Implementing Efficient & Renewable Energy Systems in the Urban Environment


Bronx Community College: May 16, 2006
Sponsored by New York Energy Smart, NYSERDA, Public Service Commission, SOBRO, Center for Sustainable Energy.
By Andrew Leslie Phillips

It’s a great pleasure to be here today – and an honor to be invited into the dialogue. And I particularly welcome the young who will be the ones to implement many of the ideas we’ve heard today.

What is the potential for low energy permaculture in the dense urban environment?

There is no doubt that we live in interesting times. Climate change is real, the world’s oil supply has peaked and we are beginning an energy decline that could be quite steep.

We have lost two-thirds of the world’s top soils. We lose about 200 tons of soil per acre per year because of the way we farm - to produce sub-standard food – lacking basic nutrition – an organic tomato picked fresh from the vine yields thousands of times more nutrition – it’s a living food full of enzymes and life.

And today a small plastic bottle of water you buy at the bodega on the corner costs more than gasoline.

And all that transportation - thousands of miles - all that oil. It takes one hundred years of sunshine on one acre of forest to yield one gallon of gas to carry our food to the supermarket.

We drive on thousands of year of liquid sunshine every day, millions of us and here comes China and India – oil is a very precious commodity - we use it to drive to the corner - there are no sidewalks – footpaths for children and the dogs - to walk to the store.

This is our world today but tomorrow will be different.

The native American thinks ahead seven generations – more than 100 years – they think of the world out that far – seven generations. Wise people.

The Australian aborigines have lived on the oldest continent, the driest continent – the only one that never experienced an ice age – lived in Australia for 60,000 years.

There are still Aborigines in Australia - who live in the dreamtime - when earth and man were one with the animals and the land and the plants and the world was dreamed into being – that’s how their society prospered and grew, following and learning in songs, the songlines - and in their tattoos and paintings - the great narrative of nature.

And then in 1769, we came along and look how quickly things changed. Exponentially.

When we think about permaculture we think about context – we try to recognize the problems and the energy flows and blockages, we study the waste stream and look for opportunities - to tease out the parameters - and apply a few directives we’ve developed - to encourage solutions..

What is the potential for low energy permaculture in the dense urban environment in the context of peak oil, energy decline, climate change and in a disrupted economic system?

Energy will grow more expensive, it will cost more to heat and cool our buildings and there will be fresh food shortages. We will need to work closer to home and hence there will be more community – the geography of our lives will change and foreshorten

There will be change but change is difficult. Most of us need to hit the wall - bottom out – before we agree to change and this will probably be the case in this country and our city.

We are seeking sustainability. We need to understand how energy runs through the system. We need to do an energy audit. A sustainable system is one that creates more energy than the system consumes over its working lifetime.

And what is energy – really – not just gasoline and electricity. Energy can neither be created or destroyed but it can be transduced. When we put a water wheel in a stream we take energy from the stream and ingeniously capitalize on the energy yield - its just a matter of pushing the energy the right way and following nature’s patterns, constants and constraints.

A permaculture directive is that a system should fulfill multiple functions and synergy with other systems

Consider a compost heap. We can compost our waste vegetables, all the vegetable chucked in containers - out the back of nearby restaurants too – and they all got oil for bio diesel – and you can shred discarded cardboard boxes and leaves and manure - nitrogen and a little water and in four days your compost heap will heat to 150 degrees - and if you turn it every couple of days, in eighteen days you’ll find rich humus colloidal humus like the forest floor where soil grows. We can build soil this way in our urban gardens and communities.

In our energy audit we will add up our yield from this compost heap - which includes the compost itself, its ability to retain more moisture and conserve water as it insulate and fertilizes and inoculates plants from disease and build soil as it does. Elements play many roles - multiple functions – we are using more available energy – there is less entropy – we are slowing the transfer of energy and reaping the benefits for free over time.

But there are less visible assets like exercise and the good feeling of working with the earth and the knowledge gained each time – the Zen of it.

We can make compost tea, a rich cocktail for plants and we can even use the heat of a compost heap to warm buildings – in France they warm whole villages with a compost system like this.

A directive of permaculture is that it can be applied on all natural scales.

Remember that plastic bottle of water? In our audit we need to include the cost of producing that plastic water bottle - the cost of the plastic – petro-chemical bottle – the real cost of the oil used to make and transport all those bulky plastic bottles all over the world when fresh water falls from the sky in great deluges on all of our roofs.

Rain falling is a constant and water flows down hill another constant and in both cases there is imbedded energy in the movement of water that can be used passively in permaculture systems.

The rain that floods our basements, and jams up the traffic and even shuts down the subway sometimes - we just let it wash away - down the sewer -- all that fresh water wasted. Causing problems. Washing the soil off the land.

