Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Energy Independence Week, Day 7

Thursday, July 10, the last full day of Energy Independence Week.

I had a little open house to show the Hunt Utilities Groupies how it went.  Just to review, I observed Energy Independence Week by

a) Using no electricity from the grid
b) Burning no fossil fuel, and
c) Making no trips to the grocery store (stocking up ahead of time okay).

The idea being to learn preparedness for both disaster-type emergencies and for the Long Emergency of transitioning to the post-fossil-fuel world.

I think my response was a pretty realistic combination of partial preparation in advance, and hasty improvisation.  I had purchased a few solar panels months ahead of time, and asked for a quote on a battery-based solar electric system design.  I measured the power requirements of everything in the house and was pretty sure that a 500 watt system would be able to run the well pump, the fridge, and a few other things.  I hoped to get it for $5000 and have it installed in time for 4th of July week.  I also expected that the half-built solar water heating system (a Redbeard project) would be completed (it is now 101 days late (and counting)).  I had acquired a charcoal grill, a woodburning camp stove, and a solar oven, so I could cook without propane or electricity.

But, come the day, there was no solar hot water, and the quote for the fully pimped solar electric system had only just come in - at over $13000.  I almost bailed on the Energy Independence project but decided if I could just get water and power to the toilet (which has its own pump) I would go through with it.  A couple of deep-cycle marine batteries ($185) and a 1000 watt car inverter ($60) made enough power to operate the pump.  For the water I set up a rain barrel on a platform about five feet high and plumbed it into the house via a garden hose through the window.  A rain barrel was on the long term plan anyway, and there just happened to be a 300 gallon plastic tank and a platform for it lying around. Stocking up ahead of time, I pumped 150 gallons into it from the well.  This gave low-pressure water to the sinks and toilet, but it wasn't high enough to feed the shower head.  I guessed about right on the water, I had about 30 gallons left at the end of the week, so, about 20 gallons a day.

I did have my four motley solar panels which I figured I could somehow use to recharge the batteries, but I knew there was no way they would supply enough energy to run the fridge, so I hastily built a large outside cooler/icebox out of scrap SIPs, and loaded it with as much ice as I could keep frozen ahead of time in my regular freezer.  That ended up lasting six days, I was pretty happy with that.

This icebox I also hope will be useful longer term, either as a root cellar or as an icebox per se.  When I did my electrical load plan for the PV system, the fridge was the largest single remaining energy-consumer after I eliminated all forms of electric heating.  It doesn't make much sense to spend a lot of electricity running a fridge indoors in a climate where it's below freezing half the year.  The long term plan is to use the outside cold for refrigeration either directly or by saving ice in the winter to use in the summer.  

So, my original plan was to have a 600 watt solar electric system which I estimated would be capable of producing about 100 kilowatt hours a month, 1/10 of the average US household.  That was going to cost over $10000.  What I ended up with for Energy Independence Week was only 1/10 of that - a 60 watt system costing under $1000 and producing 10 kWh a month, or 1 % of US average household.  Even that 1% is a boon if you prioritize it right. It was enough to run the compost toilet fan and pump so I didn't have to poop in a bucket.  It was enough to charge the phone and run the laptop computer, and provide a bit of light at night, watch DVD, amp some guitar. It might have been enough to run the well pump a little except that the necessary 120 to 240 v step-up transformer would have doubled the cost of the system.   It would not have been enough to run the hydronic circulation pump in the winter.   It was probably not enough to do laundry.  I have a pretty efficient front-loader but even so it takes about 1 kilowatt-hour per load.  I also didn't have enough water pressure.  

I chatted about this with Ms. Flora, who lived off-grid without running water for three years including raising her infant son, and with a guy, let's call him Longfellow, who came to our second Natural Step study circle meeting, who had lived off grid for many years.  It turns out Flora did laundry on the grid (at the laundromat.) She also mentioned the one thing she really missed at the cabin was a vacuum cleaner.  Longfellow had concluded that what he really needed electricity for was some lights and one half-horsepower motor that he could hook up to run a bunch of different things.  

