The Net-Zero-Carbon House … almost

Years ago, Michelle and I did a ‘green’ show in a big city and a person perusing our books informed us she had gone “completely solar” in a somewhat, dismissive, ‘that was soooo easy’ sort of way. I was intrigued. We’d been off-grid for a decade and were still a long way from being completely free of fossil fuels. After several probing questions, I was able to qualify that what she meant was that all of the calculators in her home were now solar powered … and I’m pretty sure that even back then it was hard to buy a calculator that wasn’t.

I just made the mistake of reading a great book by Andrew Nikiforuk called “Slick Water, Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry.” It’s about the challenges of living in a place like Alberta that has a huge industry fracking to get at natural gas. (http://andrewnikiforuk.com/)

It reminded me that we must have hit ‘peak fossil fuel energy’ for companies to be putting so much effort (and energy) into forcing out things like shale oil and natural gas. It also reminded me that the choices we make, in our purchasing decisions and how we choose to live, impacts other people. The book follows one woman’s challenges with the results of fracking around her rural home, and the lawsuit she eventually launched to try and draw attention to the impact of resource extraction.

As I read a bit more each day and went further and further down the rabbit hole of modern day energy production I was getting more and more critical of what I was up to in my own home. In July we just breeze by being completely “solar,” and I mean more than just using solar-powered calculators. I mean everything from cooking to hot water, and this is a big deal. We are very proud of it. It feels great.

In November and December, it’s much more of a challenge. As I remind people in my workshops, in the northern U.S. and Canada (according to Natural Resources Canada) 60% of your home’s energy requirements are for heat, then 20% is for heating water, and the remaining 20% is for all your other electrical needs … washing machines, toasters, TVs, computers, electronic toast butters … all the essentials.

We’ve got the heat covered by heating with wood which is carbon neutral and which I’ve blogged about … on and on … ad nauesum. The real challenge right now is hot water. We have a Solar Domestic Hot Water (SDHW) heating system which we invested $5,000 in. But it is pretty ineffective when the sun is only up for about 2 ½ hours a day and barely clears the tree line because it’s so low and basically gives us zero hot water. So, we improvise and use our marvelous woodstoves for hot water. I say woodstove (s) plural because we one in the house and one in the guesthouse.

Every second day or so I heat up 4 or 5 stock pots of well water on the woodstove for our bath. Michelle has the first bath because she can stand it scalding, and then a while later when the water is humanly tolerable I use the same water. Then we leave that bath water in to heat the bathroom in the cast iron tub, because the bathroom is on the north side of the house and a long way from the woodstove. In the morning I use the bath water to flush the toilet. Sure, it’s “Little House on the Prairie-ish” but I love it. It just feels right. We are in complete control of all the inputs, including the massive amount of energy required to heat a bath full of water. When you live in a typical house and just pay energy bills and turn on taps and get hot water out of them, you never really have a handle on the enormous energy required to make that possible. And you never think if you heat with a fossil fuel, what the impact is on someone who lives near the well where that propane or natural gas came from. I strongly recommend you read “Slick Water” to give you some perspective.

The challenge is that we use hot water for other stuff. Like dishes. I only do them with a kettle of hot water heated on the woodstove. And shaving. I only shave with a kettle heated on the woodstove … first sink full to shave, second sink full to rinse the soap off. Hand washing … well, our bathroom is so far from the hot water tank that we’re used to washing with cold water by the time it gets to the bathroom taps, so I just wash them really well occasionally with hot water … from the woodstove.

So … heat … check … net-zero-carbon. Hot water … check … net-zero-carbon.

Cooking … ZZZZZT (loud gameshow buzzer sound when you get the answer wrong). We have a propane cookstove. A woodburning cookstove is in the plans, but right now in the kitchen there is a beautiful, monstrous piece-of-art propane stove reeking havoc on some poor fellow human who moved to their piece of paradise not realizing they were near a coal-bed-methane deposit.

So breakfast preparation starts an hour prior to eating. Kettle for coffee goes on the woodstove. Hashbrowns and eggs are cooked in cast iron pans heated on the woodstove. Bread is toasted in a cast iron pan on the hottest part of the woodstove. This is my favorite way to eat toast because it’s less dried out than using the electric toaster. I do so love toast. Michelle makes the most awesome bread to toast!

After breakfast, dishes are washed in woodstove-heated hot water. Water for the chickens is warmed up using water heated on the woodstove. Ugly sweet potatoes and potatoes that I’ve had in the root cellar go into a stockpot on the woodstove, boiled until mashable, then served warm and mashed to the chickens. They love these and devour them, especially on a cold day.

