Friday, February 1, 2008

Picking the right path...

Billy M left a comment on an earlier post asking for some basic opinions/advice- 

"The research I've done on heating for food has only resulted in seemingly balanced arguments from the two options I have at my hands. I have an old propane grill ($5 at a garage sale), as well as an electric stove that came with the place I am renting. The most convincing information I read said that propane actually releases a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere, since it is a natural gas, and that the methods of obtaining electricity have become efficient enough to surpass the carbon emissions of propane. However, other readings have said that propane may just be slightly more efficient than electricity, although the fact that it is a natural gas does in fact bring down the resourcefulness of the energy source.
I don't own any type of device that would allow me to burn wood...

So I guess what I'm wondering is if you have any facts/opinions straight out of how someone should go about heating food (if they did in fact have all three options -- wood, propane and electricity)

Billy, you're not alone in wanting to know "the right answer" for a question- I'd love to be able to give it.

What struck me immediately here though was the missing component- Billy, basically.

What kind of cooking do you do?  What kinds do you LIKE to do?  Are you allergic to woodsmoke?  Do you enjoy cutting, splitting, handling firewood, or are you really too busy?  How much "extra" time do you have- either to wrangle wood, or propane containers?-

Etc.  Hopefully you get the idea.  Who you are- what you need- and even what makes you happy- all these considerations are genuinely IMPORTANT to the answer.

You are important.  We need to remember that.

"Sustainable" practices WON'T be- if they make people miserable, and they won't stick to them.

  Which seems obvious, but quite a few enthusiasts will, in the excitement of the moment, adopt practices that they can't/won't - uh, sustain.  Because in their enthusiasm for the greater good, and the benefit to the planet, they forgot- WE are part of the planet we're trying to save here- and we matter, too.

The whole decision- what kind of fuel SHOULD I cook with - can get pretty crazy complex if you keep picking at it.

Propane is a fossil fuel- bad carbon.  It's mostly delivered on trucks- diesel fuel; more fossil carbon. Where does your local propane actually come from?  Natural gas is often moved in pipelines/pipes- pretty efficient, if available- but still fossil carbon.

Electricity is mostly coal (bad), and nuclear (BAD); with minor bits of natural gas (badish) wind (ok) and hydro (okish) - depending on where you live.  If you've got the option as some do to essentially purchase straight renewable electricity- that could make a difference in your decision.  

Wood is "current budget" carbon- good carbon; and it CAN be renewable, though like everything else wood can be done badly.  If you live in a city - it may not be legal- most available wood-burning stoves are much dirtier than they have to be, and wood smoke is pretty irritating for the neighbors.  Do you have a good supply?  The space to store it, the time?
As an aside here- firewood is kind of dominating my life at the moment- because of the floods last fall, and global warming.  I cut and gather it myself; the floods made harvest much more difficult/much more time consuming- so I wasn't able to do my normal autumn wood cutting.

  And- the firewood we had cut from our own plantings; stacked, curing/drying - got soaked thoroughly by the 14" of rain in August/Sept- and is unburnable.  Given normalish weather- it wouldn't be nearly so wet, and we'd have had days of low-humidity sunny windy weather in Sept/Oct that would have dried it very well.   So in fact I'm cutting firewood every other day- and burning it fast, since it's cold this winter; lots of below 0 F nights.

There are a LOT of other things I need to be doing- but here I am.  The Little House has no backup heating system- it's firewood only (with a little passive solar boost- not useful at 1 AM).

Will rainy autumns happen more often?  Don't know.  This wet autumn, though, may be the thing that pushes me over the edge into adding a layer to my firewood process- a drying/storage shed.

There have been many years where a rainy week in November got my wood a little wet- making me aware that if all the winter stacks had been under a roof, I'd be burning less wood; doing less hauling- but- it's always been a fairly minor factor.  And every time that happened, I've done mental calculations- what would it cost me- money, time, and new habits- to design and build a wood drying shed?  A bunch.  How big would the benefits be?  Considerable.  Balance?  Kind of six of one, half a dozen of the other.

This year is the first where all the stacked wood is so wet it's nearly useless.  I can make it burn, but it gives little heat, and clogs the chimney fast.  The balance may have shifted- instead of being a minor improvement, the shed may now be a necessity, up-front costs or not.  

It strikes me that this kind of shift may be another major aspect to global warming- tiny local processes/technologies may no longer be reliable.  Pushing people over all kinds of edges.

Maybe the best I can do for an answer to Billy M's very sensible question is to describe my own answers.  More than one answer, since I've changed, over time.

When I first moved to the Little House, a major factor in the calculation was money- we didn't have any.  We DID have wood- 40 acres of hardwoods.