Modern conveniences.  We've gotten used to making everything run off 120 vac.  I would suggest as a rough guide that the earlier an appliance was invented or let's say commercialized, the more worthwhile it will be to hang onto it in the low-energy future.  Don't throw the washer out with the Wii.  That's only a rough guide, obviously you'd better use LED lights instead of incandescent.  Also, while an electric dryer is normally a monster energy sucker, if you don't use the heat but only run it a few minutes on air fluff to keep the line dried things from coming out stiff as planks, it would be worth having.

A lot of what high-energy buys you is convenience, the ability to make what you want happen at any time, cold drinks, hot shower, whatever.  This past week I found there was just more overhead of daily living, and I had to plan ahead and pay more attention to the weather, especially for solar cooking and bathing in the river.  It wasn't bad at all really.  The first couple of days I spent a lot of time getting the solar panels wired up, but once that was working I had time during the day, which I mostly used to attend to the potato patch and ride bike.  It was a somewhat camping-like experience and I was using camping-like technology to deal with it, which is kind of rinky-dink.  The solar shower for example was just a plastic bag, I gave up on it.  Both times I tried to fill it, it sprang a leak.

Cooking was not convenient.  I ate more cold cereal and peanut-butter sandwiches than I had in years.  I lost weight (which is a good thing.)  Part of the inconvenience would be easily fixable:  the solar oven, grill, and wood stove all had to operate outside and the cooler was outside, but the utensils, dishes, and dry foods were all inside, so my kitchen was split in two pieces and I had to walk all the way around the house to get between them.  This could be fixed with better design.  On the other hand, there are a couple of pretty basic problems with solid fuel cooking - there's a lot of warmup time and it's difficult to regulate the heat.  Also wood and charcoal are high-carbon fuels and produce a lot more carbon monoxide than gas, so they have to be used outside or there has to be a flue vented to the outside.

Another thing I noticed is that the cottage is not that bright inside in the day, even with all the blinds up.  It could use a couple of those tube-skylights, strategically placed over the kitchen and bathroom sinks.

Let's see, I have a couple notes here about the water.  Having only low-pressure water, you naturally tend to use less when you're at the sink.  Also, it turned out that a lot of what I had been using the electrically-heated hot water for was just to temper the really cold groundwater.  Using room-temperature water from the outside tank I didn't feel the need for hot water so often.


I managed to cut my energy use to a small fraction of normal and not take too bad of a lifestyle hit, for a week, in the summer, with a cash outlay of about $750 for a small solar electric lashup, and some additional scrounging plus stocking up ahead of time on food, water, and ice, and avoiding laundry.  I was also sort of on vacation, or staycation, and spent some time working on the related food security project of growing potatoes.  

The next step up in Energy Independence would be to do this in the winter, or for longer, say from Christmas through New Year's.

It seems to me there's got to be a value engineering opportunity here to develop low-energy appliances that are in between the $75 camp stuff, and the $2500 full-featured high-efficiency stuff. In a sense, the sustainability you can buy off the shelf these days is the decadent sustainability, $2500 fridge, woodstove, washer with no loss of convenience. The $75 camping equipment also works but is noticeably less convenient. Where's the in-between $450 stuff that's somewhat convenient and super low energy? I hesitate to mention this but safety also costs. A lot of the cost of that pimped-out solar electric design was in making something that would work safely and automatically under all conditions.

* * *

I would like now to venture into a discussion of the wider context of what I'm doing.  Up to now I have mostly dealt with that by providing links to external articles written by more eloquent people.  I want to discuss it here directly to better organize some thoughts. There will be some foaming at the mouth.