Permaculture examines the waste stream seeking ways to tie them back into the system.

Water is life – we are mostly water – in permaculture we try to slow water down – water is life so we want to rub it up against as many surfaces as possible – in slow curves like in nature – not a straight lines – in swales and on edges.[2]

Swales are water-harvesting ditches on contour. They can be passive, holding water that will gradually plume through the garden and over time recharge springs and aquifers. And they can be active, feeding dams and aquaculture systems.

In an urban space with a little bit of slope, you’d install swales across the contour of the land - to catch and slow down the water-run-off. You’d dig the swale at least a foot deep – maybe deeper and fill with mulch, shredded cardboard boxes and leaves, cut branches, anything that will, like a sponge, gather moisture and insect life and feed the soil.

This is where we start to plant our nitrogen fixing plants and we restore the landscape this way as we eat fresh, healthy food from out the back or around the corner or off the roof.

People used to keep pigeons on their roofs and some still do – but not many these days – pigeons make good quality manure for the compost heap. And you can eat pigeons too. Pigeon is good tucker.

The solution lays in finding passive inter-connecting systems that build in redundancy, ideally, each system performing synergistic functions towards multiple objectives. There will be intended and unintended consequences but by following nature’s patterns we will learn and change.

Think of a spiders web, how strong it is as a system of design – it takes many threads to break before the web is no longer useful.

Green roofs in dense urban environments will insulate, provide healthy food and places for recreation and totally change the cityscape. They will transpire moisture – one tree can release as much as 5,000 gallons. It will literally air condition the environment in summer.

Water can be collected from roofs. Simple charcoal filters, gravel beds and plants - and limestone will neutralize acid if necessary. We drink water from the tank in Australia all the time. Water is usually pH 5 to 6, a little acid. Seven is neutral. Acid rain is pH 4.5 and will affect plants over time. pH 4 dissolves toxins like aluminum which will be taken up by the plant.

But before we get to pH 4.5, the toxins are locked up and the plants won’t absorb them. If you use good compost, the colloidal quality of the mixture – very small nutritious solids - will be taken up by the plant – the plant will go for the good stuff – not the bad. And the inorganics in the compost are cooked by the heat, in the process, bound up and no longer available to the plant.

Inorganic fertilizers leach quickly through the soil on their way to the water table – in about a year. Compost lasts much longer – up to 17 years – you can still measure it in the soil.

Green algae like the one we pay so much for at the health store, grows on the inside of water tanks and helps purify the water. And certainly the water can be used on the garden.

As momentum of energy descent increases there will be increasing incentives to introduce soft-energy technologies and create urban gardens on the land and in the sky. Each will provide micro-climates of interesting diversity. And they will be self-sufficient, net energy producers that will cost the city nothing in the big picture.

We can grow everything from figs and paw paw, kiwi fruit, plums and cherries, nuts of many kinds, grapes and all the leafy greens and mushrooms and medicinal herbs you’d ever want.[3]

There’s plenty of vacant lots – perhaps 10,000 throughout the city, even after the short-sighted land grabs that are part of urban living – the “high-rise fetish” that’s only going to create more problems in an age of oil deficiency.

That’s why its important to explore Land Trusts and ways to wrest back the commons – so communities own land that cannot be so easily taken. Churches and other communities might become land holders of urban farm land rather than expensive to heat old buildings.

There will much more openness to green ideas and green politics – it is inevitable that more than a tree will be growing in Brooklyn. In five or ten years – there will be gardens all over the city and beyond. There will have to be - to feed us.

We will need many satellite farms to supply the city but if we are smart and follow a few simple directives it need not be such a problem and the descent more gentle in even enjoyable. It is already happening.

In permaculture we view the problem as the solution. One of the problems is over-consumption of oil, we waste it on stupid things like leaf blowers yet there are other ways to view the world. There are other ways to tap energy and interact with the landscape.

When the Dutch Parliament passed a sweeping National Environmental Policy Plan called the Green Plan, in 1989, its stated task was to create, in one generation, a society of negligible risk for humans and ecosystems.

Holland is meeting most of its toxic-reducing, energy-saving, and land-use goals, on schedule. More impressive, it’s doing so without harming gross domestic product.

Since 1989, industry has reduced its waste output by 60 percent, sulphur dioxide emissions have declined by 70 percent and pollution from volatile organic compounds like dioxin has been halved.

Holland has almost completely phased out ozone-depleting chemicals, and 20 percent of its households use green-power, largely solar, wind and biomass. That’s more than anywhere in Europe, and far more than in the U.S., where one percent of households use renewable energy, excluding large-scale hydropower.

