August 18, 2017: State of The States

Hello again from warm and sunny Missoula, Montana. Having spent the last couple of weeks catching up with old friends, making plans, gathering materials, choosing colours and doing prep work for the renovations to my son’s house we’ve actually started to make some progress. We’ve torn out the horrible old carpet in the dining area and part of the living room, painted the ceiling and prepared the sub-floor. Tomorrow we’ll pick up the new flooring material and start getting it sanded, sealed and sanded again in preparation for laying. We’ve also started making repairs to the weatherboard cladding around the outside and preparing it for repainting. Next week we should have more to show for our efforts.

For now I thought our Australian readers might be interested to know what it’s like in USA at the moment. I can’t say much about the rest of the country but Missoula appears to be booming!

Cost of Living

When I returned to Australia five years ago after living here for twenty I was astounded by how expensive Australia had become. The situation hasn’t changed much in the interim. Some things like food, electronics and plastic crap from China are about the same cost here as at home. But other things like energy, clothing and beer are much cheaper.

Petrol here is about US$2.40/gallon which translates to about AU$0.76/Litre… about half what we pay.

You can buy a good quality pair of jeans here for about US$20 compared to about AU$75 at home…also about half.

And you can buy a case of beer for about US$15 compared to about AU$40 at home… about half once again.

The one thing that seems to have changed a lot since I left here is the cost of renting a house. You can still buy a house here for about half the cost of one in the Southern Highlands of NSW (where the Greeny Flat is located) but rents, which used to be much cheaper, have gone up dramatically.

The last house I lived in before I left Missoula had four bedrooms, was in a great location and we paid US$900/month (rents in the States are almost always calculated by the month rather than by the week as in Australia). That house would have probably cost about US$300,000 to buy at the time. Now you could probably still buy it for about US$400,000 but to rent it would be more like US$1400/month. As an investment that would give a gross return of about 4.2%. So, while house prices have gone up about 33%, rents have gone up 66% to the point where you’d be mad not to buy a house if you could afford the deposit.

The same house in Mittagong would cost about AU$700,000 and rent for about AU$550/week or AU$2200/month (US$1740). That would give a gross return of about 3.8%. So the return on investment is about the same but the price of houses anywhere near Sydney is so high that many people, including Cintia and I, simply can’t afford to get into the market.

The other huge difference between buying a house here and buying one in Australia is that here, you can lock in a mortgage rate of around 3.5% for thirty years, which is another reason why you’d be mad not to buy a house here if you could. As our Aussie readers will know, you might get a 3.5% interest rate in Australia but it won’t be locked in, it will be variable and at the whim of the banks and the economy. With Australia’s citizens reportedly being the most indebted in the world and most of those loans being subject to variable interest rates, it seems that our economy is highly vulnerable to any significant rise in interest rates.

State of Sustainability

When I first left Australia to live here in the states (about twenty five years ago) I felt like we were a long way ahead of America in our efforts to create more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of living. When I left Montana to return to Oz about five years ago I thought that Australia had gone backwards while America had advanced to the point where it was well ahead of us in those efforts. Coming back here now I have to say that I think Australia has gone even further backwards and America has gone even further ahead.

Admittedly Missoula is a very progressive town with a lot of left-leaning, environmentally and socially aware people. I’m sure things are vastly different in other parts of this country. But here, at least, it seems like every other car is a Prius, every neighbourhood has a community garden, biking and walking are encouraged (to the point where every car driver will stop to allow pedestrians and bicycles to cross the road) and everywhere you look there is another cool thing like Home Resource (the building materials recycling centre where Sam and I are getting lots of goodies for his house renovations), MUD (the Missoula Urban Demonstration project which houses an extensive tool library that will be very handy over the next couple of months of home renovations) or (Free Cycles which collects old bike parts, combines them into workable machines and where Cintia and I were able to borrow a couple of two-wheelers to use while we’re here in town).

This town seems to be full of people doing interesting things that help to build community, reduce environmental burdens and save people money. And it’s not just a few dedicated people on the fringes, the State of Montana has also passed very stringent energy efficiency requirements for new buildings, something that Australia (and NSW in particular) has most certainly NOT done.

Perhaps the only sustainability area in which Australia is still leading the world is in the installation of rooftop solar where I believe we have the highest number of panels per person. This is probably due to three things; high government subsidies; high electricity costs; and lots of sunshine. Montana doesn’t get anywhere near as much sun as we do in Australia. Electricity costs here are much lower at around US$0.12/kWh compared to AU$0.25/kWh (NSW price equivalent to about US$0.20/kWh). And the cost of installing solar here is much higher. A 2.5kW system here costs about US$5000 after rebates compared to about AU$3000 (about US$2400) at home. The big difference here in Montana is that the homeowner gets the same price for the excess solar they put into the grid as they pay for the electricity they take out of the grid. This means that their Feed In Tarriff is much higher than ours so, over time, their solar systems will pay for themselves in about the same time period (i.e. about 6-7 years for homes).


So there you have it, some things are better here and some are worse. Most of the people I know seem to be ignoring the fact that there’s a petulant narcissist running the country and getting on with community life in this wonderful town. Missoula really is a great place to live or to visit and I think we, in Australia, have a lot to learn from their efforts to create a vibrant, sustainable and equitable society. It has a great deal to recommend it…

but it’s a LONG way from a beach.

