A view of the Solar Techno Park's HyperHelios near Yokohama.
About a year ago, Japan was struck by a giant earthquake and subsequent tsunami. One of the ‘fall-outs’ of this natural event was the shut down of several nuclear reactors. Eventually, the Japanese government shut down around 50 of its reactor plants, which I think was close to all of them. Some of these were shut down for maintenance and may come back online at some point; others are being retired permanently. The consequence, at least from an energy perspective, is that a major source of domestically produced energy has evaporated as Japan generated about one-third of its power from nuclear.
I recall a history course I once took which outlined how one of the greatest periods of innovation and invention in history was during World War Two. A period of turmoil, war and strife generated massive innovation as governments were forced to come up with quick solutions to production, automation and energy supply. I’m not saying that every innovation was a step forward but that out of the crucible of difficult times came a remarkable period of human ingenuity and invention.
It appears as though the same is happening in Japan. With much of their nuclear power offline (and more reactors ready for shutdown), the Japanese have accelerated their development of alternate energy, particularly geothermal and solar. One of the largest pioneers in their solar industry is a steel company! With massive amounts of energy required for the production of steel, this company recognizes that they can dramatically improve their bottom line and thereby shareholder returns by investing in large-scale solar power generation.
It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out in Japan over the next few years. Similarly, I wonder if we will examine our own energy usage domestically, from both a consumption and source perspective, and see what direction we’ll follow.
We’re all busy but please take the time to read this post and watch the video.
I’m sure a few of you know of Lester Brown. I’ve read many of his books and think much of his critical thinking is of great value to society as a whole. Eco-Economy, Plan B, Who Will Feed China – all are books which tackle tough subjects with surprisingly encouraging results. Recently, Plan B was the focus of a PBS special, hosted by Matt Damon. In short, Plan B is the alternate to Plan A which is ‘business as usual’ – over-population, over-spending, over-use of the Earth’s resources.
I managed to find a link which allowed for viewers outside the USA to watch the film; it is about 90 minutes long so grab a bowl of popcorn and sit back. While you may feel depressed during the first hour or so of the show, you will feel inspired and energized during the last bit as Lester presents the Plan B options. Enjoy and please feel free to post your comments.
Please click here to launch the video.
Thanksgiving Monday saw us take the first step toward the Greening of Knight, our project to build a self-sustaining house, when we had a meeting with an architect keen to examine our project idea. He’ll remain anonymous for the immediate future as we haven’t finalized our working agreement yet and I am not sure if he will take on our project. Needless to say, both Josée and I were impressed with what he said, the options we might have going forward but most importantly the fact that he could identify with our project and be willing to think outside the proverbial box.
Over the last few months, I spoke with a number of architect firms and project designers. While some of them were interested in our project, I was disappointed that many of them looked at the negatives of such an endeavour; it will cost too much, the technology is not advanced enough, why not just use conventional construction strategies? Both Josée and I like to dream and think big – look at the glass half full, a world of opportunities! We plan to think through every idea and strategy, incorporate them into this house project then weed out what we can’t use or what is too expensive – it’s a sort of reverse engineering process, I guess!
Our first meeting basically consisted of us outlining some of the ideas we have regarding building styles, alternate energy systems, net zero construction, material types and sources and a draft timeline. We have no real idea where things will go from here but I suppose that is the topic for my next post. Stay tuned – more updates to follow as additional developments happen.
As many of you know, I’m quite interested in alternate energy, recycling and reclamation systems, self sufficiency and sustainability. My knowledge is growing but I have a long way to go. That said, I’m happy to announce that I’m starting a new section on my blog titled “The Greening of Knight.” Over the next two, three, four years (I don’t know the actual time frame), Josée and I hope to build a new house on our property. This project will have four pillars of construction:
- ENERGY: The house will be self-sufficient as regards energy consumption. We may use a combination of energy sources and systems: geothermal, solar, gravitational dynamos, wind. Both passive and active systems will be engaged. Our initial plan was to build an off grid residence but after additional consideration, it would be more of a challenge (which we relish) to build a grid-connected house, producing a regular surplus of energy which could be sold back to the grid. Obviously this will only work if proceeds from a sale would result in a cash rebate, rather than energy credits.
- COST: Over the past months, I’ve spoken with a number new home owners who were interested in non-conventional construction strategies but when confronted with the cost quickly turned tail and went with the status quo. This is an understandable decision. Our project needs will be designed such that it costs exactly zero dollars more per square foot than conventional construction. This is the only way that contractors, municipalities and other individuals will consider alternate construction methods as valid. In addition to an equal (or lower) construction cost, we will implement a cost recovery tracking system. I want to monitor our energy consumption in order to determine exactly when our benefit (energy production and re-sale) has exceeded our cost (implementing the systems).
