zaterdag 8 mei 2010

Hohmes, a home dealing with some resistances

My desire to build this self-sufficient house comes from more than from desires for quality and freedom. It is more than the desire to live in harmony with natures’ purposes and abilities. It comes from more than the wish to built a sexy place and the fun of doing so and it’s not only about feeling well by taking care of my footprint.

There also is the desire to build a showcase. To give an example of what already is possible when it comes to sustainable building and living. And I don’t mean to set an example as a marking point for the future, but to set an example of what is already possible now. In fact the ambition to build this house also is built on a vision on energy, water and waist, which in a nutshell all come together in our homes and our way of living. In this posting I’ll only address my vision on energy.

If we look at our current energy infrastructure we look at an infrastructure that was developed when oil, coal and gas were everlasting fuels. Increasing pollution, increasing cost of pollution, increasing prices for the resources, and limited availability of resources combined with growing needs of energy were no topics as they are today. We still use the old production, distribution and supply model while facing uninvetable transition. As per transitions' nauture the transition will come slowly.

Looking at it’s characteristics we see that in every nation the energy suppliers worldwide are in hands of a few (utility) companies who produce electricity for widespread amount of customers, being people and companies who have to pay more and more for their primary resources every year. Those suppliers own our energy resources and make a profit out of their ownership. A safe bet since we all need warmth and electricity, just like we need water and shelter.

We also see that it is a high tech business that involves massive investments with amortisation and concessions over several decades which partly explains the oligopolic ownership. We also see that the electricity is produced on several spots in a country. To go short: it is a centralised organised industry: centrally in it’s ownership, investment, production, maintenance and services and with a fine mazed distribution.

If we look into the chain of energy production and wonder how our energy and electricity are produced we see that in most cases energy and electricity comes from fossil sources like coal, oil and gas. These also follow a centralised and commercial ownership and distribution ship and also are high tech and high cost driven businesses. And as we all witness again today in the gulf of Mexico: it is highly polluting as well. First we have to find the sources, drill for those sources than it has to be transported –in the case of oil: refined- and resold.
We all know the fossil resources are limited in availability. We have reached the point were we use more fossil energy than the amount of new fossil sources found: we’ve started to use previously found reserves.

We all know that burning fossil resources is polluting. The worldwide (energy) agenda is set by limiting greenhouse gas emissions (CO2) and we hardly hear about the emission of NOx (ozone destructive gas) and SO2 (acid rain) any more. The burning of fossil energy is the major contributor to all these emissions.

Whenever having the fossil resources at the electricity plants we (Dutch case) produce electricity out of these resources. At our very best we produce 440J electrical energy out of 1000J fossil energy entered. We loose 56% along the way at the plant. Before finding it’s final destination the electricity has to be transformed 3 times, resulting in 15% additional loss using the very best transformers available. And then it sill costs energy to have electricity travel it’s way trough the fine mazed distribution network to the end-user. Distribution in itself also means a loss between 5-15% depending on how far the electricity has to travel. We may conclude it is a highly inefficient model, since in the best case we loose 75% of our initial energy at the plant. Do note I’m only talking about the production and distribution to our homes and offices, not about the effort, pollution and loss that has to be made before starting to burn he fossil resources at the plants.

So we have a high tech, high cost, highly polluting, highly inefficient and a centralised organised energy model using resources that are running out while demand is growing every year –which makes prices going up even further- and we have a model that requires payments for services and profit for several owners in the chain, making it more costly by nature than without this ownership and needed services. Yet we stick to it. Why?

A reason may be that we are not in control, or tend to think we are not. We have no ownership. Another one may be we do not have a clear insight on costs of alternatives and that for the alternatives there is not yet a business model offered: who is to take responsibility for what at which cost and how will it be managed? So far nobody is asking and nobody is offering an alternative offering on a massive scale. One can have doubts waiting for the conventional energy suppliers to take the lead in proposing alternatives, mainly because it does not fit in their business model that follows the described centralised approach, following the ‘fossil way’.

