Friday, 20 January 2017

Harnessing the sun's energy - Photosynthesis

This post is a part of the series An Acre of Sunshine.

Almost all life on earth is supported by solar energy that is originally harvested by plants and algae. Though there are some notable exceptions, such as the life found at deep sea vents, that isn't really applicable to a discussion of a farm in Quebec. In photosynthesis, plants and algae capture the energy of photons (particles of light), and use that energy to cause a chemical reaction, taking water, carbon dioxide and solar energy as inputs, which allows them to produce simple sugars and oxygen gas as outputs. The chemical process is as follows:

6CO2 + 6 H2O + photons → C6H12O6 + 6O2
More simply: carbon dioxide + water + sunlight  → sugar + oxygen

These sugars are the primary 'stuff' that plants are made out of. As was discussed here, sugars can be thought of as chemical 'springs', that are built and compressed by adding energy from the sun, and can be released at a later time to access the energy (motion) that they contain.

These same sugars are then the source of energy for nearly all other forms of life. The plants use the sugars themselves to support their ongoing needs, to grow and build their stems, leaves, roots and trunks, and to reproduce, making flowers, fruits and seeds. All animals and fungi are in turn supported by these plants, eating and recycling the energy that the plants have captured and stored away. As both the plants and their consumers go about their business, the energy stored in these sugars is converted many times into other forms, used to build other tissues, and is stored as many types of sugars and fats, and often actively used more actively in the form of proteins. Some of that energy is also converted into heat and motion, such as when a person heats up when they are out for a jog.

As with every type of energy capture and conversion, photosynthesis doesn't capture all of the energy coming in from sunlight, it actually converts only a small fraction of it into sugars. Without going into a long lesson about biochemistry, the takeaway is that the maximum possible efficiency of photosynthesis is around 11%, but that the typical efficiency of actual plants is more like 2%. If you would like to know more about those details, start here and here. This means that out of all the energy that is in the sunlight striking a plant, the plant only captures and uses two parts of each one hundred.

But it is even worse than that. This 2% figure is for plants that are growing in a good environment, with just the right soil, temperature, nutrients, rain, etc. At our hilly farm, we have conditions far from this optimal. The local soil is sandy and rocky, and doesn't have all the nutrients that are available in the good black soil found in local river bottoms. Of course soil can always be augmented with fertilizers and other nutrients, though this is not been done at our property. Fortunately rain is not an issue for us, as our area consistently has 10 or more days per month with at least some precipitation. For the sake of argument, lets say that these imperfect conditions reduce by half the total energy capture of our local plants.

Finally, it is cold and snowy for nearly half of the year. The only time that plants can capture the sun's energy is when they have leaves. We have at best 180 growing days, from early April to early October. Fortunately the summer is also when there is more sunlight, so only having leaves for half the year means that plants can take advantage of 70% of a year's sunlight (see monthly energy availability here). Putting all of these factors together, we can figure out how much energy an acre worth of plants can actually harvest in a year.

5,112,000 kWh/acre/year * .02 photosynthetic efficiency * .5 losses for imperfect conditions * .7 of annual solar energy captured = 35790 kWh/acre/year of energy harvested by plants at our land

How numbers fall, don't they? We are now down to a figure in the same ballpark as our annual energy needs per person. And remember, this is all the energy that plants harvest, not just the parts that we want (known in biology as gross primary production). That energy includes everything, the metabolism of the plant, the fighting off of disease, pests, and predators, and the growth of leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, and roots. No matter which part of the plants that people want to use, the useful amount is always going to be much less. Say we were growing corn (we'll get back to this in a later section on crops). In this case, we only really want the kernels of corn. The rest of the plant, the stem, the leaves, and the roots, are usually not harvested or used. What if we only wanted the walnuts from a walnut tree?

If we wish to be sustainable, these considerations set the limit for how much energy from plants could be harvested per year. As long as we eat plants and use wood products grown under the sun, these limits are going to constrain us. It is possible that with better plant breeding, irrigation, soil quality, fertilizers, pesticides, etc., that this figure could perhaps be doubled or even tripled, so that our plants could capture a much higher yield. Also keep in mind that these numbers are for a northerly clime - our solar resource, and our growing season, isn't as long or as bountiful as what might be found in other areas of the world. With more sunlight and a year-round growing season, fertile tropical areas could be much more productive than our farm in the north.

Now that we have an estimate for the amount of energy that plants can obtain from the sun, we can look at all of the different plants, and sometimes the animals that feed on them, that we could grow and harvest on our farm.

Estimate for photosynthetic production: 35790 kWh/acre/year

Previous Page: Insolation (aka Sunshine)
Next Page: Coming soon



Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Insolation (aka Sunshine)

This post is a part of the series An Acre of Sunshine.

