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Sustainable design

How growing trees can help avert climate change

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While many farmers are opting to install more equipment that use less power, not enough are growing trees as a way to create sustainability.

This may be because traditionally, broad-acre farming, and even small crop growing, requires a certain expanse of acreage without any trees. However, farming isn’t always about planting crops. Graziers who grow cattle, sheep, horses or any other animals realise the necessity of growing trees on their farms.

These benefits of trees are they:

  • Provide essential shade for animals when the temperatures soar.
  • Give birds and insects a place to rest and breed
  • Provide food for native birds, insects and animals
  • Release oxygen as a by-product of their photosynthesis
  • Absorb carbon dioxide
  • Have roots that help to hold soil in place and prevent erosion
  • Can form a windbreak to shelter farm animals from cold wind in the winter
  • Provide valuable timber for building, fuel and crafts
  • Replace nitrogen in poor soils in some countries, such as Africa

So what happened to all the trees?

When Australia was first settled and for many years afterwards, trees were plentiful. However, they were cut down in order to grow food and for space to build homes. Logging was also a major source of income for many people, as it was hard work and slow without the use of mechanical aids.

Once chainsaws and bulldozers were invented trees could be cut down much faster, so they were. In the last 60 years it’s been estimated more trees have been cut down than ever before in Australia, especially along the coastal regions. It’s not only human intervention that has decimated the tree population; trees are also lost from bushfires that are often caused by lightning. They can also be lost due to floods or disease. If a region is left almost treeless, the surviving trees are often wiped out by the many insects that feed off them.

Tree loss linked to climate change and environmental damage

According to SinksWatch – a not-for-profit organisation that tracks and scrutinises carbon sequestration projects – tree loss has led to numerous problems. SinksWatch explores how tree loss contributes to climate change, soil erosion, the depletion of the ozone layer and loss of habitat for many native species: placing them in danger of extinction. Without the mulch provided by dead leaves and twigs that fall from trees, soil quality is poor and lacking in nitrogen. Tree loss has affected just about every country in the world. With the constant need for more food, they are still being cut down at a high rate.

Cutting down deeply rooted trees is also a major factor in causing secondary salinity of the soil, making it unsuitable for agriculture and even the grazing of stock in many areas.

What is being done to alleviate the problem

Many countries are now realising and addressing the problems caused by cutting down trees. In Australia, some farmers can obtain grants to help with replanting trees lost by bushfires or other disasters.

People in some developing nations in Africa are now being taught how to grow food using Fertiliser Tree Systems (FTS). This ensures that the soil is fertilised by the trees making the crops more bountiful. It also makes up for the loss of soil used up by the trees.

Volunteers that are interested in sustainability and climate change offer their time and efforts to help plant trees, which reduces the cost of replacement even further. Volunteers also help out in tree nurseries so there are plenty of small trees ready to plant at the right time.

How long will it take to fix things?

It’s going to take a long time to undo the damage already done; how long exactly it’s hard to know. We know that trees are a necessary part of life for humans and for the environment. Years ago, this wasn’t known; which is why so many trees were cut down without question in the first place.

As scientists find out even more about our environment – and how it’s essential to create a balance for every animal and human to survive – it’s hoped even more tree-planting projects will come into fruition. Other things, including an increase in solar power, wind power and hybrid vehicles, will also help reverse or at least minimise the effects of climate change.

How farmers are helping

Meanwhile, farmers continue their efforts to make their farms sustainable so ecosystems aren’t destroyed. Doing this also helps them cut costs, sometimes unexpectedly. For instance, fitting a variable speed drive to a vacuum pump in the dairy farm reduces the amount of both power and oil needed to run it, which in this case, saved over a thousand dollars a quarter.

As more people realise the financial and health benefits of trees, perhaps one day climate change will go into the history books as a disaster that was successfully averted.

Technology

What’s new in batteries?

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Many of us have been caught out with dead car batteries, or missed an important call because we forgot to charge our smart phones. So it’s a relief to hear about improvements that extend the life of the not-so humble battery.

It’s not only the power stored in batteries that is important, but a battery’s staying power, size, weight and ability to charge up quickly – not to mention the cost. Another important factor is safety. The elements used in batteries can be dangerous to handle, but people who use them don’t usually come into contact with these elements. However, if a battery degrades and is touched it can cause an acid burn. Also some elements in some batteries are flammable.

Batteries and technology

There are many different kinds of batteries and it’s important to get the right one for the job. Experts are working constantly on new technology to improve batteries – we’ve all seen the giant leaps forward in innovation over the last decade. This is an ongoing scenario with constant improvements – both big and little – all of which are important in the general scheme of things.