August 11, 2017: Cool Stuff

This will be a very quick Newsletter for this week. Cintia and I are currently sitting in one of the many micro-breweries in this part of the world, drinking a Rye Ale and using their free wifi. This particular establishment is in Helena, Montana and is called the Ten Mile Creek Brewery but it’s just one of dozens of micro-breweries that have sprung up in Western Montana since I used to live here. Missoula has gone crazy with them. It seems there’s one on every corner and they all seem to be full of customers all the time. The all have a nice, crafty atmosphere, live music and interesting brews. If you like beer, this is pretty close to heaven.

Solar Good, Batteries Bad For the Environment?

Meanwhile, from back home, comes this article from Solar Quotes which cites a peer-reviewed study published in Scientific American which basically states that solar panels are good for the environment but batteries are not. This is a fairly controversial position to take as you can tell if you read the comments that follow the article.

If you’re thinking about getting a battery for your home solar system I think it’s worth considering. For me the subject was best summed-up by the following comment on the article.

I can say with 100% assurance I am installing battery storage in order to give the finger to the big power companies that are holding consumers to ransom. I installed my PV system to help cut emissions.

$5000 Electric Vehicle by GM

General Motors' new $5000 electric vehicle

General Motors’ new $5000 electric vehicle

I’ve written a lot about electric vehicles and how I wish someone would come out with a small, simple EV with decent range for a reasonable price. I’ve often said that I thought it would be either an Indian of Chinese company that did it. Who would have guessed that it would be the US car giant, General Motors?

According to this article from New Atlas, GM has launched a tiny EV called the Baojun E100 in China with a range of  155km and a price tag of $5,300. This sounds fantastic to me… the only problem is, it’s only going to be available in China.

Why, oh why, can’t someone offer something like this in Australia, the US or Europe where our cars just seem to keep getting bigger, more complex and more expensive?

That’s all I have time for this week… too many new brews to try.

Cheers, Andy

August 4, 2017: Going to Montana

Actually, we’re already in Montana. Cintia and I have come over for a while to help my son, Sam, renovate his house.

This will be a very quick Newsletter this week because there’s free music in the park by the river this evening. Missoula’s a great town for good music and free community events so we’re planning to make the most of it.

Sam and I spent the day measuring up and discussing what he and his partner would like to do with the house and what their priorities are. As you’ll be able to tell from the photos below, the house has plenty of room for improvement. It’s a bit of a ramshackle little shack but Sam’s already done a great job of making it nice and liveable inside. We bought it together a couple of years ago and despite being a bit run-down, it’s in a great location, we got it for a great price and the zoning allows for all sorts of future possibilities.

Meanwhile we’re going to do what we can to spruce it up on a very tight budget. It looks like the first project will be to replace the nasty old carpet in the living room with a nice floating bamboo floor. But before we can do that we might need to make some minor changes to door locations, etc. We’ll know more tomorrow. Right now I’m off for a swim and a dance…. it’s hot here!

The outside of Sam's little house in Missoula, Montana

The outside of Sam’s little house in Missoula, Montana

The living room of Sam's house.

The living room of Sam’s house.

July 28, 2017: Episode 13 – West Side Shade Awning and Deck

It’s been a while since we made our last video about the ongoing Energy Retrofit of the old fibro cottage next to the Greeny Flat. I’ve had quite a few readers send messages saying they miss seeing the progress of the project. But don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten, I just wanted to get to a good stopping point before compiling this latest video.

In our last episode back in May we replaced the sewer lines down the western side of the house. The old lines were terracotta and had occasionally been plugged up with roots in the past. We certainly didn’t want to have to deal with that after we had built a deck over the top of them so we had to replace them before we could proceed with the deck.

Since then we’ve been working away at building the deck and awning out on the western side. The deck will be a nice addition to the house but, from the energy efficiency and comfort points of view, it’s the shade awning that will really make a difference. It will protect that western wall from the hot afternoon sun in summer as well as providing a covered walkway from the back door across to the laundry and most of the way to the garage.

Check out the video below to see how it all came together. In the next episode I will explain how we are creating a rainwater harvesting system. Thanks for watching.

July 21, 2017: Now That’s True Sustainability!

We hear the words ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Sustainability’ bandied about by politicians and businessmen so often they have come to mean little more than ‘Profitable’. Even in the worlds of Green Building, Environmental Activism and Energy Efficiency, ‘Sustainable’ has been used to describe many, many things that are blatantly and clearly NOT sustainable. And I’ll be the first to admit that I have been guilty of this myself. Nothing I have ever designed or built could be described as truly sustainable (except perhaps the bark and brush cubby houses I built as a kid) and yet, even on the homepage of this website I describe the Greeny Flat as ‘Sustainable’.

Well I’m sorry to break it to you but… it’s not…. I lied.

What I should have said is that it is much MORE sustainable than most new houses built in the ‘developed’ world. Unfortunately that’s not much to brag about because most new homes, especially here in Australia, are shockingly unsustainable and horribly environmentally damaging.

So what is ‘Sustainable’ and where can we find it?

The United Nations defines ‘Sustainable Development’ as  ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ and this is still the most concise explanation I have found. Anything that we do now that uses up finite resources or damages the natural environment has the potential to limit the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. So using materials like steel and concrete (as we have in the Greeny Flat) is clearly unsustainable. And I can tell you, from decades of trying, that building anything in a truly sustainable way in our culture is pretty much impossible. The closest you can get is by building with natural materials like mud-brick, rammed-earth, straw-bale (although straw-bale presupposes that you have a tractor and a baling machine which run on diesel), timber (usually cut, milled and dried using fossil-fuel energy), bamboo (usually shipped to Australia from China or Vietnam using fossil fuels) and various forms of natural fibres (such as cellulose, cotton, and wool) for insulation. But what about windows? What about roofing iron? What about plumbing and drain pipes? What about water heaters, stoves and other appliances? What about solar panels? Not to mention the vehicles we drive to get from our houses to the places we work, shop, learn, etc. These are all made from, and often powered by, non-renewable resources.

