’s occurring to me that this could end up being a very long post if I’m not careful, so I’ll shorten up my explanations. But, none of these things are really in doubt, and information about the topics abounds. Two really good articles about these ocean topics are worth mentioning, though, one on ocean acidification recently in The Economist, “Acid Test: The world’s oceans are becoming more acidic. How much that matters is not yet clear. But it might matter a lot.”, and the cover story in National Geographic in September, “Rising Seas“. Needless to say, carbon dioxide and climate warming are at the root off all four of these ocean problems.

— In North America, days of snow cover are down, spring arrives earlier, and frost occurs later, in trends that go back decades. This effect is large enough that the USDA has reworked their plant hardiness zone maps in ways that reflect about a 5-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature. (One article of many, this one from the Washington Post, “New USDA Plant Zones Clearly Show Climate Change“). Changes in average snow cover have been extreme enough that they have prompted Porter Fox, an author at Powder Magazine, to write “DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow”. A portion of a review from Outside Magazine–

Deep book cover
“The snowpack in British Columbia has declined by half overall and the ski season in some regions is four to five months shorter than it was 50 years ago,” he writes in DEEP.  “Eastern Canada is even warmer… Computer models show the Northeast ski season shrinking to less than 100 days by 2039. Under other models, the mean snow depth for the Rocky Mountains is predicted to drop to zero by 2100.”

This summer at Solarfest I heard a similar presentation by Dr. Alan Betts of Atmospheric Research in Vermont, where he gave an hour-long presentation, with photographs, of an extremely long list of frost dates and snow cover and plant blooming times, all of which provide near-unmistakable evidence of warming in New England.

The USDA 1990 map---a colder U.S.

The USDA 1990 map—a colder U.S.

 — The Snowshoe Hare, the Canada Lynx, and trees in the Rockies have been clearly impacted by a warmer planet. Just to start with the trees, the headlines are pretty self-explanatory— “Study: US Trees Dying at Alarming Rate” (Time), “How the Pine Beetle is Destoying Colorado Forests” (Newsweek), “What’s Killing the Aspen” (Smithsonian), “What’s Killing the Great Forests of the American West?” (Yale.edu)… The root of the problem—a warmer climate, which stresses trees and allows insect populations to mushroom to previously unheard-of levels.

Canada Lynx.

Canada Lynx.

Related is a huge shift in the populations of the Canada Lynx, pushed out of thousands of square miles of range due to reduced snowfall levels and the unfortunate demise of many of its primary prey, the snowshoe hare, itself a victim of often being the wrong color in a changing world. (One article of many—“Canada Lynx and Climate Change: Rising Temperature and Declining Snow Fall Spell Trouble for Canada Lynx.”). None of this is exclusive to the US—similar situations can be found worldwide.

I could go on, but I suppose my main point is this—you don’t have to be a scientist in some esoteric field to see that the earth is getting warmer—evidence abounds. Now, some would argue that yes, the world is warming, but that human activity isn’t a factor. This argument seems equally untenable; the science behind how greenhouse gasses work has been understood for a century, and the rise in CO2 has almost exactly mirrored both warming and human industrial development (post, “A Matter of Limits“). In 2012 the world emitted 30,000 million tons of CO2, and we’ve been emitting similar amounts every year for decades. You just don’t have to be a rocket scientist to put two and two together here.

The problem, or one of the problems, is that all of this change, while extremely rapid on a geologic scale, seems to be occurring just slowly enough to be beyond the natural human threshold for arousing fear and alarm. We’re like the proverbial frogs in the boiling pot—the water’s getting hotter, but we aren’t jumping out. (Interesting Psychology Today article—“Climate Change: A Psychological Problem“).

Now, don’t get me wrong. As I’ve said before, I would like nothing more than for future data to show that we were all wrong about human-induced climate change, it would be a huge blessing for mankind. I’m not some zealot in a new secular religion of climate alarm, proselytizing to the unfaithful. But, reason and common sense militate against the idea that nothing is happening, or that humans are uninvolved. So, don’t be confused, and don’t let this or that extremist keep you from seeing the forest for the trees. It is a near-certainty that the planet is warming, that humans are causing it, that the change is rapid in the broad view of things, and that it’s a dangerous path for all of nature, which ultimately includes we humans.

29 Jan 2013: A link to a 15-second NASA video that is an excellent visual representation of all this.

 Top image credit: “Flowers on the Edge”, by Bryant Olsen, Creative Commons, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/22837563. Image has been cropped.
Grinnell and Sperry Glaciers– USGS Repeat Project, photographers listed in graphics.
1990 Hardiness map– USDA.
Lynx photo– USFWS.

 

Not Sexy

La Bastilla Ecolodge cropped

Off-grid or grid-tied—that is the question. La Bastilla Ecolodge, Nicaragua. Hmmm, there’s no ice there…

Something’s become more and more apparent to me lately as I ponder our off-grid setup—being grid-tied is inherently more efficient than being off-grid. I know, nothing too sexy here with this technical point, but it’s an important realization, and it has implications for the larger systems that nations need to be working toward.

