How Swedish Cities Stay Warm With Renewable Energy

A number of Swedish municipalities are arguably leading the world in environmentally-friendly heating. Heat and power production in such cities is combined with district heating systems to provide affordable, ecologically-sound heat for citizens.

swedish_people

District heating systems tend to use heat from renewable energy sources, which is then piped through the city for homes and other buildings to tap into rather than using their own separate boilers. Biofuels such as wood and peat are commonly used as well as combustible household waste. Other sources of heat may also be used, such as geothermal heat from deep underground or heat reclaimed from industrial processes. These types of heating system have played a major role in the relatively high level of independence from fossil fuels that Nordic countries have managed to achieve.

Altogether, around 60% of Sweden’s heating comes from district heating systems. Overall, about 85% of all public buildings and multiple-dwelling homes connected to these networks and such networks exist in all of Sweden’s towns. The birth of the Swedish district heating networks really took place in the 1950s, when many Swedish municipalities were looking into ways to reduce air pollution. They were also keen to find more efficient ways to produce electricity, and found that combined production of electricity and heat represented a significant improvement in efficiency. Helped by a culture that is generally supportive of community infrastructure, district heating took off in the following decades.

Many people around the world are starting to wonder whether the international community could do well to learn from Sweden’s example. While other countries struggle with energy usage, pollution, and declining stocks of finite natural resources, Sweden has almost removed fossil fuels from its heating sector. District heating systems are also relatively easy to operate. The infrastructure can be costly and challenging to construct, but it doesn’t come with the same challenges of internationalism that might hinder other types of infrastructure such as electricity.

Even those countries that do already use district heating systems may have things to learn from Sweden. In Eastern Europe, this kind of heating solution is more common than on the Western side of the continent. However, it is still largely based on coal, so while it offers advantages over self-contained boilers for each separate building it still produces large amounts of carbon and draws on finite resources. In Sweden, by contrast, the use of fossil fuels is virtually non-existent in district heating, yet the system continues to serve countless citizens well.

Swedish district heating solutions have made use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, but sourcing enough renewable heat through these methods alone would be challenging and perhaps impractical. As a result, a big emphasis has been placed on biofuels as a replacement for traditional fossil-fuels over the past two or three decades. The way district heating has been combined with electricity production is also something that many other district heating systems around the world lack, yet offers a significant boost in overall efficiency.

This article was contributes by Prepayment Energy Solutions who specialise in prepayment energy and heat meters for multi-tenant buildings.

Desperate for Fossil Fuels: King Coal

Now Destroying Mountains Once Merely Raped

Patriot Coal,I spent a lot of time in Eastern Kentucky growing up, it’s where my paternal grandparents, Aunt and cousins lived and where we spent vacations no matter where else in the country (or elsewhere) we were living at the time (Navy brat). I’ve no more relatives there, the last of them died a decade ago and none of us siblings chose to live there for raising our own families or even retiring in our old age.

I do recall several very nasty UMW strikes in the mining region around Harlan, and I recall the black moonscape on the Green River near Paducah’s western shipping point that stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, the coal tailings having turned a lovely rolling greenscape into utterly depressing nothing. I also recall learning to shoot my father’s beautiful pearl-handled six-guns at the abandoned strip mine near Laurel, and one touristy adventure in a no longer operating underground mine where we rode through in one of those little coal rail cars as if it were an amusement park ride.

These days they do things a little differently, as the deep seams get harder to work (and miners become more rare, having been decimated by Black Lung) and the easy seams have all been stripped. Now they’re going for the mid-seams, the last of the stored coal, by simply blowing up the entire mountain to get to it.

It’s called Mountaintop Removal mining, and it’s utterly devastating the southern Appalachians in the traditional coal mining regions of Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. It’s a horror even worse than Mister Peabody’s tailings outside Paducah. It’s destroyed ~500 whole mountains so far, it’s polluting mountain streams that contribute to the primary water supplies for millions of people downstream, and it’s killing the abundant biodiversity these mountains are so very famous for. Most of all, for those of us who dearly love these gorgeous mountains, it’s very, very tragic. Some of the mines are as big as the Island of Manhattan.

map

When growing up with strong ties to Kentucky, I learned from my Aunt – a state social worker – that King Coal was an “economic boom” to the people who traditionally made their means by doing things for themselves with what the mountains provided. Yet what I saw was crushing poverty, Black Lung, and a hopeless generation of young people who couldn’t wait to get as far away from their family’s traditional homesteads as possible. It’s not like the miners and their families got any of the great wealth King Coal brought to the mining companies, their stockholders and the industrial consumers of the coal taken out of their ground.

