Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Alternatives to Absurdity

It occurred to me yesterday, while riding the train back from another speaking gig, that this must be a supremely difficult time to be a satirist. Imagine any statement, no matter how preposterous, and it’s a safe bet that somebody in America will be saying it with a straight face before long.

The example that came first to mind as the landscape rolled past was Ann Coulter, the Lady Gaga of modern American pseudoconservatism. Coulter’s claim to public notice is the fact that she’ll say or do quite literally anything to get attention, and her latest stunt was up, or perhaps down, to her usual standards. Commenting on the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan, Coulter insisted that there’s nothing to worry about, because nuclear radiation is good for you. If someone is willing to start a bake sale to send her to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, I’m in a generous mood; put me down for two dozen cookies, and I’ll throw in the cost of a beach towel and a bikini, so she can bathe in the healthful, gently glowing waters streaming out of the No. 2 reactor.

Coulter’s utterance was far from the most absurd thing being said about the Fukushima disaster, to be sure. My readers may recall the people who insisted that the best way to respond to last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill was to blow up the leaking pipe with a nuclear warhead. Yes, the same suggestion is now being directed toward the Fukushima plant. I admit there’s a certain psychotic grandeur in the notion that a nuclear disaster can somehow be fixed by lofting three half-melted reactor cores and thousands of fuel rods into the atmosphere in a single mushroom cloud, so that hundreds of tons of radioactive waste can come drifting down across the Japanese landscape, killing thirty or forty million people and leaving half the island of Honshu uninhabitable for centuries to come. As a serious proposal, though – and some of the people making it appear to be serious – it’s hard to think of better evidence that a significant fraction of the American people has simply stopped thinking at all.

Still, the crowning bit of unintentional satire in recent news came from the White House. It’s a subtle joke, and one that seems to have gone over the heads of most of its listeners, but that’s one of the risks run by truly inspired humor. The comic routine in question, of course, was President Obama’s speech on energy policy last Wednesday.

More precisely, Obama’s speech outlined an energy nonpolicy. He seems to have had his speechwriters scrape up every cliché from every speech on energy policy made by every other resident of the White House since Richard Nixon, and the result was very nearly a nonspeech about his nonpolicy: a sort of verbal pantomime, in which Obama pretended to be doing something about energy in much the same way a mime pretends to be trapped inside a phone booth. He proposed, in effect, that the energy policy of the United States should include all the same things it’s included for the last thirty years, under the pretense that this is something new, and in the serene conviction that the same policy choices that backed us into our present corner will somehow succeed in getting us out of it.

What made Obama’s nonpolicy nonspeech such a bravura performance, though, was the easy grace with which it avoided mentioning any of the policy options that might actually do some good. The words “conservation” and “efficiency” appeared in the text only in reference to shiny new products that use up one set of resources to conserve another, and the only comments about solar energy referred to exactly the sort of complex, centralized approach that’s consistently proven uneconomical since the 1870s; mature, off-the-shelf technologies such as solar water heating and passive solar space heating, which could slice good-sized collops off our national energy use in a hurry, were never mentioned. None of the sensible steps that reduced US energy use by 15% between 1975 and 1985 had a place in Obama’s nonplan.

Mind you, Obama was quite right to suggest that America can cut its dependence on foreign oil by 30% by 2025. In fact, America will cut its dependence on foreign oil by at least 30%, and probably quite a bit more, by 2025; it’s just that the cut in question is not going to be made by any choice of ours, much less as a result of any of the fancy technological ventures Obama spent his speech promoting. It will be made because faltering oil production, rising competition for the oil that remains, and the decline of American imperial power compared to its emerging rivals, will slice a shrinking pie in new and, for Americans, distinctly unwelcome ways.

As that happens, the approaches ignored by Obama – and, to be fair, by the rest of today’s US political establishment, on both sides of the increasingly irrelevant divide between the major parties – are going to be among the very few options open to individuals in America and elsewhere who hope to ride the curve of energy decline to something like a soft landing. One example, which I’d like to explore in detail here, is the use of passive solar retrofits for domestic space heating.

Back in the halcyon days of the 1970s appropriate-tech movement, a great deal of effort went into designing passive solar architecture, and the results were impressive by any standard. In most areas, given a decent southern exposure, a house designed for passive solar heating, and adequately insulated and weatherized to make best use of it, requires little or no heating other than what the sun provides. The one drawback, and it’s a significant one, is that the house has to be designed and built with passive solar heating in mind. Those of my readers who expect to have the resources to build a house from the ground up, or have one built for them, should certainly look into passive solar designs; the rest of us will be living in existing construction, and the possibilities here are more limited.

The most important limit, of course, is that you can’t do passive solar at all unless a good part of the south or southeast face of your house receives direct sunlight during at least a significant fraction of each winter, spring, and autumn day. Some houses have that option; many others don’t, and if you don’t, you need to do something else. If you do, on the other hand, you have at least three options available, and they can be used alone or together.

The first is a thermosiphon air panel or TAP. Those of my readers who remember how a passive thermosiphon solar water heater works already know most of what they need to know here. A TAP is a wide, flat box with glass on the front, insulation on the sides and back, and a sheet of metal running parallel to the glass, with a couple of inches of air space between metal and glass. Air comes in at the bottom, flows over the metal, and goes out the top into the space that needs to be heated. Position the panel in the sun, and the metal very quickly gets hot; the air passing over the panel picks up the heat, and you very quickly have cold air being sucked into the pipe that leads to the bottom, and hot air being blown out the pipe that leads out of the top.

