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.
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 websiteor contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com or Living Energy Farm, 1022 Bibb Store Rd, Louisa VA, 23093. Donations to the Living Energy Farm Education Fund are tax deductible.
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.
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.
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.
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 soil 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
I had dreams about tractors that night. That was fun.
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
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.
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.