When my family determined to move back to the land 16 years ago to see if we could re-invent self-sufficiency and commune with nature instead of a million-plus other humans in immediate proximity, we chose Western North Carolina instead of Kentucky. Or Tennessee. Or West Virginia, or even Virginia (the most perfectly beautiful and well-maintained state in the union, IMO). We chose it for being Appalachia and beautiful (tourism is our largest industry), for more sophisticated residents and politics, for then-reasonable land prices, and for not being enslaved to King Coal.

movementBut alas, this is the land of Duke Energy, and a thriving piedmont and coast full of large energy consumers. Turns out that North Carolina is the #1 consumer of coal mined by means of Mountaintop Removal. Thus I was greatly pleased when the NC State Legislature introduced a bill in May of 2008 to ban the use of coal mined by this method within the borders of our beautiful state!

There will be a lengthy legislative fight over the bill, but hope in the very fact that we did get a law back in 1983 banning development on high ridge lines – thereby destroying the mountain views from which a majority of residents make their living. Because the mountains are a gold mine simply for their beauty, there is strong incentive to keep them beautiful.

I realize that many or most of my readers don’t live in these mountains, but any of us who love the land and work hard to make our way lightly on this earth should get to know about how desperate the corporate evil-doers are to squeeze (and blast) the very last drop of profit from the earth, not caring how much irrevocable damage they do to it in the process. Educate yourself about the issue by perusing some of the great links below. Write to your state and federal representatives about your concerns, talk to activists about how to ban the burning of this ill-gotten coal in your state, and support some of these efforts to save the mountains. Please!

If there is no market for this coal, King Coal has no reason to destroy the mountains.

Links:

WattHead: Taking Mountain Top Removal On
Appalachian Voices: Geography of Mountaintop Removal
iLoveMountains: Mountaintop Removal
DKos: Mountain Mondays v 1.0
RAN: Bringing the Climate Fight to King Coal
Southern Environmental Law Center: Mountaintop Removal [TN]
NYT: Ravaging Appalachia
Stop Mountaintop Removal

Earthlodge: The Original Sod Home

earth lodgeI read an interesting article on the “earthlodges” of Native Americans in the Dakotas the other day. I’d learned early in my life when the family moved from New York to “Indian Territory” – Oklahoma – that not all Native Americans lived in those portable teepee tents so prevalent on the plains. I knew the ‘civilized’ tribes of the southeastern United States were able constructors of log cabins for their permanent villages, and of course knew about those spectacular adobe pueblos in the southwest. And while I learned in junior high Oklahoma history about the sod-roofed shanties built by white settlers (and for which Oklahoma was famous), I’d never heard of earthlodges.

Earthlodges are large round structures from 20 to 50 feet in diameter which are built to be much more permanent than the yurts that basically amount to a Mongolian version of teepee for migratory people. Lots of people these days have deck-mounted yurts that are popular as camp cabins or gazebos, but they’re not really something stable or well-insulated enough to live in full time.

In contrast, the earthlodge is dug into the ground and framed with logs, covered with woven willow mats and then covered completely (except for a smoke hole in the middle of the roof) with mud and sod. Your basic hobbit house, but as its own hill rather than dug into a pre-existing hill. Of course, there are some modern earthlodge designs that combine aspects of natural landscaping and lodge building, which are actually quite nice if you don’t care much about windows. It would be quite easy to engineer one of these with skylights, so interior darkness can be alleviated.

earth lodgeThe original earthlodges were built communally, often housing between 15 and 25 people. They provided solid, very well-insulated shelter for harsh Dakota winters, and stayed naturally cool in hot Dakota summers. They lasted only as long as the palisade poles and main support logs lasted in the ground, about 7 to 10 years before they’d rotted enough to need replacing. Since it took only about a week for a group to construct an earthlodge from scratch, the old one would simply be torn down and a new one erected in its place. The old logs recycled into firewood made this village system quite efficient given that the Dakotas do not enjoy the thick, lush forests of the American southeast.

