Sunshine Came Softly Through My Spy Hole Today

This is the research paper that I presented to the recent Ceramics Triennial Conference in Hobart, Tasmania.  On the ‘Sustainability’ Panel.

Steve Harrison – Sunshine Came Softly Through My Spy-hole Today.

I was raised in the 50’s in a home where the topic of ‘health foods’ and ‘natural living’ was at the forefront of conversation. I came from a loosely quaker/buddhist background with a grounding in ‘healthy’ living. As a child, I was brought up in this environment. Aristotle said “give me the child until he his 7 and I will give you the man”. I am that man. A ‘greenie’ before the greens were invented.

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Since I decided to be a potter, I have always been a wood firer using a small, single chambered, bourry-box kiln. I wanted to fire my pots as cleanly as possible, in an environmentally sensitive way. In 1976 I moved to the country and bought a very old derelict school building, built in 1893, with seven acres of land and started planting a forest. By growing my own trees, these trees took their carbon out of the air, when I eventually burnt this timber to fire my kilns, it didn’t introduce any new carbon into the atmosphere. This was the best approach that I could think of to minimise my carbon footprint at that time.  I’ve progressed!

We have also planted very large vegetable garden and 5 small themed orchards, with a dozen cherry trees, a dozen almonds, a dozen hazel nuts, a dozen citrus, a dozen stone fruits, a dozen apples, 5 avocados, 4 truffle oaks, 3 white figs, two berry vines and a bower bird in a pear tree!

My wood fired kiln has proven to be very fuel efficient, I have worked on the design for over 40 years and written the standard text on the subject. ‘Laid Back Wood Firing’ and it is as clean as a wood fired kiln can probably get, without using an after-burner. I tried adding afterburners to several kilns, but have since abandoned that idea as too wasteful and complex. There is no point in using a premium fuel like LP gas to burn the smoke from an inefficient wood fired kiln. I couldn’t justify it. So I stopped working on that project.

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I did a lot of work on ‘flame tubes’. Fibre lined stainless steel tubes on top of the chimney that allows warm air in at the base, so that it mixes with the unburnt smokey fuel during reduction and combusts with-in the tube. All that is seen is a pale red glow at the top and bottom. The beauty of it is that it has no moving parts, and needs no external fuel source.  The blue haze at the beginning of firings has always bothered me and flame tubes don’t fix that problem. That is a work in progress.

It is possible to fire in reduction at high temperature with very little smoke, but the cold blue haze at the beginning of the firing is a very difficult problem to overcome. It was only later that I came to realise that it isn’t just blue haze smoke at the beginning of the firing when we are releasing ultra-fine particles into the atmosphere from our wood kilns. Wood firing generates loads of fine particulate matter, all through the firing. Some of these are quite fine and are hazardous to inhale. They are known variously as PM 7’s to PM 2.5 particles, they are small enough to enter deep into our airways and lungs and can cause all sorts of unpleasant health effects, even cancer.

Clearly, one kiln, fired intermittently, isn’t the problem, but when it is added to the other emissions of diesel vehicles, wood heaters and industrial pollution from factories, cement works etc. It adds to and is part of the larger problem.

See the EPA web site.


Added to this less-than-up-lifting scenario, there is the growing problem of global warming. Contrary to the statements of conservative politicians and the hard right media shock-jocks, the science IS settled and has been for a long time. The man-made global-warming deniers are simply wrong! They are either being disingenuous or choosing to be ignorant. Perhaps I could be generous and say that they are choosing different truths.

We used to be able to fire for 8 or 9 months of the year at home, but over the past 42 years, living in the Southern Highlands, our window of opportunity for wood firing has been reduced now down to 5 to 6 months, May to August. September is now getting too unreliable to book wood firing workshops. We have had to cancel workshops in the past few years due to hot, dry, windy weather and therefore total fire bans, as early as September. Total fire bans in our area used to only occur in January and February.

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Some time ago, I decided to develop a series of small portable wood fired kilns that could be wheeled out, packed and fired in one day. Then wheeled back away again until the next firing. These portable little wood kilns are very fuel efficient and can reach stoneware temperatures in 3 to 4 hours using a wheel barrow of wood. If you are careful, they can be fired very cleanly. They are a fun solution to minimising carbon emissions and avoiding the use of gas and coal. By collecting fallen branches from around our block, we can fire with a zero carbon foot print. This is the ‘vegan’ equivalent of wood firing . No trees were hurt to fire the kiln. The trees drop the dead branches. We have to pick them up to mow the long grass. We have to mow to reduce the fire hazard in summer. So fallen branches do not introduce any new carbon and are tree friendly. That’s nice, and the kilns are quick and fun to fire. But particulates are still a problem.

So where is all this leading? I realised that I needed to find another way to fire my work cleanly and efficiently into this uncertain, carbon constrained, globally warmed, future. The climate is changing, so we must change with it. Janine and I have had solar hot water for over 30 years and Solar Photo Voltaic panels on our roof, for the past 12 years. We installed 3,000 watts of Australian made, BP Solar, Photo Voltaic panels as soon as we could afford to do so in 2006/7.

