29 August 2018

Our tiny power bill and solar panels

Recently there was some uproar about a Stuff article featuring a couple who have an electricity bill of $70 a month in winter thanks to cooking over a wood burner fueled with foraged wood, and taking sponge baths. Some of the readers' comments are fascinating - I'll paste a few below.

We have even lower bills - around $85 for our family of four, including gas hot water and its dastardly fixed monthly fee of around $35 a month.

I've scribbled out. our home address. Note that this bill is for two months.

We achieve it by a combination of things that you might be interested in.

I am a firewood forager

Our 2002 Mazda Atenza works hard for us.

I had to laugh yesterday when I was loading up our own aged station wagon with foraged wood! I was just like the Stuff couple. I'd walked past someone felling a tree in our neighbourhood, and, as usual, asked if they had someone who wanted the firewood. They spoke little English, so it took a bit of gesturing, but two hours later the wood was on our property, and I'd got to move my body well.

Most of it was already cut up to perfect sizes for our woodburner. We're used to such luxury, though - every so often a tree crew that doesn't want to pay for dump fees drops off a load of pre-cut wood onto a our driveway! I asked them for it one day, and they keep on giving. The hardest part was being brave enough to ask.

Sadly, yesterday's tree was a lovely native tanekaha. I would prefer it to still be standing.

We dry the wood for a couple of years, then feeds this lovely thing.

I cook over it sometimes, but mostly use the kitchen. We heat a lot of water on it for dishes and hot water bottles in winter. We have a fancy system (a DVS reclaim) that transfers some of the fire's heat to the rest of the house, while also mostly eliminating our household condensation. It's great.

Unlike the Stuff couple, we have real showers and baths, and run a dishwasher.

We really like the extra exercise we get from the firewood, believing strongly that a sedentary western lifestyle is bad in many ways, including environmental. He who choppeth wood is twice-warmed, says the proverb. I will add that so is she who lifts wood into the car, then into the wheelbarrow, then pushes it around the back of the house and tips it out.

Anyone who thinks this is caveman living (see comments below) is seriously under-educated about how humans lived for almost all of our history. I drove it home in a car, and someone had cut it down for me with a chainsaw, and I had a sturdy plastic wheelbarrow to shift it, and there may even be a chainsaw involved in cutting the big pieces (although I doubt it - we have an axe and muscles).

Although, as we soak up the heat of the fire on a winter night, gazing at the flames, we feel happily cavemanish.

Some family members love the fire more than others. Our small grey lion is a true fan.

Our solar panels

We pinch the sun's energy not only via burning trees, but more directly. Nearly four years ago we got 12 rootftop photovoltaic panels. These are tied to the electricity grid, through which we export our excess electricity and buy in electricity when we aren't producing enough to cover our needs. I wrote my first post about them here.

I often hear even the greenest of people wondering whether it's financially worth it to get some.

Sometimes, these same people are taking regular mid-winter trips to somewhere nearer the equator. They might be willing to pay more for organic food or other eco-friendly actions, but for some reason the solar electricity option seems to require far more analysis about whether it will pay for itself or, even better, bring financial returns.

How we make money from our panels (or feel like we do!)

In NZ, the electricity companies don't pay you much for the electricity you export to the grid. It's generally 7 to 10 cents per unit, whereas when you buy it in you pay three or four times as much as that. 

But there are some things to remember that make the picture much brighter:

1. Use the electricity, don't export it.

The amount you'll see on your monthly electricity bill as a refund or negative amount, which accounts for the amount you exported, is only part of the bonus. This is because you only export your 'excess' electricity - in other words, the stuff you don't use as it's being generated.

The big savings come with every watt of electricity that you use as it's being generated. You do this by using every appliance you need, while the sun's shining (as long as you don't use too many at once). Each unit you use while the sun shines saves you buying in full-price electricity at 33 cents per unit, or whatever your rate is. This figure won't show up on your electricity bill, because your company won't know about it. You will be supplying your own electricity, and paying them not a single cent for it.

The upshot of this is that you are discounting your own electricity bill, and the saving is 100% per unit. This is where the real money-saving happens. It helps to have someone at home during the day, although these days many appliances can be set in advance to run.

Our PV panels got 'switched on' with Meridian in January 2015 - but the previous spring, our wood burner was installed, so we no longer use our heat pump. Therefore, we're not comparing apples with apples.

2. Exporting adds up when the sun is shining

When the sun shines, those clever panels make a LOT of electricity. They make far more than you are likely to be able to use as it's generated, so you will be exporting a lot to the grid. You might only be getting paid a quarter of what you'll pay to buy electricity at night, but because you're pouring so much of it down those power lines, it adds up.

