passive solar house

As summer rolls around again, my house heats up and I wish I lived somewhere else. Fortuitously, I have plans to do just that!

too hot for cats

The Back Paddock behind my house will be no more. I’m building a small (3×1) passive solar, energy efficient house. If you’re new here, the Back Paddock is the empty lot adjoining my house.

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The solar powered what!?

solar powered bra Back when I had a full time job and I was “rolling in money” (a relative term) there were a number of things on which I regularly wasted my money. Of course they were all things I just couldn’t live without!

One of these things was lingerie. I’m not just talking underwear here. It had to be sexy, have lace or pretty patterns or lots of shiny nylon gunk and it had to be a matching set. I’m not exactly well-endowed (a bit like this model) so I don’t need that much support. Sports bra? What’s that?

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A year of solar water heating

Hot water accounts for more than 30% of energy used in the home. [1]

the solar water heater on my roof I’ve had solar water heating for a year. I wanted a gas booster, rather than the electric booster which was installed. My dad (who is my landlord) has had bad experiences with a gas booster, so he didn’t get one. He also told me that the person who installed the system said electric boosters are better, but I wonder if that’s just what the installer likes, or something.

A brochure from the gas company said (admittedly this may be biased because gas it what they sell)

Solar power systems are the most energy efficient if you choose a gas-boosted system. Electric boosted solar systems emit nearly the same amount of CO2 as hot water systems which run [solely] on gas. [1]

From February last year when the system was installed, the booster wasn’t turned on until winter. The weather usually breaks in May in Perth, but April last year was very wet, so the booster was probably used then. June was very dry, so I think it would have been turned off for a lot of that month.

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Sustainable Building Design

It is no good just talking, writing or reading about sustainability. It requires us to do something toward that critical and vital end point – a sustainable world – so that we can all look our grandchildren in the eye with something like a clear conscience – Derek Wrigley [1]

For a number of years I’ve been interested in sustainable building design and I have a long term plan to build my own sustainable designed house. The first real-life example I visited was the Subiaco Sustainable Demonstration Home in suburban Perth. It was built by Subiaco Council, but is now privately owned. I’ve often wondered why more newly built houses aren’t designed using sustainable principles. I realise most such houses are individually designed by architects and this increases their cost, but some design aspects, such as passive solar principles, seem to me to be just common sense.

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Drinking Rain

Of course we all drink rain, one way or another. The water cycle eventually recycles all water into the sky and then back down to the earth, but some people drink their water a bit closer to when it fell as rain, than others. Sadly I’m not one of these people, but I look forward to the time when I have a rainwater tank.

the water cycle by John M. Evans, USGS, Colorado District

I just came across Greenfoot’s blog and her question about Sustainable House Day. Georgie commented on the Australia Street house in Newtown, Sydney.

The house incorporates all manner of sustainable features, including a ventilation stack and a low-tox or no-tox approach to paints and glues throughout. It also features a pool: a decadent, gorgeous plunge pool, tucked in a corner of the courtyard next to the living area, filled entirely by water from the house’s rainwater tank. [1]

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Ockham's Razor and Slime

A while ago I came across the transcript of Robyn Williams’ 2005 interview with Dr Geoffrey Chia. Robyn Williams presents a science program Ockham’s Razor on ABC’s Radio National in Australia. When I was a kid my dad listened to this and I got to know the term Ockham’s Razor. Throughout my childhood I never knew what it meant (I doubt there’s many children that do, perhaps Einstein when he was a little one). It was only a couple of years ago that I came to a vague understanding of what it meant, thanks to a friend who I’d always thought was pretty brainless – good thing I kept that opinion to myself. It was when I decided to call this blog Ockham’s Razor that I found out its exact meaning. It must have been the radio show that led to my liking of the words Ockham’s Razor. And I still don’t know why it’s a razor and not Ockham’s Idea/Theory/etc.

