Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Prospects for Early Progress in Decarbonizing my Household

As regular readers of this blog know, part of the thinking around my move to upstate New York was to put my family in a position to move to a zero-carbon, or carbon-negative, lifestyle.  The goal here is to do this in a way that a) preserves or enhances our quality of life, but b) doesn't cheat.

The point of preserving our quality of life is so that there's some prospect of influencing others to follow us, and most people being highly motivated by their own comfort and convenience, we will be more influential to the extent we don't sacrifice too much of our own.  So this is not an effort at voluntary poverty, but rather an effort to figure out how to live a pretty comfortable middle class life while not using fossil fuels.

My assumption has been that this would be something that might be doable over the course of five years or so - fairly quick compared to the overall laggardly pace of societal decarbonization, but not trying to transition in a way so abrupt as to be massively inconvenient, or make the kids feel like they were living in a loony farm.  The initial move away from the SF Bay Area to Ithaca of course accomplished nothing direct in the way of decarbonization - if anything the reverse as our heating needs have gone up, not to mention all the diesel in the shipping trucks.  Rather, the point was that by moving to a full-time telecommute situation from a low cost area, we could free up enough resources to actually have some room to maneuver, rather than living pretty much month-to-month, being entirely pinned down by the very high costs of housing, etc.

I also think that fully decarbonizing is easier in a rural setting.  It's easier to conserve somewhat in an urban setting (with walkable communities, public transportation, smaller housing units, etc).  But rural property gives you the space to do ground-source heat pumps, solar electricity, etc, which lets you get a lot further.  (Unless, of course, the whole town is doing it).

Initially, we moved to a rental house in town.  So our current fossil fuel usage is dominated by
  • natural gas for heating, 
  • gasoline for driving around (although I'm mainly biking, both my wife Zoe, and her Mom who lives with us, mainly drive to get around), 
  • fossil fuel generated electricity (the landlords pay the utility bills, and we reimburse them).
So, pretty typical for a US family - our current usage is a little below average, but nothing to brag about.  The original plan was to buy vacant land and build the straw bale home with the geothermal heat, solar panels, etc.  As discussed at that link, I'm pretty convinced that can be done as a carbon negative exercise.  But, after a while, we decided the logistics of building on a bare plot seemed unpleasant, as it would involve a series of rental houses.  So instead we decided to buy some land with an existing not-that-large house on, which would become the mother-in-law unit, once the straw-bale dream home was built.

So, as of a couple of weeks back, we are now the proud owners of 11 acres, complete with a mid-nineteenth century farmhouse and a medium-sized barn.  It's situated in a valley up in the hills about 10 miles from Ithaca, between two state forests, and surrounded by a land trust nature preserve.  Directly on the property, we have a one acre pond, a little over an acre of lawns, 8 acres or so of gently sloping pasture, and a little woodland, mostly riparian right next to the creek that abuts the property, and a stream that runs down to it.

I say the creek abuts the property, because legally it does, and it used to do so in fact as well as in law.  However, shortly before we got the house, the beavers decided to divert the creek onto the lowest portion of our lawn by damming the culvert under the road.  How long the powers that be will tolerate this situation is unclear, since probably the town's engineers would like the culvert nice and clear, and the land trust had intended the creek to run on their property, not ours.  But apparently the beavers didn't consult their lawyers or get permits before beginning their midnight construction project.

Our property used to be a dairy farm, but hasn't been for probably fifty years.  A lot of New York hill farms failed in the first half of the twentieth century and then got bought up in the depression by the government which turned them into state forests.  The hills on either side of our valley became state forests that way, but the farms high up the valley held on a little longer and then became residences and/or horse farms.  Lower down the valley, there are still working farms.

The barn is the clearest evidence of the history of the farm: it started out as a single gable-end timber frame barn, then grew (also in the timber frame era) into a cross shape with additional gables lower and at right angles to the original structure.  Then it sprouted extra stick-built sheds and dairies on the sides, lost the stone foundation somewhere along the way, gained concrete floors (now very badly cracked from frost heave), had the middle floor converted to a somewhat-insulated-and-heated snowmobile clubhouse, then a workshop, with horse-stalls on the ground floor.  Now it awaits our plans and efforts to iterate on 150 years of improvising and adapting the structure.  There's something about the sheer low-techness and unfinishedness of a barn that gets your Sawzall trigger finger twitching.