The Dutch are easily on target to meet, by 2012, their Kyoto Protocol (1998) obligation of a 6 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, relative to 1990. By comparism, under the Bush Climate Change Initiative, the U.S. will increase emissions by 32 percent over the same period.

Of all countries, the United States has the brain power, equipment, organizational structure and money to make the change late thought it may be.

They say President Jimmy Carter was a bad president and Ronald Reagan a great one – well it was Carter who put primitive photovoltaic solar cells on the White House roof thirty years ago and Reagan who took them down. We’ve wasted thirty years and now we are way behind. Even so, this country can change and certainly we can change regardless of government policy. But it has to be done soon and it has to be quick. There’s not much time left.

It may sound silly and useless in the big scheme of things but most of our problems can be solved in a garden. We must remember where out food comes from – take inventory of our lives. It will not the first time societies have gone through this – the Soviet Union did when it collapsed and they survived.

Of course they have oil and gas enough to export and vast wheat lands. The Soviets are used to a simpler family life and they lost 20 million in the second world war. They understand hardship and know how to survive it.

We are not well equipped to handle such a situation in the West and perhaps the United States is least prepared.

We can grow food and sell food from out urban gardens. We can attach greenhouses on roofs and south facing walls and use plastic wisely to construct low-cost green houses to protect food from the cold and pollution. We can learn from others for it is done all over the world.

According to Cornell University Cooperative Extension you can grow 50 to 80 pounds of tomatoes on one tomato bush - at $1.50 a pound you’ve got $75 per plant. That’s a delicious, nutritious tomato for you and your neighbors and a few dollars in your pocket.

One acre of farmed land currently yields $10 - $12,000 a year to the grower - from one city farmer’s market. Attending two markets a week can yield $20,000 – that’s two markets a week.

Michael Guerra is the author of The Edible Container Garden, it is available from Permaculture Magazine’s Earth Repair Catalogue, priced £11.99

“We remember those early (before children!) years as particularly fulfilling from a personal growth point of view. We were able to grow, in one good year 550lbs of raw unprocessed food from 800sq.ft, the equivalent of 13.5 tons per acre.

Most of it was annuals grown with every intercropping, stacking and season-extending method we had to hand. We were importing about a ton – 2,000 lbs - of well-rotted horse manure a year (a lot of that was for building up the poor soil), and making plant feeds from comfrey, nettle and urine. It was a good time. I was mostly unemployed (Julia was working for some of that time – though we were both unemployed for a year). We spent time growing together, enjoying each other’s company, reading and having lots of visits from folk from all over the world.”

Pemaculture has been around since the 1970’s – it came from Australia and its taught all over the world. Permaculture’s’ founding father, Bill Mollison, traveled through these parts twenty years ago tells of visiting the Bronx -

“The land was very cheap there because there was no power, no water, no police, and there were tons of drugs. This little farm grew to supply eight percent of New York’s herbs. There are now 1,100 city farms in New York.”

That was twenty years ago – anyone know where that farm is today?

They are bridge between the city and satellite farm communities everyone benefits and that fits right in with permaculture – synergy is good.[4]

But we could grow more food in the urban environment.[5] Cuba did when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Cuba lost its life line and at least 50% of its oils supply. Cuba, like most of the world was based on a petro-chemical economy and it quickly collapsed.

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil by Megan Quinn and published in the Permaculture Activist magazine.

Havana, Cuba – At the Organiponico de Alamar, a neighborhood agriculture project, a workers’ collective runs a large urban farm, a produce market, and a restaurant. Hand tools and human labor replace oil-driven

machinery. Worm cultivation and composting create productive soil. Drip irrigation conserves water and the diverse, multi- hued produce provides the community with a rainbow of healthy food.

In other Havana neighborhoods lacking enough land for such large projects, residents have installed raised garden beds on parking lots and planted vegetable gardens on their patios and rooftops.

Since the early 1990’s, an urban agricultural movement has swept through Cuba putting Havana 2.2 million people on a path towards sustainability.

A small group of Australians assisted in the grass-roots effort – they arrived in 1993 to teach permaculture, a system that uses far less energy than other practices.

The need to bring agriculture to the city began with the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of more than 50% of Cuba’s oil imports, much of its food, and 85% of its trade economy. Transportations stopped, people went hungry and the average Cuban lost 30 pounds.

…Cubans started to grow local organic produce out of necessity – they developed bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers as petro-chemical substitutes and incorporated more fruits and vegetables into their diets Since they couldn’t fuel their ancient automobiles, they walked and biked and rode buses and car pooled.