The TAP is one of the cheapest solar technologies you can make – it costs about as much as a good solar oven – and it produces heat fast: if you live someplace where winters are cold but sunny, and you can place the panel so that it catches rays as soon as the sun comes up, you can have hot air warming your house within a half hour or so of dawn. The downside is that the heat goes away as soon as the sun does, and at night, the thermosiphon effect can work in reverse – hot air gets sucked in the top, flows over the chilly metal, and emerges as an icy breeze at floor level. Thus a TAP needs valves to cut off the air flow when the sun goes away; it wouldn’t be too hard to work a light or temperature sensor into the system, so that the valves close automatically whenever there isn’t sunlight falling on the panel. If you’ve got a well-insulated and thoroughly weatherstripped house, the heat from a couple of well-placed panels can keep you comfortable well into the night, but the technology does have its limits for round-the-clock heating.

To balance the quick but unsteady heat of a TAP system, you need another system that soaks up heat whenever the sun is out, and distributes it to the house in a steadier manner throughout the day and night. The key to getting this effect is thermal mass. Some substances are good at soaking up heat; when it’s hot, they absorb it, and when it gets cold, they radiate it. Old-fashioned fireplaces used to include plenty of brick or stone precisely because these have plenty of heat storage capacity, and will still be radiating heat via infrared rays long after the fire has been banked down for the night. In the same way, most passive solar systems use plenty of thermal mass to soak up the sun’s heat in the daytime, and radiate it all night.

There are several different gimmicks for retrofitting a house to use thermal mass. One of the standard methods, back in the day, was the trombe wall. What’s a trombe wall? Basically, it’s a wall-sized TAP with thermal mass rather than a metal sheet inside the glass. One very effective, though rather ugly, way of building a trombe wall back in the day was to take black 55-gallon drums full of water and stack them in a sturdy frame so that their ends faced the sunlight; glass went over the sunward surface, a few inches from the ends of the drums, and the wall on the other side was pierced by vents at top and bottom, which could be opened and closed. Some kind of insulation to cover the glass on a cold night or cloudy days was a common addition that improved the efficiency of the system quite a bit. Water is among the very best thermal masses, but brick, stone, or concrete will also do a good job, and the less unsightly trombe walls tended to use these instead of barrels of water.

The next step up from the trombe wall, and one of the most widely used and thoroughly tested of the passive solar retrofit technologies, is the attached solar greenhouse. You build this onto the south or southeast face of your house, sealing it up tight so that air doesn’t leak in or out, and put a trombe wall between the greenhouse and the rest of the house; the floor of the greenhouse may also be made of heat-absorbing brick, stone, or concrete, to add to the effect. Sunlight streaming in through the glazing warms the air and the trombe wall inside, and heat then radiates from the thermal mass to the rest of the house, regulated by vents that can be opened or closed; the greenhouse should also be vented to the outside on hot days. In addition to a significant heat gain, of course, the greenhouse also allows you to keep fresh vegetables in the diet from early spring into late fall, and right through winter in climates that aren’t too arctic.

Quite a few experiments were made with active solar space heating – that is, systems that collect heat from the sun and then pump it somewhere else. It can be done, but because of the diffuse nature of solar heat, the efficiencies are low, and you very quickly end up using (and losing) more energy in the process than you gain by it. That’s been a persistent problem all along with attempts to run complex systems on the diffuse and intermittent energy flows that can be gotten from renewable sources. Too many people, faced with that reality, either give up on renewables altogether, or waste their time and resources trying to find some gimmick that will allow a diffuse and intermittent energy source to do the same things as a concentrated and instantly available one.

Given that renewables are the only energy supply we can count on for the long term, the first choice is not very helpful. Given that the laws of nature are under no compulsion to provide humanity with the kind of energy supplies that the fraction of humanity currently living in industrial societies seem to think they are entitled to get, the second one is not much better. The viable alternative, of course, is to recognize that renewable energy sources can’t simply be shoved into existing roles as replacements for oil, coal, and natural gas; they require different ways of thinking about energy, and imply an entirely different kind of energy technology.

That kind of energy technology – the ecotechnic kind, to use a term I’ve discussed here several times in the past – barely exists as yet. The thermosiphoning air panels, trombe walls, and attached solar greenhouses that emerged as the best products of a decade of lively experimentation are baby steps in the direction of the ecotechnic energy systems of the far future. Still, just as baby steps are precisely what’s most appropriate when a baby starts learning to walk, these simple, flexible, and inexpensive approaches are good ways to make a start on the task of learning how to live comfortably on the diffuse energy flows nature provides.

It’s also important to remember that all these things can be put to use by individuals, families, and local community groups with readily available resources, very much including salvage – old windows, for example, make excellent glazing for all three of the systems just discussed. That’s important, since the political class here in America seems to have decided that our nation’s apparently limitless reserves of absurdity can be used to replace its dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. While they’re busy making nonspeeches about nonplans or insisting that death is good for your health, those of us interested in alternatives to absurdity can get to work.


The starting point for this week’s techologies, here again, is the Master Conserver collection at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website; the papers you’ll need are on Passive Solar Heating -- Residential and Solar Greenhouses. Ed Mazria’s classic The Passive Solar Energy Book has plenty of information on passive solar systems generally, and The Integral Urban House by Sim van der Ryn, et al., has – among many other useful things – a good chapter on solar systems.

For solar greenhouses, the best books I know are Rick Fisher and Bill Yanda’s classic The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse and the predictably massive and detailed Rodale Press book on the subject, James C. McCullagh (ed)., The Solar Greenhouse Book.


Imapiscesfish said...

