Sustainability

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I can’t believe how quickly time is flying by these days. It seems like 2015 started just the other day, and now it’s almost August…

Where have I been this whole time? Well, let’s see. After my trip to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage last Fall, I returned to California, feeling almost certain that I was going to pack up and move there in the near future. Yet, as I contemplated my next steps, the word that kept rattling around in my head was: sustainability. It was a concept I’d spent weeks thinking about and talking to people about with at Dancing Rabbit. After all, as an ecovillage, environmental sustainability is a fundamental aspect of the community, and is perhaps what they are best known for. But, what I learned in my weeks there is that there are many other facets to sustainability that are critically important. At the end of the day, any endeavor, environmental or otherwise, is only impactful to the extent to which it can sustain itself. This is true of businesses, non-profits, social movements, and of course, individuals.

Having gone through a couple of cycles of working, then burning out, then going off the (literal or proverbial) grid, then going back to work, it was clear that what I lacked in any of the things I did, was sustainability. Living in the woods was emotionally and environmentally sustainable, but not financially sustainable, and to some degree, also not existentially sustainable (living alone in the woods, I often felt a lack of a sense of purpose). Working in the city was financially sustainable, but not emotionally or existentially sustainable.  So, it seemed clear that what I needed was to build a life that was financially, emotionally, and existentially sustainable, and to find a way to make that environmentally sustainable to the extent that I could.

Once I was able to frame life as this multi-variable sustainability equation, solving it became easier. Though the last several years have been tumultuous in many ways, by throwing myself into a myriad of situations (too many to list here), I was able to learn a lot about what I liked and didn’t like, what worked for me, and what didn’t. I had learned that I need a sense of purpose. I learned that I need to feel like what I’m doing has a positive impact on peoples’ lives in a tangible way. I learned that my work needs to align with my values. I find fulfillment in making things, and want to work with other people. I need a good balance between time to myself and time with people I feel connected to.

Long story short, I feel very fortunate with, and very happy about where I ended up these past several months. In February, I started working for an education startup in San Francisco, where I spend my days helping build a modern primary education system from the ground up. I joined the team after I heard about what they were doing, and thought to myself: “Wow, that’s the school I wish I could’ve gone to.” Coming from someone who hated school, that’s saying something. The one downside is that I don’t get to spend as much time in Serenity Valley, but I’m feeling pretty ok about that. At this point, it feels like a long term project, and I feel fortunate to have such an awesome “hobby” along with a job I love. You can’t ask for much more, really.

But, don’t worry. While the updates may be far and few between, this project is far from over. I still have Hut 3.0 to build, and I still have a dream of someday spending a year homesteading on the property… someday, when I have a family.

(Radically) Re-thinking Water in the West

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There was an article recently in the NYTimes about the drought in California, and how in Tulare County, “more than 500 [households] cannot flush a toilet, fill a drinking glass, wash dishes or clothes, or even rinse their hands without reaching for a bottle or bucket.” With wells going dry, people are left with no running water, and are living dependent entirely on bottled water or water hauled in from elsewhere. The article describes one family as having spent “hundreds of dollars” on laundromats and disposable dishes. On the other hand, a county emergency services official is quoted as saying “We can’t offer anyone a long-term solution right now. There is a massive gap between need and resources to deal with it.”

As the drought in California continues, and may become worse with climate change, a long-term solution is obviously needed. And, it’s not that there aren’t any solutions. I have neither municipal water nor a well on my property, and even in this drought, I have enough water in my tanks to live off of and even irrigate a small garden.

While there are no silver bullets, here are a few “radical” water conservation techniques I use in my life, that you won’t find in the official suggestions:

