Advancing Zero Fossil Fuel Technologies at LEF

from the Living Energy Farm newsletter, May -June, 2017

We have continued to bring in new tools and organize our shop. We added a nice, old, heavy duty drill press, powered by direct drive high-voltage DC power as we like to do. We also added a winnowing fan and a heavy duty bench grinder to our collection of direct drive tools. We love our direct-drive! Just run a wire from a set of photovoltaic panels (in series to produce high voltage) straight to the motors, and you can do anything you want during daylight hours. It is a simple and cheap setup.


We have continued our research concerning a low-cost high-temperature solar storage system for cooking.  We have discovered a material that we think will make a big difference. In considering high temperature solar storage, we have looked at both tracking collectors and a trough system that needs no tracking. The trough is simpler, but leaves a long collector pipe hanging in the air. As the pipe heats, a lot of heat is lost to the air around the pipe. It would make sense to put some kind of insulating glass around the pipe. But the material would need to be able to withstand very high and fluctuating temperatures well beyond what normal or tempered glass would handle. The high-temperature glass used on woodstove doors is much too expensive. And we would either need a fancy frame to hold the glass around the pipe, or some kind of glass tubing. Finding very high temperature, reasonably priced, large diameter glass tubing just was not  happening. Then we found it. The original Pyrex cookware was made with something called borosilicate.  We have found that we can get borosilicate cheaply in large diameter tubings. This should make a huge difference in our high temperature solar collector.


We are also re-assessing whether to use steam or oil as the heat transfer medium. Steam has the advantage of being very cheap as it is just heated water. It has the disadvantage of needing pressurized storage tank(s). Oil has the advantage of being capable, at least in theory, of handling and storing much higher temperatures in non-pressurized vessels. Industry uses various forms of modified mineral oil that they call “heat transfer fluid,” or HTFs. The market for HTFs has been evolving rapidly. In just the last few years, more and cheaper HTFs have become available. In our case, we could use a large heating oil tank, pack it full of small, clean rock, and circulate HTF through it. That’s the design concept at least. Hopefully, after we finish the current round of infrastructure improvement, we can focus on this project.

Low Density Nickel Iron Batteries

LEF May-June3
Nickel and Iron plates for a homemade NiFe battery.
Eddie (our technical intern now resident in Pittsburgh) has been working on low-density nickel iron batteries. He has a working prototype. The electrical storage capacity of his prototype is low, so he is working to add more nickel and iron plates to expand the storage capacity of the batteries. If this technology works, and we can build it cheaply, it could give us a way to provide lighting for a lot of people around the world.
LEF May-June2
Prototype NiFe battery.  Cheap, durable, homemade?  We hope so.

Taking the LEF Model to Other Locations

If we hope to expand the LEF model, we need to know where we are going to take it. We have been working with Kate (see previous 2 newsletters) to find sites where we might use what we have learned at LEF to help people in the non-industrial world. Kate has extensive experience working with development and aid organizations around the world. Kate has been traveling in Latin America, and looking for sites where  LEF can help. This seems to make more sense than locations far away. Kate made some good connections, but we have not yet picked a specific site. As we mentioned in the last newsletter, we will stay in touch with Tom (from New Community in Harrisonburg) as he travels this winter to the Dominican Republic.
Advancing Zero Fossil Fuel Technologies at LEF

More Farming and Building at LEF

from the Living Energy Farm May/June 2017 Newsletter

With the onset of farming season, we have been busy at LEF. We expanded our seeds operation by about a third this year. Our seed crops are mostly looking great. The orchards and new berry plantings are also in good shape, though it is an effort to keep them watered. The ducks, the bees, and the humans inhabiting our land all seem to be doing well.

