Not happy, Jan…….

8 04 2017

If you’ve been following this blog, you will know I’ve been saying for quite some time that out of the ludicrous Lithium battery rush happening right now as a ‘fix it’ for all and sundry energy problems, a lot of disappointed people will surface. Well, one just has, and he’s one of the most high profile person in the sustainability movement.

I met Michael Mobbs almost certainly before 2010, which is the year I went working for the solar industry. He gave a public lecture about sustainability in Pomona at the Rural Futures Network; I wonder how that’s going now..? Mobbs has undertaken converting an old terrace house in Sydney to ‘sustainability’ by disconnecting from the water grid and sewerage. He also went grid tied solar, the whole project is well documented on his website, and you have to give him credit for doing the almost impossible…. in Sydney no less. I for one would never undertake such a project, it’s so much easier to start from scratch in the country! And that’s hard enough, let me tell you….

It now appears, Mobbs decided to also cut himself off from the electricity grid…. and it seems that didn’t go so well….

mobbsbatteriesOn Mobbs’ website, there is an “invitation to install & supply an off-grid solar system” It seems he had one installed in March 2015, but it’s not working as it should, or at least as Mobbs thought it should…..

Firstly, let’s start with what he got……. It’s a bit hard to tell from the photo, apart from the fact it is an Alpha ‘box’. From the blog, I also established that this comes with a 3kW inverter, itself a problem, it appears to be too small. Going to Alpha’s website, I cannot find the system Mobbs appears so proud of in the above photo; and let’s face it, two years is a long time in the world of technology. All the products on display say that the output of these cabinets is 5kW, but nowhere does it say it even features an inverter.  Solarchoice’s website shows a 3kW Storion-S3 cabinet, but not even it looks like what Mobbs has in the photo – it only has one door, the ‘new ones’ have two….. The inverter is called an AEV-3048, and perhaps the A stands for Alpha, and 3048 means 3000W/48V, but it’s all guesswork because finding information is a problem.

So why is a 3kW inverter a problem in a house with a claimed baseload of 86W, very close to what we achieved in Cooran actually…..

Another huge flaw with the Alpha system that I’ve recently become aware of also stems from the fact that all the energy first goes through the batteries: the Alpha system’s output is always limited to 3,000W regardless of the solar size; it can’t deliver above this. This is an extremely important point to understand because it affects the way I live and how I’m able to use my appliances. I’ll break it down in a way that’s practical and simple; prepare yourself to be blown away by this outrageous system limitation.

We’ve already established that the base load of my house is 86W. Let’s say I wake up in the morning, turn on a couple of lights in the kitchen because it’s still dark (20W), turn on the toaster because I’m in the mood for toast with butter for breakfast (1,200W), and my daughter (who happens to be staying with me) turns on her hair dryer while getting ready (1,500W) and she decides she needs to put on a load of laundry before she leaves the house (500W). Doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary, right? Well, we would be in trouble: all of the power would cut off, and the Alpha system would shut down because we would have exceeded its 3,000W limit. Regardless of the size of my solar system, I can NEVER exceed 3,000W of power consumption in my house while using the Alpha system. This was very hard to swallow.

Oh Michael…….  welcome to living off the grid!

Mobbs gives a brief description of how he worked out this baseload….

Step one, determining my total base load, wasn’t as easy as I expected, especially given the fact that I have three different monitoring systems that could provide me with the information. The Efergy and Wattwatchers systems confirmed what I already knew: my house’s base load was about 86W (60W for the aerator and roughly 20W for the fridge occasionally turning on).However, where I ran into problems was with the Alpha ESS reporting system: it was saying my base load was 257W, which is three times larger than the base load reported for the house.At first I thought this difference of 171W was the base load of the Alpha system itself, but their numbers just didn’t add up.

I do have a theory here, he may have got the sums wrong because he used to be grid tied, and maybe, just maybe, his figures did not include what was exported. But I’m only guessing. My main reason for thinking this is that he is running a conventional fridge, while we achieved our low baseload using a freedge which consumes 20% of the energy a conventional fridge does…. make no mistake, a conventional fridge’s ‘baseload’ is half or more of his 86W. He’s claiming 20W for his fridge (480Wh/day, 20W x 24 hrs), but I have never seen any fridge perform that well…. Most fridges today still consume a whole kilowatthour a day. So there could be another error there.