  • Rain catchment — Even during a drought, there’s precipitation. Porterville (the town mentioned in the article) receives an average of 11 inches of precipitation from October through May. Let’s say that figure is more like 6 inches in a drought, but if it were collected off of a 1000 sqft roof, that’s 500 cubic-feet or 3740 gallons of water. That may not seem like much, but it’s equivalent to 60 – 100 loads of laundry, or over 2000 toilet flushes (for modern 1.6gpf toilets) or 150 ten-minute showers (with efficient 2.5 gpm heads). Water tanks are somewhat expensive, at $0.60 – $1 per gallon, but it’s a relatively small price to pay to guarantee something you literally can not live without.
  • Be a dirty hippie (or just dirty) — I wash my pants about once a month, I wear the same shirt 2-3 times, I shower about once a week, and I’ve never gotten complaints from friends, girlfriends or coworkers, nor have I suffered any ill effects on my health (there’s even some evidence that exposure to some filth is good for you). Granted, because domestic water use is such a small slice of the overall water pie, this won’t solve the West’s water crisis. But, the less water you can live off of comfortably, the more options you’ll have. If you want to spend 100 gallons per day like most Americans do, rain catchment won’t viably cover your needs. But if you’re happy living off of 5 gallons a day, rain catchment can fulfill your needs, even in many of the driest parts of the country.
  • Composting toilets — According to the EPA, an average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water a day, with almost 27% of it getting flushed down the toilet. So water-less composting toilets could reduce water consumption by a quarter, reduce waste that needs to be processed in sewage plants, while producing valuable compost. Composting toilets are probably impractical in dense dwellings, but it should be an option in more sparse areas, such as those chronicled in the article. Part of the reason it’s not a popular option right now is partially due to the (misplaced) “ick” factor, but also because its legal status is unclear. To help make homes more drought-tolerant, building departments and health officials should not only embrace composting toilets, but should be encouraging it.
  • Eat less beef (and meat in general) — About 80% of California’s developed water supply goes to agricultural use, and a sizable percentage of that goes towards forage and hay for livestock (mostly cows). A pound of beef takes 1799 gallons of water to produce, and in 2012 we consumed 54 pounds of beef per person. In case you’re wondering, at 1799 gallons/pound, that would’ve required 97,146 gallons of water. While vegetarians and vegans might try to tell you to cut out meat entirely, that could be a hard pill to swallow for some of us. But what if we replaced half of our beef consumption with chicken, without even reducing overall meat consumption? Since chickens require significantly less water per pound (468 gallons/lb) than beef, just replacing a half of our annual beef consumption with chicken would reduce our water usage by 35,937 gallons per person per year. Replace 90% of our beef consumption, and that figure goes up to 64,686 gallons. In comparison, shortening showers by 5 minutes a day would only save 4500 gallons over the course of a year (assuming you shower every day, and have a 2.5 gpm head).
  • Don’t play golf (in the desert) — Golf courses account for a disproportionate amount of water consumption for the number of people it serves. The Palm Springs area alone has 57 golf courses that each use a million gallons of water a day. If you love to play golf, more power to you, but I kindly request that you move to a place where it rains enough that the grass doesn’t need to be irrigated.

Ultimately, water is a unique environmental issue in that there is no substitute, and there’s no economically viable way to make more of it. In the coming decades, ensuring water security is probably going to require more than just shorter showers.

Thoughts From a Short Visit to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage


As I sat in a toilet stall in Terminal 1 of the Minneapolis St. Paul airport, I thought to myself, “this is nuts”. There I was, depositing my output in a pool of potable water, about to flush it with even more potable water, to be sent to a treatment plant where the sewage would be processed using electricity generated in large part by burning coal. No part of that made any sense.

Twenty-four hours and a few hundred miles prior to that, I sat similarly in a communal stall, except this one was over a bucket. When I was done with my deposit (lovingly called “contributions” by residents), I had simply covered it up with a bit of saw dust. The bucket would be carried down to the compost heap, and a few years later, the resulting compost would be spread in the garden to enrich the local clay-y soil, which in turn would help produce food to be consumed. That made sense.

When I decided to visit Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in rural Missouri, I told some friends that I was visiting a “crazy hippie commune.” I wasn’t entirely serious about the “crazy” label, but even I didn’t quite anticipate how sane the place would feel, and how crazy the “real world” would seem once I came out of the experience.

***


Let me step back. In late July, I spent several days at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage to attend a workshop. Located in north-eastern Missouri, about 3 hours from St. Louis near the town of Rutledge, Dancing Rabbit (DR) is part of a cluster of 3 sustainability-focused intentional communities (the other two communities are Sand Hill and Red Earth farms). Originally founded in the late 90s by a group of young Stanford and Berkeley grads from the Bay Area, the village today is home to some 40 to 70 residents and visitors of all ages, including over a dozen children. They live in accordance with a small number of covenants, most of which are designed to make life more environmentally sustainable, while still allowing for enough flexibility to be accepting of a range of personal preferences in areas such as diet, technology use, spirituality and community involvement.

