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22 Dec 2010

Ingredients of Transition: Intermediate Technologies

Cob greenhouse at the Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability, West Cork, Ireland.

Context

When planning for STRATEGIC LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE (5.5), careful consideration of the technologies and strategies employed will be very useful.  Whether it is planning LOCAL FOOD INITIATIVES (3.10), PRACTICAL MANIFESTATIONS (3.9) or a COMMUNITY RENEWABLE ENERGY COMPANY (5.4), bear this Ingredient in mind.

(We are collecting and discussing these Transition ingredients on Transition Network’s website to keep all comments in one place. Please leave feedback and comments, suggestions for alternative pictures, anecdotes, stories and projects for this ingredient here).

The Challenge

It is easy to be dazzled by what are put forward as low carbon technologies.  They can entice us to stay within our comfort zones, of someone else providing a solution for us that we don’t need to take responsibility for without any fundamental change.  When discerning which technologies are going to underpin the transition of our communities, it is key to avoid those that end up creating more dependency.

Core Text

This ingredient was inspired by an email I received from Matt Dunwell at Ragman’s Lane Farm in Gloucestershire shortly after the ‘Great Freeze’ of 2009/2010.  It offers a powerful insight into the essence of this ingredient:

“I have the exquisite pain of no heating at the farm, having installed a biomass system with a titanic budget, which has decided to break just as we start our three month residential permaculture course. Having decided to get the best German boiler money could buy, I now realise that actually no one has a clue about fitting and running this stuff.  It’s still the right way to go, but it will take a good few years of mugs like me to pioneer systems like these before they are safe to be let loose on an unsuspecting public.

Hey ho. Now it has been bust for ten days (first they thought it was the electric motor on the flue (£400), now they think it’s the circuit board that controls the whole boiler (£800), all the pipework that is meant to be super insulated to carry hot water to outlying buildings has frozen solid. We have finally got the boiler working, but are now faced with the task of thawing super insulated pipes that have frozen whilst the ambient temperature slips to –15C. The task of turning this all around is interrupted every 40 minutes when we have to tow another student onto the farm with a tractor that is running with no cooling system, as the anti freeze froze in the tractor engine and frayed the fan belt as it passed over the water pump. Meanwhile the entire shower block has frozen solid promising all sorts of water sports when the terrifying halogen heaters that we have hired start making an impact.

How precarious it all is. I had the strange experience of passing the engineer for the boiler, (who has practically taken up residence at Ragmans) whilst I was servicing Reinhart’s Ceramic Stove. I had a bucket of clay dug from the pond that I had mixed with a bit of sharp sand. I had the chimney off swept and replaced in about 20 minutes. The ceramic stove is what is making the whole course possible at this stage. He was standing over a box of capacitors, probes, and electric spare parts, on the phone to the wholesaler in Lincoln, who was trying to source parts from Austria while the airports were closing down all around”.

Designing and putting in place a Transition infrastructure of urban agriculture, community-owned energy generation, low carbon transportation systems and so on will require some very real decisions about what technologies we will choose.  As a working principle, we might perhaps give preference to equipment that can be manufactured locally, or if that is not possible, ensure at least that it can be repaired locally and that parts aren’t too difficult to obtain.

The image above shows a cob greenhouse, built as part of a commercial market garden at The Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability in West Cork in Ireland, which beautifully models this Ingredient.  It is made using subsoil from onsite, mixed with local straw and sculpted to produce the walls which are very aesthetically pleasing, as well as having excellent thermal mass properties, that is, they can store heat from the sun and re-radiate it slowly back into the space.  Much of the glass is recycled and easily replaced.  Its owners understand how it was built, and how to repair it.  This is a very different proposition from a kit greenhouse imported from, say, Germany, with complex heating and cooling systems and reliant on regular maintenance.

The Solution

Implement technologies which can be made or at least repaired locally, which you can understand, and where you can see the supply chain for parts.  Ensure that any technologies bring social, economic and community benefits to the local area.

Connections to Other Ingredients

When evaluating the tools and technologies you will be utilising, CRITICAL THINKING (1.2) is very useful for being able to effectively evaluate, from the evidence available, which will be the most effective choices.  Also, an ENERGY RESILIENCE ASSESSMENT (4.5) can help in understanding the vulnerability of particular technologies, and their potential future reliability in a world of increasingly volatile energy prices.

Please leave any comments here.

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6 Comments

riccardo
22 Dec 3:39pm

I think that expertise in “low-tech” technologies is essential, so it would be valuable to expand this section. Two problems: a tendency to look down on them; training in them is rarely offered.
A reference that comes to my mind is Mike Abbot “Green Woodwork”.

Kenrick Chin
23 Dec 2:07pm

Brings to mind the 10,000 Year Clock project at The Long Now Foundation (www.longnow.org/clock/) where they built an awesome clock that can be maintained and repaired using commonly available materials and knowledge.

francie
25 Dec 9:04pm

“Low tech” technologies make sense in SO MANY ways! Little or no transportation, fewer resources required to build, supporting the local community, ease of/lower cost repairs. We just need to learn more about these under advertised technologies & figure out a way to make others aware of their significant value…

Alexandra Groszek
30 Dec 2:59pm

Seems to be a gap in the market – environmental building services installation and maintenance

Michael Poremba
3 Jan 10:01am

Marcin Jakobowski has launched a project here in the States to design, produce, and publish open source farm technology. The vision is to openly share designs for equipment that can be produced and maintained by individuals and small local communities rather than being wholly dependent on a network of industries producing proprietary gadgets somewhere far away. They’ve identified about 40 labor-saving machines most useful to homesteaders trying to maintain import ants bits of our industrial society but doing so on a community scale. It’s not really technofix but more like “let’s save what we can and do it together.” check them out at http://openfarmtech.org/. Definately a unique project. They have some prototypes already finished. Lend some support if you think it’s worthy.

James Robertson
4 Jan 3:09pm

Quick typo in the link to Ragmans Farm; you lost the www part and now it’s a dud… – sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings…