Archive for December, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Introduction to Permaculture

Introduction to Permaculture, Bill Mollison

Introduction to Permaculture

Introduction to Permaculture

This is pretty much the classic textbook on permaculture.  Don’t believe me?  What if I told you Mr. Mollison INVENTED the word permaculture to describe the multi-tiered growing system he developed on his Australian land.  Yep, that’s the guy.  And although he can be credited with this amazing feat, he doesn’t waste time with jargon in his book.  Instead, he gets right down to the business of how to most effectively plan land for both environmental and personal maintenance.

To describe it in brief, permaculture involves the integration of native plants and animals in a system that eliminated the need for additional inputs such as fertilizers and outputs such as yard waste. To see things from a permaculture perspective, a goat is no longer just a furry animal that makes funny noises, but rather a recycling and fertilizing machine, that, when properly utlilized, can keep an orchard pest (and pesticide) free while providing milk, companionship, and dung for the garden.  So too with chickens, cows, horses, fish, even green mulches.  Everything in a system must be looked at in terms of its TOTAL needs and outputs, and a balanced system can be created that makes the best use of everything available.

Of course there is a lot of plant talk here.  After all, it makes perfect sense to use native flora wherever possible.  And though Mr. Mollison is located far from the US of A, there is lots of good information here for any aspiring permaculturist.  Especially interesting is the discussion of planting cycles which replace the traditional English planting system of crop rotation followed by fallow periods to recoup soil nutrients.  He shows that by properly mixing plants with different strengths (such as leguminous nitrogen fixers and natural pesticides), you can completely eliminate fallow fields while still improving yields.

There’s a nice discussion of water management too, with ideas for ways to increase the productivity of “transition zones”, those microclimates along the edges of land and water which are traditionally the most diverse of a given area.

Now, none of this information would be very useful if it weren’t also practical.  After all, you don’t want to hike five miles for water every day any more than a woman in Kenya does.  Nor do you want to be flooded out every time it rains.  To that end, there is a lot of discussion in the book about how to situate the various components of your permaculture system so that you have easy access to the things you need and living takes as little energy input as possible.  Bravo for that reality check!

Overall, the book covers familiar ground in many areas, though it’s important to note that in actuality, as it was written in the EARLY 90s, this was the pioneering work that others have since used as inspiration.   I would certainly recommend it to any gardeners, off-grid enthusiasts, botanists, or just plain nature lovers out there.  Everything is nicely illustrated and purely practical.  Even in reading, he keeps extra work down to a minimum.

RATING: 5 / 5 stars

LENGTH: about 200 pages of pretty easy reading

PRACTICALITY: lots of sage advice here for anyone at any stage of land development and also good theoretical discussion of the lifestyle.

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Resolutions for 2009

It’s that time of year again… time to dust off last year’s resolutions and slap a new title on ’em.  No, of course not!  To me, the best thing about writing down resolutions is revisiting them in the far future as a sort of diary of where you were in life at that moment. I’ve gone every way – make one and stick to it, make fifty and try to hit as many as possible, and pretty much everything in between.  In doing so, I’ve hit on a system that seems to work pretty well in terms of actual achievement:  these days, I make as many as will fit on the front of one piece of paper, then post it on the wall of my clothes closet.  In the mix are at least two very easy things to achieve, at least one hard one, and at least one long-term carry over from years past.  Oh, yeah, and ushering in world peace, which I can only hope will be achieved in my little lifetime!

So what does 2009 bring? The Solarious experiment has been going strong for ten months now, making this the first Jan 01 I’ve encountered here.  From a starting posting frenzy, posting has fallen into a few lulls as life business crowded its way into the forefront.  So my first resolution is to find a comfortable posting schedule that will allow you to get all the latest info while still keeping food on my table.  Isn’t that the great game of life anyway? But on to the good stuff… what’s new here at Solarious!

Interviews Galore!

I resolve to make this site a premier destination for people who are looking to reduce their burden on the planet.  I will introduce a monthly interview series with political and environmental leaders and with people who are making great changes in their own lifestyles so that you can hear firsthand how easy taking the green path can be.  I’ll also be profiling green (and not so green) cities and communities to show you real-world examples of places taking action against global warming and other such monsters.  If there’s someone you’ve been dying to hear from, let me know, and I’ll try to make it happen.

Second, I will be introducing an organic series discussing gardening tips, food purchasing tips, home decorating ideas and interesting low-cost ways to bring organic products into your home.  Check back every few weeks for a new installment.