Perhaps one of the most noticeable physical characteristics of the community is its structures (see pictures). In addition to one large dorm-style two-story straw bale building, most members live in a wide variety of shelters, ranging from tents and converted busses and shacks, to beautiful and modest yet comfortably sized single family homes. What gives the place and its structures a distinct look is probably the combination of one of the covenants (that all structures use natural materials and locally harvested or reclaimed lumber) and the county’s lack of building codes. The covenant banning new lumber has practically forced folks to replace traditional stick-framed construction methods and factory-made materials with beautiful local natural materials, while the lack of building/zoning codes has allowed for experimentation and creativity. Since there are no codes to dictate minimum house sizes or densities, and there’s no requirement for homes to have road frontage, the village is densely inhabited but with enough green spaces and gardens interspersed such that it doesn’t feel crowded. I was also told that warrens (as plots of land are called there) and structures were planned specifically to encourage interaction among residents.

I was impressed with the community’s commitment to environmentally sustainable practices. Although the village is now hooked up to the electricity grid and city water, they are incredibly mindful of those resources. Most folks seem to be living off of harvested rainwater, and I heard the community generates 3-4x more electricity through solar panels and wind turbines than it uses (they got tied to the grid to be able to charge an electric vehicle, essentially using the grid as a buffer, which IMO is probably more environmentally friendly than the alternative: a big bank of lead-acid batteries). Some people use gas for cooking (though I did see quite a few solar ovens and a couple of cob ovens), but they rely on passive heating and locally harvested firewood for warmth in the winter. They also share just 4 cars among the entire village, and supposedly use something like 94% less fuel per person than the average American (on driving). Overall, other than the restrictions around building materials, the sustainability practices seemed quite similar to how I’ve lived on my property.

What impressed me most, though, about DR was the fact that the community functions at all, and has for almost two decades. It’s one thing to get a bunch of idealistic young hippies together in one place. It’s another to go from 6 to 60 people, and have a community in the middle of nowhere where people can live reasonably comfortable lives. Granted, even in my short stay, it was clear that not everything was peachy. The last of the original founders had just left indefinitely a few days before I got there, and I caught glimpses of some large disagreements about the future of the community. Nonetheless, it appeared that they had figured out an economic model and governance model that was functional and self-sustaining, which alone is quite impressive.

Since I mentioned it, I’ll try to briefly describe their economic and governance models. Keeping the cost of living low seems to be a priority, and most residents pay land use fees (I think on the order of tens of dollars a month, depending on home and lot sizes) as well as 2% of their income. Sources of income seemed to vary quite a bit: food stamps, trust funds, working in the village or for the nonprofit, working online, renting cabins, etc. The village and umbrella non-profit organization also makes money from hosting workshops and visitors, but it wasn’t clear how much that accounted for the village’s revenue. Other than that, people pay for their own needs, in some cases by buying into individual co-ops (for food, for transportation, for showers, for power, etc). As far as governance goes, they have an interesting streamlined version of a consensus-based model, where functional areas are broken into separate committees. The committees are responsible for taking proposals through a consensus-based process, but eliminates the need to have everybody in the village in the same room at the same time for all decisions. There’s also a village council and a system called “power levels” that delineates what kind of decisions can be made where (I think) but my understanding is murky on those areas.

***


When I think back at what it was like there, this is what I experience in my mind: Wind turbines whir overhead, the sound intermixed with the laughter of children playing on the dirt paths as a couple of old dogs look on and a pair of ducks waddle by. The people seem relaxed, and happier. They stop to interact with each other. All around, we’re surrounded by the green hues of trees and gardens, the blue of the sky, and the bright yellows and oranges of colorful houses blending into the landscape with more crooked lines than straight ones. It’s pretty damn idyllic.

My first moments of arriving at DR reminded me of the trope often seen in post-apocalyptic narratives: the promised land where people live happily and peacefully, free of whatever ails the world around them. Here, I thought to myself, people live sane and sustainable lives, in community. It combined aspects of what I loved about living on my property, with what I’ve been searching for more recently: a community. It opened my mind and eyes in the way that my first Burning Man did; it made me realize that another kind of life and society was possible. I don’t know if DR, specifically, is my ideal. But it made my ideal a little bit less of an abstract dream, and more of a reality than it ever was.

