Building infrastructure is well and good. But if you want to actually live in it, or do something in it, you’ll need energy. All activity in this world requires energy. In the modern world, we’re used to fulfilling all our energy needs simply by plugging appliances in the wall socket and paying our monthly electricity bill. It would be a grave mistake to keep that mindset when going off-grid, and expecting to just plop down some solar panels or wind turbines while maintaining the same lifestyle.
We need to look at power from two different perspectives. First is the conserver mindset: reduce our needs as much as possible to become more free and independent. In the second place, we need to become very aware that electricity is just one form of energy, and rarely the most efficient or economical source of power for most applications.
If we want to be independent from the System, the first step is to reduce our energy needs as much as possible. This makes everything else much simpler. This may seem obvious. But it’s not. Because I’m not talking about cutting 10-20% on your energy needs. I’m talking reducing consumption by upwards of 90%. This is a transformative difference, not just a little change.
The reason this is so important, is that as your energy expenditures creep closer to zero, the effectiveness of your power supplies start being multiplied hugely. This means enormous savings in terms of money and labor. For example, a typical household will consume from 25,000 to 50,000 watt/hours in a day. A typical solar panel, costing 150$, will supply 100 watts. If you have 5 hours of sunlight in a day, that gives you 500 watt/hours per day. So each 150$ panel you buy will only supply 1-2% of your energy needs. This isn’t even considering the vast array of batteries you’ll need to keep up, and the land you’ll need to devote to them (since your roof won’t be able to hold 50-100 panels).
Inversely, if you reduce your needs to 2000 watt/hours per day (which is achievable), a 150$ panel will supply 25% of your daily energy. A little bit of money and labor will provide a much greater benefit than if you’re being wasteful.
Here I’ll provide examples of drastic energy saving measures. The point is to get your imagination running in the right direction, and to help you understand that 90% savings isn’t an exaggeration.
Heating: Electric heating should be right out of the question. It’s a huge waste. With proper use of insulation, thermal mass and passive solar heating, it’s possible to keep a habitat livable without any form of heating, even in arctic weather. Add to that a rocket mass heater running on scavenged wood, and your heating costs can remain at nearly zero.
Cooking: Stoves are very wasteful appliances, whether they’re electric or use gas. Use the heating stove as a cooking surface when possible instead (the heat will end up in the house either way). Also, there are far more efficient ways to cook food: slow cookers, convection ovens and front loading toasters.
Electronics: A desktop computer can use up 300-600 watts when in use. A laptop will use less than 100 watts. Cellphones and tablets will consume a fraction of that. Any of these devices will let you check your email or read Noose, so go for the more economical one. Limit the use of televisions, powerful sound systems, etc. For any power hungry device you might want to use, there’s typically a very low power device that’ll do the same thing. Why listen to music alone on your 300 watt sound system if you can listen to it with headphones on a 20 watt mp3 player?
Appliances: Refrigerators and freezers are some of the most power hungry machines we use. This is because they run continuously, and need a compressor to keep the food cold. Most food doesn’t need to be kept in a refrigerator. The technique of root cellaring can be used instead to keep most of your food. You can use a mini-fridge for the rest, and keep it very full at all times (keeping an empty fridge cold consumes a lot more power than a full one). Adding extra insulation to the fridge would also help. For clothes washing and drying, there exist devices that use little or no power and do the job. For example, the “wonderwash” uses air pressure (and a little hand power) to clean clothes, requiring no electricity or gas. You can hang your clothes on a folding indoor rack to dry them.
Light: LED lights are more expensive, but last forever and consume a fraction of the power, compared with conventional bulbs. Your buildings should have windows anyway, so the need for light should be a negligible burden on your power system.
Tools: For many applications, quality hand tools will do the job, and will require no power. For more intensive applications, like sawing lumber, grinding, etc, it is possible to set up direct mechanical power rather than electrical. In other words, using a windmill, or water turbine to spin a flywheel connected to the tool. This is at least 2x as efficient as converting the power to electric and back again.
Pumping water: If possible, pressurize your water with gravity instead of a pump. Otherwise, get an electric pump that can turn on and off intelligently required, rather than being on continuously.
