A common theme running through many if not most if the current crop of discussion threads dealing with alternative lifestyle and off-grid living is a lack of solid engineering know how.
Many posters ask basic questions about the technology involved. All the major green and alternate energy projects we hear about in the news are mega projects involving huge amounts of money and aimed at creating megawatts of power to feed the existing grid.
These projects do employ engineers but very few of these engineers seem to get involved with low tech small scale energy projects.
I began wondering why.
The majority of people wanting to get off-grid and who are willing to make the effort seem to have expertise in other areas. A case in point is the recent article about Lou Reed a former Rock and Roll singer. He obviously has a great deal of artistic skill and knowledge.
Several thread have posters asking questions of a technical nature that used to be class material for high school students. Our educational system has failed our society and it shows in the limited number of graduating engineers. Studies have shown countries such as China and India are graduating far more engineers than the western world is producing. Not only that, our high school system is not teaching enough technical subjects. The emphasis has shifted to other subjects. The result is a generation growing up that has no exposure to using tools and dealing with the technical aspects of everyday appliances. My generation received fairly extensive shop class training and most of us grew up learning how to fix lawn mowers, toasters and even radios and the lucky ones, their own cars or motor bikes etc.
Today this is almost unheard of.
From time to time, we do see people going off-grid who have an engineering background but most of them are close to retirement age, not young people; engineers starting out.
Somehow the newly graduated engineers appear to be focussed on mega projects. These projects belong to a trend we have already identified as belonging to a non sustainable lifestyle.
Sustainable lifestyle has morphed into sustainable growth; a term which I consider a bit of an oxymoron. Growth implies increase and increase no matter how little eventually expands beyond the capacity to support that growth.
Sustainable lifestyle is about holding the status quo or even diminishing something. But who will go first?
Today’s western society has all the appearances of being self centered and greedy. Many peoples atitudes can be summed up by the phrase “ I’ve got mine, Jack. So screw you!”
One bumper sticker that really annoys me says “ He who dies with the most toys, wins. It really sums up our society and I am neither in agreements with it nor proud our culture has come to this.
But back to engineering and living a sustainable, more simple life style. Not necessarily simplistic, but a simpler life style. There is no glamor or for that matter even a lucrative big business in supporting off-grid people. At the moment many off-grid adherents are striving to live on little or no income and being subsistence farmers or urban scroungers finding sufficient leftovers in the scrap heaps of our affluent society. These are not the kind of people who can afford to spend many thousands of dollars buying the latest technology, or hiring consultants. Perhaps the exception is to be found in some places of the United States where goverment subsidy funds encourage people to install huge solar or wind installations when buying new homes. The initial capital cost can be amortized with grant money or mortgages but is of no use to someone wishing to go small scale on an existing homestead or build from scratch on a limited budget. Mortgages require a continuing cash flow from employment within the existing non-sustainable society.
Furthermore, local ordenances and by-laws often tend to discourage small scale projects. There is so much red tape involved only rich companies can support the extensive application process required to get a project permitted. The process is usually multi year and requires hiring at least one person full time to handle the paper work.
Where I live there is a creek with adequate water flow to support hydro-electric generation for all the homes located along a five mile stretch. But the stream is designated fish habitat and is now inviolate. You cannot even build a rock garden within 30 meters of the creek bank without permission.
Although there are several designs of water wheels that would not interfer with fish migration it would take a multi year effort to satisfy the Fisheries and EPA folks the design is not harmful to the environment. And if by some miracle approval was given, a licence applications requires a $10,000 fee. Not exactly conducive to building a typical off-grid development by a small land holder.
The applications would require submissions and plans to be made by a Professional Engineer. Professional Engineers with the requisite experience are few and far between. Those few are either employed on mega projects or long retired.
The people with real world experience of a practical nature are less likely to be taken seriously by the bureaucrats in charge of granting permits.
It’s a chicken and egg situation. Without a ground swell of interest and actual move towards off-grid living you are not going to attract technical people and engineers to provide the necessary support and without the technical support you are not going to attract off-grid supporters in large enough numbes to interest enough technical people and engineering graduates to work in the field.