In any case, we will be moving up to the farm in stages between now and the spring.  I will be moving my office over New Year's weekend, and so regular residence there will begin after that.  For various logistical reasons, the bulk of our stuff won't be coming out from California till May, so we won't be completely moved until then.  But since I'm about to start working there full time, it's time to consider the initial energy choices.

The property is somewhat unusual in that there is no provision for liquid or gaseous fuel.  Too far from town for natural gas, and no evidence of propane ever being used.  There was an oil heater in the barn long ago, but it's completely defunct.  There is electricity supply (distributed via NYSEG), and then the ground floor of the farmhouse has a coal stove.  The latter is supplemented by electric baseboard heaters in every room of the house.  The coal stove is a sort of a personal climate destruction machine - it takes in both electricity and coal, and uses the electricity to power an automated feeder mechanism which takes rice coal from a hopper and burns it, somewhere out of sight in the depths of the machine, before distributing the resulting heat via a blower fan.  The previous owners avowed that it would burn for four days unattended from a full hopper of coal (they were very proud of it because it heated the lower floor of the farmhouse so cheaply and conveniently).

We did contemplate running this thing for a while until it became somewhat more budgetarily convenient to replace it, but our consciences have got the better of us and we have decided that an immediate project is to replace it with a modern wood stove - less convenient, no doubt, to stack and load wood, but we need the exercise anyway, and it's ever so much more beautiful to look at a wood fire through the glass of an efficient wood stove with secondary burners.  And of course, at least in our area, there's plenty of trees busy fixing the carbon for future firewood.  Not a solution that will scale to everyone, for sure.  Not a solution that works for urban areas.  But one that certainly makes sense here.

So the other major "stationary" energy supply is the electricity from the grid.  Perusing my welcome letter from NYSEG, it turns out that New York is one of the deregulated states in which you pay separately for power generation and distribution.  There is a long list of potential energy suppliers, and some of them offer renewable power options.  For example, Agway energy services repackages an offering from Sterling Planet, which seems to be 50% wind power, and 50% small hydro, all generated within New York state.

Now, it seems to me, on an initial peruse, that this is not cheating.  I've always considered buying carbon offsets as cheating - at best it's paying someone else to do your climate transitioning for you, and at worst, it's just sending money into some counterfactual boondoggle in a developing country.  However, as far as I can see, if I sign up with a renewable option here, all the money that I pay for electricity generation goes to generators of renewable power.  True, there's no tracking where the electrons come from (a question that quantum mechanics tells us cannot be answered even in theory, let alone in practice).  But there doesn't seem much doubt about where our money would be going, and it would all be going to wind farms, hydro-generators, etc.

Of course, I will probably pay rather a lot to heat with wood and renewable electricity.  But that will motivate me to get to the insulation upgrades that the old house needs, and the ground source heat pump that I hope will eventually heat both houses.  But, someone correct me if I'm wrong, it seems like as soon as the coal stove is gone, I could then claim that my stationary household operation is fossil fuel free.  In the meantime, our inefficiency is just more money for renewable energy.

(Of course, there will still be gasoline, which will remain on the five year plan.  For myself, there is the Volt.  My wife, though, is a proud soccer-Mom, and feels strongly that, as such, she needs to be able to seat seven in her vehicle.  Her Highlander Hybrid was the best compromise between her priorities and mine as of 2006.  Electric versions of similar vehicles are in sight on the horizon - both GM and Tesla are reported to be working on electric or PHEV SUVs, but it's probably a few years out.  Then there's my mother-in-law's Windstar, which serves as the family junk-hauler, as well as running her errands.  Presumably, that too can be replaced with a PHEV in due course.  That will leave us with aviation - fly less by videoconferencing more and/or fly Virgin - and a small residual oil usage for things like mowers and snow throwers, which hopefully will eventually get decent lithium versions too).


Tony said...

