About 110 years ago everyone owned horses for transportation. Nowadays, horses are owned only for recreation in most countries of the world. Why? Because the internal combustion engine is a compelling solution to the transportation problem. Unless you are Amish, you probably never even considered owning a horse for transportation or farm work.
Let’s explore this notion of compelling engineering solutions a bit more.
Have you ever considered installing solar power panels, a hydropower system or wind power for your home? A century ago many farm homes, off the grid, of course, had a windmill, usually for pumping water. Lighting was accomplished by kerosene lanterns or candles. Heating was done by coal, fuel oil, or cords and cords of split wood. But times and technologies change.
But what if you dream of living off the grid and making all your own power?
There is a resource catalog available to you to buy just what you need, and it also explains all the ins and outs of installing and maintain these systems! Based in California (of course!) the catalog is full of batteries, solar panels, inverters, electricity management systems, controllers—you name it, they have it.
But wait, there is more, they explain what you need and why you need it. And they advise when you will need a licensed electrician or any other type of professional to help you install it. There are charts and diagrams, advice and counsel, all is carefully explained for not only installation, but maintenance, trouble-shooting and repair.
Now for some hard and telling caveats about soft power:
- The systems are expensive. Payback is over decades of use—if ever.
- Energy independence means constant vigilance on your part as owner/operator.
- Upkeep costs are very high and sporadic.
- The manufacturing of many types of batteries involves lead, a toxic substance that you will have in your basement for years to come.
- The batteries will age and have to be replaced. Now you have lead contaminated waste to dispose of.
- The batteries can’t be discharged all the way down, usually just down to 80 percent or you will ruin them.
- Deep discharge batteries are up to an order of magnitude more expensive but last longer and have a lot more capacity. OPPS, they contain toxic materials as well.
Why all the negative comments about batteries?
- You must store power for night times, windless days and for prolonged periods of clouds (depending on the source of your power).
- Lead acid batteries create explosive hydrogen when charged. You must ventilate the area where they are stored; and do it without any sparking, or you will have a catastrophic explosion and fire.
- You must store batteries in a basement or detached room because they are heavy and contain corrosive sulfuric acid.
More about batteries: they provide direct current, but to run most electrical appliances you will need an inverter system to change direct current into alternating current.
You can’t heat a home electrically, at least of any size that you’d want to live in.
So, what will be your primary heat source?
- Coal? But it is dirty and polluting.
- Propane? Expensive and that means a tank to be filled and special appliances to use propane.
- Fuel oil? Cleaner than coal, but it has to be trucked in and stored in a large tank; your choice, basement or underground. Sorry, now we are discussing fossil fuels as primary or back up power — sorry, you wanted soft power for “free”, I forgot.
- Natural gas? Not out in the country.
- OK, maybe wood. Cut down the trees, slice them to the right length, split the wood, build the fire, feed the fire, remove the ashes. Sounds like work to me. Like they say, you get warm twice with a wood fire. Maybe more like 7 times. Hope you are in good physical shape and love working in the great (cold and windy) outdoors.
Do you want to put any excess power out on the grid and get paid back from the electric company? Running a line to your property from many miles away is prohibitively expensive. And your electric company and/or state law may not allow that payback anyhow.
Now if you want a small system of solar panels, just enough to back up your power system in case of a power failure, or to lower your energy cost, remember; batteries, power management, maintenance, up-keep, replacement and repairs.
But here’s a very important question: How good are you at maintaining things? Do you have a good practical engineering background in power management, hardware and electricity? Is your home, car, computer, power equipment, power tool inventory, workshop always in great shape, well-maintained? If not, forget it … or pay professionals every time something breaks down. Do you look forward to getting your hands dirty whenever something breaks down? These systems take that kind of owner. Can you plop down several thousand dollars at one time in case of a major failure, like with an inverter? An unused system is a big problem. One you can’t afford to fix is an even bigger problem.
So, you decide to lease your solar collection system. Interesting choice. Be advised that when you go to sell your house that you may not be able to transfer the lease.
And be sure to tell your home insurance company of your plans to add the huge glass panels on the roof. If you have a loss (like from a vile hail storm) they may not cover the loss because you added something expensive to replace without them raising your rates. And before you go through with the project ask your insurer how much your rates will rise. BTW, a heavy hail storm may well destroy your new “windows on your roof.”
So how do the Amish do it with their horses, being off the grid, having agrarian infrastructures, and all they have going for them? Well they have a community that is mutually interdependent and committed to mutual help. Large families also can supply willing workers and many hands to help make it all work. But you must be or become one of them. Or you must belong to a good-sized communal living group that will mirror the efforts of the Amish in their communities.
Alright then, try the catalog route: here’s the information—get the Solar Living Source Book, The Complete Guide To Renewable Energy Technologies & Sustainable Living, by John Schaeffer & the Real Goods Staff. I estimate you will spend at least $40,000 with them to get what you need to become energy independent and live off the grid.
Oh, and don’t forget to buy or build the super-insulated, passive solar home to go along with it. It should also be surrounded by about 30 acres of rural, partially wooded land for your firewood, pond, farmland and garden area. And you will want a septic system installed, but that’s another topic for another time. They take vigilant, knowledgeable care also.
And remember, all engineering solutions must be compelling to be truly workable. One other proof of that is the airplane. The first attempts to fly were machines that looked and acted like birds. But that solution did not work, it was not compelling. The modern airplane, either jet powered or piston powered, far exceeds the capabilities of the bird and is, therefore, a compelling solution that outperforms the bird designs in every way.
Why would we go back to the original designs for the airplane? The answer is we wouldn’t. The same points can be made for the soft energy systems that are owned by individuals who wish to be energy-independent.
Dale L. Hugo, PhD. Professor of Chemistry, Harper College, Palatine, IL USA
Bio: Dale teaches medical chemistry at Harper College in Palatine, IL. Before retiring he was an EHS engineer for a large electronics firm for 15 years. He was Chair of the Department of Chemistry at Trinity College. He has 280 articles in print. He received his PHD in engineering, his Masters and post graduate work in chemistry, and his Bachelors in Chemistry. His hobbies are astronomy and writing.