Energy

  • Wood heat

    Last Fall we installed a wood stove in our home, and turned off the furnace. Yesterday, we lit it again, and broke out the long merino underwear. Both will remain in more or less steady use through May. Honestly, we missed the pleasures of the stove even in July.

    soapstone wood stoveThis stove, about 500 pounds of handsome soapstone and iron, has completed our acclimation to Portland’s colder three seasons since we moved here from a balmy San Francisco microclimate in 2004.

    Before the stove, in this drafty old house with loads of single-pane on the south, we spent the gray months in a tightwad dilemma of whether to run the thermostat high to hold the chill at bay, or low to feed a faltering conceit of hardy frugality. Even run high, blowing warm air all over the house offered only thin comfort. No more.

    What does this have to do with biking? We can’t really tell where biking stops and the rest of life begins, but this connection to everyday biking feels as natural as that to, say, backyard chickens or slow food or knitting or beards. It’s just another thread of the Portlander good-life conspiracy.

    Riding every day year-round means exposure to extremes: beautiful, bracing, invigorating, enervating, excruciating, sometimes all at the same time. Coming in from even a few miles of cold wet riding — the CSA pickup or Costco run, the soccer practice or swim lesson, the dinner-at-friends, the commute — often means coming in with a chill, or damp from rain and sweat, or both. And for banishing a chill, and drying out clothes, and brightening your insides, nothing beats the gentle, penetrating radiance of a heavy stone stove. hearthThe room we have it in — formerly almost unused — has become a living working hearth, the center of the household, where everybody wants to be. A dutch oven sits atop with soup or stew. Pillows and chairs and board games ring the wool rug in front, while coats and boots and slippers toast in the corner.

    With forced air central heat, we tended to hunker down in the tepid drafts, layering on the wool, and avoiding the shock of opening a door. The uniformity of central thermostatic heating makes it unpleasant to engage and adapt bodily to the reality outside, isolating too completely from the season. In this respect it is akin to cars, whose mass, noise, speed, and enclosure deny their operators real presence in the places they pass through.

    In contrast, using the stove instead of a central furnace builds cold tolerance and hardiness, making outdoor errands afoot or awheel that much less forbidding. With the stove, unless fired full tilt, all the far corners of the house aren’t a whole lot warmer than outside. The bathrooms are often in the 40s; the kitchen not much warmer. The bedrooms: better be under heavy bedding with your love or a sack of marbles heated on the stove. snowpocalypseDuring last winter’s freak Portland “snowpocalypse,” there was often ice glazing the far windows. None of this is miserable, though, because your comings and goings through these cold spaces end back at the stove, where you can be barefoot and sweating if you like. It’s like an open-air hot tub, a sensual delight. This constant exposure to wide temperature swings takes the sting out of Portland’s chill. Within a month of firing it up, in the mornings we’d marvel at how comfortable we felt working in the 50F kitchen in pajamas as the stove came back up to heat.

    Riding your bike, growing and cooking your food, and heating your home with wood alike affirm that daily life processes of moving, eating and dwelling are best embraced actively and deliberately instead of by motor proxy or automated abstraction. laying it inWe laid in our heat in June, seasoned it, and will mete it out mindfully piece by fragrant piece in hundreds of slippered trips to the woodshed over the coming months. Sure it’s romantic, but utterly appropriate, practical, and sufficient, like getting around by bike in Portland.

    While we’re more comfortable than ever, we’re bringing far less total heat into our home than before; the average temperature is way down. Since wood heat, BTU for BTU, is comparable in cost to natural gas currently, this means we save money. Secondarily, the cold kitchen means the refrigerator doesn’t work as hard; our bills for both gas and electricity plummeted last winter. Wood is a local, renewable resource, nearly carbon neutral over a cycle of decades assuming rational management (big assumption, unfortunately). Both the state of Oregon and the US government offer substantial tax breaks for installing high efficiency, EPA-approved biomass heating systems like this.

    Local bikey blogger Jeremy Towsey-French began sharing his similar home heating project near the same time we installed our stove. Clever Cycles partner family the Mullins leapt with us, too; we share wood delivery now. So did local bike messenger Joel Metz: soapstone as well. So did my parents on the east coast: same model as Joel. It’s as if an odorless smoke signal to get wood stoves went up within our circle near and far, without any of us talking about it directly.

