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:

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Baltimore Free Farm, Baltimore, MD:

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Cambia, Louisa, VA:

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Compersia, Washington, DC:

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East Wind, Tecumseh, MO:

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las Indias, Madrid, Spain:

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Living Energy Farm, Louisa, VA:

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Oran MórSquires, MO:

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Quercus (disbanded), Richmond, VA:

Porch music jam on our snazy palette-finished porch

Rainforest Lab, Forks, WA:

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Sandhill Farm, Rutledge, MO:

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Sycamore Farm, Arcadia, VA:

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

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Twin Oaks, Louisa, VA:

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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.
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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.
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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
LEF on CNN
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 livingenergyfarm@gmail.com 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

Radical Sharing

by Raven

Sustainability is important to many people. Some of the newer income sharing communities, such as Living Energy Farm and the Stillwater Sanctuary/Possibility Alliance, focus on reducing their carbon footprint, but Twin Oaks, a large, older communities, has never been very concerned with this, and still uses almost 20% of the resources of an average American.

The reason is that Twin Oaks embraces what Paxus refers to as ‘Radical Sharing’.  Twin Oaks has 17 cars for nearly 100 people.   (To compare, a hundred average Americans probably have 67 cars.)  They share tools and bikes and even clothes, not to mention books and musical instruments and, of course, income.

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Truly, most communities, even co-housing communities which are sort of at the other end of the spectrum from income sharing communities, do some degree of sharing.  However, most of the income sharing communities, by their very nature, do much more sharing than simply income.

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Car sharing board at Twin Oaks

Acorn also shares cars and bikes and tools and clothes, as does East Wind.  And at new communes such as Cambia and Compersia the work of building the community is shared.

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Car key cabinet at Twin Oaks

I have a button that I wear sometimes that says “Consume Less, Share More.”  In the communes this type of radical sharing is a daily reality.

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Radical Sharing

Choices at Living Energy Farm, Part Three: Agriculture

Growing Food on Trees at LEF
Growing food on trees is by some measures the most benign form of agriculture. Trees have huge root systems compared to annual plants. Orchards sequester carbon, build lef-acsoil and have no erosion. And fruits and nuts taste good! Since we started LEF, we
have been trying to build or capacity to grow food on trees, and to figure out what works and what does not. We realized that a lot of the plants we wanted to grow will
not work in the new age of polar vortex oscillation. We have shifted to more cold resilient trees. We have also struggled to do so many things at once. Now we have an
orchard intern, Conner, who brings a most welcome energetic approach to life at LEF. Welcome Conner. We look forward to harvesting fruit this year!
Agricultural Choices at LEF
Now we’re in the final stages of finishing the house, which is an exciting time. We’ve been postponing other projects until basic infrastructure was done. Once the house is done we can hopefully build a few other smaller buildings we need (shop, greenhouse, root cellar). We hope to improve our food self-sufficiency. And we are working to connect with other groups to spread LEF’s ideas to other villages around the world.
Part of our expansion of food production will include bringing in a few farm animals. We’ve had more than a few visitors come out to the farm and ask (not in these exact words), “If you’re a farm, where are the animals?” Diets based around animal foods are so deeply ingrained in American culture that many people see farming as mostly about raising animals, without much thought about the plants that support them. At LEF, we believe that buying industrial GMO grain at the feed store and feeding it to animals isn’t a whole lot better than eating GMO grain ourselves (environmentally, it’s worse). We do like eating eggs, so we have been wanting to get some poultry; but first we needed to grow the grain to feed them. And we did, last year, grow a bumper crop of Florianni flint heirloom corn. We’ve been eating a lot of it, and we’ll use some of it to feed a small flock of ducks that we plan to get this year to supply us with eggs, meat, fertilizer and entertainment.
But what about grass-fed ruminants? We don’t plan to incorporate these animals into our farm any time soon, for two reasons. The first is that we don’t have much grass. Our land is a mixed hardwood and pine forest that was clearcut 6 years ago and is just starting to recover. (We did experiment with feeding goats out in the recovering forest, but the project consumed much more time than it was worth.) Clearing land for pasture and hay fields would be difficult and energy intensive, and we barely have enough  cleared for annual crops and orchards, which take much less space than pasture
and hay.