The local librarian and her husband wanted to put up an attached greenhouse, but didn't get around to it. Instead, they just bent some PVC pipe up to the side of the house and draped plastic over it. Just that was enough to heat their house the whole winter. It got so hot they left their windows open all day.
I have been collecting all the windows I can find to build an attached greenhouse. I am planning on building a short rammed-earth wall and use barrels and bottles of water for thermal mass.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Seriously JMG, you need to watch the movie "Idiocracy." It was intended as a satire but plays now like a documentary. Here's a preview:

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- If you take your TAP and stick a small electric fan in it, you have perhaps the simplest of active solar systems. The efficiency is actually really good, comparing watts of heat delivered versus watts used to run the fan. It's way better than even the best (readily available, household-sized) electric heat pump. Plus these electric fans should be easy to run with a supplemental PV panel, since they are only needed when the sun is shining. Now put a bunch of these panels on the roof and add some insulated ductwork and you have the system I am currently experimenting with in small trial-and-error steps. It has all the same problems as the TAP with lack of thermal mass; on the other hand to a significant degree if the house is insulated well enough the structure and furnishings of the house provide a noteworthy thermal mass all by themselves and can at least buffer the temperature swings overnight. I've been impressed how much heat can even be gathered on lightly overcast days provided the ambient temperature is not terribly low. It'll never get you through January in the eastern U.S. all by itself, but it can be great in spring and fall and hopefully cut down significantly on wood and fossil fuel use in midwinter too. If I can figure out a way to handle the condensation problems it might be workable for nighttime cooling in the summer too.

Likewise, fans can be used to help circulate air between an attached greenhouse and the rest of the house, also putting a little bit of activity into your passive system. One thing about air, it does not take much energy to make it move. I doubt anyone reading this blog will outlive the era of usable PV panels, old truck alternators, and scrap electric motors, so we should have access to modest amounts of electricity for some time to come.

Pisces -- be cautious about using old scrap windows for greenhouses. They have a tendency to degrade and start leaking, depending on their condition and how you make use of them. Condensation can really attack the wooden parts, especially if you also use the greenhouse for growing plants and hence create a high-humidity environment.

As for Obama and his non-energy non-plan, it is becoming clearer by the week that we can just forget about the political system when it comes to all the fundamentals that need realigning. Economic, thermodynamic, geophysical, and ecological realities will drive change, politics are likely useless (I believe you covered some of the reasons for this on these pages a while back, JMG).

Jason Heppenstall said...

Point taken about the absurdity. I recently forwarded a (satirical newspaper) Onion headline to my friends. It read 'Experts reassure public that nuclear power is 100% safe, unless something goes wrong'.

Sad to say that only a couple of them realised it was a joke ...

About using solar greenhouses to trap heat and relay it to houses. It occurs to me that cars make excellent mini-greenhouses, whether their engines function or not. I wonder how plausible it would be to somehow relay the 'waste' heat, perhaps via ventilation tubes, into living spaces. Another good thing about this is that cars are, of course, moveable and could therefore be positioned correctly depending on the season. You could even increase their thermal mass by, say, removing all the fittings and putting down a layer of concrete or gravel.

In this way cars could atone for the carbon sins of their past life ;-)

Andrew H said...

With regard to absurdity, I was rather interested in a comedy piece that was published at an online newspaper site which talked about a Republican sponsored bill in the US Congress called 'HR205 The Geometric Simplification Bill'. It was supposed to legally define Pi (The mathematical constant) as being equal to 3, to make it easier for kids to learn and understand mathematics.

Despite being classified as 'Comedy' on the original site, it was taken up and published as the real thing by lots of other sites. Obviously fitted right in.

The funniest bit though was not the actual content, nor the fact that it was thought to be real by many who read it, but the reaction from many of the obviously right wing conservative commenters who were annoyed that so many people thought it was true.




Do you know that the whole report is being blocked for re posting on facebook It says it contains abusive material!!!!! You have really got up some ones nose,the denial of truth frightening

Loveandlight said...

Off-topic: I recall you once said that you were considering doing a post on the declining efficacy of antibiotics and the relevance of this stark fact to the emerging post-industrial world. This news story from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation could perhaps be a jumping-off point for such a post.

Don Plummer said...

Giving Ann Coulter a beach vacation in front of the Fukushima nuke site would be far too kind to her, John. :)

If you don't mind, I'm going to borrow your word "pseudoconservative." Here in Ohio, with motor fuel prices near where they were in July 2008 and with no relieef in sight, our pseudoconservative governor and legislature have been busy blocking public transportation projects, even ones that they aren't funding. Calling these actions absurd doesn't seem to do justice to just how wrongheaded (and harmful) they are.

Wandering Sage said...

Pretty arctic here in the mountains of Vermont (still 1ft of snow!?) But we have a good southern exposure.

Your posts are always helpful.


John Michael Greer said...

Fish, the librarian and her husband must live someplace that gets plenty of winter sun. Most places, you need thermal mass and a good airtight structure -- but what you've sketched out sounds good.

Lance, thanks for the link!

Bill, that sounds very interesting, and a good deal simpler than most of the Seventies designs. Keep me posted on how it works -- you may find yourself cited in the Green Wizardry book.

Jason, that's just weird enough to work. Are you planning on giving it a try?

Andrew, I'm reminded of the story about the US state legislature that tried to repeal the law of supply and demand.

Steve, do you mean this week's post or the entire Archdruid Report? Either way, that's funny! If you or anyone else has more details about this, I'd like to hear them.

Loveandlight, the same thing got into the BBC -- they've had cases of NDM-1 bacteria in Europe now, and around 25,000 people a year are dying from antibiotic-resistant organisms in the EU. Yes, I should probably do a post sometime soon.

Don, you're welcome to use the word. I'm frankly tired of hearing people described as "conservatives" when they're as obsessed with an imaginary vision of a perfect society as any Marxist, and just as unwilling to let evidence from the real world interfere with the perfection of their ideological system. What, exactly, do these "conservatives" conserve?

Sage, I was up in northeastern Pennsylvania over the weekend, and saw quite a bit of snow on the hills; here in western Maryland it's sunny and 60-something, and the early crops -- snow peas, radishes, and so on -- are coming along very nicely. Still, I'm told it's beautiful up your way.

John said...

JMG -- You've mentioned in the last few posts your speaking engagements. Is your speaking schedule posted anywhere? If you're ever in my area I'd like to attend.


GHung said...

Firstly, passive solar, pre-designed or retrofit is the best way to reduce heating costs once the insulating and caulking is properly done (if a good southface is available). I agree that anyone building new or remodeling should make it a priority. I feel that it should have been part of building codes long ago.