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We have been using our electric kiln for all our bisque, earthenware and oxidised stoneware firings ever since then and have always paid the little extra for sustainable green power since it became available. So that if we needed to draw power from the grid, it was sustainably generated power that we used. In the last couple of years we have been working towards firing our work in the summer months of fire bans, using a new low-thermal-mass electric kiln that I built from a pile of spare parts, left over from my kiln building factory, after I retired. I designed and built a kiln that is fired using our solar panels and backed up by our Tesla Powerwall II battery.

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To allow us to fire in reduction, I made allowance to install 2 small pilot burners in the bottom of the kiln and built a small flue hole in the top. These burners aren’t used to fire the kiln at all. They are too small. The kiln fires to stoneware on solar power, the burners are only used to create a very small amount of flame to generate the reduction atmosphere needed to change the glaze colours.   I attach the burners to the kiln and light them when the kiln reaches 1,000oC. They use about 200 to 330 grams of gas to reduce the kiln load of pots steadily over a couple of hours while the electrical elements heat the kiln load of pots. It’s the best solution that I can find at the moment to give us reliable, all year round access to reduction firings that are very, very, low carbon and as sustainable as I can make them.


The firing can take as little as 4 to 5 hours in total and give perfectly adequate reduced results. Experience with this kiln has shown that we can achieve all the normal reduced colours with our standard local milled rock glazes. I fire the pilots on 5 kpa gas pressure, but have recently experimented with pressure so low that the regulator gauge can’t register the flow and the kiln still reduces. We usually wait to start the firing until around 9 or 10 am, as that is when the sun is up high enough to give us the energy that we need to get the kiln going. It takes about 2 to 3 hours to get to 1000oC, then I attach the pilot burners and start reduction, around noon to 1 o’clock. I reduce for about 2 to 4 hours depending on what I’m experimenting with and finish the firing between 2 and 4 pm. as the sun is going down. We fire directly off the PV panels until 1 or 2 pm, then as the sun passes its peak, and the kiln is drawing its maximum power. The Tesla battery cuts in automatically to make up the short fall to finish the firing. If the weather is cloudy we can also draw down on our credit with the power utility. As we are on a ‘net’ metering system, and are always in credit. We never actually ever pay for any power that we withdraw from the grid. However, it is important to note that we pay the extra to contract to only use green power from sustainable sources when we do with-draw.

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I don’t know if you have ever seen one of these graphs?   It is the screen from the Tesla mobile app that tells me how much solar power I’m producing and consuming and/or selling/buying from the grid.The yellow area indicates the solar power generated. As you can see the solar energy starts off low at 7 am, then from 10.00 am it quickly rises to a peak at noon, hovers for a while, then drops away until 6 pm. and sunset.The green area is the energy required to re-charge the battery from its use since yesterdays sunset and running the house over night. This re-charging is usually complete by 9.00 or 10 am.The blue areas of tiny upward spikes is the fridge turning on and off regularly over night and all through the day. The sharp blue spike is the electric jug and toaster being used at breakfast time. On this day it was at 7.00 am. The white area below the line is the energy that we sell to the grid every day when we are not firing the kiln or charging the car. This generates a credit that we can draw down on in cloudy weather and covers our daily charges. This report tells me that I generated 35 kW/hrs of solar and used just 1.4 kW/hrs to run our home and pottery on that day. We sold 32.8 kW/hrs to the grid. It was obviously a quiet day with nothing much going on. I wasn’t welding in the kiln factory or ball milling rocks and pugging clay in the pottery.


This is what a firing looks like, We simply stop selling our excess to the grid and use it our selves. The blue block is the amount of energy used to fire the kiln. The taller blue spike on the left, is the car being charged at the same time. It is worth noting that we can do both at the same time and still recharge the battery after wards in the afternoon.

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Just as an aside, we also have a solar powered electric car. A Hyundai, Ioniq, ‘plug-in’ electric car. I have written about this on my blog on a few occasions with regular up-dates to let readers know how it’s going. v< >


This is what happens when we charge our car. We simply stop selling our excess to the grid for 2.5 hrs. There is enough power to do this, even on a cloudy day, as is the case in the chart above.

We put our pots out in the sun to dry. We call it the ‘solar drier’. The solar drier makes sure that the pots are totally dry before bisque firing. We can charge the car as well in the back ground, both using sunlight at the same time! It’s amazing that there is enough sunshine to go around! The vegetable garden keeps growing and the orchard thrives! We can also walk and chew gum at the same time.

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To help make this all happen, we recently bought into a community bulk purchase scheme and installed another 3,000 watts of Australian built solar PV from ‘Tindo’ in Adelaide. This allows us to run our house, fire our kiln and drive our car, all on our own sunshine. It’s a very nice feeling to be able to live, cook, work and drive, powered almost totally from our own solar power. We do all this and still have a little excess to sell to the grid. This covers our daily charges to be connected and even earns a little bit of extra cash. I haven’t paid an electricity bill for 12 years. You can see from our recent bill that we do all this and still use about half of what a single person household uses, and much less than half of what a two person household like ours uses.