Yet, when I step back, big questions also loom in my mind. As impressive as it is that this community that started with half a dozen dreamers has grown to a village with dozens of people, is this The Answer? Some folks at DR want to grow the village to a 1000 people, which seems like quite a challenge. And even if the model could be replicated 1000 times over, which, again, sounds like quite a challenge, that’s still only 1 million people out of the over 300 million people in our country. And, let’s not forget the rest of the world. There are around a billion people who live in rapidly developing countries where, over the coming years and decades, they may achieve the kind of affluence that will allow them to live increasingly energy and resource intensive lives. So, in the grand scheme of things, getting a large number of people to slightly change their behaviors might be far more impactful than getting a tiny number of people to live drastically different (albeit sustainable) lifestyles.

This conundrum may, in many ways, be at the root of my inability to choose definitively between a rural life and a life in the city. I am happier in a rural setting, and I want to live a lifestyle that is congruent and consistent with my values. But what draws me to the city, at least partially, is the promise to affect change from the belly of the beast. That is the promise of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area: it’s the place where a great deal of technological, cultural and social changes were/are born and disseminated throughout the country and the world. Even Dancing Rabbit started there, before moving to Missouri. But, then again, Silicon Valley’s focus these days seems to have been redirected more towards getting rich quickly, rather than changing the world for the better. And I haven’t figured out how I can orient my skills and experiences to push for a more sustainable world in an impactful way. Perhaps nobody has.

I’m returning to Dancing Rabbit in October for their 3 week visitor program. My intention is to learn more about the inner workings of DR, and to also more fully experience life in an ecovillage. But, in the back (or front) of my mind will be this question about where and how I want to live, and how I want to orient myself to engage the world. I don’t expect to have answers. But I hope to have another piece or two to fit into the puzzle of my life.

I’ll be living in this cozy little “Summer Cabin” when I return in October!

Home Again

Shortly after Project 31 ended on the 19th, I headed to the city. Having spent a month alone in the woods, I thought I’d have a good time. I thought I’d appreciate the creature comforts, the infinite electricity supply, the alawys-on (and unlimited) internet connection, the magically appearing clean water, heat at the flick of a switch, places where people cook and serve you food, close proximity to friends…

The first night in the city, I couldn’t sleep. I’d forgotten how loud the city is at night. The constant traffic, the early morning garbage trucks, the beeping car alarms, distant sirens, fog horns, people yelling, dogs barking. It also doesn’t get dark in the city. Streetlight streamed in through the window, casting an unnatural orange glow, penetrating my eyelids. And even the heating was overbearing. On the numerous occasions that my shallow slumber was interrupted, I’d wake up drenched in sweat, feeling clammy and icky.

After a few days, I got homesick. So I came home.

To my own house. My own bed. To silence, darkness, and minimal heating. I switched off my MiFi and left it in the car. I turned off my inverter — my battery array hasn’t fully recovered anyway. And I lit some candles, and settled in with a hot mug of tea and a book.

When I started Project 31, I secretly hoped that I’d be miserable. If I were miserable, I’d know that I should head back to the city. I could give up this crazy life, give myself credit for having tried, and return to a normal life. Have a normal job, live in a normal place, and fill my days doing normal things. I’d be convinced that normal is good. I could be happy with normal, if I could only be convinced that it’s good.

But, it’s not. At least, not for me. So, here I am again. Back on Serenity Valley.

March 11, the day of the earthquake in Japan, was the 2nd anniversary of this blog and also of my quitting Google. At the time, I thought my adventures would last a year, maybe 18 months tops. I didn’t yet know that I’d buy land, but even after I bought land, I’d only initially planned on staying here for a month or two.

Here we are now, two years later. What was once a bare patch of dirt, rocks, shrubs and trees is now my home. And I’m starting to realize that I may never go back to my previous life.

Sometimes I wish I could go back. Living a normal life is so much easier. The story’s practically written for you. You do what you’re told, and everything hums along. If you get confused, there are people who can help you. The people around you are living more or less parallel lives, facing more or less the same problems. The problems you face have solutions, and often well documented ones at that. There are concrete goals, and objective metrics to tell you how you’re doing.

