Independence or a new dependency?

Don't mess with our forum moderator
Don't mess with our forum moderator

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.

13 Responses

  1. Elnav has some great points that are missed by many. You do trade one thing for another when you go off the grid. And, most people are not willing to own up to that.

    We all use energy but we need to use it wisely and not be spendthrifts with it. I spoke with a woman touting her fabulous decrease in garbage by recycling and had only 1 small bag of garbage for the week. She later spoke about how she was using her neighbors plastic recycling, folded her boxes and brought them to the dump and that left her with only 1 small container. Still the same amount of garbage but it wasn’t in front of her house!

    We have the desire to move further out but we plan on a generator, WI-FI and indoor plumbing. With today’s technology, you can do it. No one is planning on living on root berries in sack cloth but you can cut down on things or make choices that have a positive impact. That is what being a good steward is all about, use what you have wisely, don’t waste and offer positive solutions that are affordable and feasible.

  2. To go off-grid is not so hard anymore. If you do go off-grid remember do it right the first time. Earth homes eliminate the use of air conditioners and heating systems. Sky lights let light in rooms and homes during day light hours. Now for electric power. There are two types of electric power available. DC and AC. Power as much of your home with DC power. Produce enough DC power with Solar Panels, charge controllers plus a bank of batteries. Now you are off-grid. You really don’t have to give up any creature comforts. What you are actually doing is being part of the solution and not part of the problem. Power Companies only deliver AC power to homes. The only affordable way I know how to go off-grid is to use solar photovoltaic. I designed, developed and deployed over the years almost 4 million off-grid products, including: 1. Solar Powered Aids to Navigation, Solar Lawn Lighting, Solar Products for use in Space, Solar Powered Calculators, Solar Street Lighting, Solar Powered Communications Systems. All these products are DC power generation products. When you add AC inverters, that is when you loose power. Look at your car, it is off-grid in a way. You would be supprised at just how many off-grid products there are. This is how I feel. “We can not fix a problem by thinking the same way that caused the problem. So instead of talking we should all take action. As long as we burn fuel, convert water to hydrogen, swap food for gas we will never move forward . We should all thrive to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. The best way to solve the energy problem that faces all of us. Is to invest in our own future.” The best solution to our energy problem is to get off the grid. Problem Solved!

  3. elnav,

    Thank you for such a wonderful post. Have you considered using that wood to make charcoal? A by-product of the charcoal-making process is biofuel, which is something I thought you would be discussing in your article. In addition to the charcoal (the larger pieces capable of being burned separately) created by pyrolisis is biochar (the smaller pieces), which can be crushed and used in gardens and spread around trees and bushes to enhance the soil.

    My husband and I look forward to retirement and leaving the city for the quiet country life. Unfortunately, he’s the one who is adamant about his creature comforts; fortunately, he’s very supportive of my desire for minimal grid needs — ie, solar power and solar hot water heating as well as rainwater cachment and greywater recycling. I also hope to set up a garden and greenhouse, and one of the things I plan to get is a home-size pyrolosis setup to make biochar to not only use in the garden but to cut down on the amount of unrecyclable household and yard waste that would otherwise end up in the local landfill.

    By the way, I caught the “biochar bug” after reading a piece on terra pretta here at Off-Grid.net and have spent much time reading about and researching biochar ever since.

  4. Speaking of sucking from the great petroleum tit I subscribe to an engineering forum and about a year ago someone posted a query about designing an oil fuelled lantern that would use vegetable oild derived from a bush that grew wild in india. Apparently this bush has berries and leaves that can be harvested and crushed to extract an oil that readily becomes fuel. The viscosity is different from kerosene hence the attmpt to design a better lamp. The oil is also used as fuel for village generators for the electrification of rural india.
    Unfortunately any attempts at bringing such a plant into North America would likely be opposed by the environmentalists as an undesirable invasive specie. But most attempts are doing something similar with native plant specie is usually met with opposition by the established suppliers of fossil fuel products. yet another example of how forces conspire to maintain the status quo.

  5. Mag netic anomaly
    I think we share a similar outlook. Too many people are unwilling to give up any of their comfort items. Yes they are willing to heat with wood provided it is delivered, cut and split and they can hire someone to stack it for them. A self cleaning wood stove would be nice as well.
    In my case hand cutting and back packing the wood home simply isn’t an option. Ten miles is just too far for such a venture. Considering the doctor said I would be in a wheel chair by now I consider myself lucky to be able to walk unaided at this time. I did have to get some loggers caulking boots with spikes in order to be able to walk around the wood piles and cut the scrap wood as illustrated in the photo. These piles of wood are scrap trees considered garbage by the mills because they are either the wrong specie or too small for cutting into dimensional lumber. they are left to dry for a year then burned unless locals like me cut them up for fire wood first.

  6. Larry
    please provide more information about the ‘liquid glass” you are referring to. My google search gave too many confusing links. The closest was a liquid silicon dioxide coating that was advertised as porous and able to breathe. If this was what you intended my comment is how would that contain hydrogen molecules? If this is not what you intended how about elaborating more in a subsequent post?

  7. Your well grounded and practical perspective is a breath of fresh air, Elnav.

    I have heated my homes with wood since 1979. Cut it all with a crosscut and carried it on my back until about four years ago. Could no longer afford the time..but I truly miss the exercise and silence.

    Now I cut my firewood with a gas-powered chainsaw and haul it with 79-year-old gasoline (originally kerosene) powered tractor.

    Went off the elec grid in 1989..but paraffin candles and later kerosene lamps still of course amounted to sucking from the Great Petroleum Tit.

