Friday, May 8, 2009

Philosophy : Climate and Energy

This project is my own little effort to tackle two of the major problems facing the human race - Climate Change (from CO2 emissions) and Energy Famine (due to the lack of further fossil fuel reserves, and the problems caused by burning this energy source).  Whilst many deny that either of these are a problem, the majority of educated people recognise that these are risks that require action.
   My other two major risks are Increasing Population (with increasing energy consumption due to rising living standards) and Food-Water Stress (with high food miles to maintain the quality and variety we expect, while in other parts of the world, there are major shortages). There is little I can do about these two as my children are both grown up (and not yet making grandchildren). Food-water wise, we grow what we can, we go for local food if possible, nothing is wasted (the cat, birds or compost heap get what we don't), we capture rainwater for garden use, and we already use 2016 levels of water. They are all interlinked - for example, increasing populations demand more energy, food requires energy to cook and transport, burning of energy adds to CO2 emissions etc.

Food and Energy
Humans cannot live without burning energy, we have biologically adapted over the millenia to burn energy in order to eat.
The original hunter gatherers of the Olduvai Gorge in Africa may have been able to browse seeds, leaves, fruit and carrion every day and drink at waterholes, but the moment we migrated north, we had to learn how to store food during the winter, make clothes, and we discovered that meat cooked on a fire was vastly safer to eat, and more calorific than raw meat, and that water boiled was safer to drink. Where every other species on the planet can eat raw meat, raw vegetable material and pond water (depending on their position in the environment and food chain), we would rapidly suffer food poisoning, parasite infestation, or at best severe indigestion if we ate anything raw other than fruit and a small number of vegetables. The enzymes in our stomach simply cannot cope with grass, twigs and raw meat; they have changed, in the way that our skins have shed hair when we began to make clothes.
 The average British peasant prior to the Industrial Revolution had a staple diet of the three B's, Bread, Beer and Beef. Bread could be baked because humans have learnt how to store grain for millennia. Beer was safer to drink than water because it comes from boiling grain, and the alcohol is a preservative.  Beef was necessary as it is self refrigerating food that lives on the same materials - grain, hay etc. Of course we had more than just the 3 Bs, we had Milk and Mutton and a few others - but Fruit was never seen, except during the very short harvest season. Rice and potatoes are comparative newcomers to our diet. Other cultures, such as the Mediterranean learnt to make similar methods of storing produce from Olives and Grapes.
  I haven't got space here to discuss water at length - but this is fundamental to our existence, and the way that it is delivered now is highly energy consuming, and more than half of it is flushed down the toilet. Much of our water could be captured off our roofs.

Climate Change and Energy

• I believe that our climate is changing due to human cause emissions of CO2. CO2 and rising temperatures may not be seen as a problem, but a greater danger would be substantially rising sea levels from the melting icecaps. This could bring a change vastly greater than the end of the Ice Age, because the world population is billions greater than it was as we have established cities and boundaries.

• I also believe that the reserves of fossil based energy are expiring and that energy consumption is so essential to our way of life that to be without it will cause wars, invasions and breakdown of civil existence. Human kind is ignoring the major source of energy that is available, the Sun, and we must find better ways to use it.

Discuss: Climate Change
In the past, we adapted to climate change and rising sea-level by migration, sometimes invasion of the land of weaker species (what did happen to homo erectus? they got killed!). We know that ancient tribal people made use of the land bridges that still existed at the end of the ice age, eg from Siberia to Alaska, Europe to Africa, Britain to France, etc. and the abundance of animals to kill and trees to cut down.
 This is no longer possible with our national boundaries, governmental organisations. Even a small amount of economic or climatic migration causes a national panic, and the rise of new political groupings such as the US Tea Party, or the BNP. Similarly,  if the average temperature rose by 2 or 4 degrees either way, you might say we can just turn up the heating or the air conditioning. But this requires immense energy consumption, and more CO2 emission, and is not a solution for millions in the already-hot countries.
   I don't have a problem with climate change deniers - they are entitled to their opinion (but I don't want to be friends with people like this). Many of them admit it's happening, but deny that humans are the cause. Some of them admit it's happening, admit it's down to human caused CO2, but say it's too late or too expensive to do anything about. They are often the kind of people who are also most against immigration or energy conservation. They certainly don't see the need for them to change behaviour.

Discuss: Energy
What none of the Climate Change deniers can deny is that energy is becoming more and more difficult to find. And if they are reasonable, they would admit that our society uses far more energy than is necessary for life - shops brightly lit all night, floodlighting, dependence on private cars etc. The continuing use of energy on this scale is unsustainable, especially the high consumption in the rich countries, who are dependent on buying the energy from (previously) poor countries, and the number of countries who neither produce nor consume, and sink deeper into 'energy-poverty'. The degree of anger that results from a shortage of energy causes huge conflict. The invasion of Iraq is just the start of energy conflicts that we will see increasingly.
   The Olduvai theory (Link) postulates that there could be a complete breakdown of society by 2030 once large populations cannot have energy to get through winter, cook, travel to work, get to shops or education, find anything in the shops, have electricity for 24 hrs, or take holidays, etc.
   As energy becomes harder to find, pricing mechanisms slowly catch up, and force people to use less of it - but the price is still too low to move us all over to a Green energy economy.

This discussion could go on a long time, I might write more later. Meanwhile, I will cut short and shift back to the Peveril Solar house project

Where does the house project fit in?
I believe that we should not wait for 'the government' to do something about it - we individuals all have to do something about it, right down to the buildings we use and the food and transport choices we make. We can find ways to reduce the CO2 emitted by our existence on this planet.
    As a teaching architect, it is clearly my duty to discuss these issues with my students - in fact we have a whole semester seminar module discussing these threats, and my design modules implicity require Sustainability as a driving force.
    When I had the opportunity to move to a new house in 2006-7, it was a wonderful chance to do something positive to save energy - our previous old detached victorian villa has burnt huge quantities of gas for heating and cooking. Existing houses are difficult to adapt, new-build houses are easy. So we decided to use a Heat pump, and because of the shape and position of the site, ground source with a vertical borehole was the only option. I had two ancient aunties leaving me money, in 2006 and 2009, whose legacies funded some of this work.

So, in a nutshell, the recent project is two fold:
• to Generate energy [hence the Photovoltaic], and
• to Conserve energy [by making the heatpump more efficient, hence the 'Charging the Earth'].

Photovoltaic is well established, and was a quick day-and-a-half to install. Not a lot to write about there.

The reason that the Blog is mostly about the Solar Earth Charging is that this is innovative, risky, inventive, developing, incomplete etc. It could be life changing, if it evolves a technology that will be used with ground source heat pumps in future.

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