 Our goal at LEF is to put together a package of tools and techniques that can sustainably support a village, and to do so at a minimum of cost and complexity so our model can be more easily spread. This year we planted wheat and oats to add to our food supply. The intent is not to simply produce a small amount of grain. It is to see how producing food fits into our zero fossil fuel economy. Can we grow and harvest our food running woodgas or turpentine tractors? How complex or expensive is such a proposition? We have not made much progress with the woodgas tractor in the last couple months, owing mostly to a frustrating succession of mechanical breakdowns. Though we are still doing heavy tillage with fossil fuel, we have started harvesting our grains. We cut our wheat field with scythes and threshed the grain with a shredder (like people use for shredding leaves in their yard). Then we ground the grain into flour with our solar-powered grain mill, and Deb baked a most delicious and satisfying bread in our solar oven. Though the whole process is not what one would call efficient, it has been instructive and fun. We learned that we can grow good quality wheat for making bread. We learned that a small shredder (which could easily be powered with direct-drive solar electricity) works for threshing. But we lost a fair amount of the grain in the harvesting and cleaning process, and it was slow. So we have spent quite a bit of time looking into old American combines. In China and India, numerous companies are making combines the size of riding lawnmowers. Perhaps, if all goes well, we can make progress in the next few years in figuring out how to run small tractors and harvesting machines sustainably at the village level.
LEF May-June1
Deanna and Olan in front of our “drought stressed” Kentucky Rainbow Corn.  Photo credit Sunnelin.

The question of how much food can be grown with organic, sustainable methods is a large one. Each year as we grow bountiful, organic grains and seed crops, we feel more confident that organic farming can feed humanity better than industrial chemical agriculture. Last year we grew Florianni Flint corn. The harvest was fantastic. This year we are growing Kentucky Rainbow, an heirloom dent corn. Industrial agriculture using hybrid GMO seeds is enormously productive under ideal conditions. But under difficult growing conditions, heirloom seeds may actually be better. The old dent corns (like Kentucky Rainbow) are famous for their drought tolerance. Sure enough, we have been having a dry growing season, and we have watched the neighbors’ hybrids shrivel while our Kentucky Rainbow looks like a lush corn jungle. (See photo.)  Most of such building energy as we might possess at the end of the farming day has been going into repairing and completing various parts of our main house and surrounding infrastructure in preparation for bringing more visitors onto the land in the coming months. We have had a few leaking pipes and broken solar gizmos that got left behind in the push to make our main house livable. Now we are fixing those issues. If all goes well, we should be ready for doing  open-houses and other promotional events in the fall.

Stay tuned.
More Farming and Building at LEF

Tractors, Tractors, Tractors at LEF

from the March – April 2017 Newsletter

We Are Running a Woodgas Tractor!
LEF Tractor1
One-row Power King tractor running woodgas and pulling an old mule-drawn Cole planter
A couple of months ago, we finally got a woodgas tractor running. It ran well until we loaded the engine heavily, at which point we learned that our gasifier was too small for the tractor on which it was mounted.  (See our Dec – Jan newsletter.) Since then we have rebuilt the melted woodgas reactor chamber, and mounted the gasifier on a smaller tractor.


The tractor we are running now is an old Power King, which has an engine that is a better match for the gasifier. We have had some frustration in figuring out the best filtration system, but so far the tractor seems to run well. The Power King engine is 1/2 the size of the Ford 661 we tried it on the first time.  There is definitely a learning curve with woodgas. You need very dry fuel. The gasifier needs to be hot.  We will keep you posted as we learn more about this technology. Power performance seems at least adequate, though starting and stabilizing the engine takes some figuring out.


Running a Tractor on Pine Sap?


If you have ever dug a garden by hand, you can appreciate the amount of effort it takes to pull a plow or a cultivator through a field. At LEF, we do as much as we can with organic no till, and growing food on trees. But at the end of the day, being able to move things around or till the soil is hugely helpful on a farm. Our woodgas tractor is operational again. Perhaps it is a good solution for a post fossil fuel world, but the expense, weight and complexity of having a gasifier bolted to a small tractor is noteworthy.


We have been doing research about a different and intriguing option for motive power. A friend of ours who lives out in Missouri by the name of Kris Ward is an unsung hero of LEF. Without him, I am not sure what this project would look like, but it would be different than what it is. Kris is an old-school machinist of the highest caliber. My shorthand description of Kris when I am talking to other people about him is that he knows more about old machines than God. He donated some equipment when we were starting LEF, and introduced us to Nickel Iron batteries. (Which are working miraculously well for us.) He has answered countless questions about things mechanical for us.


Some time ago, I asked Kris to describe to me all the ways people have made machines move in the past.  Steam, draft animals, some of it is obvious. Hot air engines? Some of it is not obvious. The most intriguing answer was turpentine. For those of you not from the south, turpentine is a distillate product of tree resin. You can make it from pine sap, as was quite common on the old south. Turns out turpentine burns very similarly to kerosene. Compared to gasoline, it burns slowly,and does not vaporize easily.