I’ve been reading (and reviewing) books like crazy this year. And until the library runs out of titles, you can expect more of the same in the coming months.  Look out for an improved rating system which helps define which titles are good for general info versus one which give you practical tips you can implement now, and also a library page which will allow you to search reviews by topic.

Class Time!

Class Time!

The solar power class is up and running now (check out the Photovoltaic class page), but again, look for improvements such as a searchable list of places offering photovoltaic classes around the country and an expansion into wind and other renewable technology theories.  I’ll also be adding a practical projects gallery, complete with photos of completed installations and a rating system denoting how difficult each was to complete and how well it works. The other back pages will be getting more updating love too!

The summer sunshine seems like a distant memory right now after a week of rain, but the solar cooking section will also be getting its own page, complete with recipes and a larger variety of cooker and dehydrator projects for you to complete.  I’m hoping to get a few “beta testers” and a rating system for the dishes as well, so that you can get a better idea of how things taste.  My cats will be so disappointed to have their job outsourced, but sacrifices must be made in the name of science, no?

Thats a Lotta Carbon!

That's a Lotta Carbon!

I’ve also made a personal commitment to make this blog carbon neutral.  Every day, I will offset the carbon used while plugging in to post. Because there’s nothing I want less than to make MORE pollution!  If you want to do the same, check out my last post, “making you computer carbon neutral” for some tips on reducing your digital burden.

And the super long-term goal? Well, like many of you, I’d like to completely cut the power lines in life.  Having no power at home and having sold the car as outlined months ago, I’m already pretty far along with that goal… but until I get off my butt and install some real solar power, I’m still internet cafeing it (which entails eating some pretty long miles-to-plate meals, no doubt) and using municipal water for basic human needs.  So, those activities are on the chopping block as I look for ways to cut back even further.  Teaching people about the joys of alternative energy is one way I can reduce this burden without actually making life any more spartan. Every time you implement something you learned here or pass it along to someone else who does, the total planetary energy load is reduced by that much, which makes me so very happy.  So in closing, I ask you this: if you see something of interest here and implement it, share your experience with the rest of us or at the very least, tell your friends! Together, we can make 2009 the tipping point for renewable energy and sustainable living to bring both into the mainstream for a brighter, cleaner future. 

Blessings to all of you, and thank you for a wonderful year here at Solarious.

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Making Your Computer Carbon Neutral

I’ve admitted it before… I love my computer, and giving it up is out of the question.  But I do understand that while the internet saves me millions of miles of travel a year and countless hours spent locating far-flung information, the computer itself uses plain ol’ polluting energy and requires a lot of rare and potentially hazardous materials in its manufacture which are as often as not disposed of improperly.  So how to green the central machine?

First up, the average of one pound of CO2 emissions put out daily by computers worldwide.  Luckily, the wonderful social, email and action network Care2 has already thought about that, and nicely offers you the option to neutralize that carbon… with a single click! And if taking 10 seconds to sequester some CO2 to offest your surfing is too much to ask, I expect to see your name in the newspaper soon, because you must be REALLY busy on something important.  Visit Care2’s Daily Click to Donate page here to ease your digital burden on the planet today, and while you’re there, click to donate to 9 other great causes like saving tiger habitat, preventing breat cancer, and preserving marine wetlands.

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Next, consider efficiency when purchasing computer components.  It may surprise you to know that a vast majority of computer components are manufactured in one of a handful of factories in the same town in China.  One that barely even existed twenty five years ago.  To read all about it, pick up the fascinating global travel book “Confessions of an Eco-Sinner” by Fred Pearce (2008).   Though he only deals with this particular product for a chapter, the whole book is filled with amazing (and scary) tales of how the things you take for granted make it into your shopping bag.  But back to that computer… Assuming that practices amongst these competitors are relatively equal, and given that they are all run by guys who went to school together as youth this is proabably safe, you won’t gain much by purchasing an Acer over a Compaq.  That doesn’t mean, however that all manufacturers are equal.  Some voluntarily, and some in response to the European Union’s RoHS Directive which calls for elimination of certain toxic metals from their computers (see this Treehugger article for more information), computer manufacturers have started to take notice and make greener PCs.  Apple and Toshiba are notable leaders in this movement, though others are jumping onboard every day.  I’m waiting for the day one releases a totally non-toxic and recyclable computer… and while wishing, can it be compostable too?

If you’ve got your machine itself under control, there are still ways to go further, by examining the source of the energy that goes into your plug.  I’m a huge fan of surfing the web at Whole Foods Markets, because the company has a policy of purchasing renewable (wind) energy credits to offset the electricity used at each of its stores.  So when you play Tetris while eating your lunch, you’re actually helping to stimulate the alternative energy market and doing so in a totally renewable way.

