Off-Grid forum has a new moderator – meet Elnav, and listen to his wise words – he has walked the talk for many years.
“To most people going off the grid conveys the impression of independence but in reality they are in many cases simply exchanging dependence on one thing with dependence on another.
I live in the central interior of BC in the Canadian north where the forestry industry has for a long time been the main economy. Recently an initiative to build a cellulose digester was begun. The idea being, scrap wood leftovers such as leaves, bark and even gardening debris such as grass cuttings is converted into methanol fuel. Wonderful ! It captures something that was previously unused waste and produces something useful.
The Wood stove enthusiasts have proven that wood burning is carbon neutral compared to burning fossil fuels, be it propane, coal, oil or whatever.
Unfortunately harvesting the wood involves consuming fuel; usually diesel and gasoline for everything from chainsaws to mechanized equipment that cuts, delimbs, and bunches the trees ready for transport by truck to a mill or processing plant.
The wood institute has done studies that show it takes 10 acres of woodlot to provide enough fire wood by selective logging practice for one family home. Clearly this is not a practical alternative for millions of people presently living in cities. There simply isn’t enough forested land.
Iindustrial logging leaves unsightly tracts of land almost completely bereft of trees despite the best efforts at practicing responsible logging. In our area every tree cut is replaced with planted seedlings. Its part of the contract the logging companies must sign when logging crown land.
But logging using machinery relies heavily on a road network and intense use of machinery that requires petroleum fuels.
What has been done is simply substituting one kind of community infrastructure ( the electric power grid) for another, ( the processed wood for fuel)
I used to cut and stack 5 cords of wood each winter to heat my place. Could not have done that without a chainsaw a truck and a log splitter.
In many cases going off-grid has also involved living a minimalist life style. Living in a camping van involves doing without many of the creature comforts most people have come to take for granted. Simple lixuries such as soaking in a hot bath is not practical. Okay so you are willing to do without the 42” giant TV screen showing high definition movies but why have most people not joined our ranks in droves? The truth is, doing without the creature comforts is not to most people’s liking. One of the responders to a discussion thread on the off-grid website made a telling remark. He said one goal in building his dream cabin home was to provide those amenities necessary to keep his wife happy. How very true!
It could equally be reversed with the wife being quite willing but the husband requiring certain comforts or else he is not willing to go along. In my case the required amenities is a heated shop, no matter how small in which I can tinker, repair stuff and experiment with projects. My wife demands a large working kitchen. We lived for five years in an RV. By RV standards the kitchen counter was huge, all of 30” long and there was a stove with 4 propane burners. Also an apartment sized propane fridge. I had built an 8′ X 10” shed, insulated it, and wired it for power. It contained all my tools and it had a 4 foot work bench.
Although we lived in that motor home for five years,t we did not really like the restrictions it imposed. So now we live in a mobile home. Ah what luxury!
We shifted our dependence from the normal grid to mainly propane brought in by truck every couple of months. So we were in effect reliant on the civil infrastructure such as a good road network to bring the propane to our place of residence. I am gradually losing the use of my legs and the doctor tells me I will end up in a wheel chair eventually. I am not in a position to back pack 20 pound propane containers any distance through rough terrain. Delivery of propane to refill a 100 pound propane tank was a better choice for me.
If the pilot project of the cellulose digester works out , we still need a road infrastructure to transport the fuel from source to end user( me) as well as roads to transport wood waste to the digester in the first place. And we still need electricity for light if nothing else. In that respect it is very little differnt from the petroleum industry we now have. Main difference being the raw feed stock is now delivered by truck instead of pipeline.
Converting a wood fire into electricity has until recently been somewhat impractical for individual homes. Which is why we developed the grid in the first place.
Burning a fuel to created heat and then steam which in turn spins turbines to create electricity proved to be very complex so clever engineers decided to scale up the size of the generating station to realize economies of scale. In the absence of hydro-electric rivers possibility this has been the only way for the past century. Even so mega scale hydro dams seemed to be way to go.
A development dating back more than 100 years has finally become practical reality . The STIRLING engine converts heat into motive power that can turn an electrical generator.
One company in California worked for several years to develop a small home sized generator that would sell at pricing comparable to a petroleum fuelled generator. Unfortunately the project got hijacked by big business. Federal money grants were offered to build a huge power farm using may of these Stirling engines heated by sunlight . The pilot project was opened by President Bush and Pacific Gas and Light is the operator. Nothing was ever heard of the small single home generator again.
A company in New Zealand called whispergen also makes a modest sized STIRLING engine powered generator. Attempts to introduce it to Europe and North America met with varying levels of sucess. However the $15,000 price tag quickly discouraged all but the very affluent from trying out this device. Worst of all, the Whispergen only comes as a fossil fuel burning model using diesel, propane, or natural gas .
A company in Switzerland is developing a wood pellet burning stove that combines a STIRLING powered generator (2kw output) with the pellet stove. This offers real promise of a sucessful indivdual home application. It would not take much to change the pellet stove to solid log burning firewood.
Unfortunately this product has as yet not been introduced into North america and you can bet there will be a lot of resistance by the establishment in the way of UL and CSA not to mention EPA certification and approvals. In fact EPA will probably prevent any but the pellet stove model from being approved. Pellet stove combustion can be controlled better to give a clean burn with minimal emissions. But now we are back to dependence on some kind of infra structure.
Making wood pellets is not a trivial exercise. It requires a substantial investment in big machinery that in itself is energy hungry. A new pellet plant was built about 20 miles from where I live and requires substantial 3 phase power and natural gas for the wood dryers. The plant location was itself dependent onhaving acess to various grids or civil infra structure . The plant hd to be located near a road for delivery of raw trees to feed the plant. It was preferred to be close to a railroad for shipping out the finished product. It had to have acess to a natural gas pipeline to fed the drying equipment and finally it had to have lots of electricity to drive the giant pellet making presses.
It happens That nearly 100% of the pellets produced is shipped overseas. They do not bag it, but load the pellets directly into railway cars in 100 ton batches.
I can live far away from the crowds and heat my trailer with wood, (or pellets) generate my modest amount of electricity, and even grow some of my own food, but am I truly independent or have I simply shifted from being dependent on one sort of community infra -structure to another?
If everyone heated with wood, the particulate pollution on calm days would choke us all. So we have to use EPA certified and approved stoves to avoid this kind of pollution.
That takes some sort of manufacturing facility. So we are still dependent on a developed industrialization.
I still need to cut and transport the firewood by truck over a road. I need fuel for my generator.
True independence is illusory and can only be achieved by regressing to a subsistence level of existence. Is that truly where we want to go?
Sustainable development is a term used so often it has almost become a cliche. But it points the way to our future. We need to find a balance wherein we progress but in a manner than is sustainable for many generations. During the thirties of the last century many people learned how to conserve and reuse ( recycle). We seem to have forgotten what was learned back then.