Compare this “Cheap” Coal Option with the Idea of Passive Houses

This article in the NY Times covers growing interest in home use of coal stoves, but conveniently fails to review the complete cost of coal mining, the subsidies that the coal and other petro fuel industries get from our tax dollars, the long term cleanup costs of accidents like the coal slurry spill this past week, the environmental devastation of mountain top removal mining.

I think it is important that the complete context be considered when thinking about energy and comfort and how we live here. Simply looking at the cost of $165 per ton and the question about dealing with the coal ash is not the whole picture.

“Cheap” coal is not an elegant solution.

clipped from www.nytimes.com

Burning Coal at Home Is Making a Comeback

SUGARLOAF, Pa. — Kyle Buck heaved open the door of a makeshift bin abutting his suburban ranch house. Staring at a two-ton pile of coal that was delivered by truck a few weeks ago, Mr. Buck worried aloud that it would not be enough to last the winter.
Problematic in some ways and difficult to handle, coal is nonetheless a cheap, plentiful, mined-in-America source of heat. And with the cost of heating oil and natural gas increasingly prone to spikes, some homeowners in the Northeast, pockets of the Midwest and even Alaska are deciding coal is worth the trouble.

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Low Energy Demand Housing

This article from the NY Times describes super-airtight houses that use almost no energy to remain warm and comfortable. The article says the cost of construction is 5 to 7% higher than conventional construction. I have a sense that the payback on the slightly higher construction costs are going to be recaptured rather quickly through the greatly reduced utility bill.

None of that personal accounting for cost addresses the larger social savings of a reduced energy grid, lowered pollution etc.

There are solutions to our problems on the small blue planet. We have to choose them individually and encourage our governments to enact public policy that encourages sensible, sustainable choices.

clipped from www.nytimes.com
The Energy Challenge

No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses’
Published: December 26, 2008

DARMSTADT, Germany — From the outside, there is nothing unusual about the stylish new gray and orange row houses in the Kranichstein District, with wreaths on the doors and Christmas lights twinkling through a freezing drizzle. But these houses are part of a revolution in building design: There are no drafts, no cold tile floors, no snuggling under blankets until the furnace kicks in. There is, in fact, no furnace.

In Berthold Kaufmann’s home, there is, to be fair, one radiator for emergency backup in the living room — but it is not in use. Even on the coldest nights in central Germany, Mr. Kaufmann’s new “passive house” and others of this design get all the heat and hot water they need from the amount of energy that would be needed to run a hair dryer.

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Propane Cars!

We have played with lots of small steps that we can take in our day to day life to create a sustainable and satisfying life.  Our old house is a great place that catches a lot of sunlight in the winter months.   It’s got a massive basement and foundation that seems to be a good heatsink to keep the place relatively cool in the summer.  We have been paring our energy consumption and converting the lawn around the building into an edible forest, but we have to wander away from the place from time to time and when we do, we are often grabbing the car keys and going for a ride.  

This has been troubling us more and more as it becomes clear how inherently destructive the internal combustion engine is.   There don’t seem to be many options to internal combustion.  We can grab the bus, it’s burning diesel.  We can ride the bike or walk, but our regular daily lives take us beyond bike and foot range on most days, so we have been reluctantly staying with automobiles as primary transportation.

It may be that the car of the future will be electric and maybe we can convert to clean and sustainable electric generation  over time, but for now we are driving cars with internal combustion engines.

Given that reality, we decided to try converting our cars to run on propane instead of gasoline.   The greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions of a propane vehicle are way under the greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions of a gasoline or diesel vehicle.  That sounds pretty good.  It seems like a good transitional step that we can use while we wait for sustainable transport to show up at our doorstep.

I will tell you a little more about our propane vehicle conversions in the posts to come.

Meanwhile, here are some good links about propane cars if you are interested:

More to come about propane conversion.

How Many People Can a Small Blue Planet Support?

The easy answer is that no one knows how many people can live in a sustainable way on this amazing world.  We can make some guesses about the number and we can review what the limiting factors will be.  Let’s do that.

There a lot of factors that could pose an eventual limit on population.

Global food supply is one of the potential limiting factors.  This one seems like it might Fatal Harvestcome into play because so much of the planet’s food supply is now produced through petro-chemical industrial agriculture and this form of agriculture is doomed by peak oil.  This industrial food supply is also subject to the issues that plague mono-crop agriculture.

This is an important problem and we should think hard about how we create a sustainable planet agriculture, but I don’t think this is likely to be the primary limiting factor on human population.