The Natural Step and Transition Town movements seek to offer a positive vision for the post-fossil-fuel future.  I haven't read far into them yet but I think they are trying to do the same kind of thing I was this past week, that is, show how you can have a reasonably amenable life without using fossil fuel or relying for your basic needs on fossil-fuel powered global networks and franchises. That is great, we need practical ideas for technologies, deals, laws, attitudes and philosophies to address the mind-bogglingly large downside risk to our civilization, posed by the end of cheap oil.

What we do NOT need to do, in my view, is dissolve the United States, or outlaw money, or corporations, or anything like that.

Any discussion of sustainability must begin with a description of what we are doing that is unsustainable. I've noticed a tendency for these descriptions to wander off onto things that are just plain bad, and may be like symptoms or ripple effects but are not at the heart of unsustainability. Critics may bring up our unseemly materialism, unhealthy food, isolation, narcissism, unfulfilling occupations, overly centralized power. They make many good points, but because most people working on sustainability come from the political Left, what I consider to be valid and rational critiques are inextricably veined with the nihilistic rhetoric of the Hard Left that sees nothing worth saving in the American project and wants to chuck the whole thing. In favor of what I don't know, some kind of socialist utopia? This grates on me continually, it's not going to play down at the Legion see? and if you really want to sell sustainability in the mainstream I suggest you get Marx and Chomsky out of your head and tune out the tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists and the anarchists. They are off-point, let's get back to sustainability.

The Natural Step, Transition Town, Post-Carbon Institute and others speak of relocalization. There is a straightforward logic to this. The extremely globalized world order of the last twenty years was made possible by 1) the end of the Cold War and the subsequent Pax Americana, 2) the Internet and other advanced communication technology, and 3) cheap transportation. Because 95% of transportation is fueled by oil, leg 3 is now being kicked hard and globalization is about to shift into reverse, that is, relocalization. I remember a news story from a couple of years ago, a company that made safes in upstate NY had outsourced their manufacturing to China, but was bringing it back because even with gasoline at only $2.50 a gallon it didn't make sense to ship safes halfway round the world. There is much more of this to come, and we might as well get ahead of the curve. Strengthening local communities and local economies seems to be a most constructive response to the impending energy crisis, and one that could actually improve the tone of our culture. We may not have any money to buy any more fancy stuff, but we'll be able to count on each other for the things that really matter, so the hope goes. This makes a lot of sense to me and I fully support the idea of rebuilding resilient local communities. Again, nothing wrong with focusing on the upside of the future that way, but it's so often accompanied by one-sided bad-mouthing of our current culture and economic system. Everything about global trade, corporations, and capitalism gets tarred with a big black brush. This lacks nuance (a charge that progressives should be sensitive to.)

For example, let's talk about this corporation-as-psychopath meme that's going around.  Here's Wendell Berry:
A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance...It can experience no personal hope or remorse. No change of heart. It cannot humble itself. It goes about its business as if it were immortal, with the single purpose of becoming a bigger pile of money.
This is hopelessly broad-brush.  I just disagree, it doesn't square with my experience at all.  I worked ten years for a corporation (Kodak).  From my point of view, a corporation is just a bunch of people trying to figure out how to make a living.  It's staffed and directed by people who can be held accountable.  Limited liability does not mean totally unaccountable.  For one thing, the bigger a pile of money it is, the higher it rises on the lawyer's watch lists.  A corporation with deep pockets is strictly contained within the law.  If it does anything actionable, high-powered lawyers will glom onto its face, burrow into its gut, and explode out of its chest with big toothy grins on their faces.  The legal climate is such that even tiny companies like the Green Scene organic produce don't dare remain unincorporated and infinitely liable, the partners could lose their houses.