Nonetheless there are alternatives using a complete opposite model. Take wind and sun for example:

Instead of having a centralised ownership, production, responsibility and maintenance, an individual, or a small group of individuals, can be owner of a local installation. It is local, low tech, low maintenance and relatively has a low investement. The initial investment is more than the monthly energy bill, but over time cost less. Instead of using a limited amount of resources wind and sun are renewables for as long as the sun will shine. Instead of being polluting these sources are clean, having zero emission. Instead of having to drill for, transport, refine and distribute the resources, wind and sun are available for harvesting purposes everywhere and every day. Instead of having to pay for profit of suppliers paying for the resources, wind and sun can’t be owned by any one and are available for free. Instead of loosing 75% of the initial energy we loose 0 if we would live in a 12 Volt house, between 5-10% if we would live in a 220V house and up to 15% if we would share our energy in a grid with our neighbourhood: it is much more efficient. But who wants to talk about loss when there are no losers involved?

One only will have to invest in technique to harvest, store or distribute the energy. For that one may need help from authorities (law), banks (finance) and technicians and building contractors. All, including the new owner, probably will need some examples to set a new mindset. Examples to learn from as to built a case and make a proper offering. Meanwhile products and services are already available and already prove to be cost efficient. Technology is ready, it only comes to implementing it. In the Netherlands grid parity between solar energy and conventional energy is expected within 5 years (source: Senter Novem april 2010). Imagine a solar panel still delivering 80% of it’s initial energy after 25 years and prices of conventional energy going up every year while maturing techniques and economics of scale will further decrease prices of solar installations and you realise you already have a winning case today.

I think a self-sufficient household that shares its data can only but help in gaining information, knowledge and can give insights to all involved in the transition we’re facing. I am convinced it offers improvement and opportunities to all of us and adds to quality of life at the same time.

maandag 3 mei 2010

Hunt for a plot

It has been some weeks since I last published steps and thougts. Main reason is I have been sollicitating municipalities, hunting for a piece of land in a period of elections. That is bad timing. In the Netherlands and certainly in the Amsterdam area there is little spare land left. Without cities -with their mandatory territory- helping, I certainly won't stand a chance. Now I'm facing both at the same time.

Meanwhile I presented my vision, ambition and plans and shared my proposal appealing for a building plot to several cities' aldermen, that are between terms of office. In that walk ending with my foot between their door I have witnessed a clear dinstinction in municipalities' attitudes: or they invited me to come over and reacted positively after hearing my presentation, or they immediately turned away, not inviting me over, saying they don't have any means of helping not showing any will to explore any alternatives. They might help me find some plot that suites my projects' needs and that can fit their development plans, for example adjacent to existing plans or areas. In the Netherlands that is the way developpers of urban spaces make a living: they buy land with a farming destination and after a period of time it legally becomes a building site. Value is created out of nothing. It is a billion euro ballgame paid for by future owners. Besides our fiscal law that facilitate 100% deduction of mortgage cost from our gross income it explains for a good deal why houses in the Netherlands are much more expensive than in surrounding countries.

For my project where harvesting warmth, sun, wind and rain is at the core of it's raison d'etre such a piece of land may very well help me out. The "farm" will need just a very small plot to fullfill the needs of it's residents, that in some way are farmers indeed. The roof will have a surface of approximately 125m2 to harvest sufficient rain water, and wind and sun must freely flow on the spot, besides some space is needed for cisterns. That's all I'm looking for.

The plot probably will have a rural character, yet not too far from a city as it does not make sense to pursuit a sustainable way of living reducing our footprint and at the same time having to bridge many kilometres for work and social and cultural life. That is, if I would burn fossiles to move around, but I don't need to. Time to take mobility into account whenever it comes to correct dimensionning of the electrical infrastructure: batteries for a car or scooter needs to be filled as well. Once filled but not used for mobility, the batteries can serve as buffering units.

So, what am I'm going to do now? While waiting for feedback on possabilities within the Amsterdam area and while re-addressing local authorities, I will set up a not for profit organisation to raise funds and sollicitate companies that may benefit from association with this project and investigate how to work together.

Next posting probably will share a vision on energy, water and waste that -besides notions of quality (read previous posting)- form other foundations of this house.