Is this sustainable? What about the fact that mud-brick is a very poor insulator?

Is this sustainable? What about the fact that mud-brick is a very poor insulator?

Hopefully you see my point that nothing we build in Australia (or most of the world for that matter) is truly sustainable. So where can we find examples of true sustainability?

The answer to that can be found in indigenous cultures all over the world. The reason for that is because indigenous people did not have fossil-fuels. When you think deeply about it, almost every unsustainable thing we do can be connected to using fossil fuels as an energy source. In fact that’s how I like to gauge whether something is truly sustainable… if you take away fossil fuels, can you keep doing it? In most cases, for us the answer is NO.

But indigenous people didn’t have that dilemma. They didn’t have a choice. They had to live in harmony with their natural environment or they would die. And they had to build shelters using local, natural materials that could be gathered, transported and erected by hand or with the help on an animal or two. They built with what they had at hand.

In Africa that was mud and grass.

In Africa that was mud and grass.

In the arctic it was ice.

In the arctic it was ice

In North America it was sticks and hides

In North America it was sticks and hides

And in Europe it was stone and clay

And in Europe it was stone and clay

I’m not suggesting that we should all go back to living in mud huts (although I have to say that the European hill town above looks like a place I could easily hang my hat). All I’m saying is that when it comes to sustainability we have a lot to learn from indigenous cultures.

And the culture that we have the most to learn from is the one that has proven to be the most sustainable on earth…. ever! I am, of course, talking about Australian Aboriginal culture. I recently read an eye-opening book called ‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe which turns the white-man’s view of aboriginals as stone-age hunter-gatherers on its head. They actually had very sophisticated agricultural techniques and probably invented farming at least 20,000 years before anyone else on the planet.

The proof of their ability to live sustainably on the land (in an extremely harsh and unforgiving climate) is in the longevity of their culture. Just this week it was announced that we now have definitive proof that aboriginals occupied the north of Australia at least 65,000 years ago. And when whities arrived a mere couple of hundred years ago, they were still here taking beautiful care of the environment on which they depended. Now that is what I call truly sustainable!

Here are links to a couple of articles about the latest archeological discoveries up in the Northern Territory. One is from the Sydney Morning Herald, the other from The Conversation.

I think the world has a great deal to learn from Aboriginal ways of relating to, caring for and nurturing the natural environment. Ways that can help us all live more sustainably.

Thanks for reading.

July 14, 2017: How To Choose The Best Electricity Retailer

Am I getting the best deal for electricity?... Who knows?

Am I getting the best deal for electricity?… Who knows?

If you’re like me you find it difficult and frustrating to compare one electricity retailer with another. Some offer a discount if you pay on time, some if you use a certain amount of electricity. Some have one price for the first so many kWh and a higher price for any usage over that. Others have a lower price for higher usage, etc, etc. In short, they seem to deliberately make it as difficult as possible to compare one with another, probably in the hope that we’ll all just give up and stay with whatever we’ve got.

But, as most of our readers will be aware, almost all electricity retailers in Australia have recently increased their prices, some by a LOT! So shopping around for the best deal can be well worth the effort.

In our Newsletter on June 9th I wrote about a new, ethical electricity retailer called Energy Locals. I explained how I had just decided to sign up with them because their prices were very competitive and they were willing to guarantee that the price would not change for the next year (without requiring me to sign up for a lock-in contract). Well, I’m delighted to say that they’ve gone back on their word.

A few days ago I received an email from them saying that they had changed their minds and decided to change their prices after all… and they’ve lowered them. So for the next year we’ll only be paying the following (including GST):

  • 24.2c/kWh for the electricity we use (sometimes called the ‘Usage Charge’ which makes sense)
  • 90.2c/day to be connected to the grid (sometimes called the ‘Supply Charge’ just to confuse you)
  • And I’ll be receiving 12.87c/kWh for any excess solar we export to the grid (called the Feed-in Tariff or FIT).
  • (You can view their price fact sheet for Endeavour Energy Customers at this link

If anyone knows of a better deal I’d love to hear about it. Quite a few of my friends have joined another ‘Green’ retailer called Powershop and a quick check of their website shows their current prices to be (including GST):

  • 31.1c/kWh
  • 104.9c/day
  • and with a 12.8c/kWh FIT

So it would seem like I’m better off, however Powershop also offers an 18% discount if you sign up for their Online Saver program (whatever that is). This would drop their prices to 25.5c/kWh and 86c/day  so that’s pretty comparable to what I’m paying. But it’s not very easy to compare since it depends on how much electricity I use whether I’ll be better off or not. I’ve also heard some complaints that Powershop waited until five minutes to midnight on June 30th to announce a significant price rise for the new financial year. This deeply annoyed at least one of our readers who immediately decided to join Energy Locals instead.

One of the reasons I like and appreciate Energy Locals is that they don’t complicate their pricing with conditional discounts or different prices depending on how much energy I use, etc, etc. They tell me straight up how much I’ll pay for electricity, how much I’ll pay each day to be connected to the grid and how much they’ll pay me for my excess solar. I like that…. a LOT!

Those three numbers are the key ones to understand when you’re investigating your options for electricity suppliers. It’s no good just focusing on the lowest price per kWh or the highest FIT. You can really get stung with the other fees if you’re not careful.