One note on box type solar collectors: if it is to be at ground level try to use tempered glass for safety. Older patio doors (@ '70s - '80s) were tempered, many were double-glazed, but were lower iron and weren't gas (eg argon) filled. More modern insulated windows will reduce your heat gain, as they were designed to do. Also, the double-glazed patio doors can be split into two panes. I prefer to keep them intact because the frames (usually aluminum) are handy for constuction and protect the edges. One chip on the edge of tempered glass and the whole thing slowly falls apart. Kind of fun to watch as your glass slowly destroys itself ;-/ I have quite a collection of old patio doors from our remodeling business, hoping to build a totally passive greenhouse soon. Chech swap lists, salvage yards and window contractors. Alot of these older doors are being replaced these days.

I've seen heat boxes constructed to seal themselves to double-hung sash windows in winter, removed in summer. They work well in bedrooms and baths with south facing windows. The best I've seen hang below the window, allowing some daylight into the room, the absorber is placed below the top half of the window. Operation consists of just opening or closing the bottom and top of the window a few inches. It is also possible to construct an absorber for the interior of windows, the existing window acts as the glazing. Some skills involved, though nothing ventured ....

The most simple passive solar heater I've constucted was made of metal ductwork, flat ducts called "wall stack" about 12 inches x 3 1/2 inches, painted black on the sun side, insulated with foam board on the other three sides, 90 degree elbows top and bottom. Two of these hung in a sash window produce an amazing amount of heat on sunny days. The lady I made them for has been using these for years to heat her sewing room in winter.

Note: As JMG suggested, most all of these passive designs require some level of active control, mainly by you. They are not "set and forget" unless you invest in some sort of automatic control, increasing complexity and cost. Whether it is closing thermal curtains or shutting vent dampers at night, they will work in reverse at night and on cloudy days. Backflow preventers reduce efficiency and don't work so well, IME. Bimetal thermostatic vents are available (usually for venting crawl spaces) and may be adjusted for our purposes; something I've been meaning to try.

The only fully active solar heating scheme I would consider would be a water based radiant floor system for a small area. If one is considering a new bathroom, adding pex tubing to a poured concrete shower pan, connected to a small solar water heater with a small pump; stores heat in the thermal mass tile/concrete of the shower and heats the whole bathroom, a wonderful thing in winter. It may also be possible to do this PV direct with an under-tile electric heater. While the rest of the house may not be quite as warm as one would like during those cold, cloudy winters, the bathroom floor can never be too warm. Our bathroom floor stores heat for days (and it keeps the seat warm as well ;-)

Suggestion for future discusion:
Simple ways to reclaim waste heat.

Thanks, JMG!

Robert said...

JMG--The New York Times ran an article titled "Can We do Without the Mideast?" a few days back (on March 30th or 31st). It outlines many approaches that we as a nation might be tempted to implement as our energy predicament becomes more acute. I would love to hear your response/reaction to that article.


Richard Larson said...

I happy and satisfied you have covered this subject. Since being involved in a business that has actually installed a fair number, I do have a few pointers.

If one can install a collector over the basement sill, then your basement can become the heat sink. You have already given your followers the lowdown about the 2nd Law, so we all know heating the basement is both worthwhile, and, the walls/floor/and building floor will all become part of the thermal mass. I would caution against heating, say, a box of rocks with an air system, or something similar, as this will create condensation and mold issues in most of these arrangements.

I do have a basement heat supply on the solar heater installed on my house and the furnace does not kick in for a full 2 hours after sundown, those on full sun days. Calm days and nights it is 3ish hours.

And there are numerous installation mounts available, if there is sun shining for four hours a day, anywhere on the house, the heater can be installed, even to work from the roof with inner attic insulated ducts and ceiling return and supply.

Another pointer is to shy away from any solar air collector (collector for heating, panel for photovoltaic, my distinction) inner absorbing plate not made of copper. Copper is a very good transfer mechanism, and is anti-microbial. The best one that I have found also seals the air between the glass and the absorbing copper sheet thus the home/building air is allowed to flow behind the sheet and never comes into contact with the condensation that sometimes occurs on the inside of the glass. This manufacturer also adheres a sheet of TINOX on the copper sheet, and please believe me, my house gets right up to 80 degrees on a zero degree full sun day - even during winter solstice.

I have a lot more thoughts, but it is easier if you would visit our website and find the air heating part found on Residential, my house is the first one highlighted.

I have actually burned out and have stopped selling here of late. Too many nos to find a yes, then the yes is not satisfied because of unrealistic expectations - but not from my account. One lady, who is an avowed environmentalist, asked why her heat bill did not go down by 60 percent, like she said I claimed. But the claim was very clear in the proposal, that the solar water heater natgas consumption would be at least 60 percent less, with her drainback type system actually being closer to 80 percent! People are just spoiled rotten by heavily subsidized very powerful fuel sources, and most feel this will continue for the rest of their lives, and woe be to anyone telling them different.

One last point to make; now is not the time to rail against all things powered by fossil fuels. These fuels are a gift from Mother Earth. Using these fuels to help become more sustainable is/was my best message when speaking towards a perspective customer.

Anyway, people 20 years from now will be very happy to be living in a house with these devices installed on them.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

"Psuedoconservative"--excellent, since so much of what they do is radically destructive. Meanwhile, we save and conserve-- seeds, energy, materials, culture, community, ecosystems...

We live in northern Illinois, our house slotted in between two others fifteen feet away to the north and south. The only place with an open south exposure is the peaked roof. I hope to have the place well insulated before next fall, but passive solar looks iffy in this situation. Any suggestions?

Wish I understood mechanical things as well as I understand plants and cooking.

Kieran O'Neill said...

To be fair to Ms Coulter, low-level radiation hormesis does have some support from a small section of the scientific community, with a smattering of accompanying peer-reviewed papers. There are many question marks over the evidence, and for the most part it seems that radiation scientists and clinicians do not accept the theory, but it's not complete pseudoscience. Politifact did some digging on the statement, which you can find here. They rated it "barely true".