Back before World War II, the process for refining gasoline was less sophisticated, which meant that refineries sold more lower-grade kerosene fuels. These fuels cost one-third as much as gasoline, and some of the tractor companies made tractors (a lot of them) to run on these low-grade fuels. Also, these old tractors were like lawnmowers in the sense that the only electrical system they had was to send a small charge to the spark plug to make a spark. They had no battery and no lights. They were designed to be easily and safely hand-cranked. As much as I dislike lead-acid batteries, it has remained an outstanding question as to how we would start a woodgas tractor without one. These old hand-crank tractors have low-rpm engines (they turn slowly), making them well suited to low-octane fuels that burn slowly (woodgas or turpetine). They are also very, very durable compared to modern engines.


We chose woodgas to run our tractors because it seemed like it made the most sense. Woodgas prevented mass starvation in Europe in the 1940s. People have asked us why we don’t use ethanol or biodiesel. The answer is that those are precious fuels that are derived from high-grade feedstock. They compete with humans for food. With woodgas, the fuel is all around us. That being said, both woodgas and turpentine need a warm engine to work well, so a small amount of ethanol would be really useful as a starter fuel. Woodgas is not necessarily easy to work with. Liquid fuels have some big advantages. Now we have a new project. In the next couple years, we will set up a turpentine tractor and see how it works. Kris summed up the situation in a recent email. “I’m thinking what we will need to do for traction in these villages we envision is a variety of fuels, depending on what is available in the particular bioregion. ie, turps [turpentine] in the pine forest, wood gas in hardwood, steam in straw (yes, they made special straw burners for the flat lands), etc. Perhaps combine one or more of these with animal power from time to time.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. (If you are a farmer and you care, the old John Deere models A,  B, and D are some of the ones designed to run on “tractor fuel” and are easily hand-started.)

We are also reducing the size of the tractors we use. We have found an old Tuff-Bilt, a small, one-row tractor that will allow us to plant and cultivate more accurately. We should be able to dramatically reduce the amount of hand weeding without any increase in fuel use, just by using smaller, more precisely controlled equipment. We have acquired a ancient mule-drawn Cole planter to mate with the Tuff-Bilt.  They still make this model of planter as it is ideal for precise seed spacing. Putting together old and new works best for LEF.


Oggun — A Tractor for the Masses?


We currently have our wood gasifier on a Power King.

LEF Tractor2
Oggun Tractor, similar to the classic Chalmers G and the Tuff-Bilt, but made to be locally produced.

We will build a gasifier for the Tuff-Bilt soon. Our goal is to come up with the simplest, cheapest form of post fossil fuel mechanical power for farmers around the world.  We recently discovered Oggun, a new tractor on the market. The primary weakness of small tractors is that they are too light to have much traction. The Oggun puts the engine right over the rear wheels, maximizing traction. The drive train is as simple as it can be, with a hydraulic pump/ motor arrangement as is used on some heavy equipment. (There is a hydraulic motor directly attached to each wheel, which eliminates the need for a heavy mechanical drive train.) The Oggun has a front cultivator attachment point for precise cultivation, as well as an attachment point for rear implements. It’s a great design. Even more amazingly, the intent of the Oggun tractor company is to help other people around the world to make Oggun tractors. Their business plan is quite unique. The intention is to set up distributors who over time become producers, substituting locally (nationally) made parts when possible. Thus the Ethiopian or Brazilian distributors will use steel, engines, and other parts made in Ethiopia and Brazil over time. This, hopefully, will make the cheapest possible (but still functional and effective) tractors for farmers all over the world. See the Business Plan at


Industrial agriculture is going to fall apart over time. It is critically important for our survival and well-being that we replace it with sustainable methods of food production under local ownership and control.  In using our one-row tractor with a gasifier on it, it is clear that even this modest level of mechanization is going to be very difficult for the poorest of the world’s farmers. All along we keep asking ourselves, “what is the simplest, cheapest, most effective way to do the work we need to do.” For farm traction, the smallest tractor are walk-behind tractors. David Bradley walk-behind tractors were very popular among small farmers and home gardeners 50 years ago. They are even smaller than our small one-row tractors.  The amount of work they can do per hour is limited. But the amount of work they can do compared to a draft animal is large, and the amount of support they need compared to a draft animals is very, very small. We have not pursued walk-behind tractors because of their very limited pulling power, and because of our understanding at the time that is was not practical to run an engine that small with woodgas. We have since found people making gasifiers for such small engines.