In my case, as I add generation to approach net-zero, each additional kilowatt of capacity will be needed less and less. Some numbers to illustrate—we are off-grid, and have about 3 kw of solar PV installed in two large arrays. On a sunny day in the summer, when the days are long and the sun is high, the system can produce over 20 kwh’s of power. We tend to use about 7 kwh a day, which means that in the summer we’re often making about three times the amount that we use or can effectively store. The batteries tend to be full by 10:30 in the morning on such days, and then the panels do very little for the rest of the day. In December, however, it’s quite the opposite, with much shorter days and a lower sun angle. At that time of year we only average about 4 or 5 kwh’s of generation each day, which is a bit shy of what we need, and so we run the gas-powered generator off and on, especially in November and December. Usually by mid-January the skies are clearer and the days start lengthening a bit, and we start breaking even again, and continue that way for the next ten months.

So, our house is close to net-zero, but I’d like to completely eliminate those hours where we need to run the gas-powered generator. If I added 2 more kw’s of PV capacity, I’d probably get really close. BUT—that investment (probably $4,000 if I did it myself) would only be needed for about two months a year. Thus, for about 80% of the year it would just sit there essentially unused, which would equate to hundreds of kwh’s of uncollected, and therefore lost, power. In short, the closer I approach being fully net-zero in the off-grid setup, the less efficient the total system becomes. Needless to say, this isn’t good—in addition to the expense, everything has environmental costs when produced, even technology that we need more of like solar PV, so it seems like it would be a case of not using our resources wisely.

If our house was grid-tied (which it never has been, due to the potential expense, because we’re something like 1,500 feet from the power lines), the story would be dramatically different. All those hundreds of kwh’s that I currently am forced to waste would flow into the grid, which would enable to power company to generate less. At other times, when our demand exceeded our production, I would draw these “banked” hours back from the grid. This is actually another of those win/win/win situations. It would be more efficient—it would keep my solar production from being wasted, the losses incurred by transforming power to and from a chemical state in the batteries would be avoided, and when generation is required, it would be done by the power company’s much-more-efficient stationary natural gas plants, or by grid-scale wind or hydro.

Yet another win/win---power companies on both the Canadian and U.S. sides of Niagara Falls generate 4.4 gigawatts of hydroelectric power, without destroying the beauty of the falls.

Yet another win/win situation—power companies on both the Canadian and U.S. sides of Niagara Falls use the river to generate 4.4 gigawatts of hydroelectric power, without destroying the beauty of the falls. This is the equivalent of about four nuclear power plants.

The power company benefits as well—peak solar hours often overlap with peak grid demand, so grid-tied solar inputs tend to reduce peak demand on the grid. The opposite tends to be true when grid-tied homes are pulling from the grid, say, in the middle of the night to charge EV’s, during times of very low demand. The net effect is that grid-tied systems help level the grid. Many power companies, like Green Mountain Power (GMP) here in Vermont, seem to be embracing distributed generation for another reason—taking the long view, they seem to recognize that the role of power companies is and will be changing, away from the old idea of generating power and distributing it in one direction for a single price, and to the model of the power company as a manager of a complex grid that buys power from many sources and distributes it, as needed, in all directions, perhaps with time-of-use (TOU) pricing. (See earlier post “Cloudy Day Pause” for more about how grids might function in the future.)

Remarkably, being grid-tied would probably be a better choice even if I had to use a power company, like some in the Midwest, that rely nearly 100% on coal. Being grid-tied does not change the total amount of fossil fuel that is burned—the companies burn less when grid-tied homes are feeding power in, and then burn more later, when such homes are pulling power out.

Now, while being grid-tied is more efficient when viewed system-wide, what would happen if everyone was grid-tied, in a future situation where fossil fuels might be nearly totally phased out? It’s easy enough to see how the grid can work as a virtual (and unlimited) “battery” for a small proportion of customers, but where is the upper limit? The short version—we’re not quite sure. One thing is for sure, though—U.S. power companies are nowhere close to this limit. In Vermont the electric utilities are currently allowed by law to have up to 4% of their generation from grid-tied systems, but that number was established somewhat arbitrarily in years past, and the legislature is currently expected to soon raise it to 15%, a move that is being welcomed by most of the power companies. A better case study of high RE penetration would be the situation in Germany, though it’s complicated enough that the topic really warrants its own post. Short version—their solar feed-in is around 35% on sunny days, and due to vagaries in the international coal market (coal has become cheaper due to plentiful supplies of natural gas in the U.S.) it has caused disruption in the business models of German power companies, which has had economic costs and, as of yet, fewer than expected CO2 reductions (see Economist article, “How to Lose Half a Trillion Euros“. I personally think The Economist is quite one-sided in this article, but that, again, would probably be a whole other post.) Eventually grids worldwide will need to move toward 100% RE generation as we phase out fossil fuels, and much of this will be distributed generation from point sources. But, 1) we’re not even close enough to worry about it now, at least in the U.S., and 2) power companies will change their business models over time. Indeed, companies like GMP have already started. Fortunately, moving to a smarter grid isn’t an all-or-nothing propostion, but rather evolutionary change over time. (Again, previous post “Cloudy Day Pause” discusses some of this in more detail).