For another thing, it matters a great deal how the corporation plays the game - positive, zero, or negative sum.  You can make money while creating or destroying real wealth, or by winning bets.  At Kodak we played a positive-sum game, that is, we were desperately trying to devise something that some one somewhere would find useful and be willing to buy.  Wall Street plays a zero-sum game.  In stock trading, some one wins, some one loses.  Health insurance companies and the Mafia play negative-sum, they make some money, cost everyone else a lot.  The choice of game is a human decision.  People can buy back their "moral allegiance" by changing jobs, which is what I did.  As for immortality, well, if the corporation is mortal then so are all the jobs at it.  The only hard-hearted thing I saw was from my perspective they boned a bunch of people out of their retirement.  You can see that's a tough call, it pits older employees vs. newer employees. The whole time I worked for Kodak, it was becoming a smaller pile of money and trying to pull out of the dive, because when you're out of money, you're out of business. It was like working on building a jet engine in the back of a plane in flight after the propellor had fallen off the front.  But I digress.

I've come to realize that there are mend-America leftists and end-America leftists.  It's often difficult to tell the difference, there's a lot of fellow-traveling and sometimes it turns out the some one who's actually working on mend-America is just spouting end-America rhetoric, inconsistently with their actions.  I want to tell them, be careful what you wish for.  

It's lonely being a Green Conservative.  I struggle with how to witness to people.  (Why aren't conservatives for conservation?  Why aren't liberals for free speech?)

I want to mend America, to save it. We are a threatened nation. Let me take a minute to recognize and celebrate some of the good things, ethos, and customs that we have in this country which is our home - things and customs which are at risk in this coming age of fossil-fuel depletion.

Kunstler says "The entropic mess that our economy has become is the final blowoff of late oil-based industrialism." I'm arguing that as such, the mess does not define our nation. There was an America before fossil fuels. The big cars and beefsteaks were nice sprinkles on the icing, but there are more important things, like, America is a place where you can be who you were really meant to be. Let's try and hold onto that shall we?

I hereby recognize and celebrate material prosperity. USA: all-time hands-down winner.

I am well aware that materialism and consumerism have been shifting into ever higher gears since the early 20th century, finally spinning out of control into affluenza. Franklin Roosevelt tried to remind depression-era voters that there was more to life than stuff - "the current crisis concerns, thank God, only material things" words to that effect. Louis Rukeyser said something similar on his Wall Street program after I think it was the 1987 market crash - "it's only your money, not your life." Right today there's still a lot of fluff and frivolity in our economy, we haven't even begun to pinch pennies the way they did in the Depression.

Well said, Frank and Lou, nevertheless (point of nuance), up to a certain point, money can buy happiness, and the pursuit of happiness is one of our inalienable rights. What's-their-names, the voluntary simplicity people, came up with a definition of money that was something like: the stored life energy of people, or, something you trade your life energy for. It takes money to feed the hungry, remove the cataracts, cure the Lyme disease. We are material beings, some degree of materialism is not optional, some additional is not greedy.

Jim Kunstler himself, the original Mr. Suburbia-Sucks, does a pretty fair job of listing the modern conveniences, medical miracles, and "all the precious cargo of human culture" that the fossil fuel age has brought us, and which is therefore at risk, shortly.  From the Long Emergency:
It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as a benefit of modern life. All the necessities, comforts, luxuries, and miracles of our time - central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lighting, cheap clothing, recorded music, movies, supermarkets, power tools, hip replacement surgery, the national defense, you name it - owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel. ... The blandishments of cheap oil and gas were so seductive, and induced such transports of mesmerizing contentment, that we ceased paying attention to the essential nature of these miraculous gifts from the earth: that they exist in finite, nonrenewable supplies, unevenly distributed around the world.

Lately I am fascinated by what it must have been like to live in the early twentieth century when so many of the things we take for granted in our daily doings today had just come on the scene and established themselves as normal accessories to everyday life - the car, airplanes, household electricity, central heating, skyscrapers, radio, motion pictures, hot water on demand, X-rays. How modern it all must have seemed in 1924, when most adults could still remember a world of horse-drawn carriages, outhouses, kerosene lamps, and Saturday night baths!...How amazing it must have been to witness everyday life improving so dramatically, and how this procession of marvels must have induced people to think that the human race was moving toward exactly the sort of perfection that the Enlightenment philosophers had promised. The most astonishing thing though, is how quickly we came to take these things for granted.

