Sustainability

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I am quite committed to doing what I can to be sustainable and perhaps to show how it can be done for others, This is unlike the 3% of scientists and 40+% of the general public who think that there is nothing that we can or should do to keep the Earth sustainable for the future. 3% of scientists get about 50% of the coverage on most media in the interests of “fairness” and “balance”. The argument is not balanced. It is as definite as you can be in anything you might do in life. Humans are causing the climate to change and unless we do many things then we will ruin the world for future generations.

Rather than try to convince anyone to believe one way or another, this page collects a number of articles that I hope make sense. The headings below summarise what I have put together so far. Energy, Water, Food and Consumer goods are the key contributors to unsustainable lifestyles so I will tag posts with each of those themes. If you think I have said anything here that is worthwhile you know what to do in social media.

Energy

The first and foremost issue with sustainability is energy usage. Building design, more efficient appliances and reducing waste are the keys to better efficiency. I have embarked on a journey to improve an already good building design and to make it more efficient. It has worked well so far but there are many lessons to be learned. Hopefully the lessons learned are useful.

I have managed to reduce my gas usage by 75% and electricity usage by 2/3. How?

  • Double glazing made a difference of nearly 30% on its own
  • Better curtains and other internal window treatments made about 10% difference
  • External window treatments made a big but difficult to measure difference. Mainly it stops the house from getting hot in Summer. It makes at least 5 degrees difference on the hottest days of Summer and reduced the need for cooling when the outside temperature is over 32 degrees.
  • Growing a creeper on the west facing wall to reduce the temperature in Summer.
  • Changing appliances and using hot water inputs to the dishwasher and clothes washer.
  • Changing to LED lights. This included closing up the vents in downlights that were originally installed.
  • Installing a skylight which opens in Summer to let hot air out and create a draught of cooler air through bedroom windows
  • Installing an active heating panel that provides solar heating through the South side rooms of the house and bedrooms.
  • Installing solar PV panels with grid connect

 

Articles focused on Energy are:

Water

Water costs a lot to provide domestically. We need very clean and pure water for drinking and cooking. Slightly less purified for washing (pure in terms of micro-organisms removed) and much less pure water for flushing toilets, washing cars and watering gardens. At the same time it costs a lot of money to provide storm water drainage to remove rain water from our rooves. We water plants with pure treated water.

A hundred years ago not many people had “Town Water” and used water stored in tanks for most of their daily needs. Toilets were outside and not flushed with water. Gardens produced food with only a little bit of water to keep them going when the weather was very hot and dry. I have been experimenting with some ways to store water and use it in and around the house. The easy part is to catch the roof runoff and store it in water tanks to water my vegetable gardens. The harder parts are to reduce the need for purified water in daily use.

  • Removing grassed areas – lawn
  • Ponds for catching runoff on a sloping block
  • Raised garden beds for growing fruit and vegetables
  • Growing drought tolerant plants
  • Removal of some decorative plants and replacing them with more water efficient ones
  • Water tanks to store runoff from my roof
  • Using stored water for the fruit and vegetables

In the future:

  • Very large capacity water storage
  • Toilet flushing with tank water
  • Grey water recycling for gardens from bath and shower water cycled through the ponds
  • Tank water for clothes washing
  • Extend ponds to store more ground runoff and grey water capacity

 

Articles focused on Water are:

 Food

A large amount of cost and waste is due to the way we buy and consume food. I can see how my own buying and storage contributes to problems.

Things I am doing to improve my sustainability:

  • Growing staple vegetables. Capsicum, tomatoes, corn, zucchini, eggplant, spinach and chillis
  • Growing berries. Raspberries and blueberries
  • Growing citrus. Lemons and limes
  • Growing perennial herbs. Thyme, oregano
  • Annual herbs. Corriander, basil etc
  • Growing Olives

Future options:

  • Nut trees/bushes. Hazelnut and walnut seem appropriate for this climate
  • A small amount of grain crop – yet to be determined
  • Starting capsicum seedlings early in the glasshouse and transplanting in October
  • Starting tomatoes from seed and transplanting in November (glasshouse again)
  • Growing more basil and coriander in a mini greenhouse and/or inside
  • Add another 3 sq metres of garden bed for more vegetables
  • Better distribution of plants so that they get more light and are less crowded
  • Plan my corn two per week over 8-12 weeks so I get more over a longer period (and don’t have to pick and freeze)
  • Consider oranges near the ponds
  • Grow more beans and peas over the cooler months

Articles focused on Food are:

Consumer Goods

Where to now?

