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Permaculture Principle #2: Catch and Store Energy

By Tim Sonder, Education Chair

"Make hay while the sun shines"

This principle deals with the capture and storage of energy, within the environment, buildings and even society.

Energy is fleeting and essential for life systems and society. Capture it now, so you can use it (or have it) later.

This is the true meaning of conservation.

It’s harvest time. When we pick fruit or vegetables we are catching energy. And possibly storing it for later.

Nearly all the energy on the Earth originates from the sun. The sun’s energy is what creates our weather, wind, water circulation, and, obviously supplies the energy captured by plants, which those photons into complex carbohydrates. This bio-chemical miracle of evolution drives almost the entire planet’s ecosystem.

Conserving all biomass (and animal biomass is obviously derived from plants as well), as well as harvesting rainwater as it falls, are permaculture techniques derived from this principle.

Storing energy in the landscape, in structures, in the cupboard
Permaculture teaches us techniques to design our landscapes and structures to maximize this energy capture. How?

By planting and nurturing new areas of 'biomass' — all living things—and maximizing the yield of not just fruit, but all biomass, we can store energy. Once created, the next goal is keeping it in the system, wherever possible, often through the development of deep healthy soils. Deep soils promote healthy crops, retain more rainfall, and are probably the world's largest and most important living store of carbon.

Water can be captured in many ways for both use by plants and animals as well as to take advantage of gravitational energy. (The sun got the moisture in the air already, so capture that work.) By capturing rain as it falls on a roof and storing it in raised containers, gravity will allow a pressure flow without pumping. We can also plan and decide how to catch water’s energy in the landscape by storing it in dams, ponds and reservoirs; this energy can then be used to do useful work for us. Permaculture also embraces the idea of graywater systems—catch and re-purify water to a usable level on site by filtering it through cooperative plants instead of considering it waste water.

The sun’s electrical energy can, of course, by captured now more directly via photovoltaics.

Sun’s energy as heat should not be overlooked. By using thermal mass (including water; but often rock-like substances) one can create microclimates in the garden in addition to keeping interior spaces naturally warm. The heat energy available from bioactivity, for example in compost, can also be captured and used.

There is no true “waste” in a perfect ecosystem. What we think of as biological waste is full of nutrients. What we let go up the chimney is full of heat energy. And if we don’t mix all our “waste-streams” together, we can recapture their energy with less input of more energy.

You can store energy in the household too. By preserving and fermenting, by finding ways to reuse containers and other household objects, by storing a wood pile (especially natural wood which might be wasted) for winter fuel, and by saving seeds for the next growing season.

Societal energy

We can capture human energy to do good and, in the process, make all these systems work for the greater good!

Money can also be seen as stored energy—representing work or resources converted into a form which can be used to support other activity.