Search This Blog


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Exploring Ecovillages

EcoVillage Ithaca
Source: Flickr
Image: em_diesus

It's a common myth that all the intentional communities died out in the 60's and 70's. Today, several thousand intentional communities known as ecovillages, exist throughout the world. Ecovillages range in size from fewer than a hundred multi-generational members up to several thousand like-minded people striving to become more socially, ecologically and economically sustainable. Ithaca, NY is home to one of the most famous ecovillages simply known as EcoVillage Ithaca. 60 different families enjoy two organic farms, neighborhoods named after their surroundings such as: Frog, Song and Tree, green building, natural health, local music, arts and education. Members of such communities tend to oppose factory farming, urban sprawl and blatant consumerism. They also tend to share socio-economic, ecological, and spiritual values. Part of the purpose of an ecovillage is to create a strong sense of community. Ecovillagers want to know their neighbors. In fact, most of them enjoy a community meal together at least once a week, breaking bread with their neighbors and their children. Many claim it's a richer, more fulfilling life.

Source: Flickr
Image: Bosque Village

What is life like for children in an ecovillage? Well, the old proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," comes to mind, because these kids enjoy the many benefits of an extended family to befriend and mentor them. They spend many hours playing in nature as kids should and most seem to do less and less these days. Their parents dedicate much of their time and energy to helping build and sustain the community, so a large extended family is more than a perk or luxury. It's a necessity. The kids also seem to thrive living surrounded by friends, fields, streams and woodland creatures. As one member of Earthaven Ecovillage put it, "The children are an integral part of our community meals, plays and entertainments, celebrations, workdays and other community events."

Source: Flickr
Image: Eli Duke

But aren't they all really cults? Not so. The Fellowship for Intentional Communities states, "Most communities are not abusive toward members. The ones which are, especially those prone to violence, can attract media attention which falsely implies that intentional communities are abusive in general. It's our experience that the overwhelming majority of communities go quietly about their business, and are considered good places to live by their members and good neighbors by people who live around them." Furthermore, most are democratic communities in which the majority of decisions are made by all members voting. For an excellent compilation of dispelled myths regarding intentional communities visit:

Source: Flickr
Image: Eli Duke

How are they really doing when it comes to cutting ye olde carbon footprint? Dancing Rabit Ecovillage's site features a beautiful and breakdown comparison with the average American. When all is said and done, the average Rabbit creates a carbon footprint of 8.3 to 9.4 metric tons of CO2eq each year, which is an impressive 53% less than the average American. They feel they have a long way to go, especially in the areas of food, travel, and goods and services, which is admirable. They are still well on their way to reaching their goal of a long term sustainable footprint:

Source: Flickr
Image: Butterbits

The Ecovillage lifestyle may not be for everyone, but there's no denying it encourages cooperation, consideration of others and working toward the common good. It's not uncommon to hear people lament how they used to know all the families living on their street when they were kids. As a nation, we are losing our sense of community via technology, which was meant to bring us all closer together. Gathering together for some good, old-fashioned, face to face communication and laughter revives our spirit like nothing else. Just imagine reviving your spirit in this fashion throughout your day, day in and day out. Ecovillagers are onto something.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Taking the Mystery out of Composting

Source: Flickr
Image: Bruce McAdam

Organic farms have been composting for years, but these days so do many families in an effort to reduce their carbon footprints. No doubt many more would adopt the practice if they knew just how simple it really is. Soil building sounds like an awful lot of work, but in truth, a compost pile takes care of itself.

Compost is merely a combination of brown and green organic matter. Brown matter is a nice mixture of things like sawdust, straw, shredded newspaper, dry leaves and wood chips. The green portion is made up of kitchen waste, like fruits, vegetables, tea bags, pulp left over from juicing, coffee grounds and egg shells combined with grass or lawn clippings. 

Source: Flickr
Image: Steven Depolo

You can begin with a little composting pot in your kitchen. To avoid odors and fruit flies, keep your scraps covered with dry materials, such as shredded newspaper or ideally, sawdust. 

Source: Flickr
Image: The Greenery Nursery and Garden Shop

These are some prettier composting pots that will do the trick without calling too much attention to what's inside.

Source: Google Images

This one is nice with its simplicity and clarity regarding what should go inside until it becomes second nature for everyone in the household.

Source: Flickr
Image: Mike Lieberman

If you wish to take the indoor process a bit further, you can create an indoor composting bin easily enough on a small rubber mat by drilling holes in the bottom of a 10-gallon garbage can (for aeration), placing it on some blocks or old furniture legs, and layering kitchen waste, shredded newspapers, potting mix and composted manure. For more on this great idea, visit Mike Lieberman's Urban Organic Farmer site at:

Source: Flickr
Image: Tobin

There are basically two types of composting bins, stationary and rotating. Pictured above is the clever and resourceful use of pallets in constructing stationary bins. Both stationary and rotating bins must have their contents routinely turned to allow proper oxygenation and combining of elements. You want both to retain heat and moisture. This will happen more quickly in sunshine, but you can also achieve the same results in the shade. It just takes a little longer. For those of you who are in more of a hurry to use your compost, a rotating bin is your best bet.

