Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Technology, Fuel and Work Units

As I’m sure you’ve all noticed, G-man and I aren’t Luddites. We don’t abjure technology; we just practice moderation and attempt to tread lightly upon the Earth when we can. However, one thing I’ve noticed in the recent “Green Movement” is a sort of religious zealotry that makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. Over and over I see miraculous leaps of logic, often flawed or missing/ignoring huge chunks of data, which borders on rapid fervor as the neophytes take up arms in their Crusade. I personally find this disheartening since it will eventually lead to apathy and backlash against sustainable lifestyles (arguably, this is already happening).

With this in mind, having witnessed both the extremes of technophobes vs. technophiles and austere minimalism vs. rampant consumerism, I thought I’d share a little of my philosophy for those of you who may be more realistic and practical. The decision to become more self-sufficient and live sustainably is a personal choice most of us “homesteader” and “back-to-the-land” types make. Many of our friends and family do not agree with us or even attempt to understand why we would seek such a thing. The confusion and struggle is further compounded by all the conflicting information we find while researching or discussing our plans. It’s no wonder that many give up before they ever take their first few real steps towards their dreams. It’s hard to go it alone, especially when no one seems to agree.

So why isn’t there more agreement? Certainly some smart people out there must have figured out the “right way” or the “best solution”… right? Well, NO. See, that’s the problem that so many of us make, and definitely one that the legislators and zealots make A LOT. There is no single right way, no single best solution. Each of us has different goals, different skills, different resources, and different motivations; and that doesn’t even take into account different cash flow and different climates and different environments. Given all the unique factors that an individual must take into account, how can we expect to have a single right answer? We simply can’t, it’s just not realistic. We each need to figure out what we need to do for our desired situation and then determine how to best achieve it based on our individual parameters.

One of the fundamentals: every unit of work requires some amount of fuel consumption, some amount of time investment, and some amount of embodied energy. For those not familiar, embodied energy is basically all the time and effort required to provide something that you later use to complete a task… not for the actual task itself, but the fuels, tools and materials you use to complete it. For example, you use a rifle to hunt game for food, hunting being your task; but that rifle represents a significant amount of embodied energy… all the machines, labor, man-hours and fuel that transforms raw material into the finished good that we can then utilize (mining, smelting, casting, crafting, assembling, transportation, distribution, selling, etc etc). It’s like “food miles”.

So, you can imagine that many times lots of the real costs (the embodied energy and the full financial costs) of a solution may not be transparent, or accurately depicted, when it’s being discussed. And all too often differing solutions aren’t compared apples-to-apples… this is really common when people start discussing ERoEI (energy returned on energy invested) with regards to renewable energy systems. It’s just too easy to look at only plane of data points and say “well 10 cents of grid power is cheaper than $10k in solar panels, especially since they’re only 35% efficient”.  Well… sort of… but it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. You need to dig deeper, get down to discrete units and raw materials before you can really decide (for yourself!) which is true in your circumstance.

With the exception of solar, wind, geothermal and hydro (which are cosmic and/or planetary), we know that some sort of fuel needs to be consumed (wood, coal, gas, biomass, plutonium, whatever) to produce energy required to complete a work unit. So it may actually cost less in the grander scheme of things to produce your electricity via solar pv/wind/etc because the embodied energy is lower and more than offsets your grid prices. The cost of acquiring raw/recycled materials, manufacturing and transportation of the components in your off-grid system could be the same or lower than your portion of the same costs for all that’s required to provide grid power (lots of hidden costs there – think TAXES!), but with the added benefit of zero-cost “fuel” since you don’t have to consume anything or invest any more energy in the acquisition and processing of fuel… the sun will shine, the wind will blow, the Earth will heat, the rivers flow and the tides surge whether or not you ever spend another second thinking about it. Ok… you might have to dust your panels, or oil your turbine, but that’s a fairly low overall operating cost.

Anyway, this isn’t really about power plants vs. private renewable systems. This is really about you, the individual, determining what the best method for you, based on your goals and resources, to achieve the results that you want and not letting the invisible nature of embodied energy slip your mind while you’re planning. It’s too easy to say “well, I’ll just chop trees with an axe for firewood”. Sure, that does certainly work… however, manpower (or animal power) still requires the consumption of fuel – food – and the production and acquisition of that fuel has a certain amount of embodied energy associated with it. So, based on how much firewood you need and what you need it for and how many trees are available to you and how easily you can acquire and transport them and all those same considerations for all the food you need to fuel that endeavor plus all the time you need to invest in wood processing and food processing that you won’t be able to do anything else (like sleep or build a barn)… well, maybe you might just want to consider using a chainsaw and a mechanical log splitter even if  the sticker price is higher and you have to use a bit of fossil fuel.