With that in mind, I designed the Little House to use wood both for heating and cooking- all year.  Including our sultry hot continental summers.  (It's a huge advantage to be able to design a dwelling from the ground up- with all the integration factors being considered.  I still missed a few, of course.)

The House can essentially be tweaked to function like a big chimney/cooling tower in the summer - the downstairs has big windows in all 4 walls; the upstairs/loft has one huge window (floor to ceiling) on the north, and a normalish window on the south.    All the windows but the small one upstairs open on a hinge- so unlike a sash-window, where the actual opening can only equal half the window area at best, the hinged windows when open make holes equal to the entire window area- huge, in our case.

And- there's a BIG opening between upstairs and down- so if all the windows are open, any heat from the stove is quite free to rapidly move up, and out.

It works fine, too- we did all our cooking with wood for probably the first 5 years or so.  
Then several things changed- we had children (available time and energy vanished), we got involved in other projects that were important too; and we got a little money coming in.

  Suddenly it became more sensible to use propane for cooking in the summer.

And that's what we still do.  The stove that heats the house is a modern Canadian stove designed for both heating and cooking.  If we need heat- it's on, and we cook with wood.  If we don't need heat- we cook with propane.  The time required for the propane is a small fraction of time needed to cook with wood in the summer- and no question, July and August are a little more comfy if we don't have to crank up the woodstove to make a cup of coffee, or soup for lunch.

One departure from that practice can be canning- if we're canning tomatoes or whatnot- we will usually use wood- canning takes a lot of heat; and ergo a lot of money.


One more aside- cooking in China.  As part of my work, I've hiked well up into the mountains in a number of places there, out into nearly untouched countryside.  These are ancient communities, long in "balance" with their environment.  Chances are, this clan has lived here since these people were Homo erectus, not Homo sapiens.  That long.  

They long ago hit the limits of their environment; and adapted, in many ways.  Only the rich can afford to burn wood- there's just not enough of it, and mostly it's needed for other uses, tools, furniture, housing.  They burn- rice straw, and pine needles.  Under a wok.  That's exactly what a wok is for- cooking over a very quick, hot fire.  Their whole cuisine is adapted in that direction- because of the primordial shortage of fuel.

I'll bet you could cook entirely on - junk mail.  If you had the will, and someplace outdoors for the smoke to go away.  :-)  You'd need something like a ventilated 5 or 10 gallon steel can for the fire to burn it, and the wok to sit on- (I'm kidding- mostly... probably too many toxins in junk mail smoke to be good cooking fuel...)

So.  Answers to questions like this are going to be highly variable, I think.  Forever.  Because one of the most important components in the decision making algorithm is always going to be personal.  How does this fit your life, your finances, your region?

If it makes you miserable- in the long run, it's not a good answer -

The good answers should leave you - solvent, not overworked, and satisfied.


TB said...

Energy for cooking, and the ways we use it, is something I was pondering the other day.

While I agree with what you said about needing to choose the technology which is appropriate to the individual and their circumstances, I think there are some important generalisations that need to be made.

Looking beyond the immediate term, it's clear that we have to end the use of fossil fuels - not only due to their impact on the atmosphere but also because they're a finite resource. So no more propane, natural gas or coal-based electricity to boil your kettle.

According to the UN, more than half the world's population lives in cities now, and that figure is expected to keep on rising. In this context there's another general constraint, which is that in-home combustion must be limited for the sake of air quality and due to the logistical problem of sustainably producing and distributing combustible fuels for a large, dense population. Practically speaking, this rules out wood fires.

For cooking in sustainable cities, the obvious choice of energy carrier is electricity. What needs to be decided (and this will vary according to individual circumstances just as you described) is which technologies are most appropriate for generating the electricity and for efficiently converting it into useful heat.

It will be interesting to see how modern city cuisine evolves in response to increasing localisation and the need to make the best possible use of every watt-hour of electricity.

DC said...

You're certainly right that there are trade offs no matter what fuel source you use. We were considering getting a wood pellet stove because they are very efficient and burn so cleanly (the one we were looking at had an 86% efficiency rating and emitted less than 0.6 grams per hour of particulate matter). Then we got to thinking about the fact that the pellets have to be manufactured in a factory (that presumably doesn't use green energy) and shipped to a store (presumably in a big diesel truck). Right now pellets are made from waste wood, but as demand increases, that could change, and more tree farms could spring up and displace more forests. So, for the time being, we decided to stick with natural gas heat and put the money we would have spent on the stove into making our home more efficient.