Enough of reminiscing. Dr Geoffrey Chia talked about renewable fuels that are greenhouse gas neutral. The first part of the interview is Science versus Pseudoscience, Truth versus Lies and the second part is There’s no fuel like an old fuel.

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Why aren’t there Big Solar Projects in Australia?

Businesses developing renewable and energy efficient technologies search in vain for a sympathetic ear in Canberra. (p.66)

Matt from The Coffee House and Environment Solutions asked,

Are there not any big solar building projects going on in Oz?

My original answer to Matt was,

The University of NSW and Australian National University are internationally recognised in solar technology development, but research ideas are often commercialised overseas because the venture capital can’t be found in Australia. eg. UNSW’s recent $1.7m licensing agreement with Taiwanese solar cell manufacturer E-Ton Solar Tech Co. Ltd.

I also thought Australia’s government is not very helpful because our Mandatory Renewable Energy Target is set at 9,500GWh by 2010. This target will only increase Australia’s renewable energy market by about 1-2 percent. I didn’t think, Why is this so?

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Electricity from the Sun

solar powered street lighting. This is the only one I've ever seen in Perth, so they're not common. In the city centre of Perth there are solar powered parking meters I have a long term plan to build my own sustainably designed house. When I build this house I want to install solar panels to generate my own electricity. The house would still be connected to grid electricity. At times when the sun was shining I might produce more electricity than I use and sell surplus back to the power grid. At times when the sun wasn’t shining I would have to buy electricity from the grid. The sun shines a lot in Perth, so solar power is an ideal form of electricity generation. Perth is also a very windy city, so wind power would work well too.

It is expensive to purchase and install photovoltaic cells, but cheaper than it has been in the past and the price is decreasing. Many governments, including Australia’s, give rebates for installation of photovoltaic cells. Matthew Warren in The Australian newspaper[1] said that, despite this rebate,

It is still some of the most expensive electricity in the market with the full cost of the cells often not recovered over their entire 30-year-plus lifetime. Critics of this [rebate] scheme argue it is great for retailers and some manufacturers, but it is still largely symbolic stimulating imports of PV cells more than a dynamic solar industry in Australia.

Robert Silvey disagrees with Matthew Warren’s assessment of the cost and discusses the installation of photovoltaic cells in his house in California (which provides rebates) and why it will increase his home equity.

Australian has been a world leader in solar technology since the 1970s and the University of NSW and Australian National University are internationally recognised in solar technology development. Unfortunately most of their ideas are commercialised overseas[1]. This happens a lot in Australia

because of a lack of government support at critical stages of the research and development cycle coupled with weak venture capital markets in Australia compared with many countries overseas.

Another Australian government scheme, the Renewable Remote Power Generation Program (RRPGP) provides a 50% rebate to offset the capital costs of establishing a renewable energy system for remote communities or households. Remote areas are not connected to the electricity grid and thier electricity was previously provided through diesel generators. Now diesel generators can just be used as backup to variable renewable sources[2]. Denis Smedley, director of the Renewable Energy Deployment Team in the Australian Greenhouse Office which administers the program, said,

The most common form of renewable energy used in remote communities is solar power.

Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth received a grant from RRPGP for a 600 kW wind turbine to supply up to 40% of the island’s energy. This will save about 430 000 litres of diesel a year and approximately 1100 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Some pictures of houses with multiple solar panels are here. And Ma Yanjun, of Qiqiao village, Shaanxi province, China rigged up his own solar water heater using beer bottles.


Offline Sources

  1. Warren, Matthew (2007) “Politics of carbon” The Australian, 9 June, p.1 of Clean Energy section.
  2. Parker, Derek (2007) “Wind, sun switch on the isolated” The Australian, 9 June, p.6 of Clean Energy section.