While reading Capital in the 21st Century I was thinking. A century ago, the means of production was considered the most important economic asset - you could make things in factories and sell them in high volumes to earn a high return on investment. Two centuries ago it was agricultural land (and slaves in the USA) that earned the most money because food was in demand. Now it is human capital because of the predominance of service based income. It seems likely that growth on the order of 3-5%, as it has been for the past 30 years, will be unsustainable because of resource limitations. But which kind of resource is likely to be the limiter? What will the future look like?

Note:published with sections incomplete Sept 29 2014

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Small-ish Change; Big improvement

Last weekend A friend and myself took down a 30 year old pergola. Already I am feeling an improvement.

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Next Steps for My Sustainability

It is a few years since I updated my plans. Some of the plans have been realised and some not yet started. I am now start putting some costs and outcome/benefits projections into the posts so we can see if those come true.

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The benefits of rain in Canberra

Factoid for you. A rain even of 10mm across the Snowy Mountains produces a runoff of between 20 and 50 Giga litres of water, depending on how dry the ground is, sunshine/evaporation and recent rains etc. The value of that to the Australian economy may surprise you...

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Who needs Oil and Coal?

Having a look at some of the oil exploration figures and pricing for electricity last weekend, I thought I might see how much the cost of oil might need to be before it is more economic to run cars and other transport on electricity. With the sun shining brightly and lots of electricity going into the grid from my PV panels, I started to think of how far away it might be before we are living in a very different world. A world as different as it was when my father was born into a world where private transport was by horse or walking, telephones were rarely in private homes and electricity was only just becoming commonplace for lighting.

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Sunshine is the best heating

Well into Winter now and the very short days are here. Paradoxically this is the best time for heating the house from sunshine. Walking on the slate with bare feet when it is -4 degrees outside and opening curtains to let the sunshine in is a great pleasure. With sun coming in to nearly 4 metres almost all the floor is warm now. Late afternoon in the sun is t-shirt weather inside while it is 12 or so degrees outside. This is good and happily the double glazing works very well for the sunny days.

I still think there is some further benefit to be gained from increasing insulation in the roof and walls. That looks feasible before the next summer. Add the increased sunlight from removing shadows cast by the existing pergola and it could add 4 kWh of heating and reduce 12 kWh of cooling (heat leakage) to the daily winter heat budget - when I complete these improvements.

With energy costs approaching 15c and 25c for gas and electricity (per kWh) respectively that amounts to over a dollar a day in gas saving. Effectively $150 a year which is significant but secondary to the sheer comfort and joy of being in a warm and sunny place. Compared with 5 years ago, when I needed to have heating of some sort all of June and July all through the day or be quite cold, the difference is remarkable. 21 degrees inside with no heating on compared to 18-19 with heating on - guilt free :).

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No heating needed in May

It is pleasant to report that over the past five days I have not needed to use any heating at all in a Canberra May! Sunlight has been enough to keep the house very warm. This may change after the colder weather expected this weekend but it is promising.

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Growing about 30% of my own food

A rough calculation shows that I grew around 30% of the food I ate in the warmer 8 months of the past year. Most of that was from vegetables grown in Summer and then stored one way or another. I am still eating zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant and chilli from before the frosts. Raspberry jam from two weekends ago should last about a year. There is a kilo or more corn in the freezer and I made tomato puree that will do for a few weeks. If I am lucky I might be able to increase this percentage for next year with more garden beds and a better approach to growing corn and capsicum.   What I cannot conveniently grow myself are dairy foods, cooking oil and most grains. So for the next two years I will experiment with:

  • Nut trees/bushes. Hazelnut and walnut seem appropriate for this climate
  • A small amount of grain crop - yet to be determined
  • Starting capsicum seedlings early in the glasshouse and transplanting in October
  • Starting tomatoes from seed and transplanting in November (glasshouse again)
  • Growing more basil and coriander in a mini greenhouse and/or inside
  • Add another 3 sq metres of garden bed for more vegetables
  • Better distribution of plants so that they get more light and are less crowded
  • Plan my corn two per week over 8-12 weeks so I get more over a longer period (and don't have to pick and freeze)

Slightly exciting to plan this.

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Energy update

Not much really but I used 5.2 MWh of electricity in a year and generated 3.4 MWh from the PV panels. Predicted generation was 2.6 MWh from the supplier so all seems good to me. Getting the electricity usage lower is going to be hard because of an electric oven and running a lot of electrical equipment. Still I think I can get below 5MWh per annum easily and perhaps to 4 if I replace some appliances and/or install some building automation to control some things.

