Oct 20, 2017: Cattle… Good or Bad?

Gathering cattle in Big Sky country.

Gathering cattle in Big Sky country.

I’ve spent the last week out at Sam’s grandfather’s ranch in Eastern Montana gathering the cattle in the Custer National Forest and bringing them down to the ranch in time to ship the calves to market tomorrow morning.

In last week’s Newsletter I mentioned that I was heading out here to do some cattle work and I received the following response from a reader named Leon.

‘Thanks for the on-going newsletters. Your mention of cattle got me thinking. Animal agriculture is responsible for about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions around the world, possibly more. Yet most “green” movements and environmental information makes no or very little mention of this. Why is it being ignored?’

This is a very good question and I can’t speak to the issue of why it is being ignored. However I do have some thoughts on the subject which I would like the share this week (interspersed with some photos from the ranch which I promised last week).

The gathering crew heading out in search of critters.

Most of our cattle work is still done on horse back, just like the old days.

I can’t vouch for Leon’s assertion that animal agriculture is responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions but it wouldn’t surprise me. What I would like to know (and don’t have time to research right now) is how are those emissions produced? How much is due to burning fossil fuels to produce the food that the animals are fed? How much is due to transportation of either the live animals or the meat, eggs, milk, etc that they produce? And how much is due to emissions from the animals themselves?

Without putting too fine a point on it, cattle produce a lot of methane (through burping and farting) but I recently read an article suggesting that feeding cattle a certain type of seaweed can dramatically reduce the amount of methane created. For those who don’t know, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with something like nine times the potency of carbon dioxide, so reducing methane emissions is very important for reducing greenhouse gases.

A little snow started to fall as we began to gather the cattle.

A little snow started to fall as we began to gather the cattle.

I can’t prove this but my gut feeling is that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions created by animal agriculture comes from intensive, factory style ‘farming’ such as cattle feedlots, pig farms and chicken sheds. Not only do these super-intensive ‘farming’ situations create horrible conditions for the animals to live in, they also require massive inputs of processed food, chemicals, medications and energy.

By contrast, this ranch in Eastern Montana requires very little of those things. In fact, this part of the world has always had ruminant animals grazing and fertilising the grass. Before the invasion of white settlers the West was covered with huge herds of bison (which are closely related to beef cattle) and the environment has adapted to their presence. The photos above were taken on part of the Custer National Forest that the ranch leases for summer pasture. For decades the National Forest Service has conducted field studies on the effect of cattle on the health of the ecosystem and they have found that, when cattle are kept off the land, the ecosystem suffers and biodiversity declines.

Cutting out a pair of the neighbour's cattle.

Cutting out a pair of the neighbour’s cattle.

Unfortunately the bison were wiped out by the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody as part of the the government’s efforts to subdue the Native American tribes that used to belong on this land. This is a region of very low rainfall and hilly, rocky terrain. Most of this land cannot be used for growing crops or other forms of irrigated agriculture. It does however produce wonderful grass and beef cattle are a great way to harvest grass and turn it into high-grade food for humans.

So, on balance, I think raising cattle here is a good thing for the economy, the environment and for people.

The cattle safely delivered to the 3X Bar property (which, I just learned this week, was homesteaded by Buffalo Bill Cody)

The cattle safely delivered to the 3X Bar property (which, I just learned this week, was homesteaded by Buffalo Bill Cody)

Here at the ranch we eat local, grass-fed, natural beef that tastes delicious and does minimal harm to the environment. I think the problems associated with animal agriculture happen when beef cattle are taken away from grass land, crammed into feedlots and stuffed full of corn-based food and antibiotics. Unfortunately that is how the majority of beef in the US is raised and I agree with Leon, that this is a serious environmental problem. Not to mention the suffering that it causes to the animals themselves. And I think the situation is probably worse in the huge barns where pigs and chickens are fattened in the most in-humane conditions.

The last time I checked (which was a few years ago) most of Australia’s beef was raised in the country and fattened on grass which is a good thing. But cattle and sheep are not native to Australia and create other environmental concerns because the ecosystem has not evolved to cope with these types of animals. On the other hand there are plagues of every kind of imported animal right across Australia from rabbits to deer, horses, donkeys, camels, goats, pigs, water buffalo, foxes and cats. In fact the last two are probably the most serious problem. I just read an article last week that estimated that cats and foxes kill a million native birds and animals every night in Australia.

Back at the barn at the end of another long day.

Back at the (100 year-old) barn at the end of another long day.

It seems to me that the best thing we could do in Oz would be to start eating deer, horses, donkeys, camels, goats, pigs and water buffalo. All of these are eaten in other parts of the world and some are considered absolute delicacies. There are millions of these feral animals infesting the outback as well as our national parks and forests. Why not eat them and reduce both the pressure they put on our natural ecosystems and our demand for beef, pork, chicken and lamb which all carry varying degrees of carbon footprint and environmental problems?

171018 Shadow

Until those kinds of meat become available I can only suggest that the best thing you can do (if you plan to eat meat like I do) is to know where your meat (or eggs or milk) comes from. If it is locally raised and the animals are treated fairly then it is likely to be much better for you and for the planet.

Bon appetit and here are a few more photos from ranch.

Loading chute at the 3X Bar

Loading chute at the 3X Bar

Log barn at the 3X Bar

Log barn at the 3X Bar

Driving across Montana is always spectacular

Driving across Montana is always spectacular

Corrals at the 3X Bar

Corrals at the 3X Bar

Logs and Grass

Logs and Grass

Sunset at the ranch

Sunset at the ranch

Thanks for reading. By next Newsletter I’ll be back home at the Greeny Flat.

 

Oct 13, 2017: The Snow Shows Where the Heat Goes

A fresh dusting of snow shows where heat is escaping through the roof of this house in Missoula

A fresh dusting of snow shows where heat is escaping through the roof of this house in Missoula.

Greetings (for the last time on this trip) from Missoula, Montana where we woke up to find a fresh dusting of snow on the ground this morning. This will be just the first of many snow falls over the coming long, cold winter. There was one year while I lived here, we had the first snow in October and I didn’t see the grass in my back yard again until April. As you can imagine, good insulation and air sealing are essential for keeping a house comfortable and energy efficient through such an extreme winter. Roof insulation is especially important and a good way to gauge its effectiveness is to watch what happens to snow on the roof.

