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

Commune Dads Episode 3 – Tech, Kids, and Moderation

Commune Dads Episode 3 – Tech, Kids, and Moderation