Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Searching, But For What?

I subscribe to a mailing list on the subject of peak oil, well a couple actually, but one in particular. In general the mail sent to these lists is passing on news relevant to the realm of peak oil debate and discussing that news. There are the occasional digressions as with all such lists, and then there are the questions on solutions, and debate over those. There is no general thread of looking for solutions, just reactive comment on solutions presented in the media.

A number of peak oil focussed forae suffer from a similar problem. They are news filters, which serves a purpose, but that seems to be their entire rationale for existence. Occasionally someone comes along and asks about the feasibility of some alternate source of energy, and is generally given the bad news. I wonder to myself, what is the point of trawling through all this stuff if the best that can be offered is essentially “there is no hope”?

There are of course no solutions to peak oil, as such. There are only responses. These responses can occur at a number of levels in society, and as many prominent thinkers have pointed out, the best responses are at the local and personal level. The effects of change at these levels will ultimately filter up through all other levels of society.

Accepting the realities of EROEI as a limiting factor in all debates over responses, along with the realities of finite resources, we are presented with a very simple set of possible responses. Well, it seems simple to my mind, perhaps I'm missing something.

There is one possible positive response. Reduction. Plain and simple. We don't use as much “stuff”. We reduce our population to sustainable levels, and at the same time reduce our consumption to sustainable levels. We live off the natural increase of the environment whilst allowing enough for the other species of the Earth and leaving the capital as an investment.

There are a raft of negative responses. There's no point detailing them, a look over some of the main peak oil sites will readily illustrate the general themes.

Given that there is only one plausible positive response, in what light do we consider suggestions for alternatives within our various ways of life?

Questions on the feasibility of alternative energies are invariably met with the response, “if we converted X% of our output of Y product to Z fuel then it would only replace a squillionth of our current demand.” and the discussion comes to a halt there.

Yes, this is an honest appraisal of the thermodynamic realities we are faced with. Still, it seems to miss a valuable point. In light of our single positive response what impact would such an alternative energy have? How can it be used within the context of a world that has embraced that single positive response? The respondents to the original questions only seem to consider the question in terms of preserving the status quo. What if the question were couched in terms of a new worldview, where we have taken the necessary steps under the positive plan? What gains may we see from it?

We need to give up on the idea of having lives like they are today. Our lives tomorrow will be nothing like they are today. Once we can do that, we can consider options in a new light. Biodiesel will not fuel a future that's like today. If the future is one where we have reduced population, reduced consumption, where 90% of the population walks to where they need to go, produces vegetables in their back yards, collects rain water off their rooves, then biodiesel could well allow farmers to continue producing bulk grain crops. It wont allow us to motor to the corner store 500m down the road, but it might allow us to get grain after that 500m walk, and have bread for lunch after the walk back again.

A lot of peak oil discussion is still operating from basis of attempting to preserve our current way of life, it is innate to the mindset of the people considering options for the future. We will not get ahead, we will have no meaningful discussion with respect to alternative energies, until we accept the condition of reduction in the first instance and from there go on to consider their feasibility. A future 1kWhr per day per household lifestyle is a much greater possibility than a 20kWhr per day per household lifestyle. The possibility of achieving that are orders of magnitude greater. If we throw our hands in the air and give up because we cannot achieve the 20kWhr lifestyle then we are shooting ourselves in the foot, cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

While ever we are wasting out time and energy searching for ways to escape the unavoidable realities we are missing many valuable chances to take opportunities and courses of action that will lead to our ultimate benefit in the future, a future markedly different than our current state, but at the least possessing a rational balance of modernity and sustainability.

Above are some Chinese Tallow Tree (Sapium sebiferum) cuttings. These guys will produce the most oil per hectare of any crop short of algae, according to some sources, and the infrastructure required is going to be a lot less.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Carbon Shock, Trees & Sheds

I'm having a bash at Green With A Gun's carbon accounting. At this early stage I'm tracking most things, but estimating water and power use from my records, which are pretty extensive. I'm a compulsive grapher of such things, and get excited when a new water or power bill arrives, until I realise that I have to pay for it as well as graphing it... I figure we're going to get the worst up front, and in future months when we have a chance to make some changes we can measure the figures more accurately.

So how do the numbers look so far? Pretty poor to be honest.

For a household of 5, two adults and three kids, we're going to be spending more than ¢1200 this month, leaving us with a deficit of over ¢700. Can I put it on the credit card???

There will still be numbers for purchases, compost, rubbish & recycling, and fuel use to come in over the course of the month, but the big numbers, water and power use, are already in there, and they're huge! I thought we were doing fairly well given that I work out of home, one of the reasons for the big power bill I guess, that and the oversized off-peak water heater we were left by the previous owners, designed to fill the massive spa for lazy lounging in steaming bubbly water, a legacy of times before people considered the environment in advance of leisure time activities.

Still, there are surely ways to reduce this overall usage, even given the fact that we wont be spending up big on major changes due to the fact that we are hoping to move on sooner rather than later. Teaching the kids to turn off taps and lights properly would be a good start, and being more rigorous in turning off my computer would help as well. Until we get the power and water down then everything else is dwarfed in comparison. A bit like changing to compact flouro light globes and then driving to the corner shop four times a day.

Yesterday I potted on the elm seedlings we started last year. Eighteen tiny elm trees now in individual pots. They'll be grown on for another year before being planted out in one of the hedgerows-to-be out at the new farm. We've got six oaks begun at the same time that will go out this winter if I can organise some form of tree guards for them. I'll have to choose my month carefully for those, ¢900 back on the account would be nice! I'm leaning toward some recycled apple bins, knock the base out of them, and replace a couple of the boards on the north side with old netting, as well as slinging a bit it over the top. We've got a gully full of the stuff, ready to be recycled, so it seems like a carbon saving plan to me.

I love propagating trees, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, but we're faced with two challenges now that we have enough land to put in (almost) as many trees as we can imagine. Water and protection. Whilst the water is around, getting out to the block weekly during summer may be a challenge, though Mum has kindly offered to help out there, so one challenge may be surmountable. Hares and roos are the other challenge. There isn't much we can do about the roos, they're a part of the environment that we need to learn to live with, but the hares, well, we might be sampling a few new dishes in the coming months. I hear jugged hare is a winner.

I'm also working on some plans for a shed. I've recently come into possession of a large pile of steel that would be suitable for the roof spans on a nice shed. After spending some evenings over the weekend working up a suitable rough plan I did some costings. Then I compared those costs to some kit sheds that are available. I was in for a nasty shock. Even with the savings from all the steel, the major component of the cost of the shed will be cladding and roofing. Roofing alone would cost over $6 000, walling another $4 000, so changing the walling material is only going to reduce the cost to around $10 000, before the costs of fitting out for temporary accommodation. The kit shed costs around $10 000 complete (not including fitout for accommodation of course), with the added bonus of not needing to visit engineers to get it certified, and certainly enjoying an easier journey through the council gauntlet. We're not rushing into anything just yet, who knows, another couple of tons of steel could turn up, or a shed's worth of corrugated iron, but at this stage the sensible option would seem to be the kit shed. Now, what can I possibly use 20 odd curved spans of I-beam for?