For example, I received an email recently from someone with Enova Energy (which is a small, community-based and renewable-focused electricity retailer based on the north coast of NSW). They wrote to tell me how excited they were to be able to offer a 16c FIT. And yes, 16c/kWh for any excess solar I put back into the grid is an excellent price in today’s market. Only a month ago most people were only getting 6c/kWh. So a lot of people might have jumped at that offer and said, ‘Sign me up, Scotty’.

But not so fast, what about the price I have to pay for each kWh I use and the daily ‘Supply Charge’ for each day I’m connected to the grid? I emailed them back to ask those exact questions and didn’t get an answer. So I looked it up and let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to find on their website. Click here if you’d like to see their Energy Price Fact Sheet which I eventually found but I can sum it up for you as follows.

  • 31.9c/kWh (I’m paying 24.2)
  • 156.2c/day ‘Supply Charge’ (I’m paying 90.2)
  • and 16c/kWh FIT (I’m getting 12.87)

So you can see that, in spite of the high Feed-in Tariff (FIT) I would be paying much more for the energy I use and heaps more per day to be connected to the grid. Even worse than that, when you read the fine print you find that they add a 0.6% fee for bills paid by card and a 0.25c/day fee for having a smart meter. That last one I really don’t get! A smart meter saves the retailer money because they can read the meter remotely and don’t have to send out a person to fend off the dog while they read the numbers, so why are they charging more for having one?

And what about the big boys? I checked the AGL website and their Energy Price Fact Sheet for solar customers is even harder to find and more confusing. The basic numbers are:

  • 31.9c/kWh (I’m paying 24.2)
  • 92.4c/day ‘Supply Charge’ (I’m paying 90.2)
  • and 11.1c/kWh FIT (I’m getting 12.87)

At first glance I appear to be getting a much better deal however their prices are greatly complicated by the ‘Pay-on-time’ discounts they offer. If you sign up for a one year plan you can choose to get a discount of either 22% off the usage charges (so the price per kWh would be 24.8c) OR you can opt for 14% off both the usage and daily ‘Supply Charges’ (so 27c/kWh and 79.5c/day). Either way I’m probably still better off with Energy Locals and besides, I don’t want to support Australia’s biggest polluter and I don’t like the way AGL makes their billings so indecipherable.

So are you thoroughly confused and frustrated yet? I know I was before Energy Locals came along. Now I’m happy with the deal I’m getting and satisfied that I understand it. I also greatly appreciate the assistance they offer to a whole range of not-for-profit organisations. According to their website, ‘Half our profit goes to Aussie communities, charities and into new local renewable energy’. I’m not sure quite how that works since they’re a not-for-profit themselves but you get the idea. I wasn’t able to find a list of all the organisations they support but when you sign up you get to choose which one you’d like your share of the money to go to.

I might write to them and suggest that they add more information on their website about who they support and how much they have given. But the simple fact that some of my electricity bill goes to support a worthwhile cause makes me feel even better about my choice to join Energy Locals.

Just to be clear… I do not receive anything from Energy Locals (or any other supplier for that matter). For me it’s important to be able to offer unbiased advice to my clients and readers. I just like what they’re doing and their ethical and renewable energy philosophy.

So does Energy Locals offer the best deal of all the electricity retailers? I can’t say for sure and it depends on how much power you use, how much solar you export and various other factors. If any readers know of a better deal I’ll be interested to hear about it and I’ll pass on the information. Meanwhile I’m very happy with my decision to join Energy Locals and I encourage you (if you live in NSW or SE Queensland) to give them a call on 1-300-693-637 and see what they can do for you.

Fuel Saving Tips for Car Drivers

This Newsletter is already too long so next week I’ll write more about the following video. This was sent to me by one of our readers in response to last week’s Newsletter about how much I am saving by driving my Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle on electricity rather than petrol. This video is about how to save fuel when driving one of those old petrol-powered cars. If that’s you, you might find this helpful.

July 7, 2017: A Year of PHEVing It.

Electric Vehicle Running Costs

As many of our readers will know only too well, June 30th is the end of the financial year here in Australia which means… it’s TAX TIME! Yay! Being self-employed means that part of my tax fun is figuring out what my vehicle expenses have been for the past year and how much of that was for business and how much for personal use. To help with that I keep very accurate records of my vehicle use. Every time I plug it in to charge or fill it with petrol I record the kilometers traveled, the number of kWh of electricity or litres of petrol used , the cost of petrol, the date and the purpose of the trip.

Over the last week I’ve had the intense joy of putting all of those records into a spreadsheet which allows me to, not only complete my tax return, but also to compare the running costs and fuel efficiency of running my Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) on either electricity or petrol. The results are pretty interesting…. they confirm that driving on electricity is cheaper and better for the environment than diving on petrol but they also possibly end up raising more questions than they answer.

We’ve had our PHEV for about a year-and-a-half now and I’ve written regularly about the experience, so I won’t go into the whole history again here (Click here if you want to read all of that). Suffice to say that we love our PHEV. We have a double bed set up permanently in the back with all our camp cooking gear stowed underneath so we can, and regularly do, head off down the coast or into the bush at the drop of a hat. It does everything we need smoothly, quietly and efficiently including towing a trailer and hauling tools and materials.

Best of all it allows us to use a lot of our excess solar power (in case you don’t know, the Greeny Flat produces about twice as much energy as we consume) to charge the car during the day. This allows me to do most of my local driving on clean and almost pollution-free renewable energy. So how efficient is it?

