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1/29/2015

“C’mon, Mario! Let’s get to the car!” I shouted through the collar of my coat as the winter winds picked up. The temperature was already in the single digits.

I turned around to see him just standing there, frozen still, looking down at the ground.  What is he doing?  I thought. My fingers were numb and I was feeling a bit impatient.

“Is this ice?!” He called out to me. I stopped and smiled, laughing at my impatience in the face of his childlike wonder.

“Yes, that’s ice!” He tested the frozen puddle with his foot, sliding it carefully over the unfamiliar glassy surface and handed me his camera so I could take a photo of him standing on solidified water. Then we both ran to the car to get out of the cold.

It was January 7, 2015. Mario had just arrived in Burlington, Vermont, from Cuba, and he had never experienced temperatures below freezing. I met him almost four years prior to this visit when I traveled to Cuba on a tour with other energy efficiency and renewable energy professionals. The tour was organized by Solar Energy International, a renewable energy school for which I taught a week long sustainability class, with travel logistics provided by Global Exchange. Mario is a specialist in Technology and Environmental Information at the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment in Havana. He was one of our professional connections and guide for the Havana portion of our delegation, where he helped us to understand how Cuba responded to the economic collapse of their best trade ally, the old Soviet Union. Their ruin quickly led to Cuba’s own economic collapse in 1989, a time they euphemistically refer to as The Special Period (it was essentially a depression). Things were hard enough already with the U.S. embargo in place since 1960, and now Cuba had lost over three-quarters of its oil imports. Over the next four years, energy use in the country dropped by half.

This is the first in a series of weekly postings about my visit to Cuba with a delegation of energy industry professionals, and a Cuban colleague’s visit to Vermont for a similar tour. Along the way we learned about efficiency and renewables, and some striking contrasts between ourselves and our countries were revealed.

Paul Scheckel is the author of The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook.

Next Week: Visit to Cuba

band


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1/14/2015

In my previous blog post I mentioned how Jonathan Taggart and I recently completed a book and a film on off grid living in Canada. For this post I want to talk about the film and what it's all about. I'll begin by showing the film's trailer, which can be seen below or at our website, Life Off Grid.

Life Off Grid trailer from Jonathan Taggart on Vimeo.

Condensing 65,000 miles of travel across the country, almost three years of research, and nearly 200 interviews into 1 hour and 25 minutes wasn't an easy feat. But the process of selection says a lot about the things that mattered to us as film-makers.

Matt Clarke (editor), Jon (director), and I (producer) decided to build the film's story around two central questions: why and how someone lives off the grid. The answers do not come from our voiceover words. Rather, it is directly through the voices of about two dozen individuals living across Canada (most of the Canadians, some of them American and British expats) that we manage to share a wide variety of experiences and perspectives on what life off the grid means.

Told as a road story moving from the West Coast to the East Coast — passing by the North Coast along the way — the film introduces at least one family per province and territory and gives viewers an intimate and candid peek into their homes, land, and life.

It's not the kind of documentary film one would expect. Most of the movies and shows on off-grid living that I have seen sensationalize off-gridders and their homes, or at least make highly selective production choices by focusing only on individuals and families living in the most dramatically unique conditions. In fact, for the last two years I have been getting periodical requests from Canadian, American, and British TV production companies asking me to put them in touch with the most outlandish "characters." Sorry, I regularly say, I only met "normal" people.

Interesting as that may be in the TV listings guide — after all it must be hard to compete with the Kardashians and Gold Rush — that kind of sensationalism was never of interest to me, Jon and Matt. Instead we wrote an earnest and sober story that portrays off-grid living in Canada for what we found it to be: diverse, complex, nuanced and, most of all, beyond the stereotypes.

The reality on the ground — one that probably would not make for a conventional "reality" show, but maybe for a truly realistic one — is that off-grid living isn't (just) for the bold, the wild and the adventurous. It is, in fact, for just about everyone. Depending on motivations, available capital, regional conditions, climate, and personal lifestyle preferences one can live off the grid in the most diverse ways.

For example, the documentary shows that certain individuals manage to recreate high levels of domestic comforts and convenience in their off-grid homes — levels of comforts similar to those experienced in urban and suburban grid-connected homes. Other individuals and families, instead, choose to do with less and in the way end up reinventing what a home means. In our mind there are no hierarchies among these individuals: no off-gridder lives a more inherently interesting or authentic life than others. All simply live their lives by choices of their own making.

And living life by choices of one's making, to us, is really the point of off-grid living.

