Monday, 11 November 2019

What I've Been Reading, October 2019

Links

Miscellaneous

Capitalism, Communism, Anarchy

The New Fascism, and Antifa

I hear a lot of well educated people saying that the people some of us are calling fascists don't meet all the criteria for being "real" fascists. Others have even accused us of calling anyone we disagree with a fascist. I predict that a few decades from now those same people will be saying they wish they hadn't been quite so fussy with their definitions, and had acted sooner to oppose these "new fascists", even if they weren't identical to the fascists of the twentieth century.

  • America’s Bizarre Plunge Into Authoritarian Fascist Theocracy, by Umair Haque, Medium—Eudaimonia
    "Just How Weird and Extreme is This Collapse Getting?"
  • How Fascists Warp the Idea of Patriotism, by Umair Haque, Eudaimonia
    "What (The Problematic Idea of) Patriotism Means to Me"
    "For the fascist, allegiance to a society is replaced by allegiance not just to tribe or even to 'homeland' — or even to a single figure, the demagogue. For the fascist, allegiance to anything or anyone is replaced by allegiance to a simple, ugly, grotesque set of ideas. First, that the strong are those who are pure of blood. Second, that the job of the strong is to dominate — abuse, enslave, annihilate — the weak. Third, so that the 'homeland' is cleansed and pure, too. Fourth, so that the fascists’s sons of violence and daughters of chastity inherit it."

Decoupling

While relative improvements have been made and more are attainable still, there are hard physical limits to the extent to which our economy can be dematerialized. Far from being the panacea that would allow unabated ‘sustainable growth’ as many green capitalists so desperately cling to, decoupling is one more siren song advanced industrial economies need to resist if they’re to avoid collapse.

Collapse

Peak Oil

Climate Change

  • Techno-fix futures will only accelerate climate chaos – don’t believe the hype, by Joanna Boehnert and Simon Mair, The Conversation—Environment and Energy
  • ‘Managed Retreat’ From Climate Change Is Leaving the Most Vulnerable People Behind, by Drew Costley, Medium—OneZero
    "FEMA’s program to help Americans adapt to climate change isn’t helping everyone"
  • The Stark Inequality of Climate Change, by Rachel Riederer, The New Yorker
    "Two new books argue from different angles that natural disasters—like flooding in North Carolina caused by Hurricane Florence—make inequality worse."
  • Climate Gentrification — an entitlement for the rich, by David Wineberg, Medium—The Straight Dope
  • ‘Worse Than Anyone Expected’: Air Travel Emissions Vastly Outpace Predictions, by Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times
    "The findings put pressure on airline regulators to take stronger action to fight climate change as they prepare for a summit next week."
  • Half a century of dither and denial – a climate crisis timeline, by Jonathan Watts, Garry Blight and Pablo GutiĆ©rrez, The Guardian
    Fossil fuel companies have been aware of their impact on the planet since at least the 1950s
  • Climate and War: Bill McKibben’s Deadly Miscalculation, by Luke Orsborne, The Wrong Kind of Green
    "Military R&D is not geared toward saving the planet from human destruction. Any overlaps with so-called green technological development is secondary to its primary, narrow framework of creating efficient systems of killing to protect a national agenda set by the interests of the wealthy elite. This framework, more often than not, runs contrary to environmental protection. From the radioactive contamination of people and land caused by the use of depleted uranium, to the pollution of drinking water, to the creation of hundreds of superfund sites across the US, America’s military is well understood to be not just a massive source of greenhouse gases, but one of the largest polluters on the planet."
    "Only when people join together, rejecting mass consumer culture embodied in capitalism and enforced through militarism, to instead create leverage through sustained civil disobedience and the creation of ecologically minded communities that view life as sacred, can the kind of radical demands needed for the potential of a livable future be realized."
    "Rather than masking reality with feel good propaganda that profits the wealthy, it is our decision to move with a fierce and loving intent from within a darkness we are able to acknowledge, that gives us the capacity to be both carriers of genuine transformation in a troubled yet salvageable world, and steadfast companions in one that is doomed."
  • Leading Australian engineers turn their backs on new fossil fuel projects , by Ben Smee, The Guardian

Food

  • The four stages of vitamin B12 deficiency, by Maria Cross, Medium
    "Given up animal foods? How to ensure you don’t get to stage four. The damage could be irreversible."
  • Red Meat and Your Health: Should You Cut Back?, by Fueled by Science, medium—Lifestyle
    "Carving up the latest studies on red meat to reveal what we know — and what we don’t."
  • Raw Faith, by Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker
    The nun and the cheese underground.
    I make cheese myself, and have no choice but to use pasteurized milk. The cheese still comes out pretty good.

Genetic Engineering

Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that this section was paid for by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its product. Millions of dollars are spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are equally safe. Sadly neither method of agriculture is even remotely substainable.

  • Panic-free GMOs, A Grist Special Series
    "It’s easy to get information about genetically modified food. There are the dubious anti-GM horror stories that recirculate through social networks. On the other side, there’s the dismissive sighing, eye-rolling, and hand patting of pro-GM partisans. But if you just want a level-headed assessment of the evidence in plain English, that’s in pretty short supply. Fortunately, you’ve found the trove."
    A series of articles that does a pretty good job of presenting the facts about GMOs.
  • Five common GMO myths: debunked, by Real Farm Lives

Practical Skills

American Politics

  • Here’s an Idea: Don’t Pay Them, by John Nichols, The Nation
    "Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Mark Pocan has a great idea: If Trump appointees block congressional testimony, block their paychecks."
    Without something of this sort, American democracy is just about finished with. The famous "checks and balances" don't seem to be working.

Canadian Politics

Ontario Politics

Linguistics

Debunking Resources

These are of such importance that I've decide to leave them here on an ongoing basis.

Pseudoscience

  • Let's Talk About ‘The Game Changers’…, by Thomas Mitchelhill, Medium—Film
    This article points out a good deal of pseudoscience in the film it discusses, but I still don't really agree with the "very simple point" it makes at the start.