Since I won't be doing any of the work, I say build the wood shed. The dry wood will burn a lot cleaner and more efficiently, and the shed will look beautiful next to THWASPCO. Maybe you could charge admission to the pair -- two for the price of one and free use of the composting toilet.

Thanks as always for a thorough and thought provocative post.

Crunchy Chicken said...

For us, electricity is the best (and really the only) choice. We get 100% of our electricity from renewable energy sources, mostly wind and some hydro. We can't burn wood in the city, don't have a natural gas line and propane isn't exactly practical.

So, as you said, each person will have radically different circumstances to base their decision on.

This brings up an important question that people should be thinking about instead of blindly using what they already have available.

Thanks for the post. Even if it isn't about ME.

jewishfarmer said...

I'm glad you are writing about this. Right now we're using green electric and solar (summer) and wood (winter).

But as you mention at the end, there are a host of fascinating additional options. The Aprovecho Research Institutes's rocket stoves, for example. We also use outdoor masonry ovens (my current got badly soaked and needs replacing), which use very small wood fires to heat up a large heavy mass, and then can do all our baking. These should be legal in any suburb that permits those stupid outdoor ovens and are far more useful and efficient. We can bake pizza at its peak, then move to bread baking, put a casserole in to heat steadily, and then dehydrate as it drops in temperature.

And we built it ourselves. Which means that it can be done by any idiot, and probably better by 95% of all people.

I'd also just remind folks about solar ovens - they are easily made (one my favorites uses an old black microwave with the cord cut off), and produce no emissions. We have several, and I am coveting a sun oven, which would get hotter. But the cheap homemade ones work great.

Still another important option - the haybox cooker. Heat your food up hot, put it in the very, very heavily insulated box, open some hours later, food done with minimal energy. Pressure cookers do the same. We may not be able to avoid making hard choices sometimes, but we can minimize their impact.

Really nice post, and I know what you mean about the wood. My stacked wood is now covered with a 2 inch sheet of ice ;-P.


etbnc said...

I thought about offering a comment based on an energy flow diagram I recall seeing. Then I thought I oughtta try to find the diagram first.

This one is a few years old, but it's an example of what I have in mind. It illustrates where losses occur in our overall energy system:

To reinforce (my interpretation of) the overall theme: We do the best we can with what we have to work with.

I find that sort of diagram helpful to think about improving our options.

Cheers, y'all

Greenpa said...

etbnc - wow! fantastic diagram!! who put this data together?

It looks pretty accurate to me- all the ins, and outs- and just plain dead losses. Which we tend to forget- electricity is convenient- but transmission losses are forever, every minute- and it really adds up.

BoysMom said...

Wood's easy to obtain around here: pre-dried, beetle killed trees abound, and it's $12/cord to cut on the national forests. But . . . several of us have asthema. To the point where going outside is scary in the winter in town.
So, how do you tell a good woodstove from a bad one? Does Consumer Reports review woodstoves?

Greenpa said...

Boysmom- as far as I know, CR hasn't rated woodstoves, alas. I did a quick google- "woodstove reviews" - you could do ratings, too- and 90% of what came up was single user experiences-not very useful.

There are about a zillion different models out there right now; the industry is in rapid expansion mode- which means confusion.

We went to our Amish neighbors. And bought one from them, which they get in Canada from the Mennonite makers. It's done very well for us- uses about 1/3 of the wood of our old 1930's original that we just used to death.

Even so- my impression is strong that woodstoves generally available reach only a fraction of their potential for efficiency and clean burning; due to a combination of uneducated consumers, uneducated designers, and so forth. The can do MUCH better, in general. A big part of it also will depend on the owner- if they insist on stuffing it with wet oak, and a bundle of slick magazines- it's never going to burn clean.

DC said...

Boysmom -- there is a list of EPA certified wood stoves here (pdf file). It shows the emissions (g/hour), efficiency percentage and heat output (BTU/hour) for each stove listed. Also, here is a chart that shows average emissions of various types of stoves compared to traditional fossil fuel heating sources. The EPA certified stoves and pellet stoves pollute much less than the old ones did, though they still don't burn as cleanly as some fuels. Keep in mind, though, that while even the best wood stoves produce more particulate pollution than, e.g., a gas furnace, wood is a renewable resource that is, at least theoretically, nearly carbon neutral -- assuming the wood is harvested in a sustainable manner.

The best stove I have seen in terms of low pollution is the Europa 75 pellet stove, which burns wood pellets, corn pellets or hulled wheat. Its emission rate is about 0.6 g/hour. Some of the better log burning stoves also achieve very low emission rates by using catalytic converters.

etbnc said...

Greenpa, the only attribution I've seen for that US energy flow diagram is Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But so far I can't find the original nor a more recent edition.