If we are going to live within the energy budget that we could generate renewably, would we be able to support our energy needs from what we can harvest at our farm? As was mentioned in the introduction, the basic realization that I had was that for most, if not all, sustainable uses of our property, that sunlight was the energy source from which all our other activities would spring. In terms of sustainability, this is as close as it comes to getting 'free' energy - sunlight is going to be shining down on the earth's surface regardless of what we do and will continue to do so for a few billion years.

The amount of solar energy that arrives at any particular spot on the earth's surface is quite variable. This is largely due to the combination of the location of the sun in the sky as it moves throughout the day as well as the weather. For the orientation of the earth to the sun, the closer the sun is to straight up in the sky, the more energy reaches the surface. Annually, the maximum amount of solar energy is generally for those places where the sun is most directly straight up in the sky for the greatest part of the year. This is mediated by clouds, which are the biggest way that weather has an impact on solar energy. When it is cloudy, much of the sun's energy is intercepted, with only a relatively small amount reaching the surface in a form that can be captured for other uses.

The equator is where, not counting weather differences (cloudiness), the most light energy comes down each year. The Ottawa region, where our farm is, is halfway between the equator and the north pole, at 45 degrees latitude. There is an excellent sun visualization tool from the University of Nebraska, from which I've made a couple of schematics below.

Summer solstice (June 21) sun path in Ottawa
Here in Ottawa, the sun never is straight up in the sky. The yellow line with the sun on it shows where in the sky the sun passes across the sky through the day. As can be seen in this first image, the summer sun in Ottawa reaches fairly close to straight up in the sky at noon on the summer solstice, 68 degrees up off of the horizon (90 degrees would be straight up). And in the winter, the sun never gets very high in the sky, as you can see in the image below. On the shortest day, December 21, the sun reaches only 22 degrees above the horizon.

Winter Solstice (Dec. 21) sun path in Ottawa


When one actually compares total annual solar energy to other areas around the world, Ottawa doesn't fare as bad as one would think. Ottawa receives about 2/3 as much solar energy as Cairo, Egypt, which receives as much solar energy as any large city on earth. How does this happen, you ask? Ottawa, and any other locations far from the equator, have something very interesting going on. They have very long days at the same time as the sun shines from highest in the sky; we call this time 'summer'. This also means that Ottawa gets most of its solar energy in those few summer months.

Because of the variability in the energy available from sunlight, we will describe the amount of sunlight over the course of a complete year. In Ottawa, the total insolation (solar energy) over the course of a year is: 1263.4 kWh/m2/ year. This is energy per square meter per year. A square meter is a bit smaller than a typical door inside a home. Though the annual total is important, notice in the chart below that the amount of solar energy at our location varies tremendously, with July getting over 4 times the energy from sunshine as January. As discussed above, this is due to sun angle, day length, and prevailing weather.




(chart data courtesy of http://www.gaisma.com/en/location/ottawa.html)

To discuss land use, one seldom speaks in units land as small as one square meter. A more typical unit that is discussed in land use, property ownership and agriculture is the acre (especially in the US). One acre is roughly the size of a football field, minus the endzones. This is a decent sized chunk of space, but very manageable when discussing forests and wheat fields. Here is a picture of one of our fields with lines added to show exactly how big one acre is.



Converting out from our square meter, this single acre, as well as every other acre of property in the area, receives:

1263.4 kWh/ m2 / year * 4046.86 m2 / acre = 5,112,000 kWh/acre/year

Over five million kilowatt hours per acre per year, that is an enormous amount of energy! This is especially true considering that we calculated that my family uses 80,000 kWh/year in our personal lives, and that the total annual energy use per capita in the US is only about 90,000 kWh/year. By this math, it looks like one acre should be able to support the energy needs of over 50 people on each and every acre. It almost seems like there is no problem to be solved, that there is so much energy that we can be as inefficient as we want. If only it were so simple. The problem is, as was discussed here, that we have to have some way to capture, convert, and make that energy useful for fulfilling our needs, and we have to account for all the inefficiencies of converting energy from one form into the next.

What do we have at our disposal that can capture that solar energy so that we can put it to good use? Though there are some technological options that we will discuss later on, we will start with the solution that life on earth figured out billions of years ago, photosynthesis.

Estimate for solar energy reaching the ground: 5,112,000 kWh/acre/year

Previous page: So how much energy does a person really use?
Next page: Harnessing the sun's energy - Photosynthesis

Saturday, 14 January 2017

So how much energy does a person really use?

This post is a part of the series An Acre of Sunshine.