The second and more important reason is we want to demonstrate farming techniques that canfeed people sustainably with less land. For us this means growing food on  trees, annual crops, and small scale poultry. We recognize that agricultural choices are always local, and grazing animals will always be an indispensable part of food production in lands marginal for agriculture, particularly for some indigenous cultures. But in land such as ours where rainfall and fertility are sufficient to support a plant-based diet, we believe it is better to feed people with less land instead of more. And while it is true that a well managed pasture can build fertility, well managed annually cropped farmland and orchards can do this as well with the use of cover crops, fallow periods and minimum tillage, with much more food produced per acre, and without the methane emissions of ruminant animals. Our goal at LEF is to create a model of sustainability that can be applied globally. The reality is that cattle, especially grassfed, can only be produced on a scale to feed the wealthy.

Our daughter, Rosa, is 5 years old and more than anything in the world, she loves wild animals. We have read her stacks of books about conservation and saving endangered species. Over and over the theme comes up of habitat loss. The sad reality is that animal life on earth, once stunning in its diversity, is now almost entirely made up of humans and our domestic animals. Globally today only 2-6% of terrestrial zoomass (weight of land animals) is wild; the rest is humans and our domestic animals, two thirds of which is cattle and other ruminants. The number one reason for loss of wild animals is land being converted to pasture and grainland to feed animals. Ninety percent of rainforest loss is directly attributable to expansions in animal agriculture, beef in particular. The planet Earth is now facing its sixth mass extinction in 4.5 billion years specifically because of our predilection to eat excessive amounts of meat. That is an incomprehensible theft from our children, from all future generations. So even though we eat wild animals sometimes at LEF (particularly the deer and rabbits who like to eat our vegetables and seed crops), when Rosa asks what we can do to help wild animals, we tell her that we eat mostly plants — and encourage others to do the same — so more land can be left wild.
Choices at Living Energy Farm, Part Three: Agriculture

Choices at Living Energy Farm, Part Two: Electrical Alternatives

excerpted from the Living Energy Farm November – December, 2016 Newsletter

Nickel Iron Testing
The Nickel-Iron (NiFe) battery testing has been all but miraculous. The marriage of old technologies (NiFe batteries) and new technologies (modern DC LEDs and photovoltaic electricity) is absolutely amazing. We had used lead-acid batteries until we could get the NiFes hooked up. Output from lead-acid batteries is like a river headed for a waterfall.   As long as you are at the top, life is good. When the voltage collapses, you’re done.
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The Miracle of DC LEDs, 24 Watts Lights a Large Living Room
The NiFes are very different. The NiFes are expensive, bulky, and heavy.  Their nominal output (rated in amp-hours) is poor compared to lead-acid. But actual performance could not be more different. Our goal in testing the NiFes is to see how many houses in a village (or how many rooms in a cooperative house) we could light up with LEDs, and how many cell phones we could charge. We had a set of 500 watt panels charging the lead-acid batteries. We didn’t have a charge controller large enough to handle the output of those panels. So we brought a smaller set of PV panels we had been using for irrigation pumps up to the house and tied them to a smaller charge controller and the NiFe batteries. The problem was that we did all that in the early fall. All of our permanently mounted PV panels are up high so they don’t get shaded. But as the sun has fallen toward the horizon this winter, these “new” panels ended up in the shade. By December, the charge meter said we were only putting about 10 amp-hours into the batteries. Converting that to incandescent light-bulbs, we were collecting enough electricity to light up two 60 watt bulbs for one hour. That’s all. I sighed, expecting the NiFes to discharge, and made plans for what to do next. We have been lighting the house and the kitchen, and charging cell phones and personal devices without restriction. And then the miracle. The Nifes didn’t discharge. They discharge current in a whole different way than lead-acid batteries. We have never seen voltages below 12.2 V coming from the NiFes, even with weak input. The LEDs are good down to 9 volts. The discharge current from the NiFes is steady and strong, each decimal down. No waterfall.
Now we have swapped equipment around again, and are now charging the NiFes from a panel on the roof. We have learned a few things. A very modest (100 amp-hour) NiFe set will power a lot of LED’s. A modest PV panel is all that is needed to keep them charged. We still don’t know the maximum output of a 100 amp-hour NiFe set because we are so far away from actually “maxing out” the current system. It is clear that we can support numerous houses in a village with DC LEDs, a couple hundred watts input, and a modest set of NiFe batteries. Somewhere between “numerous” and dozens. We’ll see.
Our DC Economy Continues To Grow
We have been enormously pleased at our ability to do all manner of work with  high-voltage, direct-drive DC power. We added two new DC tools this month, electrifying our grain grinder and setting up a compressor with a DC motor. We run these tools when the sun is out — no inverters, no fancy electronics.
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Direct-Drive DC Compressor
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Choices at Living Energy Farm, Part Two: Electrical Alternatives