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Sustainable products are not yet mature - they need to be!

There are a lot of products out there. A lot of them tell you that they are good at what they do and are sustainable in some way. The trouble is that they are very hard to use and install.

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Energy Efficient Home

A few people wanted to know a bit more about my house. It is interesting in a number of ways so I will make a start. This is a very long post/article. Pictures to come.

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Green Power and real change

Recent investigations into Green Power claims make me think... Why should we choose some institutionalised approach to investing in more environmentally friendly energy sources? Why can't we buy direct or directly invest in the generation of solar or other renewable power?

The people selling the Green Power products are not exactly in favour of it. They are committed to coal and other traditional methods of generation. BUT they are happy to have use pay the extra money to buy something that we might think is helping the environment. Of course, caveat emptor - we need to check up on them to see that we are getting what we think we are and not subsidising the things we are hoping to change.

One reason is that private or privatised Government corporations now own the public infrastructure that was paid for in the past by the public purse. They are able to make decisions that are not subject to scrutiny like Government is. Then we have the energy retail business that was supposed to be "contestable". It is not really and Green Energy shows that well. Even if Green Electricity is cheaper to generate and buy, it will remain more expensive in the pricing model offered - it is declared to be more expensive (because we will pay it) and that is the end of the discussion.

Now, wouldn't it be nice to be able to invest in a small solar thermal or wind generator that sells the electricity to the grid and just buy your electricity at normal prices? Sure, there is a risk in that. It might cost you extra because of troubles with the generator or the conditions might be bad for a long time and you will not earn much. The upside is that you know you are helping with genuine reduction in the need for fossil fuel and you know you are not being deluded by fancy marketing spin (assuming you are involved in the generator more actively). What would it cost to do this? Lets say you had a 1/10th share in a $200k generator. $20k is a big investment but it will return you money that covers the margin between normal electricity prices and the premium prices for "Green Power". On top of this, if electricity prices rise, you will get a higher return. When the Carbon Tax/Offset/Levy comes in you can sell credits and make more money. It could be a new kind of cottage industry for those who have the ability to get involved as a true investor in sustainable energy.

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House-work

Over the past four weeks I have had a lot of work done around the house. The kitchen was refurbished last weekend. Double glazing was done. Skylights were installed in the large room and kitchen. New refrigerator and dishwasher, sink etc. Old curtains replaced with blinds. Finally, a solar powered heating system for the house. All this will make the house much more energy efficient. It should save at least 25% of the energy use in the house. How?

  1. The heating will keep the house at about 20 degrees during the day across Winter. That on its own will save quite a bit of energy for heating the house up. Overall, the house is warmed already so that when the gas heater (a small "room heater") comes on it has much less to heat.
  2. The skylights reduce the amount of time that I will need to use electric lighting. Previously, I needed to have the lights on most mornings because of the house design blocking direct sunlight from the East. Later in the day the same thing would happen. In the kitchen, I needed a light to see properly during the day because it is on the South and with plants close to the window. Curtains over the windows meant that less light came in even when the curtains were opened.
  3. Double glazing means that far less heat is lost through the windows. This house has a lot of windows. On the South side heat gain and loss through the windows could only be stopped by closing curtains. That meant running lights... and a less pleasant lifestyle, unconnected to the outside. Now, I can have the blinds open and feel like I am in the open. -3 degrees outside and 18 degrees inside and no feeling of cold at all in the morning.
  4. Kitchen appliances were a problem. The refrigerator was too big and that meant it was always turning on and off. A smaller one with a higher efficiency rating means that I will use 200kWh less electricity a year. The dishwasher I had could only be connected to a cold water tap. The one I have now can be connected to hot water. This means that the old one heated the water with an electric element slowing the wash and also using more energy than desirable. When I install the solar hot water later this year, the benefit will be even greater because the water is heated by the sun rather than fossil fuels.
  5. With heavy curtains on windows the house could be kept quite warm in Winter and cool in Summer. However, the curtains still blocked 20% of the light and heat when I opened them on a Winter day to let the sunlight in. This is overcome completely with the blinds I now have that let the light in and only need to provide privacy and/or light control for me rather than holding the heat in or out.
  6. In the main room (dining and lounge/living) the new skylight (called a roof window by some) lets more sun in during the winter and can regulate the amount of light in the Summer. It also opens so that I can use it to vent hot air through the cathedral ceiling and get a flow through that is called a thermal vent. In Canberra the overnight temperature gets down around 15 degrees overnight even when it is 35 during the day, due to being inland and over 600m above sea level.. The cooling effect that this has should make it much more comfortable and the need for any cooling rare. This is especially so because of the double glazing.