So, back to where I started—it isn’t sexy, but the higher efficiency of grid-tied systems is an important point as we work out our workable vision of the future. We’ll eventually need a smart, flexible grid that efficiently connects renewable generation from million of sources to millions of destinations. In the much shorter term for me, tying to the grid might be the easiest, if not the cheapest, way to achieve net-zero. Much to ponder…

Top image by La Bastilla Ecolodge/Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/75904527@N05/6789926688/in/photolist-bm19Dw-bHQZjr-hgdJBV-bBhSJ4, image has been cropped.
Niagara Falls image credit: pierdelune / 123RF Stock Photo

Getting My Feng Shui On

 

There's something to this calm environment thing...

There’s something to this calm environment thing…

“You only truly own what you can carry in two hands at a dead run.”—Anonymous

My life is getting simpler. Since I first heard about “minimalism” (post—“Minimalism and Our Couches“) I’ve made steady progress. Gone is the hay mower, the hay rake, the farm wagon, and the hay baler. Gone too is the Coleman pop-up camper. Then, today I sold my Subaru Impreza, since I don’t really need it since we have the new electric vehicles. That also took a whole set of four snow tires and rims out of the barn. Gone also is the exercise machine that no one uses (we all just exercise outside; a better choice anyway?). Gone are piles of old windows and pallets. And those are just some of the bigger items, I’ve been steadily removing smaller things, too—scrap metal to the recycler, unused toys to Goodwill, magazines to the sharing bin at the Co-op, bags of worthless items to the garbage, old paint to the haz-mat collection site in town, an unused tv to the give-away shed at the transfer station.

And here’s the interesting part—with every material-goods-reduction comes a palpable sense of calm (though I literally danced a jig in the yard when the pop-up camper disappeared over the ridge). Each item gone results in one less thing to move, one less thing to mow around, to maintain, store, or otherwise deal with. And it’s somehow peaceful. I never really understood it before, those calm meditation rooms for yoga practice, those Japanese Zen gardens, all those people with their feng-shui-compliant interiors. But I get it now. Clutter is stressful, it wears you down; it’s like noise pollution for the soul. Material goods also don’t usually bring us joy, and perhaps just the opposite. If we’re not careful, we become slaves to our possessions, working hard to earn money for their storage and maintenance, and spending time dealing with them.

I’ve had a bit of help along the way. Every once and awhile I’ll check in on Joshua Becker’s Becoming Minimalist website for some inspiration. (In an odd coincidence, I think he lives just up the road from me, in Burlington, VT). And, my wife is more than happy to participate in clutter-reduction, I think she was born with the feng-shui gene. And, despite the progress, I’ve got plenty of room to continue. Next on the list—my road bike from my high school and college days that hasn’t been on the road for twenty years, shelves of VHS tapes that I no longer draw upon when making lessons, and the other Subaru gas-mobile…

Two areas stand out as difficult, though. One, books. I really, really like my books. I know that I shouldn’t view them this way, but I really see them as part of my identity. I bought a Kindle the other month after realizing that e-readers come out better in the sustainability arena (post, “My Feminine Side“), but I don’t love it. After looking at a computer screen for much of my working day, I’m ready to be finished with electronic gizmos once I get home. Actually, this is another version of mental clutter for me—a “real” book is pretty darn simple and relaxing compared to the Kindle, with its screens and settings and batteries, etc. Anyway, we have bookshelves all over the house that are overflowing, and clearly in need of some minimalism treatment. And, I suppose I could indeed winnow them down a bit. And, the second difficult area—shop equipment and materials. Simplicity may be all well-and-good for your living room, but it doesn’t work so well in the shop. All those tools, all those odds and ends from former projects, equate to functionality.

But, despite that, the minimalism push strikes me as a good one, on the whole. It’s good for the pocketbook, because when you’re spending time trying to get rid of things, it really, really makes you think twice about purchasing something that is going the other way and coming into the house. And, as I discussed the other month in the post “Identity and Our Belongings“, it’s good for our mental well-being in a variety of ways, and, in keeping with the thrust of this entire site, that reduced consumerism is good for the planet. Taken all together, it’s a win, win, win situation. I read somewhere (in the book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”?) that “Americans are really good at turning their cash into trash”. I see that a lot, and am more than happy to have perhaps hopped off of that train.

In the end, perhaps it’s fitting to close with a quote from Yvon Chouinard, renowned mountaineer and founder of Patagonia sportswear, from a great film that speaks to my soul, “180 Degrees South”— “The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life.” This may well be true, but I have a feeling that such a simplification is worth the effort.

 Image credit: shaiith / 123RF Stock Photo

Getting This Figured Out

 

Prior planning required.

Prior planning required.

(Note: I added a bunch of links, in case anyone wants to use this as a guide to some of the posts on this site.)