As you can see from the photo above, this house does not have a well-insulated attic. The snow has melted off most of the roof, except at the bottom and the sides where the eave extends out past the walls of the house. This is a clear indication that heat is being lost through the ceiling of the house into the attic and then from the attic to the outdoors. Apart from adding a lot of cost to the heating bills this can cause serious problems in a house like this. As the warm, moist air from inside the house escapes into the attic it can take with it a lot of water vapour that will condense when it finds the cold surface of the underside of the roof. I’ve seen some horrible mould problems in attics in Montana due to condensation problems.

Dammed Ice

Another issue that often happens with a roof like this is called ‘Ice Damming’. As the snow melts off the upper part of the roof it runs down towards the eave, hits the cold area near the bottom (where the snow hasn’t melted in the photo above) and freezes again. Over the course of a bad winter this ice can build up until it creates a dam that can cause water to run back under the roof shingles and into the attic, potentially causing serious mould, rot and water damage.

Thankfully we don’t have to deal with the worst of these issues in most parts of Australia. But, if you happen to live in a snowy area, it can tell you a lot about where heat is escaping. And, even if you don’t get snow, good insulation and air-sealing between the house and the attic, and good ventilation of the attic are very important for maintaining comfort, health, durability and energy efficiency. The following photo shows the house directly across the street from the first one. Clearly it has much better insulation, air sealing and attic ventilation as the snow hasn’t melted off the roof at all.

No snow melt on a house with good insulation and ventilation in the attic

The Halloween decorations aren’t nearly as scary as the roof of the house across the street

My son Sam’s house (the one I’ve been hard at work renovating for the last couple of months) used to have problems with snow melt and ice damming. This was hardly surprising when I saw the state of things in his attic. Unfortunately all of the ducting from his gas-powered, forced-air central heating system runs through the attic. Ducts in attics are a bad idea at the best of times, even when they are properly sealed and insulated they still lose a lot of heat to the attic. In Australia the problem is the opposite with heat gain due to air conditioning ducts running though poorly ventilated and scorching hot attics (often sitting directly under a dark tile roof that soaks up a huge amount of heat from our hot summer sun) but just as big of an issue.

Ducts in Attics are a BAD IDEA!

Ideally all duct work should be inside the ‘Thermal Boundary‘ of the building (the insulation and air-sealing layer that surrounds the ‘Conditioned Space’). But if the attic (or uninsulated crawl space) is the only possible place to run the ducts, then it is essential they are tightly sealed and well-insulated.

This duct boot has become disconnected and is leaking hot air into the attic

This duct boot has become disconnected and is leaking hot air into the attic

Unfortunately, as you can see from the photo above, this was not the case in Sam’s attic. All of the ductwork was uninsulated and poorly sealed. In fact I found three places where ducts had become completely disconnected and were letting tons of heat escape into the attic. I would guess that a quarter of Sam’s winter heating bill was being lost through duct leakage to the attic.

So I’ve spent the last week crawling around inspecting, sealing and insulating all of the duct work. In the case shown above I reconnected the duct then sprayed foam around where it connects to the ceiling of the house. Then I sealed all of the joints with a special duct sealing compound before wrapping all of the ducts with insulation.

Sealing the joints in the ducts with a special paint-on compound

Sealing the joints in the ducts with a special paint-on compound

I also added vents in the gables of the roof, built a dam around the access hatch (to stop the cellulose insulation from falling on your head when you open the hatch) and built a catwalk (above the eventual height of the insulation) from the access hatch all the way to the far ends of the attic. This is so that, in future, when anyone needs to inspect the attic or do electric or duct work, they can access the whole attic without disturbing the insulation.

Now all that’s left to do is to get our friendly insulation contractor to come and blow more cellulose into the attic. I spoke to him this morning and, with winter approaching, he’s so busy that the only day he can come is the day I fly out to return home. So I’ll be meeting him early in the morning to get him going then I’ll have to leave him to it. But I’ll leave happy in the knowledge that Sam’s house will be much more comfortable, healthy and energy efficient this winter.

Tomorrow Sam and I are heading back out to his family’s ranch to help bring all the cattle down from the forest to the meadows along the creek bottom near the homestead where they will spend the winter being fed all the hay that Sam’s uncle worked so hard to put up over the summer. It should be absolutely beautiful at the ranch at this time of year and I’ll try to post some photos next week.

Sept 6, 2017: Tesla Tiny House coming to Bowral

The Tesla Tiny House is touring Australia towed by a Tesla Model-X

The Tesla Tiny House is touring Australia towed by a Tesla Model-X

Readers in Australia may have heard of the ‘Tesla Tiny House’ which is currently doing a tour of capital cities around the country to showcase Tesla’s home energy storage systems and, of course, the Model-X SUV that is pulling it. The good news (for those who live near the Greeny Flat) is, thanks to local solar-storage company Simmark, the Tiny House is coming to Bowral’s Bradman Oval on November 22nd.

I wrote about Simmark (and their admirable philosophy of understanding their customer’s energy requirements in order to find ways to conserve energy before installing solar on their roof) in our Newsletter on May 4th, 2017. I applaud their initiative in bringing the Tiny House to our area and I’m particularly happy to know it’s coming after I return from Montana so I’ll be able to attend. I hope to see you there. Here’s a bit more information about the tour (sorry some of it is a bit out of date) from a Gizmodo article dated August 14.

Beginning in Melbourne’s Federation Square today and tomorrow (August 14 and 15), there’s a tiny Tesla house making the rounds of the country – showing off the Powerwall and educating the public on how to generate, store and use renewable energy for your home.

Oh, and the tiny home is towed by a Tesla Model X, because of course it is.

The tiny home is completely powered by renewable energy courtesy of a 2kw solar power system and a Powerwall. Inside, there’s a design studio and configurator so you can calculate your own home’s needs. There will be Tesla staff on hand to answer questions, too.