    Independence of course is always relative, and in the strictest sense an illusion. We all depend on the ecosphere….and on our not-always -conscious-or-voluntary choice of human constructs

    The most important thing, IMHO, is for those choices to be conscious.

    I am an engineer by profession when not fully occupied with subsistence chores, and have had a business for many years building and repairing machinery. In my shop, given energy (currently use combination of PV and gasoline generator), scrap metal, and man-hours I could theoretically maintain roughly a 1920 technological level without ever having to buy parts. But I would still be dependent on scrap, which derives from a vast infrastructure.

    I had a good friend who was working on a road-worthy wood burning steam engined truck when he died. I imagine burning home-squeezed sunflower seed oil in a Diesel tractor, or building and running a steam tractor, and running a hydraulic chainsaw such as the utility companies use from the tractor hydraulic system…

    But to live in a style anything beyond that of the pre-European- contact Amerindians requires inevitably a large economic and technological network. Even the Indians traded over long distances for desirable flint and other stones for toolmaking and ornaments.

    Year and a half ago finished building solar power system, providing electricity for lights, computer, refrigerator

  8. very good article/commentary…I think the human race is ALWAYS going to have issues such as this (well, until larger issues come along…) until we realize that our fundamental views about housing need to change.

    We are harvesting wood (and manufacturing toxic materials) to build ‘traditional’ type homes that have relatively low thermal mass/insulative qualities…so *of course* they require quite a lot of heating/cooling…which then leads to industrialized harvesting of the resources being used to heat & cool.

    All of this sort of stuff is what led me to the Earthship concept years ago; imagine re-using waste products to build a self-sustaining home that (if designed and operated efficiently) could potentially use *no* external fuel for heating, potentially captures it’s own water, etc etc.

    Great concept…unfortunately, the powers that be will do everything they can to outlaw these types of abodes…

    Just food for thought.

    Check out:


    Also, the movie: Garbage Warrior (documentary about Michael Reynolds, Earthship ‘inventor’)

    Thanks and hope I haven’t offended anyone…

  9. It never ceases to amaze me how the staunch environmentatist ignores the fact that the laws of thermal dynamics aply to everything. You can’t get anything for nothing. You will pay for it in one way or another, on one side of the equation or the other.

  10. Paul; yes i do remember the fanfare that first greeted professor Scott’s announcements concerning hydrogen power. Sadly the promised nirvanna of abundant free energy never materialized. Ballard Power in Burnaby is among the leading commercial companies that have tried to realize the potential promised by Hydrogen power. Despite decades of research only a few hydrogen fuel cells have hit the market. A friend in Europe works for a company that recently took delivery of an Italian built fuel cell that promises to deliver 6 kW. It will be while beforefield trials are completed. One of the premises behind the proposal to get abundant hydrogen was based on the notion that electrolysis would be used and the electrical power would come from the nuclear reactors such as Ontario Hydro was building back then.

    The concept was to use the surplus power from nuclear stations during slack periods of power demand to make hydrogen. This would keep the base load on a nuke very high on a constant basis. Hydrogen could then be stored and used as fuel. Ballard Power had done a field trial of public transit busses. These experimental hydrogen fuelled busses never became mainstream due to various maintenance and service issues. The transit company also tested methane as a fuel. Neither really got top marks as an alternative fuel. Back then we did not realize how severe hydrogen embrittlement was nor how damaging it would be for the piping used in nuclear stations. Replacement of embrittled piping has proven to be a major expense in maintaining nuclear reactors.
    Because hydrogen molecules are so small they tend to insinuate themselves into and through the molecular structure of the metals used for piping inside the reactors. I worked for a company that built equipment for the nuclear fuelling machines and we had to pressure test the piping with helium because it was decided hydrogen was too dangerous to handle and helium was close enough in molecular size to be a close substitute for pressure testing. Therein lies the real problem with hydrogen. The molecules are so small they can leak through just about any kind of container. We do not have the technology to handle it the way we do propane or gasoline. Even Ballard has experienced their share of tank leaks. The trick is to formulate a coating with a molecular lattice so small a single hydrogen molecule cannot get through it. When we do, Canada will be in a position to produce major quantities of Hydrogen fuel. We already have huge hydro-electric generating capacity not to mention one of the largest private nuclear generating company in North America.
    At present most of the commercial hydrogen fuel cells rely on petroleum feed stock to create the required hydrogen using a proton exchange membrane technology. Its going to be a while yet before it reaches economic viability.

  11. As a postscript to my article above, let me say that my work experience is mainly in North America but I was born in Denmark and much of my early cultural outlook remains European.
    I first worked on building wind generator automated controls back in the mid seventies so my interest and involvement in alternative energy goes back a long time. Despite several decades we have not attracted a huge following so I conclude a shift in outlook and implementation to going off-grid may be beneficial and attract more supporters. I would love to hear some opinions from readers.

  12. Hydrogen my friend!! What ever happened to that Hydrogen Powered car that was on 60 minutes back 10 or more years ago, Morley shaffer reported i think as dan would rather not!! Clean Renewable Hydrogen!! Just Don’t Split it for Harmful ways!! Electroloysis is way better than Fusion anyday! Produce cheaply Stored properly just as safe as propane or gasoline Good Ol h2O = Problem solved and ALL that Methane goin down the tubes!! Man LA has enuff sewage Methane Alone to Power??? LA and more?n
    then add the Landfill and thats alot of wasted usable energy Stuff that one into Your Oil Barrel! and take back your stinking barges that Can and Have Faulterd. and yep Good ole wood alkyhaul, have fun in those bushes!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join the global off-grid community

Register for a better experiencE on this site!