Source: Flickr
Image: Doug Beckers

If building a compost bin is outside your real of talents, or maybe you only need a small bin, this is a great little commercially sold rotating bin by Tumbleweed. But if you're feeling ambitious...

Source: Flickr
Image: Beth Wagar

No need to over think it, is there? This simple design is quite effective and cost efficient enough there's no reason not to have several working in various stages of decomposition.

Source: Flickr
Image: Jay@MorphoLA

There are more clever designs out there than you can imagine. This one features wire mesh and removable slats for combining compost at various stages of decomposition.

Source: Flickr
Image: Jamie Mcaffrey

Some neighbors may find your composting more attractive than others, but it's nothing a cinder block and bungee cords can't solve. Loop the bungee cords through the block once you've place it on the lid and either hook them to the handles or the bottom of the bin. Avoid composting meat, bones, dairy, fats and animal waste. Not all pests are unwelcome, of course. Centipedes, spiders, earthworms, beetles and slugs are a vital part of the composting process.

Source: Flickr
Image: Sunny by John Markos O'Neill

See? It isn't such a grueling endeavor. In fact, it looks a bit fun, but there are some things you'll want to remember:

1.  Always place a layer of brown, such as leaves or paper, in the bottom of your bin for ideal drainage

2.  Cover fresh scraps with browns. They absorb odors and assist micro-organisms.

3.  Don't let your pile get too dry. Aerate it regularly with a pitchfork.

4.  Don't let finished compost sit too long. Harvest it before pests decide it would make a good nest.

5.  A well-drained area is best for placement with at least partial sunshine.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Inside Masdar
Source: Flickrr
Image: Nrman Foster/Masdar City rendering

The 1.4 billion phase one plan begun in 2006 is now complete. Masdar Institute is said to be the heart of the city, as everything else was secondary. There are also six main buildings, an electronic library, 101 small apartments and one street. Green Big Brother monitors energy consumption throughout the city, keeping track of every human and mechanical action requiring electricity.
Source: Flickrr
Image: Chrissy Samuels

167 students and 43 academics, most of whome are from other countries, now call Masdar City home. Creature comforts on campus include: an organic food shop, a bank, a sushi bar, and a canteen. Subterranean travel is provided via driverless vehicles along the 800 meters spanning from the entrance of the city to the offshoot campus of the Massachusetts Insitute of Technology (MIT). The sustainable palmwood panels pictured above can be found at each of the four entrances, channeling cooling air through internal passages.
Source: Flickrr
Image: Nrman Foster/Masdar City rendering

222 additional apartments as well as more shopping and streets, were added during phase two. Masdar City is also home to the new International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Projectionsindicate 7,000 residents inhabiting the city by 2015 along with 12,000 Abu Dhabi commuters.
Source: Flickrr
Image: Nrman Foster

Students say it's easier adapting to the technology than the setting, as the flat, dusty landscape surrounding the beautiful city stretches out to the horizon. That dust and more specifically, dust storms, can cut solar insolation by as much as 30%, necessitating the hand-cleaning of the photovoltaic panels outside the city.
Source: Flickrr
Image: Nrman Foster

Masdar was intended to be the world's first zero-carbon city, but plans changed with the recession. The original goal to accomodate 50,000 residents shifted to 40,000 and a projected completion date in 2025 has replaced the optimistic 2016 deadline. Plans for a second Masdar City and a solar manufacturing plant have been shelved as well. Yet when all is said and done, Masdar City is still a technological masterpiece sure to dazzle time and again as the city grows and Masdar Institute produces some of the brightest and greenest minds in the world.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Masdar City

Masdar City 23 Phase B in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Source: Flickr
Image: Inhabitat Blog

On October 31, 2013, Chicago architecture firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture won the global competition to design Masdar City's headquarters in the first ever zero-carbon, zero-waste city. Masdar is a multi-faceted, multi-billion dollar move by Abu Dhabi to develop and commercialize the advanced and innovative technologies in renewable, alternative and sustainable energies and green design.