I started this blog about seven months ago; a chronicle of my personal effort to figure out where humanity is headed and how we might possibly change course.  And I didn’t begin from scratch in May; this has been a topic I’ve pondered for a decade or more, often bouncing ideas off of Mr. X. And, as I’ve written repeatedly, it’s a tough problem. BUT—I’m getting it figured out. If I had that magic wand I keep talking about, I’d have a pretty good idea about how to wave it around. Problem after problem has yielded; it’s amazing how a week of study and pondering and “sleeping on it” can clarify an issue. As I learn more, the pieces have been falling into place even faster. Of the millions of possible future paths, huge swaths of them can be quickly carved away as unworkable or as dead ends. Mankind isn’t going to colonize the stars, (at least not any time soon) (good Tom Murphy post), we aren’t going to ditch the free-market, we aren’t going to all hold hands together and sing Kum-ba-ya and be able to fix the issues that face us. We can’t go backward and reject technology and efficiency, and yet we have to be careful about going forward, toward ever more consumption and planetary impact. We can’t depend on fusion or fast reactors (and perhaps not fission, either), or vertical farms, or living in the sea. And as we ponder, we have to realize that the entire system is in motion, with incredible momentum. We’re like kayakers in a turbulent, fast-moving river, with limited ability to maneuver; only if we start early enough we can set course toward the spots ahead where we can shoot the rapids and avoid being dashed on the rocks.

So, I’ve written about seventy posts, and I haven’t had to change my mind about much (one big reversal centered around self-sufficiency; clarified thinking here). And, the vision meshes; the ideas all work with one another. The answers to most of our problems exist; we just need to build the world we need. Net-zero houses, permaculture, electric vehicles, renewable energy, reduced consumption, off-shore and onshore wind, stricter building efficiency codes, PV and thermal solar, DC transmission lines, time-of-use pricing, the power of consumer demand and targeted investing, efficiency and conservation, habitat protection, fairer trade systems, shifts away from materialism and moves toward more meaningful lifestyles, the power of millions acting in concert, smart grids, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, recycling and circular systems, organic agriculture, pumped hydro and other grid-scale storage, using fossil fuels to transition, reduced meat consumption, the list goes on. The answers are out there, and the path forward is possible.

Many trying to quit wrecking the planet.

Many trying to quit wrecking the planet.

And, though I initially felt alone, in the last seven months I’ve realized how many tens of thousands of other people out there are also pushing in these same directions. Some are focused in a little too closely, and sometimes miss the forest for the trees, but their hearts are in the right place. There are permaculture groups and renewable power groups and off-grid-living groups and myriad others, all using social media and spreading the word. And, I get the feeling that for every person out there who is actively involved, there are tens or hundreds that care, and are paying attention.

There are still trouble spots; glitches in the vision. Among them, how zero-growth would work, economically. Other changes ahead are perfectly possible to envision, but getting them to happen might be the difficult part, such as a carbon tax, or the need to dramatically reduce air travel. But, my main point—none of it is really a mystery. So, my plea for today—join the movement. There are a million tiny parts to play, and it’s all work that needs done. I’m something of a generalist, and spend most of my time figuring out how the parts all fit together, but we need the experts, too. So get involved. Plant a nut tree, install a solar panel, ride a bike, take a hike, insulate your house, learn about wildlife or soil or forest conservation efforts in your area, ask your power company about purchasing renewable electricity, get a pellet stove, quit buying factory-farmed meat, and realize that life’s meaning lies in your friends and experiences, and not in material possessions. While you’re at it, pick something and become an expert at it, and share your knowledge with others.

And, keep an eye on the big picture as you do it. I’ll help with that part.

Top image credit: zabelin / 123RF Stock Photo

Accidental Permaculture

Perennial joy.

Perennial joy.

“I am an old man, and yet a young gardener.” —Thomas Jefferson.

It was a not-so-stellar garden year (though it was my own fault), but in the end it turned out fine, due to some accidental permaculture. Let me explain…

Despite a very wet spring, I got the garden in. We have ten or eleven raised beds, most of them 4 x 12 feet. I planted them per my usual rotation pattern, with potatoes, onions, tomatoes, beans, and other typical vegetables, all annuals. But, then I got busy, and for one reason after another, I didn’t spend much time in the garden all summer long. It was a vicious cycle—too little time in the garden equated to not enough compost, which in turn equated to me not mulching much, which made the grass and weeds worse. To make a long story shorter, the lack of attention resulted in smaller potato, onion, and bean harvests than normal. For example, with beans we plant mostly pole beans, but I never even got the poles up, so the beans had to do the best they could, a few managing to climb the sunflower stalks, but most intertwining with each other until they were a tangled and decidedly not-elevated mess.

But, here comes the perennial wonder—despite my gardening inadequacies, the perennial crops planted over the years all went gangbusters; bumper crops all around. First came asparagus in the spring. The long asparagus bed that began seven years ago as a single row of shoots has spread, and we were picking a huge bundle nearly every day. Then came the horseradish greens, irrepressible even crowded with heavy grass. Then came the peaches in mid-summer; bumper crops on our 6-year-old Reliance trees, juicy and plump and heavenly on a hot day. Then the four grape vines, planted four years ago, became loaded with fruit and kept it through an incredibly long picking window, perhaps eight weeks or more. Then the apples in the wild apple in the yard; more than I’ve ever seen. Thousands, all on one large tree. Finally, the hickory trees were having a mast year, and my son and I have picked up thousands, all from two large trees in the yard. (I went up into the woods to see the hickories there, but the critters had absconded with nearly every nut, leaving only the husks behind. I think the dogs inadvertently protect the ones that fall in the yard.)