Technology is not the only consideration when it comes to improvements in batteries. It also has to be mixed with other factors such as affordability, lightness and the amount of deliverable power in each battery. Cosmos Magazine detailed a number of the latest trends in batteries which we’ve summarised below.

The lithium ion battery

Regarded as the champ of batteries, the lithium ion can be used for just about everything; from cars to small appliances and your household solar power supply. In fact, they have the potential to allow home-owners with solar power to make considerable savings. While the technology used in these batteries is mature and reliable, there are some safety concerns. Airline passengers are warned of the risk of fire, especially if appliances containing lithium ion batteries are stored in the luggage section, where a fire can break out unnoticed until it’s too late. It is better to keep such devices in the cabin where the risk can be minimised.

However, aeroplanes also use lithium ion batteries as back-up for ground maintenance and to provide electricity during flight, as well as for back-up power of other important in-flight functions. In 2013 they overheated due to a chemical reaction called thermal runaway, and caused fires in a Boeing 787. It wasn’t just the fault of the batteries; certain other issues played a part in the problem. For instance, during the investigation, Boeing and the Federation Aviation Authority (FAA) found 17 non-compliance issues, some to do with the battery manufacture, but others to do with outsourcing the manufacture of certain airplane parts. With the latter, certain changes to the design and assembly of components were made without being okayed by Boeing first. While these issues did play a part in the fire, it’s hoped that a replacement will be found for the flammable component in these batteries and with a little tweaking the new ones will be even better.

The lithium sulphur battery

According to Cameron Shearer, materials engineer at Flinders University in Adelaide, the lithium sulphur battery will be the next commercial battery that may even replace the lithium ion battery. Why? It‘s more energy dense, with the potential to hold five times more energy than the lithium ion battery. It will potentially be suitable for small appliances, cars and household power supplies. The lithium sulphur battery uses lithium instead of granite to catch the lithium ions at the anode, while at the cathode, sulphur is used instead of a mix of metals. This makes it a much lighter battery – the only downside is that it doesn’t have a long life due to the sulphur degrading and clogging up the works. Once a viable solution for this has been found this battery could shoot to the top of the list. In fact, chemists at the Toyota Research Institute of North America in Michigan are working on a polymer coating to stabilise the sulphur.

The lithium air battery

It’s always good when something that is freely available can be used in a project. The lithium air battery is so called because it uses oxygen straight from the air, rather than sulphur to soak up the spent ions. This oxygen is exhaled as the battery is re-charged, making it the lightest battery yet. It can be used in devices and electric cars and has the potential to contain ten times more energy than the lithium ion battery. The main disadvantage is that it has a very short life span – so far. In fact, this battery has yet to move off the lab bench as it needs several elements to be improved before it’s suitable for commercial use. When that finally happens it may be the best battery of all.

The sodium ion battery

If you don’t mind weight and size, a cheaper battery that uses sodium rather than lithium is available for solar energy storage. The sodium ion battery also has the potential for use in cars and devices, but so far can only be used for applications where size is not a problem. The main disadvantage is that of poor performance, at least when compared with the lithium ion battery.

The flow battery

Last but not least is the flow battery which is ideal to store renewable energy. While it’s cheap and reliable, it can only be used for stationary applications due to using two tanks of electro-active liquids to shuttle the electrons between. Since the smallest of these batteries is the size of a bar fridge, you can understand that they are hardly suitable for appliances or even cars. But they are useful for places where size is not important. They’re great for use in remote locations such as mining sites. They could also be used for energy storage in the home by situating them behind a wall or somewhere that they can remain invisible.

As technology improves and delivers different and improved methods of making things, it’s highly likely that batteries will benefit. Even now techniques for high resolution microscopy are enabling scientists to custom design better and smaller battery components. So cool! Stay tuned on this one.

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Gas safety outside

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Green thumbs and home landscapers, take care when you’re at work in the garden. Sometimes a project involving only a little big of digging can cause some big problems if you break open an underground gas pipeline.

Visit Dial Before You Dig online to ensure you have the right information before you go ahead.

Gas Safety

As we go about our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to forget just how complicated energy is. Because of that, it always pays to give a little bit of thought to ensuring a safe environment when you’re dealing with gas.

General Safety Advice

  • Always ensure that any maintenance is carried out by a licenced gasfitter.
  • Keep washcloths, tea towels and oven mitts far away from any exposed gas burners on your stovetop.
  • Clean any gas-powered cookers regularly. Not only is a build up of fat dangerous, but it may reduce the efficiency of the appliance and result in higher usage charges.
  • If you’re caring for an elderly or impaired person, consider home gas safety devices such as gas alarms, detectors and/or shut off devices.
  • If you’re buying any second-hand appliances always look for an approval badge, number or other identifier that confirms the item complies with the Australian safety standards.