In the U.S., we have a lot of cheap, used tractors to choose from. In taking LEF around the world, we cannot rely on used equipment. What does the future hold for humanity? Millions of small farmers using Oggun-style tractors running woodgas or turpentine? Walk-behind tractors? Certainly, Kris’s commentsabout diversified motive power sources adapted to local resources are pertinent. The difference at LEF, as compared to the many academic or “demonstration site” ecological research projects is that we rely on our tools to support us — to grow our food, to earn our living. Many ideas that seem fantastic prove impractical in the field. We will do a lot of our farmwork with woodgas this year. In the next couple of years, we will test the practical viability of turpentine and walk-behind tractors powered with woodgas and turpentine. Perhaps we will set up an Oggun with farm-produced fuels. The big question of how we feed ourselves sustainably and equitably on a global scale is a big one. Hopefully we can do our part to answer it. Our work with putting together integrated village energy system using high and low voltage DC power is working really well. We feel like this system is well worth exporting to villages around the world. Hopefully, ongoing improvements to cooking and farm traction will enhance our efforts. Please support us if you can.

Tractors, Tractors, Tractors at LEF

Batteries and Boilers at Living Energy Farm

from the March – April 2017 Newsletter

Low-Density Nickel Iron Batteries?
We have been continuing our research and work with Nickel-Iron (NiFe) batteries. NiFe batteries are non-toxic, extremely durable, and very tough. Lead-acid batteries are fragile, toxic, and short-lived. Lead-acid batteries dominate the off-grid market, and have largely destroyed it because they die so quickly.

All of the research and development of batteries, NiFes included, has focused on power density- storing a lot of energy in a small space. Thomas Edison made and sold NiFe batteries, intending them for use in electric vehicles and other portable uses where high power density is very desirable. For such uses, short recharge times are also desirable. NiFe batteries have lower power density and longer recharge times than lead-acid. Modern research on NiFe technology has continued to focus on these issues. (There is one substantial research project underway at Stanford University.)

From the perspective of how we do things at LEF, power density and recharge time are irrelevant. At LEF,  we store energy in various ways that allow us to minimize the need for stored electricity. We store water in pressurized tanks, so we don’t have to run a water pump at night. Our buildings have massive thermal mass, so we don’t have to run a heating system at night. We will pump irrigation water through the house while the sun is shining, getting free air-conditioning in the summer from solar pumped irrigation water.  We use high voltage DC motors when the sun is out. We use stored electricity for lighting, nothing else. Our NiFe batteries charge all day long from our solar electric panels. It would not matter if their recharge times were slow or if their power density was abysmally low. Big, cheap batteries would be just fine.

A few people have tried “out in the garage” experiments with homemade NiFe batteries. The basic ingredients — nickel, iron, potassium hydroxide (aka potash) — are easily available. We have been looking over Edison’s original manufacturing processes, as well as the documentation of various homemade NiFe attempts. From his shop in Pittsburgh, Eddie is going to continue the research and try to build low-density NiFes in mason jars. We are not so presumptuous as to imagine that we could outsmart the many well-endowed entities that have worked on high-tech batteries over the years. But it is very possible that low-density NiFes have been ignored simply because there is no immediate profit to be made.

If we can make cheap, low-density NiFes, it would be revolutionary. A very small solar electric panel could be wired straight to the batteries. Small houses in villages all over the world could have light with small LED flashlight bulbs designed to run on low voltage. That could be a cheap, very durable way to provide lighting to millions and millions of the world’s poorest peoples. Wish us luck. If the mason jar NiFes fail, we will continue our overseas efforts using purchased NiFes.

Solar Boiler?

Finding a clean, sustainable way to cook food each and every day has proven to be the most challenging aspect of our project. A defining characteristic of LEF is that everything we do has to be as cheap and simple as possible. That is embedded

LEF Boil
Solar boiler is operational, but not adequately effective (yet).  New shop in the background.

in our definition of sustainability. Finding tools and machines that are accessible to most of humanity is not easy.  At LEF, we are using a combination of solar cookers (parabolic and ovens), and wood stoves. Our rocket stoves are very efficient, using about one-tenth of the wood of an old-fashioned wood cook stove. There are numerous organizations working to spread rocket stoves around the world. That’s a good thing.