For readers not from the Southern Highlands of NSW the following are some of the other stops on the tour and you can visit the Tesla Tiny House Website for the latest locations or to request that it comes to your community. The confirmed portion of the tour includes Federation Square 14-15 August, Melbourne Home Show at Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre 17-20 August, Eco-Living Fair at Randwick Community Centre in NSW 3 September, Brisbane Home Show at Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre 8 – 10 September, Rundle Mall in South Australia 20 September – 2 October, Sustainability Lane at Lane Cove Shopping Centre in NSW 8 October and Sydney Home Show at Sydney Showground, Sydney Olympic Park on 27 – 29 October.

Simmark’s Response to Last Week’s Newsletter

In last week’s Newsletter I suggested that anyone considering installing a solar system on their home who is primarily motivated by environmental concerns should think seriously about what they do with the STC ‘rebate’ they get off the price of the system. These STC’s are sold to big polluters to allow them to ‘offset’ their GHG emissions. So, if you’re installing solar to reduce your own emissions, you might not want to sell the rights to those emissions to a big industrial polluter.

In order to get a second opinion about this I emailed Mark Horsfall, co-owner of Simmark, to see what he thought. The following is his response.

Not sure I am 100% with you on that one mate. The system is a reality. Boycotting it is unlikely to hurt the polluters or accelerate their demise. Take it to the extreme. Let’s say almost everybody refused to sell their STCs. All that would do is reduce supply and drive up the price, rewarding the few who do monetise. The polluters are just going to pass on the higher cost to the grid so they don’t really care. Furthermore, if a stigma or distaste associated with selling your STCs develops, that is likely to slow down solar adoption as the STC component is still 20-30% of a system’s gross value, making the subsidy an integral part of the investment decision for most people. I think STCs and the 15 year phase out are a rare example of good environmental public policy. I actually think the Federal government should do much more to reward home efficiency. I also think there should be a program to support/backstop the financing of solar/storage investment at the residential level for homeowners of limited means, much like HECS debt for tertiary education. Too often, solar and especially batteries are a wealthy person’s luxury and that’s wrong. 

So, as you can see, Mark approves of the STC system which, as he points out, is due to be phased out in stages over the next 15 years. I guess my point was not to boycott the system on a large scale. Most people installing solar are not motivated purely by environmental altruism but, if you are one of those few, I still suggest you give thought to the STC’s and what they mean for your hopes of reducing your own carbon emissions.

If you want to discuss any of this with me or with Mark, we’ll both be at Bradman Oval on the 22nd of November for the Tesla Tiny House event.

How Much Solar Do You Need To Charge an Electric Car?

Whether you already have a solar system or are thinking about installing one, another factor to consider is the coming revolution in electric vehicles. You may well want to make sure that you have enough solar (or at least enough roof space for it) to be able to charge one or two EV’s.

Our PHEV outside the Greeny Flat and charging from the solar system on our garage.

Our PHEV outside the Greeny Flat and charging from the solar system on our garage.

We have 3kW of solar on our garage roof which is enough to run our house and to charge our PHEV for most of my local driving. But if you want more detailed information, here is a link to a very thorough article from Solar Quotes on how much solar it takes to charge an EV. In short, depending on where you are in the country and how much you drive, you will probably need about 2kW of solar for each EV.

Sept 29, 2017: Home Solar and Double-dipping on Carbon Emissions

I’ll be in Montana for another month and we’re making some good progress on Sam’s house. This week we’ve started painting the outside with some warm colours that should help make it feel cozy through a long Montana winter.

This is how Sam's house looked yesterday

This is how Sam’s house looked yesterday

In a couple of weeks we’ll be heading back out to Sam’s family ranch in Eastern Montana to help with bringing the cattle down from the Custer National Forest and shipping the calves. I’m looking forward to lots of riding and beautiful fall weather. Montana can be truly spectacular at this time of year.

While I’m over here I’m also trying to stay in touch with what’s happening in Australia. A few days ago I read this Energy Matters article about how the recent drop in the price of STC’s (Small-scale Technology Credits) might lead to higher prices for home solar systems. STC’s are the ‘rebate’ your installer gets when they install a solar system on your roof which effectively reduces the cost of the solar system for you. According to the article, there was so much rooftop solar installed in the first half of 2017 it caused an oversupply of STC’s which, in turn, led to a 25% drop in the price of STC. This means that your installer gets less of a ‘rebate’ and will, most likely, have to pass on the extra cost to you, the homeowner. While this is probably not welcome news, there is a bigger issue with STC’s that I think we should all be aware of.

STC’s Are Sold to Polluters to ‘Offset’ Their Emissions

Under Australia’s ‘Renewable Energy Target’ there are two schemes for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One is called the Large-scale Renewable Energy Target and the other is the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme.

Under the Renewable Energy Target a variety of individuals, businesses and industry groups interact with the schemes, including:

  • individuals and business who voluntarily invest in small-scale and large-scale renewable energy systems, generate renewable energy, or actively lower their consumption of main grid electricity, and
  • industry groups who are required by law to surrender large-scale generation certificates and small-scale technology certificates to offset the generation of emissions intensive energy, and meet scheme compliance obligations.

The key point to note here is the last sentence, industry groups (i.e. big polluters) are required by law to surrender both LGC’s and STC’s to offset the generation of emissions intensive energy. This means that if you as a homeowner installing a small solar system, sell the STC’s (or give them to your installer in return for a cheaper price which is usually the case) you are basically selling the emissions reductions that your system creates.

So, if you are installing solar for environmental reasons, the responsible thing to do is to pay the extra cost for your solar system, keep the STC’s and surrender them to the Clean Energy Regulator. Otherwise you cannot claim to be reducing your carbon footprint. This would be double-dipping because, if you gave away your STC’s, someone big polluter somewhere will be using them to claim a greenhouse gas emission reduction.

And let me be the first to say that I am guilty of this myself because I didn’t fully understand the system. When we installed the solar system on the Greeny Flat, we allowed the installer to keep the STC’s which he no doubt sold to some big polluter. Until recently it didn’t occur to me that I was giving away any claim to the emissions reductions.

If you’re reasons for installing solar are purely financial or you’re just wanting more independence from the electricity retailers then, by all means, use the STC’s to reduce the cost of your system. But if your motivation is primarily environmental then I suggest you give serious thought to how you deal with the STC issue.

