I’d been meaning to write this article for a while, now, but yesterday I saw an article that reminded me of my experiences on this topic and felt it was time. The article is EPA To Alaskans In Sub-Zero Temps: Stop Burning Wood To Keep Warm and is about how the EPA is pushing Alaskans to give up their wood stoves to heat their houses in favor of what the government perceives as cleaner energy sources.

First of all, I have no problem with green energy, per se. It’s wonderful, less polluting than sources of energy such as coal, safer than nuclear, and is likely the way the world will be powered in the future once efficiency is naturally increased through the free market.

The trouble with green energy comes when governments push a green energy agenda, which has, so far, increased the price of energy in virtually every country that has gone this route (Denmark, Germany) and actually has measurably depressed the economy in some (Spain). This green energy push is particularly egregious in to those who are less economically well-off as it takes a larger proportion of their income to simply meet their day to day needs.

This leads me to the topic of Uruguay. Uruguay has been cheered by the left for it’s push towards greener energy. In fact, some sources say that their electricity is almost 95% powered by green energy, wind in particular.

While I’m not going to comment on the accuracy of this claim, I’m merely going to share my experiences having lived in Uruguay for 6 months in a town called Punta del Diablo, a small fishing and tourist village built mostly on sand dunes near the Brazilian border. I came about living there because I have managed to create a few moderately successful websites that allow me to the freedom to work ‘location independent’ from my laptop. Having a nomadic nature, I tend to take advantage of this and travel quite a bit. One advantage of being location independent is the ability to take housesitting assignments around the world. This is where someone leaving their house, for many varied reasons, chooses to enter into a mutually beneficial relationship and, instead of leaving their house empty while they are gone, they use a housesitter to keep the house occupied and, many times, take care of their animals.

My partner and I found a housesitting assignment in Uruguay, and having read about Uruguay’s libertarian bent (which is overstated, but a topic for another time), I was happy to go live next to the beach in a little fishing village/surfing spot/tourist town for the 6 months the family was going to be in South Africa for the Canadian wife’s post doctoral assignment.

Josh and I on the beach in Uruguay

Each housesitting agreement is different, but we agreed to pay the utility bills, a decision which led to the writing of this article. Interestingly, paying the utility bills in Uruguay is an interesting experience in and of itself. It seems that most people in Uruguay don’t have credit cards, and those that do seem to distrust paying their utility bills online. Whether this distrust covers simply the utilities or the internet in general, I’m unsure, but the effect of this was that the bills are not paid online but paid at the utility centers themselves,  or the many businesses that have popped up as a ‘one stop shop’ to pay the utilities without having to go to each individual service center.

Since we lived in a tiny village that did not have these services, this meant taking most of the day taking the bus to the Uruguayan/Brazilian border town of Chuy/Chui, respectively. Fortunately, Chuy/Chui is a ‘duty free’ center, and has a variety of shops, some quite upscale, and restaurants, all of which were horrible, that our little fishing village didn’t, so it was a pleasant monthly outing for us. But I digress…

Electricity Usage in our House

Back to the utilities. I’ll only discuss electricity here since that is the topic of discussion. To give some context to our electricity usage, the house we were staying in was not really a ‘house’, but would be called more of a ‘beach shack’. It was hand made using local materials by the owners who were not skilled in house building. The walls were simply beams with wood slats on the outside and inside. There was no insulation and the slats met badly at the corners. Wind and noise were free to come inside the house (as were bats, mice, and just about anything else that wanted to), and when it rained just right, the rain came through the slats as well.

This did not harm the inside of the house at all, because the floors were just one layer of raw wood over the sand dunes a few feet below. Since the wood slats did not meet well on the floor either, the rain would simply drip into the sand below from the living room. This was handy for sweeping, as we could just sweep any sand and debris through the holes in the floor, never needing a dustpan.

This is a fairly typical style house for most of the people living in these small towns because if one purchases land, one can build on the land without a permit so long as the house is build of wood. If the house is built of concrete, stone, brick (or anything else one might imagine), one must have a permit. So, the houses of those in the lower economic brackets are made from wood as it’s quite inexpensive, locally available, and doesn’t require permitting. Many houses are hand made like ours.

Most of these small houses have no central heating, and very little electricity. While they do have sewer and water, the grey water is simply a pvc pipe into the sand below. Our house was no different and the only electricity we had in the house were the following:

  • Several electrical plugs
  • A few dim plug in type lights. None that were wired into the walls
  • A 5 gallon water heater
  • A small refrigirator
  • A washing machine
  • Internet
  • Landline phone

That’s it. We had no central heat, no air conditioning, no plug-in heaters, and the oven and stove were powered by bottles of propane. The two of us work online so we were online most of the day. We basically woke up with the sun and went to bed a few hours after dark, so we used very few lights, and we washed clothes (no dryer) about once a week. The fridge was older and probably used more electricity than a newer model, but was about 1/2 the size of a US fridge.

Now, we had just come from spending a winter in Seattle. We had a condo with all the American frills. Our electricity usage was as follows:

  • Oven and stove were both electric
  • Large refrigerator
  • Central air and heat
  • Washer and dryer (about twice a week because we had to look more presentable in Seattle)
  • Lights all over the house
  • Electric 20 gallon water heater
  • Lights on most of the time
  • Internet, stereo plugged in all the time
  • Likely other devices plugged in regularly that we didn’t pay attention to.