The rocket stoves work, but they are an outdoor technology. They are a fire hazard. They mean that some ash and soot get into the food, and some smoke gets in the face of the cook. We built a biogas system at LEF a few years ago. (Biogas = methane = natural gas.) It worked, but there are limitations. The gasifier needs to be kept warm. In cold climates, sometimes they are buried. It needs to be of considerable size. It needs to be fed biomass each and every day.

Seeing the limitations of biogas, we have built a prototype solar boiler. We designed a tracking collector that followed the sun, but decided to use a simpler trough system that needs no tracking. The collector reflects light onto a pipe which contains water. The water boils and the steam collects in a storage tank. The steam could be then piped into a steam-jacket kettle in the kitchen to cook our food. Cooking would be as simple as opening a valve leading to the kettle.

We have been making solar steam, but so far, not enough to make it an effective heat source for cooking. We have some design modifications under way that should improve performance substantially. At LEF, we live with these technologies. We are currently eating small amounts of ash and soot in our food almost every day. Such is unavoidable when cooking with wood, and unacceptable in the long run, especially for our kids. The fact that we live with the technologies we espouse gives us a very different perspective than just experimenting with them.

Another advantage of developing the solar boiler is that we need the exact same parabolic trough setup for a solar ammonia ice maker, a super low-tech refrigeration system. We have thus given ourselves a head-start on that project. And we decided we are also going to look at biogas again. It could be a good bridge fuel for times when the weather does not support the solar boiler. Can we do it and still keep it simple and economical? Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Can we control leakage? What is the impact of that on a larger scale? We will be seeking to answer these questions in the coming months.

Batteries and Boilers at Living Energy Farm

Living Energy Farm at Home and Around the World

from the March – April 2017 Newsletter

Lots of New People at LEF

LEF Home
Paula in our new workshop


We have lots of good energy at LEF these days. Connor is making great progress on our our new you-pick berry operation and horticultural food growing. Gilgamesh is finishing out the new shop, which is now one of the most popular spots on site. How did we ever live without it?


Misha is working on finishing out our main house. Deanna has brought our first bee hives to the farm and is setting up an herb garden next to the kitchen. We have been joined by Paula, who is taking care of our new crew of ducks. Bobby has been instrumental in getting the woodgas tractor running again. Eddie has built something that looks a lot like a solar boiler.


Dan and Erica have moved into Magnolia House (1 mile away from LEF) with their kids Jesse and Mason. They hope to move to LEF later in the year.


The LEF kids — Rosa, Nika, Sunnelin and Olan — are doing great.



 Living Energy Global Initiative–Taking LEF Around the World


Life is very full at Living Energy Farm these days. We are working on a model of sustainable living that we hope can spread around the world. As we mentioned in the last newsletter, we had plans to use our package of sustainable technologies to support lighting and water pumping in a small hospital in Kenya.  We were relying on support from some of the staff of other NGOs to travel there and provide information.  Unfortunately, there are more people at risk of famine right now than at any time in the last 60 years. The African NGOs have their hands full. They have not been able to work with us on our project. Such is the ongoing price of climate change. We wish them good progress in their work.


In the meantime, we have been networking with people and organizations that might help move this idea forward. Eddie, our technical intern at LEF, just left to return to Pittsburgh. He hopes to build an LEF-style community there. We have also had a couple of meetings with the New Community Project in Harrisonburg, VA. They have put together an amazing community of people around a neighborhood of houses that offer both an ecological vision and hospitality for people trying to get on their feet. We have a plan to take their main community house off-grid using the LEF approach. We will work on design and funding in the coming months, and begin work on reconfiguring their community house later this year or next.
Tom Benevento is one of the lead organizers of the New Community project (Vine and Fig) in Harrisonburg. He has also done support work for sustainable development projects in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. He will be traveling down there next winter. We will probably send someone to travel with him and assess the options for setting up LEF-style communities in the Dominican Republic.  We have friends in Nicaragua with whom are discussing the possibility of setting up similar communities there.


