Alternatives to Absurdity

It occurred to me yesterday, while riding the train back from another speaking gig, that this must be a supremely difficult time to be a satirist. Imagine any statement, no matter how preposterous, and it’s a safe bet that somebody in America will be saying it with a straight face before long.

The example that came first to mind as the landscape rolled past was Ann Coulter, the Lady Gaga of modern American pseudoconservatism. Coulter’s claim to public notice is the fact that she’ll say or do quite literally anything to get attention, and her latest stunt was up, or perhaps down, to her usual standards. Commenting on the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan, Coulter insisted that there’s nothing to worry about, because nuclear radiation is good for you. If someone is willing to start a bake sale to send her to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, I’m in a generous mood; put me down for two dozen cookies, and I’ll throw in the cost of a beach towel and a bikini, so she can bathe in the healthful, gently glowing waters streaming out of the No. 2 reactor.

Coulter’s utterance was far from the most absurd thing being said about the Fukushima disaster, to be sure. My readers may recall the people who insisted that the best way to respond to last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill was to blow up the leaking pipe with a nuclear warhead. Yes, the same suggestion is now being directed toward the Fukushima plant. I admit there’s a certain psychotic grandeur in the notion that a nuclear disaster can somehow be fixed by lofting three half-melted reactor cores and thousands of fuel rods into the atmosphere in a single mushroom cloud, so that hundreds of tons of radioactive waste can come drifting down across the Japanese landscape, killing thirty or forty million people and leaving half the island of Honshu uninhabitable for centuries to come. As a serious proposal, though – and some of the people making it appear to be serious – it’s hard to think of better evidence that a significant fraction of the American people has simply stopped thinking at all.

Still, the crowning bit of unintentional satire in recent news came from the White House. It’s a subtle joke, and one that seems to have gone over the heads of most of its listeners, but that’s one of the risks run by truly inspired humor. The comic routine in question, of course, was President Obama’s speech on energy policy last Wednesday.

More precisely, Obama’s speech outlined an energy nonpolicy. He seems to have had his speechwriters scrape up every cliché from every speech on energy policy made by every other resident of the White House since Richard Nixon, and the result was very nearly a nonspeech about his nonpolicy: a sort of verbal pantomime, in which Obama pretended to be doing something about energy in much the same way a mime pretends to be trapped inside a phone booth. He proposed, in effect, that the energy policy of the United States should include all the same things it’s included for the last thirty years, under the pretense that this is something new, and in the serene conviction that the same policy choices that backed us into our present corner will somehow succeed in getting us out of it.

What made Obama’s nonpolicy nonspeech such a bravura performance, though, was the easy grace with which it avoided mentioning any of the policy options that might actually do some good. The words “conservation” and “efficiency” appeared in the text only in reference to shiny new products that use up one set of resources to conserve another, and the only comments about solar energy referred to exactly the sort of complex, centralized approach that’s consistently proven uneconomical since the 1870s; mature, off-the-shelf technologies such as solar water heating and passive solar space heating, which could slice good-sized collops off our national energy use in a hurry, were never mentioned. None of the sensible steps that reduced US energy use by 15% between 1975 and 1985 had a place in Obama’s nonplan.

Mind you, Obama was quite right to suggest that America can cut its dependence on foreign oil by 30% by 2025. In fact, America will cut its dependence on foreign oil by at least 30%, and probably quite a bit more, by 2025; it’s just that the cut in question is not going to be made by any choice of ours, much less as a result of any of the fancy technological ventures Obama spent his speech promoting. It will be made because faltering oil production, rising competition for the oil that remains, and the decline of American imperial power compared to its emerging rivals, will slice a shrinking pie in new and, for Americans, distinctly unwelcome ways.

As that happens, the approaches ignored by Obama – and, to be fair, by the rest of today’s US political establishment, on both sides of the increasingly irrelevant divide between the major parties – are going to be among the very few options open to individuals in America and elsewhere who hope to ride the curve of energy decline to something like a soft landing. One example, which I’d like to explore in detail here, is the use of passive solar retrofits for domestic space heating.

Back in the halcyon days of the 1970s appropriate-tech movement, a great deal of effort went into designing passive solar architecture, and the results were impressive by any standard. In most areas, given a decent southern exposure, a house designed for passive solar heating, and adequately insulated and weatherized to make best use of it, requires little or no heating other than what the sun provides. The one drawback, and it’s a significant one, is that the house has to be designed and built with passive solar heating in mind. Those of my readers who expect to have the resources to build a house from the ground up, or have one built for them, should certainly look into passive solar designs; the rest of us will be living in existing construction, and the possibilities here are more limited.

The most important limit, of course, is that you can’t do passive solar at all unless a good part of the south or southeast face of your house receives direct sunlight during at least a significant fraction of each winter, spring, and autumn day. Some houses have that option; many others don’t, and if you don’t, you need to do something else. If you do, on the other hand, you have at least three options available, and they can be used alone or together.

The first is a thermosiphon air panel or TAP. Those of my readers who remember how a passive thermosiphon solar water heater works already know most of what they need to know here. A TAP is a wide, flat box with glass on the front, insulation on the sides and back, and a sheet of metal running parallel to the glass, with a couple of inches of air space between metal and glass. Air comes in at the bottom, flows over the metal, and goes out the top into the space that needs to be heated. Position the panel in the sun, and the metal very quickly gets hot; the air passing over the panel picks up the heat, and you very quickly have cold air being sucked into the pipe that leads to the bottom, and hot air being blown out the pipe that leads out of the top.