Stuart: Re ground source heat pumps, have you looked at low-temp air source heat pumps? Made by a Maine company, Hallowell, http://www.gotohallowell.com/, they use dual compressors and some piping cleverness to go down to 17F (IIRC) before the resistive backup kicks in, compared to ~35F for conventional heat pumps. Like any heat pump, they double as A/C in summer. Because there’s no buried piping, they’re supposed to be much cheaper than a ground source setup.

I’d be interested if you’d comment on these devices with your analytical expertise. And re analytical expertise, permit me a few blog-fan words. Your blog is the first I read every day, because of said analytical expertise, wide and relevant topic choice, middle-of-the-road future orientation, and the extra contributions of your informed commenters. I follow your house project with hopeful interest. Many thanks for your contributions……..Anton

Stuart Staniford said...

Tony - funny you should mention that - I was thinking during the day about what one would say to the urbanite determined to heat his/her contemporary technology house but also be zero carbon, and air source heat pumps being the obvious answer. I don't know a ton about them, but a few obvious points:

As to the lower temperature - of course, they'd have to go lower, because they are starting from the air temperature rather having the outside loop buried in the ground below the frost line. 17 would be insufficient on many cold nights around here - but the website says they will do -30. However, the fundamental constraint is that the theoretical thermodynamic coefficient of performance for a heat pump (in heating mode) is Ti/(Ti-To), where Ti is the inside temperature and To is the outside temperature at the coils. That defines the ratio of how much heat is moved to the amount of electrical energy input. So you want the highest To you can find in the local environment to keep the denominator (Ti-To) small. So air sourcing from cold air will be a lot less efficient than ground sourcing or pond sourcing. The big plus, as you note, is that capital costs are a lot lower, and you don't need a lot of land, or to try to drive a well drilling truck into your postage stamp sized urban back yard.

Finally, thanks for the kind words - always appreciated.

Tony said...

Stuart: Thanks for your comment. I believe the minus-30F outside temp figure is the limit using the maximum amount of resistive heat the unit can provide, whereas the +17F outside temp is the lowest requiring no resistive heat backup..........Anton

chris said...

Zero emission lawn mower
Seriously. You might even be able to borrow 2 or 3 from a neighbour just for the pasture.

Stuart Staniford said...

Anton - ah, got it.

Stuart Staniford said...

chris - yeah, right. For what I'd have to spend in fencing to keep those suckers in...

chris said...

Stuart - not so. A single strand of electric fence on very portable plastic stakes and a solar powered 12 volt electric fencer would probably cost less than a good gas mower.
And you'd have sheep! Add a few chickens and you'd have an automatic mowing and fertilising machine! And eggs!

Or not.

There are a number of cordless rechargeable mowers on the market now. And you could probably find a neighbour to mow the pasture for hay.

chris said...

Zero carbon lawn care.


Aerobic too.

Mike Aucott said...

Wood isn't quite carbon neutral unless you don't use any power equipment to harvest, haul, and split it. But a chainsaw is heartily recommended! I get about half my heat from wood and figure that I consume no more than three gallons of gasoline per cord in the process. Since a cord is equivalent to about 100 gallons of fuel oil that's a pretty good EROI.

It's important to allow the time to season it well - it burns much better that way. If you burn it so as to produce a little charcoal (biochar!), you can offset some of the fossil fuel use and maybe even get close to carbon-positive.

Of course the wood must actually be sustainably produced. It's been estimated that the U.S. could get 5 quads of energy per year from wood(it currently gets about 2quads from wood) without depleting the forests (Richter et al., 2009, Wood energy in America, Science, 323, 1432-1433). Gail the Actuary had a good post on wood heat a while back (http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5132).

kjmclark said...

Depending on how much exercise you're interested in, after some fairly small up-front costs, the wood heat shouldn't cost much at all. Ours isn't costing anything this year, and last year it was only $300 or so for the whole winter. That was a lot less than our neighbors paid for their natural gas for the winter. Where you'll be, the cost for firewood should be even cheaper.