- LOCAL: I feel it important to source materials locally and use local labour, local skills. I’m not sure if this is entirely feasible at this point but additional research over time should determine the viability of this requirement.
- IMPACT: We wish our project to have zero impact on our property. Some of the concepts we will implement include rainwater harvesting systems, grey water reclamation, radiant flooring heat (hey, the Romans had it!), on-demand geo or solar heated water and the list goes on. I’ll add more detail as we go but for the time being suffice it to say that the ideas come thick and fast – some practical and probable, some in-exact and borderline insane!
This journey will be an interesting challenge on several levels. The nay-sayers are out there; I’m bumped into a few already! Josée and I are quite excited about the possibilities, especially as we are in the brainstorming phase – no idea is a bad idea. In subsequent blog entries, I’ll write more on the professionals who will be helping us on the project. In the meantime, if you read this and want to join our team, please contact me. Stay tuned and if anyone has suggestions, ideas or input, please jot down a comment or email us.
I just finished watching a documentary titled Crude Impact. The main theme was our continued use of fossil fuels and the approaching ‘deadline’ of peak oil which is basically the time at which global production of fossil fuels begins to decline and can’t increase (due to reserves being depleted). For the most part, the movie was quite good; it had a bit of the scare tactics of non-mainstream documentaries (quiet, serious narration etc.) but the content was useful and interesting. Sometimes it’s easy to just think that the problem is too big or that one person can’t make a difference but what I took from the documentary is that it is precisely the individual who does make the difference.
Some of the minor key changes we can make are to shop locally and sustainably, for things we really need, not those which society dictates we acquire. I learned that food production is one of the number one consumers of fossil fuels; gas for farm machinery, petroleum products for fertilizers and pesticides, fuel for transportation and distribution and so on. This morning, I ate a few grapes for breakfast without even thinking about where they came from and how much it actually cost in terms of energy (and subsequent pollution etc.) to get them to my fridge. They probably came from Chile or California. Think that it doesn’t make much of a difference? It takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of energy available in the average ‘home-cooked meal’. We can reduce this massively by shopping at local bakeries, farm markets and other sources. Not only does it reduce energy consumption, we get healthier products and help to sustain local economies.
Take a few minutes to watch the movie; I think you can get it either from the actual site or from the library as well. If nothing else, it will make you a little more aware of the energy in your life!
Categories: Commentary, General interest
Tags: alternate energy, Crude Impact, energy, peak oil, petroleum, solar, sustainable living, The Corporation, Walden, wind
I was having a discussion with a friend of mine who was bemoaning our use of a wood stove as our primary heating source. He quoted all the usual arguments – pollution, environmentally unfriendly, dirty, inefficient to name a few. I thought it interesting that he didn’t seem to mind the electric base-board heat in his house. Here are a few facts and thoughts on wood as fuel.
- Burning wood releases the same amount of pollution into the atmosphere as wood left to rot on the forest floor. There is no difference. The manner in which it is released is different – combustion versus decomposition – but the net effect is the same. Although carbon makes up about half the weight of firewood and is released as carbon dioxide when the wood is burned, it is part of a natural cycle. A tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the air as it grows and incorporates this carbon in its structure. When the tree falls and decays in the forest, or is processed into firewood and burned, the carbon is released again to the atmosphere. This cycle can be repeated forever without increasing atmospheric carbon. Heating with wood, therefore, does not contribute to the greenhouse effect. Moreover, when wood energy displaces the use of fossil fuels, the result is a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
- The firewood we gather is from our property so we expend very little in the way of energy (gas for the car or paying a delivery vehicle) to harvest the wood. We haven’t started yet but this summer I plan to start a re-forestation project on our property. We have enough wood here for probably 20 years or more but it doesn’t hurt to start new trees early.
- Depending on the source, generating a unit of electricity can actually require three units of energy. For instance, most electrical energy in North America comes from coal-fired plants. It requires three units of coal buring to generate one unit of electrical energy which is obviously not a good ratio. Consider the pollution effect of the coal being mined and subsequently burned and this ratio increases further.
- Natural gas, oil and other fossil fuel derivatives release carbon from its “stored” state but have no mechanism to re-absorb this released carbon.
- Wood is natural and renewable.
Ultimately our goal is to build a new house which is completely off-grid and produces 100% of it’s own energy through solar, wind and geothermal sources. The technology to make this happen is here – we as a society just need to use it. Until then, we’ll enjoy our woodstove and the wonderfully ‘warm’ warmth it produces.