For a new homesteader looking for cheap, eco-friendly housing on a tract of raw land, it’s not difficult to see how the problem of ground-rot could be simply eliminated by seating the anchor and palisade logs in concrete. The thermal mass of palisade logs plus dirt/sod can be nearly warm in winter and cool in summer as 3-foot thick adobe walls. More modern – and fully waterproof – coverings take the place of those woven willow mats, and fewer palisade poles would allow for regular insulated walls or an opportunity to place windows and/or exits to porticos, or to build storage rooms or closets off the main structure. For a truly permanent structure, some research on new under-sod waterproof roofing material would probably be a good idea.

The niftiest thing about this kind of permanent shelter is that if your land is raw enough to need some clearing, the logs and poles can be taken as part of your clearing plans. These will have to be de-barked and dried above the ground, there are many good Do It Yourself books and plans out there for site-built log homes that have clear instructions on how to do this. If you’re planning to grow crops, the sod shouldn’t be hard to come by. Rather than a big central fire pit and large hole in the roof, a central wood stove with just a pipe running up through the roof will protect from the elements much better than the wicker baskets the Mandan people used to cover their smoke holes when it rained.

It also strikes me that the side walls could be constructed of straw bales and covered with mesh and stucco or adobe instead of mud and sod and still be as easy to heat and cool. Some may consider rock as well, if the land has an overabundance of those that need removing before crops can be grown. Any of these alternatives for some or all of the side walls would make for a very handsome home. The sod roof does have great appeal, I’ve always envisioned a hobbit house with wildflowers instead of just more grass to have to mow.

The interior, once you’ve got the central roof supports and planned your walls, can of course be framed and subdivided as you please for cooking sleeping and living areas, bathrooms and utility as you wish. The Dream Green link above also offers a plan for a ‘multi-lodge’ made up of several octagonal earthlodges connected to a front portico area. This idea offers the possibility for future expansion as the family grows.

So chalk this up as yet another eco-friendly green construction to think about if you’re new to homesteading or are planning to build more structures on your homestead than you’ve already got. A far less modern (more true to origin) version of earthlodge would make a very serviceable combo barn, root/wine cellar and tool/vehicle storage shed. For as long as you can keep the livestock from eating the walls and roof, that is.

Links:

Indians 101: The Earthlodge
Dream Green Homes Earth Lodge
Blue Ridge Yurts

Choosing the Right Heater for your Home

Since winter is fast approaching, a number of companies are set to distribute their respective range of heaters in various designs and types. Due to the abundance of products and their diverse nature, it may be a daunting task to choose the right home heater based on your lifestyle. There are several factors to consider, such as the environmental impact, running cost, degree of heat in the room, etc. Further, natural gas heaters for your home are segregated into various sub-types, including electric fireplace, ceramic, wall heaters, oil-filled radiators, baseboard or free standing heaters. Generally, there are two popular types of room heaters, called convection and radiant heaters. Radiant are widely common, safe, effective, and can regulate temperature and automatically shut off. Convection products are designed to quickly heat up an entire room and may or may not require the assistance of a fan. These are generally not as powerful as radiant, but have a wider coverage area. Let us take a detailed look at choosing the right heater for your home based on your lifestyle.

Heater 640

Gas Heaters

Although such products may be costly, their running cost saves you money in the long run. This is because gas products produce about only one-third of the greenhouse emissions as compared to portable electric heaters. Such natural gas heaters for your home should be installed by an acclaimed provider, such as Jager Gas. Their services include installing a spectrum of appliances, such as pool heaters, gas heaters, patio and spa heaters. Unflued products may require room ventilation and are far less expensive than fluid gas heaters. However, fluid products are much more suitable for bathrooms and bedrooms.

Electric Heaters

Electric products include oil-filled column, radiant, convection and fan heaters that are not very expensive but may incur heavy running costs. These are best used in small areas for a short period of time. However, keep in mind to look for a timer while getting these products, since they can amount to high utility bills if left running overnight. On the positive side, they are very convenient to use because there is no need to clean up splinters or ash. They are environment friendly as well and run on renewable electricity and are highly portable and versatile in nature.

