Playing Community

from Running in ZK, a blog by members of the Twin Oaks community

Want to Start a Community? First, Play Stardew Valley!

Posted on 21 February 2021 by Stephan Nashoba

While much of the covid-19 pandemic has fortunately left our community relatively untouched (we went on full external lockdown, so there is generally no masking/distancing/etc required while on the farm), it has certainly still brought along its share of stresses and desire for leisure activities to keep our spirits high. As with Settlers of Catan back in the early 2000s, communards sometimes think “hmm…what should I do to relax after a long day of farming, foraging, cooking, crafting, and raising animals? Oh I know: Pretend to do all these things!” Enter: Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley is a computer game that has been around for a few years now, but recently came out on mobile so it has renewed popularity (also, Oakers tend to get into things a couple years after the rest of the world). It’s an adorable simulation game in which you inherit your grandfather’s farm after he’s passed away and proceed to try to make it into a productive part of the community, while also doing helpful tasks for others and flirting with the single people around town. While my real-life poly family was getting into this game on their own, we recently went on a little vacation at an AirBnB in town and decided to try out “co-op” mode. This got me thinking about all the similarities between the game and real-life communal living. The internet is also full of people just discovering community and wanting to immediately go buy land and invite their friends over, so this could potentially be a useful tool for folks to try it out group decision-making and income-sharing prior to taking the real-life leap.

Screenshot of a co-op farm setup
(http://www.geeksandcom.com/2018/05/01/le-mode-multijoueur-de-stardew-valley-est-enfin-disponible/)

Founder’s Syndrome

The first thing to decide when going to co-op mode is whether or not to start a brand new farm or invite people to one you’re already been working on. This can be a test of what we in the communities movement call “Founder’s Syndrome.”

According to Wikipedia, Founder’s Syndrome is “a popular term for the difficulties faced by organizations where founders maintain disproportionate amounts of power and influence following the initial establishment of the project, leading to a wide range of problems for both the organization and those involved in it.” Many communities are founded by one person or a small group of people who have a particular vision of what they want the community to be. While this is all well and good at first, it starts to become increasingly challenging as they try to attract new members who may generally agree but also have some different ideas about what they’d like to happen.

In Stardew Valley, if you invite people to join a farm that you’ve been laboring on for several in-game years, it can be beneficial because there is already an established base of income and less start-up labor, but can also be challenging if the founder is resistant to the suggestions of the other players, takes too much ownership of the land, and has very particular feelings about how things should run. It can be difficult for other players to speak up about the dynamic because they don’t want to disrespect all the work that the founder has put in, leading to building of resentment over time.

Starting a new farm with other people can lead to less of this, even though technically one person is still the “host” and needs to be logged in for others to be able to play. However, there is then a lot of work to do, quests to unlock, and minimal money to work with from the beginning. Just like in real-life!

Income-Sharing

Another feature to think about when starting your co-op farm is whether or not to share income. The default mode is income-sharing, so whenever a player sells a parsnip or buys an upgraded axe, this affects the total amount of money available to all players. This sounds idyllic in theory, but what happens when 3 people want to each get a bigger backpack for 4000g each but you only have 5000g? Do you talk about your purchasing desires all together and approve each transaction? Do you keep a separate ledger and keep track of 1/3 of the income each? Do you allot only a certain amount of personal spending each day or week? Decisions, decisions!

Group Decision-Making and Division of Labor

Along with how to make/spend money, there are several quests in the game that require various items. You’ll need to determine how to make decisions about which quests to prioritize, which items need to be kept as quest items versus being sold, and more.

How are you going to spend your precious time? Are you all going to be all-around balanced communards or is one person going to be in charge of crops while another goes out fishing and a third gathers resources from the mines? Do you alternate? What about a chore chart? All of these things can be discussed to your heart’s content. Sound like a lot of work before you even get to the work? Welcome to community life!

Mods

One of the great benefits of Stardew Valley is the plethora of fan-made modifications, aka “mods,” that can alter various aspects of gameplay. You can make your version of Stardew Valley even more realistic to community living by adding on some of these popular mods.

Screenshot of multiple spouses mod
(https://www.nexusmods.com/stardewvalley/mods/6227)

Multiple Spouses: While certainly not everyone in an intentional community is polyamorous, ethical non-monogamy (an approach to relationships wherein people can have more than one romantic and sexual partner at a time, and everybody involved is aware and enthusiastically consents to the dynamic) is generally more accepted and validated in these communities. Income-sharing and egalitarian communities are especially supportive of poly families since people’s romantic relationships can be untethered from issues of housing and economics because everyone in the community has their basic needs met through the efforts of the whole community. While the original version of Stardew Valley allows you to date many people but only marry one, the Multiple Spouses mod allows you to marry multiple people, live with multiple people, have kids with multiple people, and more!