The amount you'll be exporting on hot sunny days depends on how big a system you get. Ours is 3kW, not all of which can be generated at once because a quarter of our panels face west to grab the late afternoon sun to help with dinner time electricity demands for much of the year. For our exported electricity, we get a credit of about $20-$30 a month in summer, and $10 in winter (we have a 3 kW system).

Shop around for your provider(s)

It's really worth shopping around the electricity and gas companies, and this is a rapidly expanding field, with exciting new providers popping up regularly. Not all of them pay you for exported electricity, so that cuts out a few as potential options. In fact, I need to shop around again, in case there is now something better for us.

We were initially with Meridian. The export rate was about the same as the other providers, but then suddenly a sneaky little 'tax' came in, where they actually charged us something like 3 cents a unit for each unit we exported. This is a big deal when you're only receiving 7 to 10 cents per unit! It was a charge from WEL, not Meridian. 

We moved to Contact, and while their export rates aren't much different (8 cents per unit), they don't pass on that charge. Our power bills (electricity plus gas) dropped dramatically. This is partly because they offer such a generous discount if you have both electricity and gas with them.

Now, for a family of four, our bills are around $80 year-round including gas, and incorporating our export earnings. But note our last Meridian charge, minus gas (this was post-solar):

And the gas is a big chunk. Here's a sample bill, this one from Contact. Contact has the most confusing bills I've ever come across, but the basics are that the monthly fixed gas charge is around $35, plus whatever you use. This bill is for two months, hence each item being mentioned twice:

I'm also tempted by Trustpower, who run a buddy scheme that involves pairing up with three or so other families and selling them your exported electricity at whatever price you agree between yourselves. You can supply your parents, for example, with at least a chunk of half-price electricity, and still be getting twice the price you're getting from your provider. (It's not actually your electricity they'll get, of course; it's just a financial exchange.)

But do we make money from our solar panels?

The set-up cost us $12,000, which is more than you'd pay now, and more than someone with a standard roof would have paid for the cheapest system four years ago.

In doing a rough calculation, let us ignore two factors that really should not be ignored if you truly want to crunch the numbers: the interest and/or dividends we could have earned if we'd invested the money instead, or the interest we'd pay if we had increased a mortgage to borrow the money. Oh, and then we could also count the interest on what we save by having lower power bills!

Without that messy interest calculation, the $12,000 can be spread out to $100 a month over ten years. Do we save that much? I don't know! This is because we had our wood burner installed just before the solar panels, so we simultaneously stopped using the heat pump and starting using solar electricity, and that muddied the calculation waters. I could probably do the calcs anyway, but I cannot be bothered, because:

1. We really, really like having our solar panels.
2. Once the theoretical pay-off period has finished, all our solar-generated electricity will be free.
3. If we sell our house and don't get to enjoy (2), we think the house will sell for a bit more because of the panels.

A couple of  pre-solar bills from Meridian - which is only electricity, not gas - suggests that we are saving somewhere in that vicinity, depending on the time of year. Of course, it's all much rosier with Contact - but it might have been so without solar, too.

There is a whole lot more to be written about whether solar really does help the environment in a place like New Zealand with so much renewable energy. Maybe I'll write about that another day!

Selected reader comments from the Stuff article:

No fun living like a pauper.  Life is too short92 square metre home!  Living like my great grandparents used to live!  You are welcome to it.
No fun living like a pauper.  Life is too short
92 square metre home!  Living like my great grandparents used to live!  You are welcome to it.
No fun living like a pauper.  Life is too short

18 August 2018

Basic spring vege-growing guide for NZ

Here's a  very basic guide on how to grow key vegetable crops from seed this summer. Yay! I've been doing this for 15 years or so. There are other ways, but here's how I do it.

Dee-licious tomatoes


It's cheap, satisfying and delicious. Homegrown cucumbers are like a different species to bought ones - so sweet and juicy!

There are bigger reasons, too. I have been reading a book called Drawdown, which prioritises the best ways to not only halt global warming, but to reverse it by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Home gardening doesn't get its own category, but the book says that "Home gardens represent a form of small-scale agriculture that has been practiced in many parts of the world since time immemorial. ... Home gardens hold higher carbon sequestration potential compared to monocrop production systems, with sequestration rates comparable to those of mature forest stands."

Sequestration means removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Mature forests do a spectacular amount of it, so it's a flattering comparison.

Let's go!