Radiant Heat System

If you want to get a propane gas heater for home, it is a good idea to opt for a boiler or propane-powered water heater, called a radiant heat system. This system uses tubes that are embedded in the flooring and is considered to be much more effective than most central heating systems. The basic science behind its mechanism is that heat starts radiating from the floor and naturally spreads and rises throughout the room. You can also insulate the water heater with a blanket to be able to use propane efficiently.

Wood Heater

Wood heaters are considered to be a lot more effective than a fireplace, since the slow combusting fire gradually heats up the room and releases all toxic heat out through the chimney. This is an energy efficient way to produce heat, since slow combustion fires contribute far less to air pollution than most open fires. They are great for large living or dining areas in your home. So, check your home and your lifestyle before you choose a natural or propane gas heater for your home.

Autumn Weatherproofing Tip

water_proofingA FaceBook friend offered up an interesting and easy way to insulate windows, without having to replace them altogether with a company like Otto’s Exterior, as the weather gets colder, that should work very well for everyone whose homestead living quarters isn’t fully outfitted with double-paned windows. I’ve been doing the way too labor and staple-intensive job of covering windows every year with plastic sheeting, then taking it down again in the spring so I could let some fresh air in. And sometimes managing to get all the staples out of the wooden frames, leaving lots of little holes that make it ever more difficult to re-insulate in later years.

Don’t know why I didn’t think of this, but thank goodness someone did! It’s all about Bubble Wrap, which can be purchased by the roll at many retail and hardware outlets, or recycled from your own saved packing stash of “stuff you might need someday” that’s taking up way too much room in the attic or shed. And not only does the actual insulating material (bubble wrap) make great insulating sense, the method of getting it onto your windows does NOT require any staples or tack-tape! No-holes has a lot going for it in the home preservation department, for sure.

All you need is bubble wrap (large or small bubbles) that your kids/grandkids haven’t yet popped for fun, a pair of scissors, and a spray bottle of plain water. Instructions are a breeze:

• Cut the bubble wrap to the size of the window pane.
• Spray a film of water on the window using the spray bottle.
• Apply the bubble wrap while the window is still wet and press it into place.
• To remove the bubble wrap just pull it off starting from a corner.

Voila! Well-insulated windows! The bubble side should go next to the glass for best results. If you wish to get a good view out the window pane for any reason, just pull off the bubble wrap from the corner, and then re-apply with the water sprayer when you’re done. After removing you can put your pre-cut bubble wrap window insulators into a box or bag for use in following years, just hide it from the bubble-popping kids.

Hurricane Sandy: Solar Plan-Ahead

Hurricane_SandyWe all watched in dread fascination as Superstorm Sandy hooked a hard left right where predicted off the coast of northern Virginia to slame full-force into northern New Jersey and New York City just days before Election Day. Its storm surge was every bit as devastating as predicted, and its 1,000-mile-plus wind field wreaked havoc and whipped up 30-foot waves on Lake Erie (20-footers on Lake Ontario). The storm whipped an arctic front around the back side and dumped feet of snow on southern Appalachia. Tens of millions lost electricity in the storm, and some have still not been reconnected.

As we usually see in Florida and along the Gulf coast during hurricane seasons, home supply companies quickly ran out of portable gas-powered generators and other emergency supplies, even before we were treated to the appalling spectacle of a wind-whipped inferno taking out more than a hundred homes in Queens, which was above the surge and thought it was safe. I’m sure we’re all gratified that good forecasting and serious pre-storm planning as well as pre-placement of relief personnel and supplies kept the death toll down to less than half a percent of Katrina’s toll back in 2005. But we also learned that for all those portable gas generators that were sold to people who knew their electricity would go out, the attendant problem of gas stations being unable to dispense gasoline without power rendered most of them entirely useless.

So I’m passing along an interesting blog article entitled Use solar to survive the next storm. Now, solar panels atop a pole in the yard aren’t any more likely to survive hurricane-force winds or 14-foot waves than your bird house is. But houses in New Jersey and New York that had rooftop solar panels fared very well – there are reports of considerable damage to shingles and gutters and such, but so long as the entire roof isn’t taken off, the solar panels up there should be fine.

