Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What makes me wake up in a cold sweat at three in the morning

From "Tipping Point, Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production, An Outline Review" quoted from The Oil Drum
If peak oil is imminent or medium-term, we have neither the time nor the resources to substitute for oil, or invest in conservation and efficiency, a point re-iterated in the UKERC report. It is not merely that the net energy, material and financial resources we need to adapt will be in shorter supply, or that we are replacing high quality energy sources with lower quality ones. Nor is it that the productive base for deploying alternative energy infrastructure is small with limited ramp-up rates, or that it competes with food. Nor even that as the global credit crisis continues with further risks ahead, ramping up financing will remain difficult while many countries struggle with ballooning deficits and pressing immediate concerns. But, once the effects of decline become apparent, we will lose much of what we might call the operational fabric of our civilisation. The operational fabric comprises the given conditions at any time that support system wide functionality. This includes functioning markets, financing, monetary stability, operational supply-chains, transport, digital infrastructure, command & control, health service, institutions of trust, and sociopolitical stability. It is what we casually assume does and will exist [my emphasis], and which provides the structural foundation for any project we wish to develop. For example, near future degradation and collapse of the operational fabric may mean that we already have in place a significant fraction of the renewable energy infrastructure which will ever be in place globally.

Monday, March 8, 2010

On building a house in town 2

How is our house different from a "normal" house? And how is it the same? Our design criteria were to build something low maintenance, with zero heating and cooling costs and as autonomous as possible without resorting to technologies which might not be available or easily maintained into the future. It must be comfortable and robust: able to cope with the more extreme climate which may develop over the next few years and decades. And it must be as cheap to build as possible fitting the criteria already outlined.

The obvious way to heat a house is using the sun and the house I built in the 1970's was what is called a passive solar design — the sun shone in on a tiled concrete floor in winter and heated it up, thus moderating the temperature during the night as well. I wasn't a great builder and had very tight finances, so it didn't work as well as it could have but with the mild climate at Waratah North, close to the sea, it was better than nothing and certainly better than the house I grew up in only a few miles away in Toora.

But the Waratah North house was weatherboard and had fairly skimpy insulation (none under the wooden floor) and lots of single-pane glass, plus it had no ventilation other than through opening windows. Also the sun coming in faded the furniture and any other thing it fell on, so you had to be careful what you put in the room. The glare could be hard to bear at times as well. And the room which didn't get the direct sun got mouldy and musty.

The new house has a much more sophisticated solar heating (and cooling) system. While the sun can come into one bedroom and a corner of the living room directly, most of the heating will be via a solar air heater on the roof from which air will be blown by a fan down under the concrete slab floor and through a rock pile heat store, which being fairly massive (around one hundred tonnes) will hold the heat and release it slowly up through the concrete slab. A second, separate solar heater will draw stale air from the house via a system of ducts such as you would find in large commercial buildings and before venting it outside it will pass through a heat exchanger where it will heat incoming fresh air. The house will have lots of interior thermal mass, well insulated from the outside, and double glazed windows throughout.

In summer the same solar powered air extractor will draw air up through the rock pile (which will cool the hot exterior air on very hot days). There will also be a solar hot water heater. The toilet will be a composting type so we can recycle waste into the garden and cut down on water usage and disposal. All our water will be collected from the roof of the house and carport/workshop and stored in a large 90,000 litre concrete tank which we've just had constructed. We had a similar setup at Waratah North and the water from our concrete tanks there was like champagne! The water will be pumped to a small header tank on a stand via a small solar powered electric pump — no noisy pressure pump which stops running if the power goes off leaving you with no water.

The advantage of this heating/cooling setup is I can build it and maintain it all myself. There are no microprocessors involved and the highest tech items will be some fans and an electric pump.

As for the construction of the house, it will have a series of flat roofs made of the kind of material developed for big commercial buildings using insulation glued between two metal sheets. It can span a large distance which cuts down on most of the carpentry needed for roof framing. The outside walls will be corrugated colourbond mostly, fixed to treated prefabricated stud walls and heavily insulated, with a couple of timber finished walls in the courtyard to cut down the harshness of the finish. The colourbond is low maintenance and cheap, plus a good material for our fire vulnerable site on the edge of town.

The floors will be concrete slabs for thermal mass and silence! We are planning for rammed earth interior walls for thermal mass as well.

No windows on the east or west walls and only one glazed entrance facing west in the courtyard under a roof overhang. All windows are well under eaves (we're starting to get more frequent large hailstone events). No lawn! The north facing windows (which are all on the ground floor) are protected by stone courtyard walls from any possible fire. I've got to figure out how to glaze the solar heat collector with strong enough, long lived material at a reasonable cost.

