Friday, December 31, 2010
When she sold a three-bedroom home and moved into this 84-square-foot house in Olympia, Washington, Dee Williams found freedom.
Photo by Betty Udesen
How to Build a Tiny House
by Dee Williams
posted Mar 10, 2009
Three years ago, I decided to downsize. I sold my big house (which I loved!), got rid of all my stuff, and built an itty-bitty eco-friendly cottage. When I finished building, I slid my little house into a friend’s backyard. This isn’t as odd as it sounds. My house actually “fits” in the backyard. It looks like a tiny cabin, or a tree house. It’s also super-small and built on wheels.
My house offers 84 square-feet of living space and cost about $10,000 to build. It was built for the highway, but—honestly—it isn’t anything like a travel trailer. It doesn’t contain any space-age plastics or fake wood. Instead, it’s the real deal: knotty pine, cedar, and fir.
I made the house to be as simple and natural as possible. I minimized my construction footprint by using a bunch of “green” building techniques, including:
* Recycled and Salvaged Wood—The house took shape based on the materials that were offered to me or “found.” For example, I decided to install skylights after I found two huge windows at the salvage yard. I installed knotty pine siding on the interior walls and ceiling, and used cedar planks for the loft floor after the wood became available at the local reuse store. I installed exterior cedar siding after my neighbor offered me a bundle. He had originally purchased the wood in the 1940s, and had been storing it in his garage since that time. It was beautiful old-growth cedar—the kind you can’t find anymore.
* Insulated Windows—The house has nice, wood-clad windows that are low-emission (which reflects sunlight to keep the house cooler in the summer) and argon-insulated. They cost a mint, but have proven to work great! They cut noise and heat loss, and look fabulous.
* Solar Electricity—A 240-watt photovoltaic (solar) system powers my lights and other electric gadgets. It was sized to meet my needs, based on Olympia’s cloudy weather.
* Non-toxic Stains and Sealants—I used a water-based stain on the outside of the house, and a water-based sealant on the kitchen counter. I didn’t coat the floors, walls, or ceiling. As a result, the house carries a subtle, natural cedar and pine smell. I love the woodsy, peaceful smell of my house.
* Primitive Water/Sewer—I don’t have running water in my house. I pull water from a nearby garden spigot, and jug it into the house. I use a composting toilet, and I shower elsewhere. This “primitive” set-up has presented some of the greatest challenges for me. But I’ve gotten used to things, and I recognize that (on a world scale) any sort of toilet or shower is a blessing. Millions of people live without running water or a sanitary sewer. My situation is gifted by comparison.
* Other Good Ideas—I used shredded cotton insulation in the walls and ceiling, and Marmoleum (a natural linseed product) on the floor. I placed the house in the backyard with consideration for wind, sun and shade. Most importantly, I simply minimized the size of the house while creating a sense of space, utility and natural beauty (smaller really is better for the environment).
I’ve been in the backyard for over two years. I didn’t intend to find myself stumbling down a “greener” path, but the house has worked on me. I buy less stuff (there’s no place to store it). I re-think leaving lights on, and mull over better ways to manage my compost. I take fewer and shorter showers because I’m imposing on someone else. My ecological footprint has definitely gotten smaller by living in my little house.
I’ve saved a lot of money (my utility bills don’t really exist, and I don’t have a mortgage). I also spend less time fixing things and cleaning. Now, I have more of the “stuff” that I always wanted: time and resources.
I’ve tried to explain my house to other people. It’s a bit awkward. For example, a few weeks ago, a group of 5th-graders visited my house. I was trying to explain how my house works, and what makes it “green.” And ultimately, we spent less time talking about the house (itself), and more time talking about how the house has connected me to the community.
I’m less autonomous. I rely on the sun to power my lights. I trust the rain on the roof to keep me company. I love that the wind cools my house in summer (it works!). I depend on the library and food co-op, and the generosity of friends and neighbors. I have to ask for water every day, and that has changed me!
I find myself wanting (more than ever) to give something back. And that is at the root of all sorts of new ways to live more simply and in-step with my world. Downsizing just keeps getting better!
