Waste, particularly, is a Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) issue, but so is water and power. We don’t think about where they come from, and we don’t consider the environmental and social cost of production. We have relinquished control over our access to water and power, and turned a blind eye to the management of effluent and solid waste.
But – as we are starting to realise – the organisations we depend on for water, electricity and waste management are not doing a very good job. So the concept of “‘getting off the grid” ’ and taking control of our lives is very attractive, but how practical is it, really?
That depends on a number of factors, but the bottom line is that it is possible to substantially decrease our dependence on municipalities, even, in some cases, to become totally independent, but it requires careful planning – preferably before a single brick has been laid or a single spade of earth has been turned. Actually, it’s best to start before your architect has drawn a single line. Retro-fitting is possible, and it’s a good thing for existing homes and/or developments, but integrated bottom-up planning is so much cheaper and allows for much more creative solutions. So, here’s a quick overview of the main issues – energy, water and waste.
Most of us don't think beyond our garden gates. Water and electricity appear at the turn of a tap or the push of a button, and - once we've flushed the loo, or put the wheelie bin in the street - all "that" becomes … somebody else's problem!
While Europe, and even the OPEC nations (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) are moving away from nuclear and/or fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, in South Africa government is still hell-bent on coal and nuclear. The good news, though, is that domestic-scale and particularly community-scale renewable energy is becoming increasingly more viable. But, in order to plan properly, you need to know what you want. If you want total independence from the grid for ideological reasons, it’s possible but probably very expensive. If you want to reduce your dependence on “them”, but you don’t have a mission to reinvent the wheel, you can – with knowledgeable assistance – find that sweet spot that is cost-effective, and that ensures you continuity of supply even if Eskom does a wobbly for a day or two.
Sunlight energy can be captured and used as heat or electricity, and, in sunny sunny South Africa it’s a no-brainer. Solar water heaters have been around for decades, and they are efficient and cost-effective, but there are some residential estates with aesthetic guidelines that prohibit them. Seriously! Sustainable solutions consultant Pete Lucas describes how he had to build a parapet on the roof to hide the solar panels he installed in a house in a residential estate in Cape Town. And, yes, the same estate allows visible satellite dishes, so there is some education work to be done within the residential community.
Sunlight can be transformed into electricity in broadly two ways – with photo-voltaic cells (PVCs), or thermally. On a community scale, solar thermal (or heat) power is very viable if you have enough space and, depending on scale, it can produce a good percentage of the power used on the estate – including in individual homes. If you don’t have that much space or budget, the roofs of the communal buildings – offices, bomas, shaded parking – can be used for PVCs to power lighting, security, and offices, etc. In a single-dwelling situation, the familiar PVC solar panels are the most efficient – for now.
Wind generators work fabulously, but with some limitations. There are two basic designs – vertical or horizontal axis turbines, respectively VAWT and HAWT. The traditional HAWT models are not very efficient in built-up environments because they need a constant laminar air-flow, which is why they work so well on gentle slopes with no buildings. So, if you have a few hectares of communal land available, a small forest of HAWTs is a great idea. In winds of variable direction and speed, VAWTs are more efficient so they are very viable for domestic or small community-scale use, but they are less cost-effective than PVCs. Of course, it’s great to have both if you’re in an area where sunny days are interspersed with cloudy, windy days.
Nuke lobbyists have consistently pooh-poohed renewable energy because “‘it only works when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing”. But thanks to Elon Musk, that argument is now so much hot air as large-scale high-tech battery technology is becoming increasingly efficient and affordable. And if you’re lucky enough to have a river – or even a stream – you can build a small-scale hydro generator that can be surprisingly effective, and keep running even on calm, windless nights.
Without water we will die, but – with too much water – we may also die. So water management is both about ensuring a reliable supply, and controlling run-off. At both domestic and community levels, storage tanks and underground cisterns are cost-effective, and have been used for centuries. In a drought-prone country like ours, rainwater harvesting is a no-brainer, but – because rain does not arrive in neat, regular parcels – we need to handle storm water too.
The simplest way to minimise excessive run-off is through permeable paving. Rather than tar or cement, use specially designed permeable bricks that are laid into the earth with holes for grass or other ground cover to grow through. These are not as smooth as tarred roads, but most estates have a speed limit anyway. And landscapers can make effective use of ponds and wetlands to store and clean water naturally through biological processes before returning it to streams or groundwater. And attractive swales – areas of planted raised earth that create little hollows – can be created as aesthetic features on slopes to slow down run-off.
The best way to take control of waste is to realise that everything is a resource. By planning from inception to creatively utilise waste – and building waste management protocols into any estate’s Code of Conduct – communities can dramatically decrease emissions, and also dependence on municipalities. With buy-in from the whole community, waste can be separated at source, and divided into compostable, recyclable, repurposeable, unsalvageable, and toxic – and dealt with appropriately.
Very few communities will manage to be totally independent from municipal waste management, and toxic waste – batteries, e-waste, paint and light bulbs – need to be responsibly disposed of. Communal composting is significantly more efficient than domestic, and recycling can be income-generating or at least cost-neutral. With a lick of paint or the careful curating of material, repurposing is a win-win game – beautiful, cheap and sustainable. And the NIMBY stuff we don’t like to talk about – sewerage – can also be a resource. Biodigesters can effectively clean sewerage to the extent that the water can safely be released into streams, allowed to go back to groundwater, or even to irrigate landscaped areas. And – best – the methane produced can be used to fuel stoves or heaters. Yet, another win-win.
Make it happen
We’ve only just scraped the surface but, with some creative and lateral thinking, it’s amazing what levels of environmental – and financial – sustainability are possible. There are a number of sustainability consultants out there. We had useful input from Pete Lucas of Natural Wonder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 082 419 5250.