|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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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:
I covered this in some detail in part 12 of this series, here.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Preparing for Collapse, A Few Rants, Wednesday, 25 July 2018
- Responding to collapse, Part 2: Climate Change, Saturday, 15 September 2018
- Responding to collapse, Part 3: Declining Surplus Energy, Friday, 26 October 2018
- Responding to collapse, Part 4: getting out of the city, Wednesday, 21 November 2018
- Responding to collapse, Part 5: finding a small town, Friday, 28 December 2018
- Responding to Collapse, Part 6: finding a small town, continued, Monday, 28 January 2019
- Responding to Collapse, Part 7: A Team Sport Monday, 18 March 2019
- Responding to Collapse, Part 8: Pitfalls and Practicalities of that Team Sport Tuesday, 26 March 2019
- Responding to Collapse, Part 9: Getting Prepared, Part 1, Thursday, June 13, 2019
- Responding to Collapse, Part 10: the future of the power grid, Wednesday, July 17, 2019
- Responding to Collapse, Part 11: Coping with power outages, the basics, Sunday, August 25, 2019
- Responding to Collapse, Part 12: Coping with longer power outages, Thursday, September 19, 2019
- Responding to Collapse, Part 13: keeping the lights on when the grid goes down forever, Wednesday, 16 October 2019
- Responding to Collapse, Part 14: adapting to life without the grid, Tuesday, 29 October 2019