Friday, January 9, 2009

Appropriate Home Technologies

It is time now to consider appropriate technologies to help households adjust to declining availability of energy and rising energy cost. We will begin by examining the forms and purposes of energy use in modern households.

Houses need energy in order to accomplish a few basic tasks: lighting, heating (or cooling, as the case may be), cooking, doing chores and occupying the minds of those who live in them. Throughout most of history, lighting, heating and cooking were accomplished by burning things or by using sunlight (at least for lighting and heating). The need for cooking was sometimes reduced by innovative low-tech food processing and fermentation techniques (things like sun-drying meats and fruit and preservation techniques such as pickling). Doing chores required only time, skill and elbow grease. And people kept their minds occupied by building friendships, having conversations and practicing folk culture.

The Industrial Revolution changed this arrangement. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, heating and cooking continued to be done by burning things, although the instruments of burning became ever-more refined. There was a switch in the things being burned also, from wood to coal to oil to natural gas. Many of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution were “labor-saving devices” which harnessed newly-discovered energy sources to automatically and mechanically do many of the chores that used to require human time, skill and elbow grease. The widespread harnessing of electricity caused a change in the way humans lighted their dwellings, as well as the way they kept their minds occupied. The uses of new forms of energy continually grew, because humankind kept finding ever-greater stores of these new energy sources. Eventually, the most advanced societies became almost wholly dependent on these new sources of energy and the machines that harnessed them.

A particularly noteworthy form of energy is electric energy. The creation of electric energy requires the conversion of other forms of energy (solar energy, wind, nuclear energy, chemical energy in fossil fuels, kinetic energy of falling water) into electricity. Yet once the conversion has been made, electric energy is the most flexible form of energy available to modern man. It can be converted to any other form of energy, i.e., light, heat, cooling, motive power or even nuclear energy (assuming that one has a very powerful source of electric energy and a very powerful particle accelerator). Because electricity is so flexibly used, it has assumed a key role in the running of modern advanced nations, and one measure of the advanced state of the First World is the measure of how much electricity is generated and used in the First World.

But in this time of economic trouble and declining energy resources, the availability of electric energy is in danger. As has already been stated, the transmission of electricity depends on the conversion of other forms of energy into electric energy. This process is never 100 percent efficient, and most electric power plants use some fossil fuel energy source in order to supply the energy for electric power generation. We know that oil is becoming scarcer, as well as natural gas, and even coal reserves are declining in size and quality of fuel. The same can be said for the uranium and thorium used in nuclear power plants.

There is an additional difficulty, especially true in the United States. Our electric power grid is getting quite old and unreliable, and parts of it are very heavily loaded. System events like an arcing fault or ice accumulation on a medium or high-voltage line can have serious cascading effects that take large parts of the power grid out of service. Arcing faults can easily be caused by severe weather or wildlife (squirrels and birds can wind up costing a lot of people a lot of money!).

So what does this have to do with the modern house? The modern home depends on electricity for the majority of its functions. Without electricity, many of the functions performed in a modern house simply cease. Therefore, appropriate technologies for a post-Peak household consist of those devices and techniques that don't require electricity.

Let's consider my house, for instance. It is small mass-produced tract house built a couple of years after the Korean War. As is typical of many houses in the Pacific Northwest, it is mostly electric. I have an electric stove/oven and a microwave, an electric water heater, an electric garbage disposer, and of course all the lights are electric. One of the previous owners installed a new gas furnace within the last ten years, and that is the only gas appliance in the house – yet it has an electric fan motor and is electronically controlled. (It's also in the attic, so it blows warm air down from the ceiling diffusers. The only problem is that we all know that warm air tends to rise. So unless I'm standing under a diffuser, I feel cold.) My washer, dryer and refrigerator are electric. If I had lost power a few weeks ago when the whole city was snowed in, I would have had to leave my house and stay elsewhere until power was restored.