I've seen quite a number of different ways of calculating real world energy use, and the different techniques certainly have different merits. The simplest of them simply involves an estimate of the total amount of energy used by a group, such as an entire country, divided by the number of individuals in that group. This sort of estimate gives the average amount of energy that is used per person to keep society functioning. It has the big advantage of including all sorts of things that are outside of personal consumption such as the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure, running government, commerce, hospitals, manufacturing, etc., which are not easily visible to the individual. The downside of course is the lack of specificity to a given individual or family; some families may use vastly more or less resources than the average based on their wealth, geography, and their consumption habits.

Another pathway is to try to make specific estimates of a given individual's energy use, which allows a fine-grained analysis of the particulars of each situation. For the questions that prompted me to begin my investigation, it was these personal level energy considerations that I initially thought about. Of course this sort of approach leaves out everything outside of one's direct consumption, and can only measure those things that an individual comes into direct contact with.

One other form of energy that we should account for is the embodied energy in the major 'things' that we own, and there are existing estimates that I can piggy-back on of how much energy is needed to make things as well as how long they last. For my family's energy consumption, I will assume that each of the 4 individuals in my household, including two small children, each count as needing the same amount of energy. This is of course not entirely accurate, but provides a good first approximation.

What I've decided to do here is to follow multiple paths, to start with some rough calculations of the broader-scale averages, and then dig deeply into the situation of the family that I know best, my own. For the personal energy consumption, I need to make some caveats about what I am and am not including in this list. I'll look only at our personal consumption, of food, shelter, transport, etc., but to not even begin to account for the energy that was needed to grow and transport that food, or to refine and ship gasoline to my local station. It is absolutely true that this external energy use will be significantly greater than the amount of energy that reaches the end user. Likewise, for this first pass I will ignore the question of where this energy actually comes from, and discuss the sustainability of my energy use in a later section.

Overall energy usage estimates
In starting to write this section, I realized that I was just dipping a toe into an existing area of sustainability research. For instance, I found an entire book on energy usage by Dr. David MacKay, titled "Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air", which digs far deeper than I intend to on power sources and power usage. So rather than reinvent the wheel, I will suggest that you look at this book for a deeper analysis of these average energy estimates. The book is written about Britain, which uses less energy per person than Canada or the US, but other than that the analyses should be much the same. So without further ado, I will give his estimates of energy use per person, of 195 kWh/day for the British, and 250 kWh/day for Americans. Another analysis by the Economist puts together similar figures, giving 242 kWh/day for Canadians, and 233 kWh/day for Americans. It is no big surprise that the North American lifestyle is more energy intensive than the British, if only for the reasons of the larger distances that people must travel and the more severe climates that North Americans must deal with. As mentioned above, a given individual does not have personal control over a lot of this energy use, as it includes their share of the roads, government and commercial buildings, the military, and more.


Household energy use
Statistics Canada data shows that the average detached home in Canada uses about 40 kWh/day per person for such things as heating, cooling, and electrical loads. All home energy uses and sources are lumped together in this estimate, so this number includes the total energy used within the home by electricity, natural gas, heating oil, etc.

For my own family, we actually need to account for the household energy that we use both at our rental in the city as well as our place out at the farm. I have already run some analyses of our household energy use at our country house here, where I showed that this house consumed a total of 15,200 kWh for the year of 2014-15, giving a total of 10.4 kWh/day for each member of my family. This home was intentionally built to be highly efficient, and so it is good to see that this house needs only a fraction of the energy of a typical home.

I've also reviewed the electrical and natural gas bills for our rental in the city, which is a 3 bedroom duplex that we are in about half of the time. For our natural gas bill, we used 1480 cubic meters of natural gas over the last year, which with a bit of calculation puts us at 15318 kWh, or 10.5 kWh/day per person. Our electricity bill shows that we used 7075 kWh over the last year, and that adds up to 4.8 kWh/day per person. The total for this place is then 15.3 kWh/day per person, which is still quite a bit lower than the average. There are at least a couple of contributing factors here. One is that heating loads are much reduced over a typical detached home, because of a shared wall with the neighbor, as well as because of significant updates to the insulation and windows. Second, as we are not there all of the time, many energy uses are reduced when we are away.

Putting this all together, my family used a total of 25.7 kWh/day per person to run our household for all heating, cooling, and electrical loads for the year of 2015. While this is a reduction by almost half over the national average, but I would still like to bring down this number further into the future, or at least shift to most or all renewable energy sources.

Embodied energy in our homes

It takes a lot of energy to build a home, and it is also true that a building doesn't last forever. This means that one should consider the amount of energy that is 'used up' each year due to the slow and steady aging and decay of a home. Some homes may end up lasting hundreds of years if someone takes the time and invests the energy to do regular updates and maintenance, whereas some others, if poorly cared for or if someone decides the land should have a different use, may not even last a decade. Putting these together, it is a reasonable rough assumption to say that a house lasts 100 years. While it is beyond the scope of this piece to go into the ins and outs of calculating this embodied energy, some analyses that I found here, here, and here all point to figures that are in the ballpark of 300,000 kWh for a 2000 square foot home. Spaced out over 100 years for a family of 4, this means that each of the homes that we occupy are consuming 2.1 kWh/day per person for each of the two buildings that we inhabit, due to the slow process of aging, decay, and obsolescence.

