Electric realism

William Rees, co-inventor of the ecological footprint concept, recently published an article entitled ‘Don’t call me a pessimist on climate change, I am a realist.’ He outlines all the reasons why it is unlikely that humanity will achieve the transition to a just, healthy and sustainable way of occupying our planet. I’m inclined to agree with him on that. So i hope readers don’t think i’m an optimist on climate change just because i’m writing about ‘the transition’ and doing what little i can to further it. I’m not an optimist on living forever, either, but that only encourages me to live more deeply the little time i have.

The same applies to human civilization, as far as i’m concerned. If we are in the process of destroying ourselves, i’d really like to understand what it is about human-nature relations that pushes us in that direction. If we are in the process of making the transition to a civilization that respects the nature of ecosystems, i’d like to understand that too. Or at least contribute to somebody else’s understanding by reporting on our local experiments.

This meter in our kitchen is how we keep track of our solar energy supply. This Monday morning at 11 a.m. we have 9.7 amps more coming in than we are using.

One of those is our Chevy Bolt EV. Electric cars face special challenges in winter, because cold batteries don’t operate as efficiently. We do have an enclosed garage, but it’s not heated. The manual for ours recommends keeping it plugged in when temperatures fall below freezing. We can’t do that because we’re off the power grid and keeping the car plugged in would very quickly drain the batteries that power the whole house. To give you a rough idea, we need about 5 kilowatt-hours per day to power the household – more in the November-to-February stretch because the nights are longer. On an uncloudy day we can draw that much from the sun in 3 hours or less; but uncloudy days are rare this time of year, and 5 kwh will only power the car for about half an hour’s driving.

Of course we can’t just let the car sit unused for weeks at a time either. Since the cold weather started, Pam has been out driving three or four times a week. One weekly trip includes a charging session using the Level 2 charger we installed at our on-grid place in Little Current (15 km from home). She’s found that we can save energy by using the heated driver’s seat and steering wheel rather than heating the whole interior of the car. Of course we need the windshield defroster occasionally – but not very often (unless there’s too much conversation going on among passengers and driver!). Anyway, the risks of relying on an EV in winter are greatly outweighed by the benefits of low maintenance, zero emissions and very low “fuel” costs. We’ll see what happens when the temperature drops to -25 C.

November propanity

Remembrance Day is a good time to honor those who sacrificed so much in those 20th-century wars. It’s also a good time to reflect on our national and personal contributions to the 21st-century war against global heating.

Canada is lagging behind most other G20 countries in this respect, according to the latest Brown to Green Report from the Climate Transparency network. Part of the purpose of this blog is to help subscribers keep track of how the “Brown to Green” transition is going on the planetary scale – but in this post i’d like to focus more on our own household.

I should mention first that in my personal approach to “the transition,” i’m not trying to change the world. I am simply recognizing that the world is changing, that the impact of human actions on the ecosystem is increasing rapidly, and that my own actions affect that impact. So i am changing the world whether i like it or not. The fact that our household choices are too small to register on the global scale makes no difference on the psychological or spiritual level, if i may call it that. The life of the spirit is its presence to the moment we are living, and that moment is independent of scale. The Big Bang happened yesterday, and i started writing this paragraph eons ago. The time is now, as always.

So today i’m writing about propane, the one fossil fuel we rely on directly here at gnusystems. It’s relatively clean as fossil fuels go, but burning it still emits greenhouse gases, so we try to minimize our use of it. Our main year-round use is cooking. We made that choice because using electrical heating elements to cook is not practical for an off-grid solar-powered house, and cooking with a woodstove is not practical either for our situation. We do heat the house with a woodstove, but ours isn’t suitable for cooking.

Now that we are entering the darkest and coldest part of the year, we start using much more propane. We use a propane wall furnace to keep the plants in our greenhouse from freezing. In the picture, you can see it on the right, next to the sliding door to the outside. I just plugged it in today (it uses electrical power to light the flame and run the fan) because it was -10° C. outside this morning. But i’m hoping that this year i won’t have to leave it plugged in all winter.

We have it at the lowest possible setting, which is 5°, but when it’s running it actually keeps the temperature in there at 10°. But since the greenhouse is attached to our main house, there should be days, even in winter, when the added heat from the sun is enough to keep it above freezing. So i’m experimenting with shutting off that heater on some days, in order to reduce the amount of propane we use.

Our other main use of propane in winter is to fuel the generator which charges up our batteries on days when there’s not enough sun to do it. We’ve also taken steps to reduce propane consumption there too, by adding more solar panels this fall and increasing our battery capacity a couple of years ago. The more power we can get directly from the sun, and the more of it we can store, the less we have to rely on fossil fuels. We’ll see how these experiments go.

I don’t want to leave the impression that keeping track of our household energy consumption is an onerous chore, or a “sacrifice” we are making. On the contrary, knowing intimately where our food, water, energy and connectivity is coming from is one of the best features of living so far from the city. It’s our idea of a good time, infinitely more than flying down to Rio or the south of France for the winter. Of course we love the peace and quiet too …

Next time i’ll report on how our electric car is handling the onset of winter (another experiment in eco-living).

Transition time

I think it’s about time i repurposed this blog, from mainly theoretical to something more practical.

The question on my mind now is how we humans can make the transition to a more ecologically sound civilization, one that values all the inhabitants of Planet Earth and not just our species. The transition needs to happen at every level, from local to global, and it needs to happen fast. According to the IPCC, we have only about a decade to avert runaway global heating which will make life difficult, if not impossible, for most of us. Humans will have to radically transform the dominant culture of consumptive capitalism, or else the present climate emergency will become an irreversible catastrophe. The situation is already dire for many millions of humans and other earthlings, and will get worse before it gets better – how do we cope with that?

None of us really knows much about the answers to these questions. We have a general idea of what needs to be done and have the technology to do it, but the entrenched resistance to such radical changes is still a major obstacle. Maybe an ongoing conversation about the transition will allow for us to learn from each other’s experiments and experiences, and i hope this blog can contribute something to that. I’d like to turn the blog into something more like a forum that will make it easier for others to contribute, so please let me know if you’re interested in doing that! I’m looking into the WordPress options to open it up to more discussion.

Now for the local news. Yesterday my wife Pam and i took a carload of friends from Manitoulin to Sudbury, the first time we’ve done that with the Chevrolet Bolt EV we bought a few months ago. And another first: we used fast DC chargers in both Sudbury and Espanola to power the trip back to Manitoulin. These were recently installed at Petro-Canada stations, and more of them are going in across the country, according to Petro-Canada. It’s good to see that at least one oil company is actually helping out with the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and electric vehicles – especially considering how much oil money is going into desperate atttempts to delay the transition.

Our Bolt EV is an experiment in managing our energy consumption, which has been a priority for Pam and me (and gnusystems) for many years. Our home is off the electrical grid and mostly solar-powered now (though we are still partly reliant on propane). I’ll be reporting and commenting on this as we head into our first winter of relying on an EV for transportation. But there’s much more to report on, so i hope you readers will “stay tuned” and share some of your own transitional thoughts.