Dee Williams' tiny house was featured in Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Dee is an inspector with the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Reprinted with kind permission from South Sound Green Pages.
Dream House: Tour Dee Williams’ house
See the houseplan at www.tumbleweedhouses.com
How to Move Yourself Off-The-Grid
Story by Michael Janzen on July 27, 2010 and filed in How To
It’s easy to take flush toilets, grid-power, and fresh water on tap for granted. I can’t blame any of us for thinking that all these modern conveniences are normal… it’s the only normal we’ve known. Due to this most folks have a hard time imagining an off-the-grid life because it’s not clear what’s needed to make the leap.
So here’s a crash course in practical and sustainable solutions for moving yourself off-the-grid.
Photo of The Urban Rancher and his off-grid cabin.
Pee and Poop
Flush toilets are really insane when you stop to think about what they do. They begin by taking several gallons of perfectly good drinking water and mix it with a little pee and poop to produce sewage. Sewage is a mess and really hard to turn back into safe drinking water; but it is easy to transport to treatment plants through enormous networks of pipes, an infrastructure that need regular maintenance. To clean it up, chemicals are used to treat the water which in-turn keeps everyone in the chemical business very happy. Isn’t there a better way!?
Compost it! – Poop loves to decompose and if given a little time and the right conditions it breaks down into rich compost, yes even human poop. Remember we’re just critters just like the our furry friends and our poop will actually decompose into a safe compost, under the right conditions.
Humanure Handbook – A fellow by the name of Joseph Jenkins has actually written an book on the topic called the Humanure Handbook. He’s also designed a toilet nicknamed, The Lovable Loo, which is essentially a 5 gallon plastic bucket in a plywood box. You might also hear these toilets referred to as sawdust toilets because sawdust is literally used to cover the deposits between visits.
The other component you need with this system is a dedicated compost pile out in the backyard with enough space to cook your poop for two years. The stink stays buried in the compost pile under a layer of straw. When you need to add a bucket load you simply pull back the straw, add the fresh material, and cover it back up. So there is some stinky work involved but the the chore is a simple one. This may also be the most sustainable, low-tech, and safe way to turn our waste into something useable.
Commercial Composting Toilets – If the virtually free sawdust toilet seems far too gross, consider spending around $1,000 for a commercially produced composting toilet. These units work swiftly to decompose the material making them more palatable by most folks. If you move your tiny house around a lot this kind of system would be much more practical than a Lovable Loo too, because it’s self-contained and required no backyard compost pile.
Another somewhat tricky waste material to dispose-of is the runoff from sinks, showers, and laundry. This is referred to as greywater which will still have traces of human waste in it, so it can’t just be left to run down the street. In a normal house this water is mixed with sewage to make more sewage. Seems kind of silly doesn’t it?
The solution is to reuse and/or treat the water right there on-site instead of funneling it down a sewer line to a treatment plant miles away. There are many different high-tech and low-tech ways of dealing with greywater but if you choose to build a tiny house be sure to consider handling the plumbing for your sewage separately from your greywater. The people at Earthship Biotecture have an incredible greywater system that is built right into homes and could serve as a model for any home’s future greywater system.
Instead of drilling a well or tapping into municipal water sources, consider collecting rainwater and storing it in tanks for year-round use. Rainwater harvesting is becoming more and more popular because it’s so simple and low-cost. It can also be perfectly healthy to drink with a little filtration. I wrote-up a detailed post on some ideas for rainwater harvesting which you might find useful.
The power grid is an incredibly complex network that requires constant maintenance and monitoring. The entire system is actually incredibly inefficient. For example, line loss, literally the resistance in the wires, sucks electricity from the system before it reaches its destination in your home. To compensate the utility company has to produce more just to defeat the inefficiencies of the system.
Imagine a world where people made their own clean electricity at their point of use. For such a system to remain low-cost we’d need to learn to use less power and move way from using the energy hogging appliances that grew-up dependent on fossil fuel sourced grid power. We’d also need to invest in our own off-grid systems up-front. The good news is that alternative power options are coming down in cost.
Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Panel – Most folks these days are familiar with this technology, panels that produce electricity when exposed to direct sunlight. For a tiny house and a frugal occupant a few solar panels, batteries, and some simple electronic control equipment may be all that’s needed for an off-grid electric system.
Wind Turbine – If you tend to stay put and live in an area with ample wind, a small wind turbine can be a great addition to an off-grid system because it increases the diversity of you power sources. Many off-grid systems also include a backup generator that is used to charge up the batteries when the sun is not shining. By adding other renewable sources of electricity, like wind and hydro, you can reduce your dependency on fossil fuel burning generators.
Micro-Hydro – If your land has water running crossing it, and you have water rights to it, you may be able to tap a small portion of it and spin a small turbine. This can be one of the most reliable and steady ways to produce electricity because as long as the water flows you have water.
All that is needed is a drop in elevation between the inlet and the turbine, some pipe, and a way to get a small portion of the water out of the stream and delivered to the tiny turbine. The inlet can simply be a submerged bucket with a pipe connected that brings the debris-free water downhill to the turbine.
Heating & Cooking Fuels
In most modern homes natural gas, propane, and heating oil are the common fuels burned. But we’re really beginning to see the true cost of using these limited natural resources. If we moved from being dependent on fossil fuels to using renewable energy sources we’d significantly reduce the risk of rising energy costs and continued environmental impacts.
Wood – Burning wood is actually a carbon neutral way of heating a home. When a tree grows it absorbs carbon. When we burn it it releases that same carbon. If we use a highly efficient wood stove in a small living space we can actually get through the winters with little environmental impact and effort. The problem with burning wood for heating a large home is that it would take acres of trees to make it sustainable. Heating a small home requires less energy input which in turn reduces the cost, impact, and effort needed to stay warm in winter.
Methane – Some inventive folks have actually built systems that produce mathane gas from their waste, both human and vegetable. It’s rare to come across this kind of a setup, and they are reportedly a bit tricky to operate, but they can provide a renewable natural gas for cooking and heating.
Alcohol – I’ve not seen this done a great deal but the idea of having a small still for distilling alcohol for burning in an alcohol stove may be a viable alternative on a small scale. I plan to use an alcohol stove in my extreme tiny house experiment, Nine Tiny Feet.
In this modern world it’s hard to imagine life without fossil fuels, flush toilets, and fresh tap water. Actually I think it’s perfectly logical to say that without these things our lives would be very different.
Tiny houses are much easier to maintain in good or tough times. Every time we take-on one more square foot, we increase the effort required to maintain our living space. Living more simply and sustainably lowers risk and can increase our opportunities to prosper.
Changing the way we think about the basics is the first step in changing the way we live. Imagining downsizing to a smaller home and owning fewer possessions is a giant step. But it’s a giant leap for most to learn to live without the reliance of modern conveniences. Most of us are still on the way there too, living with a foot in both worlds, testing the water and exploring. I hope this little introduction to alternative utilities helped move you forward.
Planet | Families & Homes | Simple Living
My Tiny, Free House
Michael Janzen had a big house and a big mortgage. Then the financial crisis hit, and he wondered just how small, and how cheap, a house could be.
by Michael Janzen
posted Aug 10, 2010
In 2008, as the value of my big house was evaporating and layoffs seemed to loom in the distance, I came to my senses.
I began to question the true value of a home—and the real risk of a mortgaged home. I was making a huge financial commitment but not buying the things that really matter, like security and more time with the people I love. A mortgage can buy a lot of instant luxury, but at a significant cost in time, money, and financial risk.
In short, I woke up to the reality that I had taken on too much risk during good times and was totally unprepared for tough times.
I had taken on too much risk during good times and was totally unprepared for tough times.
Armed with this better understanding of the financial risks I’d already committed to, I started looking for answers and found the tiny house movement, which offers a different way of thinking about housing.
The core values of the tiny house movement are that living simply in small spaces empowers us. Committing to a tiny house removes many of the burdens we accepted when we bought into the idea of a "normal" American lifestyle. Instead of focusing on how much we can afford, the tiny space forces us to consider how little we really need.
