Powerful Thoughts

I’ve been thinking about how to generate our own power for decades. That is I’ve been thinking about this topic for decades and what ever I do I want to be maintainable for decades and preferably a lot longer. As much as I like high tech I do not trust it to be there so things need to be maintainable.

Why generate our own power? Utility power is not very reliable, around here at least. The power lines run above ground, strung out on poles where the winter storms and trees bring the wires crashing to the ground on a regular basis. Then there is the cost. After a pay back period of five to fifteen years I’ll be saving money even with a store bought solution. But I can do better than that as I can build much of it myself further speeding up the payback period. I do enjoy a challenge. Then there is the issue of feel-good political. I don’t like the power being generated the way it is typically done to day be it fossil fuel, burning tires, wood chips, trash or nuclear. Lastly there is the whole issue of dependance on foreign oil. It isn’t secure and probably won’t last. Prices are just going to keep climbing so best to do something about it soonest.

Fossil fuels and even a methane digester don’t cut it. Not renewable for the former. Stinky and wasteful for the later – see below. Both can be very explosive. Fuel cells and nuclear power are also out for similar reasons. On the methane, yes, I could generate it from pig manure but that would mean I would have to collect the stuff. Right now our livestock do a beautiful job of spreading the manure around the pastures as they graze. I never have to shovel it. I like it that way. It is healthier for everyone and a heck of a lot less work! Besides, if we use the manure to generate power that means we are losing much of the nutrient value. To mangle an old phrase: you can’t have your hydrocarbons and burn them too. Our soil is poor and thin. The land needs all the fertilizer it can get. Burning it would be a waste plus it would pollute. There are better ways.

Solar cells are my personal favorite. Simple. No moving parts. Durable. If nothing goes wrong they may last 25, 50, even a few hundred years. But there is the problem of maintainability. They aren’t user repairable. We also have extended periods without significant amounts of sun. Very importantly, solar electric panels are hellishly expensive and require significant battery storage. Perhaps solar electric power can be a small part of the mix but I wouldn’t put all or even much of my money on it.

Note that solar heat, especially passive, is a totally different thing. Passive solar heating can be easily to build, low tech, easy to maintain and long lasting as in permanent. I use that already and plan for more of it in our new home.

Wind power is very interesting. We are high up. We have a lot of wind. I can build my own wind power plant if I had to but there are several very nice ones available commercially. I can maintain either by myself. The mechanism is a bit more complex mechanically but simpler in other ways than solar. It does have moving parts and those do wear – a definite negative. Yet it is repairable. A much bigger negative is I don’t like the idea of having to work with a tower that is 70′ or more up in the air. Things go too wrong too fast up there. We get some extremely intense winds. There is a 100′ tall ash tree up on the hill behind our house. I’ve seen it bent half down so it points straight at the horizon when the hurricanes blow through with their high winds. I shudder to think what that would do to a windmill or it’s tower. There is also the issue of noise. Wind generators generate noise as well. I might do something with wind but I hesitate to bet the farm on it. Fortunately the farm does not use much in the way of electricity.

Hydro power is also very interesting. Again we are high up and there is water even higher up than us. A lot of water – enough to seriously consider generating some power with it. We’re on the east slope of the mountain which means more water than the south or west slopes. A Pelton wheel is a pretty simple thing to make. It is low tech. Something I can fabricate. Like with wind power I can also fabricate the necessary generator and other systems. There are even ready made units like the Harris one. Batteries are not as much of a problem as with solar, or even wind, as the water runs down the mountain 24/7 year round. The simpler system is also easier to maintain. Hydro does have moving parts but they are pretty minimal and simple, no more than solar. A big benny is the hydro station can be at a good working height – no climbing tall towers or trying to carefully lower them to the ground with a heavy generator on top. This makes it safer to build, operate and maintain. Hydro is less expensive than any of the other options, both for installation and maintenance. Additionally, hydro is quieter. It can be sealed away in a stone building in the hillside, silently doing its job year round. The ‘waste’ water coming out of the hydro station can then be utilized on the farm flowing down to ponds and animal watering troughs. We have water. We have flow. We have head. Perhaps we’ll have hydroelectric power in the not to distant future.

Lastly there is conservation. We’ve been working on that. We’ve cut our electric usage by more than half over the last several years and I bet I can get it down 60% more. The less we need the easier it is to meet that need. So as I continue to research what I want to do we’ll keep working on conservation which will make what ever we do easier.

Of course, choices of how to generate power are highly dependant on one’s site, skills and personal preferences. YMWV.

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master”
-George Washington

Low 31째F, High 52째F, Sunny.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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13 Responses to Powerful Thoughts

  1. pablo says:

    What about geothermal? is that an option for your area? I know there are heat pumps for that purpose, and if you go really deep, you could bring up some magma to heat with.

  2. Good point. Geothermal is useful and we already have one system setup for that. I hadn’t mentioned it as I was thinking mostly about electrical needs and generation.

    Our geothermal system is earth-air pipes. We have four 70′ long 4″ diameter buried air pipes that bring in fresh air through our soil. This warms the air significantly in the winter giving us both fresh air and heat since one would have to warm incoming exchange air anyways.

    When it is -45째F outdoors the air is warmed to about +35째F by the time it reaches the house. That is a 80째F heat gain. The incoming air is never below freezing. During warmer temperatures the heat gain is not as dramatic but the incoming air is also signficantly warmer too, generally in the middle +40째F range.

