Friday, 23 September 2011


It's always a good idea, from time to time, to stop and check why you are doing what you are doing.

So what, exactly, is the point of all this energy efficiency?

I think the answer comes down to economics, both on a micro and macro scale. I don't really understand economics, which probably puts me in good company with economists. I tend to see things through green-tinted spectacles, but much as it pains me, I think that economics and ecology are fundamentally entwined, and ecology should probably be seen as long-range economics. 

Most ecologists are not interested in protecting the earth for the sake of the earth. Ecologists want to protect the earth so that it will continue to support humans. Those that really do want to protect the earth are likely to be a threat to the human race, for a while the eco-terrorists who filled the gap left by the Communists before Islamists were discovered as the enemy of Western civilisation.

How we do protect the earth comes down a lot to time scales. For example, maintaining bio-diversity is not going to have any immediate benefits, except perhaps for tourism in areas with endangered photogenic species. In the long term, bio-diversity leads to a healthy environment, and survival of symbiotic relationships among groups of plants and animals. Also, endangered species may contain remedies for diseases in the future or other keys to human survival. 

It has become fashionable and convenient to talk in terms of global warming and carbon footprints, and to listen to the overwhelming majority of scientific belief that our activities since the industrial revolution threaten catastrophic changes to the atmosphere. There are geologists calling for the naming of a new geological age, the anthropocene, such is the influence of our race on the planet; unprecedented since the first organism started converting carbon dioxide to oxygen.

Global warming is certainly serious, but rather than seeing this as the problem, I look at it more as a symptom. The problem is more about living within our means, and not cashing in the family silver and consigning our children to poverty. This centres around carbon and oil. It's all in the name, "fossil fuels". Fossils are incredibly old and take a very long time to make. 

Oil first requires organic sediment--lots of dead squiggly things--to have settled at the bottom of seas or lakes. These layers of sediment must end up between 4 and 6 km underground, where the pressure and temperature are suitable for oil to form. These conditions are very rare and the abundance of oil is only due to the size of the earth and human ingenuity at extracting it. Oil is usually called a non-renewable fuel source, although of course the earth may still be producing oil somewhere; just incredibly slowly. It should perhaps be termed an incredibly slowly renewable fuel source. It should probably be used incredibly slowly. 

I was trying to work out exactly how long it takes, and how many millenia worth we are using up each year. Here's a ball park estimate. There are 600 cubic km of known oil reserves, including oil sands. We use 5 cubic km per year, doubling every 20 years or so. The animal life that forms oil has been around for maybe 500 million years.  Let's assume there's been a constant population of squiggly sea life over that time, that the formation of oil takes less than a million years, and that nobody else started taking it away before we did. So on average, the oil we have took around 250 million years for mother earth to make. Let's be generous and assume that there is more oil that we don't know about, but also let's be generous about human ingenuity and assume that we know about 60% of it. So there are maybe 1000 cubic km of oil. If these took 250 million years to produce, that's 4 cubic km every million years, so we're using oil at more than a million times the rate at which it was made.

Another way of estimating it would be in terms of energy. The zooplankton that oil comes from take their energy from marine flora, which get their energy from the sun. The sun's energy reaches the earth at 1kilowatt per square metre, but some of this is going to be reflected, hit land, hit bits of ocean with no marine flora in it, and we'd be lucky if 1% of it was absorbed. Chlorophyl is a pretty efficient solar energy converter, after three billion years or so of development, converting between 3 and 6% of the suns energy into chemical energy. So with a better idea of what percentage of sunlight reached marine plants, what percentage of marine plant life was eaten by zooplankton, what percentatge of the zooplankton ended up in sediment, and what percentage of that sediment ended up at the right strata for appropriate pressure and temperature to form oil, we could get another ball park estimate. Certainly sounds like a long time though.

But wait a minute. If we're using oil at 5 cubic km per year, and have over 100 times that in the ground, what's the problem? I'm sure our grandchildren will come up with something! Allow me to digress from my digression to the island of Sado, north of Japan's main island Honshu, home to the greatest drumming festival in the world, and nothing to do with masochism. 

The sixth largest of Japan's islands, gold was discovered there in 1601. Above is a graph of gold production. Of course, the gold is not really being produced--just dug out of the ground. As techniques for finding and extracting the gold improved, production increased. More gold meant more money and more money brought more machinery and more people in a virtuous cycle, which must have been fairly vicious at times to the people stuck in it. The island was at one time a prison, where convicts were sent to work the seams. Later, homeless city dwellers were relocated there, to the same ends. The village of Aikawa apparently reached a population of 100,000. From 1860, modern methods of extraction were used, and gold production peaked at 400kg in the 1930s, then rapidly fell to zero. Production was negligible since 1951, and the mine was closed in 1989, with 400 km of empty tunnels going half a kilometre under the sea. 

The point being that when you have a finite resource, it will run out, and it's likely to run out when extraction is large and increasing. This is likely to happen to oil, unless we do something to stabilise supply and demand. I think a lot of people have now realised this, and are doing something about it, so all this talk of energy efficiency and solar power is not particularly radical. Just common sense.

They still have a very good drum festival on the island, and a doubly dwindling population as natives are leaving and no non-natives are coming in. Perhaps a piece of silver lining is that rather than trying to fix this problem, some of the island communities are facing up to it, and working out how to live within their means, holding a beacon for some kind of sustainability. 

But, what does this have to do with my house? And what was the point, again?

First, on the micro scale, this house should be a lot cheaper to run. It should save us money as we won't have to worry about heating or cooling bills. I haven't done the sums, but I think it will take several years for the heating bills to add up to the extra building costs. Eventually it will start paying for itself, hopefully within my lifetime, and hopefully the building won't be knocked down as soon as I go.

The financial cost is probably a lot more than the environmental cost though. A lot of the materials and technology suffer the early-adopter tax, and would be a lot cheaper in countries with more developed energy efficiency, like Germany. Hopefully these materials and technologies will be cheaper and easier in the future.