from the Living Energy Farm July/August 2017 Newsletter
from the Living Energy Farm July/August 2017 Newsletter
The motivation for starting LEF is based in the fact that communities have the potential to be powerful models of sustainable living. You don’t have to worry about all the crazy expense and technology that goes into efficient automobiles if you don’t drive to work. Communities can share resources and integrate their systems of energy use and production in a way that radically changes how resources are used. One person can cook for others, making solar cooking viable. A source of energy, such as high voltage DC coming from PV panels, can be tied to numerous machines. At LEF, we are even building an air-conditioning system (not yet complete) that uses the irrigation water headed to the fields. The operational cost of this air-conditioning system is zero. The installation cost involves a few hundred dollars worth of pipe. You can only do things like that on a community level.
In conceiving of LEF, we were very clear that we did NOT want to be a technology development center. Developing effective new technologies can be very expensive and time consuming. Our intent was to simply put together the proper mix of tools that had been developed elsewhere. Our innovation was supposed to be in the integration of existing technologies in a community setting. We are dependent on these technologies, so we would be daily testing their real-world viability. Our basic residential design is working great. Our heating and integrated DC electrical systems are fantastic, and now we are hoping to support other communities, in the U.S. and abroad, put together similar systems.
Other aspects of our project have proven more challenging. We have learned that we simply cannot buy all of what we need to live without fossil fuel. Our cooking setup relies heavily on rocket stoves. That is not a great solution for Americans, or for people living in crowded cities around the world. We are hopeful that the aforementioned high temperature storage systems, perhaps combined with biogas or a small-scale boiler, represent a more widely applicable and attainable goal.
Other goals appear to be more difficult. Farm traction (tractors, draft animals) is proving to be something of a can of worms. Our woodgas is not working all that well just yet. Even if it does, it is not at all clear if we can make it as cheap, simple, and reliable as it would need to be if it is were to be widely adopted. We are learning more than we thought we would have to about internal combustion engines, and realizing that powering them with farm-grown fuels is a complex question — a question which we may or may not have the resources to answer. Ideally, we could work with other organizations seeking similar goals. We have been trying to do that. Apart from the fact that every organization has a different personality, very few share our goal of keeping things cheap and simple so that the results can be adopted by less advantaged people.
All of this begs the question, what are we doing? Raising our kids and taking care of our own community is a significant undertaking to which we have to give priority. Beyond that, we have to ask ourselves the question of what are our primary goals? Is our most important role advocating a sustainable lifestyle among our peers in the U.S., and providing a living model of what we are talking about? Or will we have more impact supporting people who are already living in villages outside of the U.S.? This former group is perhaps the most important in terms of their environmental impact, whereas the latter group might be more receptive (?) as they already share a village lifestyle. And how much time and resources should be put into improving technologies?
Our current plan is to keep doing what we are doing. We will be opening our doors more in the coming months for events for people to come and see first hand what living without fossil fuel is like. We will continue our outreach efforts abroad. That project is not moving quickly, but we will keep trying. We will certainly continue improving the technologies that we need that seem reasonably attainable (cooking, clothes washing). It is less clear what will happen with issues like farm traction. We need help with that one.
There are a number of devices and projects hanging about LEF waiting for skilled and motivated people to work on them. Eddie was a huge help to us in his time here. If you have skills and are willing to get involved, we would love to hear from you. It could be in the long run that we split off a technology development project from the LEF farm. In the meantime, we want to make sure our farm continues to prosper. The work we are doing with open pollinated seeds, food self-sufficiency, and growing naturally disease resistant fruits and nuts feels important too. If you feel like some of these various projects excite you, we would love to hear from you.
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.
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
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.