Science Based Medicine

"Science is properly reductionist for a reason. In order to understand the world, and to have reliable empirical knowledge, you have to build your theories from the bottom up, but also confirm them from the top down. This means that we correlate ultimate effects with basic knowledge about mechanisms. Scientific knowledge does not have to flow in any particular direction. At times we discover something fundamental about the world, and then look for implications and applications. At other times we observe effects in the world, and then reverse engineer their cause. In either case real scientific phenomena become increasingly embedded in this network of knowledge. When a claim remains persistently isolated at one level, and neither leads to further applications or to more basic discoveries about the nature of reality, that is suspect."
by Steven Novella on the Neurologica blog

Lacking an Owner's Manual

The human body/mind/spirit doesn't come with an owner's manual, and we continually struggle to figure out how best to operate them.

Gender and Sexuality

Poverty, Homeless People, Minimum Wage, UBI, Health Care, Affordable Housing

Books

Fiction

A slow month for fiction. Both of the books that I read are kind of second rate.

Non-Fiction

  • Risk!, by David Ropeik ad George Gray
    "A practical guide for deciding what's really safe and what's really dangerous in the world around you"
  • Walking to Camelot, by John A. Cherrington
    "John Cherrington and his 74-year-old walking companion set out one fine morning in May to traverse the only English footpath that cuts south through the rural heart of the country, a formidable path called the Macmillan Way."

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Responding to Collapse, Part 14: adapting to life without the grid

Late October Sunset over Lake Huron

This is the last of 4 posts on coping with the decline and demise of the power grid that I promised in Part 11) of this Responding to Collapse series. Last time, with the help of Joe Clarkson, we looked at a typical off grid solar electric system. I would encourage anyone with sufficient financial resources to set up such a system. But even using the most durable equipment produced by BAU (business as usual), and with lots of spare parts in stock, such a system will eventually come to the point where no more use can be eked out of it using locally available "village" level technology and materials.

Before things come to that point, though, such a system can serve two very import uses:

1) allow us to use electrical power for things like lighting, refrigeration, pumping water, communication and entertainment, which will help reduce the initial shock of adapting to post grid life.

2) allow us to use what modern tools and power equipment we have on hand to facilitate the construction of low tech power systems that don't need things semiconductors or fossil fuels, which will be in short supply.

That second use is what I'll be talking about today.

The Context of Collapse

But first I'd like to review the context in which I believe all this will be happening—it has been a while since I've talked about that.

The majority of people in the "collapse sphere" here on the internet are expecting a hard, fast collapse sometime in the next few years. Many of them have been expecting it to happen next year for 15 or 20 years now and others have begun to chuckle at the long string of failed predictions. But my observation is that collapse started back in the 1970s when conventional oil production peaked in the continental United States. It has progressed since then and I expect it will continue, gradually and bumpily—unevenly (geographically), unsteadily (chronologically) and unequally (socially), until BAU can no longer provide us with the necessities of life.

One popular expectation among kollapsniks is that some trigger event will cause a financial crash and that will lead to a breakdown of supply chains that will leave almost everyone cold, hungry and in the dark. This sort of fast collapse makes for great stories with lots of conflict and drama, but in reality a planet is a big place. I can't imagine the degree of co-ordination it would take to make this happen fast and hard, all at once across the whole world. Especially when many of us will be working together to stop it from happening.

So yes, there will a financial crash or, most likely, several crashes over a period of years, but the damage will not be uniform across the whole system. And yes, in some areas, it will be serious enough that the supply chains supporting human life will start to fail. But not completely and not everywhere at once.

Initially governments will still have the wherewithal to mount relief efforts for the worst hit areas. Probably using the military to move fuel, water, food and medical supplies to affected areas, and to set up refugee camps for those who are forced to leave their homes. But as the economy crumbles it will have a weakening effect on governments and their resources will be stretched thin. Already we are seeing a tendency to blame people for whatever plight they find themselves in and to abandon them to their own devices, cutting back on expensive relief efforts. This will no doubt get worse, especially in right wing countries where the social contract is weak and the upper classes rule solely for their own benefit. That would include the USA, in my opinion.

Things will get pretty grim, especially in those camps. Indeed, I suspect that in areas where no help is forthcoming, the majority of people (maybe as many as 80 to 90 percent) aren't going to make it through. This is certainly nothing to cheer about, but I am afraid it is one of the harsh realities of collapse. Another unpleasant reality is that under such circumstances, there will be large numbers of desperate, hungry refugees walking out of the large population centres where food is no longer to be found.

Because collapse is happening unevenly, when you find yourself in difficult circumstances, you can usually find someplace else where things aren't so bad. I have been talking, throughout this series of posts, about doing just that—setting yourself up in a small remote town with local food and energy resources, far enough from large towns and cities so that the majority of refugees travelling on foot are unlikely to make it to your small town. That way, you'll be able to welcome those who do make it, rather than being swamped by them.

And I've been urging people to make their move while there is still time to build a network of acquaintances and friends who can help you cope with the gradual decline of BAU and adapt to its eventual demise. I am not suggesting that such places will be exempt from collapse, but rather that they have the local resources to adapt in ways that large population centres simply can't. A big part of that preparation will include being ready to switch over to subsistence farming when those supply chains finally let you down. And having sufficient food stored to see you through to your first harvest. All within walking distance of where you live.

That is really a subject for another day, but it does have a connection to the eventual demise of the power grid and our response to that demise. Bumpy collapse is hard on continent spanning structures like the grid and will be one of the causes of its demise, along with the faults built into capitalism. But a gradual bumpy collapse does give people a chance to wake up to what is going on.

Long before there is a massive die-off due to supply chain failure, there will be a period (perhaps it has already started) when things are going badly wrong in enough places that anyone who is paying attention will start to get pretty concerned. We saw this happen during and for the years before and after the Global Financial Crisis (approximately 2006 to 2012)—the idea of collapse gained quite a bit of credibility. But then things settled down and interest in collapse waned. I am now seeing interest starting to grow again and I expect this will continue. So finding people to work with on preparations may well become much easier than it is now.

During that period the resources of BAU will still be more or less available and those wise enough to do so will be able to set up some local structures which can step in to replace BAU when the need arises—community gardens and farms, food storage co-ops, energy co-ops and so forth.