Sept 22, 2017: Time to Load Up On Solar

Hello again, and Happy Spring Equinox . This is going to be a VERY quick Newsletter this week. I’m back in Missoula and hard at work on the renovations to Sam’s house so time is short. We had a wonderful drive back from the ranch in Eastern Montana after some cooler weather and much-welcome rain. The skies were clear and there was snow on the mountains which is when Montana is at its most beautiful.

For this week I would just like to share three quick things with you.

Put As Much Solar On Your Roof As You Can

How much solar can you fit on your roof?

How much solar can you fit on your roof?

The recent increases in both the cost of grid power and the Feed-in Tariffs being offered for solar power going out to the grid mean that it makes good financial sense to put as much solar on your roof as you possibly can. This can be limited by how much money you have to invest, by the size of your roof and by limits that might be placed on your system by your energy provider. But, in general, it’s a good idea to go big.

This article from Solar Quotes looks in detail at the financial returns for solar in each of Australia’s capital cities and

‘Over a 10 year period, Hobart is the only capital where households are better off using their money to pay off their mortgages faster or where they will save money by not borrowing at 5% to invest in rooftop solar.  But everywhere else in Australia a large rooftop solar system is worthwhile’.

This article is well worth reading for anyone who a) is thinking about installing solar or adding to an existing solar system or b) has money to invest.

Electric Bus Goes 1772 kms On a Single Charge

The world record breaking Proterra electric bus

The world record breaking Proterra electric bus

Since I’ve been in Montana I’ve written a couple of times about the electric buses that the University of Montana is now using to ferry students around Missoula. But this New Atlas article reports about an electric bus that has taken things to a whole new level. The Proterra Catalyst bus shown in the image above has recently broken the world record for distance covered by an electric vehicle on a single charge by going 1772 km (1101 mi). Wow! The electric vehicle revolution is picking up steam.

Adaptive Reuse At It’s Very Best

Genius!

Genius!

This is pretty self explanatory but what is not immediately obvious is that, once your done BBQing, the beers all gone and the ice is melted you just have to flush and the fire’s out. Brilliant!

Sept 15, 2017: Sustainable House Day This Sunday.

170915 SHD

For the fourth year in a row, the Greeny Flat will be open once again for Sustainable House Day on Sunday, September 17th from 10am to 4pm. Since I’m still in Montana, I won’t be able to help but three of my wonderful family have volunteered to be there to show people around and answer questions.

Naturally, all readers of this Newsletter are invited to come and visit and, for anyone who feels like making a day of it, there will also be at least two other homes open in our area on the day as well. One is a straw-bale house in Exeter and the other a super-insulated house in Renwick (although this is not showing on the SHD website right now so may have been withdrawn). The ‘Illawarra Flame House’ at the University of Wollongong will certainly be open although it’s a bit further away. If you’re really keen there are a total of 21 houses within 100km of the Greeny Flat and if you live in another part of Australia there are likely to be homes open near you too. Just visit the SHD Website, register and log-in then you’ll be able to search for homes near you.

This is an excellent opportunity to see some very different approaches to making homes more sustainable. Using straw bales is a way to build a well-insulated house with natural and local materials. The Renwick house, a.k.a. ‘The Esky House’ relies on very high levels of insulation and extremely good air-sealing (along with true Heat Recovery Ventilation) to reduce the heating and cooling requirements down to almost nothing. This is a very valid approach, especially for sites that do not have good solar access. The ‘Illawarra Flame House’ was the winner of a very prestigious international competition for energy efficient and sustainable design called the Solar Decathlon. The 200 or so homes that will be open for Sustainable House Day will showcase a wide variety of approaches, techniques, materials, systems and ideas for making your own home more sustainable.

So What Makes the Greeny Flat ‘Sustainable’?

As I have written many times, the Greeny Flat is not truly ‘sustainable’… nor are any of the other homes that will be open to visitors on Sustainable House Day. In fact almost nothing we do in a modern, ‘developed’ economy like Australia (or the US or Europe) is actually sustainable at all. But there are things that make these homes MORE sustainable than most and this is a good opportunity to recap the main things that make the Greeny Flat more sustainable.

  1. It is small. The average new home in NSW is now 248sqm. At 57sqm the Greeny Flat is a quarter of that size which means it requires far fewer resources to build, operate and maintain.
  2. It is energy positive. The Greeny Flat uses Passive Solar Design and Solar Hot Water to help reduce its energy needs to a minimum so that a small, 3kW solar photovoltaic system produces more than twice as much energy as we use. Some of that extra energy is now used to charge our Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle so that much of our local driving can be done emission-free using our own renewable energy.
  3. Location, location, location. The location of the Greeny Flat close to everything we need including shops, schools, libraries, markets, parks, bushland, bike trails and a train station means that we are able to drive much less than most people. We can walk or ride our bikes to most things and when we do need to drive it’s usually not very far. This dramatically reduces our carbon footprint for transportation and is good for our health as well.
  4. It is low maintenance. The Greeny Flat is very easy to clean and maintain and it is built from very durable materials that will last a long time without requiring refinishing or replacing. This means that, over its lifetime, it will use fewer resources than most houses.
  5. It is recyclable. The Greeny Flat is built in such a way that it can be almost completely taken apart with a screw driver so, if the time ever comes to take it down, all of the materials can be salvaged and either rebuilt, reused or recycled. The concrete floor slab would be the most difficult part to deal with but even that could be crushed and used for road base.
  6. It is water efficient. All of the fixtures and fittings in the house along with the landscaping are designed to use very little water. We catch rain off the roof and, whenever there is water in the tank, we run the whole house using harvested rainwater. Over the last four years we have used less than half as much town water as tank water and much less water than most houses.
  7. It is adaptable. The Greeny Flat is designed to be elderly-friendly and easily adaptable to the needs of a person with reduced mobility. It has wide doorways, few steps, lever handles on doors and taps and provision for grab rails in the bathroom. This means it can serve the needs of a wider range of people for longer without requiring expensive and resource consuming modifications.

There are lots more little things like reclaimed doors and sinks, solar air heaters, etc but the other big thing that makes the Greeny Flat more sustainable is the way we choose to operate and live in it. For example, because we don’t have a heating or cooling system in the house, if it gets a bit chilly we just put on a jumper instead of turning on a heater. In winter, during the day, we open the insulating blinds to let the sun shine in and heat the concrete slab. Then at night we close the blinds to keep the heat in and let the slab warm the house. In summer, during the day we close all the windows and blinds in order to keep the heat out. At night we open both the windows and blinds to let the night breezes remove any hot air and cool the slab. There are lots of conscious choices we make every day to use less energy, water and other resources. It certainly helps to have a small, well-designed, ‘sustainable’ house but it’s the choices we make that probably have more benefit in terms of reducing our footprint.