Thank-you for the information on TAPs and other technologies. One day, when my wife and I have a house of our own, I will be sure to look into it.

It occurs to me as well that not all is doom and gloom for energy conservation in the world of policy. Having been tangentially involved with the building of a new students union building at my campus, I have been made aware that there are a number of standards for "green architecture" -- the new SUB is aiming for LEED Gold. I think these are still baby steps, but I also think professional architects are getting into the right frame of mind. And maybe some of the ideas pioneered in these big projects will be adaptable for home use.

On another topic, there was an interesting article last week by Gwynne Dyer talking about the concept of "real population density" (people per square kilometre of arable land). It isn't a perfect measure of how many people a nation can support, but it does give a sense of which countries are more likely to be in trouble as the climate shifts and the oil runs out.

Lynford said...

The sun is now shining after this morning's one inch of snow and whiteout for a few minutes here in the high desert north of Reno NV. The high tunnel construction is complete. I hope to start double digging the raised beds this afternoon. Covering with UV protected 6 mil plastic will come early next week. Then we will start the tomatoes, etc. without the frost worry.

About making a practical heat sink; nothing much beats Gauber's Salt (sodium sulfate) at a couple hundred dollars per ton. It goes through a phase change at 32C. This is consistant with solar heaters and stores about 19cal/gm. A few feet of 6" black sewer pipe containing Gauber's salt gets to 32C (90F) and starts to liquify and soaking up solar calories. As the temerature cools the pipe has to give up those calories back to your solar heat conduit. This is our next project after high tunnel.

Bill Pulliam said...

I'll definitely keep y'all posted on my solar experiments. So far I only have a couple of panels and a few square meters of collector area. Still in full sun I get something like 1000 watts out with only something like 20 or 50 watts in (I forget the fan rating), which makes an apparent EROI of something like 20. This is all hillbilly engineering, stuff you can buy at any builders supply and make in your garage. My hillbilly neighbors have actually been very interested; I think the last two winters have put the fear of the gods into them about heating with electricity or propane.

Of course that sort of apparent EROI is what makes people say "see, it's a cheap as oil, we can power the world with it!" Of course I haven't included the embodied energy of the building materials, construction, and maintenance -- but they don't include those when they tell you the efficiency of the heat pump you just had installed for $10K either and I still beat them by about a factor of 5 or 10. Even without that, though, the energy I get out is just hot air, and not even that hot (50C at best). You can't power the global economy on hot air! And I can't gather more than my south-facing roof will allow, so there's a hard limit no matter how efficient I might get. At this point I still have the vast majority of the roof left to exploit, so I am FAR from Peak Hot Air in my own highly local economy.

Kevin said...

I once heard Tom Lehrer say in a radio interview that he gave up on satire when Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize. That's quite a while ago now. He also mentioned that manned space travel makes him angry. He won't have to be so annoyed about that now since the space shuttle was decommissioned last month.

I too will make use of your term "pseudoconservative." Very useful! I suspect many Americans have indeed uncoupled their thinking from reality.

Richard, thanks for the tips. I'm saving your remarks for future reference.

Wish I had a place to perform all these retrofittings on. I'll try to insulate the flat this year, and continue with my solar cookers.

August Johnson said...

JMG -- Thanks for all the posts, more good stuff all the time!

Ghung -- Build your passive solar greenhouse, you'll love it. Back when I lived in the mountains of AZ, I designed one for my neighbor. It used 5 double glass patio doors. Up at 7000 feet with snow and lows down to below zero, he told me that he had tomatoes until December 26 and pepper plants became perennials. Peppers all through the winter! This is where the low hits freezing in early September. Of course the cool weather plants kept going.

We'll be building one here in Auburn, AL soon, we've already picked the doors up from the side of the road.

homesteader said...

We were riding away from the every two week grocery trip and saw this bumper sticker, which at first infuriated me, but then I realized it is a good energy plan to a point. What I would like to see is a sticker saying America's energy policy and showing a bomb hitting the middle east, since that seems to be our policy.

sv koho said...

Thanks John for another percipient post. You did omit the solar slab as promoted by James Kachadorian
in his book"the Passive Solar House:
It uses concrete for solar heat storage by virtue of making a house's entire first floor a concrete slab poured over concrete blocks laying on their sides with their holes lined up. Think of it as a trobe' wall laying flat. This allows air to circulate under and through the concrete. The dark stained slab floor is insulated with 2-4" of foam insulation under and around the perimeter. Vents in the floor allow air circulation. I built a 14 X 32'solar sunspace along the side of our log cabin with the solar slab. 4 X6' windows face south and a 4 layer clear lexan roof covers the space. Plastic water barrels here and there soak up and store heat. I used forced air drawn from the peak which blows hot air under the slab when desired.Our big pressure tank and large water heater both painted black augmented with black poly pipe sit in the space and provide 100% of our hot water in the summer and lesser amoiunts in spring and fall. In winter we switch to another water heater. The slab also has hydronic heating via pex tubing in the slab but I have never felt the need to hook it up. All of the lumber, windows, heater and tank were salvaged. I only purchased the concrete and the lexan. On warm summer days we open windows and doors and the green house provides copious warm weather veggies which wont grow outside in our high mountain valley. Cost was $6000. My system would be feasible for cool climates and in warmer climates in spring and fall. Using a solar slab under a conventional new house is suitable in all climates.

phil harris said...

Useful stuff again from everybody.

Might be worth a look at passive 'air supply windows'. For example, google: "air supply windows" strachan strathclyde - and then look in results for "outdoor testing of building components: case studies" pages 7 & 8. They seem to work well in UK and similar climate - better than triple glazing.

We are contremplating major house retrofit; insulation and getting control of what we politely call 'ventilation'. Unfortunately only a fraction of our house faces south. We are looking though at a south facing greenhouse against a garden wall joined to a conservatory against our house, to increase our suntrap potential.