  • Elsewhere

  • Petrolius

    David and Goliath, Luke and the Death Star, and now perhaps this (OK, it’s a long shot). The parting, potent, uncharacteristic message of popular conservationist Steve Irwin might be “never underestimate a minor, peaceful creature’s capacity to flick a barb to the heart of the strong.”

    The majority of Fordââ?¬â?¢s vehicles get fewer miles per gallon than the classic Model-T did 80 years ago….” That’s mainly because the Model-T was much slower.

    “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” – Mohandas Ghandi

  • Vonnegut: Jeremiah

    One of the more lucid bits I came across in my early grappling with the concept of Peak Oil was Kurt Vonnegut’s Cold Turkey. Go read it if you haven’t already, or if you have. I think it’s perfectly spot on. Me and Kurt, we homeys.

    [...] I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver�s license! Look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut.

    And my car back then, a Studebaker, as I recall, was powered, as are almost all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused and addictive and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.

    When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialized world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won�t be any more of those. Cold turkey.

    Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn�t like TV news, is it?

    Here�s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.

    And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we�re hooked on.

    Through Gristmill, I just read another installment on the same note, a little more pointed. It’s about the gasoline, stupid. Don’t let the easy Bush-bashing make you too comfortable. “This is the end of the world.”

    OK, I think that might be a mild exaggeration. End of civilization as we know it, within our lifetimes? I’m well past halfway sure. Other parents I know look at me funny when I tell them I don’t think our children will drive–not as a matter of course, certainly not as a coming-of-age rite–so why inure them to it?

  • A tank of ethanol or a year of food?

    Holly over at Letter from Hen Waller nails it. Go read it!

  • Al Gore 3.0

    Some people think I was being harsh on Al Gore with my Convenient Lie post. Actually I like what he’s doing. There’s a good interview here, at Rolling Stone.

  • Bicycle MPG

    In A convenient lie, I asserted that a hypothetical 60-MPG car requires enough energy every hour to take a bicyclist 1250 miles. I gave some indication of my reasoning there. I also mentioned that ”precision is not required when the comparisons span orders of magnitude.”

    I’m having second thoughts about that last assertion, or at least with its premise that the differences are enormous. Yes, bikes are far more energy efficient than cars, but depending on how you conduct the analysis, the difference may not be as gross as I’ve assumed in positing that mass scale, heavy, high-energy personal transit is inherently non-sustainable without greater-than-real-time solar energy inputs (i.e., without fossil fuels).

    Over the years I’ve heard MPG-equivalent figures for bicycles ranging from >2,000 to just barely over 100 MPG. The degree of variability comes mainly from how you account for the fuel requirements to produce and distribute food. Food, that old Malthusian bugbear under the rug of cheap oil, might be waking up as we run out.

    It’s beyond my analytical competence (or enthusiasm) to sort out the conflicting estimates to pronounce a winner. But among the more interesting documents I’ve perused recently is a life-cycle analysis that puts the energy efficiency of electrically assisted bicycles 2-4 times ahead of purely human-powered ones, unless the cyclist eats only home-grown food — then it’s closer to a draw.

    Off you go, math-heads! I have some bicycle motor kits to assemble:

  • A convenient lie

    We saw An Inconvenient Truth two days ago. I’m still processing it, but my dominant thought is that we’re inescapably screwed. It felt like watching my child’s and grandchild’s death in slow motion, not to mention everybody else’s, and that whole civilization thing too. The film does a very good job at laying out just how incontrovertibly real and present the danger is, and how criminally insane or just plain evil are the ExxonMobil-funded naysayers and their dimwit believers. It can’t do any harm to expose that.

    I can clap with only one hand, though, because while Gore does drive home what’s at stake, he pulls the same punch so many other US environmental activists do in terms of appropriate mitigation. He wants us to buy compact fluorescent lightbulbs and hybrid cars, and keep the tires pumped up, amid many other little things. Add up all these mitigations and, sure, it’s a tick in the right direction, sort of like getting people to move their beach chairs a yard higher up on the sand as the tsunami approaches. It will be a major political achievement to upset all those dozing sunbathers and make it happen. Think of the sacrifice: drinks will spill and hundreds of square inches of mayonnaise surface will be fouled with sand. But tens of lives could be saved.