Now, I know that someone is going to ask me what is the cost benefit analysis? It’s the most common question that I get asked along with the statement, “I wouldn’t put solar power on yet. you can’t make any money out of it!”Well, my answer is, when you bought your new car. How did you make money out of that? Or, when you flew to Bali for a holiday, How did you make money out of that?

The point is that I did this because it pleased me. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. I did it to extract myself as far as is possible out of the coal and oil economy. I didn’t do it for money. I do very few things in my life solely for the money. I’m not very interested in acquiring ‘things’. This is the equivalent of my holiday in Bali, or my ‘walking tour of the vineyards of Provence’. I’ve never been to Bali, or walked the vineyards of Provence. We each choose to spend our discretionary dollars in our own way. This is mine.

Now finally, I will add that I bought carbon credits to cover the carbon off-set of my flight here. Real off-sets in the form of planted trees. I buy a few hundred dollars worth of carbon credits each year to cover all the damaging things that I do to the environment in my life, like air travel. I think that it is worth it. I’m not proselytising for solar. You will have already made up your own mind about that. You’ve had a couple of decades to consider it. I’m just telling you what is possible, because you won’t have heard it from the the Federal Energy Minister or any one else in the government. This however, may be food for thought, if you haven’t already though about it. I will end by telling you that the future is here and this just might be what it could look like.



This is an up-date of an article that I wrote for the Journal of Australian Ceramics some years ago.

Cool Solutions for a Warming Planet

Some thoughts on sustainability

The word sustainability is used a lot these days without any serious consideration as to what it really means. If we are to believe the advertisers, everything is sustainable. Only a few moments serious thought however, soon leads to the realization that virtually everything we have learnt to take for granted in our modern, first world, middle class life is NOT sustainable. In fact I don’t believe that our use of the word sustainable is sustainable. The word sustainability has been so abused that it has come to mean something else. Perhaps we need another word or phrase to express how we are going to support and nourish ourselves into the future?

It is well understood that a very small fraction of the worlds population consumes a vast majority of the worlds resources. We know that this is unreasonable and we also know that these resources are finite, but we seem to be helpless to address the situation and to take steps to rein in our wasteful lifestyle/society/economy. We seem to be just throwing up our collective hands and saying that it is all just too hard. While the deniers are claiming that there is no problem, the market will provide.

My partner Janine King and I have had a keen interest in ‘green’ issues for all of our adult lives, even before the term ‘green’ entered common usage. As a subscriber to NewScientist[1] and other similar scientific/technical journals since the seventies, I have seen the various debates like resource depletion, over consumption and global warming develop slowly but surely to the position we are at today.

If I had only been interested in soap opera, sport and the local news, I would have been watching the commercial TV channels and been blissfully ignorant of larger world events and the slow, methodical, painstaking research work that has gone into understanding our global position. I would therefore have been amazed and incredulous, even angry a few years ago when global warming suddenly hit the mainstream media, supposedly out of now-where with the release of “An inconvenient truth”. After all, the media like nothing better than to hype up a good shock and awe story.

Things might be changing, then again, maybe they aren’t. In the mass media it seems that only the right wing shock-jocks, conservative politicians and their followers remain warming skeptics. That is not to suggest that there is no alternative point of view. There is growing scientific evidence to suggest that long-term solar cycles of 11, 200, 2000 years and even longer periods, effect global temperatures, perhaps as much as atmospheric carbon levels? Perhaps not. I certainly don’t know. I have acquaintances who are scientists, a physicist, a botanist and a geologist. They are all wise and cautious. I respect their opinions. However, the world seems to have warmed at an increasing rate recently. I must learn to live with the uncertainty and no matter what the out come of raising carbon dioxide levels, we, as a culture are consuming far too much of the worlds resources.

If we are to live with uncertainty, then it would be wise to take actions to secure our essential living conditions. Like food supplies and clean drinking water. I am an artist, I’m not a scientist and am not trained in science, but I am aware of and do acknowledge the precautionary principal. I am trying to prepare myself for whatever comes. However, until things become clearer, I am going to continue to live as I have, as if what I do and what I consume matters. I am prepared to be responsible for my own actions.

Fig 1. Mud brick kiln shed with solar panels on roof, plus small car

In our life, my partner and I have spent many years trying to tread lightly and live a creative life of minimum consumption. In recent years the problem of global warming has come into sharp focus in the mainstream press as a major problem (as if it were something new), and the cause of this problem seems to be largely the burning of fossil fuels, so we decided to do what we could to reduce our use of those fuels. In our situation here in Australia, the principal offenders are; the burning of coal to produce electricity, the consumption of petrol and oil in cars, the production of cement and some farming practices. As potters, our specific concern is the energy used to fire our kilns. The firing of ceramics by artists in small kilns does not rate much of a mention on the world stage, but it is probably the single biggest fuel bill that we as individuals involved in ceramics have. I ask myself, is this important?