Comparison of different versions of Elliot in Diverse Stardew Valley mod
(https://www.nexusmods.com/stardewvalley/mods/4079)

Diverse Stardew Valley: You might notice how white most of the characters are in the original Stardew Valley. This is unfortunately not unlike many intentional communities founded by white folks. While you could leave the original version for a more sadly realistic experience, most people are drawn to community in order to imagine and create more inclusive utopian spaces. So if you’re a BIPOC looking to start a community or a white person wanting to try to get a better idea of what a multiracial community could look like, you can add the Diverse Stardew Valley mod. This mod adds ethnic, cultural, gender identity, and body type diversity to the original characters.

Screenshot of co-op mode with Unlimited Players mod
(https://www.nexusmods.com/stardewvalley/mods/2213)

Unlimited Players: The original co-op mode limits the farm to 4 players. However, you might have more people than that in your community start-up group. The Unlimited Players mod will allow the host to add unlimited cabins to the farm. The more the merrier, right?

Conclusion

There are certainly many ways in which Stardew Valley is not anything like real-life community, from dungeon monsters to magic teleportation, but playing in co-op mode does require that folks practice the most central parts of community living: communication and cooperation! It might also reveal things about yourself and others that would be really good to know prior to actually living together. Oh, and don’t forget to also have fun while you’re at it 

Playing Community

Biting the Hand

by Raven Glomus

I often refer to Living Energy Farm as the research arm of the Virginia communes.  They have had some difficulty becoming a commune themselves (although they seem to be making some progress lately) but they know more than anyplace else that I know of about alternative technologies and ways to deal with climate realities.  They periodically publish a newsletter about all that they are up to and it is almost always worth reading from beginning to end.

A Biogas Digester from the August, September, October 2020 LEF Newsletter

Their most recent newsletter contained a section that I would like to reprint in full:

***

Ending the Use of Facebook

It has been clear for a while that the management of Facebook has reactionary leanings. It has become clear more recently that Facebook is using its very powerful platform to try to strangle alternative news media outlets while advancing racist organizations. A story about that issue is here  https://www.democracynow.org/2020/10/29/ari_berman_mother_jones_facebook_censorship

Living Energy Farm will be deleting our Facebook accounts shortly. Please communicate with us through other means. 

***

I never wanted to be on Facebook.  I was persuaded to help out with the Commune Life Facebook page, especially when I realized it was reaching many more folks than this blog.  This blog averages around 150 views per day, which doesn’t sound too bad, but the vast majority of them, day after day, are the same three posts:  “How to Start a Commune”, “Four Steps to Building a Commune”, and “So You Want to Start a Community”.  I get that people are interested in creating communities, but it’s frustrating to write stuff three times a week and see interest in the single digits–if that.  (Of course, I had forgotten that this blog has 110 ‘followers’, so there’s 110 people that see new material each day.)

On Facebook it’s different.  The statistics can fluctuate wildly, from fifty folks to over five hundred, depending on how the piece is written and how controversial the subject is–and whether there are animals in the pictures or, perhaps, dumpstered food, both of which get a lot of interest.  

One of my goals has been to reach folks that have never heard of income-sharing communities and may not have even realized that it’s something that’s possible, and Facebook is a way to do that.  Plus, there are other useful features (our community uses Facebook messenger to communicate with one another and we have to make a special effort to reach the one person that doesn’t use Facebook) and Facebook also owns Instagram which makes it easy to post in both places.

I don’t like Facebook.  I don’t like that we use a big corporate entity for our communication.  I don’t like their politics or their policies. (I can see why Living Energy Farm would want to leave them.)  I don’t like that they own Instagram and WhatsApp (which international visitors have used to communicate with me–and even one of my old communards used it when we discovered that for some reason our phones would often not be able to text each other).

But, right now, I am using Facebook (and I plan to reference this post on Facebook tomorrow) because I do want to reach people that I couldn’t otherwise reach.  I hate it but it’s useful and my priority is communication.  I want the world to know about communes, so I use Facebook, day after day after day.

____________________________________________________________________________

Thanks for reading! This post was made possible by our patrons on Patreon. The Commune Life team works hard to bring you these stories about our lives in community, and that work couldn’t happen without support from our audience. So if you liked this article, and want to help us make more like it, head on over to https://www.patreon.com/communelife to join us! 

