Al Gore said that too often, when people become aware of climate dhange, they go directly from denial to despair without stopping to do anything productive. This summer, the ice continues to melt and the politicians carry on dawdling and dissembling. And yet, solutions abound all around us—and I firmly intend to seek them out and report on them whenever possible.
So, after two months in climates where it rained pretty much every single day, I took my soggy lungs and sodden skin down to Portugal, for five days at an intentional community called Tamera.
Tamera was started by Germans inspired by writers and activists Dieter Duhm and Sabina Lichtenfels, whose original interest was in transforming social relations, particularly those around love and sexuality. They’ve started two major intentional communities, which have also tackled the practical needs of living in harmony with the land. A few years ago, I visited Zegg, their sister community just outside of Berlin. I’ve been wanting to visit Tamera ever since I read about a visionary new form of solar energy they were developing, and at the end of my trip I finally had a chance.
Southern Portugal is dry, a land of olive trees, cork oaks and scrub on bare, stony soils, much of it overgrazed and at risk of desertification. From Lisbon, we drove past sparse groves and fields sometimes so eaten down it hurt to look at them.
Tamera sits in a wide valley, surrounded by rolling hills, and fronting a large lake which cools and enlivens the whole area. The lake is human-made, the brainchild of their collaboration with the legendary Austrian permaculturalist Sepp Holzer.
Holzer is famous in the permaculture world for his own farm, high in the Austrian Alps, where he grows warm weather fruits like citrus, apricots, and kiwis in the coldest part of Austria. He’s created a maze of fishponds that moderate the climate, and he grows vegetables and crops in ‘plant families’ on raised terraces that are self-watering.
Tamera’s Ecology group asked Holzer to consult. He began by having them calculate the amount of rainwater that falls on their land each year. At 60 cm of rain a year, over 300 hectares of catchment, it was enough to fill a line of cubic-meter boxcars that would stretch all the way to Barcelona! That realization shifted their thinking. “The problem was not lack of water, it was in our water management,” said Bernd Muller of their Ecology group. “We didn’t have a scarcity of water—we had a potential abundance.
Under Sepp’s direction, they created a huge lake, 36 meters deep, with variations of depth and shallows, and a wiggly outline to create edge. The variations create a natural circulation, with cool and warm layers where fish can live. The bottom is natural clay, vibrated by the bucket of the digger to make the large particles settle out and the clay layers more sticky. The design allows water to slowly percolate out into the surrounding soil, raising the water level and eventually allowing them to grow plants on terraces that will not need surface irrigation, but draw up water from below. It’s rehydration therapy for the earth.
On the terraces, they plant polycultures: ‘plant families’ as Holzer calls them, ‘guilds’ as we say in permaculture—mixtures of plants that support each other, sunflowers to shade the others from the blazing sun, beans to fix nitrogen, other plants to attract beneficial insects or provide a needed crop. In time, they will also farm the shallow edges of the lake—as the water recedes during the summer, the edges still hold groundwater. They’ll plant a succession of crops to take advantage of the residual water, adding new rows and the level goes down. There’s still plenty of water, in high summer, for the lake to stay cool, clear and provide great swimming for people and habitat for fish and freshwater shellfish.
Only someone who lives in a summer-dry climate can imagine my churning mixture of inspiration and sheer envy that filled me, walking the paths that meander between the beautiful series of lakes and ponds. On my land, I’ve done swales. I’ve done water catchment and built lined, continually leaking ponds. I’ve added water storage and micro-irrigation and mulch. Considering that we began the summer with only a pint of water every 40 seconds coming from our spring, that we’ve had four or five people, three gardens, a couple of food forests and an olive grove to support on that trickle, and we’re not quite out of water yet, we’re not doing too bad. But this immediately set me dreaming of where I could dig bigger, beautiful unlined lakes. But where to get the money to do it? And what would the neighbors—not impressed by the leaky ponds they’ve been staring at for years—say if I expanded further?
I was also given a tour of their solar installation by Fabian Deppner. Their solar village is currently under construction, so some parts of the system exist, at the moment, as diagrams. But I was able to photograph their solar pump, called the Sunpulse, which uses a Stirling engine, powered by the heat from a solar collector, to drive a piston and pump water.
The Sunpulse is the brainchild of Jurgen Kleinwachter, a German inventor who visited Africa and was struck by how hard the women there work, trudging miles to collect water and find wood for cooking. He wanted to create a technology that could make life easier and work in less-developed countries that did not have the technology to make photovoltaic panels. He also wanted to do away with batteries, which are full of toxic heavy metals and which need replacement every few years.
The heart of the Solar Village will be the Sunray—a greenhouse lined with special magnifying lenses called Fresnel lenses, which will use the sunlight to heat vegetable oil in an insulated pipe to a high temperature. The pipe will bring the oil to an insulated tank where it can be stored, along with the energy in the heat. From there, it can be piped into special stoves, where it will heat wells where food can be cooked. The leftover heat can heat houses in winter, water for showers, and run a Stirling engine to make electricity. There’s no batteries involved, no hi-tech parts except for the lenses, and all of it can be maintained and repaired by someone with the level of skill of an auto mechanic.
I, of course, don’t have the level of skill of an auto mechanic, but the world is full of people who do. I can’t even explain to you exactly how the Stirling engine works, except to say that it’s old technology, back from early steam engine days, now open source and in the public domain. It works because hot air and gases expand, cool air contracts—so that heat differential can be used to move a piston, which can then generate electricity or drive a pump or a machine.
One other really exciting invention—the Sheffler mirror. Most solar thermal cookers collect heat and concentrate it into a point. That works for heating water or baking, but it’s hard to stand in front of it and stir, and you have to be out in the hot sun to cook. The Sheffler mirro is part of a parabola, that throws the heat point out to a certain distance. It can be mounted outside your house, and throw the hot spot into the kitchen, so you can cook inside and stay out of the sun yourself.
I didn’t get to meet Kelinwachter, but I like the way he thinks. He asks questions like, “How can I design a solar cooking system that people can use to cook their traditional meals at traditional times of day? How can a solar kitchen still be the hearth and the heart of a home? How can I make women’s live easier?”
So, if you’re having one those bad days when you can’t imagine how the world will pull out of this nosedive into the abyss, check out some of the sites below, and remember the immense creativity and potential that surrounds us.
Thanks to Uri Ayalon, the Ecology group who spent so much time with me, and all the folks at Tamera who invited me and hosted me so generously!
I’m home now, and in the next days will catch up on the progress of my own gardens!
Solar Village info:
Sepp Holzer’s Website
Farming with Nature:video clip:
Sunvention, Industriestrasse 8, D-79541 Lörrach
Tel. +49-(0)7621-956 75 14; Fax. -(0)7621-956 75 2
www.BSRsolar.com – www.sunvention.com