All of the ‘principal offenders’ above including my kiln fuel usage concern me because of all the issues around unequal distribution of wealth, resource depletion and climate change, like changing rainfall patterns, food security, water resources, rising sea levels, rising electricity prices and global in-equality, etc etc. then I ask myself, ‘is it possible to make ceramics in Australia, or anywhere else today in an ethical and truly sustainable way’. I suspect that the answer is no. I will develop this idea.

In terms of ceramics, one of the most inefficient appliances that a potter uses is the electric kiln, as they consume vast amounts of energy, with only a very small percentage of the energy from the coal being used to heat the actual pots. I’ve seen figures as low as 5%. The firing of ceramics is an energy intensive business, and when it comes to the most common firing combination used by artist potters i.e. small electric kilns and intermittent firings, it becomes quite wasteful. How do I cope with this looming challenge of energy and resource over-consumption and its global warming ramifications? Well, there is no simple answer. I was once told that every complex problem has at least a dozen simple solutions – and they are all wrong!

Fig 2. 16 solar PV panels

Since the mid seventies, along with my partner Janine King, We have chosen to limit our consumption of not just energy but manufactured goods in all categories. We live on the outskirts of a city, growing our own vegetables, collecting our own rain water, growing our own fuel, cooking our food and heating our hot water on a wood fired stove, like the locals had done for a century before. We were always inclined to ‘green’ attitudes, although in those days, it was called weird, feral, alternate or self-reliant, depending on whom you spoke to.

Fig 3. Wood fired kitchen stove.             Fig 4. Wood shed

In the eighties, with talk of the up-coming Kyoto meeting, we read that those of us in the affluent west needed to reduce our energy consumption by 20%. We thought about this and it formed the basis of our discussions for some time. We started getting serious by replacing our 25 year old, slightly rusty, but still mechanically reliable, 1200cc Volkswagen beetle with a small 1 litre, fuel-efficient car. This reduced our fuel usage by 20% in one step. We also installed a solar hot water system and paid $35 each for the first low wattage compact fluorescent light bulbs. They were a quantum leap in lighting efficiency. Now these CF bulbs are almost free, so there is some progress. The next generational energy-efficient lighting leap is LED lamps with similar savings. We have already started to replace the old CF bulbs with new LEDs.

We also started switching off all appliances (except the fridge) at the power point on the wall every night. All of these measures reduced our footprint considerably. We got our electricity bill down to $35 per quarter, but that was 20 years ago. In the last 20 years we have managed to halve that.

We collect all our own rainwater for both drinking and irrigation of our organic garden and orchards. We treat and recycle our own sewerage. We grow nearly all our own green vegetables, and a lot of our own fruit. We are prepared to pay the 35% premium per kilowatt-hour for certified pure-green zero emission electricity (from wind and solar power sources) when we need to purchase from the grid, e.g. at night. It is interesting to note that we had to go on a twelve-month waiting list to be able to purchase this pure green power.

Fig 5. Two large water tanks

In recent years we have started to buy carbon credits each year to offset the petrol that we use and other harmful things that we do, so that our lives are carbon neutral. We converted our house to solar electricity, selling the excess back to the grid as green power. We recently upgraded our solar hot water panels from the old copper tube system to evacuated glass tube units which are very much more efficient.

When we had to buy a new fridge/freezer in 1990, we did a lot of research and purchased the most energy efficient model (5 stars on a scale of 6) on the market at that time. It had to be ordered specially, as no one was stocking them. It has sisnce died and our new fridge uses only half of the older one. There is now a fridge/freezer available that is twice as efficient and a fridge that is four times as efficient. We changed to a front-loading washing machine 15 years ago when our old one died and needed to be replaced; these machines are much more water and energy efficient than top loaders. Although there are more energy efficient models now available, we will keep these older machines until they are worn out, as it is an even greater waste of embedded energy to constantly change appliances, especially when this is precipitated because of stylistic or colour ‘improvements’.

We have chosen to build with the absolute minimum use of cement. Cement is used only in the footings as required by our local building regulations. Most of our buildings are created from mud brick incorporating recycled materials such as timber, iron roofing, and pavers. I made our own windows, doors and kitchen furniture from timber that I’ve grown myself over the years.

Fig 6. Home made chain saw mill cutting logs for furniture use.

Fig 7. Home grown and home made kitchen furniture and windows.

We recognised long ago that our politicians are as lazy as the voters who elected them are naïve and ill informed. We do our fair share of lobbying, but it became obvious that if there was to be any progress, then we had to go it alone, we couldn’t wait for politicians, we had to start to make that difference ourselves regardless of the political system and the mass market. We have been walking this walk for some time. This process for us has been long and gradual. We are now carbon neutral. We have 18 photovoltaic cells on our roof (35 sq. m.) which generate approximately 3000 watts and pump out an average of 11 kW hrs of electricity per day over the year. We consume approximately 6 kW hrs of electricity per day, on average, over the year for the house, pottery and kiln factory. We have operated a small kiln building factory, making custom built gas, electric and wood-fired kilns for other potters for the past 25 years. This involves the use of high amperage electric welders, but even with the kiln business usage, we still produce, on average, an excess of 5 kW hrs of power per day, which we sell back to the grid as clean green solar power.

