Once we have a shelter to keep us out of the elements, we can turn our attentions to the next big task which is capturing energy. In an emergency situation it is all about getting a fire started. A fire is a short term solution for warmth and cooking but when we settle in an area where we will live for the long term, we need to think long term. By securing a continuous source of energy we can assure our comfort through the different seasons. For those with a grand house using tons of grid tied power, you need to consider where your power will come from if (When!) the grid goes down. I’m not pushing the panic button or blowing the conspiracy horn. (I think I just made that up. Yes, a google search doesn’t show anything for a conspiracy horn!) The grid can and does go down. Try this simple little exercise. When you get home from work next Friday, turn off the main breaker to your house. Don’t tell anyone in the family and see if you can make it to Sunday without power.
Two things will happen. Everyone in the family will think your nuts and hate you and the other will be the harsh realization that going even overnight without power is extremely difficult at worst and uncomfortable at best.
Grid failure aside, can you get by with less electricity? Do you leave every light in the house on so you don’t have to worry about switches. You do know about phantom power drains, right? Is that gazillion watt sound system really necessary? How about that 50” plasma flat panel. (During football season this is an acceptable use.) Saving electricity can be a very significant first step in becoming self-sufficient. Being able to cool your house during a heat wave without air conditioning will help during brown outs and keep you from paying high tiered rates. Worst yet is getting caught without power during a bitter cold snap. If you are relying on grid power to move warm air around your house you can be bitterly disappointed when the grid goes down. Having great looking cathedral ceilings does nothing for you down on the floor level while the warm air is gathered above your head.
This subsection deals with the stuff you will need to gather, burn or process in order to fire up your stove, heater and generators. Some type of fuel is needed for these to work and can be as simple as wood for a wood fired stove to animal poop which can be converted to biofuel or you can build a gasifier which burns wood and converts it to a gas which can run your truck. When our convenient source of electricity goes down in the middle of winter it is too late to start thinking about getting a few cords of wood. A central heating system is darn efficient at moving warm air throughout the house but if the grid goes down there won’t be any energy to drive the fan. Depending on where you live, wood might be your best bet in order to provide heat. An exciting new development is building a rocket stove to provide heat. (Plans will be provided in this section) Note that many fireplaces are extremely inefficient at providing heat unless they were specifically designed to heat a room. If firewood is not an option you will need to develop and stockpile alternate methods of fuel. We will cover many other types and methods of fuels in this section.
Alternative fuel sources need to stop being called alternative and become the norm for every household. Solar and wind power uses natural, renewable resources. The sun isn’t about to give out any time soon and the winds just keep on blowing. A simple 45 watt solar system can be had for around $150.00. Add a deep cycle 12 volt battery at about $80 and you have a system that can power your laptop, cell phone, charge some batteries and provide for a few LED lights. This isn’t theory, lots of folks have been doing it for several years now. The savings on your bill won’t be all that noticeable if you’re paying $200 or $300 per month, but you will save. When all your neighbors are sitting in the dark during a black out, you can be watching a movie on your laptop with romantic ambient light from a small LED light fixture while charging your cell phone.
Solar power isn’t just for electricity. A well built solar hot water system can produce scalding hot water during the day and warm water throughout the night. We have plans for solar powered ovens which require a little bit of work, but with some of the technologies we have available they will follow the sun and shut themselves down when the food is done. A simple yet effective method of preserving foods is a solar dehydrator. Properly built they will use the warmth of the sun to dehydrate just about anything. All you do is load up the dehydrator in the morning and come back as the sun sets to collect your dried fruit or vegetables ready for long term storage.
Solar energy is free for the taking right now but be prepared for utility companies to figure out a way to get more money out of us. In case you let out a great big “no way can they do this!” Oklahoma just signed into law a means by which the utility companies can recover “special fees” for those who use solar panels and are grid tied. (this means they are selling surplus electricity back to the utility companies.) The argument is that those who are using the grid along with their solar panels need to pay their “fair share” to keep the grid up and running. I will not be tying to any grid.
Wind turbines are an interesting source of free energy as long as you place them where they can get lots of wind. However, too much wind can be bad unless the turbine is designed with a proper tail. They are a little bit more complicated then just running up a 30 foot tower with a three blade fan and they make a lot of noise so the local jurisdictions get involved. Permits can be quite expensive and your neighbors might complain so unless your location is far away from neighbors this might not be a feasible option. (Will some smart guy at a utility company figure out a way to tax the wind?)
This is a good time to explain that solar and wind energy, while mostly free, is not a very efficient method of sustaining energy. The problem lies mostly in the weak storage capacity of batteries and when the sun doesn’t shine or the winds don’t blow there is no energy to be had and your batteries will run down. Having a small generator may become necessary under these circumstances. Getting the right size for your needs helps keep your fuel costs down. A huge gazillion watt generator will burn through massive amounts of fuel and if you aren’t using all that power you will be wasting energy. My advice is to learn just how little an amount of energy you will need, get a generator that will provide a little bit more then that and run just the electronics you need. Now is the time to make little adjustments to your lifestyle. We must retrain ourselves to be less of a consumer hog and more of a conserving superstar. If we are to consider future generations, then we must make the necessary adjustments now so our future generations have plenty of good, clean energy.
Not as passive yet not needing anything more than human muscle is a bicycle. Just making your bike stationary and adding a generator can produce power when the sun isn’t shining and you get some exercise as part of the bargain. Can you imagine if all those folks running on treadmills and bicycling at those fancy gyms were producing electricity instead of using it? They could actually power their iPods or a small TV while they get their workout. A more efficient use of a bike is to rig it up to a gearbox that turns a spindle while you pedal. You can grind coffee or wheat or even turn a sewing machine. I’ve heard there is a Laundromat that employs stationary bikes to run the washing machines and dryers. Let’s build a tandem bike where you sit facing each other and you can have a conversation while you get some exercise and generate some energy. There are plenty of opportunities to create and make things that can run off of a spinning wheel so get something built right now. DO IT! NOW!
There are a lot of plans we will explore within these pages as well as a ton of plans on the internet and lots of books and videos which will show you how to build all the devices you will need to say good bye to the utility companies and their hold on us. I believe you can and must become self-sufficient in filling all your energy needs in order to live a truly independent and sustainable life. Reducing the need to have others provide energy for us in order to be comfortable should make you anxious to get started now.
Energy is vital to our well being and needs to be harnessed. An important concept to embrace is “all of the above” thinking. There are many alternative energy producing ideas that need to be explored. What works for one person in the mountains may not be a viable solution for the city dweller. This concept falls under the “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” principal. Diversification means having back up systems for your backups. This will require a lot of effort on our part to do the work, learn new ways and deal with occasional failures but we will become truly self-sufficient and sustainable in a relatively short time frame.
There is a lot to unlearn and a lot to relearn on how to do things in a better, sustainable way. The following pages will provide many solutions. Pick one and put it into practice right now.