All this is good but there are more things to do. Four more windows need to be double glazed. I hope to have solar hot water will be installed in around October to November. I will be installing a type of awning over the narrow Westerly windows to keep the heat out in Summer (they will be open in the cooler months). The awnings will be a type that is easily raised and lowered and looks nicer than the normal open awnings. I will also be putting a similar thing on the North facing pergola to act as extended eaves. This will provide a blockout for Summer so that there is no heat in the house while allowing the heat in fully when I want it. Right now, I have the pergola covered with Wisteria and grapevines. I will remove the wisteria which will mean that there will be less damage to the gutters and pergola as well as better sunlight in April/May each year when the wisteria still has leaves but the house needs the sun. I might write a bit more about the work later this week. Right now, I will just enjoy it all.

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Energy efficiency or energy subsidies?

A simple question with a complex answer. Which is the best Public Policy? Subsidise energy usage for low income people or reduce their energy consumption by funding the improvement of home energy efficiency?

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Solar hot water subsidies

Glenn Pure wrote a letter in The Canberra Times on Saturday that sparked some discussion.

This page did some analysis on the subsidies and effectiveness of Solar Hot water and PV technologies - particularly payback periods and the effect of subsidies.

The bottom line is that you can get a return on investment for solar hot water in 2-5 years in Canberra if you are an average user of hot water. If you use a lot of hot water then you get a pay back quicker. There is almost no need for boosting because we have clear skies and the Evacuated Tube technology is so efficient at converting diffuse sunlight to heat.

Subsidies for solar hot water are low compared to the benefits that Government gets in terms of saving the need for building more generating capacity and from carbon emission reductions.

So the question is whether it is good Public Policy to provide large subsidies (~$A8,000) for PV electricity generation or to provide small subsidies (~$A2,400) for solar hot water where the benefits to Government and the consumer are actually higher for the smaller subsidy. If Procurement guidelines were followed then there is no doubt that the Value for Money requirements would not be met, technically putting the Government in breach of its own guidelines.

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Private or Public Generation for Renewable Energy?

Nearly everyone has moved on from denying that climate change is happening.The challenge to reduce greenhouse gasses and we see a big push for renewable energy generation from individual, BUT with a considerable counter push from fossil fuel lobbyists for a continuation of subsidies for coal diesel and other fuels. The assumption that underlies current Government Policy is that the best way to look after the future is to convince individuals to take personal responsibility for using and generating energy. There has been a huge push for subsidies to individuals who install renewable energy systems in private residences and the Federal Government (Australia) has allocated $500 million for rebates to fund renewable energy and energy conservation measures as direct rebates/subsidies to individuals. This might be good but why not invest that money in public utilities? I looked around for the kind of analysis I have done here and could not find it... yet it seems to be vital information for those deciding how they might do better when choosing how they get their energy. I have done some "back of the envelope" analysis that makes you think...

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Power Economics

An alternative or just a more economic choice for the long term?

An alternative or just a more economic choice for the long term?

 

The economics of power are not always what they seem. Here is a brief analysis of the relative economic merits of renewable energy and fuels for electricity production. The coal industry has been telling us all that renewables are not ready yet. That renewables might be ok in the future and that they are limited. The reality is quite different and the economics are starkly in favour of renewables right now, as the Stern Report clearly identified. The really expensive option is to ignore climate change and keep burning coal and other fossil fuels.

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Is renewable biofuel energy the "fix" for global warming?

We are sure as you can be that we are experiencing effects of global warming. Observed temperatures are in line or ahead of predictions from the Greenhouse Effect. We have been told many times that the main cause of that is emissions from burning fossil fuels. Clearly this is a problem that needs to be met head-on by replacing fossil fuels with renewables. Or does it?

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Oil Crunch

Back in the mid 1970's there was a group called "the Club of Rome" who wrote some papers that showed how exponential growth would cause the depletion of natural resources by about the year 2020 and probably by 2050, even if growth slowed. Where are we now?

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Happy Easter (Island), Dear World

So we have another lot of people telling us that there is no climate change and that fossil fuels are not the cause... and even if they were there are "so many" technical solutions. I have heard this before. Far too many times. I heard it from advisers to the former Prime Minister when they were given research findings that predicted a severe drought in the Murray Darling System. Guess what? This is not a new thing.

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