But when you step off the reservation, you’re on your own. There’s no script to follow. Nobody to tell you where to go, what to do, or even what to strive for. All there is, is a vastness stretching out to the horizon. Somewhere out there, beyond the hazy horizon, your future awaits. It waits for no one, but you. You don’t know where it is, nor what’s there. But you approach it, one step at a time. One step. At a time.

People asked what’s next. Here’s the list of possibilities I’ve come up with so far:

  • Volunteer in Japan (mostly, I’m hoping that All Hands will start a project)
  • Start a Garden 2.0
  • Start a beehive
  • Raise chickens
  • Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Alaska (or Mongolia…)
  • Volunteer at a WWOOF farm
  • Volunteer with the local fire station
  • Volunteer with the Forest Service somewhere nearby
  • Get a job
  • Go back to school

I have a couple of other smaller projects in mind too, but those are the major ones I’ve come up with so far. I’ll probably end up doing some combination of the above, though some of them fit better together than others. I’m also planning on finishing the book in the next couple of months as well.

Anyway, welcome to Year 3. Let’s see and find out what this year has in store for us.

Be Prepared

I’ve been obsessively following the latest news from the devastating earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan a few days ago, listening to internet streams of NHK radio, the public broadcasting service there, which has been covering the aftermath non-stop. My family in Tokyo were shaken but otherwise perfectly ok, though early reports of wounded literally blocks from my parents’ condo did have me somewhat concerned.

The M9.0 earthquake, possibly the 5th largest earthquake in recorded history, wreaked havoc across a wide swath of Japan’s north-eastern coast when it triggered massive tsunamis, some reportedly over 30ft high and reaching the 4th floor of buildings. This veritable wall of water traveled at speeds exceeding 20ft/second, and reached 10km (6 miles) in-land in places, sweeping away with it houses, cars, trains and people and pretty much anything not made of reinforced concrete. In addition to the sheer size of the waves, they also struck a mere 10 minutes after the initial quake (which itself lasted 5 minutes), leaving people with little time to evacuate in those affected areas. There are beaches where hundreds of bodies have washed up, and cities where over half the residents are unaccounted for. One prefecture alone is expecting a death toll in excess of 10,000.

However, help is on the way. One of the largest relief efforts, possibly in the history of the developed world, is converging on north-eastern Japan. Half a dozen countries, including New Zealand, Britain, Germany, France, Singapore, and China have rescue workers and medical teams en route. In addition to the 50,000 Japanese Self Defense Forces troops activated previously, another 50,000 were called up today for a total of 100,000 soldiers. Off the coast, an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, and a couple of destroyers of the US Navy have arrived to assist in rescue and relief operations, and I’ve read reports that the Marines may use amphibious landing vessels to deliver aid.

I think this particular disaster is worth following for those of us in the developed world, because there are already lessons we could learn. Japan is a wealthy and technologically advanced nation, and one which has spent considerable time, effort and resources in preparing for earthquakes. For instance, the high-rise condo my parents live in in Tokyo has elevators equipped with P-wave sensors that stop elevators at the nearest floor before the main quakes strike (P-waves travel at the speed of sound, and therefore move ahead of the actual earth-moving waves). Japan’s high speed rail service which travels at speeds exceeding 180mph are also similarly equipped, and suffered no casualties in this quake. Emergency broadcasts on TV can also warn viewers of incoming earthquakes, often before they actually can be felt. These are just a few examples of technologies available in Japan that I haven’t even seen in California — an equally quake-prone region.

Yet, as we watched the devastation spreading, it also became clear that there are limits to what technology can do. There are also limits to what the government can do. No doubt, this earthquake and the resulting tsunami was a hellish scenario that would’ve been difficult to prepare for or defend against. For many, escape simply was not an option. Sometimes, Nature wins.

But, as the country enters its 3rd night, a new kind of tragedy is unfolding. At one point, the radio announcer interviewed someone at an evacuation center, who painted a desperate picture: people huddled on rooftops with few blankets, no drinking water, no food, dwindling supply of medicine for the sick. The man ended with a desperate plea for supplies. From other reports, it seemed that many other isolated evacuation centers faced similar conditions. The suffering I heard about from survivors is a different kind of tragedy to the original disaster; one that might’ve been prevented, or at least eased significantly, with a little preparation.