It's not a simple house at all, but hopefully by limiting the amount of plumbing and not going stupid with the kitchen (fortunately I can build all this!) we won't shoot ourselves down financially.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

On building a house in town

My wife and I are building a house. I've done it before and I've helped others build their own places. Every house is a compromise, just like anything else in life. I'm designing it in Google Sketchup because I wanted to try doing a house in 3-D CAD. If you think it's a cool way to design a house be warned: it's extremely time consuming. The good thing is you can design every little detail before you start: the bad thing is that you do! House plans are generally very abstract sketches showing no more than is necessary, because a builder knows how to build — they just need shape and size specified. But a 3-D CAD is something far more complex and formidable.One reason to do it this way is that it won't be a normal house. I think like an engineer making something for the very first time and novelty is something where you need to show lots of detail in order to work through any problems. That doesn't guarantee you'll get it right though.
I like designing. But it isn't necessary. We could have bought an old place and fixed it up and it would have been fine. We could have gone on renting — I've got plenty of other things I could be doing with my time. But building a house gives a sense of direction for me. I'm involved in lots of community stuff but I'm not really good at it. Or maybe I'm better than I think I am, but I don't feel all that comfortable with it. Otherwise I would be a politician.

I abandoned the dominant religion of our industrial civilisation, Heroic Materialism, in my late teens and early twenties but like a child brought up a Catholic, I was and am a product of my time. The future will need different philosophies and different spiritual and intellectual anchors, but this is what I do — designing and building.

I am very aware that the context for our house is as crucial as the building itself. That's where things become a lot more uncertain. Will our little town be a good place to live for another twenty or so years? Things like that are hard to judge because we are looking at big changes in our world, a world which we hardly understand now! However if we don't owe money and are reasonably healthy and active I'm sure we can get by. One of the great pluses of living here is that there no social tensions or crime worth speaking of, and another is lots of well-meaning and like minded souls who are willing to put in lots of effort on community projects.

So I feel investing a lot of work and money in a house is a reasonable risk.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Cogito ego sum — our major thinking error

So my dears, What Is To Be Done about climate change? I follow the arguments in the online media, mainly the ABC news site plus BBC news, Guardian online, The Oil Drum and in case you're thinking what a narrow little latte leftist I am, I read Mish Shedlock several times a day plus take a look at Gary North every now and then. Amidst all the sturm und drang it seems to me one thing stands out: people want to win arguments. And for many of them, the confusion between belief and reality seems not at all clear, and only the argument seems real.

For the so called deniers, it often seems that their distaste for what they see as parasitic leftist types drives the agenda. Deniers hardly ever argue the real science (constantly quoting the most dodgy and discredited arguments and introducing red herrings willy-nilly), but go straight for the man. The motives of these climate doomers? Keeping their grant money pouring in by tickling the dominant scientific paradigm! So how can you trust anything these bearded blood-suckers say? Burn them all!

For many on the other side, the argument is merely a mirror image. Social progress and the saving of the whole of creation is being stymied by an evil plot! Hummer driving gun-nuts paid for by sinister transnational corporations are the enemy: may they all be lifted up in the Rapture only to be turned back at the Pearly Gates and thrust down into Hell! (Which of course we don't believe in, except for these special cases who deserve it!).

Both sides believe if we can win enough hearts and minds, the Kingdom will be reached! The lion will lie down with the lamb etc. and so on…

My reaction, I'm sorry to say, is to yawn. Why? Because nothing will be done! I repeat, nothing will or can be done about climate change or greenhouse gases in any real way. Copenhagen collapsed. Why? The terrible Chinese and Indians! Phew! All the pollies had someone else to blame. Because if those baddies hadn't stood up and done it, someone else would have had to. We all think in binary terms — good and evil — hot and cold. Either something is, or it isn't. But unfortunately climate change (which may well be partly or wholly anthropogenic) is something which no-one wants to do anything about at a personal level. We want someone to solve it — yes! We want cuddly polar bears to live and whales to swim free and the poor and ignorant to see the light and get a job in customer service, but underneath it all, deep down, we all know the Truth. We all realise that there are too many of us. And we'll be damned if we're going to jump under the bus to save all those lesser types. So we must find villains to blame (whatever side we are on). Anything to avoid facing the predicament we are in. Because we can't go on in such numbers!

Oh yes, the problem will be solved. "Nature this passionless spectator this unbreakable iceberg face that can bear anything"* — dear old Mother Nature will adjust, and perhaps the human race will survive and perhaps it wont. It will not matter what any possible human survivors think or believe though, but only where they are and what they do. Because in the real world, there is no justice, there are only outcomes.

*The Marquis de Sade in Peter Weiss's "Marat Sade"