Everybody seems to love geothermal energy. That’s why many American homeowners brag that they heat their house with renewable energy, saying, “I’ve got a geothermal system that extracts heat from the soil in my backyard.”
Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you’ve been misinformed. You don’t have a geothermal system. All you have is a heat pump that runs on electricity.
Just because the heat-pump salesman told you that it’s a geothermal system, doesn’t mean it is.
A trip to the Azores in Portugal
Karyn and I got married on August 9th. After the wedding, we took a one-week trip together to SÃ£o Miguel Island in the Azores. We had a fabulous time on our honeymoon. Karyn didn’t even grumble when I took lots of pictures of construction sites and energy installations.
The Azores are located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, between Boston and Lisbon. The islands are Portuguese.
On the island of SÃ£o Miguel, I took a photo of a real geothermal facility — that is, a generating plant that uses boiling water rising from the earth’s hot mantle to drive a turbine that produces electricity. How did I know it was a geothermal plant? Well, I could see small clouds of condensed water droplets emerging from the stacks, and I could see high-voltage power lines leading from the plant down the mountain.
Oh, yes — there was also a sign.
The 173 GWh plant produces 38% of the electricity used on the island of SÃ£o Miguel. For more information on the plant, see “Use of Geothermal Resources in the Azores Islands.”
Karyn and I came across the geothermal plant while hiking from the hot springs of Caldeira Valha to the crater lake of Lagoa do Fogo.
One way to tell the difference between the “geothermal” energy that salesmen from ClimateMaster and WaterFurnace talk about and the real thing is that the real thing smells like sulfur.
There are lots of ways to use real geothermal energy. Unlike the heat pump in your basement, this hot spring doesn’t require any electricity.
Most houses on the island have walls of stuccoed stone and roofs of red tile. The traditional wooden shutters are functional, not decorative.
This homeowner is flying the Azorean flag as well as the Portuguese flag.
If you want to fix up an older home, the first step is to make sure it has a good roof.
If the house already has a good roof, you can focus on finer details like painting the railings. This elegant house is clad with glazed tiles.
Hmm — I think I detect a stone wall directly behind this window. “Manuel, you idiot — I told you to put the window on the east side, not the south side!”
How architecture affects us
Frank Lloyd Wright famously claimed that he could design a house that would cause the occupants to divorce in a matter of weeks. Even if we scale back Wright’s boast to account for exaggeration — after all, many architects have an inflated sense of self-importance — there is a nugget of truth in his statement. Our buildings affect us emotionally.
When we step outside our doors onto our porches and sidewalks, we are similarly affected by our surroundings. Our streetscape shapes our social environment. Many observers have noted that once air conditioning made front porches obsolete, the well-established tradition of chatting with our neighbors all but disappeared.
The villages on SÃ£o Miguel have narrow streets that make driving difficult. But this feature encourages walking and enhances neighborly contact. The streets are narrow (and quiet) enough for people who are sitting on their front stoop to have relaxed conversations with their neighbors who are leaning out their windows on the other side of the street. Most villagers appear to do their daily shopping by walking down to the corner store.
The type of public social interactions I observed on SÃ£o Miguel — conversations between neighbors with brooms in their hands as they swept their front stoops, and advice from elderly women leaning out of second-floor windows to children playing in the street below — would be all but impossible in an American suburb, where houses are required to be set back from the street, and “garage-forward” designs emphasize the primacy of the automobile. This observation isn’t original; but our visit to SÃ£o Miguel provided a strong reminder of the truth behind these New Urbanist clichés.
I am not a starry-eyed romantic when it comes to village life. The Vermont town where Karyn and I live has a population of 811, so I am well aware that the social environment of a village has disadvantages as well as advantages. (After all, there are good reasons for gay high school graduates to flee rural Oklahoma and head to San Francisco.) But our trip to the Azores reminded me of how strongly our architectural environment shapes our social destiny, for good and ill.
The village square in Agua de Pau has plenty of benches.
In the village square, you can catch up on gossip, buy a beer at the sidewalk cafe, fill up a water jug at the public fountain, or shop for fruit.
Eyes on the street in an Azorean village.
When houses are clustered closely together, nearby land can be used for grazing dairy cows.
Picnic areas and public beaches
In the Azores, the local and national governments provide excellent public facilities and infrastructure.
The roadside picnic areas are clean and landscaped with flowers. Many include barbecue grills that are stocked with free firewood for picnickers to use.
On a public beach in Agua de Pau, I saw two lifeguards hard at work. Their eyes were glued to their phones, in case a swimmer sent an emergency text: “Help me! I’m drowning!”
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Bathroom Exhaust Fans.”