But it gets worse……

Now you see why I said that I probably made a huge mistake by purchasing the Alpha system when going off-grid. The simple truth is that the Alpha system is not designed to be used in an off-grid setting, and they have not implemented the necessary retrofits to make it work in that environment. However, during my recent research, I came across a product that is designed specifically to be used off-grid and shows great promise for high efficiency and effective energy management: the SMA Sunny Island system.

Bad news Michael……  the SMA Sunny Island is not designed for off the grid either, it’s made to work with other SMA grid tied units in a hybrid grid/backup batteries system.

Worse still, he also seems to have storage issues….

For the last few weeks, in the particularly cloudy and rainy weather Sydney has had to endure, Mobbs had to turn off his fridge (bloody fridges, they are a curse…) during the day to ensure that the house, which he shares with two others, has enough power for a “civilised life” at night-time. Worse than that, the system has a bug in it that causes it to trip out every couple of days. It seems flashing digital lights have become part of his life….!

“I’m running short of power,” Mobbs said complaining that the system that he has in place is delivering 1kWh/day less than he expected. “I thought this would be a walk in the park, but I appear to have tripped over.”

I’m seriously starting to think a lot of installers have no idea what they are doing. I recently related the story of my friend Bruce whose inlaws replaced a perfectly good system (because of a fridge no less!), and they were sold a Sunny Island, with I was told over the phone just two days ago, gel cells for storage……… completely not what either Bruce or I would have bought. Solar companies (including this well known one who shall remain nameless) have simply turned into salespeople selling whatever it is they have in stock off catalogues…….

Mobbs then writes……

The main difference between the Alpha and Sunny Island system: Sunny Island can send solar energy directly to the house when it is needed and completely bypasses the system’s batteries. SMA’s Sunny Island system not only extends battery life by not cycling all loads through them, but using solar directly into loads means items can be set to run on timers during the day, (washing, dishwasher etc) to maximise the benefit of an abundant afternoon supply of solar. It also has a larger peak design capacity than Alpha. For example, if you have a 4kW solar system, with the SMA units that would allow a potential delivery of 4kW of solar (in optimum conditions) directly into the house’s load + the 4.6kW of power from the batteries delivered by the Sunny Island controller (they can run in parallel to each other).  That’s a big potential 8.6 kW of continuous capacity to loads.  As I’ve already pointed out, in contrast the Alpha output is always limited to the 3,000W delivery of the battery inverter regardless of the solar size.

More bad news Michael…… this only works that way if you are grid tied with a hybrid system!

Michael also doesn’t seem to understand how off the grid works…

Alpha has an inefficient way of managing my solar energy (by diverting all of it through my batteries first), which decreases my battery life by constantly charging and discharging them…

Errr…..  Michael, that’s how battery storage works! Which is of course exactly why Lithium batteries are not good at this. Mobbs also wrote…:

Like any system that transfers and converts energy from one form to another, there are going to be losses. No system is perfect. However, as I started doing more research, I became aware of a key element of the way the Alpha system operates that may mean my decision to purchase it was a huge mistake: the Alpha system transfers all its incoming solar energy through the batteries before it delivers it to the house. When I learned this, I was devastated. One of the most important figures of merit in a system such as mine are the battery losses. If you put 1kWh into a battery it doesn’t all come out! There are losses associated with both charging and discharging. The higher the charge/discharge rate, the greater proportion of energy is lost and the shorter my battery life becomes. So, I repeat, all my energy is getting charged and discharged through the batteries before I ever even see it in the house. For someone living off-grid, this level of energy loss and battery depreciation is unacceptable, and I was never made aware of it by the installer.

This is why I know there will be a lot of disappointed grid disconnectors. They have swallowed the idea that living off grid is just like living on it hook line and sinker, when it cannot possibly be. How long have I been saying solar has shortcomings?