I encourage you to pick a town with farmland, ground water and standing timber in good supply. It would also be useful if there are one or more good hydro power resources nearby. There is falling water in abundance here in southern Ontario. Many small towns were once mill towns and still have the remains of a dam and an abandoned mill or generating station which could be refurbished with much less effort than starting from scratch.

I am convinced that there is no need for collapse to take us all the way back to the stone age or even the middle ages. But I am also sure that material consumption and energy use must fall to a sustainable level that can be supported with local, renewable resources.

To stop a fall all the way back to the stone age, we will need to take advantage of some of the legacies of BAU.

BAU's Legacies

One hears a great deal about the negative legacies that BAU is leaving for future generations—climate change, resource depletion, environmental and social disruption—the list goes on. I don't disagree with any of that, but I'd like to point out that there will also be some positive legacies that many people who are thinking about collapse aren't taking into account.

  • The first of these, in my estimation, is the knowledge that mankind has accumulated up to this point, including the scientific method and the change in attitudes that came with the Enlightenment. Immersed as we are in that knowledge, it is hard to appreciate how difficult it was for people in the past to make the discoveries and developments they did, without knowing in advance what was even possible or how to accomplish it. We have an immense advantage over them, in that we know a great deal about the world around us and how things work.
  • Second, there are alive today many skilled and ingenious people, tradesmen and hobbyists, even engineers, who, after industrial civilization grinds to a halt, will be able to do a great deal with its remnants.
  • Thirdly there will be all those remnants, including:
    • durable equipment and tools that will continue working for years or decades after the factories of BAU have gone dark
    • large scale infrastructure such as roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, communications, power, water and sewage systems, factories, housing and other buildings
    • true, many of these will be left in pretty rough shape, but what can't be used as is will still have a great deal of value for the materials that can be salvaged from it
    • initially there will even be some fossil fuels left in local storage, plus materials and spare parts sitting on shelves ready for us to use

It is to be hoped that some of those skilled people will have set up off-grid power systems and things like tool libraries and workshops (maker spaces as they are called these days). We should encourage and support such efforts in every way we can, since they will be of great importance in facilitating the transition to long term, sustainable systems that can be operated, maintained and replaced when necessary with "village technology", local materials and local sources of energy.

Local energy sources

I think it's worth taking a look at what kinds of energy may be available locally and how can they be harnessed.

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels will no longer be readily available except in the few areas where there are functional oil/gas wells or coal mines. Sure, thinking of climate change, it would be better to keep that carbon in the ground rather that returning more of it to the atmosphere. Still, I wouldn't discourage anyone from making use of such an energy source if it is close at hand, and you can get it out of the ground and convert it into usable forms. The amount of CO2 involved would be tiny compared to what's going into the atmosphere today.

Nuclear Energy

I live only a few miles from a nuclear plant, and I used to work in the switchyards there. The importance of a reliable tie to the grid was firmly impressed on me—without it, nuclear stations cannot operate safely. So nuclear plants will have to be shut down as the grid becomes unreliable. The employees of those plants, who live nearby, have a large incentive to see them shut down and mothballed safely. They will take this into their own hands, regardless of what company executives might want. And I am sure the employees will have the backing of the local community.

It is important to get that shutdown underway as quickly as possible while we still have the resources to do it. I expect spent fuel will be stored locally in dry flasks, which is considerably safer than leaving it in spent fuel ponds.

This leaves us with renewable energy sources—solar, wind, hydro, tidal, and biomas.

Solar Power

Converting solar energy into electricity takes some pretty high tech equipment. Photovoltaics (solar cells) will almost certainly be beyond our ability to produce locally. It is possible to use solar energy to create steam and drive turbines which power electrical generators. But this is really only slightly lower tech than semiconductor solar panels. And because solar energy is intermittent, we'd need some way of storing it, probably batteries. In the quantity needed, batteries are likely beyond village technology.

That leaves us to use heat from the sun directly for water or space heating, cooking, drying crops, or for process heat in cottage industry situations. And to find a way of doing this where the intermittency is not a problem. Glass is needed to make efficient solar collectors, and all but the simplest passive solar installations need electric motors and fans or pumps to move collected solar energy (hot air or water) to where you need it.

Wind Power

Wind power is also intermittent, and largely unpredictable as well, so either you need some way of storing the power or you need to use it in ways that can manage with an intermittent power source. Pumping water into storage containers at a higher level is one traditional example. Wind power has been used for grinding grain as well.

The towers, blades and gearing required as likely to be within the reach of village technology.

Hydro Power

Hydro power is slightly intermittent, but only on a seasonal basis and it is reasonably predictable. It can even be stored in head ponds to smooth out variations in load. It is doable with nineteenth century technology, and even simpler equipment if you use the mechanical power directly rather than generating electricity.

Tidal Power

There are a few location in the world where high tides can, with clever arrangements of dams, be used to drive water wheels or turbines. Tides are also intermittent, but quite predictable.

Biomass

Where I live, this would consist mainly of firewood, which can also be converted into wood gas or charcoal. It is useful for space heating, water heating, process heat, and can be both produced and used with very simple equipment. Of all these energy sources, biomass is the easiest to harness at the individual and family level, without setting up more complex community projects.

Wood gas can fuel internal combustion engines and firewood can fuel steam engines, both of which can power electrical generators. But this is only practical if there is wood left after vital uses like cooking and heating have been taken care of.

It is also vital to keep in mind that biomass is only a renewable resource if we use it at a rate slower than the rate at which it grows. Fortunately, forestry is a well established science and it can guide us in which trees to cut, how many of them, and how many and what type of new trees to plant.

Biogas

This is methane produced during anaerobic composting of manure and other organic materials. It can be useful in many ways, just like natural gas. But a lot of manure is needed to make useful quantities of biogas.

Muscle Power

For most of our history (and prehistory) energy mainly came from human or animal muscles. This has largely gone out of fashion in the industrial world, but I suspect that as collapse progresses, it will once again become the default where mechanical power is needed and nothing else is available.