Since a Seattle winter is not particularly mild, we used the central heat quite liberally and our hot water showers were a near daily occurrence, while we took showers much less often in Uruguay (we simply did not get body odor in the pristine environment!), and of far shorter duration since our water heater was only 5 gallons.

All in all, once we had spent several months in Uruguay, we compared the two bills. We used 1/3 the electricity in Uruguay as we did in Seattle, but we spent twice as much! Unfortunately, I did not keep the bills (dang, I wish that I had, but alas, I didn’t, so this is simply anecdotal).

Energy is so expensive in Uruguay that a recent immigrant from Syria, admitted via a compassion visa, threatened to set himself on fire if the government didn’t give him a larger monthly stipend, or send him back to his war-torn nation, in part because his utilities in Uruguay for his large family were $475 for two months, taking up a significant portion of the stipend he was receiving from the government.  Source: In Uruguay, Frustrations Arise Over Syrian Refugees. With an average household income in the capital of Montevideo (where the Syrian family lived) at a mere $2000 a month, this $237.5 a month would comprise over 11% of the average family’s income.

This amount approximately comports with what we were spending on our utilities (not including cellphone, but including the landline, which we never used). In our town, however, I seriously doubt that the average income came close to $2000, and the same site states the average monthly incomes outside of Montevideo are approximately $1600 a month. Assuming the energy cost is the same outside of the capital, that would increase energy costs to nearly 15% of a family’s monthly income. Although, energy costs are probably cheaper in the country because… well, that brings us to our next point; in the country, they’ll burn wood instead of spending money on electricity for heat.

Expensive Energy is Bad for the Environment

While most people think the weather is balmy and tropical in South America, the continent is as large as North America, with climates from balmy and tropical, to barren deserts thousands of miles across, to the wintry landscapes of Tierra del Fuego that is the closest landmass to Antarctica.

Uruguay has approximately the equivalent latitude between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. While Uruguay doesn’t get snow, this is not balmy and tropical winter weather, but it can get downright chilly. Uruguay also sits on the world’s second largest aquifer, meaning that it gets a lot of rain (and an incredible number of wild  and VERY close thunderstorms!), making it feel a lot colder than the temperatures might suggest.

But since most people in Uruguay (as in much of the world) don’t even have central heat, let alone the ability to afford such a luxury, like the article above on the EPA suggests, people in cold climates still have to keep warm, and when electricity is expensive or difficult to obtain, people will do what people have done since the dawn of humanity: burn wood. Uruguayans are no exception and the vast majority of houses have a fireplace or a wood burning stove. As the article also mentions, burning wood, while renewable (although deforestation is obviously a problem) and arguably ‘carbon neutral’, it produces particulates, and lots of it. And not only are particulates bad for the environment, but also pretty bad for human health; leading to lung problems and allergies.

Our house was equipped with the most inefficient fireplaces imaginable- the open faced brick fireplace. We stoked this fireplace with copious amounts of whatever the guy with the horse drawn cart brought us. Despite our somewhat mild winter compared to Montana, we went through a surprising amount of wood.

Caveman Cooking is Still the Norm

Josh with Pepe the Parakeet on our balcony in Uruguay

Additionally, Uruguay has a similar beef and barbecue culture as Argentina. The best thing about spending 6 months in Uruguay was access to grass-fed beef raised on pristine grass not even exposed to fumes from car roads, because the ranching areas of Uruguay are far from any population centers. Most ranchers still herd by horseback, adding to the pristine nature of the wonderful beef. And cooking meat in Uruguay and Argentina REQUIRES a barbecue!

Called a parilla, but pronounced par-ee’-sha in Uruguay and Argentina, it is an understatement to say that parillas and their use are ubiquitous. Each and every household has at least one barbecue, built-in preferred, and a built-in barbecue is featured and pictured on a real-estate listing right along with the number of bedrooms and bathrooms.  In fact, even in inexpensive motels, there is often an individual barbecue on the balcony of each and every ROOM of the motel.

 

This is so prevalent that most stores sell individual armloads of wood for tourists to light their barbecues. In our town, the wealthy tourists (of which there were many, as wealthy Argentinians and Brazilians buy property in Uruguay in order to have hard assets outside of their home countries) would ply the hard packed clay roads in their BMW’s looking for firewood for their barbecues in the vacant lots. Barbecues are serious business!

However, they are simply a variation on the caveman cookfire, requiring wood (or coal, or some other biomass) that also produces particulates. Because of this, Uruguay and Argentina are awash in producing particulates year-round for day to day cooking. How much of this outdoor cooking is simply culture, or a tradition that continues because of high energy costs, we’ll never know, but I suspect there are aspects of both.

In any case, I can guarantee that Uruguay, with 95% of it’s electricity coming from windmills, many of the which we could see blinking at night across the water towards the Brazilian border, has kept it’s population using inefficient particulate-creating wood-burning for heat and cooking, rather than actually using the clean energy they produce. And the people will almost certainly continue to use this inefficient and dirty energy source for the foreseeable future, since most houses are not even built with central heat, and most cooking is still done on fires, nearly the same as our ancestors have for hundreds of thousands of years. Such progress!

Kerri Knox, RN
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