Fig 8. Solar power PV panels with part of our stonefruit orchard in the background.

It might be possible to reverse the current trends in our greedy society, although I doubt it, because there is absolutely no political will to do so and because there are greater forces at work here than the person in the street can comprehend, never mind change. There is a very serious fossil fuel and mining lobby at work to keep the status quo and even increase coal exports. Politicians are caught in a bind, can we have our carbon export cake and sequester it too? The answer as far as I can see is NO.

The science is very complex and not fully understood, involving extremely complex and long term effects and feed back loops. Then there is long-term solar cycles amongst other things to keep us all guessing. Of equal concern to me is 1st/3rd world inequality, over population, food and water insecurity, sanitation, pollution, particulate emissions, acid rain, post peak oil, and our dependence on a growth economy that produces meaningless short-term consumer junk shipped from the other side of the world, which we purchase on borrowed money, and then a financial meltdown born of hubris and obscene greed to complicate our lives further. These are all separate issues to global warming and all need to be addressed but will be equally exacerbated by it.

Fig 9. Vegetable garden

Governments, including ours, both old and new, have proven themselves to be totally inadequate to the task. Guy Pierce[2] makes this point very clearly in a recent Quarterly Essay, “Quarry Vision”. The Murray Darling river system is not just in crisis, it’s almost dead, we’re just not admitting it. Up until recently more and more permits were granted to pump more and more water out of the system or withhold it from flowing in, while rainfall has been steadily decreasing. Rain fall in south east Australia is forecast to decline by up to 30% in the future, we just don’t seem to ‘get-it’, there is every likelihood that this is not just a draught that will soon go away when the normal rains return. We are not in the right frame of mind to admit to the reality or do anything about it. We are over consuming everything, all demanding too much from a limited resource and none of us wants to give anything up. With global warming and climate change tracking along the worst-case scenario the CSIRO predicts that we will be a net importer of wheat by 2070[3]. I wonder where they think that we will be importing it from? We are not demanding that our politicians do much about it either. In fact the National Party’s Barnaby Joice has accused those with green concerns as “environmental goose steppers” and climate scientists as ”doomsayers”, while Ross Garnaut says that the climate debate in Canberra is dominated by the ‘ignorant’ and the ‘myopic’.

Seeing the political process stalled during a decade of boom when we couldn’t find any money or will to confront these big problems, now in a recession atmosphere, it appears to be even less likely. The new government seems to be completely hijacked by the pro-carbon lobby “It is expecting to get through to 2020, not by reducing emissions in Australia, but by buying cheap carbon credits from our poor neighbours Indonesia and Papua New Guinea”[4]. After that they are pinning all their hopes on carbon capture and sequestration, which is highly unlikely to ever be a solution.

I remember growing up in the fifties and sixties. I don’t remember any sense of privation. I had parents, a place to live and food to eat. We lived originally in a caravan, while over a period of years, my father owner-built a small weatherboard cottage. First living in two rooms, then four. This was not exceptional in the post war period. Everyone consumed less. No air con, no dishwasher, no TV, no carpets, no car. A much simpler life, I don’t remember being unhappy about it. We ran around outside a lot and walked the 2 miles to school. At weekends I walked the 6 miles to the beach. That life and its levels of consumption were probably a lot more in keeping with a sustainable future for all of the planets inhabitants.

It will take serious consideration and a conscious decision to make a personal difference to change things. It might be that all that some of us can do just at the moment is to change to a smaller fuel-efficient vehicle, but there has to be some sort of change of mind. We have to take pride in having a small car, or no car, and to be proud to refuse air conditioning in both car and home. Janine and I have done just this. We don’t own any of the usual consumer excesses like air conditioning, dish washing machine or large TV plasma screens. We own and use beautiful pots every day in the kitchen. It doesn’t seem such a terrible chore to handle them as we wash them up each meal, and I mostly use soap for washing both pots and clothes, not detergents. As all our water is recycled back into our garden, we have to live permanently with any chemicals that we introduce into our personal environment. We made a conscious decision to live on the outskirts of the city so that we could afford a larger piece of land with the sacrifice of less services, but with the potential to grow our own food and fuel, and the ability to collect clean rain fall for drinking water.

The time of small passive changes has probably been missed. The only solution now will be technologically advanced ones. There are too many of us to go back to the forest, because it isn’t there. It’s been wood-chipped. A previous federal government in Australia was pushing us towards the nuclear solution (without any debate about the options) but I don’t believe that it has to be nuclear. Why should future generations be asked to pay for our excesses through the maintenance and removal of spent reactors and their highly toxic waste? It is a sobering thought that no country or government anywhere in the world has yet found a safe long term solution for dealing with nuclear waste, and the reason is that the costs are going to be stupendous, long term and on-going. Cleanup times for decommissioning a reactor site can be up to 300 years[5]. This means that our childrens, childrens children are going to be paying for the real costs of the electricity that we use today. With all our clear skies and sunshine, promoting nuclear power for Australia is like “Advocating smoking as a cure for obesity. That is, taking up the nuclear option will make it much more difficult to move to the sort of sustainable, ecologically healthy future that should be our goal”.[6]

