peak oil

Wood Burning: Resilient and Carbon Neutral


Thomas Homer-Dixon is a smart Canadian with some keen insight on the problems that our species face. His book The Upside of Down is an exploration of the biggest threats facing us and the planet. Two of his top five are the problems that I think will have the most influence on our way of life this century: Peak Oil and Climate Change.  read more... »

Geothermal Heating

The proper term is "ground source heat pump" (GSHP). I often get questions about this technology, and I think that there are some misconceptions out there, so here goes.

How It Works

The way I think of it, there is a magical black box that can take heat at low temperatures and "pump" it up to higher ones. In Edmonton, the ground a few feet below the surface remains at about six degrees Celsius all year round. This is seasonally-stored solar energy - it accumulates in summer and doesn't cool very much during the winter because there's just so much dirt.

So, a contractor comes and drills long holes (150 - 200 feet, I think) in the back of your yard, and runs tubing down the holes. Then, when heat is needed, the heat pump runs a fluid through the tubes in the earth, and pulls solar heat from it. The exact same effect happens in reverse.

With a GSHP, you can pull 3 - 3.5 units of heat from the earth for every unit of electricity that the heat pump uses.

The Hype - Imported From Elsewhere

Using a GSHP is a brilliant idea in Manitoba or Quebec or Vancouver Island - somewhere where no natural gas is available. The thing is, if your only choice is heating with electricity, a GSHP is in effect 350% more efficient than regular electric heating. That is, with regular electric heating (like from a resistance heating baseboard heater), you get one unit of heat for every one unit of electricity invested. As stated above, the GSHP will give you up to 3.5 units of heat for every one. That's pretty good.

The brilliance of the GSHP in other locations, though, doesn't necessarily translate to Alberta. Here, natural gas is available ubiquitously. AND our electricity is mostly derived from burning coal - the enemy of the human race.

So in Alberta, the only fair comparison for a GSHP is a super-efficient natural gas furnace.

Electricity vs. Natural Gas

Most of Edmonton's electricity is generated by burning coal near Wabamun lake. The generators burn the coal, and convert about 30% of the energy in the coal into electricity. Then, it gets sent down the power line to our great city (some of it gets lost along the way, but we'll ignore that for now). If we use the electricity in a GSHP that is 350% efficient, we get 3.5 units of heat back for every 1 put in. The thing is, we're using electricity that contains only 30% of the coal's original energy value. 30% * 3.5 = 105%. A coal-fired GSHP is 105% efficient, then, when considering the energy that was initially in the fossil fuel.  read more... »

Keep Edmonton's Trolleys

This is the number 5 Westmount. It's a new trolley bus - one of those buses that's attached to the electrical grid and produces zero street-level emissions. City council is currently debating a report that advises scrapping the entire trolley bus system.

Myles Kitagawa, one of my favorite all-around people and one of Edmonton's green heroes, sent me an email a ways back suggesting that we (the Toxics Watch Society, of which he is the Associate Director and I am the President), should make a submission to city council about the issue. Our angle would probably be a novel one in the debate: Peak Oil.

If you're not turned on to Peak Oil yet, it's time to get going (see this movie, and read this book, for starters). I think that Peak Oil and climate change will be the drivers of the 21st century. I know, I know, I wish that Ipods and flat-screen TVs were going to be the big factors too, but that's just not in the cards.

Edmonton needs to begin thinking about what happens when transportation fuels hit $5/litre. Among the many things that we could do to prepare, having a transit system not totally dependent on diesel fuel would go a long way. Here is most of what Myles and I submitted to city council regarding the electric trolley issue:

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Solar Salad

We get a lot of sun in Edmonton. In fact, I've heard that we have as many sunny hours as Miami. Moving into the uncertain future, that's an asset.

On May 6, I decided to leverage that asset into a sun-cooked potato salad.

Solar Ovens

The concept of a solar oven is very simple: a black, insulated box with glazing (plastic or glass) is aimed towards the sun. It's amazing how the simplest concepts can be so powerful. It's a cinch to get my solar oven up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and during the hottest months it will hit 300 degrees.  read more... »