Millions of people around the world do not have access to electricity, or farm traction. The integrated village renewable energy systems we have at LEF are, we hope, both sustainable and economically viable.  As we spread this model, we intend to advocate an ideology that holds the Earth as sacred. We hope that our model, once more people understand it, will be able to spread on its own.


Do you have friends in non-industrial countries? We are looking for people who have connections in communities where establishing LEF-style energy systems would be welcome. Such communities would need to have a sufficient level of social organization to be able to take advantage of energy supplies that tie numerous households together. Do you want to help us spread this model? Please talk to us.



Article about LEF at the Atlantic Online Magazine
Article about LEF in The Central Virginian
Cville weekly in Charlottesville VA
First video on youtube
Second video on youtube
Video on vimeo
Living Energy Farm is a project to build a demonstration farm, community, and education center in Louisa County that uses no fossil fuels. For more information see our website or contact us at or Living Energy Farm, 1022 Bibb Store Rd, Louisa VA, 23093. Donations to the Living Energy Farm Education Fund are tax deductible and can be made via our website.
Living Energy Farm at Home and Around the World

A Cornucopia of Communes

Pictures of most of the communities featured in Commune Life over the last year.  (All communes are in US states unless otherwise noted.)

Acorn, Mineral, VA:


Baltimore Free Farm, Baltimore, MD:

Cambia, Louisa, VA:

Cambia 4

Compersia, Washington, DC:


East Wind, Tecumseh, MO:


las Indias, Madrid, Spain:


Living Energy Farm, Louisa, VA:


Oran MórSquires, MO:

Summer OM5a

Quercus (disbanded), Richmond, VA:

Porch music jam on our snazy palette-finished porch

Rainforest Lab, Forks, WA:


Sandhill Farm, Rutledge, MO:

Sandhill 1

Sycamore Farm, Arcadia, VA:


The Common Unity Project (TCUP),  Gitxsan Territory, Hazelton, BC (Canada):


Twin Oaks, Louisa, VA:





A Cornucopia of Communes

Expanding the LEF Model

from the Living Energy Farm

Zero Fossil Fuel on Prime Time?
We at LEF have had some interesting experiences with local and global media in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, we spoke with representatives from BBC, Discovery Channel, and Netflix about their desires to do shows about off-grid living. BBC said they wanted to do a show about a group of people living off-grid. I told them about LEF, as well as several other projects around the U.S. with similar goals. (Possibility Alliance in Missouri, a Neo-Christian group in Iowa called Brotherhood of Christ, a small group in Harrisonburg VA called the Downstream Project.) I suggested that by looking at groups who had been working on this idea for years, they would get a great picture of what life can really be like without fossil fuel. They said that they were not interested in my idea. They intended to drop 50 people with no experience living off grid in the Australian Outback and film what happened for the first year. That sounded pretty grim. We declined to participate.


Discovery sent a couple producers out. They looked over our project. Then they informed me that they had found a couple living in a bedraggled cabin on the Eastern Shore. The couple was struggling to manage livestock, build their buildings, and deal with all the necessities of homesteading. They then offered me a few thousand dollars to hire a crew, buy building materials, and go build them a barn or a composting toilet so their show could look like rustic home make-over heroes (I guess…). Seeing my blank look the producer responded “there’s not much money in television.” They were not particularly interested in LEF either.


Producers from Netflix interviewed us, and then dropped the idea without much explanation. Fox News has also done its part to contribute to the image of living without fossil fuel as a Grim Specter, though in that case it had nothing to do with LEF. If you haven’t seen Gaslands I & II, they are excellent, low-budget documentaries about fracking. The original Gaslands caused enough trouble for the fracking industry that they counter-attacked. Fox News ran a “story” about “debunking” Gaslands in which the commentator listed the “falsehoods” in the documentary with a backdrop of film from an African famine playing behind the commentator, who then concluded with a comment about what life would be like without fossil fuel. (It’s on youtube.)


 There have been numerous stories published about LEF. (There is a list at end of this article.) These stories have been a welcome avenue to reach people. The most recent Atlantic article portrayed off-grid living as a hardship, and then closed with a comment about how solar energy is “expensive.” Several other writers have commented about how solar energy is “too expensive.” Funny thing is, they didn’t ask me how much it cost to build our infrastructure at LEF.