Hickory nuts a'plenty.

Hickory nuts a’plenty.

Hickory nuts---the hammer works the best.

Hickory nuts—the hammer works the best.

All of this on top of rosemary, sage, chives, and other herbs that either over-winter or re-seed themselves.

Now, we planted all of these before I started reading and writing about “permaculture”. But now that we have them, they help prove some of the concepts I’ve been reading about. The food we got from these perennials was, essentially, labor-free except for the harvesting.

Great little permaculture video that I linked to on the Sustainable Us facebook page

permaculture capture

As I’ve written before, this sort of permaculture makes the mono-cropping of annuals look like mountaintop coal removal by comparison. The genetic diversity, the resilience, the wildlife habitat, the soil-building capability, the erosion protection, the permanence, and so much more make these permaculture systems, in my opinion, a critical part of our path forward. I’m excited about my little corner of that future permaculture world, and am eagerly awaiting spring so that I can dig in the dirt again. And that part is nothing new, but perhaps my dirt-digging can be put to better effect with permaculture design in mind.

Top image credit: kakisnow / 123RF Stock Photo

Net-Zero is Possible

An interior view of Middlebury College's 2013 Solar Decathlon entry, a net-zero house.

An interior view of Middlebury College’s 2013 Solar Decathlon entry, a net-zero house.

Until this past summer, I had more or less assumed that a net-zero house, one that didn’t use any fossil fuel to function, could really only be achieved in some ridiculously expensive research and development setting. That may have been true a decade ago, but it isn’t true now. A combination of technical advances and cost reductions has now put a net-zero house within the reach of nearly everyone. Even better, net-zero can be achieved in most buildings in stages, and are investments that are likely to outperform the market in today’s investment climate. The result is a win-win-win situation.

First, what exactly is “net-zero”? There isn’t a hard-and-fast definition, but, in general, net-zero buildings create as much energy as they consume. They typically combine highly efficient construction and appliances with some form of renewable energy generation, usually on-site. But, this can be done in different ways, and sometimes with different goals in mind, and the result is a wide variety of net-zero terms, as delineated in this list from a designer in Waitsfield, VT (his house is in the list below)—

“Net-zero carbon, net-zero cost, net-zero source, net-zero site, near net-zero, net-zero ready…there are many terms used to describe a certain category of buildings that are referred to as “net-zero energy buildings” (or NZEBs).”

In the last six months I have seen or heard about no less than six examples of net-zero buildings, and the variety of approaches in these buildings will give you some sense of the term, I think. (Some of these details are from memory, so forgive me out there if I get something wrong).

Building #1— Kim Quirk is the owner of Enfield Energy Emporium in Enfield, CT, an architectural firm, and she bought and renovated this house and has turned it into a net-zero office space and living quarters. I saw her presentation about this at Solarfest this past summer, and if I recall, the house was originally built in the mid-19th century, and was mostly gutted when she bought it. She had the basement foamed, and did a deep-energy retrofit that included increasing the thickness of the exterior walls and filling them with cellulose insulation. She added a 5kw PV system in the yard, which is net-metered. And here’s the unusual part—for heating, she dug a huge hole under her driveway, about 10 x 12 feet by 10 feet deep, lined the sides with a liner and foam, filled it with sand, water, and tubing, and then buried it. (My rough calculations—about 60 tons of insulated mass). This thermal mass is a huge “Thermos” that can store an entire summer’s worth of heat gathered by a largish array of evacuated-tube thermal collectors. So all summer long they run and pump hot water through this thermal mass (pics here), which brings the temperature up to something like 180 degrees. In the winter another set of tubing pulls the heat out, where it’s radiated into the house in a system of low-temperature (90 degree F) baseboard heat. An interesting approach. One of her goals was zero-combustion in addition to net-zero, and from her talk this summer it sounded as if the building was on its way to achieving her design goals.

Building #2— Architect Bill Maclay’s Dartt House, in Waitsfield, VT. I saw Bill give a presentation about this building last week at Renewable Energy Vermont’s Expo in Burlington. This is another older structure, renovated in much the same way as Kim Quirk’s house. It is actually two or three net-zero projects together—a building that serves as an office, and an adjoining building that he been turned into two apartments. Unlike Kim Quirk’s solar-heated thermal mass method, these buildings use air-to-air heat pumps for both heat and cooling, all powered by a combination of larger PV arrays—one 17kw array that serves as the roof of a carport (last pic on this page), smaller arrays to the rear of the house, and another large net-metered array that is off-site.

Our house, under construction in 2004. Timber-frame construction with R-40 walls and R-60 roof panels.

Our house, under construction in 2004. Timber-frame construction with R-25 walls and R-32 roof panels.

Building #3— Oddly enough—our house. Technically a “near-net-zero building” as it is now, as we still use propane for hot water. But we’re on our way to net-zero, via yet a third approach—using sustainably-gathered biomass for heat. In our case, cordwood. Our house is off-grid, with a 3kw PV system and a 1kw wind turbine. With the addition of a bit more PV and solar hot water, we should get all the way to net-zero. Even as is, the building uses only a fraction of the fossil fuel that most Americans use. The house also has a fair amount of passive-solar design features—it is oriented to the south, and most windows and living areas are on that side of the building, and closets and utility areas are on the north. The site is shielded to the north by hills and trees, and open to the south. The building has performed admirably—on sunny days in the winter I can leave home for work with the house at 63 degrees, and come home to a house that is well above 70, all with no heat on, even if outside temps are in the 20’s. We typically use about 2 1/2 cords of wood per winter for heat, which we burn in a single wood stove on the main floor of the open-floor-plan design.