Source: Flickr
Image: Inhabitat Blog

Masdar was established with a ground breaking ceremony in 2006. A commercially driven enterprise thriving on renewable energy and the sustainable technologies industry, Masdar operates on five integrated units, the most innovative being the independent, research-driven graduate university, which MIT played a large role in developing. The university is currently running eleven masters programs in different areas relating to renewable energy. The Masdar Institute of Technology has been deemed the nucleus in the development of the entire city. In most cases, when cities grow, they build a university. In this case the university will be building the city, according to Mr. Khaled Awad, Director, Property Development Unit, Abu Dhabi Future 
Energy Company (UAE). Masdar belongs to the Abu Dhabi Government-owned Mubadala Development Company, an organization for the economic diversification of the Emirate (Explore Masdar City).

Source: Flickr
Image: GDS Infographics

If you look closely, you'll see Masdar City's Personal Rapid Transit pilot system in the ad above. A pedestrian-focused community must possess a rich network of public and personal transportation options to ensure walking and self-propelled transport be the most convenient forms of transportation, as well as the most pleasant. An extensive network of shaded sidewalks and and pathways throughout the city provide the latter.  A cutting-edge public transport system of electric buses, electric cars, and other clean-energy vehicles provide transport within the city, while Abu Dhabi's light rail system and Metro lines will pass through the center of Masdar City, providing transport within the city limits as well as linking it to the surrounding areas. Most private vehicles will be kept at the city's perimeter in lots linked to public transportation. Masdar City is piloting the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) pictured above, as well as Freight Rapid Transit (FRT) system of electric-powered, automated, single-cabin vehicles offering privacy, comfort and non-stop travel of a taxi service, and the reliability and sustainability of a public transport system.

Masdar City is a fascinating endeavor I wish to explore much further here - next week, friends!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tiny Houses!

Tumbleweed's Elm model
Source: Flickr
Image: Nicolas Boullosa

A tiny house movement is officially sweeping the nation. Living in a smaller space means fewer belongings to purchase, store, clean and maintain. According to Crystal Eakle, a licensed, bonded and insured member of the National Association of Professional Organizers, this is also known as 'mindful consumption,' a practice built on three basic principles: 

1. Catch and release - bring an item home, and another must exit

2. Don't shop when you don't need something

3. De-clutter for 15 minutes every day

Reducing your carbon footprint is naturally part of this alluring lifestyle. According to the Oregon Department of Environmental quality, when you reduce the size of a home by 50%, you reduce the carbon footprint by 36%.

A typical Tumbleweed closet
Source: Flickr
Image: Tammy Strobel

But living more simply requires some serious sacrifice, doesn't it? That depends on who you ask. Most tiny home owners will attest to the fact that downsizing actually creates more time and space in your life for family, friends, travel and life. Without all the distraction of so many belongings, your true priorities are suddenly front and center. You can build a Tumbleweed home with only 20 tools and $20,000, leaving you far more time and money for hobbies and the people you love. 

Source: Flickr
Image: Tammy Strobel

If you've never built anything bigger than a birdhouse, no worries. Tumblweed teaches incredibly fun and informative hands-on workshops across the nation: and a great many of their participants are first-time builders. It seems a generation of twenty-somethings witnessed the housing crisis and opted for a mortgage-free life. Some, like Austin Hay, even began building before graduating high school, vowing never to pay a nickel's rent while attending college. This generation also seems more dedicated than ever to respecting and preserving the environment.

Austin Hay
Source: YouTube
Video: Kirsten Dirksen

Austin's house is 130 sq. ft. of pure genius. What parent wouldn't be proud? It's not often a school project becomes a labor of love you can actually live in. He began construction in July of 2010 after purchasing a trailer from a car dealership for $2000. Many of his materials are recycled, scrap or were donated by friends and family. Every door and window was salvaged, and every inch of wiring came from an electrician friend. Admirably, Austin even opted for a composting toilet. It all came together somewhat slowly on evenings and weekends in his parents' back yard, but what a great lesson in nothing worth having coming easily. It's going to be interesting watching this bright young man's future unfold.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Krasnoyarsk hydroelectric power station in Russia
Source: Flickr
Image: Vladimir Korolev

Electricity generated by using the gravitational force of falling or flowing water is known as hydroelectricity, and is the most widely used form of renewable energy in the world. Hydroelectric power plants convert this kinetic energy into electricity by forcing water through a hydraulic turbine connected to a generator. Once through the turbine, the water then returns to the body of water below the dam.

Source: Flickr
Image: Peter-Ashley Jackson

In 1868, the country home of Lord Armstrong in the civil parish of Cartington in Northumberland, England became the first house in the world to be lit using hydroelectric power. A hydraulic engine was installed at Cragside, which powered a hydraulic lift, laundry equipment and a rotisserie. In 1878, a Siemens Dynamo electric generator was installed and powered carbon rod arc lamps in the gallery. The electricity generated by the dynamo traveled along a double lone of Birmingham No.1 gauge copper wire supported by telegraph poles the 1500 yards to the house. Electricity was diverted from this line to a joiner's shop where it ran a sewing machine during the day. In 1880, the arc lamps were replaced by Joseph Swan's incandescent lamps. Swan considered this the first 'proper installation' of electric lighting. The farm buildings were also powered by the generators. 