Twilight said...

"Given that the laws of nature are under no compulsion to provide humanity with the kind of energy supplies that the fraction of humanity currently living in industrial societies seem to think they are entitled to get"

The lack of understanding of this was greatly in evidence on recent TOD Fukushima threads, where believers in unlimited energy and BAU through nuclear power square off against believers in unlimited energy and BAU through renewable energy sources - with some fusion fantasy thrown in for good measure. The few that understand what limitations mean are drowned out in the din of clashing views of an ever-brighter future. And there's certainly no sign of comprehension in our national dialog either, although I suspect that by mid summer fuel prices will be putting a serious hurt on the remains of our economy, and it will be interesting to see what the excuses are and who we're supposed to blame.

Thanks for being a voice of sanity! As curious as I am about what is happening in Japan, I've decided not to read about it much anymore - there is too much I need to do for real and too little I can do about that, and the lack of comprehension of reality is depressing.

John Michael Greer said...

John, I don't normally post my travel plans for a variety of reasons, and of course some of my talks are specific to certain groups of people -- for example, I do talks now and again for Masonic lodges. Still, where are you located? I can let you know if there's going to be anything in your area.

GHung, all excellent points! Many thanks.

Robert, I'll check it out.

Richard, thanks for the very useful tips.

Adrian, your house sounds like mine -- very limited potential for passive solar. I'd focus on solar water heating; your roof would be a good place for panels. (We have this in mind also, once funds permit.) Not every bit of green wizardry will work with every home.

Kieran, even if low-level radiation hormesis turns out to be more than barely true, the stuff coming out of Fukushima Daiichi is hardly low-level at this point!

Lynford, there was some very interesting work done back in the day with eutectic salts of various kinds, Glauber's salt among them; I haven't pursued it myself, but it'd be interesting to see how well it works in a very low-tech system.

Bill, I doubt anyone in this country is anywhere near Peak Hot Air... ;-)

Kevin, if you've got a south facing window you can probably make a portable TAP that will fit into the open window, with weatherstripping to seal it to the frame. Ways to put all this stuff to work in rental housing should be high priority for green wizards.

August, that's good to hear! In Alabama, you ought to have year round vegetables easily once the greenhouse is up and running.

Homesteader, I wish our nation's energy plan did involve a lot more bicycles!

Koho, I didn't discuss the solar slab because it can't be retrofitted in existing construction, and very few people are going to be building new homes for quite a while. There's a whole world of passive solar tech you can work into a house if you're building it, and slab systems are part of that.

Phil, the added greenhouse sounds like a good plan. You may not get a great deal of heat into the house from it, but of course the vegetables are also a major gain.

Twilight, yes, I saw that. That's one of the reasons I keep on hammering repeatedly on that point; so many people start from the assumption that of course we can have as much energy as we want, and then debate about how we're going to get it. May I ask everyone reading this comments page to do me a favor? Stop and think some such thought as this: "You know, in the future I'm going to have to get used to using a lot less energy." It would be comforting to know that at least a few of the 300 million or so cerebral cortices in the United States can actually hold such a thought.

Mark said...

Your post reminded me of a recent Jon Stewart rant -

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me eight times... What, am I f***ing stupid?"

8 presidents have said the same thing....

Imagine your one of those 8. You say, "We're going to break the oil habit." Exxon exec calls up and says, Mr. President, you do that and we'll make the price of a gallon of gas go up a few bucks and it will look like it's your fault and your party's fault."

On a related note, my son and I built a thermo-bio-pile (fancy name for a compost pile with heat transfer built in) last fall and attempted to capture some useful heat. We also attempted to log pile temp, outside ambient temp, indoor ambient temp, and circulator run time. Unfortunately, the data logger failed. Though we don't think we got any useful energy, we did learn a lot and are ready to try again next fall. I'll start writing about it at

Candee said...

The Post Carbon Institute posted Alternatives to Absurdity on Facebook via the Energy Bulletin url and I was able to share it ok. Perhaps you could repost it that way STEVE. Candee

Ruben said...

Off the current topic, but the sort of thing many on this forum may want to download.... Ships Captain's Medical Guide

Kevin said...

Great idea JMG! I've got *lots* of south-facing windows, which are particularly noticeable in Summer. Problem: none of them seems to be operable. Maybe I'll see if I can't get one or two to budge. Cautiously: they're big, and fragile.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Re: using cars as mini greenhouses - yes, I'd love to try it. Just have to get my own place in which to conduct these kind of experiments first!

Incidentally, I once visited a house in which the owner built a low internal stone wall facing south and painted matt black. During the winter the sun was low enough in the sky for its rays to strike the black wall and heat up the rock. In the summer the sun is too high in the sky to do so. You couldn't tell it was a 'season-specific passive solar thermal mass storage heating device' - it just looked like a nice internal feature with art on it. Ingenious.

BTW tested your site on Facebook and it seems to work for me.

Cherokee Organics said...


The heat you don't have to pay for is always good! I agree with you about systems, especially the part about keeping it simple. I run a drainback solar hot water system, with wood and LPG assistance and I'm shamed to admit it but after it was installed everyone assumed that it worked fine, but being a complex system there were about 5 things wrong with it. Each had to be tracked down and resolved one by one. What a nuisance and I missed most of the heat from the sun over summer as it's taken about 6 months to track down every problem.

Luckily it seems to be fine now, although you have to understand how things work in a renewable system to really know when and why it's gone horribly wrong. People don't realise how easy they have it if all they have to do to produce heat is press a switch, pay a bill etc. It's the ultimate in detachment!

We're having an Indian summer this week so I've been busy painting the outside walls before it becomes to cool and wet for the paint to cure.

Love to see you speak down this way. You never have to worry about a tour guide!



Don Plummer said...

