The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Clean dirtiness

As our world warms up, and the debate about how to address it gets even hotter, our power companies have come up with diverting strategies to exploit the impression of a clean, green New Zealand to benefit their own public images. Pukeko and pohutukawa are recruited in 30 second sells which shy away from showing us smoking stacks or coal mines.

Greenpeace have come up with a humdinger of a spoof of Genesis' most recent advert, pointing out the hypocrisy of these commercials. Many of these companies use methods that are unsustainable - the way they generate power is a threat to the very clean streams, unscarred countryside and luscious native bush they film to sell their electrons to us. The Clean Energy Guide lays bare the true dirty nature of much of our electricity generation, and points out the simple changes we can make to start the clean up while still putting juice in our laptops and lightbulbs when we need it.

A while back Make Tea Not War decided to make the switch to Meridian, which is NZ's only carbon neutral power supplier. I was a bit reticient about hopping companies myself, as I've had a few nightmares with utilities in the past. Right at the moment I (pathetically) need to know that there will definitely be a hot water bottle to hug at the end of the day. But Tea reports good things from her change, so I'm going to take the plunge this month too.

Yep, I'll only be making a small difference, but it will be an improvement nonetheless.


weka said...

This is tricky. Down here in the south Meridian aren't the bastions of good energy production (I'm not saying this is your implication Span ;-)), they're the ones that spent shitloads of money trying to build another dam on the Waitaki against huge opposition. When they finally had to give up on that idea they continue to push for other hydro developments of the Waitaki.

They're also now using the same approach with windfarms i.e. wanting to build massive power projects that f*ck the environment and run roughshod over local communities.

So what are we to do?

here's my list:

1. understand that first and foremost we need to USE LESS ELECTRICITY*.

2. recognise that we need to take back energy production from large, centralised companies whose main agenda is shareholder profit. Those companies will never be able to put care of the land and people at the top of their priorities.

3. recognise that energy production needs to be smaller scale, and local. That local communities get to decide how and where energy generation happens.

*that is both personally (in our own lives) and societally (excess-profit driven (aka greedy) industries like large scale dairy farming in very dry places like Canterbury have to be challenged)

Our current economy needs us to use more and more electricity (and other sources of power). NZ needs to realise there is a choice to make - we can't have our current lifestyles AND have a beautiful land to live in.

Span, I'm not saying don't change to Meridian (I'm not sure what I would do if I was thinking of changing). Just that let's be aware that hydro and wind generation by companies like Meridian are fraught with problems too, and in many ways are not that sustainable in the long term.

zANavAShi said...

Good list Weka. I lived on solar power for 9 years and even though it's been ten years back in suburbia I still am in the habit of having a very vigilant awareness of how much energy I am consuming in my home.

One day I hope to go back to that life-style, but with a much larger capital outlay where I can afford to invest in some serious kind of hybrid energy solution, rather than just a few solar panels on the roof.

I am so passionate about local energy production that I considered for a while becoming an alternative energy and building consultant (very big fan of the building biology institute and Reinhard Kanuka Fuchs work in this area). I built my system myself so I am full of bright ideas about how I would do it better next time.

One of those bright ideas (relating to your 3rd item) is that ordinary homes can start making small transitions towards generating their own energy.

The most obvious first step for most would be installing solar water heating units on their roof. Water heating contributes to a huge chunk of our monthly power bills and it's not too expensive to install a caliphant as backup during the gloomy winter months (although still relies on fossil fuels).

Another transitional step I am hugely in favour of is to convert the bedroom wing of your house to 12volt DC powered by 3 or 4 solar panels on the roof. From an unhealthy building syndrome point of view the health benefits of this would be enormous, because the areas of your home where you spend so many hours a day sleeping would be free of that low-grade EMF hum from the AC power lines.

I am sure there are other small transitions we can make gradually over time, balancing the reduction of our use with the introduction of more sustainable generation sources and this also is more affordable from the POV that sustainable energy products are becoming cheaper as the demand for them grow (the solar panels I purchased way back in the day cost less than half the price today)

So I would like to see more conversation on the idea of small transitional changes - maybe add that to the list as number 4 yeh? Cheers for your ideas :)

weka said...

Good one, zANavAShi. I've not heard that bedroom 12V retrofit idea before, that's really good. I've added a couple more ideas too.

The list:

1. understand that first and foremost we need to USE LESS ELECTRICITY (personally, societally).

2. recognise that we need to take back energy production from large, centralised companies whose main agenda is shareholder profit. Those companies will never be able to put care of the land and people at the top of their priorities.

3. recognise that energy production needs to be smaller scale, and local. That local communities get to decide how and where energy generation happens.

4. adopt/encourage small transitional changes to existing houses that decrease mains electricity use eg solar hot water, solar DC for bedrooms etc.

5. legislate that all new buildings are designed with maxiumum passive solar (exemptions could be applied for under the RMA?).

6. legislate that all new buildings have solar hot water.

If they can introduce a whole bunch of stupid building regulations around leaky buildings because some architects don't know how to design houses with eaves any more, then we could legislate for making buildings majorly more energy efficient.

I think the Greens' idea of subsidised solar hot water was also about kickstarting a more mainstream solar tech industry. What's happened with that?

Span said...

Great comments, thanks for kick-starting this discussion.

You are quite right about Meridian, they are merely the best of a bad lot in many ways. I think some of the worst offenders, ad-wise, are theirs.

I like your list weka, just one thing about No. 1.

I think in fact we should word this:

1. understand that first and foremost we NEED LESS ELECTRICITY (personally, societally).