I recently moved to an area where the electricity is generated by some of the region's dirtier coal plants. Knowing that, and knowing about the high loss in the electrical transmission and distribution network, led me to the path of propane for my kitchen. But to reinforce your original point: That decision is specific to my situation.

I've heard good things about the "rocket stove" design. It seems like that might merit some further attention.

Good conversation, y'all!

joker the lurcher said...

really interesting post - sustainable practice being actually do-able is something a lot of people forget!

etbnc said...


Here's a page that links several energy diagrams. Looks like the latest edition is from 2002.

Here's a diagram that highlights electrical system loss:

short link, or long link,

AKfitknit said...

Right now, in our apartment, we use an electric range. However, in the cabin we are building, we found out that it would cost $25,000 to get electricity to it, and there are no natural gas lines. So, we will be using propane, at least until we can get some solar panels. Even then, we will have to have a backup, such as wood, since there isn't much sun mid-winter here.


Hanley Tucks said...

That's an interesting diagram. What's interesting to look at is where the losses are. Of 55.9 quad BTU lost, 25.9 come from the electricity sector, and 21.4 from transport.

So electricity wastes 69% of its energy, and transport 82%; or electricity is only 31% efficient, and transport 18%.

I'm sure we could improve on this. That's what I was thinking about with Ecotechnic-style energy use.

just ducky said...

I feel a bit juvenile...everyone is commenting about energy and very intelligent concepts, but I think one of the best points you made in your post was:

"Sustainable" practices WON'T be- if they make people miserable, and they won't stick to them.


Answers to questions like this are going to be highly variable, I think. Forever. Because one of the most important components in the decision making algorithm is always going to be personal. How does this fit your life, your finances, your region?
If it makes you miserable- in the long run, it's not a good answer -
The good answers should leave you - solvent, not overworked, and satisfied.

Now I know that we will all need to make sacrifices both now and in the future...but the way to make things "stick" and actually take hold is to make the changes/sacrifices that don't make a person hate their existence. I am not picking on anyone nor do I mean any disrespect--but take for example No Impact Man. I know his experiment was to make a point and push the envelope, but admittedly it was a temporary (1 year) experiment and while he is still keeping some of his changes...others he is letting go of as they were too demanding. I admire his willingness to undertake his experiment, but when I compare it to your 30 years of "green living"--I see a big difference. You chose what worked for your family, region, preferences, etc. and you've maintained those choices (with some tweaking I'm sure) for 3 decades!

I don't mean to make light of the is complex...there are not any easy answers, but I think you hit upon a very important point that "beginners" like me really need to hear.


Anonymous said...

One thing to keep in mind is the conversion of natural gas to electricity is not 100% efficient, most of the energy in the gas escapes as heat. On top of that you have line losses. It's much more efficient to convert the gas directly into heat. Now wind or solar electricity is a different story.

Wood is greener to some extent, but don't forget the fuel for the chainsaw and hauling.

Billy said...

Thank you for taking the time out to respond in such a thorough manner. And thanks to all those who added comments with helpful information.

Your final thoughts and answers were not expected, but they make sense none the less. I would love to retreat back to wood, being raised for a few of the younger years of my life helping father chop wood for our wood stoves in KY. The place I am in now does not even remotely allow for wood or natural gas, but in the future I believe I would like to move back in that direction.

Hopefully your burdens lessen with the wet wood situation.

Anonymous said...

Have been an organic foodie since I was a kid and have lived and cooked in all situations and various parts of the world. Right now I am in the Sierras of California where my family roots are deep and where cooking whole foods is the norm. Love ox tail soup and even like roasting the ox tails and then adding root vegetables with a tad bit of water to steam everything to a slight tenderness. Make homemade bread, yogurt, have chickens and love a big vegetable garden, farmers markets, Local Harvest and anything that encourages the 100 mile rule for food. Cannot think of any food I haven't liked be it rattlesnake meat, mountain oysters, or simple homemade potato soup.

Segwyne said...

I'm not sure exactly where to put this comment, as I was hoping to find an email address for you to write to you directly. My family currently lives in the city (albeit a great city) and eventually we want to move back to the country, closer to our families. We don't expect to be able to afford to buy land with a house already on it, so we are looking at designing our own house. I understand that every family's needs are different (my family of 7 will likely need a bit more room than your family of 5), but do you have any suggestions on things we should keep in mind as we design our house? We are favoring an open-concept house, with virtually no interior walls to make heating with a woodstove easier (and that is how I lived when I was still a child). What are some of the things that maybe wouldn't immediately come to mind to someone who has lived in apartments for the last 20 years? Thanks.