If you’re going to go off the grid, first, you need to know exactly how much energy you’re consuming. Then you need to know what your peak power demand will be so you can size your inverter. Then, you must size your battery bank so that you can go on living through a series of cloudy days without your batteries falling over. Accurate climate data is really important. And if you ask me, any off the grid system should be tailor made for the household, not all fitted in a box…..

The comments on Mobbs’ blog are interesting, including one from Alpha who obviously can do without the bad publicity and are suggesting entering into consultation….. well if you ask me, the time for consultation is before installation, not after it’s established the gear does not perform as needed….

Furthermore, and this is most important, get batteries that can be flattened and recharged for as many times as you like, almost forever if you go the way of Nickel Iron batteries……

At least Mobbs is aware of what his system is doing, but most consumers don’t. They will buy these cabinets, not understand what the monitors tell them, and the Lithium batteries will be cycled to death, failing early without a doubt, driving incompetent solar companies broke and giving solar power a really bad name. Plus, let’s face it, by the time all these systems die, you won’t be able to get replacement bits in a post collapse world….

There is one more issue…… on his blog Mobbs shows..:

In 1996, I installed 18 solar panels, each with 120-watt capacity. It reduced the amount the house took from the grid by more than 60%. Since then, I have installed 12 additional panels, bringing my home’s total system capacity to just over 3.5kW. mobbs panels

In addition to the roof solar cells, the house uses sunlight to heat water through a standard solar hot-water system. The environmental savings achievable by using solar hot-water heaters are summed up by Gavin Gilchrist in his book, The Big Switch:
“If all the electric water heaters in Australia were replaced with solar ones, greenhouse gas emissions from Australia’s households would be cut by one-fifth.” One fifth is one mighty big saving!

The Bottom Line… I am saving hundreds of dollars every year not paying electricity bills by powering my household appliances using the Sun. 

I totally concur re the solar water heaters. Amazingly, I have friends in Geeveston who have one, and they hardly ever boost, which is astonishing considering how everyone was telling me how poorly solar would work in Tassie.

BUT…… all those original PVs were replaced when Mobbs cut the cord and increased his array size from 2kW to 5kW…… they were only ten years old, and as Prieto pointed out recently, the early retirement/replacement of PVs and balance of system can drive the ERoEI of solar to negative territory….. I can’t find mention of what happened to the obsolete 120W panels for which it might be hard to find compatible equipment.

One last thing……  his baseload of 86W is clearly wrong if a 3.5kW array can’t drive it. Our electricity habit was run for years on just 1.28kW, and I intend to now do it in Tassie with just 2kW. I rest my case.

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We have a plan……..

21 10 2016

It’s been raining. Lots. So much so, nearly everyone I know here is complaining, and is over it….. One advantage of being stuck indoors is that one can get around to doing the things that don’t get done when the weather’s fine and there are holes to dig, crops to plant, or grass to harvest… like planning.

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No, the grass is not photoshopped, it really is that green!

Just to prove the old dictum “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, Bernie, my new town planning friend (full of stories you would not believe…..) has put a fire in my belly, and we have been working on our planning application. I have to tell you, I had just about given up on doing this project ‘the right way’, but Bernie assures me that if you approach Council talking their language, you can just about get anything through, as long as you follow the guidelines.

Our farm, as you may or may not know, has been rezoned ‘Significant Agricultural Land’. I like to think that’s why I picked it…… we are so lucky to own what I consider the best block in Geeveston! Not that I’m biased or anything…

One of the problems I was facing is that the rezoning calls for side setbacks of 100m, and our block is only 180m wide, meaning we can only achieve the correct setback on one side, not both. No problem says Bernie…… because when you read the fine print, it says “40m if the lot is greater than 1ha (it’s 5…) or if there is an existing building set back less than this distance, the setback must not be less than the existing building”! The shed from within which I am writing this is a mere two metres from the side fence! Let me assure you, I have no desire to be that close to the boundary!

Problem fixed……

The only other thing we have to show, is that our intention is to farm the land, not use it as some getaway for retired old farts like me……

After being here for over a year now, I have had a lot of time to think and foster my Permaculture Master Plan for this place, and putting pen to paper, literally, produced a rather impressive looking plan that Bernie was blown away by……. I also wrote a two and a half page document that Bernie will use as an appendix to his planning report, describing how using permaculture principles we plan to turn this farm from significant, to exceptional, and why we need to live here to realise the Fanny Farm’s full potential…….