I recommend, in the North Island at least, getting some seeds of at least the following:
- tomatoes
- zucchini
- cucumber
- lettuce

If you don't have old punnets to start growing the seeds in, you can use scissors to cut off the bottom of two litre plastic milk bottles and punch some drainage holes in the bottom. You want the walls of punnets created this way to be about 5 cm high.

Fill them with seed-raising mix. This is not a zero-waste ingredient, because it comes in plastic bags. It's more expensive than potting mix, so sometimes I fill the punnet two-thirds full of potting mix, and top it up with seed-raising mix.

Photosynthesizing in the sun.

A family of four will be happy with about six tomato plants, four cucumbers, two zucchinis and a dozen lettuce. Lettuce need to be sown every month or so for replacement crops, although you can make them last longer by just picking outside leaves as you need them (I only grow loose-leaf varieties for this reason). Sow double the amount of seed as you'd like plants in case you have some dud seeds.

Sow the seed

You can buy seeds from supermarket or hardware shop. Moneymaker tomatoes are reliable and productive. Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes are meant to be excellent, too.

Make little dents in the seed-raising mix with your finger, pop in a seed and cover with the mix (which I'll now call soil). Bigger seeds need deeper dents - about twice as deep as the longest bit of the seed. Plant seeds about 3 cm apart so that they don't have to compete with each other. Wash hands well afterwards - that stuff can have nasty germs in it.

Sit the punnets in a tray of some sort. Fill the tray with water. This waters the soil from below, which avoids disturbing the seeds. Make sure the soil gets really moist, then drain away the water from the tray so that the soil can drain. Ideally you'd water them this way until they sprout, but I can't be bothered lifting the punnets out to drain away the water each time! Gentle watering into the edge of the punnet with a mini watering can or a bottle is generally fine.

Sprout the seed

Water stimulates seeds to sprout. Keep the punnets moist but not sodden. A day or two of subsequent dryness will probably kill the seed.

At this time of year (August) my seeds sleep inside at night to keep them warm. I just lift the whole tray in. Once the seeds have sprouted, they need to go outside each day to catch the sunlight and photosynthesize. They still need careful watering so that they stay moist but not sodden.

Egmont Seeds' gourmet lettuce mix - my favourite, and only $2 a packet!

Enjoy watching your plants get bigger by the day! Separate out everything but lettuce so that there is just one per container (you can use plain potting mix or compost in the pots you transfer them into).

I like to put tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers into quite big pots - maybe as big as your spread-out hand - so that I don't have to re-pot them again before planting out. I like them to grow big and healthy before they go into the garden, and they don't like their roots to be squashed.

When the nights warm up in September, you can stop bringing them inside.

For an excellent, cheap e-book on seedlings, check out Green Footprint's Growing Great Seedlings guide.

Planting out

You can plant out lettuce into the garden in September. Just put compost on top of weeded soil, and plant into that. We have a lot of slugs and snails, so we reluctantly put out slug and snail pellets. It's either that or bought lettuce!

Tender, delicious lettuce.

Keep the other things until mid-October unless they grow so fast that they simply must go out. This can happen with zucchini and cucumber! Plant them out earlier if you must, but be aware that those planted too early might not give the best crops all summer, although you'll get nice early crops. My trick here is to sow some more seed in November for replacement plants. I want free, delicious veges right through until mid-autumn.

To plant out the bigger things, soak the plants in their pots in a bucket of water for an hour or so. Dig a hole bigger than the pot, put compost in it, plant the plant, refill the hole and press down the soil around it.

Cherry tomatoes to eat every day in summer. I think this one was 'Tomaccio', which is one of our family favourites. The seed can be hard to find, though.

Other tips:

  • Put in a stake next to tomatoes. This can be a long, thin branch you've pruned off something, and doesn't have to be perfectly straight. Try not to buy stakes or ties!
  • Cut some old t-shirts into strips and use them to tie the tomato plants to the stake as they grow.
  • Bury tomato plants up to their first leaves when you plant them. They grow new roots from their stalk!
  • Remember zucchinis grow huge, so allow plenty of space.
  • Cucumber plants seem to make more cucumbers if they can grow over a frame. They also take up a lot less room in your garden.
  • Put mulch all around your planted-out veg. I buy a bale of pea straw from an animal feed place for $15, and it lasts all summer. It's either that or spend all your free time weeding and watering! Mulch traps water and suppresses weeds.
  • Try not to water too much, or the plants won't grow the deep roots they need to get their own water from deep in the soil. That doesn't apply to lettuces - they need plenty of watering.

A frame idea from Hamilton Gardens' Sustainable Backyard
My cucumber plants last year. They really needed a taller frame than this.