Since reading this week's column, I've been pondering reasons for the chronic, dysfunctional non-response of our political leaders to a dilemma that's clearly staring them--and all of us--in the face. For what it's worth, and I could be wrong of course, I think the reason might be the ghost of Ronald Reagan. The only president who really got Americans serious about energy conservation was, of course, Jimmy Carter, as you mentioned regarding our 15% reduction in energy consumption during the late 1970s and early '80s. But despite the fact that Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech of 1979 was well-received by the public, and despite the fact that at the time people were truly interested in saving energy, Carter got politically reamed by Ronald Reagan's rhetoric about "morning in America" and the notion--which Reagan hammered persistently during the 1980 campaign--that it was wrong to ask Americans to cut back on anything.

And ever since the Reagan presidency, no president of either party has been willing publicly to counter the Reagan myth. This haunting by Reagan's ghost manifests itself in many ways, including tax policy, regulation policy, and, of course, energy policy. And no politician will dare utter the word "conservation" when talking about energy. Hence Obama's non-energy-policy speech last week.

On the other hand, and again I could be mistaken, I recall that some of the so-called economic stimulus money that Congress passed during the first year of Obama's presidency included funding for the kinds of energy-saving home improvements we've been discussing here--weatherstripping, insulation, etc. If that's right, what came of those provisions? Does anyone know how many homes were insulated with the help of this stimulus money?

Regarding passive solar, I'm in a similar situation as Adrian--an east-west facing home, in my case in the 'burbs--squeezed between two homes to the north and south. However, our south-facing wall, which is two stories tall, does receive the full force of winter sunlight (to the extent we get any sunshine during our Ohio winters). It has no windows, however. I might be able to mount a TAP on that wall, but I'd have to do some fancy duct work through the wall to get any heat into the house. It might be feasible...

Begreppsbloggen said...

On entitlement:

"We are entitled. We are all entitled, we live in a modern country."

The quote is from The Economist, April 2nd, covering the UK Labour Party's "policy meeting" in Nottingham in March. Apparently the audience greeted the speaker with warm applause...


K said...

JMG, your descriptions of the relatively high awareness and opportunity we had in the 1970s to change course (squashed after Reagan was elected and we sucked up the North Slope and pretended no problems existed) remind me of this 1978 "Schoolhouse Rock" clip on energy, which I saw many times when I was a kid. I know you haven't had a TV for decades, so I'm not sure if you've ever seen it.

When you keep in mind that this was an ultra-mainstream (Saturday-morning U.S. network TV for kids) offering, it's amazing how far we've regressed in 33 years. The message in this clip is about the recognition of energy limits and the importance of conservation, with a distinctly '70s world-weary patina (not sure how else to describe it). Can you imagine something similar being produced for kids' mainstream consumption today, even though we need it now more than ever? I can't.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, good for you. You get tonight's Mad Scientist of Distinction award. Be sure to keep us posted on how the experiments go.

Candee, thanks for the info. I've heard from several other sources that the Report is still appearing on Facebook.

Ruben, good. That's a resource well worth having.

Kevin, very often old windows are stuck shut with interior or exterior paint. A sturdy knife can solve that problem.

Jason, that's one of the variants of the trombe wall -- an elegant one, and one that probably deserves more attention than it's gotten.

Chris, those are points well worth bringing up -- nothing in green wizardry is automatic, and most things have a learning curve and/or a process of troubleshooting between when you start and when it works. I'll keep you posted if I ever get a speaking gig down under!

Don, you're probably right about the ghost of Reagan, though there may be more to it. I'll have some things to say about that in an upcoming post.

Johan, it's utterances like that one that have convinced me that the phrase "decline and fall" has a great deal of relevance to our present situation. Gah.

K, I was still watching a little TV in 1978, though that was close to the end of the line for me. Still, thanks for the link, and for bringing this up! This, Don's comment, and a snark on the Energy Bulletin comment page for this post have me thinking hard about what's changed that makes sanity about energy so much harder to achieve today than it was in the Seventies.

Draco TB said...

@Bill Pulliam

Seems to be a workable system but dependant upon roof design. Don't know if there's anything similar besides your own work in the US though

Don Plummer
Our (NZ) present "conservative" government is doing the same even to the point of denying that the use of public transport is going up. They finally had to give that one up but they're now building more roads because "buses need them" and denying funding to trains. The roads that they're building have a B/C ratio of less than 1 even if oil wasn't depleting.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- I'm curious about how well you feel you are able to keep tuned in to the zeitgeist of mainstream America without being connected to mainstream television, at least as a scholarly observer. We don't have broadcast, cable, or satellite TV reception at our place, but we do partake of modest amounts of television and cinema via DVD (on our schedule, at our choosing). I particularly wonder about this in the context of the upcoming post you mentioned on the Energy Bulletin about the rise of cynicism. I feel that this is intimately connected to the effects of continuous media and 24-hour fearmongering newscasts on the mass psyche. My mother is convinced there is a rapist behind every bush, a tornado inside every cloud, and a terrorist aboard every airplane, thanks to a constant diet of cable TV. I suspect this world of fear and hopelessness has more than a little to do with the cynicism and negativity of contemporary discourse.

So how do you keep yourself attuned to these societal waves and currents without subjecting yourself to the idiot box? I wouldn't know a Kardashian if one ran me over on the sidewalk (I'm not really even sure what a Kardashian is, other than something connected to "Reality" TV), but the majority of Americans seem to place a whole lot of their view of the world in people like them.

Apple Jack Creek said...

I have been anxiously awaiting the melting of the snow so that I can get out to my garden and start implementing some of the plans I've drawn up on graph paper this winter.
I hope to build a greenhouse this summer as part of the garden, using cordwood for the north wall (the back of the greenhouse) as well as the base and sides of the other walls (I have ready access to wood, and it's a technique I can manage on my own, with minimal assistance required). I'll put in a few rocks as I find them as well, to increase the thermal mass of the north wall.
The interesting thing about this greenhouse is that it's planned for expansion ... into a chicken coop. The north wall of the greenhouse will be designed to double as the south wall of a chicken coop: I'll be putting PVC pipes through the bottom and top of the wall, to act as vents (sticking out enough that I can just cap them to block airflow when I don't want it). This way, the greenhouse can act as a thermosiphon on the south side of the chicken coop, keeping the chooks a bit warmer in our (very) cold winters.
That's the plan, anyway ... I'll let you know how it works out in reality!

