Saturday, 14 January 2017

An Acre of Sunshine - Introduction

This post is a part of the series An Acre of Sunshine.

I always wanted to own property in the countryside. I loved the hiking, fishing, canoeing, and other related outdoor pursuits. But there is something different when one is the owner, the land manager, and if done right, the steward. When we relocated to Ottawa, the Canadian capital, finding a place outside the city to call our own was something that was at the top of the list. Within a year of our arrival, we found our perfect spot - nearly one hundred and fifty acres of field, forest, and wetland, spread across rolling hills and nestled alongside a river. It felt quite wild to me, but they called it a farm. It was little like the flat open farmland that I was used to seeing throughout my childhood in the Midwest, where fields run together and the only trees are often those just adjacent to farmsteads and along fencelines. On this property, there was no barn or silo, but rather a few modest hilly hayfields, and a forest where trees were cut occasionally for lumber or firewood. When my wife and I had begun looking for our countryside escape, we thought about what we wanted mostly in terms of lifestyle and recreation. But it is a farm, and we had become farmers.

From the time we purchased the property, my mind was overflowing with the possibilities of what we could do there. Of course, much of my attention was on all of the recreation that our family would be doing, a broad swath of sports, including snowshoeing and cross country skiing all winter, hiking and fishing the rest of the year, a bit of deer and grouse hunting thrown in during the fall. But it was never just about recreation, it was also about stewardship and sustainability, taking proper care of a space, using it in the present, but preserving it for the future. As much as possible, we also wanted to live lightly on our new property, preserving the full range of flora and fauna that are found there. A primary reason for choosing this particular property was the natural aesthetic of the place, which we wished to preserve. Since I was a young child, I had dreamed of living out in the wilderness, of living off the land. But as I grew to adulthood, I realized that the sort of rugged independence where I would build a house by hand and grow all my own food was not the dream that I was pursuing. I have no desire to be fully independent from the rest of the world; people are social beings, and productive societies always exist by allowing everyone to specialize, each to his own talents and predilections, and then cooperate so that each person has their needs met. We all need and want those goods and services that allow us to survive and thrive. But we all share the same world, and we need to make sure that we, combined, live in a way that is sustainable so that our children and their children will be able to continue to prosper as we do today.

Real sustainability isn't the same as simply conservation, and leaving all natural places alone. While true nature refuges are critically important, people also need to produce many goods from the land to support themselves. I felt that part of my responsibility was to continue to keep this land productive, to help provide for human needs as well as to be a wild and natural place. A question kept coming back to me: Was our farm, in this rocky and hilly Canadian forest, even capable of being productive enough to support my family and our needs? As I began to work through all of the possibilities, I considered how it was possible to compare them; Should we grow trees or corn? One way to answer these questions was to simply ask which one would yield the highest dollar returns. This is certainly the typical way that farmers make their land-use decisions. While we wished to make a few bucks, concerns of sustainability stayed at the fore, and our main incomes will always be off the farm. I then had an epiphany about our land use planning. It wasn't the most original, but it is one that is key to land management, and I'll share it with you: All farming and most sustainable land use is the farming of sunlight, capturing some of those rays and using the energy contained in them. One takes sunlight, and converts it into maple trees or wheat, chickens or deer. So my realization meant that the question that I was asking about providing for my family was really a question about energy. I started to come around to thinking about sustainable land use more broadly as being about energy; how much energy could we capture and use? Was a farm like ours capable of producing enough to support the energy-intensive modern lifestyle of my family? How much energy does it really take to support a family anyway?

At the same time as we were purchasing our property, we were also busy with starting to design a house that we would build on a hilltop overlooking the river. For years I had also been interested in architecture, particularly green building practices and energy efficiency, and so we decided to design from the start a place that would be incredibly energy efficient. We received an extra push for efficiency from the fact that our building site was so far from the nearest powerlines that it would have cost a small fortune to run power to our new home. Solar photovoltaics were going to be the only reasonable way to provide electricity. Going with off-grid solar almost automatically puts one in an energy conservation mind-set, because for every extra light or computer you want to power, you need to pony up more cash upfront to install more panels and batteries. Energy of all kinds was going to be at a premium at this location, so we made decisions to reduce use and keep all appliances and mechanical systems efficient. To reduce heating needs, we took inspiration from several different green design movements to incorporate passive solar design and superinsulation to our home. All in all, we reduced by approximately 70% the amount of energy that we will need to use in this home compared to standard construction. In working with an architect and tradesmen of all kinds, I learned the ins and outs of energy flows around and through a home, and in many ways they really didn't seem so different from the energy flows involved with land use (If you are interested, see my blog about that house here).

While working on both land use planning and home design, I was consulting innumerable sources, on forestry, farming, energy, architecture, and more. As written, each of these sources was aimed primarily at specialists in each field, those that wished to take part in these practices. What wasn't there, and that I yearned for, were some of the threads that tied all of these concepts and practices together. How did each of these fields relate to the human level, an individual, a family? Again, I could see that in each, a common theme of energy use was central to each of these endeavors. Sustainability and renewable energy are tightly intertwined, and I was learning enormous amounts about how these systems worked, and could see a place for sharing this knowledge with others.

Herein lies the heart of this story. I have explored the intersection of energy and land use at a human level, and want to share that story. This story is an investigation of energy, renewable energy, a single source to walk through the basics of energy use and energy production in a home and on the land. I want to tackle such questions as; How do different uses of solar energy actually compare? How do they measure up to fossil fuels or nuclear energy? How much land do we actually need to support people sustainably? If we tried to go to an all renewable, all sustainable economy, could we do it while maintaining our current standard of living?

The lens I use to examine all of these questions is our forested farm, looking at the question of what we have already done and what we could do in the future. Hopefully, by looking at these different choices on a small scale, in human terms, ideas about energy will click for some people who have never really understood, or perhaps never thought about, the energy that we use each and every day.

A few disclaimers are needed, just to get things started with clarity. First of all, with a story like this, comparing different forms of land use, different types of energy storage and conversion, a lot of numbers are going to be needed. Comparing land use in terms of energy requires a lot of calculations based on the sorts of products one could produce. At the same time, these things are complicated, and so it is extremely difficult to pin down those numbers precisely, there is always a range. I try to simplify everything down to rough estimates, to get a feel for the landscape without trying to get get complete precision. Second, the economics of all of these choices are mostly left out - the incomes that could be generated are important, and references to them are made, but energy is the focus here, not dollars. In order to keep it manageable, this is not meant to at all be a how-to manual for any of the topics in it; materials like that are the sorts of sources that I used to put together this story. Instead, it is meant to broadly educate about energy and land use, to draw attention to the some of the considerations we ought to be focusing on, and realign the discussion about sustainability to issues of energy - how we produce it, use it, and how we can continue to have a high standard of living without destroying the world.

Though the numbers are important, there is a story to be told that doesn't depend on those numbers. Through all of the sections I put a less technical discussion at the beginning, and follow it up with a more in-depth numbers-based investigation.

Next up: What is energy?

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