I think everyone likes fresh green beans. My children love them raw! In October, poke some climbing bean seeds directly into the garden about 5 cm deep next to a frame they can climb up. Be aware that slugs and snails can gnaw them off at ground level soon after they sprout. This is only a problem when the plants are very small.

Beans climbing up a bamboo teepee.


Chuck as much of this in the soil as you can every year. If you don't, your plants will be spindly and unproductive. No one can grow a good garden without compost. Home-made is vastly superior, and it keeps food scraps out of the landfill where they create greenhouse gases. (Compost heaps and bins generally have enough oxygen to thwart methane production.)


Once upon a time, no-dig gardening was for hippies. But it turns out that it is far better environmentally, according to Drawdown. Why?
1. Each time you dig or till the soil, you release carbon from it. This is a bad move for global warming, and also for soil health. You want heaps of carbon in there: it locks in moisture and feeds soil microbes.
2. Tilling disturbs the soil structure and the microbial life it houses. Soil microbes interact with plants in an eons-old system to sequester more carbon and keep their plants healthy.

Think about how nature does it. Leaf litter and dead creatures and manure accumulate on the soil surface. There is no bare soil. Seeds fall onto the litter and sprout in the natural compost that forms underneath it. The addition of leaves, dead creatures and manure continues indefinitely to provide the soil with carbon and nutrients.

And let's be honest: each time we try to beat nature's way, we mess it up.

Every plant that grows removes carbon from the atmosphere and locks it into itself.

Charles Dowding has some excellent free videos on no-dig gardening. Prepare for some serious garden envy when you see his property.

We sow the seed, nature grows the seed, we eat the seed

Each vegetable you grow and eat is vegetable that you are not paying someone to grow for you in a large-scale commercial operation. I don't want to knock people who grow food, but the evidence for the fact that it's often (but not always) done in a planet-unfriendly way is clear.

The best reason to grow your own food, however, is not because you 'should' do it, but because you just can't resist! For me, home gardening ticks all the boxes of "live a good, happy, productive life", and I do it because I enjoy it greatly. I hope this guide gives some beginner gardeners confidence to give it a go!

Part of our vegetable garden last summer, groaning with food.

13 August 2018

I don't like colour of my new Mercedes

My daughter recently told me that she had seen an Instagram video about a US teenager who complainedthat she didn't like the colour of the Mercedes her parents had bought her for her birthday. My girl was incredulous that the teenager could be so ungrateful.

But it strikes me that we all do the same thing.

For example, yesterday when I was paying by credit card for my produce at a fruit and vege shop, I felt a momentary wave of annoyance when they didn't have the option of payWave (contactless payment). I had to stick my card in the machine and type in my PIN. Oh, what a groan that was (not).

At first we love extreme convenience, and get a hit of happiness from it. But how quickly we come to treat any deviation from it as actual inconvenience. And how unhappy this dissatisfaction makes us!

Can we escape this crazy thought treadmill? For a start, we can think about it clearly and objectively.

Looking clearly at our own Mercedes

Much like the spoilt Dudley Dursley who complains that his parents haven't given him enough birthday presents, every time we take for granted an incredible life-enhancing advancement that has been bestowed upon us, we lose opportunity to appreciate how lucky we are.

Furthermore, by failing to be satisfied with what we've got and wanting more and better, we water the seeds of dissatisfaction that lie inside us, and we demand a load from this planet - a load that is not ours to take.

Being blind to the wonders we have been given

There are people, long dead, who worked hard to develop incredible technologies that make our lives deeply luxurious. Do we appreciate this every day?

Our unfashionable but very functional almond-toned toilet.

No. We thumb our noses at them and act like spoilt teenagers when we don't frequently feel grateful for:
1. Toilets that flush away our excrement.
2. Taps that give us clean, drinkable water (in more than one room of the house, and in hot and cold versions).
3. Electricity, which gives us instant light and heat.
4. Ovens that heat up with the flick of a switch.

Our luxurious oven.

Instead, we wish we had a floating toilet and a designer kitchen, a butler's pantry, a double wall oven and an induction hob. (Hey, me too - although I'd like a composting toilet, and I have no desire for a butler's pantry.)

Never mind the sumptuousness of more than one bedroom per family (or even one actual room per family!) clothes we don't have to spin, weave, knit or sew, motorised carriages that do the job of our muscles to get us from one place to another, and supermarkets full of intensely convenient food.

