Monday, August 23, 2010
Urban Homesteading Part 6: Sustainable Home Heat
According to Wikipedia The United States is the largest energy consumer in the world in terms of total use, using 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy every year. Only about seven percent of that is energy that is sustainably produced, and most of that seven percent is from hydro-electric plants, i.e. dams (questionably environmentally sustainable). The remainder of that energy comes fairly evenly from coal, petroleum and natural gas, three obvious producers of greenhouse gas. These three are also harvested from the earth in ways that are very damaging to the environment.
A quest that we all might endeavor to journey on together is the quest toward energy independence. Usually when we see or hear that idea it's in regards to national energy independence, but I'm talking about individual energy independence. Another even more exciting realm for us to think on for the future is neighborhood energy independence, but we'll leave that topic alone for today, though it's closely related.
Any homestead, especially in the old days, was required to create it's own energy. Especially energy for heating. With the rising costs of electricity and natural gas homesteaders, farmers and now even urban environmentally thinking hippie people, are returning to that way of thinking. Today it's not only to save money but to help us move toward a more environmentally sustainable source of electricity. Today we'll focus on heat, our largest consuming need for energy. Though air conditioning is also an energy suck my response to that problem is to just turn it off and deal with a little it (we do use a window unit at night sometimes). When we moved into our home we were excited to use a sustainable source of heat... wood. Our house was not too attractive to other potential buyers because each room is heated with electric baseboard heat, a very expensive way to stay warm. Even with insulated walls, new windows and an insulated attic the former renters said they would pay up to $400 a month for electric heat. The worst month at our old 1860's house was $1300, so even $400 didn't sound that bad! Upon moving into the new place we installed a Lopi Leyden wood-buring stove designed to heat up to 2000 square feet. We have about 1500 to heat. By heating with wood for the first year we were able to cut our electric bills from around $400 a month in the winter to $100, same as our summer bills. Basically we did not use anything but wood and one wood stove to heat all the rooms of our house. Our set up though is ideal in that we can use the electric heat for any room that is cooler. Each room has a separate thermostat, surprisingly we didn't use them but for a couple of extremely cold nights last year.
You may be asking "Doesn't burning wood destroy forests and release carbon into the atmosphere?" First, all of the wood we burn is from trees that are already dead or from trees that other people cut down from their yards. Some wood we purchase from a local tree service, already cut, dried and split. Also, with some friends each summer and fall we venture into the woods of our urban neighborhoods, mostly Garfield, in search of Black Locust lumber. Black Locust wood burns hotter than any other wood in North America and can be found all over the city of Pittsburgh. The trees grow like weeds too and don't usually live too long, so they are plentiful in the emerging forests taking over abandoned neighborhoods like Garfield. The second part of the question that we all have is concerning the carbon released with wood is burned. If we had the ability to use energy like solar or wind we might would release to carbon in heating our homes, but it takes a lot of money to put in a large enough solar or wind system. On the other hand oil and gas releases carbon that has been locked within the crust of the earth for hundreds of millions of years. This carbon should stay in the earth and not in the atmosphere. When a tree grows it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, that's why we need more trees. That carbon is stored in the form of wood in the tree. When a tree falls, whether a tree rots or is burned, the carbon is released. So, the carbon released from wood is carbon within a closed system of a net gain of zero. In essence wood burning is a carbon neutral form of heat even though carbon is released. Now we, like farmers and homesteaders caring for their wood lots, must be sure that new trees are being planted where old ones have fallen so that we know we'll have fuel for the future and so we know carbon is being absorbed within this biological system.
Using wood as fuel takes work. Those looking for a replacement system for what they currently have that does not increase labor on their part hopefully have enough cash to put out for a solar and/or wind power system. Those on rural properties with streams might consider small scale hydro-electric. But for those of us who like to swing a maul and like to save money (or just don't have much of it) should consider wood.