There has recently been a lot of hot air about fiscal stimulus packages, but no attention at all to setting up a national green energy option, such as solar thermal stations[7]. The leading solar thermal company left Australia a few years ago to work in the US, after the frustrating previous decade without any support here. It appears that we are about to squander yet another opportunity to make a significant change. A decade ago we led the world in solar PV technology, now we’re 7th and hardly rate a mention. Germany is leading the world, a country not known for its sun burn! They introduced a gross feed-in tariff and are now world leaders. Our government is fiercely resisting a gross feed-in tariff. Hijacked by the coal lobby. Here in the big brown dumb country we have squandered our lead once again and will soon have to buy the green technology that we need from overseas instead of exporting it. I wonder what is going to happen if the goose steppers and doomsayers are correct? Why can’t we mine and export coal and develop a solar industry?

In the seventies, Janine and I decided that we would only have one child, as every child born in an advanced, energy wasteful country like Australia, will consume so much extra energy that it would make this problem so much worse at a faster rate. This was in line with some fringe thinking at that time of ZPG & NPG.[8] Paul Ehrlich’s The Population bomb and the Club of Rome’s Limits to growth. Both of which were on the right track but the time frame was out by a generation.

We have not tried to be completely self sufficient, I don’t believe that we could achieve it while living a vaguely ‘normal’ life in an advanced economy, whatever ‘normal’ means, because I’m pretty sure that I’m not normal. Instead we have opted for a more pragmatic philosophy of ‘minimal consumption’, something that we could achieve. Neither Janine nor I have ever had a full time job. We have never enjoyed a regular pay packet or salary. We have had to learn to be more self reliant and frugal. Without a regular income we found that we couldn’t borrow money from banks. We have had to learn to balance our accounts. Never spending more than we earned, always keeping something in reserve. We have applied the same approach to our water supply. We don’t use more water than we can collect and store in our tanks and dams. We don’t use more electricity than we can collect, always keeping a little bit in surplus. In essence, we try not to buy what we don’t need and don’t replace anything until it is worn out. We consume, but we keep it to a minimum. This leads us to wear some pretty out of date fashions! However, bell-bottoms are coming back in at the moment I believe – lucky us!

Fig 10. Treadle potters wheel with porcelain bowls.


I endeavor to carry my philosophy through into my ceramic work. This is characterised by my use of locally found and processed raw materials. When I began, I had absolutely no idea what a range of work could be created using only what I could find in my immediate vicinity. I have been lucky enough to discover a previously unknown deposit of translucent native bai tunze porcelain stone at Joadja, a famous local historic site, and an intensely interesting and challenging blackware body containing 20% iron oxide that I liberate from rotten basaltic gravel, it is only just workable, but so intensely black that it still amazes me with its beauty. I have found and developed ways of extracting white felspar from brown granite using flotation and a creative organic way of collecting minute traces of phosphorous from soil and concentrating it into a usable form, working in conjunction with a local organic farmer. All of the techniques that I have developed for this work are extremely time consuming, but low energy. For example, using slow organic methods, one bucket of my opalescent glaze took me two and a half years to process the material before I got my first glazed bowl. This is an extreme example, but it gives some idea. We just have to think differently, plan ahead and be patient. A lot of energy can be saved in this way. All my clay bodies are made by the wet method and all the slip is stiffened using gravity and solar energy, both of which are quite slow but free and use virtually no energy.

Fig 11. Blackware bowl with guan style crackle glaze.

I fire my work in a small wood fired kiln in a time frame of 12 to 20 hours. This combination allows me to create my unique bowls in a way that satisfies me both aesthetically and environmentally. The kiln is built from home made fire bricks, made from a local white bauxite clay mineral and fired using home grown wood or dead trees that need to be removed from local people’s gardens. My version of the ‘Bourry’ down-draught firebox is remarkably clean, firing with very little smoke and yet it produces a very nice ash deposit. Because wood firing does not introduce new carbon into the atmosphere, it does not add to global warming. These practices suit me and were developed to fit my interests and situation I don’t pretend that they are in any way a universal answer. They are my answers.

Fig 12. Wood fired kiln built with home-made firebricks, and wood fuel stacked for firing.