Building Tiny, for Free
mj1.jpg I wouldn’t have believed this scale of housing was possible until I was introduced to Jay Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. Jay has spent years living in tiny houses smaller than 100 square feet. As I learned more about the tiny house movement and began blogging about tiny house design, I met many more people who are carving out fulfilling and happy lives through extreme downsizing.
mj3.jpg I decided to take this minimalist approach even further: to build a tiny house without it costing me anything but time and energy. I use mostly recycled materials I can get for free; any money I spend on building supplies will be recaptured by selling the free stuff I find.
mj4.jpg The house is built on a small trailer that measures about seven feet wide by 12 feet long, making the total interior space about 80 square feet. It will sleep three people, two in a loft and one on a handmade flip-out bench/bed. A small kitchen and bathroom with a composting toilet will also be included.
Most of the framing wood has come from used shipping pallets I’ve salvaged from dumpsters. Pallets aren’t very easy to build with, but it seems like poetic justice for a house that questions consumerism to be made from the very things that carried so many consumer products to market.
I’ve scored some used plywood for the sheathing and a pile of scavenged felt for the roof. I thought about collecting and flattening 200 #10 tin cans for shingles, but a stormy summer has convinced me to hold out for some scrap corrugated roofing.
Construction of my tiny house been slow going, but I couldn’t be more convinced that it’s worth it.
An Education in Independence
You can apply this kind of thinking to any size living space—it really begins with downsizing possessions, debt, and other external burdens.
With a family of three, I don’t plan to live full-time in the tiny house—it’s more of an experiment to find out if a totally free house is possible. I’m convinced, though, that the biggest impact of a tiny house is the way it changes your thinking about what you really need. You can apply this kind of thinking to any size living space—it really begins with downsizing possessions, debt, and other external burdens.
How House Size Balloned - The Righteous Small House
An architect asks, at what point does size cancel out sustainability?
When we choose to live with less, we also choose a lifestyle that requires fewer inputs and increases our immunity to outside forces, like economic turmoil.
Building the tiny house has definitely changed the way I think about my “normal-sized” house: Its upkeep and expenses keep getting in the way of things I want to do (including building the tiny house!), and it feels enormous. I look forward to the day when we’re free to make our own downsizing move—I’ve learned that a home’s value should be measured by the happiness and security it brings instead of its size and cost.
Now I feel like I’m on a path toward a more sustainable, lower-risk, and more fulfilling lifestyle. I still have a long way to go but I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m moving forward.
Janzen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Michael is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. While he makes his living as a professional web designer, he shows others what it takes to make their own tiny house dreams come true through his blog TinyHouseDesign.com. His education is in the arts and he lived as a studio potter for several years.
* Living Large in a Tiny House
Dee Williams doesn't need a big house to be happy. Instead she found happiness in a 84-square foot house on wheels.
* How To Build A Tiny House
How Dee Williams built her Tumbleweed tiny house.
* 10 Things Science Says Will Make You Happy
Scientists can tell us how to be happy. Really. Here are 10 ways, with the research to prove it.
Dilapidated 18th Century Church Transformed Into a Private Home
by Jamie Hall, 12/23/10
filed under: Architecture
st nicholas church, kyloe northumberland england, church renovations, adaptive reuse, green renovation, green architecture, church houses, green homes, sustainable design
Adaptive reuse projects generally call to mind industrial warehouses and factories turned into trendy studios, or shabby-chic restaurants and bars, but the transformation of the St. Nicholas Church in Kyloe, Northumberland, England has taken this concept of renewal and grounded it much closer to home. The church was purchased not too long ago by Sally Onions and Ian Bottomley, who went the unconventional route when scouting for their newest digs. Far from a Norman Foster style box, or even a classic and quaint Victorian house, the duo instead opted to transform an 18th century basilica into the sanctuary they now call “home.”
The church was originally built in 1792, so the couple wanted to maintain as much of the building’s classic architecture as possible. Rather than undertaking a full-on renovation — which actually would have been cheaper — they opted to restore the key elements of the church, such as the vaulted ceilings and original stained glass windows.
While sofas and beds have replaced pews, the integrity of the architecture remains – you can even find the old cemetery within the churchyard. But don’t think the two are reading by candlelight once the sun sets — the former house of worship has evolved to accommodate contemporary living with modern appliances, fixtures, electricity, and other creature comforts.