Gasoline used in our automobiles
Transportation is another large source of energy consumption. Americans, in 2013, used 392 gallons of gas per capita. Put into our terms, this is 36 kWh/day per person. This is a lot of energy. So how does my own family stack up? We have 2 cars, one that is a 2003, the other is a 2015 model, they both happen to be Subaru Outbacks. Fortunately, my wife has a commute of only 4 miles, and my commute is short enough that I can usually walk or bike. We do often go from the city to the country, but usually take only one car, and the trip is about 50 miles each way. In 2015, we put 8000 miles on the 2015 car, and only 1000 miles on the 2003. While I don't have gas receipts, I can calculate our total energy use based off of the odometers and the published mileage estimates for our cars. Our 2003 Outback should get a combined 22 miles per gallon, while the 2015 car gets 28 miles per gallon. This gives us a total of 331 gallons of gasoline containing 11,155 kWh, or 7.6 kWh/day per member of my family to get us around in our cars. This is again a pretty dramatic reduction over the American per capita use. However, do keep in mind that the overall American figure does include all sorts of commercial traffic, as well as all those poor souls who have daily long commutes in gridlocked traffic to deal with.

The 'typical' American driver drives for 13,476 miles per year. The average gas mileage of the American passenger car fleet is in the same ballpark as our own vehicles, so if our family drove the typical mileage, this would consume 1077 gallons of gas for 35972 kWh, or 24.6 kWh per day per family member.

Embodied Energy in our cars
Just as with homes, cars have a finite lifespan and require considerable energy to manufacture. In looking around, I found various figures (here, here, and here). None of these analyses are for our vehicles in particular, so I will approximate our cars as having about 40,000 kWh of embodied energy in each of them. Considering a car lasts about 15 years and that we have two of them, this means that car aging accounts for about 3.7 kWh/day for each of our family members.

Embodied energy of other possessions
On top of the big items of home and car, we of course have all the other trappings of modern life, including appliances, furniture, electronics, clothing, and more. I wasn't able to easily track down good estimates of the embodied energy of each of these myriad items, so for the sake of argument, I will simply say that we have an amount of 'other stuff' that is about the equivalent of our cars, which a quick run through my imagination suggests is roughly reasonable both to the amount of stuff that we have as well as how long things last. With that estimate, we then have an additional 3.7 kWh/day to account for.

Air travel
In recent years I have heard rumblings about the sheer amount of energy is needed for air travel, and there appears to be a considerable literature on the topic (e.g., here). Fortunately I was able to find a source that lists the FAA estimate of energy expended per passenger mile traveled, at .778 kWh/mile. A look at the US Department of Transportation data shows that there were 607,772,000,000 passenger miles flown domestically in the US in 2014, and there were 318,900,000 Americans at that time. This works out to an average of 1906 miles flown per person in 2014. In energy terms, this is 1483 kWh/year, or 4.1 kWh/day.

A few minutes with our calendar and a map show that my family traveled 2714 miles by air in 2015 with a couple of trips to visit friends and family, which puts us at a total of 8446 kWh for the year, or 5.8 kWh/day per person. Not as much energy as we burned in the car engines, but still quite considerable, and a bit above the national average.


Food
Food is easy to account for if you simply estimate that each member of my family ate the typical recommended 2000 calories per day. Again, this doesn't account for a lot of things, like any food that we may waste, or the fact that my young kids certainly don't eat this much, but it is close enough for our needs. There is also the consideration that meat requires much more energy to produce than fruits, grains, and vegetables, but we will for now leave that outside of our calculations. 2000 calories per day means that my family consumes about 3395 kWh worth of food, or 2.3 kWh/day per person.




Table summary
First, keep in mind that the figures for my family and the averages aren't directly comparable, as they were calculated in different ways in the descriptions above. That said, the table above summarizes most of the energy that my family is in direct control of, we get to decide where we live, how much and how we travel, what sorts of goods we buy, etc. It is also easy to see here that of the energy that we have direct control over, most of it is for transportation and home energy needs, and that a smaller proportion is for all of the 'stuff' that we have.

You can also see that the estimate of personal average energy use is 80.5 kWh/day, while the total national energy use is 233 kWh/day. This means that the average individual only has direct control over about 1/3 of the energy that is being used 'on their behalf'. Two thirds of the energy is from all of the infrastructure and services that surround us, the roads, the stores, the hospitals, the police, inputs to food production, all of it. All of this other energy being used on your behalf is a part of what it means to be an American, or a Canadian, or whichever nation you may live in.