The movie, by the way, is currently touring film festivals so it's not available for viewing anywhere other than in the film festival cities. To stay posted on where the movie is being played, and when it's (hopefully) coming to a big or small screen near you, you can keep up with our blog, Life Off Grid, or follow us on Facebook.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



12/18/2014

Are you wondering if solar power is a good choice for you?

The answer is yes, if you are a home owner with sun exposure. The question of solar power should not really be a question of cost – it is a renewable energy resource issue. With Photovoltaic (PV) panel technology you can tap into the amazing world of free totally renewable energy from the sun. The sun is the main source of heat for the entire earth in the form of solar radiation. So much energy that at times can oversupply energy. For example, when solar flares hit the earth and cause power grids to fail due to overwhelming their capacity. The NASA site and provides solar flare warnings for different areas of the country. In our book on DIY Photovoltaic Solar Power for the Homeowner now available on Amazon (and available through our website we talk about protection methods and details on a faraday cage).

Faraday Cage 

You generally cannot find a better more reliable source of power on the planet that solar. Even where we live, in the Pacific Northwest, we get an ample amount of power. As we discuss in our book, PV panels are even more efficient in cold winter environments than hot southern U.S. climates — up to 40 percent more power has been experienced - this more than makes up for the loss of sun energy in the winter. Our book gives real data on temperature effects and how this correlates best to PV panel surface (using a temperature gun) temperature, often 65 degrees Fahrenheit higher than outside air temperature.

Farday Cage opened 

Why use natural gas, propane or other irreplaceable resources? Once these are used up they are gone. You should leave these non-green energy sources for people that cannot go totally green with solar Also, burning fossil fuels is bad due to the hazardous exhaust emissions, transportation pollution and hazards of taking the fuel to market, explosion and fire hazards. Consider how the magnitudes of the problems multiply with millions of users.

The main cost of a PV system is initial installation. However, this is a onetime up front fixed cost. There is very little repetitive cost over the life of the system. Batteries (an option for energy storage – which we chose to use) are most likely the biggest expense. Battery purchase can be minimized with very little degradation in the system. Compare this to fossil fuels with big lifelong transport and delivery subject to increasing cost and hazards. Trucks, trains, and pipelines all have these risks. The sun comes up every morning though for most of us.

Photovoltaic and Cabinet back view 

In our book you will find a buildable 8 kW PV power system that is very affordable. The payback is normally as fast as 6 to 8.5 years. After the system is paid for it is pretty much cost-free every day! That free concept is not usually talked about, but if you do a lifetime analysis it approaches that compared to any other power systems. The picture above shows our three forty foot rows of movable PV collectors and the battery bank and inverter cabinet. The complete instructions for building and wiring this system are included in the book.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

 



12/16/2014

infrared image of a cooked turkey

You know that warm, cozy, sleepy feeling you get after an over-sized meal shared with too many friends and family to fit around a single table? It's some gossip to share in the kitchen, but I will never know the truth of it. My compulsion is to doze off on the couch between two over-stuffed uncles watching the game, where I’m lulled into the safety of sleep by vague murmurs and laughter from the kitchen and the drone of the TV. The post-holiday dinner coma is a comforting part of a familiar holiday tradition. What could possibly be wrong?

Indoor Air Quality

When I do home energy inspections, one of the things I investigate is the air quality inside the home. This involves testing for carbon monoxide (CO), relative humidity (RH), and carbon dioxide (CO2). CO is produced when fuels are not completely burned. A concentration of 0.01 percent CO in air is harmful to humans and 0.3 percent is deadly within minutes. RH is a measure of how much moisture is in the air. RH affects our comfort, but too much moisture in the wrong place can lead to mold growth, which also affects our health. CO2 is a normal result of fuel combustion, and is also a byproduct of our own respiration. CO2 concentration in outdoor air is about 0.04 percent, and the air we exhale contains about 4 percent CO2. These are pretty small numbers, but incredibly important ones if we’d like to stay alive and healthy.

Telaire CO2 meter 

Breathing 101

Humans need air that contains at least 20 percent oxygen. Lucky for us, nature has provided us with 21 percent. The main ingredient in air (78 percent) is nitrogen, and the remaining 1 percent is spice in the soup. Mess with the spice, and you ruin the entire meal! The mechanism for removing excess nitrogen from our bodies is through urine, but there is no such efficient biological mechanism for removing most airborne poisons that may be contained in that surprisingly important 1 percent. When CO2 concentration in the air we inhale reaches about 0.12 percent, many of us will start to feel sleepy and maybe head-achy. Not a health risk, but you won’t be functioning at your best. I’ve measured CO2 levels in meeting rooms and school classrooms in excess of .3 percent, eight times higher than normal! Ever wonder why some meetings put you to sleep? Or why your kids are wet noodles when they come home from school? It might not be the presenter’s fault, open a window and let in some fresh air!