What about air supply?   As we burn everything in sight we definitely create changes in the thin wisp of atmosphere that is the essential home to all the living things we know and love.

The atmosphere is primarily nitrogen with a healthy splash of oxygen and a sprinkle of carbon dioxide and then a whole bunch of trace gases.  Lots of the green beings on the planet really dig the nitrogen, these green beings grow, other beings eat them.  The green beings breathe in the nitrogen and carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.  The beings that are grazing the green beings breathe in the oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.  It’s a pretty good arrangement.   As we foul the atmosphere we end up with all sorts of population constraints – like lung cancer, asthma, heart disease, etc.   But I don’t think air supply is going to be the primary constraint on human population.

Here’s the one that I think is going to hit the hardest and soonest:  water.  Even with the bottled water industry working overtime it seems likely that a day is coming when water is going to be scarce.  

The water factor is likely to be exacerbated by global warming.   We can anticipate increased water shortages in areas that rely on glacial melt, like India and Pakistan, for a good portion of their fresh water.  But the simple fact is that nothing we can do is going to change the fresh water supply on this small blue planet.  The fresh water supply is the same now as it was 2000 years ago when the world population was 3% of what it is today.

Can we calculate how many people this small blue planet can support?  I don’t think we can.  I think we are probably already exploring and living in the realm of unsustainable human population at 6 billion plus.  My guess is that the planet can sustain a population of 2 or 3 billion humans.   It’s an educated guess, but still a guess.  The troubling aspect of our situation is that no one is coming up with a good way to reduce the human population.  Famine and conflict are ugly population controls.  We can do better.  I hope we do.  And sooner rather than later.

Climate Change is Happening Faster Than Expected

I have repeated this warning like a mantra for several years. There are several factors with the predictions and modeling for climate change that will lead to the change being more rapid than projected. The factors are complex and varied, I can spell some of them out, but the bottom line is that we have less time than we think to fix the problem. The cost of the fix increases every day we delay. The impact is being felt. People around the world already know it is happening. The 5 to 7 degree range by 2100 is a slow moving disaster and it is probably the best we can hope for. Read this article in full if you have a couple of minutes.

clipped from www.washingtonpost.com

Faster Climate Change Feared

New Report Points to Accelerated Melting, Longer Drought

By Juliet Eilperin

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008;
Page A02


The United States faces the possibility of much more rapid climate change by the end of the century than previous studies have suggested, according to a new report led by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Ice sheets in the Antarctic and Greenland, above, are losing 48 cubic miles per year, pushing up sea level worldwide.


The survey — which was commissioned by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and issued this month — expands on the 2007 findings of the United Nations Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change. Looking at factors such as rapid sea ice loss in the Arctic and prolonged drought in the Southwest, the new assessment suggests that earlier projections may have underestimated the climatic shifts that could take place by 2100.

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Population is a Fundamental Question

So, how many human beings can this small blue planet actually support in a sustainable manner?

Before we think hard about that question we have to review the population pattern of homo industrialus.   Courtesy Temperate Forest FoundationHere is a graph from the Temperate Forest Foundation.  As you can see there were about 1 billion of us around 1860 and now there are over 6 billion of us and the trend continues up.

A short review of the population work of Thomas Robert Malthus may be in order.  Malthus thought that conflict, war, pestilence, famine were natural consequences and controls on population.  I don’t think Malthus could foresee huge leaps in human productivity, health, longevity that developed with the petro-industrial age and the advances in the sciences, but I think it is an open question whether these advances enable us to avoid the devastating controls on population that Malthus saw as natural processes.  I hope that an advance, a new paradigm, the birth of post-petro human culture may produce new ways of being that defy imagination and that such an advance might seek a  way to establish a sustainable and relatively peaceful human presence on the planet.  I think the transition is likely to be tough.  I don’t know how we get from the current dominant paradigm of capitalistic individualism to a more natural, sustainable, indigenous way of being a component of the diversity of life on this small blue planet.  I write here in the hope that by posing questions, by sharing advances, knowledge, wisdom, data that we may somehow collectively bring something new into the world.  Perhaps a view of the place of our species as a component of a diverse biosphere instead of a view of human as pinnacle of creation?   I suspect that the pride that comes with seeing oneself as the pinnacle of creation precedes a fall.

Enough back ground, in 150 years we went from 1 billion people to over 6 billion people and we may be headed for 9 billion by 2100.  How many people can the planet support in a sustainable manner?  And let’s define sustainable as a life of relative comfort and safety, but not an affluent life.  Let me do some research and we will then review that question.