Things May Not Be As They Appear

Editor’s Note: This is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.


Timing is everything and you can’t judge a book by its cover. It seems we’re constantly reminded of these lessons. I’ll share some examples this week.

First of all, I faced these truisms late last week when I tried to push the garlic season by digging some bulbs for the Saturday market. On the surface they looked huge – stems thick and green. My hopes were high as I gently lifted the first few from the rich, dark soil only to be disappointed that what emerged did not match what was visible from above.

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Yes, I was pushing the season by two to three weeks, but the stems were already so big I thought… Reminds me of another saying: Good things come to those who wait. Like fine wine, the World’s Best Garlic will not be rushed. The flavour is as good as ever, but more time will fill out the cloves. It won’t be back at the market until next week.

Another example of the importance of timing is how global climate scientists managed to manipulate the weather to cause devastating floods in England, southern Norway and India to coincide exactly with the COP 21 climate change talks in Paris. It’s obvious that climate scientists caused the massive rainfalls in England and India because they dumped the same amount – 341 millimeters – in both locations. This is exactly the type of lazy science we have come to expect from the likes of NASA, NOAA, NIWA, and the IPCC.

At least we can rely on India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his press office, for giving it to us straight on the flooding. What most people don’t realize is that Modi made a special trip to Whanganui in June to assess the extent of our own flooding as shown in the accompanying photo.

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In the age of Photoshop, many things may not be as they appear.

But seriously, how’s this for timing: the region of Cumbria, England has experienced three record floods in a decade. After the 2009 flooding, residents were told they had experienced a once in a lifetime rain event. Nek minit, Storm Desmond with over a foot of rain in a day. Water levels were half a metre higher than the 2005 flood.

By these measures, Whanganui could experience flooding 50 centimetres higher than this year as soon as 2021. Although there is low probability of this happening, it is not out of the realm of possibility. Cumbria has set a precedent, and even if we stopped burning carbon today there are already decades of extreme weather events loaded into the atmospheric system just waiting for the right time.

England’s Environment Secretary Liz Truss said the increasing frequency of extreme rainfall is “consistent with the trends we’re seeing in terms of climate change.”

Throughout Cumbria, 45 million pounds have been spent on flood defences over the last decade. They were all overtopped, although Floods Minister Rory Stewart claims they slowed the water and allowed more time for evacuations to take place. Timing is everything.

Based on most everything coming across the wires on the environment, economy and society, the only constant we can count on is increasing volatility. As I have written time and time again, the best way to respond to volatility is with resilience, and a particular form characteristic of eco design that I call “pre-silience.”

A simple way to describe pre-silience is a stitch in time saves nine. All this means is that a timely effort now will prevent more work later. For example, a small hole in a shirt can be repaired with one stitch if caught early, but will require many stitches if allowed to tear and grow larger.

Personally, I don’t bother repairing shirts because at the present time they are cheap and abundant from op shops, but I do spend hour upon hour stitching up houses and land. That is to say making both more robust and resilient. I’ve always been attracted to old homes and marginalized land. Repairing both is fun and rewarding work.

Unfortunately, the concept of resilience has yet to arrive in our community to any significant extent, but I believe its time will come. It’s just discouraging that until then so many unrecoverable resources will be misdirected and monies misspent. I’m told that “a stitch in time saves nine” is an anagram for “this is meant as incentive.” But I’m not so sure.

Do Your Maths First Before Buying Solar PV

Editor’s Note: This is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.

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“Don’t rush into solar, says Electricity Authority.” That was the headline on Radio New Zealand News a month ago.

“The Electricity Authority is warning that rapid investment in solar technology with back-up batteries could be an expensive mistake. It puts the potential wasted investment at $2.7 billion to $5 billion over the next 10 years, and said the real economics of solar technology should be understood before people made expensive purchases of solar cells for their roof tops.”

The Radio NZ story echoes a similar warning penned by our “oily rag” friends, Frank and Muriel Newman, in April: “Dark side of renting solar panels.”

Their warning focused on a company called solarcity and their programme called solarZero, “whereby homeowners can get solar panels installed on their roof at no upfront cost – as long as they make a 20-year commitment to pay a fixed monthly fee” that functions as a rental and servicing agreement.

The Newman’s ran the numbers and found that for a “normal” household the total payments over 20 years would be $26,400. My colleagues in the eco design field came up with similar numbers, and determined that the equivalent system could be purchased today for half that.

In effect, signing a contract for the solarZero programme would be similar to taking out a loan to pay for solar panels and paying it off over 20 years. In both cases, economically savvy and fiscally prudent people would decline, and instead invest in products and strategies with much better financial returns.

This was essentially the same conclusion reached by researchers at the University of Canterbury Electric Power Engineering Centre, which I wrote briefly about last week. Those researchers found that grid-tied solar electricity systems were financially viable only for households who could pay cash up front for the panels and who use lots of electricity during daylight hours. In other words, rich people who use heaps of power. That’s fine for them, but not aligned with the theory and practice of eco-thrifty renovation.

Over the course of 500 home consultations, I have never recommended installing photovoltaic panels as one of the top twenty (or more) suggestions that are proven to be cost effective for creating warm, dry, healthy, energy-efficient homes. In response to those who protest loudly, and insist PV is cost effective, I have said for years, “Show me the numbers.” No one has come forth, yet the protests remain. Hell hath no fury like an environmentalist scorned.

Last week I also shared research showing that household PV panels have a much greater carbon footprint than wind or geothermal power that I’m sure ruffled feathers among those still clinging to dogmatic beliefs. I have found it immensely amusing and ironic that I’ve been black-listed by local greens at the same time as being thanked and praised by Federated Farmers. Makes me wonder which group is more open-minded.

Please bear in mind that this column is written by someone who owned an off-grid home powered by PV for eight years, and who presently has a stack of panels ready to mount on the roof. But that’s another story.

In the mean time, here are some other suggestions for fun, easy and cost effective ways of using solar energy: Grow a vegetable garden. Make a solar cooker. Air your washing on the line outdoors.

Personally, I am immensely grateful for the sun, and the rain, and the soil, for contributing to a record crop of the World’s Best Garlic this year. Like the mighty All Blacks, this year’s crop of Allium sativum has truly outdone itself. Available at the River Market for the next four weeks only.


Peace, Estwing