Deep gratitude to all of our patron communards:
 

  • Aaron Michels
  • Brenda Thompson
  • Cathy Loyd
  • Colby Baez
  • Heather
  • Janey Amend-Bombara
  • Jenn Morgan
  • Joseph A Klatt
  • Kai Koru
  • Kate McGuire
  • Kathleen Brooks
  • Lynette Shaw
  • Magda schonfeld
  • Michael Hobson
  • Montana Goodman
  • Nance & Jack Williford
  • NorthernSoul Truelove
  • Oesten Nelson
  • Peter Chinman
  • Raines Cohen
  • Sasha Daucus
  • Suzi Tortora
  • Tobin Moore
  • Twin Oaks
  • Warren Kunce
  • William Croft
  • William Kadish
  • William Scarborough

Thanks! 

Biting the Hand

LEF goes to AZ, Part Two

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post chronicling Living Energy Farm’s adventures as they went out to Arizona to install their solar systems on Navajo and Hopi reservations. Yesterday focused on the trip there–which was trickier than they expected. Today’s post focuses on the actual installations, which went very well.

On the Commune Life Facebook page, I wrote: “LEF finally is able to get to work. Here’s the first report with pictures:”

And here it is:

“In between installations, the LEF crew has time to post a Navajo joke:”

“And on to the second installation:”

“LEF goes on an installation binge–five installations in one day. Here’s some pictures and a story:”

“And here’s the story behind installation number five:”

“And here is the final post in Living Energy Farm’s saga of their road trip to Arizona to bring solar power to native folks there:”

Tomorrow, another question: “Art in Community–Is it a luxury or a necessity?”

LEF goes to AZ, Part Two

LEF goes to AZ, Part One

Today begins the chronicling of an adventure. Living Energy Farm, a Virginia community that I have called ‘the environmental experimental station for the Louisa communes’, decided to take their solar-panel-and-nickel-iron-battery-system, which makes real off-the-grid living possible to the Navajo and Hopi reservations in Arizona. This was a long planned trip that turned into more of an adventure than even they could have expected.

We reposted their Facebook posts on our site–now I want to post them here with my (Raven’s) comments. The first post was February 28th, where I said: “Living Energy Farm has faced a bunch of challenges in their journey to install solar on Hopi and Navajo reservations, but they are now on the road:”

Here is their first post, right from their Facebook page:

Followed by my post “And here’s the Living Energy Farm crew after a night in Tennesee:”

And their:

But “In the next leg of their journey to Arizona and bringing solar to the Hopis and Navajo, the folks from Living Energy Farm run into an unexpected adventure:”

Then, they are almost there. “Meanwhile, the Living Energy Farm road trip adventure continues, with them almost making it to the reservation when a tire blows out with them in the middle of nowhere:”

Then, somehow, I missed this one. From the LEF Facebook page but not ours:

And then, “The LEF crew finally makes it to “the Rez”, but not without a casualty:”

I will end this segment here. Tomorrow, the installations!

LEF goes to AZ, Part One

Ecovillage Design – An experts perspective

We are lucky to have some very talented folks presenting at this years Communities Conference.  In the coming days there will be several workshop highlighted on this blog.

If we are going to change the way relate to our environment, we are going to need to build new types of buildings and entire ecovillages.  Fred Oesch has been doing exactly this for years now.

Cville ecovillage.jpg
Charlottesville Ecovillage Design Proposal

 

seed palace schematic.jpg
Acorn/SESE Seed Office design

This is the workshop Fred is offering at this years Communities Conference.

Ecovillage Design – Principles and Practices

Presented by Fred Oesch of Oesch Environmental Designs and Openworld Villages

We now have significant experience designing ecovillages both in rural and urban settings and this workshop will take stock of what has been learned over the last 30 years.  There are sustainability elements, aesthetic aspects and design components connected with high degrees of sharing which all go into making a high functioning ecovillage. In many cases these are not elements which are taught in architecture school.  We will explore conversions of existing non-ecovillages as well as designed from scratch solutions. The workshop will start with presentation and then go into question and answer.

Fred Oesch Head shot
Fred Oesch – Architect/Ecovillage Designer

Fred Oesch is a licensed architect who designed the seed building at Acorn and lives in Schuyler VA.  He has also been involved in several ecovillage projects, both urban and rural as well as new builds and conversions.  He serves on the Ecovillage Charlottesville Board and throws a mean quarry party.

quarries_02.jpg
Site of ecological design and excellent parties

Some of what is covered in the workshop is Principles of Regenerative Environmental Design:

1] Design as a Way of Life.

