Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sustainability: Learnings while traveling Central America

Calypso Beach Retreat, Long Cay, Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Thankfully the trip to the Long Cay on Lighthouse Reef (50 miles east of Belize City) was only scheduled to be two hours. As the seas started getting rough, my mind drifted back to the Gilligan's Island theme song. Other than scooting past the Carnival Legend cruise ship, it was just some rough water and squalls.

Shot with wide angle, not zoom.

We were hoping for good weather the next day to be able to snorkeling. Alas, it was not to be, Tropical Storm Alex decided to pay a visit.

A tropical storm when you're on a little island on a reef doesn't sound good, especially when you find out the island just to east was evacuated by helicopter. The positive side was that it led to some very interesting learnings. Calypso Beach Retreat is set up to be self-sustaining in the aspect of water collection and solar power generation.

Learning #1: What is good for one, may not be for another.

Tropical storms or extended periods of rain are great for water collection, but not for solar power generation. Calypso only has 4000 gallons of cistern capacity, which compared to the 20,000 gallons I have in Austin, seems like it would be insufficient for a place capable of lodging up to 18 people. The key is how often there are rains. Where Austin can be subject to long spells of drought, Calypso gets frequent tropical storms that help refill the cisterns - they call them vats.

Three of the eight vats

What creates full vats, also creates havoc. Tropical storms that last multiple days impact the ability to recharge the batteries. The solar power system was selected over a wind generator due the space required and noise generated by wind systems. Calypso uses electricty for refridgeration, fans (no A/C), lights and all the electronics tourists cannot do without. One other aspect is that rain is not friendly with electronics. While construction is pretty decent, water has the ability to flow or be blown to where you don't want it. Too much humidity or water in the wrong spot, and you've created a short circuit and pop goes the circuit breakers.

Power control system

Solar panels

Learning #2: Have a backup.

Calypso is in the Caribbean. It's warm in the Caribbean. If you rely on electricity for your fridge, then you either need to have a large capacity for power storage, or you require another means of generating power. When I grew up in Northern Canada, my family's cabin did not have electricity. Solar was non-existent and generators were expensive. Propane was the fuel of choice. We had propane lights, cooktop and fridge. Today, you can purchase fridges that are duel fuel - propane and electricity. Granted, these are primarily use in campers and RVs, but the principle is the same - have a backup. In the case of Calypso, we did have power issues, and they used a gas powered generator. I found that interesting because they use propane for cooking; therefore, either a propane generator or a duel-fuel fridge would have seemed a better choice. BUT, do they make duel-fuel fridges that large? Propane generators exist, but transporting the fuel is a lot more cumbersome. It's not like a propane barge pulls up to the island and recharges your tanks. They have to physically haul them on to a boat and transport them through open water to town to have them recharged. This seriously limits the tank size, which makes the trade-off for solar with a gas powered generator a wise choice.  Another alternative would be to have a single diesel power plant as backup for Calypso and the neighboring properties.

Learning #3: How Eco is it?

I give Calypso and its surrounding community high marks. Lighthouse Reef is the last reef before you hit the open waters of the Caribbean Sea. If you keep going east, the next place you land is in Jamaica. Float planes are very suspicious in the region due to the drug trade; therefore, everything has to be brought in by boat. The communities are small, so they have to be self-sufficient. Solar is an excellent choice due to the abundance of sunshine, but backup systems are very important. Since there are some big in-roads being made in the Eco market, I do wonder if something like a methane generator - using human waste - may become a viable option as another source of fuel. I would have thought wind might be viable, but most wind turbines require a consistent wind speed. Could a turbine handle tropical storm or hurricane force winds? What about the space requirement or the noise generation? We see big wind turbine farms in Europe, Texas and California, but is there a means to generate power quietly and efficiently without a "farm?"

Tikal, Guatemala

A lot of people talk about how advanced the Mayan civilization was.  And it is very impressive the structures they built.  There were three things that really impressed me though.  First, they had to figure out a water retention system; second, their building were designed to handle the heat; and third, recycling. 

Building to handle the heat was probable the easiest one to understand.  They built their structures with thick walls, small windows and doors, and high ceilings.  The thick walls helped prevent the heat from penetrating so easily into the structure.  The small opens afforded some airflow without too much exposure to heat.  And the high ceilings permitted the warmer air to rise.  They also picked orientations that gave less exposure to the sun.  Many of these practices were used before A/C came into existence.  Using them today, even with A/C, could certainly help with the summer energy bill.

Cross-section of a palace room

The water retention was a tough problem for them to resolve.  Water was critical to their existence and especially for these large cities to exist.  The ground is very porous and digging a hole to retain water doesn't work.  Digging a well doesn't work either for the same reason.  What they had to build was water reservoirs and line them with a substance that would help retain the water.  The one thing they did have in abundance was limestone.  Using the limestone to create a crude concrete, they would seal these massive lagoons to help retain the water.  In some cases, they would also build shade covers for the lagoons to help minimize evaporation. 

Crocodile in one of the remaining lagoons

The Mayans were actually very proficient at recycling on a grand scale.  While some structures were built new, many of the buildings were built right on top of a previous structure.  The reconstruction was an essential part of maintaining their limestone buildings.  This also permitted the new structure to be built bigger than its predecessor, but with a greatly reduced amount of material.  This also had another nice feature of preserving a number of great artifacts that adorned the previous structures.
Rain god face preserved
Roatan, Honduras
Here's a beautiful little island in the Caribbean that is catching the eye of tourists and those looking for a piece of tropical paradise.  We stayed in the little town of West End, and I was quite surprised to see that their "main" street is basically the beach.  If this wasn't scary enough, the taxis and collectives drive up and down this road continuously looking for business.  We took a walk down to West Bay to do some snorkeling and discovered that is where many of the resorts are being built.  There, just a few hundred yards away from the resort, is one of the most beautiful coral reefs.
School of fish swimming along the reef
The saddest part of being there was watching people in sea kayaks running aground on the reef and watching other snorkelers paddling their way through sections of the reef as their fins hit everything in sight.  Roatan is trying to position itself as an eco-friendly destination.  Unfortunately, with the lack of eco-friendly humans and the need for the almighty dollar, all I can say is "go now" because it's not going to be the same in a few years.

I learned a lot from his trip. I had been under the impression that large banks of batteries would have been required for power storage. Calypso is a lodge capable of hold 18 people, and it did the week prior to us - school kids from the USA no less. The bank of batteries looked like a large bench you could sit on. A/C, incandescent lights, and electronic gadgets from microwaves to computers and iPods all increase your electrical requirements. There are so many electronic appliances in a typical US home that draw power for no reason other than to tell us the time when they're not in use. Do both my microwave and oven - which sit one over the other - have to tell me the time? Is there a simpler way that when we leave our homes, we could pull out the card - like in many foreign hotels - and shut off the power to non-critical devices?

No matter where you go, water is pretty important.  And potable water is king.  Many countries are learning that a simple rainwater collection system can solve most of their water needs.  If you get a lot a rainfall in a year, the cistern doesn't have to be as large.  The longer the dry period, the greater the need for a covered cistern and greater capacity.

Solar power is definitely viable, but the retention system (batteries) or backup system need to be ready to operate when there are extended periods of darkness or when there is greater demand than there is supply.  I like that my new appliances (dishwasher, washer and dryer) come with an actual power switch or on/off button.All this has given me some food for thought. Part of me would like to go off-the-grid, but it's not a requirement for living in Austin, so maybe there's a better way to do this whole energy generation/conservation/usage thing.  I just bought a book "Living Off the Grid" by Dave Black.  I'm looking forward to seeing how enlightening it might be.