It used to say "we need to use less". I actually think we need to understand that we simply don't need as much electricity as we think we do. We don't need all the whizz bang appliances, we don't need copious internal lights in our houses a lot of the time, we don't actually need to have things sitting on stand-by so much. Even before we look at energy efficiency in appliances and the like, there are a whole lot of things we could just switch off a lot of the time. The savings probably wouldn't be as big as many other things we could do, but it would be the beginning of a mindset shift - just because we can flick the switch and the electricity comes running through the wires doesn't mean we should flick it.

It's a really really small thing, but when the lightbulb in the pantry blew I just didn't replace it - 99% of the time when I opened the pantry and the light went on automatically I didn't need that bulb because it was daylight or the kitchen light was already on.

I think the Greens solar panel plan is supposed to roll out later this year. Although we are running out of year quite rapidly, I can't believe it's May already!

weka said...

understand that first and foremost we NEED LESS ELECTRICITY (personally, societally).

That's really good Span! I so agree about the mindset change.

There's just been an item on TV3 about new homes costing up to $5,000 more because of govt requirements for energy efficiency - solar panels, double glazing, insulation.

Not sure why NZ is so bad a passive solar - maybe architects just aren't taught about it.

Plus Helen Clark says she doesn't use her heated towel rail any more :-))

zANavAShi said...

Thanks Weka, I was so inspired by the tangent your comments set me off on that I just blogged about it over at The Watermelon.

I'm sick to death of the Section 59 debate, time to move onto my favourite techno-geeky topics, of which sustainable energy is right at the top of the list.


Rich said...

One thing is that I don't believe that well intentioned individual acts really make that much difference. Most people will still keep leaving lights on, etc.

Something people forget is that both Meridian and Genesis are SOEs - e.g the "shareholders" are us. So although the management may like to think they can choose their companies direction, they are actually under government control - IF the government would exercise it. For instance, it could tell Genesis to ramp production down by 5% a year until it disappeared.

Psycho Milt said...

I think the argument's lost the moment we offer anti-materialism arguments like "We need to use less electricity" or "We don't need so much electricity." Assigning a negative moral value to materialism sets off my "Never trust a hippie" alert, and probably does the same for a lot of people.

We certainly don't "need" to use electricity - after all, our pre-agricultural ancestors got by on hunting, gathering, and having a life expectancy of 30 years. Anything at all beyond that can be argued to be reckless consumerism, so let's not try and tell people how far beyond hunting and gathering they're allowed to go before they've become a bad person who's wrecking the planet.

If people want to frame "use less electricity" in terms of "produce and use it more efficiently," then fine. But assigning some moral good to simply using less of it isn't going to persuade very many people.

zANavAShi said...

LOL psycho milt, I consider myself a hippy but I didn't take any personal offence to that comment.

I very much agree with your opinions about assigning "moral good" to things being a very ineffective way to get people on board.

My favourite activist is Kevin Danaher, who has some very excellent stuff to say in criticism of the self-righteousness of many green activists and how much harm they do to their own cause.

I encourage you to check out some of his essays and interviews. He's irreverently pragmatic about ways to motivate global change and I think you would enjoy his style of delivery.

Span said...

Rich, totally with you on the issue of Govt control of SOEs, and how they tend not to use it as they could. Very frustrating, eg Air NZ.

However I disagree that individual acts can't make a difference - they can if lots of individuals are doing them, and really I don't think it solves anything to say "I'm not going to save power unless everyone else does." That's not how change starts, it always starts with a few people doing it first.

Span said...

As for the morality angle Milt, I don't really see it as a moral thing. Actually now that you mention the concept maybe I am starting to head in that direction - but I see it more as an extension of the ethic that waste is, well, a waste. Which for me anyway probably comes more from my reasonably frugal background (not poor, just not big spenders) than any kind of environmental morality.

That said, the environmental proselytising is one of the main reasons I haven't joined the Greens. They aren't all like that, but everytime I start to think seriously about hopping parties I run into a Green member who is religious about the planet and I remember why I didn't join last time I was thinking about it.

Span said...

A question for Zana and weka, who seem very well informed! What is "passive solar"? Is that solar panel stuff? Thanks in advance!

zANavAShi said...

LOL! Well informed? Moi? If you read my blog about baby steps to home energy sustainability (inspired by this post) you will see that I am way out of the loop on the latest advances in green energy hehehe,

...but I think I can answer your question about "passive solar" well enough.

As I understand it (and somebody please correct me if I am wrong) it is a term used in relation to building design where you can layout your home to harness the maximum possible solar energy and store it within the home using techniques such as energy sinks - which could be something as simple as a dense tile floor on a bed of sand in a sunny north facing room.

The idea is that you create areas in your design that store the heat during the day and slowly radiate it back into your living environment during the night - remember those old fashioned constore heaters which were huge monstrosities full of fire bricks and you turned them on for just a few hours in the evening and then left the heat from the bricks to gently warm the house overnight?

Well it's the same principle and a clever architect who knows how to design a home efficiently for passive solar collection and insulates well (double-glazing is a must) can pretty much assure that during the winter months you would barely even need to resort to extra heating. NZ homes are known for their notoriously poor insulation.

One of my gurus of building design is Reinhard Kanuka Fuchs - an expat german architect who came here and founded the Building Biology Institute. There's quite a few sites in the Watermelon links archive which employ passive solar heating concepts if you want to explore it some more:,com_bookmarks/Itemid,48/mode,0/catid,42/navstart,0/search,*/

Cheers m'dears,