Whether you chose to do things by hand or animal, or use a mechanical or electronic device, all depends on what units of work you need to complete, how many man-hours you have to complete them, and what trade-offs make sense to you. It’s personal and unique. I choose wood to heat my house (for several reasons), but you might do better using passive solar or propane or geo-thermal. Once you reduce your overall consumption (and, believe me, over-consumption is the cancer in the system!), you can take the time to break down all your tasks into discrete parts to determine where you can really get the most bang-for-your-buck using a bit of tech (or a higher BTU fuel source), what bits of tech you can multi-purpose, and which fuels/ power-sources/processes/tech are most efficacious for you. Efficacious doesn’t necessarily mean 100% efficient … just that it effectively meets your requirements to your satisfaction – no need to be a perfectionist when a little dab will do ya, right?

For us, efficacious means prudent use of fossil fuels (for many personal and practical reasons) and increasing the efficiency of certain processes (like bio-intensive gardening and management-intensive farming), with the thoughtful use of mechanical and electronic tech, to achieve long term sustainability utilizing as many of the abundant local resources in non-polluting and non-wasteful ways as possible. We have to accept some waste and losses, but we try to limit them as much as possible. Your definition and the solutions you come up with will be different… I guarantee it. Which is why I don’t often give detailed or prescriptive (or is that proscriptive? LOL) advice – just suggestions and alternatives that you can research and vet for yourself. I’m happy to help you brainstorm, but don’t expect me to tell you exactly what you need to do… cuz if ya don’t have brains enough to figure some of this stuff out for yourself, how in the heck ya gonna survive out here all on your own? It’s sort of like a proficiency exam for  self-sufficiency :)


Urbancowgrrl said...

This makes me think of an issue that comes up for a lot of us green-thinking folks when we have babies. Disposable or cloth diapers? You'd think "Cloth obviously!" until you realize what a god-awful amount of bleach goes into washing those things. And it's even worse if you use a diaper service (even more bleach AND the fossil fuel to pick-up and deliver them weekly).

We're currently in the process to selling our house to some eco-green zealots. They made it obvious in their letter with their offer how they are the "perfect Earth lovers" and really wanted our house because of the organic gardens, energy efficient upgrades, etc. Then they turned around and said after the inspection they wanted us to replace our perfectly functional furnace and hot water heater because they want brand new ones - not eco friendly ones either - just brand new ones. Ah, fashion environmentalists.

I do try to have a small footprint on the Earth, but you're right, there is no way to never make any negative impression. I try to remember that even beavers mess up ecosystems with their dams and some insects can completely wreck trees. There's no way to be perfect and all I can do is strive for some sort of balance.

Walkntom said...

I remember some time ago watching a documentary on the Amish (some would call the original greeners)In an interview with one of the elders of the community the elder made a comment that was a surprise to me. He stated "We are not against technology we are just against being controlled by it" There is in my opinion a stark difference between worshiping the environment and being a conscientious steward of the environment.

Prepared N.D. said...

Just wanted to check in and say Hi! and thank you for this blog. I've spent the last couple of days going through the archives and I'm finally up to date. Whew! :-)

It's been a very entertaining read and I've gotten a lot of useful information out of it. I feel like a true armchair Alaskan homesteader now LOL. Can't wait to see what the future brings for the both of you - I wish you both the best of luck!

Anonymous said...

Re Urbancowgrrl and cloth diapers: you only rarely need bleach. I'm now washing diapers for my grandbabies and did it for their mother. I only have to bleach twice a year or after the babies' illnesses and then only a small amount per full load (google the amount of bleach needed to sanitize per gallon of water and apply that to the gallons your washer will use - in my front-loader it's only 1-2 measured teaspoons depending on how many diapers I wash at a time). Remember: first do a cold rinse cycle with no detergent followed by either a hot or cold wash cycle using minimal detergent (1 measured tablespoon for my front loader) and then one additional cold rinse cycle. Too much detergent is counterproductive. And never, ever use fabric softener - it makes the diapers less absorbent and of course can irritate the baby's skin. If you are concerned about any sort of buildup in the diapers, wash them in hot water 3 times in a row with minimal detergent and an extra, cold rinse. That should strip out any problem buildup (fabric softener, problematic detergents, etc.).

Now for my comment: Thanks for the reflection on inputs! You really helped me pull some of my own thoughts together. Jennifer

Anonymous said...

When I die, I am going to get cremated just fo i can expose more carbon to the world!! HAHAHAHAHA
Tig Welders of the World Unite!!

Anonymous said...

Great explanation of the realities of "green living" and how it is impossible to have a single lifestyle for everyone.
We burn wood in a 69% efficient woodstove, using a smelly, loud, but very fast chainsaw to process trees from our property. I'd argue it's more evironmentally friendly than a high efficiency gas furnace in a house in town if you look at the big picture.
Anyways, thanks for blogging and I look forward to seeing your progress.

owen said...

Well thought PC. And I agree with Walkintom.