We went whole-hog on the firewood a few years ago, and don't regret it. The woodstove was about $2500 installed, though you'll need a bigger model. We went with a Lopi Parlor (I think they changed the name to Patriot or somesuch), which conveniently has a lower surface that we can use for some cooking as well. Getting the blower that attaches to it is a good idea. We bought the obligatory maul, already had bow saws and hatchets, and bought both felling and bucking crosscut saws. Actually, we bought a variety of old-fashioned crosscut saws, so I could rehab one while using another. Total for the rest of it was under $500.

Are you sure the coal stove won't burn pellets? Supposedly quite a few will. The one problem with woodstove heat is that it's no fun in the morning. You get to be the thermostat, so in the morning the heat doesn't come on until you clean out the ashes and get a fire going for a while. That's the one time we use the furnace. Otherwise, the woodstove is wonderful - romantic and efficient at the same time.

Stuart Staniford said...

chris - I see you have a point on the electric fence. I will research further.

tussock said...

IME, you'll want a 3-tape fence for sheep, as they learn to duck under a single wire. Make sure you can store it away over winter. Install a water trough if there's none on the property.

Some breeds are much lower maintenance than others, but find a neighbour from lower in the valley to provide the stock, and make that their problem. Grazing for 40 head or so over summer, with some quid pro quo. Someone should be up for it.

If you want young trees, flowers, shrubs, or a vege garden you'll need to keep the sheep off it.

Get busy sealing off drafts first in any old house, get a lot of wood under cover early on for extra drying, and best of luck getting on with the straw bale house. 8]

Stuart Staniford said...

Bought a Lopi Endeavor this morning - had to act fast as the 30% tax credit expires tomorrow. Years ago, I used to own the technologically very similar Avalon Rainier and loved it, but Zoe was drawn to the cook surface on the Endeavor.

The personal climate destruction machine is now listed on Craiglist (though I didn't describe it that way :-). That should cover another third, so I only have to come up with a third of the cash. Consider the economy duly stimulated...

Michael Cain said...

Add me to your group that says buying electricity from renewable generators over the grid is not cheating. If you (and a few thousand neighbors) combined your capital in order to put up an 80-meter-tall 1.5MW wind turbine, you would almost certainly get more renewable electricity generated for your dollar. Whether you would get more consumed is more problematic, and would depend as much on regional dispatch rules as anything else.

Spain, for example, has a central dispatch authority that prioritizes using as much renewable power as is available, forcing generators with other fuels to back down production. This has allowed them to meet >40% of demand with wind power at various times over the last couple of years. Alternate dispatch rules with other priorities may result in much of large-scale wind potential going unused.

Stuart Staniford said...

Just a nice footnote to this - the coal stove sold to a very nice guy with a family in a big old farmhouse who is getting killed by the price of heating oil. So at least it's going to reduce US oil dependence in its new home, and is pretty much a wash from the climate perspective (since oil is no better than coal from that standpoint).

chris said...

Happy New Year to you and yours, Stuart!

Sorta good news about the coal stove, I guess. Where does one even buy coal today?

When I was walking to school (Uphill! Both ways!) in the early '60s I knew winter was coming by the reek of burning coal in the air. Can't say I miss it.

Stuart Staniford said...

Chris - here in the rural North East, there are retail coal merchants scattered around - it's definitely a cheap heating option used to some degree (once you get far enough out of town to not be on the NG pipe, I imagine)

chris said...

Interesting. There is no coal for sale within a reasonable distance of my home in very rural Nova Scotia. Good thing we have lots of trees.
Odd when NS used to be a major producer.
But I'd better not start on provincial or federal energy policy or I'll have to start my own blog. Plus it makes me feel all stabby.
BTW gasoline here is 1.20/litre or about 4.65/US gallon. As in '08 people are talking and rural life is getting quieter. Last time, at 1.40/litre, the decrease in traffic was noticeable even though there isn't much to begin with.
I have no idea what we'll do when fuel gets too high for a large number of people. Oxcarts and ATVs I guess.

justjohn said...

A note to chris RE keeping sheep contained within a single strand fence. HA! you make me laugh :-)

I kept sheep for about ten years. I would think a minimum of 5 strand hi-tensile would work. (I've never used the tape, maybe 3 strands of that would work?) At times I used the electric netting (portable), at least a few times per summer I would go out and find one sheep wrapped up in that, and the other sheep loose.