If you implement the above recommendations, living on 1000-2000 w/h per day is an easily achievable goal.
As you could glean from the previous section, the most important concept to integrate when moving off grid is that electricity isn’t the only source of usable energy. And for many applications, it isn’t the most efficient.
All forms of energy need to be converted from one form to another to have practical utility. But each step of conversion involves a loss. Thus converting all your sources of energy to electricity and then converting your electricity into heating, cooling, mechanical power and light is very wasteful.
So our most basic strategy is to take each source of energy we have, and use it in the most direct way possible. Mechanical energy in the form of windmills and waterwheels/turbines should be used to directly power mechanical devices, before powering an electric generator. Chemical fuel like coal, wood or gas should be used to generate heat, before powering boilers or engines. And obviously, using a bicycle (human power) to generate electricity is stupid; it should be used to power devices directly.
But of course, for many applications, electricity is the only choice, or the most efficient choice. So getting rid of electricity completely isn’t a good practical choice. But we need to be smart about how we generate our off-grid electric power, because many factors come into it and it’s easy to waste a great many resources. Our goal, ultimately, is to be as independent from the System as possible. Thus we don’t want our electricity to be so expensive as to require constant, large inputs of System money to keep it active.
The costs of the electric system can be split into four categories:
- Fuel requirements
- Initial investment for the generator
- Maintenance costs (parts, repairs)
- Expected lifespan
These costs can vary drastically depending on the location and time, so it’s impossible to give a definitive answer as to which system is the best. For example, if you’re living next to a stream, the “fuel cost” of hydro power is effectively zero. But if you need to rent the neighbor’s land to have access to the stream, suddenly your “fuel” has a cost. Today solar panels might cost 250$ each, but the cost is going down steadily. Repairing a diesel generator might be very expensive for one person, but another might be a skilled mechanic and be able to do it themselves.
The first step is to examine the situation, and determine what resources are available. If your land is in the woods, you probably have free access to wood. However, there will be little or no wind. In the city, it might be possible to get free used oil from restaurants who want to get rid of it. In any situation, there will be free sources of energy to be tapped.
Once you know the sources of energy that are available to you, you can make the cost/benefit analysis for each of them to find out the best one for you.
Solar, wind and water power are well known, but there are other types of off-grid electricity generation methods in existence that aren’t well known. I’m going to go over them now to broaden your perspective and start you out on your research journey. Note that many of these methods can also be used to provide direct power, rather than generating electricity.
Used cooking oil: A diesel engine can run on cooking oil. So if you have a source of free (or very cheap) cooking oil, this can be an attractive option. The problem is that at room temperature, cooking oil is too viscous and will not combust properly. So you need to install a device to pre-heat the oil before injecting it into the engine. Alternatively, there are systems to treat the oil chemically to reduce it’s viscosity. The advantage of the used cooking oil system is that you can use it to power vehicles as well as generate electricity.
Wood and coal: There are different ways to generate electricity using wood or coal. The most obvious is to have a steam engine. However, this is dangerous and demands constant surveilance. But you can also process them into a type of natural gas and use this gas to power a diesel generator. This is called a wood gas generator, and can be made using metal cans and welding equipment. Finally, wood gas can be converted into liquid fuel using the Fischer-Tropp process, though I’ve never heard of anyone doing this on a small scale.
Biogas: A gas similar to wood gas, discussed above, can be made from decomposing biological matter (food waste, manure, plant matter, etc). You’ll need a air-tight containment chamber to put the biological matter into. The gas will rise up as the matter rots. You can pipe the gas into a holding tank, which will be connected to your diesel generator.
Stirling engine: A Stirling engine transforms heat into power, much like a steam engine. However, it has the advantage of not exploding if left unattended, because it’s not intensely pressurized. If you can get your hands on one, then anything that can burn will provide you with electricity, if you connect it to a generator. This is a very versatile solution. Unfortunately Stirling engines aren’t really easy to acquire, short of building it yourself.
There’s little point in creating independent enclaves to resist the System if we’re totally dependent on the System for our energy needs. Having control over the production of our energy is just as important as producing food.
If we master these various techniques, then we will be in a position to offer the people a true alternative to the System. This knowledge is, quite literally, power.