The Food Coma

What does all this have to do with your holiday meal? During one family thanksgiving gathering, I got out my CO2 meter to test the air while dinner cooked in the gas oven. The CO2 level in the house quickly shot up to over .15 percent, so we turned on the bathroom exhaust fan. It helped a little, but not much. We needed a large range hood, vented to outside to make a real difference. The CO2 level was closing in on .2 percent and yawns were exchanged by all. Two windows were opened to allow cross ventilation, and within minutes the CO2 levels dropped. But that was just phase one. Cooking complete, windows closed, and fifteen people all exhaling in the dining room meant that CO2 began to rise again. We’ve always blamed the amino acid tryptophan, present in many foods, but I realize now that all those holiday meals at grandma’s house were accompanied by an invisible and unknown poison that put us all to sleep. We were all lethargic from poor indoor air quality, and all we could really manage to do in that environment was watch TV.

A Delicate Mix

The air we breathe is a delicate mix that is easily thrown off balance. Very small changes in its composition can dramatically affect our health, how we think, feel, and behave. Global warming aside, atmospheric CO2 is a pollutant, levels are rising, and our bodies are reacting along with the planet. We are like lobsters that have been thrown into a pot of cold water on the stove top. The heat is on, and we can feel something slowly changing. How long before we start clamoring to get out of the pot?

Get Efficient, Stay Healthy

This year, do your part to keep the flame on the lobster pot low! Check out the Homeowner’s Energy Handbook for ideas. As you tighten up your home for energy efficiency, don’t forget to add a ventilation system for fresh air. Meanwhile, do yourself and your guests a favor by opening a window or two while you’re cooking and entertaining. You’ll be glad you did, and I bet it will lead to more engaging time spent with family and friends.

Paul Scheckel is the author of "The Homeowner's Energy Handbook" and The Home Energy Diet


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


12/15/2014

Save Nature

There were high hopes for green energy when President Obama submitted his 2015 budget to Congress. The highlights of that budget included a $3.9-trillion proposal for investments in renewable energy and a commitment to focusing more on green technology — and less on older energy-intensive industries that produce significant carbon emissions.

Despite that the plan included a phase-out of the 2006 Investment Tax Credit for solar energy, which had helped grow solar energy capacity 20-fold in 7 years, it was still an ambitious prescription for advancing green energy in America. The President and Congress instead settled on a Continuing Resolution to fund the U.S. government through the end of 2014. We’ll have to wait to see what the new Congress and the President will be able to negotiate to facilitate green energy in 2015.

In the meantime, the private sector remains the main driver of current trends in green energy. More plainly, it means that economic decisions that consumers make are going to determine the likely success and failure of various advances in green technology.

Here are three consumer-driven green energy trends which have a direct impact on our pocketbooks.

1. Net-Zero Homes

Homebuyers are now emphasizing a home’s energy efficiency when looking for their next purchase. In a recent National Association of Home Builders survey, 94 percent of respondents said that Energy Star rated appliances were either essential or desirable, and 91 percent of respondents had the same view for the Energy Star rating of the entire home.

In response, home builders are focusing on “net-zero” buildings, which consume only as much energy as can be produced on site. If additional energy can be created and returned to the grid, that’s even better. To help meet this goal, active controls on solar panels and skylights are gaining attention. They “help minimize solar heat gain, control glare and direct light deeper into occupied places,” said Brian Court, principal of The Miller Hull Partnership, LLP.

Coupling active energy efficiency with traditional passive methods — such as superior insulation, keeping a home airtight, and double-paned windows — offers ways to collect and store more energy in addition to using less. These are both important parts of getting to net zero. 

2. Low- or No-Emission Cars

Fuel economy consistently ranks as the most important purchase factor for new car buyers. A Consumer Federation of America survey indicated that 85 percent of respondents support the government requirement to increase the fuel efficiency of new cars to an average 35 miles per gallon by 2017. That impetus has led to more interest in low or no-emission cars.

Even casual drivers are taking note that there are more electric and hybrid cars on the road. These cars are unusual and eye catching, so they’re hard to miss. We see them used increasingly by taxi services, our neighbors (even wealthy neighbors). It would be tempting to think that the green car revolution is already well underway, but it really hasn’t reached critical mass yet.