Everything characteristic about the condition we call modern life has been a direct result of our access to abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have permitted us to fly, to go where we want to go rapidly, and move things easily from place to place. Fossil fuels rescued us from the despotic darkness of night. They have made the pharaonic scale of building commonplace everywhere. They have allowed a fractionally tiny percentage of our swollen populations to produce massive amounts of food. They have allowed us to develop industries of surpassing ingenuity...

The age of fossil fuels is about to end. There is no replacement for them at hand. ... A hopeful public, including leaders in business and politics, views the growing problem of oil depletion as a very straightforward engineering problem of exactly the kind that technology and human ingenuity have so successfully solved before, and it therefore seems reasonable to assume that the combination will prevail again. There are however, several defects in this belief.

The oil endowment was an extraordinary and singular occurrence of geology, allowing us to use the stored energy of millions of years of sunlight. Once it's gone it will be gone forever. Technology is just the hardware and programming for running that fuel, not the fuel itself...much of our existing technology simply won't work without petroleum, and without the petroleum "platform" to work off, we may lack the tools to get beyond the current level of fossil-fuel based technology...we have an extremely narrow window of opportunity to make that happen.

Based on everything we know right now, no combination of so-called alternative fuels or energy procedures will allow us to maintain daily life in the United States the way we have been accustomed to running it under the regime of oil.  We are in trouble.
You tell 'em Jim.  What I would like to suggest, is that the people of the US used their economic freedom and accountable political system along with fossil fuels, to invent and produce many things of real value, in addition to the mountains of trash and trivia.  I think it was the combination of freedom, responsibility, and fuel that made this possible.  

If Kunstler, Heinberg, Cohen, and the other peakniks are right, and I think they are, fifty years from now some one will write a Gone With the Wind novel about our time.  The book Gone with the Wind, even more than the movie, grieves for the Old South.  In our study circle, Longfellow spoke of the grieving process that people will have to go through.  Some of the material wonders on Kunstler's lists might not be worth grieving over if they are lost, but many are.

But what I really want to get to is that the fruits of the fossil fuel age go beyond these material wonders, and I say it is to our everlasting credit, even glory, as a civilization, that we chose to spend some of that sloshing oil wealth on them.  As I went through my Energy Independence Week, I started a little list entitled Things We Will Used to Have Been Able to Afford, Maybe.  I've already alluded to one of them above.
  • Safety regulations.  I mentioned about the cost of safety in solar electric system design.  As I understand it, the FAA has come to a very hard calculus on the cost of safety.  Because perfect safety costs infinite dollars and would ground the industry, they had to come up with a finite average value for a human life.  They chose one million dollars.  In the future, we might end up marking that down.  We might decide to accept 1940's-level idiot-proofing instead of 1990's-level idiot-proofing.
  • Careers for women outside the home.  Ever see that episode of 1900 house when they did the laundry, and it took all the women all day?  Single motherhood, living single, all practical impossibilities before modern conveniences.
    During the open house as I was mentioning about my increased workload of daily life, one of the Groupies, let's call her e-Moondog, commented that back in pioneer days, people didn't live single. One partner would work on the household chores while the other worked the forest or field. Still works that way in Amish country I presume. I know Jim Kunstler caught flak for depicting some return of traditional gender roles in his post-oil novel World Made by Hand. But I think there were practical reasons why the traditional division of labor worked the way it did.
  • Science, both the physics kind and the stamp-collecting kind.  In doing research for the site assessment part of my permaculture design, I found on the Minnesota DNR web site a trove of information about soils and plant communities all over the state, which must have taken many ranger-years of work to assemble.  That reminds me of another one:
  • Conservation laws.  We have them because people voted for them.  We have had money to spend on enforcing them.  Poaching is much less of a problem here than in other places where those things are not true.  The rangers and game wardens are going to be in a tough spot if freezing starving people head into the woods with saws and arrows.
  • Kunstler mentions recorded music and movies.  I can't believe he forgot Broadway, and to me the greater marvel is not the technologies but the sheer number of people who were able to have careers in the creative arts.  Without that oil-driven economy would we have the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the music of Ray Charles?  Maybe, since they were geniuses.  But what about the Eagles?  Carole King?  Eddie Rabbitt?  Livingston Taylor?  Suzie Quattro? Maybe not.
  • Honest cops and Attorneys General who answer the phone.  Why do you suppose it was, when the United moving truck showed up with the rest of my stuff last week, I didn't have to ransom my stuff from the driver or bribe Zack and Cody not to drop it?  Because United is a big company in a closely regulated industry.  Democracy breeds accountability, see how that works?  Of course its not perfect, don't get me started on Dish Network.  But I digress again.
I'm sure you could add more.  How about the 40-hour work week?