    Are people, en masse, really so pathetically stupid that they need to be told a progression of less and less bold lies before they’re ready for the inconvenient truth? Is it moral to bill a palatably convenient lie as the inconvenient truth, if the real truth were more likely to be rejected out of hand? Yes, Al is probably right on that one. He’s still a politician who understands that the wheel of a message needs traction before torque can do any good. Pressed specifically on advice to buy hybrids, he says obliquely “right now, the political environment in the country does not support the range of solutions that have to be introduced.” But right now is when we need to act.

    I have a bumper sticker on the back of our child’s bike seat that says “environmentalists don’t drive.” It’s not a boast of environmental virtue (I bike for other reasons mainly, and I do drive several times a year); it is a rebuttal to the absurdity of environmental bumper stickers on actual bumpers. It also identifies me, in the eyes even of many self-identified liberal environmentalists, as a completely unreasonable person, or at least a political liability. That’s just sad, because I think times like these call for more unreasonable people.

    Reasonable people of the world, wake up: hybrids and high-tech lightbulbs don’t go together because the energy it takes to drive a hypothetical “environmentally friendly” 60 MPG hybrid car is enough to run six-hundred (600) “wasteful” incandescent 60-watt lightbulbs (36kW/h). If you drive to the store in a Prius to upgrade to compact fluorescents, you are likely to cause more carbon emissions than if you bike to the store to get bad old incandescents.* In fact, every single hour that greener-than-thou car operates, it expends about the amount of energy necessary to ride a bicycle about 1,250 miles. (37.5kWh = 1,250mi @ 15Wh/mi, 25% metabolic efficiency). This doesn’t take into account the energy required to manufacture and dispose of a hybrid vehicle, which by some accounts is comparable to its lifetime operating energy costs. Gore’s tip to “reduce the number of miles you drive by walking, biking, carpooling or taking mass transit wherever possible” is like advising people who suffer from crippling headaches to “reduce the number of nails you drive into your forehead by taking up yoga, eating well, and getting enough sleep instead ‘wherever possible.’” Stop driving nails into your forehead altogether, and the other items turn from feeble mitigations into just plain good living. Looking at all household energy consumption in the United States together, driving accounted for nearly 60% in 2001: 1.5 times the cost of heating and air conditioning, lighting, cooking, appliances, etc. combined. Now consider that heating, cooking, lighting and so on are pretty basic conditions of civilization, while the institution of driving, shuttling around strapped into 4,000-lb personal cages at speeds unknown before the last century, is an entirely novel consumer asylum. It doesn’t need optimization; it needs to be phased out.

    Now, the energy used by cars isn’t the same as their greenhouse gas emissions, except in reality, and non-realities about how to package enough energy to run anything like a civilization-scale car fleet without vast emissions depend on numerous not-yet-invented technologies and are extremely capital intensive; they depend on wishing. That’s why it floors me that any kind of regular car use can be advocated in the same breath with better lighting (or similar personal energy expenditures) as part of a solution.

    Prius, Hummer, and Hypercar are pot, kettle, and Schroedinger’s cat in the dark box, and they’re all pretty black when your perspective of their relative harm isn’t distorted by being a regular driver, an addict among addicts, whose parents, doctors, ministers, teachers, colleagues, employers and employees, neighbors and friends all shoot up with barely a moan every time the needle slouches toward “E.” The moment your idea of a reasonable response to the threat of extinction lets go of common household car dependence is the moment it lets go of wishing, and passes the clean and sober sniff test.

    The only kinds of analyses that attempt to sketch out a sustainable future for car culture are the ones that start with cars as a must-have, and sustainability as a nice-to-have. Pull your head out of the last century and make a real choice. The challenge of the present century is not to sustain, but to recover from the devastation of having found a way to squander untold millions of years of petrified solar energy in less than a century, from having invested most of the wealth thereby created in infrastructure dependent on ongoing inputs of similar magnitude, and from having come to believe that lower-energy lives are somehow less advanced, a step backwards.

    We must learn to live close to one another again, with the remaining cheap energy we have. Contrary to popular belief, cities aren’t more crowded than they used to be, not even thriving residential areas; they are more sparse because it is no longer typical for several generations to dwell together under a common roof; family values start with home economics, not holiday tripping, shopping, and shipping. Cities appear overcrowded today because their public spaces — their streets — have been given over to large dangerous private vehicles, in motion and at rest. We need to stop investing in automotive infrastructure, and in utility subsidies to automobile-dependent development. We need to revive our light and heavy rail systems, and deploy ubiquitous broadband to support telecommuting for those industries it can support. We need to reform zoning to promote walking commutes and corner groceries. We need local agriculture. We need to replace “minimum required parking spaces” in development codes everywhere with “maximum permissible parking spaces.” Taxing carbon instead of income sounds like a good lever to reward these kinds of changes.