Janine and I have put in a lot of thought into how we live our life and its ramifications both locally and globally. We are not just thinkers and theorists, we have also adopted a lot of practical measures, but we recognize that our lifestyle is still not sustainable. Because we chose to live in the country in a semi-rural setting, we have many advantages, as outlined above. However, because we live where we do we are stuck with the downside as well, there is very little public transport, and fair enough, there are not enough of us to make it viable. We are still stuck with the problem of owning a car – even if it is a small one. My excess of solar electricity tends to offset this energy usage, but my reliance on oil is definitely unsustainable. I briefly examined growing a seed oil crop, but it isn’t feasible in my situation. Ultimately I would like to use my solar electricity excess to charge the batteries of an electric car, but that technology is not available here yet. Finally, I need 7 acres to achieve this energy independence. This was a personal choice, and one that everyone cannot make. Ultimately there isn’t enough space for all of us to choose this solution. It might work for me but it isn’t going to be universal. However, it is possible for inner city residents to harvest solar energy and rain water from roof tops and grow some vegetables in their back yard. The inner city is also better situated for efficient public transport usage. There is a fully sustainable home in inner Sydney. Owner-built by an enthusiast to prove that it can be done, but it takes enormous amounts of personal energy and commitment. An individual can make a change, but not everyone is cut out for this kind of life, a life where it takes personal time and effort everyday to check the water levels and monitor energy usage. So if I can’t do it, while wanting to and trying to, then it certainly isn’t going to happen soon. There will need to be some government intervention. I’m not prepared to wait and see if the market can or will provide. As a post-modern, middle-class, first-world society we have been robbed as individuals of our independence. We willingly gave away trying to do all things for our selves and took on specialist trades, allocating the provision of other special services to others. This worked as long as there was lots of cheap energy and a place called ‘away’ to be able to throw things. As a goose-stepping doomsayer, I’m going to suggest that we make some effort to regain our independence, if not all, then at least as much as we can. Self-reliance is a good term, especially when partnered with a mind set of minimal consumption.

So what are some cool solutions to these hot problems?

The following are some of the ideas that Janine and I have engaged with as individuals. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. There are books and web sites out there devoted to the subject. These are some of the ones that have worked for us.

1. Low energy light bulbs – In 1990 the first generation of compact florescent (CF) bulbs cost us $35 each. They reduced our lighting energy requirement by 75% to about one quarter of what it was. CF bulbs may be low energy, but they contain mercury vapour, so they have to be disposed of carefully, as mercury is very toxic. Today the first generation of light emitting diode lamps (LED) also cost between $20 to $70 each and use only about one third of the energy used by the CF bulbs. Over the next decade, as our CF bulbs wear out, we will replace them with whatever seems to be the best option at that time. It is possible that LEDs could be quite cheap by then. I can’t predict the future, so won’t try. I’ll wait and see. We have already replace 7 of the old CF bulbs with new LED bulbs. We wait to see how long they last.

2. Some years ago we changed to green electricity – unaccredited green power was the same price as we were paying for dirty black coal power; fully accredited pure green wind and solar power cost us 35% more. We believed that it was worth it. However, you may have to wait a year or two on a waiting list before enough new green power is commissioned and comes on stream. I would suggest that there are a few shonky companies out there just waiting to take your money, who are not actually selling very green power at all. Research is required. The Australian Alternative Technology Association published a market survey of Australian green power retailers and their products issuing a 1 to 5 star rating to indicate just how green their products really are.[9]

Fig 13. Evacuated glass tube solar hot water panels.

3. We save on hot water. Install a water-efficient showerhead. Turn down the thermostat on your hot water tank to its lower level. Wash clothes in cold water most of the time, and use soap solution instead of detergent. When your old hot water service wears out, think about installing a heat pump, or a solar hot water system with an instantaneous gas booster – it pays for itself over its life. We use solar panels with a wood fired kitchen stove to boost the hot water in winter.

4. Save water. We collect and store all of our own water. There are books on how to conserve water, its not that hard, people in the country have been doing it forever. We have enough rain water tanks to get by. We have only had to buy water twice in 30 years. Think about installing a really big rainwater tank or tanks, one that makes a difference. We limit our water usage to what we can collect and store.

5. Save on heating and cooling energy. I have retrofitted homemade double glazing to all our major windows. We stuffed as much insulation as we could into each wall and ceiling in our house as we were building it over the years. We insulated the roof of the Old School Building when we moved in in 1976 and doubled it up in 1989. When we built additions on to the house we completely re-orientated the aspect of the house to face North. I am amazed that nearly all the new houses being built in our village recently still face the road and have virtually no windows in the north face. I was brought up in an age when there was no air conditioning and we still don’t have it, we survive. Try switching the air conditioner off if you have one, or switch it down to as low as you can possibly tolerate. Think about better insulation. In winter, we wear woolen jumpers.

Fig 14. The old School after conversion to a home.

6. We don’t put out much garbage. We have 2 worm farms and several compost heaps. We volunteered for a fortnightly garbage collection instead of weekly and the local council gave us a rates rebate.

7. We have always had a small car. We don’t feel disadvantaged. Smaller cars cost less to buy and are cheaper to run. We found that the money we saved by having a smaller car paid for the solar panels. For example, the current Holden family sedan costs around $40,000, our small car cost us less than $15,000. The difference of $25,000 can put a very big solar power plant on your roof. Think ‘Colt” instead of ‘Calais”. We also drive slowly. Driving slower achieves great fuel savings. I stay in the slow lane, behind some slow old truck, I try not to annoy anybody, but I like to cruse at 80 kph and not 120. I thought that I had invented this slow driving fuel conservation for myself. In fact I did, over several years of careful experiments, always experimenting with ways to get the best fuel consumption out of my little car, but it seems that there is a group of people who call them selves “hypermilers” in the USA who have raised this technique to an art form.[10] I achieved fuel savings of 20% below the published figures for my model. I average just under 5 lites per 100 km. 4.7 L/100kms is not uncommon. It’s a big difference from the 12 lit/100k of the big 6’s. It’s the equivalent of paying .60 cents per liter for petrol instead of $1.50. We notch up 20,000 kms per year. It is interesting to note that our small car usage, driven carefully, releases about three and a half tones of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year[11]. That is almost exactly the amount of carbon dioxide saved by our PV solar panels each year[12].