Those who have been reading the Newsletter for a long time will know that, when we bought the PHEV it came with the following sign on the back.

1.9L/100km... an eye-catching but extravagant claim!

1.9L/100km… at least that’s what the manufacturer claims.

This is based on some sort of European testing standard that allows for lots of plugging in and charging the vehicle between petrol top ups. Having tested ours for a year and a half I can confirm that this is possible (in fact I got an email from a reader who has managed to get 1.5l/100km from their Outlander PHEV) but that I haven’t managed it myself. The best I’ve done is 2.5l/100km and the average, as you can see in the spreadsheet below, has been 5.86l/100km over the last year. This is still very good for a vehicle of this size and versatility but it’s a long way from 1.9.

A screenshot showing the averages and totals from a year's worth of PHEV driving.

A screenshot showing the averages and totals from a year’s worth of PHEV driving.

The left hand side of the spreadsheet shows the results between electricity charges and the right hand side shows the results between petrol fill-ups. Over the year we drove 19119km at a total cost of $1472 of which $1,117 was petrol and less than $354 was electricity. I say less than because I have calculated this whole spreadsheet using the worst case cost of electricity which is when we are charging the car using grid power which costs us about 25c/kWh (including GST). The fact of the matter is that I almost always try to charge the car during the middle of the day (it helps that I work from home) which means the electricity is coming directly from our solar power system. You might think that this makes it free but it doesn’t.

If we weren’t using the power to charge the car it would be exported to the grid and (for the last year) we’ve been getting 10c/kWh for our Feed-in Tariff. So charging it with solar power effectively costs us 10c/kWh which is still much cheaper than grid power. But, while I know exactly how much electricity I have used to charge the car over the year, I have no way of knowing how much of that came from the grid and how much came from our solar system. So, for the purposes of the spreadsheet I have used the grid cost.

The key results (circled in blue above) from the spreadsheet is that running the car on expensive grid power (at 2.79c/km) is still less than half the cost of running it on petrol (at 6.81c/km). Even better than that, when we run it on solar power which is less than half the cost it likely only costs us about 1.2c/km.

BUT (notice this is a big but) none of it is as simple as that because the car doesn’t run on purely petrol or purely electricity in any sort of predictable way. The car decides for itself when it will use which fuel type. I can ask it to charge the battery using petrol and I can ask it to save the power that is in the battery but I can’t tell it to only use petrol or only use electricity. What that means is that the results in the spreadsheet are completely adulterated. Almost all of the results on the left for electricity use include a certain (and undefinable) amount of petrol use and all of the results on the right for petrol include a certain amount of electricity use.

This raises the question… what is the actual cost per kilometer of running the car purely on electricity (with no petrol used at all) versus purely on petrol (with no electricity)?

And the answer is… I don’t know.

However I can estimate from a closer look at the spreadsheet results that if I run the car purely on electric I can get about 5km/kWh at a cost of about 5c/km. And running it purely on petrol I get about 7.5l/100km at a cost of about 9.5c/km. So running it on petrol is still about twice the cost of running it on grid power and about five times the cost of running it on solar power.

These estimates are somewhat confirmed by one last calculation. If I take the total cost ($1,472) of diving the total kilometres (19,119) I end up with an average total running cost of 7.7c/km which sits perfectly between the 5c/km grid electricity cost and the 9.5c/km petrol cost.

This all leaves a lot of questions unanswered but the main thing we know is that it’s much, much cheaper to run our PHEV on solar power than on petrol. But what about the effect on the environment?

Electric Vehicle Emissions

In this Newsletter back in January 2016 I showed the following chart from

Carbon Emissions for various types of transportation

Carbon Emissions for various types of transportation

This shows that a medium sized petrol car produces about 191 grams of CO2 per km per person and an electric car produces about 43 grams (or about one fifth as much). So how does that compare to my own results?

That’s another very good question that is going to take some research and I will try to come back with an answer in next week’s Newsletter. In the meantime, if anyone can point me to a good source of information about carbon emissions from various fuel types (preferably in metric units) that would be very helpful. Thanks for reading.

June 30, 2017: Case Study – Holiday House Energy Upgrade

I recently had the pleasure of being invited to perform an energy audit on a holiday house in one of the many gorgeous villages on the south coast of NSW. The house in question is owned by a family from Canberra. The children are all adults now and the ten-year goal of the owners is to retire to the South Coast and live in the house permanently. In the meantime it is rented out as a holiday house with the income generated to be used to pay for the upgrades so that, by the time the couple retire, the house will be comfortable, energy-efficient, low-maintenance and ready to for them to retire to a life of relaxation in a beautiful part of the world. But before that happens, the house has some issues that need to be addressed.

In a case like this, before going to examine the house, the first thing I do is take a look at it from my private satellite… ok, it’s Google’s satellite and it’s fairly public but it’s still very helpful.

Image source: Google Earth

Image source: Google Earth

To protect the owner’s privacy I can’t show you where it is but I can tell you that it is in an excellent location. The site slopes north and is within easy walking distance of the beach and shops. It’s a perfect spot for a holiday (or a retirement for that matter). However, one look at the satellite image above reveals some very telling information about the house, such as…

  • There are tall trees shading the north and east sides of the house and the east side of the roof. Google Earth tells me that the image was taken on the 16th of August so, clearly, shading from these trees is limiting the solar gain through the morning and the middle of the day in winter.
  • There are other trees on the south side of the house which are helping protect it from cold winter winds.
  • Most importantly, the house is very exposed to the West and North-west. This is likely to present a problem in summer because hot western sun is very hard to control. On the upside, the west side of the roof has excellent solar access for the possible addition of a solar power system.