Now, we know that solar panels won’t provide any ready juice in the middle of the night, or when the kind of deep, rain-drenched clouds a superstorm brings are between you and the sun. But for emergency purposes you should have some batteries already charged and ready to take over at least a minimum of lighting, radio, charging of PCs and cell phones, perhaps even running your laptop or iPad for up to date information. Even your basic surge protector for computer equipment – the kind with an undersized car battery with converter built-in and plugs will serve the purpose until the sun is shining again. You can set it up to draw its full charge from the solar panels normally, even if your panels are wired into the grid. While that wiring is done, just insist on a switch that will allow you to use the solar panels exclusively whenever the grid is down.

Here are some nifty portable solar generators that would in this storm have proven way more useful than a gasoline generator you couldn’t get gas for, once the next day dawned. Goal Zero offers emergency solar kits in personal, family and household sizes. Home Depot and Lowes have a variety of solar products and generators too, and the prices are getting more reasonable every year. Cabela’s outfitters offers portable solar generators too, a little tougher-built and a little more expensive. Truly industrial-level portables with steel containers of batteries are available through several companies, those by Mobile Solar are impressive, can even be sized for off-grid living.

We homesteaders don’t generally live in big cities, but there are urban homesteaders all over the place these days coming up with sustainable means of living in cities. How about having street lights with solar panels and batteries? Solar powered stoplights and such as well, to switch over from grid whenever there’s an interruption?

At any rate, for those of us who know enough science to be expecting increasingly violent weather from global climate change need to ensure our emergency supplies and power are well thought-out. It seems to me that NOT having to rely on the power company that’s been cutting service personnel for years to increase profits is better than sitting in the dark for days or weeks at a time. It also seems smarter to NOT have to find a source of gasoline in the aftermath of a hugely destructive event just so you can plug in your computer and charge your cell phone. Whether you just want an emergency supply or are able to install an ample rooftop array you can switch over when the grid goes down is of course dependent on your situation. But all of us should be thinking solar for this aspect of emergency planning.

Energy: The Good News, The Continuing Struggle

Boston Globe
Boston Globe
First the good news. The Boston Globs reports this week that Massachusetts’ largest utilities have signed long-term contracts for wind generated energy from six wind farms in Maine and New Hampshire at a mere 8 cents per kilowatt hour. Which is actually cheaper than electricity from coal [10 cents/kwh], nuclear [11 cents/kwh] and solar [14 cents/kwh].

The utilities – National Grid, Northeast Utilities and Unitil Corp. – are together purchasing 565 megawatts of electricity, enough to power ~170,000 homes. The Cape Wind offshore project in Nantucket Sound is expected to serve more homes overall when it is fully on-line, but the price per kwh will be higher. As more wind projects get built, the price should even out in the face of competition, so we may all look forward to something eventually cheaper even than natural gas. Which at 6 cents per kwh is now the least expensive electricity generation technology, but that will inevitably go up as gas reserves dwindle and environmental regulation puts a crimp in the destructive practice of fracking.

Wind generation has tremendous potential in the most populous regions of the country, including the Megalopolis corridor from D.C. to Boston, and in Texas and California. The entire Great Plains is ripe for wind as well as solar, and solar technologies are enjoying a hefty level of research funding to see if its costs can be brought into competitive line with wind and hydro. New storage technologies for all renewable sources are also being researched and developed apace, while coal plants are being shut down and new ones aren’t getting built.

Now for the less-than great news. Confusing and contradictory signals from the Obama administration about approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Alberta through the heartland has a consortium of 25 environmental groups signing on to a letter to President Obama urging rejection of the project. Tar sands oil is the most environmentally damaging form of petroleum to capture and refine, making the pipeline a serious threat to efforts to battle global warming.

Groups signing on are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Action, CREDO, 350.Org, Public Citizen, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Sierra Club and others. For years groups of indigenous people in Canada and the U.S., farmers and ranchers from Nebraska to Texas and citizen activists as well as environmental organizations have protested the project.