Truth is, if you do anything alone, then you can’t do much. If you live in the city and tried to pave the 50 feet of roadway in front of your house, that could be rather difficult and expensive. Societal choices determine the cost of most of the infrastructure we share. LEFers often travel by train. It is shocking how cheap cars seem compared to the train, when obviously the train is much, much more efficient. But automobile travel is largely socialized via the various federal and state Departments of Transportation.

The State bears the cost. At LEF, we say over and over again that our most important technology is community. It is only by the cooperative use of resources that we have any hope of undertaking projects of any complexity and reducing our ecological footprint. It is by focusing on the individual pitted against the wilderness that one can make life without fossil fuel look miserable.


So how much does it cost to live without fossil fuel? And is there any truth to the image of the Grim Specter of misery in the absence of fossil fuel? Our buildings at LEF were informed by a strawbale insulated, solar-heated cooperative house in Charlottesille that Alexis built prior to LEF. At last measure, that house used 91% less energy on a per-capita basis than the American average. The formidable cost? About $14,500 on a per-capita basis, including the purchase price of the land. (Incidentally, there is no solar electricity on that house, which belies the focus we have developed for grid-tie solar electricity.)


Last night it was 15 degrees F. Yesterday it was partly cloudy with a howling cold wind. Forgive me if this is “too much information,” but last night I slept naked with a sheet and one blanket over me. I can’t remember the last time we built a fire for heat. Six weeks ago? The build-out cost of our zero fossil fuel house, kitchen and attached infrastructure at LEF is about $10,000 per capita. (Not including the purchase price of the whole farm property.) It’s really quite simple. We have fewer square feet per person (by far the biggest cost difference), we don’t have to pay for a heat pump, boiler, or furnace. Our solar hot water heaters and solar space heating equipment is comparable to the cost of conventional equipment we didn’t install. We have fewer bathrooms (mostly by dividing the functions of a bathroom) and one kitchen. A strawbale wall cost less than a “normal” wall because strawbale is ideally suited to unskilled labor, but the strawbale wall has four times as much insulation. The final cost of a LEF model self-sufficient house is less than most people pay for housing in the industrial world. Energy self-sufficient communities are cheaper, not more expensive. So why the recurring Grim Specter of chaos in the outback? Why the recurring theme that a self-sufficient lifestyle is “too expensive”? One can only presume that it relieves the discomfort of the viewer or reader of commercial media stories to know that such outlandish alternatives really are impractical.
Deb building a duck house, new shop in the background!
 It is a profound irony that so many would imagine life without fossil fuel to be a sacrifice. The world we inherited involves terrible sacrifice. So many people work so hard, taking out 30 year mortgages to pay for their houses (which are, statistically speaking, three-times larger per capita than two generations ago) and to pay for the cars to drive to work. But our culture sets our values, so we have normalized the sacrifices that support the industrial consumerist economy. We have developed a lifestyle that is expensive, and leaves each individual or family to fend for themselves. That has become a cultural value, and like so many other cultural values, we hold to it, defending our beliefs with ideological vigor and fiction as necessary.


And now our political system is twirling ever more into madness because the corporate powers that supply our fossil fueled addictions are also buying our political system via their own private propaganda “news” programs. History is painfully clear, economic concentration leads inexorably to the concentration of political power. Protests and expressions of indignity will not reverse that process. Economically empowered, sustainable communities can. As much as I understand the visceral reaction we have to immediate circumstance, we do not have to keep losing to civic decay. We simply have to decide that a long term, realistic plan is more important than having enemies. And we have to choose our culture, from the bottom up.


We are all going to live without fossil fuel eventually.  If we work on it now, we can improve our lives. If we wait for the money system and food production to destabilize, it’s going to be much, much more difficult. Think that’s not going to happen? The temperature oscillation we are experiencing as I write these words is going to hit our food production on the east coast, just like it did last year. We are at the beginning of a 100,000 year curve. That’s how long it takes to wash the carbon out of the atmosphere. We are headed for change. We need a longer term focus. Can’t afford it? We cannot afford to live an individualized, consumer lifestyle AND stack gobs of “renewable” energy on top of it. Total per-capita electricity production at LEF is less than 200 watts. We can afford that, if we can choose our own cultural values. We pay for what we really want. It’s time to want a livable world for our children. It’s not somebody else’s responsibility. It’s yours.