8. We shop locally and avoid trans-global products wherever we can, if there is an Australian alternative product available. Become a locavoir! Support your local growers market. Grow some food in your back yard, balcony or window boxes, even if it is only herbs to start with. Join a local vegetable gardening co-op. Become a “nyudie” (new yuppie digger). There is a strong movement in Britain to get a local council sponsored allotment garden plot. There are currently 100,000 people on the waiting list. Urge your friends and local community to join the transition towns movement. We are foundation members of our local transition towns group.

9. We went carbon neutral, by buying carbon credits to offset the damaging things that we do like an occasional aircraft flight. Buying carbon credits doesn’t solve the problem. It only delays its effect; only reducing consumption can solve the problem.

10. We put solar photovoltaic cells on our roof and became a clean green energy supplier, This helps to limit the amount of coal that is being burnt or remove the need for new coal fired power plants or nuclear reactors. There is currently a movement towards Community organized, multi installation, bulk purchase solar power schemes. A modest solar power installation of 1000 watts costs only $1,000.[13]

11. Vote Green – In Australia, our voting system allows you to send your preferences to the major party of your choice, so you can vote for a green candidate first and still send your preferences on to where you believe they should ultimately end up. This will pressure the major parties into taking more notice of you. Show them that you are not rusted on.

12. We are mostly vegetarian, but currently, piscearians. We have 200 Sq. m. of vegetable garden in the back yard. We enjoy the rewards of fresh, clean, home grown organic food. It’s healthy work and very empowering. It’s not just about food, It’s an act of independence, true anarchism and a powerful symbol, even Michelle Obama[14] has started an organic vegetable garden at the White House, for the same reasons. It’s not because she is afraid of running out of food! Michael Pollan[15] in his recent book In Defence of Food, suggests, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or containing ingredients that you can’t pronounce and don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot”.

Fig 15. Solar panels and netted vegetable garden.

So where does all of this leave me in terms of my consumption of resources, and my fuel usage for firing my ceramics in my solar fired electric kiln or my wood fired kiln. It clearly pales into insignificance in the scale of things. I have made every reasonable effort to live sustainability and failed. Not because of supporting my ceramic ‘habit’, but because of the culminative effect of everything else in this increasingly complex life, but in particular my ownership of a car and occasional aircraft flights. We can give up our very occasional air crafts flights, but it would be very difficult to run a small business from where we live without a car. We live a carbon neutral life, but are locked into the oil economy for a while yet. I’m hoping that a solar charged battery electric car will solve part of this dilemma in the longer term.

I would sum up my approach to the future as creatively cautious. If further adjustments are to be forced upon me by changing circumstance, then I will continue to research and respond appropriately and adapt. I believe it is possible for an individual to choose to make a difference and to express it in a creative, meaningful and measurable way that may be a beacon to others of similar interest. Every other individual will need to find their own combination of solutions that meet their circumstances. We are living in interesting times. When the new President is black, the best rapper is white, the French are calling the Americans arrogant, and the (Chinese) communists are bailing out the capitalists on Wall st.

Certainly, these are interesting times. I will adapt.

[1] NewScientist is a broad spectrum science and technology journal published weekly, out of the UK.

[2] Guy Pearse, Quarry Vision – Coal, climate change and the end of the resources boom, Quarterly Essay, Black Ink. March 2009.

[3] Mark Howden, SMH, p4. 28/3/09.

[4] Steve Shallhorn, Labor’s Dirty Coal Dependancy, SMH, 23/3/09, P9.

[5] UKAEA. Decommissioning of Dounreay is planned to bring the site to an interim care and surveillance state by 2036, and as a brownfield site by 2336,

[6] Ian Lowe, Reaction time, Climate change and the nuclear option, Quartery Essay, No 27, 2007, Black ink, Melbourne.

[7] The UK recently spent 20% of it’s GDP to prop up failing banks, but only 0.0083% on it’s green economic stimulus. NewScientist, No 2704, April 18, 2009. p23.

[8] ZPG = zero population growth, that is, two children per couple, or one child per person.

NPG = Negative population growth, only one child per couple.

[9] ReNew, issue 98, P18.

[10] Devin Powell, Driven to Extreemes, NewScientist, No 2679. 25th Oct 2008, pp.42-43.

[11] NSW State Government.

[12] digital data download from our inverter monitor

[13] AussieSolar, community multi-installation program

[14] Michelle Obama, the wife of the 44th President of the USA, Barack Hussein Obama II.

[15] Michael Pollan, In Defence of Food, Penquin Books, 2008