More at Inhabit.com: http://inhabitat.com/dilapidated-18th-century-church-transformed-into-a-private-home/
st nicholas church, kyloe northumberland england, church renovations, adaptive reuse, green renovation, green architecture, church houses, green homes, sustainable design
Thursday, December 30, 2010
These bottles are filled with adobe!
Asia’s First School Made of Plastic Bottles is 3x Stronger than Concrete
by Yuka Yoneda, 12/27/10
filed under: Architecture,Recycled Materials,Sustainable Building
This morning, we have another awesome project to add to our list of amazing bottle architecture - this cleverly constructed schoolhouse in San Pablo, Philippines, which happens to be the first of its kind in Asia. The innovative building was conceived and constructed by Illac Diaz and MyShelter Foundation as a way of turning a negative - an abundance of discarded plastic bottles - into a positive - a brand new place for children to get their learn on. The school is made from 1.5 and two-liter soda and water bottles filled with adobe, a combo that is relatively cheaper than concrete and - get this - is also about three times stronger!
From family homes to entire temples, we’ve seen a lot of bottle architecture here at Inhabitat, but this is the first bottle school we’ve come across, and we think it makes so much sense. Plastic bottles are every where, and until we can finally do away with them completely, why not turn them into livable, usable structures?
In order to raise awareness for the school, MyShelter Foundation organized a run in June. They also collected bottles – which most people were more than happy to get rid of – at the event. The Bottle School was constructed with the help of dozens of volunteers who secured the bottles with liquified adobe and steel bars. The site was donated by the local government of San Pablo.
“It’s very empowering because what used to be a problem is now a solution,” said Mr. Diaz about the inspiring project. Congratz to MyShelter Foundation for completing their very first Bottle School and stay tuned because word on the street is that there are many more schools like this one in the works.
Photos © Kristel Marie Fuentes Gonzales
Tags: bottle school, illac diaz, school made of bottles, my shelter foundation, myshelterfoundation, bottle house, bottle architecture, green design, eco design, sustainable design, green architecture, eco architecture
Illac Diaz - AVP My Shelter Foundation
YouTube.com- 4 min - Apr 17, 2008 - Uploaded by viker173
This project was instigated by illac Diaz to further study sustainable architecture.
Get more video results
My Shelter Foundation
MyShelter Foundation aims to create a system of sustainability and replicability through its capability-building and employment generating projects.
MyShelter Foundation Creates Asia's First Plastic Bottle School ...
Dec 28, 2010 ... Developed by Illac Diaz and the MyShelter Foundation, the school is made from thousands of discarded plastic bottles that are filled with ...
Article: Earthbag House May Solve Filipino's Problems
The first three-room school that My Shelter Foundation built in Siargao, in collaboration with the Abakada Foundation (a Filipino non-government ...
MyShelter Foundation - The Bottle School Project - Home
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Brownstones Go Green in Brooklyn
posted by Chaya, selected from Networx Dec 28, 2010 11:01 am
filed under: Conscious Consumer, Crafts & Design, Green 101, Materials & Architecture, On The Go,
Brownstones Go Green in Brooklyn
Deep in the heart of Brooklyn, NY, a green building revolution is happening. I was fortunate to visit the site of a green brownstone renovation recently. Amidst doom and gloom reports of insane global-warming-induced weather patterns, Gennaro Brooks-Church of the green building company Eco Brooklyn gave me one big dose of hope. Here’s an interview with him and photos of the site:
What’s your name and what do you do?
My name is Gennaro Brooks-Church. I’m a green builder. Eco Brooklyn started out of necessity. The company is 3 and ½ years old. I have 25 employees. The history is basically we started exploring radical building techniques and it started being desired by homeowners. What are “radical building techniques?” It’s what I call a “zero brownstone.” Zero waste, zero new materials. We build a brownstone that uses zero off-site energy.
What’s the hardest project you’ve done?
It was a retrofit where we were trying to keep the existing detail work and moldings. We were trying to air seal it and get behind it.
The brownstone's backyard in process will have native species plants.