There are some days when it feels like I spend the whole day trying to live a typical North American lifestyle in terms of what we accomplish, while doing it pumping no carbon into the atmosphere, so feeling like I am living on the prairie a hundred years ago … but with internet and Netflix.

So if your response to reading this is “Well, see, you can’t realistically live without fossil fuels so why even think about the impact of their extraction” I would suggest that’s simply not the case. Most of our readers live plugged into the electricity grid and could be heating their home, which uses 60% of energy needs, with a ground-source geothermal heat pump. This provides some hot water as well. If you live in a state or province where electricity is generated with coal, you could purchase zero-carbon energy through an intermediary in Canada like “Bullfrog Power.”

Yes, you will pay a premium for these options, but it’s not usually a large premium. If you like and respect your neighbors like I do, you could never imagine doing anything that might impact them, such as digging up your yard if it was going to affect their water supply. If you start thinking on a bigger picture basis about your purchasing decisions, making these changes is much easier. And with a geothermal system your spouse won’t roll their eyes at you as you come up with new and more complex ways to use less or zero fossil fuels. It can be a fun game, until it’s not. Then you’ll need to clean the bathroom or something to get back in their good books, and no one wants to go down that road, least of all me.

(p.s. We do fall down as we do use a bit of propane and I still own and drive a car … but I’m working on it)

4 Responses to “The Net-Zero-Carbon House … almost”

  • jon:

    Interesting post as usual.

    I really have to question this though:
    “which uses 60% of energy needs, with a ground-source geothermal heat pump. This provides some hot water as well.”

    The ground source heatpump has very high electricity requirements, in fact more than central air in the summer which environmentalists often hate. (talk about double standards!) Heat loss exceeds heat gain and often these heatpumps don’t have close to the same capacity as a gas furnace, so often electric backup heat is used, burning up an extra 5 to 15+kw/hour in extremely cold weather.

    The average COP, or energy in vs energy out of these machines is in the range of 3 to 4, as you probably know.

    Sounds impressive, right? The problem is that most power plants generating the electricity are in the range of 30 to 40% efficient.
    There are also transmission line losses, transformer losses too, so if the power comes from fossil fuel plants, these super expensive heating systems are no better than the $3000 to $6000 95% high efficiency furnaces they replace.

    Further, if geothermal heatpumps became common, utilities would be forced to build a lot of new fossil fuel plants at a tremendous cost. These machines need reliable base load and peak power to operate that wind + solar can not supply. Only hydro, nuclear, and fossil fuel plants can, and hydro and nuclear capacity isn’t being added any more.

    There are also other implications – like airflow requirements for heatpumps are much greater than for furnaces to supply the same amount of heat. (in fact, it’s close to double) Switching to geothermal often entails re-doing air ducts at an enormous expense, in the range of $10000+.

    So while goethermal may sound like an easy answer, it often is not. In many cases it may make far more economic and environmental sense to invest the money insulating exterior walls of old houses for example.

    Every case is different. Location/climate plays a huge role.

    Quebec and manitoba are great for ground source or cold-climate air source heatpumps because of the abundance of hydro-electric capacity. (not so much ontario and most of the united states)

    Coastal BC is great for traditional air-source heatpumps (the ones that lose capacity as it gets colder and often need supplemental heat below freezing) with lots of hydro capacity and mild climate.

    Me? I’ll never have enough buy any geothermal heatpump or expensive solar energy system, let alone any property at all. A lot of us, I would say 90% of my post-1980 generation have no choice to use fossil fuels for everything.

    Even if geothermal is great, it’s of no use to a lot of us.

  • Ha ha! Yes, our guests are always a bit surprised to see us actually cooking entire meals on our woodstove! Even I am a bit perturbed by having to walk back and forth between the kitchen and the woodstove and jokingly suggested to Cam that he needs to build a kitchen shelving unit near the woodstove to make things more convenient!

  • Chatsworth Neil:

    I do lots of things to take little nibbles out of my propane use but I never thought of pre-heating cast-iron pans on the woodstove–clever!! I will add that to my list of things which annoy frequent guests and bewilder occasional guests 🙂

  • Paul N.:

    A thought-provoking posting that I’ll share with my lady love. Re: heating potable water in the winter. As we pre-pre-plan our rammed earth (with Aeracura Ltd, hopefully), heating enough hot water for guests is vexing the hell out of me.
    Re: avoid the propane-generator bullet completely? My partner’s an uber-cook… and experimental baker, will also demand a double oven (electrically powered?! How the blazes will we store up enough energy to run those items). We have a 10Ha woodlot covered with deadfall… aggressive gasification of twigs-n-trash to generate enough biogas? My head’s spinning! We start building in ~5 years. Oy.
    Sincerely, Eco-Snuffleupagus.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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