Choices at Living Energy Farm, Part One: Woodgas and Solar

excerpted from the Living Energy Farm November – December, 2016 Newsletter

Woodgas at LEF
December 12, 2016 was a momentous day at Living Energy Farm. We have been living and earning our living without fossil fuel for a while now, with the exception of the gasoline tractor that is the backbone of our farming operation. On December 12th, we finally started driving around the tractor on woodgas! That was an exciting event for us. I have wanted to set up woodgas since I was a child.
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Woodgas Tractor!
I had dreams about tractors that night. That was fun.
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Melted Woodgas Reactor, ooops…
The following days were less fun. An engine under full load uses a lot more energy, and fuel, than a engine just puttering about. We hooked the bush hog to the tractor and took it into the cover crop from last summer. That stuff needs to be mowed before spring, and the bush hog loads the tractor engine down hard, so it seemed like a good time to power test the gasifier. We had done some work early on with homemade gasifiers, and then spent several thousand dollars on a manufactured gasifier. We spoke at length with the supplier, and they were sure their gasifier would handle our 35 horsepower tractor. When we power tested it, the gasifier heated up quite a bit. After cool-down, we checked it over. There’s no pretty way to say it. We melted it. Not the whole thing mind you, but the stainless reactor in the bottom of the gasifier was all but gone.
There is a yahoo woodgas list. Consulting the various opinions, we have come to the conclusion that the gasifier we spent so much time and money on simply cannot handle a 35 hp engine under load. Our plan has been to have two tractors on the farm. The 35 hp tractor to handle the heavy tillage, and a little one-row tractor to do the planting and cultivating. The cultivating tractor is half the horsepower of our “big” 35 hp tractor (which is very small by modern standards). So now we have rebuilt the melted reactor and we are putting the gasifier on the small cultivating tractor. We can, if we have to, run the whole farm with just the small cultivating tractor.
With our simple experiments thus far, it is clear that woodgas has its headaches. Just getting decent sized chips without an industrial chipper is slow. So far it takes us close to an hour to process fuel to run the tractor for an hour. There are numerous designs for homemade “chunkers” to make woodgas chips. We may build one of those. The whole question of what level of technology is actually sustainable is a complex one. The reality is, for all the idealistic banter around various kinds of farming, we all live on industrial grains. We are trying to produce such grains on a modest scale with sustainable technologies. As with all forms of renewable energy, decreasing demand is by far the biggest issue. Given that our tillage needs are modest, even an annoying fuel source is probably worth it so we don’t need fossil fuels. In the coming months, we will see how that comes together, and just how much annoyance is involved….
Enjoying the Warmth of a Solar House

Though our woodgas clearly needs some development, other aspects of the project are going fantastically well. The glory of a solar house is truly fantastic. The hum of the 180 volt solar blowers during the day is such a comforting sound. We know it means we

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Reclaimed Tile World Mosaic

don’t have to cut firewood, blow a lot of wood smoke into the air, or pay a utility bill! When the sun shines, the house is comfortable even in bitter cold temperatures. We build fires when it is cold and cloudy for days on end. The amount of firewood we burn for heating is very small, so we do not need to invest in expensive wood burning equipment. The house is also not complete. It is clear that most of our heat loss at this point is out the doors and windows. Once we get thermal curtains on them, the thermal performance will likely be much better.

Solar Boiler
We have been working a bit on the solar boiler as well. Not much to say about it just yet, other than we have set a few pieces of paper on fire in front of our large satellite dish that we set up to use as a collector. We have started experimenting with solar troughs as well (not starting from scratch, mostly using other people’s designs). In thinking about taking LEF’s ideas around the world, we realized that a setup with a trough instead of a dish might be easier and cheaper. Our warm-climate trough design is MUCH simpler than the cold-climate design. No tracking, no pumps (maybe). Stay tuned.
Choices at Living Energy Farm, Part One: Woodgas and Solar

Fall News from Living Energy Farm

from the Living Energy Farm September – October 2016 Newsletter
Finishing EarthHeart, Our Main House
       We are finishing our off-grid house, EarthHeart. The strawbale is all done. The building is fully insulated, the stucco is done, the drywall is hung. We are finishing up the tiling and painting. Our solar hot water system is working well. The solar heating system for the house is also fully operational.