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Permaculture Masterplan

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New pump, new suction pipe…

A lot of this is already started. In fact, before the rain set in, I even installed a pump that takes water out of the dam to an IBC perched atop the power station (see photo below). The idea is to gravity feed water to the market garden under construction, and the seedlings growing in the new polytunnel

Yes, I’ve been busy, until the current deluge made digging holes and planting anything simply not worth the effort.

The pump turned into a bit of a saga…… months ago, I discovered hundreds of metres of 40 and 50mm poly pipe, worth at least $2000 to replace. Some of the 50mm stuff went into the polytunnel, and my intention was to use the 40mm plumbing to lift water some 9.5 m from the dam to the roof of the power station. What I had not counted on was that the previous owner had slashed over the pipes, causing fairly major damage to the piping. The suction side of a

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Pumped storage

pump must not have any leaks in it, because water pumps are not air compressors, and while they can pressurise (incompressible) water to, in the case of this pump, over 400psi, water pumps cannot pressurise air to anything over 0.25psi!

The end result of any air leak is no suction, period…. after mucking around for hours, I eventually decided to bite the bullet and spend fifty odd bucks on a new 25m length of pipe, end of problem. until that is, I broke the pump…..

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Eastern side of market garden fence… water water everywhere..!

 

Well, I think it was my fault. The day before, we had our usual dose of gale force wind, but frankly I can’t see how it was responsible. Similarly, I find it hard to believe that by merely flicking the delivery pipe a few inches some 20m from the pump, could break the casing where that vertical riser in the photo is screwed to the pump…… but broken it was. I took the pump back to Hobart to see if I could claim warranty, but the shop people thought I’d be wasting my time, and the manager offered to replace it free of charge with a second hand one, within one day. Casings don’t wear out, as far as I know, so I accepted, and in no time I had the IBC atop the container full of water, at 100L/minute.

With all the rain we’ve had, everything is waterlogged, and I have no idea when I will next water anything…..! Such is life. And I was panicking when I broke the outlet from the dam. It’s been overflowing nonstop for days now.

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Waterfall time…..

The beauty of having so much rain is that I am now aware of how much water I have to deal with behind the retaining wall that forms the backbone of the new house….

The engineer specified one 100mm drainage pipe, but I have already bought two. Not taking any chances; the last thing we need is a waterfall in the house next time La Niña visits Tasmania!





Difference Between Organic Gardening and Permaculture

20 04 2015

I’m often asked what the difference between Organic Gardening and Permaculture actually is, and it’s not easy to explain this without starting a rant that goes for hours, because the answer is not that simple.  This item I found this morning, however, does a great job….

difference between organic gardening and Permaculture
difference between organic gardening and Permaculture

The Permaculture garden is a lot more than an organic garden.

  • It is a system that is focused on closing the fertiliser loop by using waste, and reducing the dependence on inputs by creating healthy soil and diversity of produce.
  • It is also responsible for its waste, it aims not to pollute the surrounding environment, i.e. neither with excess nitrogen released into the water systems, nor weed seed into any natural systems.
  • It uses design to minimise the gardeners chores and energy input. Repeatative, hard work is the joy of few permaculturalists.  Variety and observation keep people engaged and excited about growing food. Permaculture activists are motivated by reducing their ecological footprint and developing a varied healthy lifestyle. Permaculture needs to engage all people of different ability, not just young strong people who can shovel compost.
  • It aims to imitate nature. Visually this is the most noticeable difference between organic gardening and permaculture. In permaculture gardens (home systems is the more holistic term) there is rarely bare soil, the conservation of soil and water is a high priority. There is a more complex use of space. Plants are allowed to set seed and are interplanted for pest control. You are unlikely to see plants in rows.
  • The permaculture system aims to harvest and maximise water, sun and other natural energies, e.g. wind, dust, leaves, bird droppings.
  • The permaculture system aims to provide nutritious food and habitat for people AND native animals and birds.

See more about our Permaculture Design and Demonstration Site

What’s the difference between Organic Farming and Permaculture?