A later section of this blog will look more deeply at my ideas about what we could aspire to do in terms both of reducing total energy usage as well as to make the energy that we do use to be truly sustainable in the long term. However, I'll give you a hint of where I'm going, and suggest that I think that my family may over time be able to reduce our energy usage by as much as one half. This still leaves a big job to provide for enough energy to run our busy household. Now we have to hope that sustainable and renewable sources can provide for those needs, and will begin to look at those numbers next.

Family energy use and the amount that our farm would need to produce


So these final numbers in this section are the numbers that we need to shoot for, if we were going to produce enough energy from our farm to provide for my family. My original question was, "Does our farm property produce enough usable energy to sustainably provide for all of my family's energy needs?" In the table above are three different statements of the same information, and all three scales make different kinds of sense. Energy use per day makes sense when thinking about all of the things that we do on a daily bais, from commuting to work, eating meals, watching TV, sleeping, and more. It is a scale that is very human. Then, there is the much larger number of annual energy consumption. This makes sense in light of yearly cycles. Plants only grow in the summer, home heating is only applicable to the winter season, and all of the ups and downs of daily activities and energy use are smoothed out when looking at the course of a full year. Finally, there is average continuous energy use, watts. When you get right down to it, this is still energy use per unit time (joules/second), but we often think of watts as 'instantaneous' usage. 8500 watts, this would be like constantly supplying the needed power for 85 laptops, or 8 drip filter coffee pots, or 2 large domestic hot water tanks. It is a lot of energy, but by no means unimaginable. Following sections will examine how much energy different land use decisions could actually generate.

Previous page: Measuring energy
Next page: Insolation (aka Sunshine)



Measuring Energy

This post is a part of the series An Acre of Sunshine.

It is very easy to get lost in the morass of terminology surrounding the measurement of energy. There are some good reasons for why there is so much terminology, but much of it results from the history of what was discovered when, by whom, and used for what purpose. To try to keep things as simple as possible, we will stick to only 2 units of measurement, those that I find to be most familiar to people and that are easy to work with at the human scale. The first of these is the Calorie1, which is how we generally speak of the energy that we get from food. The average person consumes about 2000 to 2500 Calories per day. The meals, snacks, and beverages that a person consumes each day provide all of this energy. The second unit that we will use is the kilowatt hour (kWh). This is the standard unit of measurement for electricity, so all of you readers who pay an electricity bill should be used to seeing this measurement. Depending on where you live, the cost of residential electricity can be anywhere from a few cents to a dollar or more per kilowatt hour, with current 2015 prices in North America mostly being between $.10 and $.30 per kWh.

A couple of examples can explain how the kilowatt hour is measured, and put it into perspective. Say that you have a 100 watt incandescent light bulb that you want to use to light up your kitchen (a laptop computer working hard uses about the same amount of power). That rating, in watts, is a measure of how much energy is required to get the bulb to light up for any given second. With anything electrical, it is the motion of electrons  through the parts of the device, be it a lighting filament in a light bulb or a transistor in a computer, that allows them to function. It is beyond the scope of this piece to go into a deep look at the physics of electricity, but if you are so curious, here is a place to start. So our light bulb needs a continuous supply of 100 watts to stay lit. What if we wanted to talk about the amount of energy needed to keep the bulb lit constantly for a full 24 hour day? To measure it, we can just say how much time that energy was being used, and this is commonly done in hours. So to run a 100 watt light bulb for 24 hours, one multiplies watts by hours and gets 2400 watt-hours. To make the numbers more manageable, this can then be switched to be 1000 times smaller by adding the suffix kilo-, making it 2.4 kilowatt hours (kWh). 2.4 kWh is the amount of energy it takes to keep that light bulb lit for a full day.

A second very different example can be from biology. How much energy, in kWh, does it take to run a person for a day? As mentioned above, a person needs roughly 2500 calories each day. Since they are both units of energy, it turns out that one can directly convert Calories into kilowatt hours; 1 kWh is equal to 860 Calories. Applying this to our daily intake of food, a person needs 2.9 kWh of energy to do our usual goings on. So it takes just a bit more energy to run you, the reader, for one day as it does for a 100 watt incandescent lightbulb. Put another way, a person runs on about 120 watts. The kilowatt hour then acts as a very human scale measurement, in that a person typically uses some relatively manageable number of kilowatt hours of energy for a day's activities.

All of the different units for measuring energy are potentially interchangeable, and I've provided a table below that shows a few of the common units that you may be familiar with and their conversion with each other.




Now that we have established a common language and an idea of scale for discussing energy, another table can show the amount of energy found in many of energy sources we encounter day to day. Many of these particular ways of storing energy will come up again the following sections. One caveat to make about the whole fresh foods here, like chicken or potatoes, is that much of the weight of these is actually water, which doesn't contain any useful energy. So while the energy in chicken comes mostly from protein and fat, much of a whole chicken is actually water.





