Permaculture Principle: Catch and Store Energy


7 min

1. Catch and store energy

Now that we have looked at the first Permaculture Principle, Observe and Interact, on global, national and local levels, it’s time to consider the second Principle, Catch and Store Energy.

We talked about energy flows last time: oil, food, water, weather, people, but didn’t really stop to consider what energy is. Simply put, it is the capacity to do work. We generally think of it in terms of fuel — coal, oil, gas, but it exists in many forms including thermal, nuclear, electrical, chemical, kinetic, potential, financial… and human. All these can be harnessed to produce results, and some store better than others.

With a couple of exceptions (nuclear, geothermal, magnetic) most of the energy on earth originates with the sun. Our planet’s climate, winds, ocean currents, and fossil fuels have their origins in solar power, and most commonly, when we talk about harvesting energy, our mind springs to big projects that grab headlines, but are way out of our own personal reach.

These days, much of the world runs on fossil fuel: coal, oil, and natural gas created millions of years ago when prehistoric biomass was subjected to extreme pressure. The infrastructure — mines, wells, rigs — and the power and expertise to run them are national and transnational concerns, and we as individuals have little chance of influencing outcomes. Factor in, too, grand hydropower schemes and nuclear reactors, and understand that we have to start small.

The easiest thing that most of us in the developed world can do is save energy: car-pool, walk, take the bus, or bike instead of driving; switch off lights and appliances when they are not in use; put on an extra layer in winter and turn the thermostat down. Those actions are in reach of all of us and are a great place to start.

Most scientists now believe that humans burning fossil fuels is a major factor in climate change, and we have seen a dramatic shift towards renewable energy over the last two decades. Wind power, solar power, electric cars, are all making news, and may people feel that they are a desirable alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear with its as yet unsolved problem of radioactive waste. How much of the renewables discussion is ‘greenwashing’ is subject for a later post.

In the meantime, though, it is increasingly possible in many countries to switch your energy provider to one that uses renewables, or to add solar panels to your home — either just for hot water as most buildings have here in Cyprus, or photovoltaic panels that upload power to the national grid. Some people choose the more adventurous route of going off-grid with their own wind turbines or solar panels, but the storage issue (batteries are not yet efficient enough to guarantee power around the clock) is a deterrent for many. Plans abound on the internet for building turbines, and even harnessing the hydropower of small local streams, so by all means, check them out!

But if we are not building turbines or setting up panels, how can we best incorporate Principle Two into our designs and our lives?

Let’s talk about the sun. If you are designing or building your own home, consider a passive solar design which makes use of orientation and materials to create a structure which maximises efficiency. Check out some of these earthships — though have in mind that passive solar design does not have to be so extreme. It can be as simple as arranging shading for your windows — either with a summer vine or a built overhang — to keep south-facing rooms cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

You can also — by observing and interacting — harvest and store energy in the garden. Notice the shady spots, and plant your shade-loving plants there. See where pond water, a white wall or rocks reflect the light and heat and provide shelter from the wind? Use this little microclimate to nurture plants that need extra warmth and light in the winter. Use the lower areas that catch run-off during storms to create a rain garden.

Another way to catch and store solar energy in the garden is by conserving plant and animal biomass — garden clippings and herbivore manure — and returning it to the soil for decomposition. You can do this in a compost heap (more posts on composting coming up), or by simply ‘chopping and dropping’ prunings as mulch. Compost and mulch create deep healthy soils, which in turn help to catch and store water and lead to abundant food crops, which in their turn, are harvested and stored, and consumed.

2. Catch and store energy in Cyprus

Rain, like sunshine, is free energy. Here in Cyprus, an arid island that loses tons of topsoil through run-off each year through poor or non-existent water harvesting policies, there is only lip service paid to increasing pressure on the water system. New golf courses are planned, most new villas and tourist accommodation have swimming pools.and runoff is channelled by way of hardscape and culverts into the sea.We have dams for agriculture — big projects far from the control of individuals — but no state initiatives to train farmers or citizens in rainwater harvesting and storage.

So what can we do? There are books and online courses that provide excellent advice and plans for every size project — from creating dams and earthworks to maximise water retention on farms to capturing rainwater on an apartment balcony. Also, consider strategies for saving water in your home. During the long dry summer, use as little as you can, reusing your kitchen water, if possible, to give the plants a drink. These days, many architects are aware of the potential of grey water systems — usedhousehold water from everywhere but the toilets - and you may be able to either build or retrofit a system where every drop is used more than once. Why we don’t implement a design where our hand-washing water is used to flush the toilet, I don’t know. The design exists, but I don’t see it for sale anywhere.

Outside, design your garden beds to follow the contours of any slopes to minimise erosion and make best use of irrigation, use heat tolerant plants and keep the soil covered to minimise evaporation. Water infrequently and deeply rather than often and little to encourage the development of deep roots. Create a mulched bed with a downslope berm around every tree so that water, whether from a hose or rainfall, does not simply flow away. Install guttering on your roof, catching the water in tanks or channelling it out into the mulched garden beds where it can infiltrate and help to create a healthy living soil sponge.

3. Catch and store energy at Paphos Green Goddess

Here at Green Goddess we are always trying to improve our energy efficiency. The house is built of mud-brick, whose high thermal mass means that it stays cool in summer and warm in winter without additional air conditioning or heating other than a fireplace. Our site slopes toward the south and 125 square metres of roof is guttered, with the water directed into 4 eight-ton tanks that are plumbed into the house. They run the cold water downstairs for most of the year, but I close them in the summer to keep a reserve in case of fire or unforeseen water crisis in the village. The garden beds are designed on contour with small retaining berms of wood creating a level planting surface. The wood slowly rots, nourishing the soil throughout the year, and is replaced in the autumn by the prunings from the olive trees after the harvest. Some of the steeper slopes, both around the house and in the field, and held by massive stone retaining walls that help to keep water on the land and minimise topsoil loss through erosion.

The house and garden sit just below the crest of a slope with a concrete road that brings run-off onto the site every winter. This excess water caused problems until we re-cambered the road and removed some of the kerb stones — allowing water to flow across the garden and into the mulch basins around the trees.

Money, of course is another form of energy. Most of us catch that by working, but how to save and store it is often a problem! Maximise it either by earning more or spending less — but more on that subject in a later post. For now, just observe how it flows into your life, and how it flows out.

Social capital is a vital form of energy that can be harnessed, stored, and used. Experience, knowledge, capacity is stored in the minds and bodies of all humans, and is accessible through formal and informal lessons, courses, workshops, and exchanges. Our grandparents, our friends and neighbours, university professors, we all have something to share. In the last blog I mentioned migration as one of the energy flows swirling around the globe. Many of the people on the move because of war, persecution, climate change are talented, anxious to work and create a better life. Instead of welcoming people and harnessing their talents and strength, many countries set up barriers, losing so much in the process.

Building a supportive community is one of the prime steps we can take to implement Principle Two. Human energy, both mental and physical, is the engine which runs our daily lives. As intimately entwined with nature and non-human beings as we are, humans are social animals with few unusual exceptions, unable to thrive alone. We depend on each other’s energy and good will for our survival and learning how to communicate and to share that energy is key to our continued existence.

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