REALLY Saving Energy


Recently, I was invited to give a TED Talk. What an honor to speak on the stage of so many powerfully influential and famous folks.  I sat in a Missoula restaurant and visited with the TED coordinator about what to present on. Since TED talks can end up in front of millions of people, this is my big opportunity to really change the world.

I needed to pick my topic carefully. World hunger, pollution, war, health, desertification…my real passion is with raising food, but if I get only one crack at this, I should focus on where I can make the largest positive difference. Most pollution and war is rooted in energy and the mis-information in energy is profound.

So, here is what I said at my TED Talk.

Paul Wheaton on Permaculture at TED Whitefish

TED Talk

Today I will tell you three and a half stories. All three and a half stories have the same foundation: Pollution and war are icky.

Given this terrible problem, my first solution was to share my position with others. It seems most people had the same feelings. We pat each other on the back over discussions of what “they” should do. We bond. But the problems remain.

Most of the problem is tied to energy. And the recipe of what I can actually do starts with me using less energy. I become a bit obsessed with experimenting and my experiments lead to conclusions that are contrary to the greater common knowledge set. When I try to share my findings with those people that I have bonded with, I discover that our bonds have eroded because — I am now a weirdo.

Now for the first story, which is the half story. For this is not a tale of saving energy so much as it is a tale of the red herring. After all, why should you bother with learning about some trivial energy saving technique when you have already implemented the “ultimate energy saving technique” – buying dozens of the right light bulbs.

This half story starts with a “newsletter” from my power company stuffed in with my power bill. Once again they are pushing light bulbs. This time they have an article that clearly states that the best ROI for saving energy is the light bulbs. An ROI made even better with free light bulbs. This is so contrary to my personal findings that I initiate a collection of experiments to prove my position.

First, I know that the light bulbs are not really free. It’s not like people in China are saying “you guys are so cool – here’s some free light bulbs! We’ll even deliver them for free!”

So collecting information on costs, energy used to create a variety of light bulbs and then videoing my own experiments testing the longevity and the luminosity of the bulbs, I make an excellent case on why I believe CFLs, on average, actually consume more energy than incandescent bulbs.

And I stop. See? half a story. This is a rich, epic tale. Worthy of a full Hollywood movie. But today’s presentation is not about the red herring. Today’s presentation is about what a person can do to REALLY save energy. And for that, I have three stories.

Mark Twain said there are three kinds of lies. Lies. Damned lies. And statistics. On that note …

When we look at the amount of electricity used in the United States, we see how lighting uses more electricity than heat. So, people could come to the conclusion that fooling with your lighting might have a more significant impact than fooling with your heat. But what this chart /energy, we see that lighting is a pretty tiny slice. And heating is more than half of the home energy used.

To solve energy problems, we need to first understand the three types of heat. Convective heat is where we heat the air and the air heats us. This is the least efficient form of heating, and, regrettably, the most common used in the united states. Radiant heat is where we have line of site with a heat source and feel the “glow”. Great examples include the sun or a campfire. The most efficient form of heat is conductive heat – where you touch something warm.

My first story is about how I cut 87% off of my electric heat bill by heating me instead of the whole house. I started this experiment in an obvious place with a 1500 watt space heater at my feet. I think it did save energy, but not very much. And my shins got too hot while my face and hands were too cold. Since one of the factors I insisted on for my experiment was luxurious comfort, I considered this a failure.

My first success was to transition to exclusively radiant and conductive heat. A dog bed heater, a heat lamp and two reptile heaters. These used a total of 235 watts. I was comfortable and using a small fraction of the energy I was once using.

With moving the heat lamp closer, plus replacing the reptile heaters with a heated keyboard and mouse total watts used was down to 82.5.

This might be a good time to point out that it is now illegal in the United States to manufacture or import this 40 watt light bulb. So I think a fitting title for this story might be “How an illegal light bulb saved me $900 in electricity.”

TEDx 6

Paul Wheaton TED Talk

A moral to this story would be — have you ever noticed that here in Montana that we need more light in the winter time? It’s the same time of year when we need more heat. And these incandescent bulbs provide light and a rather efficient type of heat.

My next story is about a very weird way to burn wood. This is called a rocket mass heater. Many people that convert from a conventional wood stove to this have reported that they heat their home with about one-tenth the wood.

Some people with conventional wood stoves would wake in the middle of the night to a loud rocket sound. This phenomenon is called “a chimney fire” – the accumulated creoste built up in the chimney and ignited. I wonder if the people standing out in the cold in their pajamas, watching their house burn down are thinking “this is rather inconvenient. It would have been better if the chimney fire heated my home rather than burn my house to the ground.”

rocket mass heater attempts to create something like a chimney fire every burn. It also attempts to burn all the smoke. And rather than use heat to move the remaining smoke out of the house, it extracts most of the heat and the “exhaust” is typically a little higher than room temperature.

Here is a woman smelling the exhaust from a demo rocket mass heater in Missoula. Please note the lack of smoke and the lack of coughing. Also note that the skin on her face is not being burned away.

We estimate that there are now over 100,000 of these that have been built. People are heating their homes with nothing more than the branches that naturally fall off the trees in their yards. One guy heated his home all winter with junk mail.

The moral of this story is: this could very well be the cleanest and most sustainable to heat a conventional home.

And the phrase “conventional home” is the lead in to my final story.

While living in Missoula, John Hait built a home that never gets cold. He observed that the function of a typical earth berm home was to take on the function of a root cellar. When you get deep enough, the subsoil, in Montana, is a steady 54 degrees all year. And heating a home to 72 from 54 is easier than from, say, 20.

John conducted experiments with the idea of being able to set the temperature of the earth berm mass. And he succeeded. John now uses the heat of the summer to heat his home in the winter.

In 1971, just over the hill from here, Mike Oehler was in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho trying to scratch out a home design that would be freaky cheap and easy to heat. He managed to build a tiny house for $50 which is still standing strong to this day. That same house would cost much more to build today, but the important point is that the innovations he came up with were astounding.

Dominantly, people building earth bermed homes have a design that I like to call “don’t do this.” You can see the dominant problem – water builds up behind the structure and typically finds its way in the house. Now there are lots of innovations Mike came up with, but for the sake of my short story I will share just one for now.

Presto – the water problem is solved.

When I combined the work of Mike Oehler and John Hait, plus add a few things of my own, we have an above ground structure that is cheap to build and fast to build, using materials dominantly found on the land.

I call this a wofati. We started construction on the first one last fall. This will be a work inprogress for many years to come.

The moral of this story is: a home that, from the inside, looks like a log cabin with lots of light and doesn’t need any heat or air conditioning.

The global problems we face are gut wrenching. And while being angry at bad guys is important, I think exchanging information so we can take the money away from the bad guys is far more productive.


You can see the actual video of my TED Talk here.





Paul Wheaton is is the tyrannical ruler of two on-line communities. One is about permaculture and one is about software engineering. There is even one for Missoula. Paul has written several permaculture articles starting with one on lawn care that he presented at the MUD Project 17 years ago, including articles on raising chickenscast iron and diatomaceous earth. Paul also regularly uploads permaculture videos and permaculture podcasts. In his spare time, Paul has plans for world domination from his hollowed out volcano in the Missoula area, with good submarine access.

See all of Paul’s contributions to Make it Missoula here.