I hereby recognize and celebrate our nation's nonmaterial achievements.  Natural resources underlie them, but they flow from our values and institutions.  
All of these, worth grieving for, should they pass away.  Let us work to see that they do not.

Of course it's been a mixed bag.  Coal-fired electric power freed us from a lot of drudgerous daily physical labor.  Some people then worked even longer hours at high-stress nonphysical jobs.  Before machine power and safety inspectors, many people got swift tickets to old age through repetitive stress injuries and outright accidents.  With those greatly reduced, many proceeded to give themselves swift tickets to old age with gluttony and cigarettes.  In a free country not everyone's going to spend the "oil dividend" the way you might want them to.  (Mmmmm gluttony.)  But many people and companies did play the positive-sum game and created real wealth, cultural treasures, and public goods.  

If you tell me you don't care for Bush/Clinton America, nor for Gordon Gekko/Alex P. Keaton America, I'm like, yeah I see your point.  But what about Jimmy Stewart/Gary Cooper America?  or Jefferson/DeTocqueville America?  Something worthy there?  I don't think we need to invent a replacement for our nation, we need to appeal to its better nature.

As we relocalize let's not forget (point of nuance) the value of economies of scale, and of national unity.  I think it matters a great deal that there is a "we" and what we tell ourselves we stand for.  I believe the people who accomplished all I talked about above did so both because of natural resources and because they were walking around with "We are Americans. America equals life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, liberty and justice for all, all men are created equal" and so on, echoing around in their heads.  This was their mythology of America, in the Joseph Campbell sense of being an abstracted narrative which captures the meaning of what's going on.  Look, all history is mythology right?  No history book can list everything that everyone did.  In recent decades revisionist historians have been promulgating an alternative mythology of America that goes "America equals slavery, genocide, greed, corruption, and war."  In doing so they scrupulously cite facts so they can't be called liars, but it's clear that the intent of this negatory mythology is to undermine any sense of allegiance to America.  

(My turn to get out the broad brush :-)   It worked on Hollywood, which used to make moralistic movies from the perspective of the original mythology, movies that went:  "In a world where: this happened in America and it sucked, see?  It sucked because it was unamerican, see? So we should not put up with that."  Now they make movies from the perspective of the revisionist mythology which go:  "In a world where:  this happened in America and oh,migod, it sucked.  That's America for you, like, sucktastic.  Why would anyone want to call themselves an American?"  Big difference.

I guess what I'm trying to argue is, for this country at least, the best "platform" on which to build the post-fossil fuel order, is the American way.  It was conceived a hundred years before the oil age, fifty years before the coal age.  I think we can find in it, keys to the future.

I'm an engineer, not a historian or political scientist, but sustainability is patriotic to me.  That is why I quit my job, sold my house, joined Americorps, and worked on solar panels.  That is what Energy Independence Week is about.  Please join me for the next observance, to be announced.

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