Previous page: Energy capture, conversion, and storage
Next page: So how much energy does a person really use?



1 This blog will always be speaking of the dietary calorie, or kilocalorie, see here for a more in-depth explanation.


Energy Capture, Conversion and Storage

This post is a part of the series An Acre of Sunshine.

Each time one form of energy is captured and converted into some other form, only some of the energy is converted to that new form, the rest of the energy is lost. This isn't to say that the energy disappears, as energy is neither created nor destroyed (see the 1st law of thermodynamics). Instead, I mean that only some of the energy goes to the targeted next step, and the rest goes somewhere less useful. Let's take the example of a typical car running on gasoline. The desired target for the energy from the gas is to move the car, but there are some unavoidable problems. In this case, the issues are such things as friction on the highway, which heats up the tires (converting some energy to heat), and wind resistance which slows the car by transferring some of the motion of the car into the air. The engine turns much of the energy of the gasoline into non-useful heat, doesn't burn all the gas perfectly well, and so on and so forth. For the example above of a gas-powered car, only about 20% of the total energy in the gasoline is converted into motion of the car. And this doesn't even include the fact that  energy is often converted many times between different forms before it is used for the motion that we want, with losses at each and every step. For that gasoline example, there are inefficiencies and losses in taking the oil out of the ground, refining it into gasoline and other products, as well as transport and storage losses.

Energy storage is also a key concern; What happens if there is available energy and motion now, but you don't want to use it until some time in the future? Well, you need to find some way to convert the energy into some stable form, and be able to also have some way to convert it again for the end use. Stored energy is 'potential energy', meaning that one has the ability to cause things to move at some point in the future. An easy way to imagine potential energy is with hydropower. Say that there is a river running through a valley. There is a lot of water motion that is there, that could potentially be harnessed and put to use. But what if the river runs dry every summer, and you wanted to be able to have a steady supply of power? You could then build a dam. Instead of the water moving now, the dam stops it and holds it still in a lake above the dam. All of that water has potential energy because gravity would like to pull it down, but the dam stops the water from moving. In this situation, much of the energy (motion) of the water in the river is now stored in the lake, and can be utilized whenever it is needed. The motion of the water, when it is released, is used to spin a turbine (basically a big wheel), and this spinning motion can be used to create electricity (though in the past it was for things like cutting wood or grinding wheat into flour). Other forms of energy storage act by the same underlying principle. They capture and freeze motion in place, setting up a situation where motion can be re-directed in the future.

A huge amount of the energy coming from the sun is captured and harnessed by living things, and passed between different living organisms via a food web - big fish eat small fish, small fish eat insects and other tiny creatures, the tiny creatures eat algae. Though the details are vastly different, the same basic principles of energy storage and conversion apply across all ecosystems. All living things store their energy largely in the form of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (such as sugars). Each organism needs a steady supply of new energy inputs to metabolize, to grow, to reproduce. The base of this food web in most places is of course the process of plants converting energy from the sun into sugars and then on into other more complex forms. A good rule of thumb is that each level needs 10 times more of the level below to support it. So, 1 pound of large fish requires: 10 pounds of small fish, 100 pounds of tiny creatures, 1000 pounds of algae. In biology these are known as 'trophic levels'.

Animals and plants both stock up on energy reserves in times of plenty to prepare for the times of scarcity. This is both for the short-term as well as the long term. In the short term, plants need to have the energy to make it through the nights, as well as at least a few cloudy days. For animals, there are times when food isn't always available. Predators in particular may go relatively long periods between feeding. And of course there is the winter. Here in eastern Canada, the lead up to the long cold winter has animals putting on heavy layers of fat, and the trees building up stores of sugars through the summer and early fall, then dropping their leaves while sending most of their nutrients down into their roots.

Previous page: What is energy?
Next page: Measuring energy


What is Energy?

This post is a part of the series An Acre of Sunshine.