Harnessing Local Energy Sources

There is a lot that can be done at the individual/family level to conserve energy, to make use of what's available locally, and to get by without electricity. But once you've decided to harness most of the energy sources above, a community effort will be required, especially if they are going to be used to generate electricity.

When talking about harnessing such energy resources, we must always consider whether the energy gathered will justify the energy and manhours used to build the equipment needed to gather it. Without the legacies I described above, I suspect the answer would more often than not be no, but with them, I think there is much that can be done. Remember that during the initial crisis of adapting to grid and supply chain break down in your area there will likely be some off-grid power systems to draw on.

At any rate, there is always the option of using these energy sources directly as heat or mechanical energy when we don't have electrical generating systems set up yet, or when they have failed beyond our capacity to repair. This also saves the inefficiencies involved in converting energy from one form to another, and the trouble of setting up distribution systems. Flour mills and saw mills are excellent examples.

Yes, at the start, the overpowering need will be for food, water and firewood, and a well organized community would divert available manpower to supplying those needs. But electrical equipment can actually make those tasks easier, replacing manhours with kilowatt hours, and doing some things, like lighting and refrigeration that no amount of manpower can do.

When the initial crisis has been overcome, there will be some spare manhours than can be spent on setting up a sustainable power system. I am terribly tempted to go into some specifics of what might be done, but it would have to get pretty technical and would make this post much longer than it should be.

Using Energy Wisely

In parts 11 and 12 of this series I included a list of important uses for electricity and alternatives to use during outages. But this time we're considering the permanent loss of the grid, and instead of coping temporarily with grid outages, we're talking about adapting to that permanent loss, either by generating our own power, by replacing it with other energy alternatives or practicing conservation—using less energy. We should be aware in advance that this will require some changes in the way we live.

Lights

Conservation is pretty simple here—we can do without lights at night, and set up workshops with windows to let in sunlight. But at higher latitudes, winter nights are long and much could be accomplished during them if we had artificial light.

Without electricity, you burn something to make light. Candle wax, kerosene, naphtha and propane are all based on fossil fuels and will not be available for long. Vegetable oil, animal fat, and alcohol will be locally available, but the source in each case is something that could also be used as food. If food is in short supply, lighting will have to suffer. This is one area where biogas could be quite useful.

My beloved mantle lamps will be hard to produce, as those mantles use salts of various elements that are not likely to be available locally to produce that bright white light.

If electricity is available, converting it to light is a bit of a challenge. We are in a sense spoiled by today's LED lights, which are highly efficient and long lasting. I've been reading recently that when they fail it is usually not the actual diode that fails, so I suspect ways will be found to refurbish them and keep them going for a long time. But the day will come when we have to go back to various sorts of arc lights and carbon filament incandescent bulbs.

Water

Here is Southern Ontario there is no shortage of good ground water, so I suspect wells with hand or wind driven pumps will be the thing. Friends in Australia and Hawaii tell me about their large outdoor water storage tanks. This looked odd to me and at first I wondered why we don't use such things here, but then I realized that they would freeze solid in the winter. In cold countries indoor cisterns are more practical and can be filled using rainwater, or well water pumped when the wind is blowing.

Electrically driven pumps will no doubt be used where power is available—they save a lot of hand pumping and are easy to control.

Sewage

There are many low tech ways of safely handling sewage. But we'll need to recover and use the plant nutrients and organic matter it contains, so I would think composting toilets will be very popular. I can recommend two books on the subject of composting human waste: The Humanure Handbook, by Joe Jenkins, and The Scoop on Poop, by Dan Chiras.

Food

Food is going to stop arriving regularly at the local supermarkets. To me, it seems that the necessary response would be to switch over to using locally grown food and growing much of it yourself, and to have enough food stored to last you through to the next harvest. There is a lot to say about this subject, but since it's not directly connected to electricity, I leave it for another post.

Cooking

Cooking is largely a matter of heating food, so we'll do it by burning biomass. Preferably in a nice indoor wood burning cookstove. I suspect the demand for those will go through the roof when it becomes more clear how things are going. Fortunately there are alternative that can be made by hand from local materials—mud/brick ovens, rocket stoves, etc. Google will lead you to all kinds of information on these.

Refrigeration

Where winter is sufficiently cold, the obvious solution is to use ice, harvested from frozen bodies of water, and to set up a well insulated icehouse to store that ice through the summer.

Ammonia based refrigeration uses heat as its power input, and should be within the reach of village level technology.

The kind of refrigeration we are all used to uses some variation of freon as its working fluid and electric motors to pump that fluid. I expect that once existing refrigeration equipment has worn out, freon will be too big a challenge to make locally and we will abandon the technology.

Heating

For space heating woodstoves are the obvious solution. As with cookstoves, I think at some point there will be a huge demand for heating stoves. Getting set up to heat with wood before you are forced to do so would be a good idea. If electricity is available, fans can be used to move air around the house and heat it more evenly.

Heating your house with wood takes a lot more wood than cooking. It you don't own a wood lot, you should find someone reliable who specializes in cutting, splitting and delivering firewood.

If you do own a woodlot, you'll likely be doing that for yourself. At some point gasoline won't be available to power chainsaws and you'll have to fall back on more traditional methods. Here is a series of posts on this subject by Category 5, another Canadian kollapsnik and blogger.

C5 Gets Wood:

Cooling

I covered this in some detail in part 12 of this series, here.

Communications

A small community which is generating its own electricity should be able to get its landline telephone system working again. Setting up a local broadcast radio station also sounds like a good project to foster community solidarity. And ham radio may be one of the few ways of finding out what is going on in the world. When modern solid state equipment wears out, vacuum tubes should be doable with village technology.

Transportation

Fossil fuel powered vehicles will no doubt be used until supplies of those fuels run out. It would be good to ration those fuels and see that they get used for the most critical purposes for as long as possible. It may be possible to convert some internal combustion engines to using wood gas to extend their usefulness.

Bikes are actually pretty high tech, and will eventually wear out beyond local repair, especially those rubber tires.

Horses and other draught animals will become extremely valuable, and we should do what we can in advance to encourage and support horse breeders.

Water transportation, using lakes, rivers, canals and powered by sail or muscles will grow in importance.