Cragside in Northumberland, England
Source: Flickr
Image: Gail

Cragside, named after Cragend Hill above the house, has been in the care of the National Trust since 1977. Built in 1863, it began as a modest two-story country lodge and grew into an elaborate Free Tudor style mansion. At its peak of grandeur the home even included an astronomical observatory and a scientific laboratory, but it was the harnessing of hydroelectric power that will always be its claim to fame.

Burfell hydroelectric power station in Iceland
Source: Flickr
Image: Terry Feuerborn

Hydroelectric plants fall into two categories: large commercial, typically utilizing a dam, and micro turbine, which may be installed on a small stream with an adequate change in elevation to compensate for less water. Hydropower is heavily dependent upon precipitation and elevation changes. Therefore, the mountainous Pacific Northwest is much more conducive to highly productive hydroelectric plants than flatter areas, even along major waterways.

Rally by Klamath Basin Tribes to restore a salmon run
Source: Flickr
Image: Patrick McCully

Hydropower has little to no reported air quality impacts, but hydropower dams have an impact on wildlife populations and can cause habitat fragmentation of surrounding areas. Above, Klamath Basin tribes and allies from the commercial fishing and conservation organizations call for the removal of PacifiCorp's four Klamath River dams to restore salmon runs. Hydroelectric structures can be disruptive to surrounding aquatic ecosystems both upstream and downstream. Salmon are often prevented access to spawning grounds. Salmon spawn can also be harmed during their migration when they must pass through turbines. Dam failures have created some of the largest man-made disasters in history. In 1975, a series of dams in the Henan Province of China resulted in more casualties than any other dam failure in history. 171,000 people lost their lives and 11 million people lost their homes.

La Colle Falls Hydroelectric Dam in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan
Source: Flickr
Image: Jordon Cooper

In 1909, construction began on the La Colle Falls hydroelectric dam in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. However, in 1913 the project was abandoned due to technical difficulties and high costs. To date, it has cost close to 3 million dollars and nearly bankrupted the city. However, when all goes as planned, especially in developing nations, hydroelectric dams can provide an economical source of energy without the purchase of fuel. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Here Comes the Sun - Solar is King

Solar-powered Muscle Car
Source: Flickr
Image: Matthew Hurst

Explosive growth - that's the term currently being bandied about regarding the U.S. solar industry's record-shattering year in 2013, which will no doubt be eclipsed in 2014. A 41% increase over 2012 by GTM Research and Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA). 2013 came to a close with 440,000 operating solar electric systems across the U.S., bringing totals to more than 12,000 MW of PV and 918 MW of CSP. Solar is officially the fastest-growing source of renewable energy. In the last 18 months, more solar has been installed in the U.S. than in the 30 previous years combined. There are five types of solar panels primarily used in the U.S.

Monocrystalline Silicon (mono-silicon or single silicon)
Source: Flickr
Image: yellowcloud

Silicon is the chemical element of atomic number 14, a nonmetal with semiconducting properties, used in making electronic circuits. Monocrystalline silicon currently are the most efficient type of solar panels, when sunlight hits these panels, more of it is transformed into electricity than in any other type. The high silicon content also makes them more expensive, but fewer of them are required, making them ideal for rooftops.

Polycrystalline Silicon
24 modules in rural Mongolia
Source: Google Images
Image: Wikipedia

These panels have lower silicon levels than mono-silicon panels. Generally, this characteristic makes them more cost-efficient to produce, but they're also slightly less efficient. They're also suitable for rooftops.

Thin Film Amorphous Silicon
Walmart in Mountainview, California
Source: Flickr
Image: Walmart

Thin film panels are costly to produce and perform best in very hot climates. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as efficient as the two types of panels previously mentioned. They're better suited for large solar farm projects where land is available and are not used as frequently on rooftops.

BIPV (building integrated photovoltaics)
West Hollywood, California
Source: Flickr
Image: Limelightpower

BIPVs look similar to roofing tiles, like solar shingles. However, they're more expensive  and less efficient than other types of photovoltaic cells. Also, evidence suggests they may not last as long either.

Solar Hot Water Panels (thermal)
Source: Flickr
Image: Jojodia.Saket

Solar thermal panels produce hot water for residential uses such as swimming pools. Some systems may also provide heat and air conditioning. Optimal positioning and adequate air flow must be considered when installing all types of solar panels. Direction, angle and shading of the roof are all equally important factors. As is the fact that Northern Hemisphere rooftop units should be installed facing south, where possible, to maximize sun exposure. 

Next week we'll discuss the benefits of passive solar power.