This Is The Life

I hope you don’t think I’m just some nuclear power cheerleader. I’m really just a guy with some science training who accepts the concerns of experts regarding future climate disruption, while rejecting the conventional nuclear aversion which is part and parcel of traditional environmental awareness in Australia. Could I call myself an environmentalist anyway? I’d rather focus on what I do to contribute.

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A 3 kW PV system was the most the installers determined our roof could support. Although it unavoidably faces east, it certainly helps offset our electrical demand in summer. Rather than wrap myself in smug, I view this arrangement as an investment that will hopefully achieve net carbon abatement, vis-a-vis the best estimates of PV life-cycle payback as discussed recently by Graham Palmer.

Would I have these on my roof if Australia was primarily powered by emissions-free nuclear energy? Would I need to? PV provides us with intermittent electricity that counts against our current power costs – and future increases – but supply from nuclear would be demand- and cost-stable, while contributing even less in carbon emissions. If it wasn’t arbitrarily side-lined, and available to be rationally considered on its merits alongside every other option, I wouldn’t even need to write this blog.

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These sails shade the north wall. Although it was my intention, I was shocked at how dramatically the immediate living spaces are kept cool in summer. The old air-con box was barely run for a day’s worth earlier this year, and only on account of tiny children.

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Speaking of whom, we use washable nappies such as these, to save on biological landfill.

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I saved this industrial polystyrene insulation from landfill. Attached beneath the floorboards, it utterly stops all through-floor heat loss. Needless to mention, the ceiling is also insulated. I also invested in double glazing for all windows, which is virtually unheard of in South Australia. I didn’t even bother checking if there was an energy efficiency rebate for doing so. It wasn’t cheap.

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These 400W convection panels are mounted on the interior walls of each room. They efficiently dispel any chill almost immediately.

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Every fitting runs one of these LED-based globes. This is a 7 watt unit, which subjectively outputs the equivalent of a 75 watt incandescent. The rangehood downlights are each 3 watts.

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I maintain an ad hoc multi-unit biomatter recycling facility at the back of the yard, with semi-reliable, nutritious output. There is one rule: all biomatter is recycled.

Other efforts: just as my grandparents didn’t expect my parents to laboriously wash all their clothes by hand, I don’t expect my children to was dishes by hand. We have an efficient, economical (second hand!) machine for that. It uses exactly fifteen litres and 1.3 kWh each wash. I’ve calibrated it. I do face a regrettable commute into the city each day, and I bought a Prius to help with that. I won’t include a picture. No one needs to look at a Prius.

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This is the real star of the show, however. Those evacuated tubes absorb any and all ambient radiance to heat our 315 litre water tank. This was another unsubsidised financial outlay to save on electrical water heating. Three straight days of clouds and I must resort to mains boost, but in summer it is safe to flick the isolator and let the sun do all the work for weeks at a time.

This system is supremely efficient and doesn’t involved all the industrial processes and value chains upon which solar PV relies – an utter reliance which is largely ignored in the course of normal energy commentary. Would I have these on my roof if Australia was primarily powered by emissions-free nuclear energy? Dammit, yes, because of the direct application and utility, and bypassing the electrical energy transformation step is so obviously beneficial for efficiency.

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Another different house: now, what do these folks do? It’s just one of the houses around the corner… with northward roof area entirely shadowed by their proud palm trees. To be an effective part of some utopian solar energy revolution, they’d need to cut their trees down.

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They’d need to cut all the trees along the other side of the street down too. I mean, yay solar, but has anyone even roughly estimated how much suburban deforestation would be involved?

So yay for carbon-free wind energy too (sadly, there’s no nice page for hydro), and yay for efficiency. But Australia’s electricity-related emissions have not dropped since 2000.