Building #4— Well, “buildings”, plural. A company called Vermod is making net-zero single-wide modular homes to address the need for efficient low-cost housing in the state. With 12-inch-thick walls and triple-pane windows, and a 6kw PV system on the roof, Continue reading

Cree Bulbs for the Bruhl’s

Cree bulb cropped

Want to know how a government policy can effect real change? Here’s an example—I have been meaning to start switching over to LED bulbs in the house, even more so since I read a piece last summer by Marc Gunther about the newest generation of LED bulbs (“A Better Light Bulb. Again“). We’ve purchased a few LED bulbs in the last year for specific applications (in one case, some pendulum lights where we needed lots of light output but limited heat), but those bulbs have been expensive, costing up to $35 each. Then, a month ago while walking through Home Depot I saw the Cree bulbs, that were referenced in the article, selling for $9 apiece. That’s still expensive, but not so expensive that I wouldn’t consider buying a few at a time and replacing the compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs that we currently use in the house. But, I didn’t buy any then, because I wanted to compare energy usage among the different brands of LED bulbs, as I suspected that they weren’t all equally efficient.

Fast-forward to last weekend, when I was again walking through Home Depot and saw the bulbs, but this time for $4.98 apiece, a much lower price than I expected. This turned out to be due to a promotion by Efficiency Vermont, a program funded in part by the state, that is underwriting the cost of the bulbs. At this price I bought eight bulbs instead of just a few, and took them home to try them out. I like them. They are bright, they have a warm tone, they come on instantly, they should last nearly forever, and, as my son and I accidentally dropped one and it didn’t break, they seem to be quite a bit tougher than the curlicue CFLs. But here’s the biggest bonus—the new bulbs use only 9.5 watts apiece, and we were replacing CFL’s that were rated at 13, 18, 20, and 26 watts. In the case of the first three the light output seemed the same or better, and was close even in the case of the 26-watt CFL (marketed as a 100w replacement). So, in one fell swoop we reduced our energy use for these eight bulbs by at least 50%, and possibly more, even over the CFLs, which are already many times more efficient than the old incandescents. That’s substantial.

DSCN0073

Some of the replaced bubs, which we gave away for reuse.

Then, it struck me that this remarkable incentive program wouldn’t last forever, so I stopped back by Home Depot after work the other day and bought 25 more bulbs, enough to finish replacing nearly every bulb in the house. Lighting accounts for about 20% of electrical use in the average American home, and I suspect it’s an even higher proportion in our off-grid setup. In winter months we don’t currently make quite enough solar power to get by (relying occasionally on the gas-powered generator), and if the new bulbs help reduce this energy gap, then it will result in a direct savings in burning fossil fuel. A good deal.

So back to where I started, this is a good case of supply and demand principles at work. The government underwrote an incentive, and that incentive increased demand for the bulbs, and energy was saved as a result. (And judging from the near-empty racks of bulbs at the store, I wasn’t the only one who has been swayed by the low prices into purchasing more). So, a public thank-you to Efficiency Vermont, and another public thank-you to some forward-thinking legislators who set up and voted to fund the state’s efficiency programs. Demand for bulbs like these will eventually reduce their costs, and the products will stand on their own merit. The same is true for electric vehicle incentives, and a whole host of other efficiency incentives I can think of. This is money well spent, it is smart policy, and it is part of that “better path forward”. In a world where real change sometimes seems hard to achieve, here’s a program that works.

 

 

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World

Seeking-A-Friend-For-The-End-Of-The-World

I sometimes run across news that I find depressing, and this last week or so I seem to have come across a whole string of such stories with regard to energy use. It seems sometimes like any hope of a sustainable future is on the verge of being overcome by the growth and momentum of the system. Thus, the bit of hyperbole in this post’s title, and my original intent to write about this gloomy side to humankind’s precarious situation, or at least about how we need to step up our efforts. I was thinking that perhaps we are indeed like characters in a disaster movie where an asteroid is set to destroy the planet, and we should all just accept it, concentrate on enjoying our last days, and just quit worrying about renewable power, permaculture, recycling, and adopting more sustainable lifestyles.

But, as I set out to bolster my negativism with facts, I ended up with a more-nuanced thesis. On the whole, it might not be as bad as I thought. Much of the info that gave me this perspective comes from a research company called Enerdata, a large and seemingly well-respected European research company, and, more specifically, their online interactive “Yearbook” about worldwide energy production and use. It’s a fascinating site.

So how are we doing, when you look at the actual numbers about energy? Here’s my admittedly-rough impression of their data, from 1990 to present, a period of almost a quarter of a century. I’ll include links to the graphs, so you can judge for yourself.

