Monthly Archives: November 2013

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.


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.