Kyoto in 2010

The Australian Greenhouse Office of the Federal government projects Australia’s greenhouse emissions trends. Tracking to the Kyoto Target was released last year just before Christmas (so no one would notice it). Even though Australia never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, a government department has still found Australia will not meet its Kyoto target of 108 per cent above 1990 levels by 2010. The report tried to paint a rosy picture, and I wish I could believe that

Australia remains committed to meeting its target.

I was having a hard time working out what the report actually said because they kept swapping between percentages and millions of tonnes of greenhouse emissions per year. But the graph on p.1 helps to clarify things (the report is downloadable as a pdf). If we keep going just as we are now (no “greenhouse measures”),

emissions growth would have reached 125% of the 1990 level by 2010


The Australian Government along with State, Territory and Local governments have implemented a range of policies and programs, and actions have been taken by business and the community.

The government says these policies, programs and actions will mean

the current analysis projects Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions at 109% of the 1990 emissions level over the period 2008–12, which is slightly above the 108% Kyoto target.

And to make it sound even better,

The Australian Government is addressing further measures to help meet the Kyoto target.

The government likes to harp on about how necessary nuclear power is and I get the impression they think it could be a big part of their “measures.” Nuclear power is so far from being cost effective (see Davidson, K. 2006, “Editorial” Dissent, no.21, pp.2-4), even if you get over the problem of what to do with nuclear waste (John Howard hasn’t offered to put it in his back shed). Nuclear waste might not lead to climate change but it certainly could lead to worse things. Our government also thinks geosequestration is the way to go, but this is unproven technology and detracts from the real problem of excessive carbon emissions.

Risks to achieving our Kyoto target exist around the central overall projection. One upside risk relates to recent strong growth in electricity generation.

If we’re not careful this strong growth in electricity generation will continue. In order to keep using the electricity we want to use (and it’s industry that uses the most electricity) we need to use renewable sources of generation. Nuclear power is not renewable – the sun and the wind are, and they are especially plentiful in various parts of Australia. And because solar and wind power are variable (see Diesendorf, M. 2006, “In defence of renewable energy and its variability” Dissent, no.21, pp.5-8) they can be supplemented with bioenergy, gas turbines and other methods. Diesendorf writes,

Clean energy futures, based on efficient energy use, renewable energies and natural gas (while it lasts) are technologically and economically feasible. The main barriers are institutional and the political power of the fossil fuel industries.

There’s always hope if you’re not in league with your business cronies in the coal and nuclear industries.


Quick, quick, quick, while its hot, hot, hot

The solar water heater on my roof

I rent my house, but I’m lucky to have my dad as my landlord. This means I’m able to make a lot more changes to make my life more sustainable than most tenants could. Although my dad doesn’t agree to everything I propose. He recently painted the outside of the house and it’s an older weather board house so I thought it would look good to have two different shades for the bottom and the top. Although I suggested some vibrant shades, he didn’t agree with my flamboyant vision and every wall is cream. My dad has no sense of adventure!

In the middle of February my dad had a solar water heater installed – greenhouse gas emission free water heating! Previously the water was heated by natural gas, which was better than electricity, but not as good as solar. The old gas system had been on its last legs for quite a while, but being lazy old me, it took me a long time to tell my dad this. I was used to pretty luke-warm showers. It had gotten a bit annoying last winter, but then summer arrived and I forgot. Since the sun started boiling our water, I was in for a bit of shock. I thought you could only get water that hot out of a kettle! I can see this winter that my addiction to too-long showers is only going to get worse.

I haven’t yet turned on the electricity booster and I hope we’ll only need it for three months of the year. We’re just getting into autumn, although summer has been lingering most of March. When winter arrives I hope to only turn on the booster on overcast days and there are always a few sunny days in Perth’s mild winters. The climate of Perth is ideal for solar energy generation. If I lived anywhere else it might not be so easy.

I would also like to use solar panels to generate my electricity, but that’s going to have to wait until I build my own sustainably designed house, which is a long-term plan of mine (I have to finish studying and get a real job first).