Basically, Permaculture uses organic gardening and farming practices but it goes beyond these practices and integrates the garden and home to create a lifestyle that impacts less on the environment.potato (2)

Organic Farming promotes the use of natural fertilisers, making use of the natural carbon cycle so that waste from plants becomes the food (fertiliser) of another. In organic farming however, as with ALL farming, minerals are being lost from the farm every time a truck load of produce is carted to market.

Permaculture goes one step further. Permaculture brings production of food closer to consumers and the consumer’s wastes back into the cycle. It also reduces the energy wasted in transporting the foods by producing the foods where the people are. In permaculture the people contribute in their daily life toward the production of their food and other needs.





The Look

29 05 2014

Reblogged from Steve Harrison’s http://tonightmyfingerssmellofgarlic.com/  blog Posted on 26/05/2014

More than a look
A letter from the pottery and the late autumn garden

I heard a couple of young designers talking about sustainability and recycling, as if they had invented it.

Apparently, it’s the new hot topic in design. It’s so interesting to listen to young people talk about things that they know very little about. I must have sounded like such a twat when I was young  –  and probably still do for that matter. These people were talking about sustainable design as a ‘feature’ of design.  It wasn’t the effect of consumerism, or its consequences, that was of interest to them.  It was the look of things. It was all about design and The Look! Real sustainability didn’t seem to be the core issue.
Being a baby boomer, I grew up through the sixties and seventies and was very involved in the ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of sustainability. The grass roots approach. When I met ‘The Lovely’ at Art School and we set up house together in a flat in Bondi, I promised her, not a lovely home or plain comfortable house, not even a shed.  I knew that I would never be able to buy a house earning the sort of money that potter could earn, so I was only looking for vacant land.  I initially promised her a life in a tent! Fortunately she said OK!  Count me in!  She didn’t mind a bit of hard work. I thought that I would find some little piece of bushland and pitch a tent while I built a mud brick shed, a pottery, a kiln and then, at a later date, a house.
This was what a lot of people did here in Australia in the past. Especially the returned solders in the post war period. My own father bought a vacant bush block and cleared it with a mattock, and hand cut a track to get trucks to the site. Then we all lived in a caravan for a year while he built the first two rooms.  After that, we all lived in that cramped building, while he built the next few rooms.  The house was only just finished a few years before my older brother left home. Everything was paid for, bit by bit, as you went along.  There was no credit, or ‘LendLease’ in those days.  No plastic card credit.
I was interested in living what I thought would be a less-complicated life.  I was wrong.  All lives are complicated.  However, in my youthful enthusiasm.  I considered that living directly on the land and eating from the that land as much as possible by way of gardens and orchards, then making pots to sell that were made out of the land, should all be doable.  Well, as I said, I was naïve and full of youthful hubris.  For someone interested in DIY sustainability, the obvious choice was to build with earth, dug free from the land and turned into capital by shear effort and will power.  Creating capital out of virtually nothing is a pretty neat trick.  So all but one of our buildings are made from mud bricks.  Of course, keeping chickens and ducks and eating the vegetable that we grew ourselves in an organic garden were all part of that daydream.
Well, it all came true.  It wasn’t a dream.  It was made real by dogged hard work of two dedicated people who teamed up and concentrated in a single minded effort to make it reality. Of course it didn’t all happen as planned.  There were detours and setbacks. Lots of little hiccups along the way.  But we made it happen.  Janine turned out to be one hell of a tough girl.  I’m so glad that she accepted my offer.  And as it turned out, we didn’t need the tent.
A kiln was built and pots were made and sold, but we always had a big vegetable garden and one of the first things we did, was to plant fruit trees for the future.  Once we were a little more secure, I made pots and glazes from the raw materials that occurred in the landscape around us.  It took time to research and uncover all the potential of the local geology, but bit by bit, I found one material after another that I could use to replace a previously bought ingredient in my recipes.  These days we buy very little, but I do still buy some ingredients that are very hard to find, or make from what we have here to work with, like bentonite and alumina powder. Recently, I have even bought some plastic kaolin to add to my mixtures to make them a lot more potter friendly on the wheel.