But walking will probably be the default mode of transporation, especially within the local area. And most of us will try to avoid having to make long trips.

Cottage Industry

I'm adding a new category here, because without the factories that now make all the goods we use, we will have to return to making them for ourselves. With modern knowledge, tools, equipment and electrical power, there is a great deal than can be done using local and salvaged materials. Acquiring the skills needed is something all of us should be working at. Pick an area that interests you and learn everything you can about it.

I bake bread and know a fair bit about growing grain and milling it. I make cheese and I know how to milk a cow. I weave wicker baskets and harvest willow that grows locally. As well as being an electrician, I am fairly good at carpentry, plumbing and drywall. These skills and a great many others will be needed and can be learned with some effort, if necessary from books and the internet while it lasts, but ideal from people who already know them.

Many years ago I started working on a degree in electrical engineering, but soon dropped out and apprenticed as an electrician instead. So the electrical parts of what I've been talking about here seem fairly straight forward to me. But I've been thinking recently that a degree in chemical engineering would be damn handy, or at least the equivalent knowledge, with a focus on low tech, small scale applications.

In Conclusion

Back in Part 10 of this series I said, "It seems to me that supplies of electrical power, diesel fuel and money will be at the heart of many of the troubles that lie ahead, so I'll concentrate on those areas." I think we've finally reached the end of the discussion on electrical power. Next time I'll talk about diesel fuel and the supply chains that rely on it.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Responding to Collapse, Part 13: Keeping the Lights on When the Grid Goes Down Forever

I'm doing something new this time, which is to publish a post that is almost entirely the work on one of my regular readers and commenters, Joe Clarkson, who lives off-grid on the Big Island of Hawaii. My knowledge of solar electric systems is entirely theoretical and I have always found that in the process of actually building something like this, one learns a great deal that isn't covered in the books. So I am pleased to present this material from someone who can speak with a much greater degree of practical experience than me.

I do have a few comments to make, but I'll save those for the end of the post.



Keeping the Lights on When the Grid Goes Down Forever

by Joe Clarkson

As someone who has lived most of my adult life in an off-grid home, I have had a lot of experience in managing the equipment needed to replicate the round-the-clock availability of electricity provided by the grid. That experience has been marked by a few failures but over the long haul our electrical supply has been more reliable than most utilities. That there is far more support available now than there was when I was setting up my first off-grid system back in 1975 (small hydro/diesel) makes living off-grid even easier. And since the rural neighborhood surrounding my home has homes that are all off-grid, I rarely hear the questions that many people asked me in years past, “Why do you live off the grid?” and What’s it like?”

The first question I answered by explaining that land without public utilities, like power and water, is almost always far less expensive than land with them. This is true, but I almost never went on to explain that I didn’t like the feeling of insecurity that came with being dependent on the grid. I have long felt that the grid is vulnerable to any number of disruptions, some of them likely to be permanent, and I wanted to live in a situation where I had more control over my electrical supply. Most people still think that attitude must also come with wearing a tin-foil hat.

The answer to the second question was that living off the grid was mostly like living on it. This is even more true now that solar panels have gotten so inexpensive that it is easy to have an ample supply of electricity. My current house is a sort of “legacy” off-grid home. It started out in 1986 with very little solar capacity (under 800 W), so everything was geared to minimizing the use of electricity. Thirty years ago, our electrical consumption was about 2 kWh per day at most. Now that I have 4 kW of solar PV capacity, we have become more profligate, even with the kids gone, and we use 4-5 kWh per day. A solar installer recently told me that he typically designs off-grid homes for a capacity of 20 kWh per day, just as much as the typical grid-connected home around here uses.

I have lived without electricity during two years serving in the Peace Corps and found it easy to do, albeit on a tropical atoll. This experience gave me a deeper understanding of the place electricity has in the modern world. I won’t be discussing that place here, although that is something that everyone should consider thoroughly before making plans for adapting to collapse. Instead, I will describe my way of replicating a modern household electrical system without the grid and my preparations for keeping it going as long as I can.

I know that if the grid goes down forever and business-as-usual becomes ever-accelerating collapse, it will be impossible to maintain an independent electrical system for the long term. But I would like to keep it going as long as possible, if only to ease the transition from a modern, high-energy life to one that will look a lot like life was here in Hawai‘i before contact with outsiders changed everything. These old bones are not ready for a life of subsistence agriculture and hunting-gathering in service to a feudal lord. That life will eventually come, if not for my wife and me, then for our children and their children, but I hope to make the transition as gradual as possible for all of us. If collapse is rapid, it also just might be the difference between life and death.

Our Home Power System Details

So, what kind of system do we have and how do we intend to keep it going during collapse? Our electrical supply is old-school and typical of many off-grid systems:

  • 4 kW of solar supply (Sixteen 250 W modules with an output of 24 V DC nominal but wired in series-parallel to about 140 V).
  • Two 80-amp MPPT solar charge controllers convert the solar output to 24 VDC for the battery.
  • 900 amp-hour lead-acid battery (12 cells at 2V each)
  • 4 kW inverter (2 Outback FX2024 operating in parallel at 120/240 VAC output)
  • 6 kW Northern Lights diesel generator

Inverters with solar charge controllers to the right

One half of 4 kW solar PV array.
The other half is on the roof of another building but looks identical.

Battery box 
(with concrete block to keep a visiting 4-year-old grandchild out), 
6kW genset, diesel supply in 55-gallon drum.

24 V battery
(12 Hawker flooded lead-acid cells, each 900 Ah)

24 VDC water pump inside concrete block enclosure

Solar hot water system with TV and Ham antennas behind.
80-gallon hot water tank is stainless steel.

240 VAC wood splitter runs off the solar electric system.

38,000-gallon water tank.
24 feet in diameter X 12 feet high.
Half the tank is underground.

The average solar incidence here in up-country Hamakua is low, only about 2.5 peak sun-hours per day. But with 4 kW of solar array, this is enough to average about 10 kWh per day, more than twice as much as we actually use. This means that we rarely need to use the back-up diesel to charge the batteries. Our average annual use of the generator is about 30-40 hours a year at a maximum charging rate of 2 kW. My estimate is that we use about 10 gallons of diesel a year in the generator.