So, armed with that information, I headed down the south coast to have a closer look (I know, it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it, right?).

The two-storey west-facing wall of the house.

The two-storey west-facing wall of the house.

The first thing that struck me as I approached the house and which you can’t tell from the satellite image is that the house is two storeys. So the western wall which is exposed to the hot afternoon summer sun is twice as big and generating twice the amount of heat gain. The other thing you can’t tell from Google Earth is that, underneath those trees on the north side of the house is a beautiful, shady deck with a charming view through the tree trunks to the ocean. It was immediately obvious that cutting those trees down was not going to be an option.

The owners were there on a family holiday and we had a good chat over tea at the dining table. This revealed the following issues that they are hoping to address:

  1. The upstairs bedrooms get very hot in the summer and lack effective cross-ventilation.
  2. The west wall gets too hot to touch at times in the summer.
  3. In bushfire times the house has to be kept closed due to asthma issues and can become unbearably hot.
  4. The house is drafty in winter.

After a nice cup of tea, I did a thorough inspection of the house including climbing up on the roof, examining the structure in detail, looking closely at the areas under the house and inspecting the whole lot with an infrared camera. This revealed the following issues:

  • The biggest problem is (not surprisingly) the west wall. The lower part of the wall is somewhat insulated but the upper section not at all so heat was radiating through that wall like you wouldn’t believe. Unfortunately my IR camera wasn’t letting me take pictures that day so you’ll have to take my word for it… it was lit up like a Christmas tree.
  • The roof was not too bad by comparison but may need additional insulation in the future.
  • There are good, north facing windows that are currently being shaded and other’s that could use some shade in the summer time.
  • There is thermal mass on the ground floor that can be utilised to help keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer. Plus…
  • The house is potentially susceptible to termite invasion.
  • There is a moisture/rot problem developing along the east wall.
  • The gutters need to be kept clear of leaves.
  • And a downpipe at the south end of the west wall is not properly connected.

I won’t go into all the details here (if you would like to read the full report I presented to the owners at the end of my inspection you can find it by clicking here) but, in short I made a list of recommendations that included:

  1. Some simple actions that they can take right away to reduce the likelihood of a termite problem and to improve the general durability.
  2. Other low-or-no cost things they can do to help keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer. Things likeremoving shade cloths in winter, adding more shade in summer or moving furniture so that the sun shines on the floor slab in winter… that sort of thing.
  3. Prioritising the upgrade of the west wall so that it is properly insulated and air-sealed and windows are correctly placed to allow cross ventilation through the upstairs bedrooms in summer.
  4. Correcting a minor rot problem that is developing along the east wall and upgrading that wall as well (eventually all of the walls will get the same treatment).
  5. Installing a high-efficiency reverse-cycle air-conditioning unit. This will be particularly helpful on those bushfire days when opening the house for ventilation is not an option for the asthma sufferers.
  6. Upgrading the roof insulation if necessary.
  7. Installing a solar power system.
  8. Insulating and air-sealing under the exposed parts of the floor (this will help a lot with the draftiness in the house in winter).
  9. Replacing the existing electric element water heaters with heat pumps timed to run off the solar power system.
  10. Utilising energy efficient cooking equipment like slow-cookers, microwaves and induction cooktops.
  11. And, in the process of doing all of the above, allowing for the future addition of batteries and electric cars to the energy mix.

Basically I tried to provide them with a road map for how to move forward over the next ten or so years so that, when retirement time comes around, the house is ready for them to relax and be comfortable with manageable energy bills and low maintenance.

Since the house is already paid for, it’s a perfect opportunity for them to use the income produced by holiday rentals to fund the upgrades they want and make them tax-deductible in the process. This is very smart financial planning.

Plus there is a further benefit to upgrading a holiday house which is not available to most long-term rental landlords. Under most long-term leases, the electricity and/or gas bills are in the tenants name. Because the landlord doesn’t pay the energy bills, there is little or no incentive for him or her to spend money on upgrading the energy performance of the house. This leaves the tenant either uncomfortably hot and cold or stuck paying very high energy bills to keep the house comfortable.

In a holiday rental, the bills are in the landlord’s name so any improvements to the energy performance of the house will result in reduced costs and increased cashflow to the landlord, not to mention happier tenants because the house is more comfortable. This gives the landlord a big incentive to spend money on upgrades that also happen to reduce the carbon footprint of the house as well.

I’ll continue to advise the owners as this project moves ahead and I look forward to seeing how it all works out for them and reporting on the progress as the improvements happen over the coming years.

A sneak peak at the new deck and awning roof.

A sneak peak at the new deck and awning roof.

Meanwhile, I’m still plugging away at the energy retrofit of the cottage next to the Greeny Flat. Lately I’ve been working on adding a shade awning and deck on the west side of the house. This is nearly finished and I’ll put together another little video when it’s done. Then we’ll be installing a rainwater tank and a slow-combustion wood stove…. so stay tuned.

June 23, 2017: In The News This Week

I’d like to draw your attention to two articles that appeared in the press this week.

Southern Highlands Solar Challenge

Some of the Challenge Team working at the Welby Garden Centre

Some of the Challenge Team working at the Welby Garden Centre

The first is specific to our local community, the Southern Highlands of NSW, but readers anywhere are invited to help if you can. As outlined in this article from the Southern Highland News, I am involved with helping a wonderful local organisation called Challenge Southern Highlands raise money to install a 12kW solar power system on their roof. This is intended to be a community funded solar project run through Repower Shoalhaven but we need to raise $10,000 to get it off the ground (literally).