I hope you enjoy Sustainable House Day and let me know what you think of the Greeny Flat or any of the other homes you visit on Sunday.

Sept 8, 2017: Project Progress, Yellowstone, Etc

Hello again from smokey Missoula, Montana. My dear Cintia left yesterday to return to Mittagong for the firing of the Anagama wood kiln at Sturt Pottery. The day before she left, on the spur of the moment we decided to visit Yellowstone National Park which is about four hours drive east of here. It was a long day but well worth the effort as you’ll see from the photos towards the end of this week’s Newsletter. Meanwhile my son, Sam and I have been making some good progress on the renovations to his house. The number one priority was to get rid of the smelly, old carpet in the living/dining room. But the floor’s pretty wonky so the trick was to figure out what to replace it with. We decided on sheet vinyl (‘lino’ for the Aussies) but we were told that we’d have to put down a thin plywood underlayment before we could lay the vinyl. So we bought a bunch of 5mm plywood, liked the look of it and decided just to use that for the flooring and finish it with a clear coat. It was less than half the cost of the vinyl and has a nice, warm look to it. Here’s a photo of how it turned out.

Oscar the big white dog enjoying the new floor

‘Oscar the big white dog’ enjoying the new floor

You can compare the photo above to how it looked when we started by checking out our Newsletter from August 4th when we first arrived. We also added new trim (crown molding, skirting and architraves) around the whole room and gave everything a new coat of paint. I’m happy to say it looks, smells and feels MUCH better now. We also replaced the old glass case with a new one. Sam is a glass artist and uses the case to show customers his beautiful glass work. For anyone who’s interested you can check out his online store on Instagram at alderson_glass

The new glass case which we just installed today.

The new glass case which we just installed today.

Tomorrow we’ll be driving eight hours east to visit Sam’s grandfather’s ranch on the Tongue River in Eastern Montana and staying for a week or so to help with moving their cattle.

Coal-powered Electric Buses

Another thing I did today was to visit the University of Montana’s transportation department to find out more about their electric buses. You may recall from our Newsletter two weeks ago that I was very excited to discover that UM has two of these electric buses which they use to ferry students around town.

The University of Montana's new Electric Bus

One of UM’s new Electric Buses

The sign on the back of the bus says it’s a ‘zero-emission battery electric bus’ so I was keen to find out more, particularly where they are getting the power from to charge their buses. Unfortunately, as I suspected, they are simply using grid power for charging. In Montana, the majority of grid electricity comes from coal-fired power stations in Eastern Montana (not far from the ranch in fact). So, far from being a zero-emission vehicle, these buses are actually coal-powered, with the emissions occurring about 500 miles away from Missoula. I expect that overall they still produce lower emissions than diesel buses and they’re certainly much quieter. I still have more digging to do to find out for sure and I now have the name and number of the head of the department who I plan to call for more details. The lady I spoke to today suggested that their plan is to buy green power but they aren’t yet. I’ll find out for sure because it really bothers me when people call electric vehicles ‘zero-emissions’ if they’re using dirty power to charge them.

New and Improved Electric Vehicles

According to this article from New Atlas, the new Chevy Bolt EV is now available in the US. With a range of 238 miles (383km) and a price starting at $37,500 it is, apparently remarkably fun to drive and might give the new Tesla Model 3 some real competition.

The ne

Putting the new Chevy Bolt through it’s paces

But, according to this other New Atlas article, Nissan has also just announced the upcoming release their improved version of the Leaf EV with a range of 235 miles (378km) and a price starting around $30k. If that’s true it will be cheaper than both the Bolt and the Tesla Model 3 and, according to the article it is a much better car than the previous version of the Leaf. So the competition is really heating up in the electric vehicle market, at least here in the US. Given our government’s apparent lack of interest in EV’s, it might be a long time before we see much action in Australia.

Yellowstone Gems

As mentioned at the start, we made a whirlwind visit to Yellowstone National Park a couple of days ago. It was the first National Park in the world (followed closely by the Royal National Park just south of Sydney) and it still provides plenty to interest the millions who visit every year.

Being a builder, I have to say that the most remarkable thing for me at Yellowstone is the 113 year-old ‘Old Faithful Inn’ which, apart from being the most gorgeous and amazing log structure I’ve ever seen, was built in less than one year by a team of about 50 carpenters who worked all through the winter of 1903-4 to have it ready for guests the following summer. Winters in Montana are not like winters in Australia and Yellowstone park is higher than the top of Mt Kosciusko so they were likely dealing with several metres of snow and temperatures down around minus 20-30degC. Which all goes to make the Old Faithful Inn one of the most extraordinary feats of carpentry in the world.

The six-storey atrium of the Old Faithful Inn

The six-storey atrium of the Old Faithful Inn

In spite of my builder’s bias, the natural wonders of Yellowstone Park are also quite remarkable.

The 'Grand Prismatic' thermal spring

The ‘Grand Prismatic’ thermal spring

Detail of the 'Grand Prismatic' thermal spring

Detail of the ‘Grand Prismatic’ thermal spring

More detail of the 'Grand Prismatic'

More detail of the ‘Grand Prismatic’

The 'Mud Volcano'

The ‘Mud Volcano’

A pair of bison

A pair of bison

Bison meet tourists

Bison meet tourists

Bison fighting

Bison sparring

The last time I visited Yellowstone was just after wolves had been reintroduced to the park. At that time there were thousands of bison and elk covering every clear space in the park. Now (about twelve years later) the wolves have made a remarkable difference to the ecosystem. We hardly saw any elk at all on this trip (apart from a few in the very centre of the town of Mammoth Hot Springs where they are safe from wolves) and far fewer bison than last time. Bison are very dangerous and difficult for wolves to kill so you can still see them in the park but the other wildlife has become much more scarce and wary.