Expanding the LEF Model


For the most part, the mechanical side of LEF is working really well. We said from the beginning that we would not be a technology development center, that we would simply use technologies other people have developed. It hasn’t worked out that way. We are having to innovate quite a bit. That takes time, but it’s coming along. We will improve things, but even now, our life is very comfortable.


Now it’s time to build a movement of economically empowered, sustainable communities. We stuck our toes in with drilling a well in Bindura, Kenya, but the communication has not been adequate to support further work there. The silver lining is that we went looking for others who might be able to get involved, and we found some folks. One of those folks is Katherine Heitz (Kate). She has worked for numerous non-profit organizations helping people around the world. Frustrated with the bureaucracy of the bigger organizations, Kate started her own group to drill wells in Africa called Groundswell. (Website) Her family is based near LEF. We had numerous meetings with her before she left for Lebanon (where she is now working with an organization that removes land mines). In about a month, she will be back in Kenya. She has worked with a clinic there that is hauling their water with donkeys, and does not have reliable lighting. We believe we can use LEF’s approach to help the clinic, and hopefully plant a seed of sensible off-grid living in Kenya in the process.
Eddie starts work on the tropical solar boiler, the cold-weather hardware in the background.
 We have also had three meetings in the last few years with members of the Board of Directors of Ekal Vidyalaya, a very large organization in India who runs literacy programs in 60,000 Indian villages. They are hoping to provide rural economic support so the children they educate will have better opportunities. They have done work with solar energy, but unfortunately they have relied on solar contractors who use the poorly conceived American design of using lead-acid batteries, inverters, and AC equipment. Those systems fall apart in a few years. A few board members suggested that we may be able to help them apply an LEF-style design to their efforts. We’re still just having the conversation, but it is promising.


The primary root of global ecological problems lies in the industrial world, in the U.S. in particular. We lead the world in financial and military power, and as well as cultural models, like our poorly conceived solar energy systems. As the modern economy goes through its inevitable convulsions, more people will end up on our doorstep at LEF. For LEF to be a viable seed that can grow as replacement for the consumer economy, we need more LEFs. Today I am going to order a couple more DC motors for our shop. That is really easy right now. As these inevitable economic convulsions arrive, that might get much harder. The more we can do now, the more viable the idea is in the long run. LEF has some connections with the Intentional Communities (IC) movement. The hardest part of transitioning to living in an LEF-style community for the average American would be giving up control over so much private space (house and automobile). For people in ICs, the most difficult transition has already been made. We will keep trying to promote our ideas there as elsewhere.


That’s where you come in. We have had some generous donations to the Living Energy Global Initiative fund. But it makes no sense for us to try to build LEF-style communities for people who don’t want to live in them. We need to find people who want to live this way, where ever they are. We have a great crew at LEF now. But our bubble of ecological purity, if that’s what it is, doesn’t help anyone until we can figure out how to transplant the model. We need your help with that now. Our biggest need now, indeed the only way we can address the larger ecological crisis, is to de-stigmatize the cooperative use of resources. The only way to accomplish that is to have more people doing it and promoting it.


We are all going to live without fossil fuel eventually. The inherent instability of the rapidly changing modern industrial system, with its financial system leveraged on thin air, might bring instability sooner. Or perhaps the inherent ecological instability of geometric growth on a finite Earth will take some decades to play out. Either way, we will all live without fossil fuel eventually. The solution to that problem is the same as the long-term solution to civic and political ossification — sustainable, empowered
communities. You could help us organize a conference about long-term solutions, entitled You Know What You Oppose, Do You Know What You Support? If you have skills, you could take Eddie’s place as a technical intern when he leaves at the end of April. You could look around, in the U.S. or abroad, and help us find people for whom a shared economy based on renewable energy would be a welcome addition to their lives. It’s time for you to help us figure out how to plant new seeds, in the U.S. and abroad. We look forward to hearing from you.


Article about LEF at the Atlantic Online Magazine

Article about LEF in The Central Virginian
Cville weekly in Charlottesville VA
First video on youtube
Second video on youtube
Video on vimeo
Slideshow  produced by Alexis a while ago
Living Energy Farm is a project to build a demonstration farm, community, and education center in Louisa County that uses no fossil fuels. For more information see our website, or contact us at or Living Energy Farm, 1022 Bibb Store Rd, Louisa VA, 23093. Donations to the Living Energy Farm Education Fund are tax deductible.
Expanding the LEF Model