Friday, September 16, 2011

My Favorite Nuclear Reactor

"I'm a large proponent of nuclear power; we have a very safe reactor sited 93 million miles away, it's called the Sun. That's my nuclear reactor." -Ed Begley, Jr

Since the mid-1970's I have been interested in passive solar energy (that means FREE energy directly from the sun) for heating, cooling, cooking, drying and even supplying my Vitamin-D! Back in those days there was a real movement by individuals and small groups to design all kinds of solar things, from 'breadbox solar collectors for hot water' to New Alchemy Institutes' solar aquaculture to passive solar houses, where none of the primary goals were corporate profiteering. 

It was a time of Trombe walls developed as an architectural element by French engineer FĂ©lix Trombe, and owner-built roof ponds for solar evaporative cooling. A time of walls built with wine bottles and beer cans in them for insulation, heat gain and pure visual interest; a time of tall cylindrical tubes filled with water to store heat gain through the south-facing windows. 

Most of the wonderful, creative solar ideas of the 1970's and 1980's came from tinkerers in their backyard workshops and garages, and groups of passionate environmental thinkers who came up with things like Zomeworks' Beadwall (where styrofoam pellets were blown into thick window cavities during the day to block heat from the sun, or blown in at night to prevent heat loss) and architects like Malcolm Wells and David Wright designed amazing homes. (Remember, this was also the era of Steve Jobs' inception of Apple Computer in his garage.)

Earth-sheltered or Earth-bermed (not totally underground) homes just needed better materials for waterproofing, and better windows for natural lighting and heat control. We have those materials available now, but not the interest (or mortgage money available) for energy-saving earth-bermed homes. The first house I built other than for myself was only a  1 bedroom home and no mortgage company would lend money for one-bedroom homes in 1975. I hacked the space to make it 2 bedrooms, and it sold almost immediately. (That house I built was published by Fine Homebuilding, in the inaugural issue.)

Some of the early ideas worked quite well, and some weren't very practical at all, although most worked in theory. Some solar ideas were cheap to build, while others weren't. Still, we were definitely on the right track and only more tinkering was needed...

After just a very few years, the whole bootstrap solar trend faltered when the government removed rebates for improving energy conservation in our homes, and backed the "acquirement" of cheap foreign oil instead. All that survived was the corporate interest and investment in solar electric and heating systems like photovoltaics, where only the manufacturers and utility companies make a profit. Homeowners now can buy and install very expensive solar PV panels and deep cycle batteries for energy storage, but can only sell the excess generated energy for mere pennies, if at all. (Many utility companies will not buy the excess under any circumstances.) It's comforting to be off the grid and self-sustaining, but it's also a very expensive proposition.

Geo-thermal was in its infancy in those years, and held great promise. Micro-hydro was being seriously explored during that era too, and is still pursued in third world countries by small local native cooperatives. It hasn't been as feasible here because it's difficult to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers (government) who control ALL waterways. On my own property here, mini-hydro is possible by harnessing the energy from my very small spring. It wouldn't provide enough electricity to run the whole house, but it would sure augment it.

The years between 1970 and 2011 could have been exceptionally fruitful for architects and home builders (and benefit us as well!) if more of them had addressed the simple tenets of passive solar design. IF you orient a home to the sun (and also consider prevailing wind direction), design the windows for maximum solar gain and minimal heat loss in winter, minimum solar gain in summer with proper convection for ventilation and cooling, insulate heavily and weatherstrip properly, it is possible to have a home that is a living joy, and easy on the pocketbook. Instead, we still orient our homes to the street, and we are still stuck on our houses looking "conventional" like every other house in the neighborhood!

Sure, there are architects in the US and around the world who are designing passive solar structures and passive solar enclaves, with some designed inside atmosphere-controlled domes; most of them are very expensive. A good US example is Dennis Weaver's Earthship home that was for sale for $3.75 million in 2005.  His Earthship home's monthly electric bill was reported to be around $50, an incredibly low figure for a 10,000 sq. ft. home.  Personally, I believe that Earthships can be effective living spaces and they are made from mostly recycled materials... but not at those prices.

Given the dismal economic conditions of 2011, it is not likely many of us can start from scratch building a passive solar home. However, we can take lots of baby steps using solar energy and reducing our overall purchased energy consumption. We can build solar cookers and solar food dryers... I've seen plans for solar cookers that hang on an outside wall and are accessible from inside the kitchen. We can build and install movable insulated panels or "curtains" to reduce heat loss through our windows at night in winter. Windows that get fierce summer sun could have Bahama Shutters installed outside, and/or deciduous trees planted that will shade them only in summer.

We can learn to conserve our electric use, and unplug our phantom electric drains like chargers and ready-on TV sets when we are not using them. We can add more insulation to our attics, and add better weatherstripping around doors and windows. We could add a solar greenhouse to the sunny side of some of our homes depending on their design, allowing free heat gain in winter AND a source of fresh produce all year. (Architect David Wright designed lots of those years ago.)

What it takes to do any of this is simply a change in mindset, and personal intent. My sis (who shares this house) cannot be bothered to unplug her TV, dust-buster or cell phone charger when she's not using them even though it would cut the energy costs considerably. Unfortunately, we split the electric bill so I end up paying for her care-less-ness.

I'm pretty handy and for around $250 (I think) I can build and install a breadbox solar water heater, one we would use only during the year when the water won't freeze in the pipes. To build one with a heat exchanger that transfers heat captured via a chemical compound that doesn't freeze (like water) would cost probably twice as much, but it's still very possible to have hot water all year without any operating cost except a booster for rainy periods. 

When I was growing up we had our hot water tank in the attic under the simple solar collector (glass covering copper water pipes) mounted on the roof. You just have to use hot water for laundry and dishes later in the day after the sun has heated it, although an insulated water storage tank can keep it pretty warm overnight for morning showers.

We are hoping to afford a new roof next year (going from crappy, worn-out and maybe leaky fiberglass shingles to a metal roof), and after that I will seriously consider solar hot water. This summer we added R-30 insulation to the attic, on top of what was already there. (I wanted to add R-38 instead of R-30 but it was twice as much money in material cost to add just another R-8.) 

We need better insulation installed under the floors, and a new vapor barrier on the ground under the house. It's amazing how effective a mere cheap plastic vapor barrier can be in reducing heating costs! I'd love to replace the windows but we need other things first. So for now, movable window insulation is in order. (I have the 1980 Rodale Press edition of this re-issued book.)

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