Challenge does fantastic work in our community helping people with disabilities find meaningful work and greater independence. This solar system will save them about $1000 a year for the first ten years and then much more after that. Those numbers are calculated at today’s electricity prices so the more grid prices increase, the more money they will save. We all know where electricity prices are headed so the savings should really stack up and that money will be put to good use helping people who need it most.

So far we have raised about $7000 so we only need about $3000 more. Climate Action Now Wingecarribee has very kindly offered to match all donations up to a total of $5000. In other words, for every $100 you donate, CANWin will match it with $100.

If you are willing and able to contribute to this excellent project helping people in need and reducing carbon emissions you can find details of how to make a donation at the following link.

If you want you donation to be tax deductible it needs to be by cheque, otherwise you can simply make a bank transfer. Thanks for giving it your consideration.

The Man Most Likely to Change The World

If you read the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday you might have come across this article from Good Weekend entitled ‘The Man Most Likely to Change the World‘. If not, I encourage you to click on the link and check it out. It’s a positive and encouraging look at a man with a strong moral compass plus the brains, motivation and financial backing to be a force for good in the world.

James is an American lawyer based in London who, with the help of his financial backers, fights and wins big law cases for his client… the Earth.

“Corporations speak in the grammar of money,” writes Thornton in his book. “If you want them to take [environmental] laws seriously, then you make them pay a great deal of money for violating them. Then, suddenly, they’ll wake up to it.” 

Winning cases was a lot of fun, he admits, “but the main ambition was to use [them] as leverage to force the government to start enforcing the law again … If unchecked, governments will always drift towards what companies want, because companies are fantastically more powerful than citizens.”

I’ve highlighted the last part of the quote above because it summarises very succinctly why I have been feeling frustrated for the last thirty years. Why is it that our elected representatives almost always seem to act in the best interests of the companies that contribute to their political campaigns rather than the people who vote for them? Because companies are fantastically more powerful than citizens.

It feels like such a relief to hear someone to state the simple truth of the matter and to know there are smart and determined people like James Thornton prepared to make a stand for what is right.

The article goes on to give some very interesting insights into the changing face of global geo-politics and Australia’s place in the world.

“They (China) are installing more renewable energy than anyone else,” Thornton says, “and they are moving to peak coal [in terms of consumption] – they predict by 2035, but it may be earlier. Some smart analysts think they may have already hit the peak.”

This has big implications for Australia as a resource exporter. “It’s brilliant,” says Thornton happily, “because Australia won’t be able to sell so much coal to China and can move to building a cleaner, first-world economy, instead of remaining a third-world extractive one. Australia has assumed that India and China will go on eating coal forever, but both countries are almost in a race to reduce dependency on fossil fuel.”

Adani’s proposed giant Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, strongly supported by both a Coalition federal government and Labor state government, is a crazy idea, says Thornton: “If it is ever built, it will be the biggest subsidised white elephant in the world.”

So Australia should be looking at other forms of energy? “Let me tell you how much they should be doing that,” says Thornton. “Saudi Arabia has just invested hugely into alternative energy even though they have loads of oil, which is cleaner than coal. They are looking at becoming producers of solar energy. Australia is bigger and has even more sun – it could be doing that, too.”

But what of President Donald Trump’s threat to take the US out of the (Paris) accord? Not such a bad thing, according to Thornton. “If America had kept a seat at the table, they would have kept trying to water down resolutions, making life very difficult for the other 194 signatories. Now China becomes the world leader on climate change and US economic interests will be hurt.”

The Paris accord has been criticised as too little, too late and some analysts have calculated the chance that climate change will cause a “rolling collapse” of civilisation at 50/50. Thornton, though, is an optimist. “Even if they’re right, that’s a 50 per cent chance of survival,” he says, “and we are doing something about it.” He is inspired by a marine biologist who noted the loss of 90 per cent of the world’s sharks: “She said, ‘Great news! Ten per cent are still there and if we stop murdering them, numbers will come back.’ “

It’s a good article that left me feeling energised and hopeful. Here’s the link again if you’d like to read it.

I’m Glad I Switched

In our Newsletter a couple of weeks ago I wrote about how we had just switched over to a new, ethical energy retailer called Energy Locals. One of the reasons for that was their offer to lock in their pricing for the next year without locking me into a contract. For the next twelve months I’ll be paying 23c/kWh and 85c/day (plus GST) which is less than I was paying PLUS I’ll be getting 10c/kWh for any solar power I export to the grid.

Over the last couple of weeks we (here in Australia) have all been hearing about energy price increases of up to 20% by the big companies like AGL, Origin and Energy Australia. So naturally I’ve been very happy that I made the switch to Energy Locals. I think it’s not too late to take advantage of their price lock before the end of the financial year so, if you’re worried about your electricity bills going up I encourage you to consider switching to Energy Locals.

…. and you could use the money you will save to make a donation to Challenge Southern Highlands’ solar project.

Thanks again. Andy.

June 16, 2017: Grow Your Bricks and Monitor Your Energy

I have written before about the global need to find alternatives to concrete. In this Newsletter from April 2015 I wrote about a wonderful bank building I was involved with in Missoula, Montana that didn’t use any Portland Cement or standard concrete in its construction. Instead we used a 100% recycled mixture of fly-ash (a by-product of coal-fired power plants) and crushed glass. I still have a little piece of that material sitting on the desk in front of me.