[Pictured here: The backyard-in-progress of Gennaro's current brownstone renovation project. The native species garden will be irrigated by a greywater system.]
How many beers would it take to get you to build a McMansion?
I’d probably go unconscious before they’d get me to build it.
What’s an underappreciated building material that you like to use?
Clay. Aesthetically, it’s really nice. It’s a very natural material. We use it for walls. It has the cool effect of breathing. It absorbs and releases humidity. We use it instead of paint or plaster. It regulates humidity in the room.
[Pictured here: Gennaro with $20,000 worth of salvaged glass decking that cost him next to nothing. Gennaro says that it's important to build the deck out of glass so that light will reach the garden below.]
Say an average homeowner wants to retrofit his house to make it more green. What should he know before he starts?
His money is going to be allotted differently. A lot of the money goes to the air sealing and ventilation, and less goes to the frilly stuff like fancy moldings and Jacuzzis. What pays off in the long run? Pragmatically, what pays off is focus on energy efficiency. From a more global view, is triple bottom line. Everybody involved is focused on benefiting the people involved, the planet, and making sure that the interaction is a win-win for everyone. With triple bottom line, everybody profits – the neighbors, future generations, and all the workers.
How are workers in a green building company different?
The workers in a green building company are there for more idealistic reasons. I have really great people who could get good jobs elsewhere, but they’re working in construction because they could make a difference to the world.
Learn more about Eco Brooklyn here: EcoBrooklyn.com
Read more: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/brownstones-go-green-in-brooklyn.html#ixzz19cRoyJXc
Monday, December 13, 2010
New York Times - Environm
December 10, 2010
Using Waste, Swedish City Cuts Its Fossil Fuel Use
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
KRISTIANSTAD, Sweden — When this city vowed a decade ago to wean itself from fossil fuels, it was a lofty aspiration, like zero deaths from traffic accidents or the elimination of childhood obesity.
But Kristianstad has already crossed a crucial threshold: the city and surrounding county, with a population of 80,000, essentially use no oil, natural gas or coal to heat homes and businesses, even during the long frigid winters. It is a complete reversal from 20 years ago, when all of their heat came from fossil fuels.
But this area in southern Sweden, best known as the home of Absolut vodka, has not generally substituted solar panels or wind turbines for the traditional fuels it has forsaken. Instead, as befits a region that is an epicenter of farming and food processing, it generates energy from a motley assortment of ingredients like potato peels, manure, used cooking oil, stale cookies and pig intestines.
A hulking 10-year-old plant on the outskirts of Kristianstad uses a biological process to transform the detritus into biogas, a form of methane. That gas is burned to create heat and electricity, or is refined as a fuel for cars.
Once the city fathers got into the habit of harnessing power locally, they saw fuel everywhere: Kristianstad also burns gas emanating from an old landfill and sewage ponds, as well as wood waste from flooring factories and tree prunings.
Over the last five years, many European countries have increased their reliance on renewable energy, from wind farms to hydroelectric dams, because fossil fuels are expensive on the Continent and their overuse is, effectively, taxed by the European Union’s emissions trading system.
But for many agricultural regions, a crucial component of the renewable energy mix has become gas extracted from biomass like farm and food waste. In Germany alone, about 5,000 biogas systems generate power, in many cases on individual farms.
Kristianstad has gone further, harnessing biogas for an across-the-board regional energy makeover that has halved its fossil fuel use and reduced the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by one-quarter in the last decade.
“It’s a much more secure energy supply — we didn’t want to buy oil anymore from the Middle East or Norway,” said Lennart Erfors, the engineer who is overseeing the transition in this colorful city of 18th-century row houses. “And it has created jobs in the energy sector.”
In the United States, biogas systems are rare. There are now 151 biomass digesters in the country, most of them small and using only manure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The E.P.A. estimated that installing such plants would be feasible at about 8,000 farms.
So far in the United States, such projects have been limited by high initial costs, scant government financing and the lack of a business model. There is no supply network for moving manure to a centralized plant and no outlet to sell the biogas generated.
Still, a number of states and companies are considering new investment.