In 2011, President Obama set forth a goal of having 1 million electric vehicles in service by 2015. Unfortunately, we’re falling short of this objective. As of the third quarter of 2014, when combining plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars, only about 250,000 were sold in the past four years.

The trends do favor low or no-emission cars. Hybrids, such as the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius, show steady linear growth. Sales for all-electrics, such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S, are increasing exponentially and almost equal total sales for hybrids. Still, in the USA, green cars account for less than 1 percent of all vehicles on the road, so there’s a lot of room for increased market share.

3. Large-Scale Green Energy Production

Most people think about solar energy when they think “green.” But even with new large-scale solar farms and solar shading for store parking lots, the total contribution from solar power to electrical demand in the USA is projected to remain close to half of one percent. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Commerce identifies trade barriers with other nations as a limiting factor to the United States exporting solar energy abroad.

Still, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that large-scale green energy sources will increase dramatically in 2015. In particular, wind power will increase more than 16 percent and contribute nearly 5 percent of our total electricity generation.

The U.S. also remains the world’s leading geothermal market, and the country exports geothermal energy around the globe — nearly 30 percent of global geothermal. What’s more, with a focus on carbon emissions, the Energy Information Administration estimates an upcoming decrease in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2015, with a marked drop in coal-based emissions.

Home budgeting remain a top concern for most consumers, it’s important to be aware of these green energy trends and understand how they’ll impact us in the future.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


12/2/2014

There is no wrong way to build a first biogas digester, so long as it results in the unforgettable experience of seeing the miraculous blue flame of biogas for the first time. Soon afterwards, however, most peoples’ thoughts turn to a continuously operating system for regular daily energy at their home or small farm. If your dream homestead or community happens to lie in a cold region, it used to be believed biogas was not a viable option for you unless it was buried deep underground. Our understanding of the biogas process has improved a lot in recent years together with the introduction of new technology such as evacuated tube solar water heaters, so with a little bit of planning and DIY know-how, it is possible to thumb your nose at Old Man Winter and enjoy biogas in subzero temperatures.

We all know there is no free lunch, heating energy has to come from somewhere. There are a number of different options for heating a biodigester with or without fossil fuels, but before we consider them, it is important to keep in mind two important considerations for wintertime biogas. In the winter and early spring there will naturally be less organic waste available and accessible, requiring lower operating temperatures. Put simply, yes, biodigesters do benefit from heating to operate in wintertime, however, they do not need to be anywhere near peak performance temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They need only minimal operating heat between 55 degrees and 75 degrees. Secondly, what heat that is produced needs to be focused in the “active zone” in a biogas digester, which is located on the bottom of the digestion chamber, half-way between the center and the inlet.

activezone

Some of the most common methods for heating home biogas digesters are on the chart below. We want to utilize waste heat if it is available and avoid dedicated electric heaters if possible. The following chart is divided by what heating options are appropriate where utility rates are low and where utility rates are high, which includes off-grid applications. The perfect cold climate off-grid combined heat and power system in my opinion would be a home gasifier or boiler burning annually-renewable wood chips or pellets together with a biogas digester. Waste heat from the gasifier heat exchanger or gen-set could be used to heat the biodigester, and in return biogas could provide year-round cooking energy, as wood gas has too much CO to safely burn indoors.

Methods for Heating Biogas Digesters

Where utility prices are low.

Where utility prices are high + off-grid

Home hot water system

Dedicated Electric

(Hot tub heater)

Dedicated Solar

Combined heat & power

Connected to the home hot water system.

Circulates heated water directly back into digester on

Flat panel for warm regions

Waste heat from gen-set, boiler or gasifier.

Evacuated tube for cold regions

If you intend to use your home hot water system to heat your biodigester, you must have your heat exchanger outside the digestion chamber to avoid the possibility contaminating your fresh water supply through a leak or ruptured pipe. For dedicated heater applications, a 50/50 water to planet and pet-friendly glycol is recommended to avoid freezing.

Biogas and solar thermal form a winning team to help reduce fossil fuel use, whether it is with a dedicated solar heater or solar heat supplements your home hot water system. For our two cubic meter home biogas units, I recommend 20-inch x 48-inch evacuated tube heater for Zones 4 & 5, or 10 tubes per cubic meter of digester volume. Provided the heat exchanger is located directly beneath the active zone. In summer months, solar heaters can be covered or disconnected.