Gas Leaks

Gas leaks are one of the most common safety issue related to homes and businesses. If you have reason to suspect a gas leak, the first thing you should do is call 000. In the meantime, give some thought to these points:

  • Turn off your gas at the meter if you have access and it’s safe to do so.
  • Do not unplug or flip the switch on any electrical appliances – you need to avoid anything that can cause a spark
  • It should go without being said, but do not smoke anywhere near the area of a suspected leak.
  • Extinguish any open flames
  • Open windows and doors to encourage air circulation, only if it’s safe to do so. If you suspect a significant leak has occured, the best thing to do is to get away from the area as quickly as possible.

For more information, please feel free to visit the State Government’s Energy Safe Victoria website.

Your local distributor will be able to help out as well. You can find your local gas distributors’ details here.

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#mythbusting: should I leave my lights on when leaving the room?

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FACT: Turn off your lights to save money

Urban myths – stuff you know, but don’t really know why or from where you learnt it – abound in many daily activities, including energy use.

The first of the myths we’d like to explore is: you should leave your lights on when you leave the room, to save energy (and money).

Busted – for two of the types of lighting covered in this article. For the new and more efficient CFLs, you can relax a tad more.

According to the www.energy.gov website, it’s not as simple as turning the switch off. It depends on the type of bulb you have in your home and the cost per kWh (kilowatt hour) of your electricity. Also some lightbulbs wear out faster than others, reducing their light-giving life the more often they are switched on and off.

See below for rules of thumb for three lighting types: incandescent, halogen or compact fluorescent lighting (CFLs).

Incandescent Lighting

Fact: turn off Incandescent lights whenever they are not needed.

These are the least efficient type of lighting – giving off 90 per cent of the energy as heat and only about 10 per cent as light. Turning lights off will also keep a room cooler, an extra benefit in summer.

Halogen Lighting

Fact: turn off halogen lights whenever they are not needed.

While halogens are more efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs, they use the same technology and are far less efficient than compact fluorescent lighting (CFLs) and LEDs.

CompacT Fluorescent Lighting (CFL)

You can relax with these guys; the CFLs  are already energy efficient. As a guide, turn them off if you will be out of room for more than 15 minutes.

Source: Energy.gov

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Solar panels only need UV light

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Do solar panels work in cold, cloudy places?

Some people think that solar panels don’t work in cold, cloudy places, but even the world’s lowest ranking plances for sunny days have excelled. In fact, solar panels are better able to conduct electricity when they are cold.

Are you thinking of installing a solar power system? Estimate your annual savings on your electricity bill with this solar savings calculator.

Learn more about how solar panels work on cloudy days.

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Do PV solar panels work in cloudy weather?

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The solar revolution has made solar energy an increasingly powerful force in the energy arena. Solar panels help us harvest this energy and convert it into usable, renewable energy that meets the everyday needs of our modern life. Solar panels convert this solar radiation into useful electrical energy, which is then stored in batteries for use or fed back into the electricity grid. Enough solar radiation strikes the earth every day to meet the earth’s energy needs for an entire year.

Do solar panels work in cloudy weather?

While solar panels aren’t as efficient in cloudy conditions as during bright, sunny days, they still do their job, just at a reduced rate. Depending on your specific panels and the amount of cloud cover, solar panels can still produce 10-25% of their rated capacity.

Do solar panels work in colder climates?

Many people have wrongly assumed that solar panels don’t work in cold or cloudy places, but even the world’s lowest ranking places for sunny days have excelled. Germany, who ranks low in sunny days, is globally recognized as the solar energy capital of the world with solar accounting for an estimated 6.2 to 6.9 percent of the country’s net-electricity generation in 2014.

There is a common misconception that solar panels are less efficient in cold weather. However, solar panels have proven to be more efficient in the lower temperatures found in autumn or spring, as when solar panels are colder, they are able to better conduct electricity. The reason summer is the best overall season is due to the consistently higher amount of sunshine and fewer cloudy days in the months of December, January and February, as well as the longer day light hours that we enjoy over the summer months.

rooftop solar panels
Rooftop solar panels in Australia

Long-term outlook

When looking to solar power to help you be more energy efficient and to help you save money on your electricity bill, you should consider the amount of sunshine you get over an entire year, and not on any particular day.

Some days will be sunnier than others, but when feeding solar power back into the electricity grid, your electric company will look at what you’ve produced over a full year as they calculate how much to pay you.

Even if you aren’t generating enough energy to feed back into the grid, you should be able to reduce your electricity bill by harnessing solar energy with solar panels on your home or business and using this power instead.

Estimate your annual savings on your electricity bill after you have installed a solar power system with this solar savings calculator.

Find out how to go solar with Momentum Energy.