The appliances serving the home are pretty typical except for refrigeration and water pumping. We have a washer and propane heated dryer, a propane range, propane back up water heater (rarely used since we also have ample solar water heating) the usual compliment of LED lighting and an assortment of communications and entertainment equipment (flat screen TV, a couple of computers, CD player and receiver), clothes iron, vacuum cleaner, bathroom appliances like hair dryer and toothbrushes, all being used at rates that would be typical in a grid connected house. We do power everything from power bars so that we can turn off equipment completely so as to avoid “ghost loads”.

Our refrigeration and water pumping are DC. This was originally for efficiency and power demand reasons, but over the years we have kept these appliances operating directly off the battery as a precaution against inverter failure. If the inverters fail, we can still have water and keep our refrigerator and freezer powered up. We would need to run the generator in the evenings two to three hours for light and for other electrical appliances, but it would save us from having to run the generator more often to keep the fridge cool and to pump water. Now that DC LED light bulbs are available, we may switch back to DC lighting, which would not be too difficult as the lighting load center is separate from the load center for the outlets (our lighting was originally DC).

Our water system is based on two corrugated steel tanks (including metal roofs) with heavy polyethylene liners. A 40,000-gallon main tank is filled with water from our roof and that water is pumped up to a 2,000-gallon tank about 100 feet higher than the house with a 24 VDC Shurflo pump. The little Shurflo pump only moves a couple of gallons per minute, but we only need to turn it on about once or twice a week for a few hours. (We have another piped water system with non-potable water for agriculture and livestock, but a description of that system is outside the scope of this post).

How much of these systems can we keep operating while adapting to collapse? In a collapse situation propane will be impossible to get. The clothes dryer can be abandoned totally to line drying (what we mostly do now), the back-up water heater can be shut down, and the range can be nursed along for a few months to a few years depending on the state of the 125-gallon propane tank at the time of propane delivery failure. For the longer term we have a wood cooking range on a covered lanai. This range would also be a source of hot water once I get the auxiliary water tank installation off my “to do” list.

So, the long-term energy sources for the house and farm are slated to be solar electricity and wood, with solar hot water for as long as the solar hot water modules last (perhaps 15 to 20 years). We have plenty of wood on the property and even have an electric wood splitter powered from the solar system. The wood range has a probable life measured in decades. We have a wood heater for those cool winter days (low 60s), but how to keep the solar system going?

The short answer for most of the power conversion equipment is to have plenty of spares. The inverters can be completely rebuilt with three circuit boards and a cooling fan for each inverter. Those parts are on the shelf. The inverters have been in continuous operation since 2006, so I expect them to need rebuilding in the next few years. The solar charge controllers have an estimated 15 to 20-year life and they are only about 7 years old, so with a spare for each the charge control system can last another 30-35 years. My current crop of solar panels is only about 5 years old, so they should last for a long time yet and I already have their replacements handy, since I bought another set for a second home that probably won’t get built after all. If we do finally build the second home, it will have a duplicate electrical system that can be intertied with our existing system, thereby increasing redundancy.

Here is a table summarizing the power system and the appliances operating from it:

Item

Estimated Life Span (Years)

Method of Repair

If Failure is Unavoidable

Solar PV modules

25-30

Replace with spares

Remove bad modules, rewire and use less electricity

Charge controllers

15-20

Replace with spares

Reconfigure PV to battery charging voltage and manually switch modules on and off (works only with flooded cell batteries)

Inverters

15-20

Rebuild with spare boards

Use DC appliances only or replace with legacy spare inverter (I have a couple of old Trace 2024 inverters in storage)

Battery

Wide variation

Replace with spares? Pick the battery with the longest possible life?

Use no electric equipment except any that can be operated directly off the solar array (DC motors, heaters)

Diesel generator

30

Have plenty of maintenance spares (belts, filters, etc.)

Greatly reduce electricity consumption in cloudy weather

Water pump

10

Replace with spares or rebuild with still-good parts from failed pumps

Haul water with buckets or install eave-level tank or install catchment roof at upper tank.

Corrugated water tanks

30-50

Reinforce weak areas with cables

Use any available vessel for water storage and hand carry water in buckets

Refrigerator

30

None

Evaporative cooling? Night radiation cooling?

Freezer

30

None

No frozen food

Washer

25

None

Hand wash with plunger. Have manual wringer on hand.

Propane dryer

30

None

Line dry everything all the time

Propane range

40

None

Substitute wood and wood range

Solar hot water modules

20

Substitute modules with spares?

Water heating loop in wood range

Stainless steel solar hot water tank

50

Move to wood range location

Batch heat water on stove

Household wiring

50+

Repair with spares

Live without electricity


Battery Considerations

Without an industrial civilization as backstop, the biggest hurdle to keeping a solar system going is the short life of the battery bank. My batteries have been well maintained, but they were three years old when I purchased them 8 years ago. They are nearing the end of their cycle life.

If it cannot be replaced by going to the nearest battery store, the main attribute a battery will need to have is the ability to operate over a large number of daily charge-discharge cycles. There are numerous comparisons of battery cost and cycle life on line. Most of those comparisons result in lithium-ion batteries being the best choice, especially if cost is not a determining factor, just because of their superior cycle life.

Many lithium-ion batteries are touted as having up to 10,000 cycles, even with 80% daily discharge. That would result in a life expectancy of 27 years even though they are typically guaranteed for only 10 years. Even though the cell chemistry could last as long as 27 years, my worry is that the sophisticated electronics that manage the charging of each cell in a lithium-ion battery will probably have a life expectancy of less than that.

I have not yet decided on a final battery replacement strategy. Here are some pros and cons for the best main choices (excluding price):

  • Lithium ion: proven long cycle life but delicate to charge and requires sophisticated electronic charge management system.
  • Lead-acid: Very forgiving if well maintained but have the shortest cycle life. It may be possible to store “dry charged” cells for many years before putting them in service.
  • Nickel-iron: Reputed to have a very long life and very forgiving of a simple charging system (similar to lead-acid). Very hard to damage except by using poor water for electrolyte replenishment. I am still not certain that the lifespan of this battery matches its reputation. Manufacturer literature suggests a cycle life between that of a good lead-acid battery and a lithium ion battery.