Our building philosophy is to keep the frills to a minimum and invest our time and money on making sure our buildings and systems work well. To that end, our walls are 18 inches thick. We have “R-50” insulation in the attic, which is more than most buildings. Simplicity of design also helps a building function well, and keeps the cost down.

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We have avoided vaulted ceilings, clear stories, or skylights as such features tend to be both expensive and leaky. The results are clear already. Though we have seen temperatures as low as 28 F, we have not needed to run our solar heating blowers. (Now
that we are painting, we are running the blowers so we can keep the doors open and keep the house warm.)The combination of good insulation and passive solar keep the house in the upper 60s F at night without added heat. The solar hot water is toasty warm, even after several cloudy days.
      For various reasons, we decided to put the first house at LEF well off the main road.  Now we hear coyotes and owls as much the distant sound of traffic. But we are also inaccessible for fire trucks during part of the winter. Thus we have installed some simple fire fighting equipment in case there is trouble in paradise on a muddy winter day. For now we have a small gas pump tied to a water storage tank, though we will likely install something more reliable in the long run. Even as we scale down industrial society, by choice or as we are forced to, one hopes we can power emergency services with liquid fuel. Nothing compares to liquid fuels for fast and mobile power output. No wonder they are so addictive….
Nickel-Iron Battery Testing
     There are two particular technologies we have deployed at LEF that we feel like would be useful in villages around the world. One is our direct-drive DC economy, and the second is our Nickel-Iron (NiFe) lighting system. A few years ago, we purchased a set of NiFe batteries and set them up running a few lights in one of our agricultural buildings. The NiFe set we have is rated at 100 amp-hours. Simple translation is about the same as a single car battery, though functionally they are very different. Most off-grid houses have much larger battery sets, often 1000 amp-hours or more.
     For construction, we have been running power tools off of a couple of lead-acid  batteries tied to an inverter. While it is possible to build a house without a circular saw or other power tools, we decided to use a standard lead-acid batteries for a few years in order to expedite construction. We have been using the same lead-acid batteries for temporary lighting in our kitchen (which is separate from the main house) until we could get the NiFes installed.  It has been interesting to watch the lead-acids decline. Over the course of a few short years, the lead-acids have lost a significant amount of charge capacity. In extended cloudy periods, the voltage on lead-acids drops into the range where the batteries themselves start to degrade.
     Since we swapped over to the NiFes, the difference is significant. The voltage on the NiFes has been remaining high, and the lights have remained bright, right through two week-long cloudy periods. The voltage on the NiFe 12V set has remained above 13.2V, which is to say we have not yet touched their full usable capacity. With normal off-grid systems, the inverters shut down at 11.5V, at which point the user is literally left in the dark. We can pull the NiFes down as far as we want without damaging them, if we ever need to.
     In thinking about taking LEF abroad to villages around the world, we realized that many people in non-industrial areas are dependent on cell phones. In order to test our NiFe system, we tied an automotive cigarette lighter into our 12 volt system to plug in a cell phone charger. We have been charging as many cell phones as we and our interns need, and the system has shown not flagged for power. Right now, the panels charging the NiFes are 200 watts. (Most residential grid-tie systems these days are 5 – 10 KW, or 25 to 50 times larger.) Solar panels are environmentally costly to build, so being able to use a lot less of them is significant.
    lef-fall2 We tell people when they come to LEF that the primary “technology” that makes our renewable energy economy work is cooperation. Our community is organized to maximize efficiency. We minimize the need for stored electricity by sharing the use of the tools and facilities we have, and by storing energy in forms other than electricity.   The huge battery sets in ordinary off-grid houses last 5 years or so and cost thousands of dollars to replace. These big battery sets are used to power large, two-stage inverter systems to generate 120V and 240V sine wave power so people can run well pumps, refrigerators, laptops, etc off of their off-grid power source. After some years, people realize that the cost of the replacement batteries alone exceeds the cost of grid power.  (Notwithstanding the hidden environmental cost of grid power.)
     At LEF, we store heat in the dirt under the floor, so we don’t need to run a heating system at night. We have slightly larger water storage tanks so we don’t have to run a well pump at night. We store electricity ONLY to light up DC LEDs, which are super-efficient. And now we are charging cell phones and personal devices. We intend to grow our own entertainment at LEF, rather than watching screens. But for the sake of our outreach program that seeks to help villages around the world become energy self-sufficient, we want to know if we can support such use with NiFes.