Matthew Heins said...

To Bill et al regarding television:

For understanding the relationship between the idiotes and the idiot-box, I can't recommend enough "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" by Jerry Mander.

The title belies the scope of the book, which really examines quite broadly the strange, separated-from-nature (at least mentally) existence that is "modern life".

I suspect that some folks here may even remember the book (pub. 1977). Glancing through it just now I was reminded about just how deeply the '70s mindset colors Mander's arguments. Good reading for us younger folks who find ourselves feigning understanding a bit when you elders compare now to then, beyond the TV stuff.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Bill,

Good point.

Thanks to a quirk of geology (ie a mountain between me and the TV transmitters), I don't get free to air TV and refuse to pay for sattelite TV. As for cable, it will never work it's way up here. But there are plenty of sources beyond TV for culture.

Newspapers, radio, books, cinema, and the old fashioned method of just talking to people!

In a way I also feel pretty fortunate that I can filter out TV. A couple of years ago I spent some time reading up on marketing after being totally floored by Dr Clive Hamilton's awesome book "Affluenza". It was eye opening for me because I thought that I was pretty media savvy, but really had no idea how much impact advertising had on our lives. People are more easily manipulated than you'd care to believe...

As to the zeitgeist, well I'm fortunate to have radio access to the government's youth music station Triple J - what an awesome gift from the government - you can stream it too over the Internet. No advertisements and just new local and international music. Very much on the zeitgeist. I've noticed a correlation between the quality of music and the economy. As the economy deteriorates, the music quality improves. I'm sure there's something in that.

TV isn't the be all and end all. In fact I think it encourages small and simplistic thinking.



Richard said...

As to why there is so little sanity about energy now, it reminds me of a story I've heard a couple times. I'm not sure whether it's true or an urban legend as I haven't verified it, but how it goes is that there was a survey done on people living downstream from a dam, asking them how concerned they were about possible failure of the dam. They started far away from the dam, and the level of concern increased as they got closer to the dam, as one might expect. However, that trend did not continue once they got very close to the dam, and the people living at the foot of the cam showed very little concern about it. The thought was just too overwhelming for most of them to consider.

Relating this to our current predicament, in the seventies we had gone down our unsustainable path enough for many people to take notice that something was wrong. However it was still a manageable distance off, if the right measures were taken to avert the crisis, so it wasn't too overwhelming for most people to think of. Now here we are in a nasty position because those steps were not taken, and I think thought about what's really going on is just too overwhelming for most to consider, just like those at the foot of the dam in the above example. I wonder if many more people have some subconscious awareness but just are in denial.

Don Plummer said...


It's too bad to see the same thing happening in Aotearoa. I thought it was only here in the USA (and maybe to a lesser extent in Canada) that politicians demeaned public transport.

Mark said...

@Richard. Great story about living below the damn. This article is one possible interpretation. - Mark

GeoWend said...

"Watching the zeitgeist"

I also do not watch television, and it is really quite interesting to observe how much I actually get of it from talking to folks and reading things on the internet.

Social connections (including the internet bogs and chats) seem allow for the ability to know what is affecting the culture, without having to really subject yourself to hours of immersion in it.

Petr said...

Hello from Europe :)

I read your posts JMG for some while, time to time (I've began with translations of your articles on Thermodynamics of Economy at
The only serious problem in your view I can mostly find is that I have to agree. :(
Wondering when the people will wake up.

Especially for Apple Jack:

Regarding the theme of passive architecture, I'd like to build (but have still no place for it, so it may unfortunately go long-run) kind of small house with attached greenhouse.
I have an idea which could be especially useful for that chicken-coop-greenhouse. The idea is to add an additional glazing with top and bottom air opened. When the temperature outside will be less than that inside and the sun will not inearct (e.g. cold night:)) the air between glazings will flow downwards, pushing itself into the ground register, which in the case of greenhouse with chicken coop could exhaust into the coop. The temperature of exhaust air will depend on location. Here in central Europe all year temperature of soil some 2 metres under is about 10 degrees C (50 F). ..

Petr said...

...The effect of using earth heat could be even better by lowering whole greenhouse and coop by a meter or so under land level.
In hot days, on the other side, registers and "glass chimney" could serve for cooling and maybe for condensing a water - thus lowering inner humidity and offering a clean water to you.

That's only some thoughts, I didn't do any computations or so yet.



Matt and Jess said...

Makes me wonder if, in the next few decades, you could earn a living building attractive, perhaps timber-framed solar greenhouse/trombe wall additions to houses for which those would be a good option. Hmmm....

John Michael Greer said...

NJ (offlist), the reason Nick's post didn't get put through is that he came wading in with a fine display of attempted one-upsmanship. Trying to score points rather than contributing courteously to the discussion is a good way to get your comment deleted if I'm in a bad mood, and tax week is rarely a good time to try.

Candee said...

I agree totally that the change to lower and green energy use has to be done by us, from the bottom up, as governments seem to be useless in their complexity,infighting and corporate schilling.
On an old topic,I tried a slightly different take on the haybox by using two old regular sized pillows, a 15 gallon storage container with the flip top lid, and an old large towel. Boiled steel-cut oats in a pot for 10 minutes, put the cover on, wrapped it in the old towel, and put the whole deal between the two old pillows in the box,closing the lids.
The first time I did this I forgot the whole thing until 7 hours later,and when I opened it up,the oats were done and still quite hot. Worked beautifully. I tried it again waiting 2 hrs this time and was met with similar success. I'm so happy,as throwing away old pillows always seemed such a waste to me.