2] Reflection of Evolving Regional Society, Tradition, Culture, and Religion

3] Utilization of Indigenous Technology, Materials, and Labor Skills

4] Direct Response to Microclimate / Seamless Site Integration

5] Minimum Inventory / Maximum Diversity Systems

6] Direct Designer / Builder / Inhabitant Participation

7] Net Resource and Energy Production

8] Self-Regenerating ‘Living’ Systems

 

It is still possible to come and participate in the Twin Oaks Communities Conference on August 31st thru Sept 2.  You can RSVP here in Facebook.  Or simply register for the Communities Conference

seed palace and vollyball.jpeg
Acorn/SESE Seed Office Actual

 

Ecovillage Design – An experts perspective

Living Energy Farm, Where to From Here?

from the Living Energy Farm July/August 2017 Newsletter

Closing all of our building related permits gives us a moment to reflect and consider where we are going next. For the most part, we have done what we set out to do. We have built a small village that is extremely efficient, fairly cheap, and mostly operates without fossil fuel. The integrated solar systems we have connected to our main house and kitchen are working fantastically well. The farm has been developed to a point where it is economically viable, and we are doing good work growing open pollinated seeds. Our work is far from complete. The farm is not fully weaned off of gasoline machines just yet. Our cooking is still too reliant on firewood. But we are making progress on those fronts as well.
We are doing what we said we would do. We have created a model that we think is viable around the world, and we are looking for ways to spread that model. For us, the project has been both rewarding and, at times, fatiguing. Our “to do” list looks rather impossible at times. The reality is that, no matter how talented or dedicated a group of people may be, doing too many things means some projects are well executed and some are not.We are feeling the need to clarify and focus our project better.
rosa and pebbles
Rosa and Pebbles the Duck. Nobody else can catch them!
Given that most of our major construction is done (we may still want to build a greenhouse or other outbuildings), our need for cash flow is reduced. Our thinking currently is that we will, in the future, focus our project more around education, outreach, and technology development. We will be bringing back our weekend intensives, and making them into an in-depth sustainability training program. (Dates to be announced.) We will likely put less of our energy into growing seeds or developing businesses to support the on-site community. We feel like this course is the wisest in terms of maximizing our impact (and our own personal sustainability and happiness in the project). The financial numbers look like they are at least minimally adequate for this new strategy. With the completion of our main house, we are again putting some more work into looking for partnership opportunities with other organizations that might be able to take the LEF model to other locations. We would love to have help with spreading our sustainable model.
LEF’s Nickel-Iron Battery Project
There’s a lot of buzz about batteries these days. Given the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy, effective batteries are critical to providing power if we are going to live without coal and nuclear power. Industrial scale lithium-ion batteries are now coming online. These batteries could, potentially, have a big impact on the round-the-clock viability of renewable energy.
We regularly get people sending us advice about a newer, better battery. The recent article in International Permaculture has prompted some communications about something called LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries. The field of battery research and development is technical, complex, and expensive far beyond LEF’s meager resources. As far as we can tell, all of the lithium variant batteries degrade with each charge cycle (meaning they have a limited productive life) including the aforementioned industrial scale batteries. The LiFePO4 batteries are destroyed if the voltage drops too low, which presents a problem in climates where solar or wind resources are inconsistent. NiFe batteries, by comparison, have low energy density (the batteries are large for the amount of power they can store).  But they do not degrade on the charge cycle, nor are they damaged by full discharge. We have a 100 year old operational NiFe battery. The (now ancient) NiFe batteries made by Edison’s company are regularly cleaned out and used by modern NiFe enthusiasts. The bottom line is that none of the current lithium variant batteries have any hope of making it 100 years.
Even if they did, the rush to make better batteries risks becoming yet another attempt to address environmental problems from a supply-side approach. It is expensive, and ignores the root of the issue.  The root of the issue is our lifestyle, and how it is woven together with the industrial, political, and  military layers of our society. Even if industrial scale renewable energy systems succeed, they are so expensive and complex that the best we could hope for in decades to come is ever increasing class polarization: an elite class that lives supported by this complex infrastructure while the masses huddle around their smoky fires.
Approaching sustainability with social equity foremost in mind leads to other solutions. We stand by the low-density, homemade or village-made, NiFe batteries as the best option we have seen for providing cheap, durable, stationary, electricity storage for village use. Eddie has been continuing with his mason-jar NiFe project. He has increased the voltage and storage capacity of his units. Sometime this fall we will probably set some of these homemade batteries up at LEF and begin service testing them. Wish us luck.
solar tank
First stage of batch water heater construction, stripping and cleaning a water heater tank.

 

Living Energy Farm, Where to From Here?

LEF’s Role in Addressing the Environmental Crisis

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.

LEF Bike

Zero Fossil Fuel Transportation?
Sustainable transportation is an issue that a small community like ours cannot address alone. It is a wider societal choice to build good train and bus systems. But for local transport, we do have options. Do you have to have a minivan to carry
kids around? Not if you live at LEF! Check the photo.
LEF’s Role in Addressing the Environmental Crisis

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

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