If there’s one obvious lesson we could learn, it’s that the best preparation happens locally, starting with the individual on out. Every household should have a stockpile of food and water to last at least a week. In the event that evacuation is necessary, there should be a go-bag, equipped with essentials like food and water, emergency blankets, flashlights, a radio, spare batteries and cash. I’m hearing that flashlights are selling out in Tokyo, and if people don’t have flashlights, it seems even less likely that they have go-bags. Failing that (or to augment that), designated evacuation centers should be stocked with enough food, water, emergency blankets and other basic supplies to last at least a few days. While communication networks appear largely operational even in the worst hit areas, without power, people are unable to use their cell phones once their batteries run out (pay phones have become free, though long queues have been reported). This is a problem that could easily be solved by a few hundred dollars worth of solar panels mounted at each evacuation center, which could provide more than enough power to keep dozens of phones charged (or, at the individual level, a cheap $30 kit).

We’ve seen disaster victims suffer unnecessarily in a developed nation before, with Katrina. Even though the Superdome was designated as an evacuation center, it wasn’t stocked with necessary supplies. Prevailing emergency plans seem to be:

Step 1 – Get people to evacuation centers.
Step 2 – Wing it.

While I would not fault the Japanese government’s response by any means (which, if anything has been extraordinary, especially compared to FEMA during Katrina), the reality seems to be that Step 2 is challenging, even with the best of intentions. The reality is, getting supplies to masses after a catastrophic and unpredictable disaster is so much harder than prepositioning those same supplies when roads, airfields, and ports are accessible.

Better preparation can also save money, in addition to easing suffering of those affected. It costs a lot of money to activate troops and deploy helicopters. Supplies may simply cost more after disasters, since, after all, Econ 101 taught us that prices go up when demand goes up. It also may be harder to negotiate reasonable prices when desperate people are waiting.

Basic preparation such as those I outlined could also save lives. All day today, the radio reported of evacuees being air lifted from evacuation centers that lacked supplies to actually act as short-term emergency shelters. If those evacuation centers had been better stocked, those helicopters might’ve been better employed rescuing those who could really use help, like the 67 year old lady who clung to a tree for 15 hours after being swept away by a tsunami.

It is a pity that human nature seems to be deprived of foresight, and that it takes such tragedy to be reminded of our frailty. Even then, little may be done as a society, or even as a community. It is unlikely that we’ll be able to get politicians to increase funding for disaster preparedness, or that you could get stockpiles set up at the local shelter. But as individuals, we can learn and act. Tomorrow, it may be you and I, and what we do today could make all the difference. Be prepared.

LED Light Bulbs, the numbers

I recently picked up a couple of LED light bulbs that are starting to become more popular in Japan. After comparing a few different options from various major manufacturers, I settled on the “40 Watt” (450 lumen) bulbs made by Panasonic. The main draws for me were the relatively high efficiency (more lumens per watt) compared to other LED bulbs, and the fact that they emit a warmer orange color rather than the harsh bluish light typical in CFLs. Another draw was the fact that these bulbs are rated to last 40000 hours, or about 5x as long as CFL bulbs, which could reduce waste.

On the other hand, at around $30 a pop (2380JPY, to be exact), they’re pretty expensive as far as light bulbs go. Are they worth it? I decided to run some numbers, comparing the LED bulb I got to a traditional incandescent 40w light bulb, as well as “40W”, “60W” and “100W” CFL bulbs. The results are in this spreadsheet below (see the original document on Google Docs).

Notes:

  • klmh – “klmh” stands for “kilo lumen hours”, and can be thought of as the total amount of light emitted, if it were possible to gather light over time and put it in a box. One klmh equals the amount of light emitted by a 1000 lumen lamp over 1 hour, or a 1 lumen lamp over 1000 hours. Technically, a lux is a better unit with which to measure total light emission, but that information wasn’t available (while lumens were) so I used Kilo-Lumen-Hours to compare bulbs of different brightnesses.
  • Power costs – I used $0.15 per kWh. Actual energy costs vary from around $0.10 to $0.20 in the US. See prices for September 2010. Calculating the cost of energy for off-grid systems is much, much harder, and would vary widely from system to system, so that is left as an exercise for another day.
  • Annual usage – To calculate “costs over 5 years”, I assumed an average 5 hours of usage per day, or 9125 total hours of usage.
  • Total costs – The “total cost” calculations combine the amortized cost of the bulb with estimated energy costs (again, at $0.15/kWh).