The 'Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Park'

The ‘Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Park’. The water in the Yellowstone river flows out of Yellowstone Lake, over these falls then travels 3000 miles via the Missouri and the Mississippi before entering the Atlantic Ocean at New Orleans

Full moon rising over Yellowstone Park

Full moon rising over Yellowstone Park

Thanks for reading.

 

August 31, 2017: Day Tripping in Montana

This week I’d like to share some photos from a wonderful day trip that Cintia and I took around parts of Western Montana a few days ago. But first here’s some…

Reader Feedback – another one’s got the phever!

In response to our continuing updates about living with a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle we got the following from a reader named David…

My wife and I have had a PHEV since April and we absolutely LOVE it. Total average since we picked it up is 1.2 litres/100, plus of course electricity. I’ve noticed, (and my wife has noticed) that I’m driving less aggressively, so that has to be a good thing,  😉  as I enjoy getting the best range from the battery, and for example don’t get upset as I used to when we get a red light, (energy goes back into the battery instead of being wasted), yet I still drive at the speed limit, definitely not a road hog.
We feed a lot of solar to the grid during the day for a good FIT, so I charge the car after midnight using a time clock (off peak power) when the grid has surplus- thus treating the grid as a “power bank” of sorts, just like pumped storage. We bought our PHEV second hand, ex dealer vehicle, with only 16,000 klms on the clock, but it was like new in every respect. On the highway, on petrol alone, (ie: after the battery is “flat”) we can manage around 6.3 litres/100, which is great for a vehicle of that size. Around town on electric power, which is most of our driving, I’ve calculated that it’s costing only about $3.60 per hundred klms (will obviously vary depending on what you are paying per kWh.), so less than half the cost of petrol.

It’s an amazingly well engineered and complex machine, with all the technology working so seamlessly that you hardly notice what it’s doing unless you really want to. My wife was a bit nervous initially, but I said “just drive it like an auto, but try to keep the power gauge to the left of the 12 o’clock so you don’t force the petrol motor to start”. Anyway, she’s now totally confident and relaxed with it and loves it as much as I do. And despite the complexity, and going by foreign forums where they’ve sold heaps, it’s amazingly reliable. It’s also very easy to drive with virtually no brake use thanks to regenerative braking- our brake pads will almost certainly last the life of the car.
I rotated the tyres recently, and with 22,500 klms on them now, the pad wear is near enough  to zero!

So there you have it… it’s not just me that enjoys owning a PHEV. I’m pretty sure David owns the same Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV that we do. The most remarkable thing to me about this vehicle is that Mitsubishi doesn’t seem to want to sell it in Australia. It’s the most popular SUV in Europe and yet I’ve never seen it advertised is Oz and most of the people I’ve spoken to at Mitsubishi dealers don’t even know it exists…. very strange! I think a lot of other drivers would love it as much as David and his wife if they could get their hands on one.

Can Science ‘Save Us’?

Following last week’s discussion about hydrogen as a way to store energy we received the following from a reader named Lawrence…

Further to your greenyflat newsletter , I had read an article in New Scientist (page 14 of issue published 12 August 2017) that the scientists at the US army laboratory were testing a high strength  aluminium alloy which when they poured water onto it  it started to bubble giving off hydrogen. Because of the properties of aluminium this was unexpected. As reported , this phenomena  has the potential to transform the energy market & provide an alternative to batteries & liquid fuels.

New Scientist ( 19 August 2017 pages 38-41) reported on the scientific work which is transforming our understanding of atoms & their re arrangement to form new molecules which will transform society. As part of the article mention was made of work which is being done by Michelle Simmons and her team at the  UNSW have been working on coating silicon with a non-stick hydrogen surface then used a microscope to pluck off just the hydrogen atoms covering off the sites where they wanted the phosphorus atom to go. Since their work in 2012 , they have demonstrated a functioning transistor & demonstrated a  two – qubit system, consisting of a logic gate consisting of two phosphorus atoms. Their aim is to build a 10 qubit system within 5 years. Quantum computing will transform our society if we can overcome the climate change problem.
Our society has the capacity to achieve great things, if we can arouse ourselves.

This got me thinking again about science in general and whether or not it actually improves our lives. Here is what I wrote back to Lawrence…

Thanks Laurie,

It’s all fascinating stuff but, to be honest, I question whether science will save us from ourselves. To a large extent I think science is responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. There’s no question that science has enabled us to do extraordinary things but has it really improved our lives? I’m not so sure. Without doubt a clothes washing machine makes life better and hot running water is delightful. The rest of it I could happily live without.
Science has also enabled us to mine and drill and bomb and deforest and overpopulate and fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.
The problem I see with science is that we continue to do things like splitting atoms and modifying DNA and making people live longer. Sure, we CAN do all these remarkable things but nobody stops to ask SHOULD we.
So yes, science can do extraordinary things but I’m generally quite happy with the ordinary things. The things I give thanks for every morning are sunshine, fresh air, clean water, sound sleep, healthy food, a roof over my head, friends and family around me and good work to do. I don’t give thanks for my car or my cell phone or my computer and I don’t need science to provide any of the things I’m truly grateful for.
And yes, I enjoy my PHEV and I’m fascinated to see what the scientists will come up with next but I don’t need any of it, it’s not sustainable and, in general, I think science has taken (and is taking) us in the wrong direction.
So that’s my rant for the week. Thanks to all readers who respond to our Newsletters. We appreciate all feedback and encourage you to keep it coming.

Sculpture in the Wild

As mentioned at the start of this Newsletter, I’d like to share with you some photos from a wonderful road trip through Western Montana. It took us from Missoula north up the Blackfoot River valley, across Flesher Pass to Helena (the capitol of Montana), south through the old copper mining town of Butte and back to Missoula (about six hours of driving).

Map showing our route through the Rocky Mountains

Map showing our route through the Rocky Mountains

Unfortunately the air was very smoky due to some bad forest fires in this part of the world so we didn’t get to see the full glory of the Rocky Mountains. However our route did take us to three very different places that provided delightful experiences. The first was the tiny, backwoods town of Lincoln where it was a complete surprise to find one of the best sculpture experiences I have ever had. I’m a big fan of good sculpture… art that draws you into a place and helps you appreciate it in new ways… and that’s exactly what the ‘Blackfoot Pathways’ sculpture park did for me.