What is energy, really? With a focus on sustainability and land use, I will unsurprisingly spend a lot of time talking about sunlight streaming down on us from on high. We all have vague ideas about energy, thinking about the heat thrown off by a campfire, the electricity powering your lights or computer, but we don't often think about the threads that draw them all together. They seem like such totally different things, but they do have one thing in common; they are all forms of motion. All it means when one says that there is energy, or that something requires energy, is that it involves motion. While a physicist may quibble with this definition and want to talk about 'the ability to do work', at least for the sake of a human-scale discussion, energy simply is motion. For tiny objects, those smaller than can be seen with the human eye, it may be harder to think of them in terms of motion. Sunlight, electricity, and heat all include motion that is impossible to see and therefore hard to imagine. For the motion of large objects, such as a car, it is much easier to think about how energy really is just motion. The more massive the object and the faster the motion, the more energy is involved. Conceptually it is no different for microscopic motion. Electricity, and the running of all the devices powered by it, are all caused by the motion of small particles, usually electrons. The more electrons moving and the faster they move, the more electricity one has. Heat is also the motion of particles, and the faster the particles move the hotter that object is. For solid objects, say a metal stove, that motion is quite constrained, heat is the vibration of the particles that make up the stove; the particles of metal vibrate quickly, though they stay in close contact with each other, allowing the stove to keep it's shape and not melt away. And if you feel the heat coming off of a stove without touching it, you are actually feeling the high energy air particles, which picked up speed and vibration from coming into more direct contact with that stove.

Even chemical energy, such as what is used to power the human body or that found in gasoline, is about motion. In the case of chemical energy, it usually involves moving particles in relation to each other. Take the example of sugar. A molecule of sugar is simply a set of smaller pieces, atoms, arranged in a very particular way. That sugar molecule can be thought of as a tiny compressed spring; when the connections holding the parts together are broken, the pieces fly apart. Animals and plants have the ability to capture that motion, and use it in other places where it is needed. By the same token, making sugars, 'coiling the spring', requires an input of energy. Plants are able to capture some of the motion of tiny particles of sunlight, photons, and store it in molecules like sugar. It is no different for gasoline - the hydrocarbons in gasoline are just a different type of coiled spring that we release by burning, and then capture and use the resulting heat and pressure, which are again forms of motion.

Bringing up car engines, or cellular structures for that matter, illustrates the crucial point that there has to be some structure that can capture energy and use that motion to do something useful. Energy that is just 'out there' isn't useful at all. These energy capturing structures are all around us. Almost any object in our every-day environments can capture heat energy, be it rocks, engines, plants, or even people. Whether that energy is useful really depends on the situation. All living things are able to usefully use chemical energy of various sorts, and plants have the added abilities to capture and convert the sun's energy into chemical energy. For human technology, we have invented all sorts of other structures that can capture and use different forms of energy. The engines of cars, ships, planes, and trains usually capture the energy resulting from burning fossil fuels, and billions of devices are able to usefully use electricity. Windmills capture the motion of the air, hydropower is about capturing the motion of water, and finally photovoltaic solar panels, like plants, capture the motion of the photons coming from the sun.

To boil down all of the above: Energy = movement

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Next page: Energy capture, conversion, and storage

An Acre of Sunshine - Introduction

This post is a part of the series An Acre of Sunshine.

I always wanted to own property in the countryside. I loved the hiking, fishing, canoeing, and other related outdoor pursuits. But there is something different when one is the owner, the land manager, and if done right, the steward. When we relocated to Ottawa, the Canadian capital, finding a place outside the city to call our own was something that was at the top of the list. Within a year of our arrival, we found our perfect spot - nearly one hundred and fifty acres of field, forest, and wetland, spread across rolling hills and nestled alongside a river. It felt quite wild to me, but they called it a farm. It was little like the flat open farmland that I was used to seeing throughout my childhood in the Midwest, where fields run together and the only trees are often those just adjacent to farmsteads and along fencelines. On this property, there was no barn or silo, but rather a few modest hilly hayfields, and a forest where trees were cut occasionally for lumber or firewood. When my wife and I had begun looking for our countryside escape, we thought about what we wanted mostly in terms of lifestyle and recreation. But it is a farm, and we had become farmers.

From the time we purchased the property, my mind was overflowing with the possibilities of what we could do there. Of course, much of my attention was on all of the recreation that our family would be doing, a broad swath of sports, including snowshoeing and cross country skiing all winter, hiking and fishing the rest of the year, a bit of deer and grouse hunting thrown in during the fall. But it was never just about recreation, it was also about stewardship and sustainability, taking proper care of a space, using it in the present, but preserving it for the future. As much as possible, we also wanted to live lightly on our new property, preserving the full range of flora and fauna that are found there. A primary reason for choosing this particular property was the natural aesthetic of the place, which we wished to preserve. Since I was a young child, I had dreamed of living out in the wilderness, of living off the land. But as I grew to adulthood, I realized that the sort of rugged independence where I would build a house by hand and grow all my own food was not the dream that I was pursuing. I have no desire to be fully independent from the rest of the world; people are social beings, and productive societies always exist by allowing everyone to specialize, each to his own talents and predilections, and then cooperate so that each person has their needs met. We all need and want those goods and services that allow us to survive and thrive. But we all share the same world, and we need to make sure that we, combined, live in a way that is sustainable so that our children and their children will be able to continue to prosper as we do today.