Last month, two California utilities, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric, filed for permission with the state’s Public Utilities Commission to build plants in California to turn organic waste from farms and gas from water treatment plants into biogas that would feed into the state’s natural-gas pipelines after purification.
Using biogas would help the utilities meet requirements in California and many other states to generate a portion of their power using renewable energy within the coming decade.
Both natural gas and biogas create emissions when burned, but far less than coal and oil do. And unlike natural gas, which is pumped from deep underground, biogas counts as a renewable energy source: it is made from biological waste that in many cases would otherwise decompose in farm fields or landfills and yield no benefit at all, releasing heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.
This fall, emissaries from Wisconsin’s Bioenergy Initiative toured German biogas programs to help formulate a plan to develop the industry. “Biogas is Wisconsin’s opportunity fuel,” said Gary Radloff, the initiative’s Midwest policy director.
Like Kristianstad, California and Wisconsin produce a bounty of waste from food processing and dairy farms but an inadequate supply of fossil fuel to meet their needs. Another plus is that biogas plants can devour vast quantities of manure that would otherwise pollute the air and could affect water supplies.
In Kristianstad, old fossil fuel technologies coexist awkwardly alongside their biomass replacements. The type of tanker truck that used to deliver heating oil now delivers wood pellets, the major heating fuel in the city’s more remote areas. Across from a bustling Statoil gas station is a modest new commercial biogas pumping station owned by the renewables company Eon Energy.
The start-up costs, covered by the city and through Swedish government grants, have been considerable: the centralized biomass heating system cost $144 million, including constructing a new incineration plant, laying networks of pipes, replacing furnaces and installing generators.
But officials say the payback has already been significant: Kristianstad now spends about $3.2 million each year to heat its municipal buildings rather than the $7 million it would spend if it still relied on oil and electricity. It fuels its municipal cars, buses and trucks with biogas fuel, avoiding the need to purchase nearly half a million gallons of diesel or gas each year.
The operations at the biogas and heating plants bring in cash, because farms and factories pay fees to dispose of their waste and the plants sell the heat, electricity and car fuel they generate.
Kristianstad’s energy makeover is rooted in oil price shocks of the 1980s, when the city could barely afford to heat its schools and hospitals. To save on fuel consumption, the city began laying heating pipes to form an underground heating grid — so-called district heating.
Such systems use one or more central furnaces to heat water or produce steam that is fed into the network. It is far more efficient to pump heat into a system that can warm an entire city than to heat buildings individually with boilers.
District heating systems can generate heat from any fuel source, and like New York City’s, Kristianstad’s initially relied on fossil fuel. But after Sweden became the first country to impose a tax on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, in 1991, Kristianstad started looking for substitutes.
By 1993, it was taking in and burning local wood wastes, and in 1999, it began relying on heat generated from the new biogas plant. Some buildings that are too remote to be connected to the district heating system have been fitted with individual furnaces that use tiny pellets that are also made from wood waste.
Burning wood in this form is more efficient and produces less carbon dioxide than burning logs does; such heating has given birth to a booming pellet industry in northern Europe. Government subsidies underwrite purchases of pellet furnaces by homeowners and businesses; pellet-fueled heat costs half as much as oil, said Mr. Erfors, the engineer.
Having dispensed with fossil fuels for heating, Kristianstad is moving on to other challenges. City planners hope that by 2020 total local emissions will be 40 percent lower than they were in 1990, and that running the city will require no fossil fuel and produce no emissions at all.
Transportation now accounts for 60 percent of fossil fuel use, so city planners want drivers to use cars that run on local biogas, which municipal vehicles already do. That will require increasing production of the fuel.
Kristianstad is looking into building satellite biogas plants for outlying areas and expanding its network of underground biogas pipes to allow the construction of more filling stations. At the moment, this is something of a chicken-and-egg problem: even though biogas fuel costs about 20 percent less than gasoline, consumers are reluctant to spend $32,000 (about $4,000 more than for a conventional car) on a biogas or dual-fuel car until they are certain that the network will keep growing.
“A tank is enough to get you around the region for the day, but do you have to plan ahead,” Martin Risberg, a county engineer, said as he filled a biogas Volvo.