    I put these air pipes in while I was digging a trench for fencing and ground wires so the cost was trivial. The fun things you can do with a backhoe on hand! :) Sometime I’ll have to write more about our experiences with this. It is something we’ll be definitely including on an expanded basis in our new house.

    This can also be used to cool the house in the summer, if we needed it which we don’t here on the mountain, and air tubes can be used to store summer heat for winter as per the PAHS work of John Haite.

  3. Frank says:

    For me it’s another dream that may never be realized.
    I’ve lived off the grid for long amounts of time during different periods of my life, but when I got here, everything was hooked up and all I had to do was flick a switch. I spent the first year here with a light bulb and a radio. Then someone gave me an old refrigerator. Then a toaster. Then a Mr Coffee. Then a washing machine. Then a computer ….
    I fear I’ll never go back.
    Doing everything on solar is so appealing, but so expensive ….
    I’m interested in the geothermal thing, especially for greenhouses. I’m told that in Iceland they tap into volcanic steam, and keep the greenhouses at tropic temperatures all year, for free.

  4. Volcano’s would be a mixed blessing I’m willing to forgo… :)

    The one problem with geothermal that I didn’t mention is that we have ledge and bedrock anywhere from a few inches to a couple of feet below the surface. There isn’t much depth of soil. There’s a reason the local town of Barre is known as “The Granite Capital of the World.” :)

    But, one must remember that not only is there geothermal heat but there is also geothermal cooling. Our spring is about 45째F year round. In the winter that represents significant heat and in the summer it is significant cooling. It has a lot of capacity for both. I plan to use it as part of our refrigeration in the new house both for the spring room and root cellar as well as possibly dumping heat into the water from refrigeration. The slightly warmed water would then be able to go livestock waterers.

  5. ctroutma says:

    Have you ever looked at a book called “Natural Solar Architecture” by David Wright? It is a primer in passive solar energy. I am reading it right now and finding it to be a great introduction to the principles of passive solar energy. It might be a valuable resource for you.

  6. Henry says:

    I really like the way you’re taking things and your thinking. Doing all this you’ll end up with a green farm — carbon neutral. Green pork!!

    • Actually, our farm has a negative carbon footprint. Our land soak up about 1,500,000 pounds of carbon a year. We don’t come close to generating even a thousandth of that in all of our activities. Eat pastured pork and know that your supporting the environment and are good for the planet.

  7. Walter says: “We have water. We have flow. We have head. Perhaps we’ll have hydroelectric power in the not to distant future.”
    I liked the webpage of Greg Richter http://gregrichter.com/scpl.html
    He describes how a 60m waterfall at the edge of his property resulted in him designing and building a Hydroelectric powerplant that generates “about 20 kW of power at 480 volts, three phase”. He also designed and calculated his own crossflow water turbine, and shares the spreadsheet for anyone to download.

      • If you reply meant to say Propane! then be sure I’d not have thought of that because you wrote that you have lots of trees but not the right kind (no oak) so I presumed the old trees are mainly for fire-wood and other low value uses. My guess was you would want to capitalize on that or do hydro.

        • The “Not the Right Kind” remark probably was in a discussion of producing food for the animals since oaks produce a fine nut for pigs. Our beech trees do produce nuts as well as the few hundred black walnut and then the apples and pears which also produce fall food for the livestock. Sadly, we have no bearing oak, not even close.

          Most of our trees are lumber quality with a lot of veneer quality hard wood. That is our sustainable forestry work’s primary product – in addition to producing pork we also do logging which is a very long term, almost generational crop. Mostly we have sugar maple, probably 70% of our forests. Those in the sugar bush are purposed mainly for producing sap for boiling to maple syrup – the sugar bush represents a very small portion of our forest so there are many high quality maples outside that area. We also have a lot of spruce and white pine. There’s a goodly amount of beech, cedar, birch, cherry and some poplar and other species as well as a lot of apple trees scattered around the old homesteads on our land plus those we’ve planted. Planting oaks, more apples, pears and such is something that is in the works. Long term projects. We do a little bit of firewood but the vast majority is for cabinetry, veneer or lumber.

          It really isn’t an either-or choice of forestry or hydro. We may even do a combination of different power sources. If we ever do hydro it will simply be off the springs we have. This means that it isn’t run of the river or a large reservoir like you typically see for hydroelectric. That’s a much larger scale than we need. I’m not interested in supplying power to the grid or other people since that involves too much regulations – Blame government for making things overly complex. If I were to do it, I would only be producing power for our farm and home. We do not have a lot of flow, compared with most hydro type installs, but we do have a lot of head, perhaps 160′ to 260′ depending on which springs and where I might place the generator. A micro-hydro installation is along the lines of what we might do someday.

  8. Thank you for your time to prepare such an in-depth answer.
    Selling electric is full time job?, so I never imagined that. I only assumed generating electric for on-site use (no third parties involved, closed book, no tax, yada yada)
    With respect to forestry and getting the most for your hardwood, do you plan to do on-site bandsaw milling and build a solar cycle kiln ‘Jim Birkemeier style’ ( Timber Green Forestry, Wisconsin) ?

    • No, we do too much forestry for a small bandsaw setup a.k.a. portable saw mill. That is for pretty small volumes. I’ve looked at those and saw one that my neighbor was using. Interesting machines and certainly better than the chainsaw lumber mills I’ve seen advertised. We ship out wood by the many truck loads. Much of it goes to Japan, the high quality veneer. They come to one of our log landing and pick the exact logs they want and then actually mill them on the ship on its way over to the other side of the world. That must be an incredible machine to be able to turn off veneer on the high seas!

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