Crude oil production— Over the last quarter century, not much change. A slight upward trend from 3,000 megatons to about 4,000 megatons overall, but roughly flat for the last decade, with no visible “peak”, and no dramatic hockey-stick-like exponential growth. On the whole, it doesn’t appear out of control in any way (other than the fact that we’re still burning an awful lot of oil).

oil platform south thailand

Oil and gas production south of Thailand.

Natural gas production— A steady increase in production, from about 3,000 bcm (billion cubic meters) to about 3,500 bcm. The recent boom in U.S. production isn’t overly visible on the graph. From the point of view of sustainability, there could be worse news—burning natural gas creates only about half the CO2 emissions than burning coal does.

Electricity production— Like oil, a steady increase, from about 10,000 twh (terrawatt hours) to about 20,000 twh over the 23-year period, with perhaps even a slight leveling-off as of late. Like oil, it doesn’t appear that growth is out of control. In all of these cases, growth appears linear rather than exponential, and, in the case of oil and electricity, might even be tapering off a bit.

Coal production— Flat until about 2002, then steady uptick from about 4,500 mt to about 7,500 mt today. Most of this was due to increased consumption in China, BUT—the sub-heading on this page reads “Sharp slowdown in global growth mainly due to the slackening pace in China”. This graph isn’t great news for the planet, but again, the growth doesn’t look exponential.

All of these are just portions of the world’s total energy production, (and this graph isn’t just a compilation of the previous graphs, because some of the fossil fuels are used to make the electricity) which shows steady growth from about 8,000 Mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent) to about 13,000 Mtoe.

But, what of renewable generation? The proportion of electricity from renewable sources has been steady as a percentage of total production over the entire period. At first glance this makes it look like we aren’t making progress, but when you take into account that electricity production has gone up 10,000 twh’s, math dictates that the sum total of the increase in renewable generation has been tremendous. (Hydroelectric power is included in these numbers). We aren’t decarbonizing (yet), but renewables seem to be holding their own, at least in terms of percentages.

A thermal solar system, or SEGS, (solar energy generating system).

A thermal solar system, or SEGS, (solar energy generating system).

The result of all of the world’s fossil-fuel consumption is CO2 emissions, and this data is also included on the site. On the whole, another relatively flat graph. The world emitted about 20,000 mt of CO2 in 1990, and that number is about 30,000 mt today, but it isn’t increasing fast, and almost appears to be starting to level off. In the U.S., total CO2 emissions declined by 3.5% in 2012 (and CO2 from coal declined by over 12%). In fact, net CO2 emissions have declined in many industrialized countries, including Australia, Canada, and parts of Europe. While all is not rosy in this data as a whole, there’s no denying that these net declines are good news.

It is important to note that world population has increased steadily over the entire period that these graphs cover (world population was about 5.2 billion in 1990, and is almost 7.2 billion today). World population goes up by about a million people every 3 1/2 days, and has been this way for decades. (WorldMeter population ticker here.) So, when we place these energy graphs against the backdrop of a population that has grown by nearly 2 billion over the same time period, another positive trend is evident—relative decoupling. We’re still increasing damage to the planet, but we’re doing slightly better than we were, through efficiency and conservation. The Enerdata site graphs this, too, in a graph of “carbon intensity”—how much atmospheric CO2 we create for each unit of economic output. The news here is good—carbon intensity is falling steadily, and has been for decades. We are getting more efficient in how we use energy, and it shows. In more developed countries, carbon intensity has dropped by 40% since 1990. This is good news.

We’re not out of the woods, though. Our increased efficiency is a force in the right direction, but it is counteracted by two other forces—the demands of an ever-increasing population, and the demands of a world that is getting wealthier. Population is on track to begin to plateau, though it will be decades before it begins to level off appreciably. And millions being raised out of poverty (link to a good overview in The Economist) is a good thing, and hopefully this can be achieved for all of the people in the world. But this is why overall energy use continues to rise despite dramatic efficiency gains—it just takes more energy for ever more people to live more materially secure lives. We also aren’t out of the woods just yet because the human footprint is larger than some of these numbers show; recent studies have shown that when all impacts are taken into account, that we aren’t achieving as much as we might think we are in the way of decoupling. 

But, what the numbers do show, I think, is that we’re making some progress, even though we have a long way to go. And related to energy, which still largely comes from fossil fuel, recent information seems to suggest that perhaps the atmosphere isn’t quite as sensitive to CO2 as we thought, which might buy humankind a bit of time. There’s plenty of bad news out there, but with regard to that metaphorical asteroid, perhaps, just perhaps, it might not hit planet Earth. It’s going to be a close call, though. I’ll be checking back in with this Enerdata site next year, to keep watch on how we’re doing.

Image credit: tolotola / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: pancaketom / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Leaf Update—I Cannot Lie

Leaf fall shot

Still my favorite car.