The second was Boulder Hot Springs, one or many places around the Pacific Northwest where hot water comes bubbling straight out of the ground (one of the few advantages of living on top of a volcano). Some of these hot springs, like Boulder, were developed into health resorts back in the 1920’s. Many became run down over the years and some, like Boulder, has been restored, if not to their former glory, at least to a clean, functional and enjoyable place with a sort of cowboy-shabby-chic atmosphere that is charming in its own way. It feels wonderful to soak in completely untreated natural hot water especially at places (like Boulder) where the water hasn’t picked up a sulfur smell from the volcano beneath.

The last stop on our journey was in Anaconda which, along with neighbouring Butte (pronounced ‘Beaut’, not the way it looks) was, at one point in the early 1900’s, one of the richest places on earth due to copper and silver mining. This allowed for some gorgeous buildings to be built in the area and the crown jewel of these is the Washoe Theater in Anaconda. Here’s a bit from Wikipedia on the subject

The Washoe Theater in Anaconda, Montana was the last theater constructed in the United States in the Nuevo Deco (a form of Art Deco) style. The theater was designed in 1930 by Seattle architect B. Marcus Priteca. It was almost entirely finished by 1931, but its opening was delayed until Thursday, September 24,[2] 1936 because of the Great Depression. In 1936 dollars, its construction cost was a grand $200,000. The Smithsonian rates the Washoe as a national treasure due to the lavish interior. In 1982, the Washoe was listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places for architectural significance.

What Wikipedia doesn’t tell you is that this lovely movie theatre has been owned by the same family for about 80 years. It hasn’t been ‘restored to it’s former glory’, it’s just been beautifully maintained and preserved. A ticket still only costs $6 (or you can choose to sit up on the balcony for an extra 50 cents). There’s still an intermission half way through the film to encourage you to go and buy more popcorn. And, apparently, in winter, they flood the park across the street so you can have a picnic and go ice-skating outdoors before warming up with a movie. I think you’ll agree from the photos below that this is well worth a visit. In fact I would encourage anyone visiting Montana to make the exact same day trip that we did… it could only have been better if we could have seen the mountains through the smoke.

Sign explaining the purpose of the sculpture park

Sign explaining the philosophy behind the Blackfoot Pathways sculpture park

Teepee Burner

‘Delaney Mill Teepee Burner’ by Kevin O’Dwyer. Teepee burners were used in saw mills as a way to get rid of unwanted wood waste.

Interior of Teepee Burner Display Space

The interior of the Teepee Burner has been converted to an educational space

Interior of Teepee Burner Display Space

Looking up inside the Teepee Burner

Rusted patina on exterior of Teepee Burner

Rusted patina on the exterior of the Teepee Burner

Climbing the spiral log stairs to the log seat was delightful

‘Gateway of Change’ by Jorn Ronnau – climbing the spiral stairs to the log seat was quite delightful

Sinuous wall made from log posts and thousands of recycled newspapers

‘Hill and Valley’ by Steven Siegel – a sinuous wall made from log posts and thousands of recycled newspapers

Picture frame from a distance

‘Portrait’ by Jaakko Pernu

Picture Frame up close

‘Portrait’ up close

Picture Frame from the back side

‘Portrait’ from the back side

Ponderosa Whirlpool

‘Ponderosa Whirlpool’ by Chris Drury

Into the earth

‘East West Passage’ by Sam Clayton and Mark Jacobs

makes you see things at ground level and look more closely at the grasses and other details that are easy to miss in a forest of tall trees

‘East West Passage’ makes you see things at ground level and look more closely at the grasses and other details that are easy to miss in a forest of tall trees

Simple log furniture and rusted steel signs

Simple log furniture and rusted steel signs enhance the experience without distracting from the beauty of the place

Boulder Hot Springs

Boulder Hot Springs would have been even more enjoyable if it hadn’t been 97 degrees (37C) when we arrived

Washoe Theater foyer

The Washoe Theater foyer

Washoe Theater - a national treasure

The Washoe Theater – a national treasure

That’s all for now. Thanks for looking.

August 25, 2016: Electric Vehicle Update

Five minutes ago I was driving past the University of Montana (UM) and I saw this!

The University of Montana's new Electric Bus

This is the University of Montana’s new Electric Bus!

They were in the process of training a new driver so I was able to briefly chat with the trainer. Apparently UM now has two of these electric buses and they are ‘working out great’! She invited me to come to her office at the University to hear more about it which I will do in due course. I’m particularly interested to find out where they are getting the power from to charge this self-proclaimed ‘Zero-Emissions Battery Electric Bus’.

According to the sign on the back of the bus, this is a Zero Emissions vehicle.

According to the sign on the back of the bus, this is a Zero-Emissions vehicle.

If they are using grid power to charge it then it is anything but a zero emissions vehicle. Montana’s power comes mostly from coal-fired power stations out in Eastern Montana. So unless they are using renewable energy for charging they are simply moving the emissions from Missoula (in Western Montana) out to Eastern Montana.

Or as a friend of mine said years ago to a guy who had just spent a couple of hundred grand on a Tesla Roadster when they first came out in the US… ‘I see you’ve swapped your petrol-powered car for a coal-powered one.’ The guy was not impressed, but he pretty quickly put a big solar array on his house roof.

I’ll let you know what I learn from the University on this. For now I’m just pleasantly surprised (once again) at how progressive this little town in Montana really is and how much we, in Australia, might learn from its example.

Electric Vehicles Are Quiet!

Perhaps the coolest thing about seeing this bus was hearing it. One of the most underappreciated advantages of electric vehicles is that they are extremely quiet. My lovely wife Cintia often comments on the fact that she never hears me arriving home when I’m driving our PHEV. I read recently that the Chicago Police Force has started driving Plug-in Hybrids too because they can quietly sneak up on the bad guys.

Imagine how much quieter our town and cities will be when all the cars, trucks and buses are electric. I made the following quick video as the UM bus drove away just to give you an idea of what they sound like. I apologize for it coming out sideways and I don’t have time to figure out how to fix that at the moment but the sound is the same.

Hydrogen Hype?

New Hydrogen Hyundai models undergoing testing in the Australian alps. (source Drive)

New Hydrogen Hyundai models undergoing testing in the Australian alps. (source Drive)

Meanwhile, back in Australia, there seems to be a lot of hype about the new Hyundai hydrogen fuel-cell, semi-autonomous SUV which, according to this Drive article theoretically makes the environment cleaner as your drive.