An even bigger problem is keeping predators out. Over time, coyotes will certainly find your weakness. Maybe five strands hot hi tensile works, maybe not. I got out of sheep after coyotes got into the woven wire pen about 100' from my house. Two dead, two to put down, and two traumatized that I gave away.

If I get back into sheep, I would start with a guard dog and/or burro.

A single strand of electric does work for cattle, usually. And less predator worries there, too.
Note to Stuart: had you considered pellet stoves? I heated with a Kent Tile Fire stove for several years, but pulled it out when we installed an open loop Waterfurnace. Now ten years later, I really need to spend $5000 to switch over to closed loop, since my well water is clogging the coil.

Personally I would go with a multifuel pellet stove, but my wife is afraid of flames in the house now. I live next to a corn field, so I can see burning either wood pellets or corn. The advantage to me (over a wood stove) is less messing around (hopefully!). Load it once a day and it would perhaps run 24 hours. The wood stove needed a lot of attention... load it full of wood, let it burn wide open for a while, then close the draft to prevent overheating, then a few hours later open draft wider as the wood was consumed. And it still wouldn't heat the house for over 12 hours on one load. Go away for the weekend and come home to a very cold house.

Hal said...

Sorry I'm late to this discussion, Stuart, but I'm in Davis for the holidays and enjoying not keeping up with things in general.

My first question is, How wedded are you to the pasture? Leave it alone for a few years and it will revert to woods. You could probably even make a buck or two on it in the CRP program. If that sounds interesting, you could drop by the county NRCS or USDA office and ask. I'm also sure the land trust people could give you the info you would need.

If you don't want woods, there are upland bird programs, too, that usually go for native grasses and forbs.

Last year I put several acres in different practices. In my area, they're paying about $70-$90/Ac/Y on a 10-year contract. They also paid 90% of the cost of planting the trees and for other drainage improvements.

Last month my barn burned down so now I'm looking into building a house and converting the old 70s-era ranch style house into shop/storage/chicken house. I'm thinking along the lines of a dog-trot house, and think the link you provided for wood stoves is going to be very helpful.

(Though I don't suppose the stove was built or shipped without the oxidation of a carbon molecule or two...)

Hal said...

Oh, and congrats on the purchase!

Rich said...

Another congrats on your purchase and dreams!
Many years ago I bought an old Gothic revival house here in NJ. It had not been modified in any way for decades. It still had the old coal furnace (converted to oil) in the basement. No insulation anywhere and all the beautiful old windows. Over many years and with hardly any money I was able to get the oil bill down to 300 gallons/year. That was down from a 1k gallons from the receipts I had from the prior owner. Blown in fiberglass insulation did a wonderful job. I took apart every single window and carefully restored them with energy efficiency and old charm in mind. I found replacement (on town clean up day) wood storm windows and restored them. Installed them on the house using the brackets that were still on the house. Every exterior door was still original so I rebuilt each one in turn. There were so many other things I did. In the end I had a house with the wonderful charm of being old and original but with the energy efficiency better than a new house.
But then it was time to move on. Got married. We built a new house. And this time energy efficiency was a top priority. You can read more of the new house at www.haytown.ath.cx if you like.

I wish you well on your endeavor. In the end you will have a wonderful place to call home.


jewishfarmer said...

Mazel Tov on the new place! I hope you plan to come up and visit one of these days.

I second Chris on the scythe - the thing is, scything is really fun, not just good exercise, and it isn't nearly as strenuous as it looks. It is actually pretty relaxing.

Coal stoves are a fairly common solution to the high price of heating out here - and a worrisome one.

In the no carbon department, you'll want eventually to think about your consumer goods and their impact (buying new stuff does eventually start to count, even if you are giving yourself a pass in the near term) since nothing lasts forever, and of course, your food.

For your wife, in the meantime, look into that old fashioned solution - the carpool. In the country, everyone goes to the same soccer fields, the same scout meetings, etc... No need for everyone to drive. My own observation is that giving kids a farm to live on also can obviate some of the need for formal activities - they've got treehouses to build and livestock to take care of and your hand drill to wander off with ;-).