Those of us who have chosen to live our lives in such a way as to serve as example of a more aware and involved partnership with this home planet are not usually at the forefront of civil actions pushing for better government and corporate policies related to energy, but we do need to increase our outreach to those who are on the front lines. Please do check in on groups in and near your area, maybe attend some gatherings or subscribe to newsletters, offer what you can offer to help support this important work. Even if it’s some fresh organic food, a nice place to hold a planning meeting, or an offer of shelter for participants from far flung places, we need to be part of the needed changes on as many levels as possible.

Who knows? There’s even a chance you could get to know some local/semi-locals who would love nothing better than to put in a little time on your project here and there, at planting or harvest time, maybe help with some very cool energy projects they could then use as inspiration to others along their travels and among their contacts. The real changes happen at home, not in D.C. Which seems always to be playing catch-up with what the people have already figured out for themselves. Changes that need a community’s commitment and support and labor are best done with the help of a community. So let’s get plugged in!

The Mountains Cry: A Vibrant Voice Passes On

Mountains_CryThis blog has covered many environmental issues, perhaps the one dearest to the heart has been the astounding destruction wrought by King Coal on the beautiful, peaceful, ancient mountains of southern Appalachia in the name of profit: Mountaintop Removal. The [West Virginia] State Journal reports that long-time environmental activist and tireless mountainkeeper Larry Gibson died September 9th at the age of 66 while working at Kayford Mountain, his family home in Raleigh County. Larry was born at Kayford Mountain, and spent the last decades working to protect Kayford and all of these majestic mountains from King Coal and the rampant destruction of mountaintop removal.

Larry Gibson traveled across the country to speak at schools, churches and other public gatherings to spread his simple gospel about these mountains: “Love ‘em or leave ‘em – just don’t destroy them.” Gibson established the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation in 2004 to support mountain communities threatened by King Coal and its mountain-shearing machinery, and the family requests donations to the Foundation in lieu of other expressed condolences. A private funeral is planned, with a public memorial service to be announced later.

One of the most heartfelt remembrances is from Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Beyond Coal Campaign, entitled The Mountains Weep for Larry Gibson. Rest in peace, friend.

Please see the post The Last Mountain: A Call to Action for many more links to coverage of Mountaintop Removal Mining in this and other blogs, educational resources and activist groups.

EPA Halts MTR Permits for Review

The ‘Breaking News’ headline at the anti-mountaintop removal website I Love Mountains brings tears to the grateful eyes of we lovers of these ancient, beautiful and abundant mountains…

EPA

Hope renewed across the Appalachian coalfields – Obama Administration suspends mountaintop removal permits for further review…

Obama’s new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced this past Tuesday that the agency would be delaying somewhere between 150 and 250 permits issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers to coal companies to flatten mountains and destroy watersheds in their desperate quest to extract the last of the sequestered coal with as few paid miners as possible.

What the EPA will be reviewing are blatant violations of clean water regulations former President G.W. Bush waived in his 2002 “fill rule” and a last days repeal of the stream buffer zone rule that would allow coal companies to ignore any and all impacts of the water supplies of rural residents, towns and cities dependent upon these mountain streams for drinking water supplies.

The map above (h/t Appalachian Voices) shows graphically how open strip mines and MTR directly affects the very poorest regions of Appalachia. One might suspect that these areas are happy to have the good jobs these operations offer, but the reality is that this kind of mining is equipment-reliant, done with machines and not men. For instance, King Coal once provided 120,000 decent paying jobs in West Virginia, but now fewer than 20,000 citizens call themselves coal miners. The people whose environment is being raped are getting nothing of value out of the deal. And may indeed be harmed significantly as their water supplies are systematically polluted, sickening their crops, livestock and families.

As reported on this blog in several posts linked below, some of the people in these poor counties have better ideas about what to do with their mountains, things that will improve everyone’s life, make them leaders in clean, renewable energy supplies, and create green jobs for local residents. Especially check out projects like Coal River Wind, which proposes to harvest the wind instead of the mountain itself.

Another great article with good links and pictures is Hope is Alive in Appalachia!!! by Kossack ‘faithfull’. So get off your duff – call some legislators, sign some petitions, and spread some love of mountains in your circle today!

Links:

Old King Coal vs. Reality
Hope is Alive in Appalachia!!!
Old King Coal, a Filthy Old Soul
Coal River Wind
I Love Mountains