It’s fall, we’ve had the Leafs for six months, and Mr. X thinks I should write an unvarnished, completely-unbiased review of the Leaf and what it’s like to drive an electric vehicle. I agree. Unfortunately, it’s going to be really hard to distinguish this from a varnished, biased review, because I really LOVE this vehicle. Well, vehicles, plural, since we have two of them. In the six months since we leased them we’ve racked up almost 10,000 miles between them both. (Or, to put it another way, we haven’t burned about 350 gallons of gasoline. As in about seven 55-gallon drums’ worth…)

My shortest review—these cars are smooth, quick, and quiet. (Plagiarism alert—I actually saw something similar to this three-word description in another article about a Leaf, but I couldn’t agree more). They have no transmissions, and therefore, unlike ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars, no powerband to speak of. The power is there, any time, all the time, for as long as you want it. In “B-mode” (extra regenerative braking, available in the SL and SV trim levels) the braking begins as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator. It’s true one-footed driving, and it’s fantastic. In fact, the cars are so fun to drive that it’s hard to drive them around slowly in a fashion that saves energy. There’s enough power that if you accelerate hard they will almost break the tires loose, especially if you’re turning. (On one occasion I caught up with, and then stayed even with, a souped-up pickup whose driver had it floored, from dead stop to 86 mph, up a hill, at which point I slowed down; didn’t want a ticket going 90+).

And, all of this quietly. No noise, no rattles, just slight road noise and an occasional low whine from the motor or regenerative braking. Oh, and the “Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians”, or VSP, which is a speaker tone that emanates at low speeds. More on that in a bit.

The cars are efficient, too. Their range on the highway is respectable, averaging 80-100 miles per charge, but they go even farther in town, despite all the stop-and-go. When stuck in traffic they don’t use any power to speak of, likewise for, say, going through a drive-through lane. When coming down a mountain you can actually watch the “fuel” gauge fill up. They’ve both been absolutely, 100% reliable. Which, when you think about it, is probably easier to achieve in these cars, because they really only have a tiny fraction of the moving parts of a “normal” car. The shaft of the (brushless) AC electric motor connects directly to the drive axles on both ends—this motor really only has one moving part, vs. hundreds in an internal combustion engine. And, with no transmission, it has zero transmission parts, compared to the hundreds of moving parts in a typical automotive transmission. (Update— I just realized that the Leaf does have a single reduction gear at a ration of 7.9:1, but a fixed gear isn’t something that will normally ever wear out, so my basic point it still valid, I think.)

Adapting to an “EV lifestyle” hasn’t been difficult. Most days in the summer I was able to charge enough each day from our solar power at home to go 20 to 40 miles on that power alone, and my wife and I can both charge at work. Shopping hasn’t been a problem, though I see a shift in our shopping habits where we tend to frequent establishments that are within walking distance of public chargers. The cars do get noticeably less range from their batteries when the outside temperature drops into the low 30’s, and this did put me squeaking into work on an almost-empty battery on one morning the other week. Nissan Leafs have a “turtle mode” that they enter when they are almost completely out of battery power; in this mode motor power is limited and a turtle icon appears on the dash. This mode reportedly gives a half mile or so of range before the car turns off completely, but even on that morning I didn’t run it down quite that far. It’s difficult to know exactly how much you have left at the very bottom of the gauge, because when you have about 8 miles left the “Miles to Empty” display goes to “—“, and after the battery percent falls below 5%, it does the same. Here’s a slightly blurry picture of the dash—

Leaf dash

I think Nissan did this on purpose to get you to really pay attention to getting to a charger when the battery gets low, but I think I’ve figured out one way to tell how much battery is left. There are twelve battery bars in that right-hand gauge when the battery is full, and each one represents 8% of the battery. They each stay lit until that 8% is gone—so as the battery goes from 92% to 91%, the 12th bar turns off, then the 11th bar turns off as the battery goes from 85% to 84%, etc. But, what this means is that when the last bar turns off , the car still has about 4% of the battery left (12 bars x 8 percent = 96 percent of the battery), plus the 1/2 mile or so in turtle mode. Together this is probably about 4 or 5 miles of range if you were driving slowly, and maybe more. I haven’t had occasion to experiment with this, but I will sometime soon; I’m pretty curious about how far I can creep along at lower speeds after that last battery bar turns off. I’ll find that turtle pretty soon, but I need to be right close to a charger when I do, lest I embarrass myself by purposely running my EV “out of gas”. 

I’ve also noticed that when the weather is cooler the cars use the battery up quicker at first, but then after about 30 minutes they start getting more efficient again (to me, “really efficient” is one mile per percent of battery charge, or 100 miles to a full battery). My conjecture is that this is because the batteries work better when they’re warm, and the internal temperature of the batteries goes up, even on cold mornings, as you drive and use them.

Other things I really like—because the heater doesn’t depend on engine coolant getting warm, the heat is near-instantaneous (Leafs use a heat pump, as it is more efficient than resistive heat). This is fantastic on cold mornings—with the heat and defrost on, and the steering wheel and seat heat on, it only takes a minute or so to be completely comfortable, AND have an ice-free and defrosted windshield. Not so with my Subaru—I’d be sitting in the driveway for quite some time trying to get the windshield clear enough to drive. And, you can access the cars via the internet, and check on your state of charge, or to turn the heat or air-conditioning on. (This feature enables you to use wall power, instead of the battery, to get the car to a comfortable temperature, and to get it there before you even get to the car.)

charge screen

The on-line screen to remotely check on charging status and to control climate control settings.

There are a few tiny things I don’t like, but they’re really just quibbles.  Continue reading