They were forced to return to oxen to plough their fields. But today 50% of Havana’s vegetables come from inside the city, while in other Cuban towns and cities, urban gardens produce from 80% to more than 100% of what they need. (Permaculture Activist, March 2006 "How Cuba Survived Peak Oil by Megan Quinn).

[2] Edges are important in permaculture because there is more life on the edge; at the sea shore were the land meets the water. Mangrove systems contain the world’s richest bio-mass. On the edge of the forest where it meets the field is abundant life. It is nature’s gathering place for species from field and forest to intermingle, manure and mix and edges hold more water. In permaculture we call this “edge thinking”.

[3] Although commercial truffles are more plentiful in Europe than in America, fewer are found there now than in the past. A harvest of 2,200 tons was reported in l890. Three hundred tons were harvested in l914, but lately only 25 to 150 tons per year have been found.

Truffles appear to have predictable life cycles. To ensure future production, appropriate tree seedlings are inoculated with truffle spores, and when the sapling tree is established, it is transplanted to the proper environment, usually a barren, rock-strewn calcific soil. It takes about seven years before the first truffle begins to grow. A bearing tree will produce for about fifteen to thirty years. For the European market to survive it is necessary to regularly replenish the population of truffle-bearing trees. Inoculated trees have been brought to North America, but it is too early to predict how successful these experiments will be.

Truffles are also found in North Africa, in the Middle East, and in North America. On the desert after rainfall, knowledgeable Middle Eastern people collect the "black kame," Terfezia bouderi, and the "brown kame," Terfezia claveryi. They prefer the darker ones. In Texas, Tuber texensis is collected, and in Oregon, the white Tuber gibbosum.

Gaining in popularity and comparing favorably with the Italian truffle, the Oregon truffle is harvested in sufficient quantity to support commercial sales. Although the Oregon truffle industry is in its infancy, it commands as much as $150 per pound for its truffles. James Beard claimed that the mature Oregon white truffle could be substituted for European varieties.

From the Desk of Jac Smit – “Urban Agriculture”

Jac Smit is the President of The Urban Agriculture Network an information and consulting organization founded in 1992. It has visited over 30 countries in its advocacy. Their urban agriculture written for the United Nations is the 2nd best selling book ever published by the UNDP.

Here he is writing on truffles -

Truffles create:

1. Jobs,

2. A Healthy Environment for Living, and

3. Economic Stability

What could be further from the common perception of urban agriculture being related to low-income residential areas and farmers' markets than Truffles?

a) The US$ 800 per pound wholesale price of truffles can return $220,000 per acre per year.

b) Truffles lose their all-important pungent scent during the second day after harvest.

c) It takes three days or more for European of New Zeeland truffles to hit the wholesale market in North America, too late!

d) Truffles are produced on the roots of trees that enhance the environment.

e) In the late 19th century France produced +/- 675 tons of truffles a year. In 2000 it was 35 tons, and demand is growing.

Given this information, the reader can write his or her own script. Charles Lefevre the CEO of 'New World Truffieres' says this "Think of it like having $ 20.00 dollar bills scattered thick all over the ground of your orchard."

There is a clear opportunity and large benefit for small-scale urban fringe truffle production that can deliver to restaurants and retail outlets on the day of harvest [morning to evening].

[4] Since 1973 green guerillas™, has helped thousands of people realize their dreams of turning vacant rubble-strewn lots into vibrant community gardens. Each year they work with hundreds of grassroots groups throughout New York City to strengthen underserved neighborhoods through community gardening helping more than forty projects.

Just Food seeks new marketing and food-growing opportunities addressing the needs of regional, rural family farms, NYC community gardeners, and NYC communities. They build partnerships among diverse groups to advance dialogue and action on farming, hunger and nutrition.

[5] 1. Mushrooms. Gourmet-quality mushrooms can be grown in little space and low-light conditions are not only possible but necessary. Yields are high, and there should be a ready demand close to you.

2. Vermiculture. If you have a place for it (even, on a small scale, indoors), it is quite possible to produce incredibly rich soil from various forms of waste. Worm castings should be a very easy product to sell to the nurseries and florists and garden centers and to many of the container gardeners in your area.

3. Container gardening. A surprising amount of your own fresh vegetables and herbs can be grown that way--especially if you are producing the sort of compost that vermiculture creates.

Producing your own rich compost is an inexpensive way to make a income with limited space. Urban dwellers are just as fond of fresh herbs as anyone anywhere.

Analysis of the market yields rewards in deciding what to grow using the space, time, effort, and money you have available. With so many restaurants it should be fairly easy to establish a market for the more exotic and delicate fresh produce.

You can develop a ready market for the started containers--and offer classes in "urban agriculture" where you demonstrate what you do. A few bins of the right earthworms creating compost serve as "breeding stock" for others who want to do it, too.