Of course, they’re a popular store, so if you can’t get a seat there, you’re may be forced to strike out on your own.  There is, of course, the off-grid option of generating your own electricity with wind, solar, or micro-hydro.  These are the golden children of rugged off-griddists everywhere, and one will likely be a pretty good fit for your area.  If you don’t have the ability to install your own generation system, consider paying a little premium on your power bill for the Green Power option.  Similar to Whole Foods’ arrangement, customers who purchase green power get the satisfaction of knowing that their purchases contribute to the development of renewable energy portfolios while enjoying the on-demand power we all expect.  Or you can lease solar panels from a company that charges you a bill like any other utility but sells the power you generate using their panels back to the grid.  Solar without the start-up costs.

Speaking of power, here’s to all you night-owls out there! You see centrally generated power (utility-style) must usually be produced at the rate of greatest demand within a day.  So even though 1-5 pm is the peak power usage, at night, the generators are pumping out the same amount of juice to supply a drastically lower demand. Where does all this power go?  Some municipalities have constructed power recycling schemes, such as Los Angeles DWP’s practice of pumping water uphill at night to use for generating hydro power during daylight peak demand hours.  Other cities let this power go to waste.  That is why power use rates are so much lower at night, because utilities hope to entice people to use this cut-price power whenever possible.  So go ahead and burn a little midnight oil (figuratively of course) to take advantage of this financial reward.

Peak vs. Off-Peak

Peak vs. Off-Peak

And lastly, please, friends, recycle your computer responsibly when it reaches the end of its useful life.  Replacing single components that go bad is almost always a cheaper option than buying a whole new machine, so consider that first before declaring it dead.  But when it is, there are organizations across the globe which will take your computer, make any necessary repairs, and give it to a person in need.  Many states won’t even let you toss computer equipment legally, so you’ll be doing your civic duty, too.  If you don’t, sadly, the common practice is to let children pick through the toxic rubble of old electronics, pulling valuable metals out and stripping copper off boards in acid vats wihtout any protective measures.  It sounds like one of this “Save a child with a dollar a day” commercials, but it really happens.  Don’t be the reason little Pradeep gets cancer by the age of fifteen.

All said, the fact you can shop online rather than at retail stores, commit acts of generosity such as campaigning for social rights and making donations to worthy causes, and research innovations that make your life greener in so many ways makes the computer a world-saving tool no matter what you do to mitigate its environmental consequences.  But doesn’t doing it green just feel so much better?

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QUICKIE: Home Zone Control

If anyone in the greater Los Angeles metro area is looking to implement computerized home zone control in their home (smart home technology can reduce your home energy bills by up to 50%!), I work with an electrical expert who is quite reasonably priced and very experienced. Computerized home zone control, solar panel installation, and energy efficiency seminars are just a few of the services offered by the company.

To learn more or request services, contact me anytime either through this site or at solariousblog@gmail.com. With the new renewable energy tax credits, it is less expensive than ever before to make your home a truly green living space!

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Day Without a Bag

Today is California’s Heal the Bay organization’s Day Without a Bag.   Even if for only one day a year, take today to refuse all disposable bags.  If you need one, use a renewable reusable tote.  If you live in Los Angeles County, then consider yourself lucky – today all around the county sponsors are giving away free reusable totes for people interested in greening their lives. Want to know where?  Go to this site: www.healthebay.org and look up the disbursement locations.  Everyone else, well, I guess you’ll have to campaign your local orgs to run a similar program next year.  In the meantime, start by using one less of the average 500+ plastic bags Americans consume each year!

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Lessons From Today’s Economy

When making a commitment to switch to renewable energy in your life, the factor most often cited for delaying the switch is the upfront cost of installing an alternative energy generating system.  This is understandable, especially given the large amount of press coverage from the days when solar panels were VERY expensive and no tax credits existed to help a homeowner out of the financial hole created by purchasing fifty grand worth of panels.  However, these days it is possible to jump start your energy generation renovation without breaking the bank.

