fire and earth

I remember a moment back in 2019 during the country-wide railway blockades by indigenous-minded people, acting in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en resistance to pipeline intrusion through unceded territory…

I was watching the CBC evening news and there was a clip in which a couple of angry Albertans were shouting at a native fellow by the tracks: ‘Where else are we going to get the Kilowatts we get from fossil fuels?’

These guys were quite sure of themselves, and they might have had a good point.  When we look at the relative efficiencies of ‘green’ energy renewables, very few of them  can match the on-demand power output of fossil fuels. Solar PV ain’t much use when the sun don’t shine for weeks at a stretch.  Wind and tidal power are geographically dependent.   Those of us living in regions with abundant hydro-electric power may feel a bit lucky and smug.  But a little known fact about mega hydro production is the insanely high methane emissions that occur when the water churns through the turbines.  So if reducing greenhouse gasses is a priority, we have a major problem there too.

Nuclear?  Well, with Fukushima still puking contaminants all over the pacific ocean…  I’d say we had best think other-wise.  As a matter of principle, we simply shouldn’t generate a waste product that we have no idea how to  neutralize.

In  considering how to evolve the energy sector, we must weigh up the energy return on investment.  This includes factoring in the the costs of transformation, changing direction, reprogramming, retooling… it all requires immense amounts of energy.  So even if we do  opt for high-tech green solutions, there is no getting around the fact that we are likely to be hooked on the sauce for quite some time.

For transportation, I have no doubt that an electric engine is far more durable and reliable than an internal combustion engine.  And putting our sharpest minds to improving battery/storage technology is bound to bear fruit.  But the electricity to run those vehicles has to come from somewhere.  As Vaclav Smyl puts it: An electric car using electricity generated from burning coal… is a coal-powered car.   I have heard the argument that implementing a gas or diesel generator to recharge batteries is more efficient than gas/diesel engines needing to achieve variable RPM for driving speeds.  But I wonder how much of this advantage is lost due to an extra stage of transformation from combustion to electricity to propulsion…  And of course, we must remember that the embodied energy in producing a new electric car far outweighs that of keeping an old gas guzzler on the road.  So, when we really crunch the carbon numbers… the whole notion that ‘green is clean’, can be misleading.

All that said… when it comes to generating thermal energy to heat a dwelling, cook food, warm water, etc… the use of renewables is much more promising.  The answer to: ‘Where are we going to get the kilowatts equivalent to fossil fuels?’ is very simple: just look to that yellow orb in the sky.

Direct solar energy, averaged over a full year, has the capacity to keep dwellings in most regions of the planet comfortably warm throughout the year.  It is just a matter of optimizing our capacity to harvest, store and redistribute the thermal energy.  No small feat – but not impossible.  The biggest obstacle is that there is not  a lot of  money in it.

This principle of harvesting and storing surplus for use during times of deficit has been at play at least since the first lizard opted to lounge on a sun-warmed rock.  Harvesting surplus energy (food) from a growing season to utilize during winter deficit was the instrumental principle in the dawn of agriculture.  It is also at play in the operation of a wood-fired masonry heater, which involves a brief hot (and therefore clean) fire, followed by efficient harvest and storage of thermal energy in semi-conductive earthen mass, followed by gradual release for a long time afterwards.

But ultimately, the most efficient way of optimizing our harvest of solar thermal energy for heating purposes is to directly harvest the surplus thermal energy available during summer, store it in a well insulated body of earthen mass, and gradually release it into a living space during winter.   

Given that a couple billion people on the planet rely on external (beyond body -warmth) heat sources to keep warm for at least part of the year… and given how poorly electrical energy converts to thermal energy… and given all the trouble that arises from our lust over dwindling supplies of fossil fuels…    I dare say that now is the time to look to that yellow orb in the sky, and focus our minds into exploring, hybridizing, optimizing the existing earthen-stored solar heating technologies.

The fact of the matter is: It works.

For more info on this topic, check into my page on ‘earthen-stored solar heating’


I hope you enjoy 🙂

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