I tried to compare the bulbs from a wide range of perspectives, and ended up with all sorts of numbers. I’ve highlighted the ones that I think are relatively informative, but, as you can see, some bulbs do better in some comparisons, and do worse in others. In other words, there’s no clear all-around winner.

Efficiency – In terms of efficiency, the “40W” LED bulb (65.22lm/W) was bested only by the “100W” CFL bulb (67.33lm/W). In reality, the LED might perform a little worse, because LED lamps have more directed lighting patterns, so despite what the lumen rating is, the actual total amount emitted may be less than CFL bulbs. As a side note, it was also interesting to see that the efficiency of CFL bulbs improved with increase in wattage. I think this is because fluorescent lights become more efficient the longer they are, and higher wattage CFLs simply have longer tubes.

Cost – If all you care about is having a light bulb –any light bulb regardless of brightness– in a socket, LED is by far the cheapest option. Even though the upfront cost of the bulb is considerably higher than the alternatives, the additional expense is offset by the bulb’s long lifespan and low energy usage.

On the other hand, LED bulbs are relatively dim compared to the brightest CFLs, and if you must have lots of light, CFLs are cheaper for the amount of light you get. This last point is important. Even though a 26W CFL bulb has 1/10 the cost of a 6.9W LED for the same amount of light, the simple fact that it uses more than 3.5 times as much electricity can not be overcome. Having a 26W (“100W”) CFL in that socket will cost you more than twice as much as using a 6.9W (“40W”) LED bulb. But if you must have that much light, it is cheaper to use one “100W” CFL bulb than to use multiple “40W” LED bulbs.

More is more, less is less
Retailers often try to get consumers to buy more stuff by offering lower per-unit costs when purchased in bulk. While buying in bulk may lead to real savings, such deals can also be a pitfall that leads to excessive consumption and spending. The question to ask is, “Do I have to alter my behavior, in order to take advantage of this deal?” If the answer is “yes”, it is best to stay away from bulk purchases. For example, let’s say a grocery store has a deal on ice cream, such that if you buy 2, you get 1 free. The question is “Would I eat more ice cream if I bought 3?” If the answer is “yes” (and let’s be honest now), just buy one, because one is still cheaper than two, in absolute terms. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with something like toilet paper where abundance probably won’t lead to higher consumption, buying in bulk might actually save you money.

The same applies for lighting. If you can get away with less lighting, it will save power and money. Don’t let the illusion of better “value” trick you into consuming more unless that is really what you want, because you will pay more for it. Using one “100W” CFL bulb for 5 hours a day over 5 years will cost an estimated $38.18, while a “40W” LED bulb used for the same duration will only cost $16.29, even when factoring in the cost of the bulbs. Yes, you get less lighting, but you get less for less, while more costs more.

Lighting accounts for 12% of domestic electricity consumption in the US, and I would argue that that makes it a ripe target for reduction. While current trends are towards improving efficiency, Jevon’s paradox warns us that efficiency may in fact increase consumption. If that is true, it seems to me that the true path to reduction is, well, to reduce. That is, rather than merely swapping 60W incandescent bulbs with “60W” CFL bulbs, consider using “40W” bulbs. Instead of having area lighting consisting of 5 or 6 bulbs, consider having 5 or 6 individual lamps located strategically, so that only localized areas that actually need lighting are lit at any given time. Or, for that matter, turn those lights off entirely, and go to bed early. Artificial lighting can interrupt our natural circadian rhythm, leading to sleeping disorders and other maladies. So going to bed early and getting some extra sleep can save your health and the planet. Now that’s what I call a good deal.

The Cost of Convenience

21.42. That’s how many pounds of propane I’ve burned in the last year or so. I know because I’ve kept every single one of the 1.02lb propane canisters I’ve used. I’ve thought about switching to the bigger 20lb tanks, to save money and reduce waste, but the one thing I like about the little canisters is that it helps me internalize how much gas I’m burning.

Internalizing quantities is something we have a hard time with, yet, if we are to have any hopes of reducing emissions, it’s something we’re going to have to get better at. Unfortunately, in modern society, most of our energy consumption is abstracted away from us. When you pump gas into a car, all you see is a number on the screen, and you probably don’t even know how big, physically, your gas tank is. At home, the power and gas meters are conveniently hidden away. So, understandably, it’s difficult for us to even realize how much energy we’re using even in an abstract sense, much less in any tangible way.