The post-Peak challenge for this house is to find a way to replace all the functions that are now handled by electricity. This is not only a good goal for coping with a post-Peak world, but for coping with an extended power outage caused by any other event. Here are some questions I need to answer:

  • How can I wake up in the mornings without an electric alarm clock?

  • How do I cook food and keep food from spoiling?

  • How can I wash and dry clothes? I have a clothesline, but what do I do during the rainy, wet, cold Pacific Northwest winters?

  • How can I stay in touch with others who are far away?

  • What do I do for lighting after dark?

  • How do I keep my mind occupied without an iPod, stereo or TV? (I think I've got that one solved ;) )

  • How do I stay warm in the winter without relying on a furnace that uses electricity?

  • How do I keep the house from getting moldy during the winter?

Such questions as these will become increasingly important as our electric power infrastructure wears out and we are faced with the possibility that as a nation, we may not be able to afford its continued upkeep. I will be tackling these questions from time to time in future posts, and I will let you all know what I come up with.

In the meantime, I want to mention a blog post along these lines, titled, “Inexpensive Ways To Stay Warm This Winter,” from David's My Two Dollars blog (http://www.mytwodollars.com/2008/12/15/inexpensive-ways-to-stay-warm-this-winter/). Also, this weekend I will be attending a series of classes on sustainable living hosted by the City of Portland. Among the topics they will discuss are “Home Weatherization,” “Cutting Your Energy Bill,” and “Principles of a Healthy Home.” I may snap a few pictures and give a summary of the event in my next post.

1 comment:

Kiashu said...

How can I wake up in the mornings without an electric alarm clock?

Perhaps a windup clock? :)

How do I cook food and keep food from spoiling?

If you own your home, you can install a wood cookstove.

For food storage, in your pantry put a vent to under the house, and a vent through the top of the pantry up through a pipe in the roof. Air will rise from under the house up through there, it'll be about 15F cooler than ambient. Of course if it's snowing you can put some food outside :)

How can I wash and dry clothes? I have a clothesline, but what do I do during the rainy, wet, cold Pacific Northwest winters?

There exist manual clotheswashers, mostly designed for campers but still. The clothes drying will have to happen in front of that cookstove.

How can I stay in touch with others who are far away?

Mail? This existed long before fossil fuels were put into machines.

Mobile phone systems also require considerably less resources and energy than landlines. In developing countries like East Timor they're not bothering with landlines at all, but going straight to mobile systems. Mobile systems also have greater resilience against disasters, since they're networks of independent towers.

So I think mobile phone systems will be able to continue even if we had times of great scarcity and poverty.

What do I do for lighting after dark?

Remember that you're supposing a time of fossil fuel and other resource scarcity. So fewer cars, trucks delivering food and fuel, and so on - or just as many, but taking up more of your income.

So you'll be walking/biking more, chopping wood, digging the snow away, maybe digging in the garden to get food... most likely when night falls so will you, straight into bed! If you ever worked on a farm you might have experienced this :)

How do I keep my mind occupied without an iPod, stereo or TV?

Books, conversation, hot sex, dancing, board games and puzzles...

How do I stay warm in the winter without relying on a furnace that uses electricity?

It's that cookstove again. What people used to do was keep just one room warm. You have to think about what you'll be doing in your house. In general, you're either moving about doing housework, which will warm you up a lot, or you're sitting in one place for hours (reading, in front of tv or computer, etc). So a jumper, blanket and hot water bottle, or one nicely warm room, that's enough.

How do I keep the house from getting moldy during the winter?

This is poor house design, there's not much you can do about it.

Unfortunately that's the pattern we see everywhere - cheap energy used to make up for poor design.

For example here Down Under it's fashionable for houses and flats to have large glass windows from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. So on hot days the place heats up like a greenhouse, and on cool days the warmth from bodies and cooking oozes out. Brilliant! They make up for this by installing 2.4kW airconditioning. Cheap energy to make up for poor design.