A terrible photo of a wonderful material.

A terrible photo of a wonderful material.

It might not look like much but this material is revolutionary. As far as I know, this was the first modern commercial building in the world to be built entirely without Portland Cement.

Why does that matter?

Because Portland Cement and concrete production are responsible for somewhere between 5 and 10% (depending on which study you read) of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. About half of those emissions come from the mining, refining and processing of the raw materials (limestone, sand, and gravel). The other half come from the process of calcination of the limestone which releases carbon dioxide.

For this reason, concrete is a major global problem in search of a solution. And today I was sent this article from the US Public Broadcasting Service about a new way to ‘grow’ concrete without emitting carbon dioxide in a process very similar to the way sea shells and coral reefs are formed.

BioMASON’s innovation hinges on a rod-shaped bacteria called Bacillus. The organism creates a microenvironment that enables the formation of this calcium carbonate [limestone] crystal,’ said Michael Dosier, chief technology officer at bioMASON and Ginger’s husband. ‘That’s effectively how it’s evolved in nature over billions of years.’

But rather than take months or years to harden, bioMASON’s bacteria cement finishes the deed in two to three days. The whole process happens at room temperature, without the need for burning fossil fuels or calcination.’

But wait… there’s more….

bioMASON’s microbe not only skips the high heat, it also absorbs CO2 from the air to make the calcium carbonate’

That’s right, not only does it not emit any of the CO2 of normal cement production, it actually absorbs Co2 in the hardening process. So it’s potentially carbon positive!

To make bricks, bioMASON engineers start by pouring a pitcher of primed bacteria into a mixer full of foundation material…The nestled bricks slide out of the hopper like bread rolls and get rolled into a shipping container, where they harden over three to four days.

The inventor of this process, architect Ginger Krieg Dosier, gives a lengthy explanation of its development in the following TED talk which runs for about twelve minutes.

If that’s too long for you, here’s a shorter but infinitely more annoying YouTube video about the technology. (Sorry I couldn’t find anything better except the video that is included in the original article from PBS).

In the future, the company plans to put the entire assembly line — mixer, hopper and all — into shipping containers, so that biocement can be made anywhere.

‘We don’t need a fuel source. We don’t need high energy, so we are looking at being able to detach,’ Ginger said. And by doing so, they may cement a brighter future for our planet.

All puns aside, this is a very promising development and I’d be interested in trying to bring this technology to Australia.

New Energy Monitoring Option

In our Newsletter on Feb 2nd I wrote about how we use three bits of technology to help us get the best performance out of the Passive Solar Greeny Flat. One is our weather monitor which, among lots of other information, tells us what the indoor and outdoor temperature and humidity are at all times. The second is the weather forecast which we check online at least a couple of times a day. And the third is our energy monitor. In that Newsletter I suggested that it would be wonderful if someone made a gadget that displayed all three of these readouts on one screen that we could place in a prominent location in the house and refer to it whenever we wanted to know what’s going on and what’s likely to happen in the next few days. Here’s my ‘artists’ impression of what this might look like.

The gadget that every home needs!

The gadget that every home needs!

I wish I was able to report that my dreams had all come true (yes, I know, it’s pathetic that my dream is to have a combined energy and weather monitor/forecaster device) but sadly no. However I can report that there is a new and interesting energy monitoring option to consider, and this one is made in Australia!

Introducing the Wattcost Energy Monitor

The developers of the Wattcost system.

The developers of the Wattcost system with the device itself.

Currently I use a Wattson Meter as my energy monitor but they’ve gone out of business. I have friends who use the Efergy System and the Smappee Energy Monitor and are reasonably happy with the results and there are numerous other options. Now, into that mix we can add the Wattcost monitor which integrates with your smartphone to offer the following features (according to their website).

Live monitoring

See the real-time result of your solar export savings and grid import costs.

Intelligent alerts

Get alerts when your solar system fails or appliances are accidentally left on.

Community sharing

Learn how to maximise your savings from our active solar community.

Personalised savings

Compare & switch to the solar plan with savings to match your lifestyle.

Budget tracker

Avoid bill shock forever with live budget tracking and intelligent alerts.

Improve your footprint

Offset the rest of your energy emissions with
1-click tree planting.

That all sounds pretty good but one of the most attractive things about it is that you can install it yourself and don’t need to pay an electrician to do it. According to this article from Startup Daily:

The mobile platform behind the device is able to show a consumer which devices are chugging the most power and make recommendations to help them save energy.

The device is also able to notify a user through their mobile if a device has accidentally been left on, curing that paranoia felt in winter when you forget if you turned the heater off before you left for work.

However, one of the most appealing facets of the IoT device, believes Wattcost cofounder David Soutar, is its tiny design and the fact it can be attached to a powerbox without the need of an electrician, energy company, or IoT professional.

“Part of the challenge of the project is that we wanted it to be a full consumer product that they could install themselves. As soon as you get an electrician or someone else to install it, you’ve already lost the consumer selling proposition, from a price and inconvenience factor. That showed up really really early. We knew we needed to develop something for a consumer,” he said.

“So essentially it’s a little camera sensor that you stick on the front of your meter. It works on a meter anywhere in the world, whether it one of the old spinning disk types or one of the new electronic types.”

I’ll leave it to you to make up your own mind whether the Wattcost is the right one for you, but I certainly encourage everyone to get some sort of energy monitor installed in their house. Personally I’m going to tough it out with my outdated Wattson meter until someone comes up with the integrated energy and weather monitor that I dream of.