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Permaculture - Use and value renewable resources

Time for more permaculture! In January I wrote about "Observe and Interact", in February it was "Catch and Store Energy" and March was dedicated to "Obtain a Yield", April was "apply self regulation", and here we are in May and up to "Use and value renewable resources". I've been really enjoying all the comments on these posts, its great to hear other interpretations of the principles and have a bit of discussion, keep it coming!

Trees are the ultimate solar energy converter
What is a renewable resource?
The first thing I thought of was solar and wind energy, but as I read this chapter I realised that there were so many other renewable resources that we use on a daily basis, without even thinking about it.

A renewable resource is a resource that regenerates or doesn’t get used up. Of course this all depends on timeframes. We usually think of coal and oil as non-renewable, but over millions of years they will eventually regenerate, but we will have used up our current supply by then. At the other end of the scale, the ultimate renewable resource is one that is non-consuming, for example, we can make use of the shade of a tree without ever using it up.

The two renewable resources that are discussed in the most detail in this chapter are trees and animals. Trees are an excellent renewable resource because they are available at virtually no cost to anyone who has space to grow them. They can be used for energy, building fences, houses, furniture, they are continually adding fertility to the soil through leaf drop, they stabalise slopes, provide shade and homes for wildlife. Certain trees can also provide food and medicine for humans and protection from fire.

Animals can also be renewable resources, providing both food and energy. David uses horses and bullocks as examples of using animal power to get work done, but I don’t have much experience with these (maybe I will train a bullock team one day though). Chickens and milking cows are my thing! Our chickens provide us with meat, eggs, lawn mowing and fertility. The cows also provide milk, meat, lawn mowing and fertility. The only thing missing from this discussion is the non-renewable inputs required to “run” these animals. We might not have to top them up with diesel directly, but as we feed them both grain that is grown somewhere else, which means someone else is topping up their tractor and we have to drive to pick up the feed. We really need to consider how we close this gap and make our animals truly renewable (more here and here and here).

What about non-renewable resources? 
David explains that renewable resources are like interest and non-renewable resources are capital. We need to be very careful how we use our capital and shouldn’t just wasting it (for example wasting oil by making throw-away plastic junk that just ends up in landfill, or worse, waterways). Non-renewable resources have a place, but should be used more to set up a system than as an integral part of an ongoing system. For example, we use our tractor and slasher to mow the grass in some paddocks to help improve fertility. Eventually we will get the point where the cattle graze the grass and we don’t have to use the tractor. Also using concrete for building a permanent structure, if its going to last a long time and require little maintenance, is a good use of a non-renewable resource.

What about solar panels? 
This chapter gives an interesting perspective on solar panels, as a lesson for relying too heavily on technology and non-renewable resources to assist us to harness renewable resources. Solar panels require energy and non-renewable resources to produce, including the resources and energy to manufacture them and transport them (usually from China) to our houses. However the emissions and energy use associated with the production of solar panels are not significant compared to other forms of electricity generation. I think David’s point is that, even though solar is better than other forms of electricity, maybe we should be changing our lifestyle more drastically so that we don't even rely on electricity to such an extent. The main theme of this chapter is that if there is a natural solution it is always preferable to a technological solution, as it will always be more accessible and produce less waste. We can't assume that just because a technological solution is better than the other available technologies, that it is the best solution.

The main criticism on renewable resources is that they are "intermittent". I find that funny, as nature is intermittent. Our egg supply, our milk supply, our tomato supply are intermittent, so why shouldn't our use of resources be the same? Learning to live with what you have, rather than what you want is all part of living within nature's cycles.

Having said all that, we are certainly far from perfect, we are currently grid-connected and our new property will also be grid-connected because welders don't run well on off-grid solar! So that means the majority of our electricity is coming from coal and/or gas. We have lots of trees though, so we are both keen on setting up a wood-fired generator one day. Reading this chapter and all the lovely things about trees just made me so happy that we chose our tree-covered property!  Part of all this permaculture journey is seeing ways to reduce resource consumption in general and being more clever about using what we have, at this we can only strive to improve :)

So what do you think? How do you use renewable resources in your life? And do you try to regulate how you use non-renewables?

Each month in 2013 I reviewed a principle from David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability:


  1. People often say the carbon taken to make solar panels is more than the savings they make in electricity. But I'm pretty sure that is an old stat now, it would have been a factor when David wrote his book for sure. But I think its important to consider the potential and that technology is fluid. We wouldn't give someone an old Beta video machine and TV and ask them to walk around with a long extension lead watching movies, but today they can flip an Iphone out of their pocket (mores the pity :P ). There are already solar panels on material and spray on solar panels in a paint form on their way that will change things drastically and wouldn't be possible without the effort put into development. By contrast coal has had a long time to develop and has failed to improve much.

    All that said I think using less is important too. The little graph on the electricity bill says Vicki and I use about half of an average one person household. Combined with our little two kilowatt solar system that makes for a bill of about five dollars last quarter.

    I also think its interesting to consider the big picture rather than specifics. How renewable is the whole design of the property. Total input V's total output and so on.

    Nice post as always Liz :)

  2. That has given me food for thought ;-)

  3. Very interesting. I think often it is not so much how much we use, but how much we waste.

  4. It's a very interesting subject and one that is difficult to understand, if a person's mindset is still locked into technological fixes. From a permaculture perspective however, you have to step away from technology to really assess it's worth in investment. Which is probably what David Holgrem attempts to address.

    I grew up chopping wood by hand with an axe for our wood stove, and I'm in my late 30's. Today though, anyone I read about using wood as a renewable resource for heating, only seem to process it with a fuel generated wood splitter. Each to their own, but it highlights the difference between renewable energy (ie: human labour) and non renewable energy (fossil fuels and technology). Having done the splitting by hand, I know the benefits and wouldn't consider it too hard - you just have to ensure your axe is sharp, use the the proper technique (aim for the natural splits) and start chopping early in the season, way before winter arrives. Actually, you're talking a year in advance, just to age the wood.

    But if you want to get really specific, ageing wood comes with it's own carbon footprint. A growing tree absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, but ageing split wood, gives off carbon. So there is still a footprint to account for, which brings us back to David's original point about changing behaviour. If we're going to stack-up mountains of wood, using technology that requires fossil fuels, to burn in a dwelling that is poorly insulated (or non solar passive) then we haven't really produced an efficient yield of renewable energy. We're still wasting a "renewable" energy.

    One thing I am learning the more I study permaculture design, is that we cannot maintain our one solution mindset (ie: technology will come to our rescue, or the perfect renewable energy resource). We have to think more traditional agrarian, like before fossil fuels, pesticides and herbicides came into the equation. We need to take a little from each season, use it wisely and place a great deal back into the system. A modern mindset however (one which has grown on the convenience of fossil fuels - guilty here too!) tends to believe any kind of smart technology is worth any price to nature.

    Nature's standards of renewable energy, and mankind's conceived renewable energy, are two very different things. The way we have to come to understand "renewable" is by offsetting, rather than assessing and managing needs. I'm guessing that's the point David tries to highlight in what he teaches. Renewable energy is better than non renewable, but learning how to apply it within natural limits is even better still. :)

  5. Wow love your posts and as I have said before we need to be best buddies LOL....Go you!

    You may just be interested in the giveaway I have at the moment lovely one xx


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