Of course, when you’re struggling just to keep up with this month’s gas bill, any additional expenses can seen like an insurmountable burden.  This is the case with many homeowners today, who are just trying to stay afloat with huge mortgage payments and utility bills.  Which brings me to my lesson of the day.  You see, there is a paradox in today’s world that goes something like this: when times are good, you don’t look for alternative solutions to problems because you have the leeway (read cash) to do things in the relatively inefficient way that you’ve always done them without breaking your bank account.  When times start to get bad, people don’t invest in alternative solutions because our natural human tendency is to imitate the ostrich, complaining about the squeeze but doing nothing to change the paradigm which produces said results.  The head in sand approach carries us through until Phase Three, the collapse of market sustainability.  Did we really think that our financial woes started yesterday with the mortgage crisis?  No, it’s been coming on for years, while we all sipped margaritas by the heated pool and pretended we could really afford the cars in our driveways. At this point, survival becomes king and all innovation gets laid by the roadside unless it costs practically nothing to implement.

This is the situation we find ourselves in now.  Another winter looms dark and cold in front of us, but in the struggle to keep up with growing bills and shrinking wages and savings, we feel we can no longer AFFORD to make the investments required by alternative energy, regardless of their future value.  Which is a shame if you ask me, because this is potentially the BEST time to get into generating alternative energy.  Not only have the renewable energy tax credits been renewed and expanded at a national level, local solar and wind initiatives are cropping up across the country that offer innovative ways to finance the switch.  Here in Los Angeles, Mayor Villagarosa announced a couple weeks back a new solar initiative which calls for installing 500 Mw of solar power on city-owned rooftops, a huge investment in concentrated solar power generation out in the Mojave desert, and a residential solar rooftop program that together promise to make the program the largest municipal solar program in the country, if not the world.  Home efficiency products like computer-run zone control systems are also experiencing a renaissance of innovations which are bringing the price down into the reach of the masses.  But alas, most homeowners are so deep in the hole that we risk losing many of these innovations to crippling financial woes within the small business sector as no one implements their ultimately sensible technologies.

Where does this leave the individual investor?  Well, let me say this.  Our inability to seek change when we have the financial capabilities to do so undermines the entire potential for distributed alternative energy generation.  If you are having trouble with your mortgage today, the time to invest in solar was a few years back when you still had cash in your bank account.  If you’re still sitting relatively pretty today, now is the time to invest, not a year from now.  You see, there are several alternative energy technologies which are eligible for tax credits and also have a relatively fast breakeven point.  Take solar hot water heating, which costs little to install and in most climates can easily provide most of your home water heating needs.  The federal tax credit allows for a 30% rebate on the total cost of installing the sytem.  This no-cap rebate is by far the best offer that the federal government has ever made to homeowners wishing to adopt alternative energy.  So take them up on their generous offer BEFORE everyone, nation included, runs out of funds to support the program.  Those who installed their systems years back are now enjoying minimal heating bills while the rest of the country shivers up to their fireplaces hoping heating costs go down.   (Which, incidentally, they have recently, but only due to total financial collapse, and that’s no prize!)

Housing starts are at an all-time low right now, but for those considering building a place, radiant heating is another option which makes imminent sense for a small up-front investment.  By heating water using solar power which is then pumped through pipes within the flooring material, your cold winter morning runs to turn on the shower will be replaced by a nice warm stroll over to the tub across your new radiant heat floor.  All for adding a few extra pipes in the concrete foundation you already planned to pour.   To me, with my childhood memories of shivering in bed and calling out to my bro to turn on the shower and let it heat up before I would venture out of the covers, that alone would raise the quality of life immensely. And for those who already have a structure in place, you can use the same concept for radiant wall heating for far less upfront expense than retrofitting a floor.

But back to the lesson at hand.  If you have been lucky enough to plan your finances well enough not to be irrevocably hurt by this impending crisis, you are in a uniquely great position to further the market for alternative energy here in the US.  As it stands right now, though the US is the largest producer of solar panels and wind turbines in the world, most of the product produced is shipped abroad to places with a stronger national investment in alternative energy than our domestic programs.  As the incoming administration plans to shift some traditional manufacturing sectors over to producing more renewable generation equipment, we need to uplift the market here in the US so that it becomes cost effective for emerging US companies to sell to US customers rather than simply shipping abroad.  If you can afford it, making the switch to alternative energy will not only help your pocketbook in the long run, it will help our nation’s crippled financial system learn to walk again.  And this time, we can take green steps toward to future instead of our previous dirty footprints.

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A Very Excellent Article

Well, you all have heard me sound off about getting away from Big Spending and returning to a simpler lifestyle, but here’s someone who’s written it all down in way better form than I could hope to articulate.  Read this article if you need any inspiration for getting off grid.  In fact, read this article whatever your motivations, we’re in for an interesting ride in today’s economy, and this explains both how we got here and how we can change the future.

Here’s the link: Money and the Crisis of Civilization.  Bravo!

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