Are milk, butter, flour and pre-picked vegetables not intensely convenient? Try owning a cow, milking it, churning the butter, keeping it all cold, growing your own wheat and grinding it, and growing all the vegetables you eat from seed. Supermarkets are halls of opulence.

I recently read that three billion people in the world cook over wood and dung. Fortunately I was lying down when I read that astounding figure. Good God. I press a shiny button, while they collect wood and dry animal dung just to boil water.

But here's how to give yourself a recurring shot of happiness: simply appreciate this luxury we live with and the convenience of so many aspects of our modern lives. See them the way our great-great-great grandparents would.

The environmental cost

Each time we indulge our human characteristic of wanting more and better, there are costs to the planet:
- fuel to move around you or the product or its raw materials;
- greenhouse gases to be burnt to extract, produce and transport;
- removal of the raw materials from wherever they originated;
- any packaging the thing comes with it;
- the disposal of the thing when you've finished with it;
- the years it will spend in landfill;
- any pollution involved with its production, use or disposal (e.g. discharge into waterways or air).

This is why second-hand stuff is a great way to indulge our desirous natures - those resources are already spent on this product, so you might as well get the most out of it.

A second-hand chair.

Our human-ness

Yes, these feelings are core to our being: humans tend to be intrinsically never satisfied and always want more and better. Our drive to satisfy our wants and needs is why humans have burgeoned in number and drastically modified the planet. We are outrageously accomplished animals.

But we're higher-plane beings, too. We can control our desires and where we put our thoughts, time and energy. We need to put more effort into this! We all have work to do in this area, but it's rewarding.

We know that the short term pleasure of shopping and purchasing is fleeting, and our happiness level quickly returns to what it was. We know that comparing ourselves to those who have more than us is a source of misery. We know that spending time in nature makes us happier and healthier. We just need to refocus our lens.

Action plan

This is what I try to do:

  • Make do with what I have, and take pleasure in it.
  • Care for it well, and take pleasure in my accomplishment.
  • Buy what I need second hand, and take pleasure in the searching and finding.
  • Learn how to make what I need, and take pleasure in my creations.
  • Be aware that these action points are leaving the planet less pillaged.
  • Get out in nature to enjoy what we still have. I really, really take pleasure in that.

A kereru I spotted while walking through the bush near our house recently.

Above all, look for things to be grateful for. You can do it several times a day when you flush the toilet! Unless you're lucky enough to have a composting one, that is ...

3 August 2018

The seal and the kereru

As I walked around Mount Maunganui with my children a couple of weeks ago, I was, as usual, transported to a place of wonder and beauty.

View from Mount Maunganui's base track.

I'd recently walked through Venice, Vienna, Paris, Oxford, and the architecture was exquisite.

Near the centre of Vienna.

 In Vienna we went to a famous old coffee house, and the friendly waiter wanted to know where we were from. As with so many people, he practically swooned over the thought of New Zealand.

Inside a Viennese coffee house.

I do like a nice ceiling.

"The nature! So beautiful!" he said.

"Yes, but we don't have many beautiful buildings," I replied. "You have such beautiful buildings."

"Who needs buildings?" said this man, who spends his days in I'm sure what is one of the world's most beautiful buildings. "Nature!"

Of course we are pretty keen on having buildings, for good reason. But buildings can be replicated, even if it's difficult to do. People are smart enough to do that. But no one can create something like this from scratch. This is irreplaceable and non-recoverable.

A mid-winter Saturday at the foot of Mount Maunganui.

The seal and the kereru

Each time we've walked around the Mount recently, we've seen at least one seal, which makes my heart leap! Last time we spotted this baby one, presumably waiting for its mother to return with fish.

Once upon a time, I told the children, before humans came to New Zealand, this coastline was crowded with sea mammals, and also seabirds and shorebirds. This is but a tiny remnant of what was here.

But still they are here - and when I was growing up, it was very rare to see seals.

Once upon a time there were also huge flocks of kereru (wood pigeons) in New Zealand (and in some places, there still are). When we moved to Hamilton from Titirangi 12 years ago, I was sad to leave the lush fat kereru in our garden there. Here we have only seen the odd one, perhaps every two years or so.

One of a pair of kereru I spotted in Hammond bush, Hamilton.
Our community and the local council do predator control in this bush.

But last week I saw them three times, and twice, for the first time ever, there were two of them. If they are a breeding pair, we may get more.

I love beautiful old buildings. But oh, the nature. New Zealand's biological heritage may be a scanty fragment of what it once was, but we have to nurture it. Given the right conditions, our native animals are tough and resilient and will return (unless they're extinct, which so many already are). They just need a hand. A lot of hands. Two of them are mine.

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