I remember one time while I was pumping gas, I tried to visualize the quantity of that volatile liquid I was going to burn, by picturing all the gas being in 1 gallon milk jugs. Then, I pictured 12 of those jugs and imagined lighting it all on fire. In my mind’s eye I saw a giant ball of flame, and thought for a second that blowing up 12 gallons of gasoline might actually be more fun than using it to drive about 300 miles.

A rechargeable AA battery, at 1.2V, might contain about 1.5 Amp-hours, or a theoretical 3.3 Watt-hours of power. In practice, the voltage would drop too low to be usable after a while, so let’s say, generously, that you’d get 2 Watt-hours. An “efficient” CFL bulb might use 13 Watts, so if you left it on, you’d be using enough energy to drain more than 6 rechargeable AA batteries every hour. Fortunately, if you live in the city, all that power gets delivered to you with the flick of a switch. But next time you do, pretend you’re draining an AA battery every 10 minutes, and it might help you remember to turn lights off when you don’t need them.

In any case, I’m trying to reduce propane usage on my property. Right now, I use propane for my cooking stove (at a rate of about 1lb per week), and my lamp, which also doubles as a heater (which burns about 2lb a week). So far, I’ve had two separate offers from readers to buy me a propane shower, but I’ve resisted. Once Hut 2.1 is done, I’d like to switch to electrical lighting (charged by solar, and perhaps also wind), burn wood for heating and some cooking, and only use propane for the kind of cooking that can’t be done on my wood stove.

Some people argue that wood stoves aren’t so “green.” Burning wood can be rather dirty, especially in old stoves that are inefficient and don’t have catalytic converters. This is true. But, I don’t think it’s realistic to treat all wood burning equally. First of all, when you burn fossil fuels (which include “natural” gas and propane, as well as coal), you’re burning carbon that was taken out of the atmosphere millions of years ago, and then re-releasing it into the atmosphere now, when, if left in the ground, it may not have been re-released anytime soon. When you burn wood, you’re releasing carbon that was absorbed in the last hundred years or so. And –here’s the important part– around here, if I don’t burn the dry tinder, it would eventually be burning anyway in the not-too-distant future. This isn’t true everywhere. As far as I know, forest fires aren’t part of the natural ecosystem in rain forests, and so felling and burning those trees artificially adds emissions. But, around here, it is almost a guarantee that, if left to nature, any patch of forest would burn once every hundred years or so. So, when I pick up some dead dried branches from the woods around me and burn it, I am releasing the carbon trapped in it the way it would’ve anyway. Granted, some of it may have eventually rotted away, or otherwise have gotten broken down biologically (via termites, and other organisms), so I may be boosting emissions slightly, but not by much. On the other hand, if I can clear the forest and minimize the risk of uncontrolled natural forest fires, I may help reduce emissions that way, thus balancing my footprint (though, perhaps not, because the way to clear forests is to –surprise surprise!– do controlled burns).

Of course, CO2 is CO2, regardless of whether it comes from burning wood or burning propane. So, arguably, the two may be considered to be comparable. The difference, though, is that propane is so much more convenient, and so much denser in energy, that it’s much easier to burn in excess when compared to wood, which, by virtue of being less energy dense than propane, takes more effort to move, even if you don’t do the chopping and splitting yourself. A 20lb canister of propane contains roughly the same amount of energy as 60 to 80lb of seasoned firewood. But which would you rather move? Which would you be more willing to go buy more of? When less is more (or better), taking the less convenient route can allow us to be more conscious of our consumption habits, and in turn, moderate such behaviors. If I rely on wood for heat, I’ll need to exert more effort into gathering fuel than if I burned propane. So, I’ll naturally want to burn less of it, and therefore reduce my overall emissions.

Moral to the story? Convenience has a cost, usually in financial terms, but also in environmental terms and even health. Cooking your own meals might be less convenient than eating out, but may be cheaper and healthier. Walking or biking to work may be less convenient than driving, but will be cheaper, healthier, and more environmentally healthy. In typical modern lifestyles, it’s not difficult to find ways to do good, by enduring –nay, by enjoying— just a little bit of inconvenience. So, next time you have a chance to chose inconvenience over convenience, give inconvenience a shot. Your wallet, your body, and your environment will thank you for it.