Unlike young designers in the inner city, we are not interested in ‘The Look’ of things so much as the reality in total, their cost, both in money terms but in particular the cost to the environment, their carbon debt and their running costs. That is why we have chosen not to own a big car, an air conditioner, a microwave, a large plasma screen and other energy hungry appliances.  So we don’t have The Look, we have chosen not to buy into it.  We have a busy sustainable life which takes a lot of time and personal effort  to maintain.  We just don’t have enough time or energy to have a real job to pay for ‘The Look’.  We’ve ended up with the blisters, the gritty, real, sustainability part, but without ‘The Look’.  One very good outcome of all this DIY, is that we don’t have a mortgage and we can afford to live this small life.
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In the garden, the cauliflowers are in full flower just now, so we are finding ways to use them up. One of our long time favourites is to cut it into bit sized chunks and eat it raw dipped in aioli made from our own garlic, lemons, local organic eggs and locally produced olive oil. That’s an entrée that is worth waiting all year for. It’s just terrific, great flavours and textures. Almost a meal in itself.
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1 egg
1 lemon
1 cup of olive oil
5 or 6 or 10 cloves of garlic, depending on size.
Chop up the garlic and add the egg, whip it up into a thick yellow frenzy with half of the oil and the lemon juice, lastly add the remaining oil and mix it into the emultion, add pepper to taste and a little salt if you like. I don’t. If your eggs are small, use less oil, or add a second egg.
At the end of the summer, we ended up with a silver beet ‘tree’ that grew on the edge of the garden path. It grew as tall as me and finally had to be held up with a tall wooden stake. It finally ripened its seeds and the wind blew them all over the garden. We now have loads of the green stemmed silver beet growing everywhere. I’ve been mowing it to keep it down to a manageabe amount. The Lovely transplanted a dozen or so seedlings into a bed, where they will be safe from my whipper snipper and garden chipper hoe.
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They grow so fast at this time of year, so we have to find ways eat it with out getting too bored. The usual way is to just scorch it in a fry pan and sweat it down to a small warm mass. I believe that it’s called ‘whilted’ spinach. What is nice about it is that it doesn’t involve any oil or even water, just some heat. We serve it with a little lemon juice or alternatively with a dash of white wine vinegar. It seems to go quite well with most things that we eat.
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Because these plants are so prolific just now we are constantly trying new ways to use it up. Not unlike the situation with zucchinis in the summer time.
It makes a lovely fresh side dish that is really quick to make and no washing up. just rinse the pan and it’s back up on the hook. A more substantial dinner at this time of year that is warm, satisfying and low fat is spinach and ricotta pie.
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Wilt the spinach, as above. You can make ricotta very easily from milk that is past it’s use-by date by heating it gently and adding some lemon juice to it. It will separate into curds and whey, drain off the whey and add the curds to the spinach and place into the pie crust, cap it off and add a little grated cheese and /or brush with the whey or milk to get a nice brown top.

We have completed 2 of our 5 wood firing, weekend workshops and had work shown in the Manly Regional Gallery and at Ivy Hill Gallery down the south coast to coincide with the International Wood firing Conference. I couldn’t afford the time to go for the whole thing, but managed to get down there for a couple of days. So now it’s back into the workshop to start throwing more work. I have shows coming up in Singapore and Taiwan in the next few months, so I need to get productive.
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The Lovely, catches my visage in the mirror, so that it shows my bald spot. It’s not a good look.  Its not ‘The Look’ either.
It’s just a look and that’s how I am. Best wishes from the thinning potter, and I don’t mean waistline, and his happy snapperJanine was given a really simple recipe for pastry from Marta Armarda, a ceramic artist from Spain, who was in residence at Sturt workshops in Mittagong.




How to rethink environmental folklore

16 02 2014

It’s very very rare these days that I read or watch something off the internet that actually makes me fee uplifted…. well, this is one such video.  This Australian woman, Leyla Acaroglu, is one smart cookie.  Everything she says are things I have said myself for years and years….  her opinion of fridges in particular really really resonates with me.  And kettles……  boy do electric kettles, or rather the way they are being used, really gets up my nose…  ditto with mobile phones.

“Consumption is the biggest problem….. Design is one of the best solution”