Real sustainability isn't the same as simply conservation, and leaving all natural places alone. While true nature refuges are critically important, people also need to produce many goods from the land to support themselves. I felt that part of my responsibility was to continue to keep this land productive, to help provide for human needs as well as to be a wild and natural place. A question kept coming back to me: Was our farm, in this rocky and hilly Canadian forest, even capable of being productive enough to support my family and our needs? As I began to work through all of the possibilities, I considered how it was possible to compare them; Should we grow trees or corn? One way to answer these questions was to simply ask which one would yield the highest dollar returns. This is certainly the typical way that farmers make their land-use decisions. While we wished to make a few bucks, concerns of sustainability stayed at the fore, and our main incomes will always be off the farm. I then had an epiphany about our land use planning. It wasn't the most original, but it is one that is key to land management, and I'll share it with you: All farming and most sustainable land use is the farming of sunlight, capturing some of those rays and using the energy contained in them. One takes sunlight, and converts it into maple trees or wheat, chickens or deer. So my realization meant that the question that I was asking about providing for my family was really a question about energy. I started to come around to thinking about sustainable land use more broadly as being about energy; how much energy could we capture and use? Was a farm like ours capable of producing enough to support the energy-intensive modern lifestyle of my family? How much energy does it really take to support a family anyway?

At the same time as we were purchasing our property, we were also busy with starting to design a house that we would build on a hilltop overlooking the river. For years I had also been interested in architecture, particularly green building practices and energy efficiency, and so we decided to design from the start a place that would be incredibly energy efficient. We received an extra push for efficiency from the fact that our building site was so far from the nearest powerlines that it would have cost a small fortune to run power to our new home. Solar photovoltaics were going to be the only reasonable way to provide electricity. Going with off-grid solar almost automatically puts one in an energy conservation mind-set, because for every extra light or computer you want to power, you need to pony up more cash upfront to install more panels and batteries. Energy of all kinds was going to be at a premium at this location, so we made decisions to reduce use and keep all appliances and mechanical systems efficient. To reduce heating needs, we took inspiration from several different green design movements to incorporate passive solar design and superinsulation to our home. All in all, we reduced by approximately 70% the amount of energy that we will need to use in this home compared to standard construction. In working with an architect and tradesmen of all kinds, I learned the ins and outs of energy flows around and through a home, and in many ways they really didn't seem so different from the energy flows involved with land use (If you are interested, see my blog about that house here).

While working on both land use planning and home design, I was consulting innumerable sources, on forestry, farming, energy, architecture, and more. As written, each of these sources was aimed primarily at specialists in each field, those that wished to take part in these practices. What wasn't there, and that I yearned for, were some of the threads that tied all of these concepts and practices together. How did each of these fields relate to the human level, an individual, a family? Again, I could see that in each, a common theme of energy use was central to each of these endeavors. Sustainability and renewable energy are tightly intertwined, and I was learning enormous amounts about how these systems worked, and could see a place for sharing this knowledge with others.

Herein lies the heart of this story. I have explored the intersection of energy and land use at a human level, and want to share that story. This story is an investigation of energy, renewable energy, a single source to walk through the basics of energy use and energy production in a home and on the land. I want to tackle such questions as; How do different uses of solar energy actually compare? How do they measure up to fossil fuels or nuclear energy? How much land do we actually need to support people sustainably? If we tried to go to an all renewable, all sustainable economy, could we do it while maintaining our current standard of living?

The lens I use to examine all of these questions is our forested farm, looking at the question of what we have already done and what we could do in the future. Hopefully, by looking at these different choices on a small scale, in human terms, ideas about energy will click for some people who have never really understood, or perhaps never thought about, the energy that we use each and every day.

A few disclaimers are needed, just to get things started with clarity. First of all, with a story like this, comparing different forms of land use, different types of energy storage and conversion, a lot of numbers are going to be needed. Comparing land use in terms of energy requires a lot of calculations based on the sorts of products one could produce. At the same time, these things are complicated, and so it is extremely difficult to pin down those numbers precisely, there is always a range. I try to simplify everything down to rough estimates, to get a feel for the landscape without trying to get get complete precision. Second, the economics of all of these choices are mostly left out - the incomes that could be generated are important, and references to them are made, but energy is the focus here, not dollars. In order to keep it manageable, this is not meant to at all be a how-to manual for any of the topics in it; materials like that are the sorts of sources that I used to put together this story. Instead, it is meant to broadly educate about energy and land use, to draw attention to the some of the considerations we ought to be focusing on, and realign the discussion about sustainability to issues of energy - how we produce it, use it, and how we can continue to have a high standard of living without destroying the world.

Though the numbers are important, there is a story to be told that doesn't depend on those numbers. Through all of the sections I put a less technical discussion at the beginning, and follow it up with a more in-depth numbers-based investigation.

Next up: What is energy?