I am leaning toward lithium ion. I need to confirm the life expectancy of the typical battery management system and any needed protection from a solar charge controller failure.

I am also keeping an eye on the market for flow batteries for the home. These are quite new and have a limited track record, but should have very long life with easily replaceable pumps.

I am also tempted to see if I can craft build a pure-lead-plate battery from roofing lead sheet.

Conclusion

This post has covered a lot of expensive equipment, much of which my wife and I have acquired over many years. We feel very fortunate to have been able to do so. When one adds up the cost of a small parcel of decent farmland, a home and the outbuildings and equipment a small farm requires, including the equipment needed to provide electricity, water and heat for the home (including in-ground piping and electrical circuits) and other costs like livestock, fencing, roads, ponds, and land leveling, it becomes obvious that it takes a lot of money to prepare to eventually live without money.

I do know that the one thing that will always have value when adapting to collapse will be the skills it takes to help manage a small off-grid farm. Any person that has the ability to grow and hunt for food, manage livestock, operate energy and water systems and knows which end of a screwdriver to grab, is likely to find a place in a post-industrial-civilization world, even without a lot of money for preparation. I am still learning these skills and I started a long time ago. It’s past time to get started, so I recommend a crash course in practical trade skills to anyone that has few of them. Good luck to us all!



Wind and Hydro Power

Anticipating questions from our readers, I asked Joe about wind and water power. Here is what he had to say, which makes good sense to me. —Irv

I have had a small wind turbine as part of my array of battery charging sources and found it to be more trouble than it was worth. It was a Whisper 1000 and it really needed strong winds to produce much power. It also had a continuing series of mechanical problems, but I kept it going for a couple of years and then threw it away.

I have also had a lot of experience with the larger Bergey 10 kilowatt wind turbine on village power projects. It worked a little better than the Whisper but also required a lot of maintenance. Constant changes of blade leading edge protection tape, furling cable that broke and very high noise levels made it a pain to use. Now that solar modules are so inexpensive, I strongly advise against wind turbines except for large, grid-tied machines for commercial power producers.

Small hydro is another story. If a small stream with a reasonable head is available, small hydro can be a great charging source. I recommend going with a DC alternator to charge batteries and use an inverter for AC power. The small hydro system just substitutes for solar panels as a battery charging source.

If a larger stream is available, enough to generate the maximum power required at the site, then an all AC system can be installed. A load diversion governor is a lot cheaper than a variable geometry turbine. With a load diversion governor, the AC alternator is kept loaded at full output at all times and any unneeded power is electronically shunted to a waste load, typically a water heater element inserted in the penstock or a spa basin.

Small hydro is extremely reliable. The only difficult part is getting clean water into the penstock, which means that a lot of attention has to be paid to the intake structure and subsequent settling and screening equipment. Flood conditions put a great deal of force on the intake, so everything in the stream bed has to be very robust. The best small hydro sources are hillside springs, which avoid a lot of the issues with stream sources. Year around streams and springs are relatively rare, but if you have one they are great sources of energy. With enough head, it takes very little water to produce enough energy to power a homestead.


Irv again, with thanks to Joe. And now, just a few comments from me.

I agree very strongly with what Joe said in his conclusion about learning practical skills. If your work has you sitting in front of a computer pushing little bits of information around on the screen, and what you do for fun in you off hours never sees you touching a tool, it is time to start learning some of the skills that will be needed when BAU(Business as Usual) is no longer functioning.

Now back to the specifics of off-grid power systems:

One important thing to be clear about is that batteries don't like to be "cycled", that is, to be charged and discharged. Joe touched briefly on this, but I think it is important to emphasize.

Every time a battery is discharged and charged back up (cycled), it wears out a little bit and its capacity to store energy is reduced. The backup batteries that I maintained as an electrician in the power system were kept fully charged and only discharged during outages, and even then not too deeply discharged. They usually lasted for about 15 to 20 years.

In an off grid solar electric system, batteries are cycled fairly deeply on a daily basis. Joe estimates his current batteries will have a lifetime of around 11 years, which sounds about right to me.

The temperature where Joe lives ranges from the 50s to the 70s, Fahrenheit. This is, to say the least, less extreme than the temperatures we experience here in Southern Ontario ( -30° F to around 90° F.) And there are many places not that far north of here that get even colder in the winter. Precipitation around here also comes in various nasty forms in a addition to rain. Such as hail, freezing rain, sleet and snow.

This has some negative effects on solar panels, which are inevitably exposed to the weather, causing them to fail sooner. And of course their output is limited when they are covered in ice or snow.

Batteries function best when their temperature is in the 70s Fahrenheit. That means they need to be in a heated space in the winter. Lead acid and nickel iron batteries also need a well ventilated space due to the hydrogen created during charging and discharging. You probably wouldn't want them in your house due to the fire hazard. Lithium batteries don't given off hydrogen and can withstand more charge/discharge cycles, which is a major plus. But they are more expensive and required more complex charging controls.

I would appreciate hearing from any readers who are running solar electric systems with lead acid or nickel iron batteries in climates with cold winters.

I have some experience repairing battery chargers at the component level, but that equipment was built in the 1960s and 70s, used single layer, single sided circuit boards and discreet components rather than integrated circuits. It almost seemed as if it was designed with repair in mind.

Joe tells me that more modern equipment is less maintainable at the component level—about the best you can do is change out a whole board or module.

Acknowledging that, it still seems to me that there are quite a few people around who I would call tinkers, but who are currently referred to as "makers", at least some of whom have the knowledge, skills and equipment to salvage and refurbish/repurpose defective equipment when that becomes the only alternative. I think in some cases they will succeed in getting some extra life, maybe a few more decades, out of systems like Joe's. A way to make storage batteries using salvaged materials and a fairly low level of technology would be very helpful.

Finally, as Joe says, a system like his does not come cheap, and I suspect many of my readers will find themselves lacking the financial resources to set up anything close. And yet I've devoted this whole post to the idea, and I would recommend that those who can afford it should go ahead and set up such a system. Why so?