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Annual generation has increased by 30 to 40 terawatt hours… We’re certainly still using electricity, and rightly so. But only some of that increase is from non-emitting windfarms and solar. I guess more wind could be (and surely will be) added but the capacity credit, the actual proportion of the time that the geographically distributed farms can be relied on to match demand (8.3% maximum in summer at last count) will not increase linearly with additional nameplate megawatts. It just doesn’t work that way, while all the additional transmission infrastructure required – as the wind net is flung farther and wider – generally costs a premium and must be capable of handling the rare instances of maximum generated output. Positive news about not insubstantial carbon-free wind contributions should not seek to perpetuate the belief that inherently intermittent generation is suitable for outright replacement of reliable 24/7 capacity – the coal and gas plants that we ultimately need to decommission.

So anyway, I have done what I can, and I have more measures in the works. But if minimising my carbon intensity was my goal, I’d move my family to Toronto or Chicago and buy a Chevy Volt. It’s got to be bigger than that, bigger than just having more renewable energy, bigger than some calculated percentage. It’s got to be as big as zero emissions, nationally, and picking heroes and villains will never get us there.

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8 thoughts on “This Is The Life

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. Having had far too many addresses in far too few years, it has been a pleasure to finally settle in and get to know a house and the way it performs with energy.

    the last owners were canny with the shading, both blinds inside and out and some well placed trees. It’s ESSENTIAL. The heat load from an unshaded wall is awful. This is definitely a strength of our premises. It has to get awfully hot for the single AC unit to come on at all. Of course, when the true heatwaves set in, we have to sleep in the air-conditioned room as a family! We also recently invested in an ad hoc multi-unit biomatter recycling facility at the back of the yard, though they are still a bit young for the nutritious output. Pleasure to have around though.

    The windows interest me. We have been getting bothered by the cold this year, just a bit sick of it. Our roof is well insulated and it’s a double brick 1950s construction; probably little else we can do with walls and floor. So I suspect the windows may be the weak link for heat loss. I have been looking at a product called ENERLOGIC which appears to be making a well-supported claim to nearly delivering the performance of double glazing via a film, hence at much less cost than the glazing. So, did you get a pleasing result from the double glazing? http://www.enerlogicwindowfilms.com.au/ . In the next year or two we will almost certainly upgrade the heating/cooling for the house, so it would be good to firstly cut the requirements right down.

    I have also been creeping LED through the house where possible. The main place I want it though it to replace the halogens, six of them in the living space. That would drop huge wattage from three of the most frequently used switches in the house. But they don’t work… I stuck them in and no love… it may be that these switches have dimmers, or it may be something else, but I fear this change will be much more outlay than just the $18 globes. Did you run into any such issues?

    Great piece.

    • Thanks mate.

      Trees and other shading, as well as position of garden beds near walls can contribute immensely to passive microclimate control in and around a sensibly built house. I’m still learning about permaculture… Also always wanted to have a depaving party, and get rid of some of this heat-storing concrete.

      Your house is better built than mine. I highly recommend anything that insulates windows, they really leak the heat. I probably notice it more, living outside the Adelaide heat island.

      I’ve been trying different LED styles and temperatures from online stores, but I used to run an electrical department so I already had a fair idea. Are your down lights 240V?

      • Not sure, will have to whip one out and have a look. I can see that both voltage and the dimmers might be the issue, in which case I might be shopping for new lights, as opposed to new globes. All adds to the cost of the exercise and might be easier as an add on when we are doing a bigger job.

  2. Interesting. One can spend a lot of time and mental energy optimising personal decisions. My personal footprint has risen substantially as a result of now doing hot yoga … the yoga studio is well insulated, but it must take some serious energy to get it up to full heat. On the other hand I’m hoping it will reduce my long term medical footprint 🙂

    I’m curious about the 400W convection panels. Did you compare them with modern inverter reverse cycle air-cons?

    • Bikram, yes? I’ve heard it’s quite challenging!

      I mainly compared them to other space heaters (oil column and the like) which are generally far higher wattage. They do take longer to actually heat each room, and I have to be careful that they are free from all obstruction to get the maximum convection plus radiant heat. The ceiling space is such that installing ducting may not be possible, but updating the A/C may happen for the one room, mostly for summer, and only if justified.

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