The TAP is one of the cheapest solar technologies you can make – it costs about as much as a good solar oven – and it produces heat fast: if you live someplace where winters are cold but sunny, and you can place the panel so that it catches rays as soon as the sun comes up, you can have hot air warming your house within a half hour or so of dawn. The downside is that the heat goes away as soon as the sun does, and at night, the thermosiphon effect can work in reverse – hot air gets sucked in the top, flows over the chilly metal, and emerges as an icy breeze at floor level. Thus a TAP needs valves to cut off the air flow when the sun goes away; it wouldn’t be too hard to work a light or temperature sensor into the system, so that the valves close automatically whenever there isn’t sunlight falling on the panel. If you’ve got a well-insulated and thoroughly weatherstripped house, the heat from a couple of well-placed panels can keep you comfortable well into the night, but the technology does have its limits for round-the-clock heating.

To balance the quick but unsteady heat of a TAP system, you need another system that soaks up heat whenever the sun is out, and distributes it to the house in a steadier manner throughout the day and night. The key to getting this effect is thermal mass. Some substances are good at soaking up heat; when it’s hot, they absorb it, and when it gets cold, they radiate it. Old-fashioned fireplaces used to include plenty of brick or stone precisely because these have plenty of heat storage capacity, and will still be radiating heat via infrared rays long after the fire has been banked down for the night. In the same way, most passive solar systems use plenty of thermal mass to soak up the sun’s heat in the daytime, and radiate it all night.

There are several different gimmicks for retrofitting a house to use thermal mass. One of the standard methods, back in the day, was the trombe wall. What’s a trombe wall? Basically, it’s a wall-sized TAP with thermal mass rather than a metal sheet inside the glass. One very effective, though rather ugly, way of building a trombe wall back in the day was to take black 55-gallon drums full of water and stack them in a sturdy frame so that their ends faced the sunlight; glass went over the sunward surface, a few inches from the ends of the drums, and the wall on the other side was pierced by vents at top and bottom, which could be opened and closed. Some kind of insulation to cover the glass on a cold night or cloudy days was a common addition that improved the efficiency of the system quite a bit. Water is among the very best thermal masses, but brick, stone, or concrete will also do a good job, and the less unsightly trombe walls tended to use these instead of barrels of water.

The next step up from the trombe wall, and one of the most widely used and thoroughly tested of the passive solar retrofit technologies, is the attached solar greenhouse. You build this onto the south or southeast face of your house, sealing it up tight so that air doesn’t leak in or out, and put a trombe wall between the greenhouse and the rest of the house; the floor of the greenhouse may also be made of heat-absorbing brick, stone, or concrete, to add to the effect. Sunlight streaming in through the glazing warms the air and the trombe wall inside, and heat then radiates from the thermal mass to the rest of the house, regulated by vents that can be opened or closed; the greenhouse should also be vented to the outside on hot days. In addition to a significant heat gain, of course, the greenhouse also allows you to keep fresh vegetables in the diet from early spring into late fall, and right through winter in climates that aren’t too arctic.

Quite a few experiments were made with active solar space heating – that is, systems that collect heat from the sun and then pump it somewhere else. It can be done, but because of the diffuse nature of solar heat, the efficiencies are low, and you very quickly end up using (and losing) more energy in the process than you gain by it. That’s been a persistent problem all along with attempts to run complex systems on the diffuse and intermittent energy flows that can be gotten from renewable sources. Too many people, faced with that reality, either give up on renewables altogether, or waste their time and resources trying to find some gimmick that will allow a diffuse and intermittent energy source to do the same things as a concentrated and instantly available one.

Given that renewables are the only energy supply we can count on for the long term, the first choice is not very helpful. Given that the laws of nature are under no compulsion to provide humanity with the kind of energy supplies that the fraction of humanity currently living in industrial societies seem to think they are entitled to get, the second one is not much better. The viable alternative, of course, is to recognize that renewable energy sources can’t simply be shoved into existing roles as replacements for oil, coal, and natural gas; they require different ways of thinking about energy, and imply an entirely different kind of energy technology.

That kind of energy technology – the ecotechnic kind, to use a term I’ve discussed here several times in the past – barely exists as yet. The thermosiphoning air panels, trombe walls, and attached solar greenhouses that emerged as the best products of a decade of lively experimentation are baby steps in the direction of the ecotechnic energy systems of the far future. Still, just as baby steps are precisely what’s most appropriate when a baby starts learning to walk, these simple, flexible, and inexpensive approaches are good ways to make a start on the task of learning how to live comfortably on the diffuse energy flows nature provides.

It’s also important to remember that all these things can be put to use by individuals, families, and local community groups with readily available resources, very much including salvage – old windows, for example, make excellent glazing for all three of the systems just discussed. That’s important, since the political class here in America seems to have decided that our nation’s apparently limitless reserves of absurdity can be used to replace its dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. While they’re busy making nonspeeches about nonplans or insisting that death is good for your health, those of us interested in alternatives to absurdity can get to work.


The starting point for this week’s techologies, here again, is the Master Conserver collection at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website; the papers you’ll need are on Passive Solar Heating -- Residential and Solar Greenhouses. Ed Mazria’s classic The Passive Solar Energy Book has plenty of information on passive solar systems generally, and The Integral Urban House by Sim van der Ryn, et al., has – among many other useful things – a good chapter on solar systems.

For solar greenhouses, the best books I know are Rick Fisher and Bill Yanda’s classic The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse and the predictably massive and detailed Rodale Press book on the subject, James C. McCullagh (ed)., The Solar Greenhouse Book.