Resource Management: Conserve First

The Pimp My Garden push is starting exceedingly slowly – my Real Job got Real Busy and the Great Potato Harvest is taking most of the free time as we harvest and sell 300#’s a week.  Some cool things have happened though, like I was asked to speak on a 30 minute radio show about permaculture a few weeks ago.  In preparation for that I re-read Holmgren’s: Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability – god is that a great book!  And, as usual, its got me thinking.

Early in the book he is talking through some of the comments that his Design students have made about the choices at his homestead.  In particular, there is no renewable energy component at the property – at least for electricity production.  Anyone that has priced Solar or Wind Power installations knows that to match your current grid power you are looking at $25-50,000 up front, at minimum, for a typical home.  That is a lot of coins.   We are all struggling to allocate our increasingly limited resources as prudently as possible and I loved Holmgren’s approach of choosing NOT to install the electrical generation.  His thinking is this – that $50k would be *much* better spent in other ways.  For much less money he installed a gravity driven rain water catchment system to completely satisfy his household, irrigation, and fire control needs (50,000 gallons), installed wood stoves to supply all his heat and cooking needs (as well as tree groves to supply the wood in coppice management), root cellars to reduce his freezing needs, and also installed day lighting to cut his bulb needs. All told, the changes saved a huge amount of money, and cut their total farm use of electricity to 3 kwh a month.

At that level, should the Oil Run Out he could either build a small steam generator or gasifier to meet his small energy needs, or just as likely he wouldn’t miss the 3 kwh or energy if it was gone as it is only powering luxury items like a refrigerator and computer.  A recent article in the BBC is claiming that the UK may have rolling blackouts in 6 years and that they need to build more energy plants a the cost of hundreds of millions of pounds.  No where in the article do they talk about the critical “nega-watts” of Natural Capitalism fame – the power “created” every time you reduce your consumption as a household, business, or country.  Conservation is carbon neutral, critical to our future and is cheaper to boot.

To take my home off grid with Solar would cost over $50k -and we already use less than 70% of the average household in our area.  For a third that amount I could install a root cellar, hyper effecient appliances, and a masonry wood stove that would drop my energy use another 50-75%.  Switching my desktop to a laptop, ditching the AC and using a whole house fan, and other changes like replacing the carpet with wood floors to ditch the vacuum would be easy and not overly expensive if done as items wear out.  Quilts are cheaper than cordwood anyday.

I guess my point is that we are hard wired as a society to BUILD solutions – add power plants, erect wind turbines, etc.  When more often than not the solution to our problems is in rethinking the root cause of our problem in the first place.  In this case, we don’t need more, we need less.  Likely that is the case more often than not.  In permaculture speak – the problems that we currently face are due to the poor solutions that we currently have in place.  To pepper in the ubiquitous Einstein quote – we need to change our thinking from the mindset that created the problems in the first place if we are to find a workable solution.

Be the change.


5 Responses

  1. Kudos on the potato harvest! Any advance comments on the tower method?

    Also, what a great and under-publicized topic. There needs to be more of that on the radio and on the web.

  2. Thanks Joel. I have yet to crack the towers – to maximize the potential in the harvest I am letting the plants die back completely. The purple vikings seemed to have succumbed to some pest – they wilted early, but the first tower is still green – that could be the winner if there is one.

    Harvest at the farm is going swellagant: 1300 pounds in, and about half done with sq footage, though much of the best soil is harvested – the spuds in the non-compost plots are not as prolific (as expected). Total harvest will still easily break a ton though.

    PV is sexy – put some panels on the roof and everyone knows your making a difference. Swap your fridge for a root cellar and people think your a loon. This will change as the century unfolds I wager.

  3. I keep going over that argument in my head also. I would love solar, however, with an electricity bill under $200 even in the peak use time of summer (average bill around here is closer to $500) it’s just not financially viable.

    I would love to have a wood stove; they’re dual purpose — heat and cooking in winter. But, the cost is prohibitive, and we still have a propane tank 50% full from last October when it was filled last, and several hundred dollars worth of credit with the company…and we did just fine with keeping the central heat off and using space heaters and oil lamps anyway.

    The good part about keeping the house unheated is that my friend and I will be able to make some fabulous parmesan, cheddar, and other preserved cheeses this winter — we can’t do that for much of the year due to the heat.

  4. TFHS – the stove has a HUGE allure for me – as much because the weather way up nort ‘ere ‘eh will literally kill you in hours during the winter without heat as the wholesome thought of growing your own fuel- our house would be uninhabitable in less than a day in winter without Natural Gas. That is a concern…

    Nice job on resource conservation btw!


  5. I love that book to. The Permaculture ethics and design principle flower that is on his website is the most useful piece of paper I’ve printed out in years.

    The pathways book is taking me so far beyond gardening in the application of the permaculture principles. It meshes with our homeschooling ideas of Steiner, the GHG work I do professionally, culturally through the transition movement.

    That book is distilling some universal principles for ecological design on all fronts that I think everyone should be reading it.

    My local bookstore lady brought in a copy for me and put a second in her gardening section, which I told her was sadly miss placed. It should be in the practical solutions to living section, or philosophy or science….

    By the way, on the solar front. I’ve been working off grid in my passive solar office for a year now. The payout was 12 years when I did the economics, they will only get better as I was quite conservative in my assumptions. For me adding in increments was the way to go. The grid is my backup, I can’t feed back, since that would have caused the costs to skyrocket. But in summer when I have excess, I can feed the battery powered tools (chainsaw, mower).

    It has given me resiliance for when the power goes out (which is often in the mountains in Western Canada) But more importantly, this past weekend when i build a wood shed for the office I used all muscle or solar power. My 10″ compounding sliding mitre saw, circular say and drill were all powered by the sun. There is an immense satisfaction that comes from knowing that. Nailing and other hard labour done by me, also powered by the garden (ie. direct sunlight).


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