In addition to heating, there are some additional steps you can take to maximize your heating energy.

Additional Steps to Improve Wintertime Performance

Insulation

Thermal blanket

Hoop house

Greenhouse

I hope everyone has a happy holidays and has the opportunity to enjoy a fossil fuel-free Christmas dinner prepared with 100 percent natural, clean burning biogas from ordinary household waste.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


11/18/2014

I will continue the step-by-step introduction to home scale biogas for those interested in learning how to make it with my next post. In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to mix things up with what I call my Biogas All-Stars series. These are posts where I will highlight one of my colleagues in the international biogas community and let them to answer questions about their projects in their own words.

I believe MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers will find this series useful, as it will offer examples of different types of regionally-appropriate digester designs. These All-stars inspire us all with their resourcefulness and dedication, working with locally available materials in often inhospitable – sometimes even dangerous - conditions to build biogas digesters to transform the lives of people who need it most. The Biogas All-Stars do not appear in any order. I would like to begin with one of the most likeable people I have ever met, Marcello Ambrosio, with the Studio Ambrosio Agricultural Consulting, from Italy.

Marcello (pronounced March-ello) and I met in New York City during a conference for Solar CITIES, an international non-profit biogas education and training organization we both belong to. He is a big fan of Western movies, and once worked as a cowboy in Wyoming during a visit to the U.S. When it comes to building biogas digesters, however, he is definitely the Lone Ranger. Usually working by himself, he has single-handedly built digesters as large as 100 cubic meters (26,000 gallons).  

 marcello

Marcello specializes in the most common type of biogas digester in the world, the Chinese underground pit-type digester. There are an estimated 50 million of these type digesters in China. They are usually built underground for gas production throughout the cold Chinese winters. The advantage of this type is it allows those willing to get their hands dirty an opportunity to trade labor for material costs. With a readily available supply of bricks and mortar, this type of digester can be built for very little money. Building and operating plans for these types of digesters are available in ‘A Chinese Biogas Manual,’ which can be purchased through online book retailers or a free PDF Copy.

chinesepit

Weisman: When did you discover biogas?

Ambrosio: I first learned about biogas in 2006, as a student at the Polytechnic of Turin. After graduation, I went on to work at large, commercial biogas plants in Germany and Luxemburg. These large plants were using a lot of dedicated crops for feedstocks – mostly corn – and I knew there was no way this was sustainable.

Weisman: Describe the first time you created flammable biogas:

Ambrosio: In 2007 I built a small 100 liter (45 gallon) home plant and produced my first flame. I then built a one cubic meter plant (275 gallons), but it did not work very well, especially in winter. I live in the Alps. I then made my first 12 cubic meter plant, which was big enough to produce sufficient gas throughout the winter.

biogas

biogas 

Weisman: What has been your favorite project so far?

Amrbosio: My favorite size is the 25 to 40 cubic meter plants. They are ideal for small farms with a few cows or horses.

biogas

 biogas

Weisman: What advice would you give young people interested in biogas?

Ambrosio: I would say be careful not to think about biogas by itself, but to consider it as one link in a chain of closed loop sustainability. It is just the first step in the management of the organic wastes and soil ecology. It is important to consider every step of this cycle, for example utilization of the byproducts from the biogas process in agriculture. This multifunctional approach has far more value than the flame itself.

Weisman: Anything else you’d like to add for the American DIY community?

Ambrosio: Just be careful with methane from a climate change perspective. If you generate it, it is okay to burn it, but if you release it into the atmosphere 1 cubic meter (35.3 cubic feet) of methane is equal to 23 cubic meters (811 cubic feet) of CO2. The same impact of driving 60 km (27 miles) in a medium-size car. So, when you build it is important to have proper systems with no leakage and to have the digester sized correctly so when we are not home the gas is not released. Otherwise we are solving the problems of waste disposal and nutrient recycling, while adding to a bigger problem, emitting GHG gases.

Weisman: What is your favorite Western movie and why?

Ambrosio: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) directed by Sergio Leone. There is just something magic about Western movies. They commemorate a time when there were still some uncharted lands in the West. Going West was a great adventure for the pioneers in search of prosperity and happiness.

I think people today can learn a lot from that pioneering spirit in our thinking, only instead of heading West we now must look outside the box canyon we have become trapped in to find a better way of doing things.

If you have any home or small farm biogas projects in Europe or non-profit projects anywhere in the world you would like to talk to Marcello about, you can email him at marcelloambrosio@gmail.com.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.









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