Home Commentary The Pre-Christmas Temperature Plunge: Too Many Eggs for Just One Basket?

The Pre-Christmas Temperature Plunge: Too Many Eggs for Just One Basket?

At a time when we are being exhorted to convert almost all of our energy supply to ‘green’ electricity, we were blessed with a preview of a possible flaw in that planned change. Two days before Christmas, the local temperature dropped by 40 or 50 degrees F in a matter of minutes during a snowstorm. Wind gusts peaked at hurricane force. Consequently, thousands of Vermonters were without electricity (needed for almost all forms of home heating nowadays) mainly as a result of trees and limbs falling across power lines. In parts of the Montpelier area, the outage persisted for several days. 

We can do better. Much of that better would involve tapping the low-hanging fruit of energy sources that, for some reason, seem to have fallen out of style in the obsession to do everything with electricity. Conversions of solar radiation and moving fluids to electricity can go a long way to adopting a more nearly sustainable portfolio of energy sources without the need to neglect electricity generated at a small scale by photovoltaic solar, wind power, and small-scale hydroelectric. (Environmentally, large-scale hydroelectric generation is a curse.)

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were exhorted to adopt passive solar energy as the most important measure we could use after initial stringent conservation measures. In the effort toward sustainable living, conservation is always the first resource. 

In 1981, I visited a do-it-yourself New Hampshire home with passive solar features. Researchers monitoring the house determined that it received about 90% of space heating from passive solar energy. This house was built by Sonia Wallman, her first house-building experience. The other 5% to 10% was supplied incidentally, by household appliances, lights, etc. Any use of energy becomes heat, usually sooner rather than later. Remember, winters were colder in the early 1980s than they are today.

Passive solar is the second to lowest hanging fruit, after weather stripping, wearing sweaters, and other common sense measures. Wallman’s common sense included building a chimney and installing a small wood-burning stove. It had a flat upper surface so that, when in use, it cooked dinner. That house had an attached solar greenhouse that produced some winter food, besides providing most of the home’s space heating. It also provided a space where one could enjoy morning coffee while appreciating the dawn glancing off snow, and the scent from Meyer lemon blossoms beside the little coffee table. Conservation need not mean forgoing amenities. 

Not every house can have a solar greenhouse attached to it, of course. But sunny, south-facing windows often can be fitted with a “heat grabber” — a solar collector that attaches to the windowsill, hanging outside in the sun. This works, especially with zone heating — heating just the portion of the house commonly in use. This is an old idea.

Not long ago, New Englanders with two-story houses often had registers in the ceiling of the first floor, typically a square insert, a foot or so across, with vanes like those in Venetian blinds, but horizontal. They could be opened or closed. People lived on the ground floor during the day. An hour or so before going to bed, the vanes were opened and the warm air vented to the sleeping quarters. Often folks covered the register with a rag throw rug, pulled aside during the night. I added such a register to the house where I lived in the l980s.

This early example of zone heating warmed the part of the house in use, with the remaining area serving as a buffer against the outdoor cold. Some configurations of steam or hot water heating lend themselves to zone heating. These heat delivery systems need to be designed to permit zone heating, of course.

Vermont is covered with young woodlands and forests that will benefit from thinning as the land recovers from the devastation of early agriculture here. Thinning crowded young forests stimulates the remaining trees to increase wood production, perhaps balancing the carbon dioxide released by burning culled wood for fuel. (pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31007835/) Wood, as either the primary or a supplemental heating fuel, reduces or eliminates the vulnerability of homes and residents to winter power outages and provides an alternative means to prepare hot food. This is especially beneficial to Vermont’s growing elderly population, although anyone can freeze.

Climate chaos includes extreme weather of all sorts, although the average trend is for warming. Prudence suggests that we have back-ups to electricity for essential tasks.

A secure energy system is a diverse energy system, with well-designed alternatives to the dominant energy source. Let’s ensure that New England self-reliance and resourcefulness does not become obsolete just when we need it most.

Harvest Firewood Sustainably

Responsible firewood harvesting is required if wood is to be an ecologically sound heating backup. The temptation in cutting firewood commercially is to harvest only straight trees. Crooked trees complicate transportation and are harder to split. But stunted and deformed trees are the ones best removed to stimulate productivity and carbon sequestering in the remaining stand. Returning wood ash to the forest or applying appropriate rock dust to woodlands can stimulate growth and help compensate for depletion of soil fertility characteristic of early Vermont farming practices. Vermont is fortunate in that the overwhelming majority of its forested acres are presently enrolled in a state forest management program that employs trained professional foresters.