First of all, electricity is very useful and if you could extend it's availability by a few decades, it would be worth quite a bit to do so. In one's own domestic situation electric lighting, refrigeration and water pumping would be worth a lot, along with communications and entertainment.

Secondly, in the years after the grid finally fails us, I would like to think an attempt will be made to switch over to sustainable, "village level" technology and to utilize local energy sources to generate electricity. This transition would be greatly facilitated by off grid power systems of the type Joe describes.

A closer look at this transition and the positive legacies of the industrial world will be the subject of my next post.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

Saturday, 5 October 2019

What I've Been Reading, September 2019

Links

Miscellaneous

The New Fascism, and Antifa

I hear a lot of well educated people saying that the people some of us are calling fascists don't really meet all the criteria for being "real" fascists. Others have even accused us of calling anyone we disagree with a fascist. I predict that a few decades from now those same people will be saying they wish they hadn't been quite so fussy with their definitions, and had acted sooner to oppose these "new fascists", even if they weren't identical to the fascists of the twentieth century.

"At some point, I have to trust that my deeply held values of seeing everyone as basically good until proven otherwise is better than their deeply held belief that there is a natural order where those on top should exterminate those below." —Alana Tallman

  • Why Fighting Fascism Means Owning Your Own Failures, by Umair Haque, Medium—Eudaimonia & Co.
    "So if you ask me, genuine progress fighting fascism comes from the failures of good people corrected, than in the foibles of bad people, prevented. For in the good people, at least, we may place some kind of limited faith. But it is up to those who suppose they are good to really make good on it, for their actions to at last, concord, in even a small way, with their pretty, empty words."
  • How The Rebel Infiltrated Postmedia and Conquered Canada’s Largest Newspaper Chain, by Davide Mastracci, North 99
    The troubling and extensive connections between Canada's largest newspaper chain and the most notorious far-right personalities driving its rightward shift.
  • The Neo-Nazi Murder Haunting Germany, by Jordan Stancil, The Nation
    "The assassination of a local politician is waking up the country to the threat of the radical right."
  • A Former White Supremacist Explains How to Combat White Supremacy, by Max Ufberg, Medium—Gen
    "Christian Picciolini has dedicated his life to deradicalizing extremists and educating federal agents on best practices. But under Trump, the government no longer seems to care."

Collapse

Responding to Collapse,

  • Growing pain: the delusion of boundless economic growth, by Ian Christie, Ben Gallant, Simon Mair, New Democracy
    "Gambling on a future of continued economic growth is a bad bet with long odds and extremely high stakes."
    "...it will involve coalitions of the willing between capitalist big business and sustainability NGOs..."
    In my opinion there is no such thing as "willing big business" in this context, and relying on co-operation from capitalism just isn't going work.
  • Green New Deal: How About A “Low Tech New Deal”?, by Low Technology Institute
    "The Green New Deal (GND) has garnered support and opprobrium since it was published. While this plan at least acknowledges the problem of climate change and identifies the proper scale of our reaction, we can point to large gaps in the plan that must be remedied: All this construction while still limiting emissions? Who will truly profit economically from this plan? How do we pay for it?"
    "The biggest gap is that this plan is essentially that it is a way to continue an anthropocentric, high-consumption way of life. LTI is not opposed to this or any other point of view per se. If we could continue to live a human-focused, materialist lifestyle with no negative repercussions to ecosystems, other living creatures, the climate, or society, then by all means laissez les bons temps rouler. But this isn’t the case."

Peak Oil

Climate Change

Economic Contraction and Growing Inequality

Energy

Emergency Preparation

Agriculture

Genetic Engineering

Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that this section was paid for by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its products. Millions of dollars are spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are equally safe. Sadly neither method of agriculture is even remotely substainable.

  • Panic-free GMOs, A Grist Special Series
    "It’s easy to get information about genetically modified food. There are the dubious anti-GM horror stories that recirculate through social networks. On the other side, there’s the dismissive sighing, eye-rolling, and hand patting of pro-GM partisans. But if you just want a level-headed assessment of the evidence in plain English, that’s in pretty short supply. Fortunately, you’ve found the trove."
    This is a series of articles that does a pretty good job of presenting the facts about GMOs.

Practical Skills

Canadian Politics

  • The Conservative Party isn’t on your side, by The Public Service Alliance of Canada
    "The last time the Conservative party was in power, Canadians everywhere paid the price – especially those who deliver public services. If elected in October, Andrew Scheer is going to pick up where Stephen Harper left off. Here’s a list of reasons why we can’t let that happen."

Ontario Politics

Geo/petro politics

Debunking Resources

These are of such importance that I've decide to leave them here on an ongoing basis.

Science Based Medicine

Science is properly reductionist for a reason. In order to understand the world, and to have reliable empirical knowledge, you have to build your theories from the bottom up, but also confirm them from the top down. This means that we correlate ultimate effects with basic knowledge about mechanisms. Scientific knowledge does not have to flow in any particular direction. At times we discover something fundamental about the world, and then look for implications and applications. At other times we observe effects in the world, and then reverse engineer their cause. In either case real scientific phenomena become increasingly embedded in this network of knowledge. When a claim remains persistently isolated at one level, and neither leads to further applications or to more basic discoveries about the nature of reality, that is suspect.
By Steven Novella, Neurologica blog

Lacking an Owner's Manual

The human body/mind/spirit doesn't come with an owner's manual, and we continually struggle to figure out how best to operate them.

Gender and Sexuality

There is No God, and Thou Shall Have No Other Gods

I don't think I've made any secret of the fact that I am an atheist, but I may not have made it clear that I think any sort of worship is a bad thing and that believing in things is to be avoided whenever possible. Indeed, I do not believe in belief itself. That's what the "Thou shall have no other gods" is about—it's not enough to quit believing in whatever God or Gods you were raised to believe in, but also we must avoid other gods, including material wealth, power and fame.

Poverty, Homeless People, Minimum Wage, UBI, Health Care, Housing

Books

Fiction


Non-Fiction

I am working my way through several excellent non-fiction books, and expect to finish at least some of them in October. Stay tuned....