Richard Heinberg shows in a new article that the global energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources is still going much too slowly to save us from our own bad habits.
Locally, though, i’m happy to report that we at gnusystems have powered nearly all of our transportation this spring with solar energy. We’ve been charging the BatBolt, our electric car, with our solar panels, adding up to 30 km of range every sunny day. For more details, have a look at the video introduction to EV driving (mostly for rural drivers) I posted on Youtube. Considering your transport options in the near future? EVs can be an important part of the transition, and not as expensive as you might think.
The winter solstice is here at last. It’s comforting to know (as well as we can know anything about the future) that tomorrow the northern hemisphere will begin tilting back towards the sun and the daylight hours will begin to increase. Our solar-powered life here on Manitoulin Island will become more secure; by February we will hardly need our generator at all to keep our batteries charged up. In the meantime we can enjoy tramping about the woods with our snowshoes, or watching the chickadees and goldfinches at the feeder.
The global news is not so good. The climate summit in Madrid, COP25, was an abject failure, with the big polluters blocking any attempt at a concerted international effort to significantly reduce greenouse gas emissions. We can expect no genuine leadership to come from the top levels of our governments. That leaves it up to us at the local level to build up our relilience as we deal with the ongoing emergencies. As for instance the Dutch agroecology movement is doing.
The more we humans carry on consuming our context as we have been, the less likely we are to manage the consequences. For instance, where will the hundreds of millions of climate refugees go in the coming decades – now that we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet and driven so many other species to extinction? One journalist in Madrid was musing about all this, and about the Greta phenomenon, as he watched the negotiations fall apart.
My own musing is this: whether we manage to “manage” or not, i hope we can at least wake up from the dream of “progress” and live our time wholeheartedly. I find more resonance than ever in Thoreau’s words from Walden:
God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.…
Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature … Be it life or death, we crave only reality.
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.
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.
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).
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.