Want Energy Innovation? Think Tarpaper

BROOKLYN — While I was running a weekly newspaper in Massachusetts, I wrote about a guy named Salvatore who lived next-door on School Street. His response to the first great American oil crisis, when the cost of heating fuel soared to almost a dollar a gallon, was to staple tarpaper to the eastern and southern walls of his house.

Before he did that, Salvatore had attended an auction where all the fittings from a grand, old, wood-frame hotel were being sold. He bought about 50 windows, and hauled them back to School St. Then, after stapling up all that tarpaper, he put up a veritable wall of old hotel windows about 12 inches outside the tarpapered walls. Then, he sealed the space between glass and tarpaper.

A little tarpaper might go a long way in energy conservation.

A little tarpaper might go a long way in energy conservation.

Anyone who has been in a greenhouse on a sunny winter day knows what Salvatore got. Heat from the sun, pouring through the glass, was absorbed by the black tarpaper, which got hot and started radiating heat, which was trapped in the 12-inch space. The temperature there, after a few hours, approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, although outside it might have been 20 degrees or colder. Innovation, simply done.

Big savings
Salvatore's purpose, of course, was to heat his house for the price of a few rolls of tarpaper and a whole lot of used windows. With simple air pumps, Sal directed the overheated air from his makeshift greenhouse into adjacent rooms. Technologically, this was a crude and inefficient system to capture and pump warm air. It was useless on heavily overcast days and at night. But it worked well enough. Salvatore was able to turn off his furnace more than half the time and reduce his fuel bill by about two-thirds.

I thought of Salvatore when I read about Royal Dutch Shell trying to haul a new oil rig into the violent waters of the Gulf of Alaska. The rig broke loose in one of the region's typical winter storms and eventually crashed into the shore of a godforsaken island called Sitkalidak.

Luckily, the weather relented, allowing Shell to haul the battered rig away for repairs. But the incident illustrates the profound perils and astronomic costs of trying to pump oil from deep, deep beneath one of the most hellish spots on the face of the earth. Royal Dutch Shell is now deciding whether to abandon the effort. If it does, it will write off about $5 billion.

Tarpaper or tar sands?
This is where Salvatore comes to mind. Think of how many used hotel windows and square yards of tarpaper you could buy for $5 billion.

I also think of Salvatore when I read about the “lucrative” tar sands of Alberta. Apparently, the key to making money on the bitumen saturating Canada's Athabasca sands is building a pipeline to carry this toxic black gum — which won't flow unless it's diluted with the sort of chemicals that could melt the skin off a rhinoceros at 20 paces — from Alberta to Galveston, Texas. There, it will be pumped onto ships and sold overseas.

The reason the Canadians are suddenly harvesting this nasty slime and further contaminating it with various forms of methyl and kerosene and arsenic while building this unspeakably expensive pipeline, is that oil shortages all over the world are escalating the cost of fossil fuel. With gasoline at $2.50 a gallon, sand soaked with bitumen is just a godawful mess that you'll never get off your shoes. At five bucks, it's licorice champagne. The retrofit solution.

Back to Salvatore again. For the cost of extracting, diluting, pumping, piping and shipping all that vile bitumen — how many hotel windows, how much tarpaper, how many air pumps?

Think tarpaper
Advocates of the XL pipeline, designed to pass through the precious Ogalala Aquifer under the Great Plains, insist that some 6,000 jobs will result from its construction. But how many jobs if the US and Canada gave up the filth industry and committed instead to retrofitting every inefficient heat-leaking building in North America — including Sal's unsightly tarpaper greenhouse?

There are jobs, and there's still immense profit, in fossil fuels. But as these resources grow scarcer, they grow more complicated to exploit — and dangerous, to workers and to the Earth. By contrast, Salvatore demonstrated the sort of work that could be done on virtually every existing building. He achieved dramatic energy savings with minimal technology, no harm to the planet, and no more danger than climbing a ladder.

It seems to me, if the boys at Shell were as smart as they make themselves out to be, they'd get out of the Aleutians and into insulation.

9 comments on “Want Energy Innovation? Think Tarpaper

  1. Brian Fuller
    February 19, 2013

    Benji, good post. I think it takes an integrated approach. One thing forecasters never accurately assimilate into their models is the beneficial impact of technology. 

    So for instance as embedded electronics become more ubiquitous, we will see larger energy savings through lighting control, HVAC, and other environmental-control devices. Then are the relentless improvements in materials, be in double-paned windows or insulation/housing materials.

    We'll use less energy, but we'll still need to squeeze something out of the ground for the foreseeable future and technology will enable that in easier-to-extract, more cost-effective ways.



    February 19, 2013

    I reckon we all could make our houses and lives more efficient if we all could start from scratch and do things again with more knowledge.  

    February 19, 2013

    I love stories of yore about ingenious old timers.  It must have been great to live in those days where there were innovations left, right and centre.  I suppose it is the same today but the innovations seem far more complex to achieve.  I do not like the idea of reclaiming oil from the tar sands as it sounds like a very expesive, messy process that offer marginal yield at best.  I'd rather go to the hardware shop and buy som e tar paper and reclaim some heat for myself.  

  4. Brian Fuller
    February 20, 2013

    @Flyingscot: I think we are those clever old timers, or will be to the next generation. It's, as @Rich notes in his comment, all about implementation. For example, when we drove around the country interviewing engineers, we came across a small North Carolina company making energy-harvesting devices leveraging the Seebeck and Peltier effects. Simple! ( Multiply that by hundreds of simple implementations and we will make some dents in the energy situation.

  5. syedzunair
    February 20, 2013

    We are already going for a more efficient lifestyle each day. With focus on conservation of energy and non renewable sources we are moving towards a more efficient life. 

  6. syedzunair
    February 20, 2013


    I think that the talent is out there and we just need to look for it. Innovation is limited by firms mostly and one can do so much within the confines of the job description. 

  7. syedzunair
    February 20, 2013

    Haven't worked with them yet 🙂

  8. David Benjamin
    February 21, 2013

    Beyond all the back-and-forth (why don't we say “forth and back”?) quips, Rich's point about HR is cogent. Too often, and this applies especially as corporations get bigger, HR acts as a filter to prevent talent from sneaking in the front door of Amalgamated and upsetting the routine established by little gray men. In my research on the sources of invention, I've discovered that the majority of groundbreaking ideas come from employees who — if HR knew what they were really up to — would be fired and all their work piled into a Dumpster.

  9. Brian Fuller
    February 25, 2013

    Good point and that would be really sad if it were 20 years ago (or even five years ago), but great ideas now have other outlets to innovation through methods like crowdfunding. Yes, it's in its infancy, but it's a great start. 


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