One month ago (a thoroughly inexcusable gap for a webjournal) I began my annual migration to an island-bound off-grid retreat, promising to make up for my absence by bringing Carbon-Nation fresh insights on low-energy living.
First realization: Energy efficiency is a tough sell. People want energy. Fellow islanders, suddenly attuned to energy like the rest of North America, had trouble reconciling the fact that I write about energy and live in the most primitive house on the island. Yet energy conservation is the largest and cleanest opportunity we have to radically reduce our use of energy, far better than switching to new forms of power generation which inevitably bring their own risks and environmental impacts. The challenge is exciting people (including my editors).
Second insight: Our energy use on the island has expanded more than I had realized. Like our neighbors we have a propane stove and fridge, but we are the last holdouts without on-demand electricity (others use solar and gasoline generators while we rely on batteries and kerosene) and we still use an outhouse and a rain-fed cistern connected to a hand pump for plumbing (others have solar-pumped water systems and there are even a few toilets). Nevertheless, over the past decade we’ve added a chain saw and a small boat, bringing gasoline into our energy mix and thus plugging in a little tighter to a fossil fuel distribution ‘grid’ stretching from here to Iraq.
Mea culpa: I did plug in to a friend’s solar system once or twice to recharge a pocket PC and cell phone and, yes, to check my email. In 2003 I was ensconced in my island paradise in August, missing both the largest blackout in history and calls from CNN looking for on-air commentary on the state of the grid and the technological options for modernizing it. I didn’t want to miss the boat again.
Three: Upon departing, I described the rain-fed cistern and hand pump as our cottage’s most advanced technological feature. I had overlooked the kerosene lamps, which burn amazingly clean thanks to their glass chimneys. The contrast with what the off-grid villagers I visited in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real for “Lighting Up the Andes” is stark. Many used a kerosene-filled tin can with a wick stuck into the top producing a thick stream of soot.
A reminder: Huge efficiency and health gains await if we can banish such primitive lighting and open-burning stoves from the developing world.
Which brings me to Jerry’s comments during my absence: Jerry asked why North Americans surpass everyone else in energy consumed per capita, and what strategies we can employ to turn this around. Observing that Ford, Daimler-Chrysler and GM sell far more efficienct vehicles in Europe, the higher use of ductless AC in Asia (what is that?), and Europe’s tankless water heaters, Jerry says he is “beginning to believe that the technology required to significantly reduce our per-capita consumption is proven, established, even old.” How true. The glass-chimneyed kerosene lamp is but one more example.
Stay tuned for a proper response to the “what to do” portion of Jerry’s comment. Or start writing!