    I was fuming (figuratively) about all this while riding my son home yesterday. Coming the other way on one of Portland’s original hundreds of miles of 30-foot-wide multiple use paths (called “streets”) was a woman who looked to be in her forties, on an older bike. She had one child in a child seat, and was hauling a trailer with two more children in it. Behind the trailer were two more kids, perhaps six and eight years old, on their own bikes. I smiled, waved, and passed. About a block later I turned around and caught up to them, and started praising and thanking this stranger. “You must think I’m crazy!” she said. “O no! no!–well, you might be crazy in general, but at this instant you are the sanest person in a radius of several miles at least!” She laughed the laughter of Sarah–even at this late crossing, her line might survive to become a blessing to all nations–and I thanked her again, with a depth of sincerity my voice is incapable of conveying.

    Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race. H.G. Wells

    *The math gets hazy, help me out here… how far to the store? How many bulbs? How much closer could the store be if it didn’t need a parking lot, auto-engineered access routes and associated zoning? Precision isn’t necessary when the comparisons span orders of magnitude.

  • Senate GOP seeks $100 gas rebate checks

    Unbelievable. The free money plan includes drilling in Alaska, of course.

    I can’t quite forget or forgive James Howard Kunstler for spilling the seed of his rhetorical gifts on the ground with Y2K before Peak Oil. He is a professional doomsayer who drags down the credibility of real and present dangers by seeing them everywhere and always. I was baffled when some of my wiser friends were really worried about Y2K; some of those friends now look askance at me when I tell them I doubt my son and his playmates — his whole generation — will grow up to drive cars. “People aren’t going to stop driving, Todd; I’ll be first in line to buy a hydrogen car!” one told me.

    Still, a year ago Kunstler wrote this:

    ANWAR contains perhaps four billion barrels of oil. Since America uses over 20 million barrels a day (one billion every fifty days), ANWAR represents about a half year’s supply. It will take several years to ramp up production there, and to build the expensive pipelines needed to get the oil out. By that time, the US will have hit the wall of energy reality. Gasoline will already be expensive enough to cast doubt on the continuing project of suburbia. Since building suburban houses and all their accompanying infrastructure is the basis of our national economy, the world will have reason to conclude that the US has poor economic prospects, and therefore other nations will feel a steep disincentive to continue investing in our debt and equities. When that happens, the dollar craps out, credit evaporates, and a huge new class of economic losers materializes here in the US.

    When it becomes evident that Bush & Company have absolutely no energy plan beyond ANWAR, the Republican majority will begin its nauseating Icarus-like freefall from the political heights. Their unworthy opposition, the Democrats, may well go with them, since none of its stars and their hirelings have offered a single credible idea about America’s energy dilemma. The result of all this compounded lack of political cred is likely to produce disorder and, ultimately, some kind of extreme behavior — either the rise of a seriously nasty jingoistic new party pandering to all those economic losers, and / or some desperate affray with one or more of the many nations who are viewed as somehow causing America’s pain, whether that is Mexico, Venezuela, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, or, who knows, France.

    The one thing American leadership seems completely unprepared and unwilling to do is admit that the game is over for the American Dream of suburbia. Our leaders will not take even the first baby steps toward admitting that the way we live is a problem, for instance making a serious effort to restore passenger railroad service. The nation’s sense of identity is now tragically linked to a living arrangement that has no future. It’s especially tragic because before we embarked on this childish dream of a drive-in utopia, we were a better people, a more realistic, honest, and brave people. We have become a craven people now worthy only of being lied to and misled.

    Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle

  • The addiction thing

    I didn’t bother commenting on the State of the Union address because I found it unworthy of attention. Other, more patient people have taken apart the meaninglessness of Dubya’s so-called program to mitigate our societal addiction to oil.

    I did, however, get a perverse kick out of T. Boone Pickens, Jr.’s remark:

    Well, you can’t become energy independent. That’s out of the question because you’re importing 60 percent of the oil that you use every day. There’s no way you’re going to (become independent). … If everybody in the United States started riding a bicycle, it’ll work.

    Indeed. So start pedaling already. Think of all the interesting straw people you’ll meet this side of Pickens’ reductio ad absurdam.

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