    The fact that an entire community of people at LEF can easily have all the lighting they need (and charge their phones) with the storage capacity of a single car battery speaks to the efficiency of this design. Each bedroom at LEF has two overhead lights. With a 3 watt DC LED in each socket, we can light a room well enough to read fine print with 6 watts. In the coming months, we will test the NiFe batteries more thoroughly. We have also acquired some small, used NiFe batteries for further testing. (They might be suitable for a household, but cheaper than the set we have.) NiFe batteries are nontoxic, nonexplosive, and can be made in a modestly scaled factory. To our knowledge, they are the only battery ever developed that does not degrade with each charge cycle. As we look to spreading the LEF model to other parts of the world, we are looking into what it would take to set up NiFe production in other parts of the non-industrial world.
Enjoying the Harvest
     As is true every year on a diversified farm, we had some bumper crops and some crop failures this year. Most of our seed crops produced well. We had a bumper crop of Tahitian Melon winter squash. We also produced a fantastic crop of Florianni Red Flint corn. After lusting over various grain grinders for years, we finally bit the bullet and invested in a good mill. The one we have is called a Grainmaker. It is small enough to run by hand, but large enough to be turned by a motor (driven by direct drive solar power, in our case, no batteries necessary!). The grinder could support the food needs of a sizable village, or allow us to sell specialty grain meal. In the meantime, we have been grinding our corn, as well as wheat, oats, and other grains. The flavor of the grits, bread, flat breads, and cereals we have been making is phenomenal.
     Last spring was harsh, and included a devastating late freeze that wiped out most of the fruit. But, we have lots of persimmons, as they are among the most resilient of all fruiting trees. Many of our meals these days at LEF are dominated by home-grown ingredients. Another important aspect of reclaiming local power is gaining control over our health. Corporate food undermines the global environment, the future of democracy, and the health of your own body. The leading causes of death and disease in the U.S. are all related to poor food and the extensive marketing of addictive and unhealthy foods. We are proud to be planting the seeds of good food!
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LEGI Update
We recently started looking abroad for opportunities to help villages become energy self-sufficient through our Living Energy Global Initiative. The NiFe testing has been helpful. We do not currently have the resources on the ground to move much further in Bindura Kenya, but we have been in dialogue with various individuals and organizations about where to go next. We will keep you posted as this process evolves.
Woodgas (Finally!)lef-fall4
    We put an ad in our last newsletter about needing a technical intern. We’re very happy that Eddie answered the call, and he’s been hard at work putting together our wood gasifier. Hopefully we will have the tractor running on woodgas by the next newsletter. Thanks Eddie!
Choices
    For anyone who cares about the natural world, the long term well-being of humanity,   and the other creatures with whom we share this sacred creation called Earth, this is a difficult time in which to live. We are lost in bubble of our own creation, where trivialities dominate the public mind and the face of God has been painted over by an advertisement for automobiles. I have spent my life trying to understand why humans make such poor collective choices. For all that effort, it is clear that intellectual analysis is powerless to break the spell.
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     The expansion of the industrial economy is destroying the living world. The solutions to that crisis are, at a material level, fairly simple and straightforward. There are three simple principles. The first is that we need to cooperate in the use
of resources, because renewable energy works on a village level. Villages can be sustainable. Cities and suburbs are not. The second principle is that we must practice some degree of modesty. That sounds like a tall order in an age of such grand immodesty, but it isn’t really. We do as we believe we are supposed to. We adopt the cultural norms of our society. If modest behavior were a norm, then that’s what we would do. We create norms by working together, not alone. The third principle is that we have to accept that the Earth itself, the living creation we inherited, is sacred. For some political reasons a long time ago, someone decided that spirituality and science had to be separate things. They need not be. We can, if we choose, seek scientific understanding with a ravenous appetite. And at the same time accept that we as humans need to hold faith in higher purpose.
     The Age of Reason never began. The elite grabbed the education system and made it a means of justifying their economic and political domination of our society. We look down our noses at the conservatives who deny evolution. But humans are more driven by culture than genes, and we are all equally complicit in our denial of cultural evolution. If we understood the principles of human cultural evolution, we would understand that human society is built from the ground up. As painful as the political charade of our time may be, it is just that ; a show to distract us from reality. Building an economy in which people live sustainably, own their means of livelihood, and respect the sacred Earth would be simple indeed if only we could muster the faith to work together and do so. But we have to give up the narcissism, personally and politically. We have to understand ourselves, remove education from the ivy cathedral and spread it in the streets. We have to have faith sacred Earth and our capacity to defend it.
Fall News from Living Energy Farm