‘The machine’s fuel cell powertrain requires extremely thorough air filtration that includes a charcoal trap and humidifier. The result is that it scrubs the atmosphere of harmful particulates as you drive, improving ambient air quality.

While some cars are less harmful to the environment than others, few can claim to have a positive effect on their surroundings.

A dedicated ed display in the car’s digital dash tells you how much air the car has cleaned on every drive, using graphics to show you how many people will breathe better air as a result of the car’s operation.’

That all sounds absolutely wonderful except for two things… 1) where are you going to refuel this thing, and 2) how is the hydrogen generated.

As far as I am aware there are NO commercial hydrogen fueling stations in Australia. So you could spend a LOT of money buying one of these cars and not be able to put fuel in it. If car makers and governments are serious about promoting hydrogen vehicles as a replacement for petrol ones this could be solved by converting existing petrol stations to hydrogen stations but that’s not about to happen any time soon.

For me the bigger question is, ‘where does the hydrogen come from?’ Hydrogen can be made by splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. This can be done via electrolysis using solar or wind-generated electricity as the energy source. However it can also be done by using coal-fired electricity as the energy source or Hydrogen can also be made by splitting methane (CH4 or natural gas) molecules.

According to this article from Planete Energies ‘Today, 95% of hydrogen is produced either from wood or from fossil fuels, such as natural gas and oil.’ So, as with the ‘Zero-Emissions’ electric bus mentioned above, we have to be very careful not to get caught up in the hype about hydrogen and repeatedly ask the question, ‘where does the energy come from?’

The Planete article goes on to explain that… ‘Three types of production process are currently in use:

  • The most common hydrogen production process is natural gas reforming — sometimes called steam methane reforming because it uses high-temperature steam. When exposed to steam and heat, the carbon (C) atoms of methane (CH4) separate. After two successive reactions, they reform separately to produce hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (carbon dioxide (co₂)). This operation therefore requires natural gas.
  • Another process is charcoal gasification1. Charcoal consists mainly of carbon and water. Burned in a reactor at a very high temperature of between 1,200 and 1,500 °C, the charcoal releases gas that separates and reforms to produce hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO).
  • Hydrogen can also be produced using electricity, through electrolysis of water. An electric current is used to split water (H2O) into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). This method is not as cost-effective as using fossil fuels. Hydrogen produced by steam methane reforming costs around €1.5 per kilogram at the plant gate (excluding distribution costs), triple the cost of natural gas. Hydrogen produced using electrolysis is currently around four times more expensive, even before the cost of the electricity required is factored in.’

Given the above information we need to be very skeptical about any suggestions, particularly by our government or the fossil-fuel lobby, that we invest huge amounts of public money into hydrogen infrastructure. It would, most-likely, be a hidden way of promoting more natural gas development since reforming methane is the simplest and cheapest way of producing hydrogen. Or it might be a hidden way of propping up the coal industry if the plan were to use coal-fired electricity to produce hydrogen via electrolysis.

A hydrogen vehicle is an electric vehicle.

Don’t forget that a hydrogen vehicle is just an electric vehicle that happens to use hydrogen as its way of storing energy rather than using a battery. According to this article from Business Insider, Elon Musk hates hydrogen.

If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one to pick — you should just pick methane, that’s much much easier, or propane,” Musk said.

Musk made those remarks during the Automotive World News Congress in Detroit in early 2015. He said the issue with hydrogen is how difficult it is to produce.

“I just think that they’re extremely silly… it’s just very difficult to make hydrogen and store it and use it in a car,” Musk said at the time. “If you, say, took a solar panel and use that… to just charge a battery pack directly, compared to split water, take hydrogen, dump oxygen, compress hydrogen… it is about half the efficiency.”

CSIRO Backs Ammonia

One of the big difficulties with hydrogen is that it is difficult, expensive and dangerous to compress, store and transport. It is a highly flammable gas and has to be stored at high pressure in very secure containers. One way around this problem is store hydrogen in the form of liquid ammonia (NH3).

I won’t go into all the details here but the CSIRO is promoting the idea of using ammonia as an energy storage medium that is plentiful, inexpensive and can be stored and transported using the exact same infrastructure that we currently use to store and transport Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). This article from the ABC describes how new technology developed by the CSIRO could open the door to a world hydrogen market for Australian renewable energy.

Australia’s next big export industry could be its sunlight and wind, as game-changing technology makes it easier to transport and deliver their energy as hydrogen.

Industry players are even talking up renewable hydrogen as the next liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry, which could supply hydrogen to power cars, buses, trucks and trains in Japan, South Korea and even Europe.

Their plans have been given a boost by a CSIRO-developed metal membrane, which allows the high-purity hydrogen, needed for hydrogen-powered cars, to be separated from ammonia.’

Once again, I reckon that all sounds good depending on where the hydrogen comes from. If it is produced from water using renewable energy then this might be a good thing. But I’d like to know what the overall efficiency is of turning sunlight into electricity, then into hydrogen, then into ammonia, then back to hydrogen, then back to electricity to use as an energy source. I don’t image it is very good.

So this could all be greenwashing on an enormous scale. But the prize for shameless greenwashing on a small scale this week goes to Subaru.

Shameless Greenwashing by Subaru

I haven’t seen this on cars in Australia but here in the US, new Subaru cars have this emblem on the back.

PZEV with a little green leaf... doesn't that sound nice! Must be some sort of Electric Vehicle right?... Wrong!

PZEV with a little green leaf… doesn’t that sound nice! Must be some sort of Electric Vehicle right?… Wrong!

Even Cintia (who is very familiar with Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles PHEVs), when she saw this said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Subaru made an electric vehicle.’ But when I went in for a closer look I discovered that, written in tiny letters underneath PZEV it says ‘Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle’.

What on earth is a ‘Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle’ you might ask? How can something be partially zero? If you divide zero by anything don’t you get infinity? Is this in fact an ‘Infinite Emissions Vehicle’.

My son’s answer to those questions was… ‘It’s half a hybrid… just the petrol half.’

Well done Subaru.

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).

Conclusion?

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.