Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Future USA

George W has a horrible environmental record as president, but his Texas ranch is off-grid with a variety of renewable energy systems. Although he’s done little to prepare the country for the effects of declining fossil fuel, he hasn’t neglected his own needs. Does he know something about the future that the rest of us don’t? We see skyrocketing gasoline and food prices, but we tend to plan for the future as if we expect things to be pretty much the same as they are today. Are we in a state of denial about our future?

Perhaps we’re all in a state of denial, even large corporations. GM spends an enormous amount of money promoting big cars and trucks, while closing several of its assembly plants due to lack of sales. Shouldn’t they have seen this coming? Why did they let Toyota and Honda take the lead with their fuel-efficient vehicles? GM continues to push it's gas-guzzlers by offering discounts and rebates, even offering to pay a portion of your gas bill. They use slogans like “Let’s Refuel America”. It seems that they’re determined to use up all of the remaining fossil fuel as quickly as possible!

Banks are in trouble, and I wonder why so many of them have been willing to make loans to people who probably won’t be able to keep up with the payments. Again, shouldn’t they have seen this coming? We shouldn’t be shocked when we find ourselves in a society that is much different than the one we live in today. Unlike some car manufacturers and banks, we should see this coming and prepare for it. We already drive less today because of the high cost of gasoline, but we still drive. We’re learning to economize as food prices go up, but we still buy food of course. Today most of us can compensate for rising food and gasoline prices by cutting back here and there, but what will we do if things get worse?

While another terrorist attack could trigger a sudden collapse of our economy, we might suffer more from a gradual decline. If your cost of living outpaces your income long enough, you’re in trouble. You may think that these gloom-and-doom scenarios are unrealistic and choose to do nothing, but if you believe that the worst is yet to come you should prepare as soon as you can. If you wait until things get worse, it will be too late. You’ll be forced to use the renewable energy systems you have in place, not the systems you planned to install someday.

Once you’ve decided to prepare, the next question is “How do I prepare?” How you prepare depends on how you want to live, and on your budget. You might choose to prepare for a total melt-down of society by considering your basic needs, or you might opt for a strategy that attempts to maintain your lifestyle as it was before the melt-down. A reasonable approach would be somewhere in between. Since everyone’s goals and budgets are different, this article is not a one-size-fits-all design guide. Instead, these are some ideas to help you formulate your own plan.

You can probably live as comfortably as you do now, and use half of the resources that you’re currently using, if you’ll simply cut waste. Start by eliminating phantom loads. Put your TV’s, and other items that continue to use power when turned off, on power strips. Get used to powering these items on and off with the power strips on/off switch. Get rid of unnecessary items like hand-lotion warmers. When possible, replace electrical items with mechanical items that serve the same purpose. Alarm clocks, can openers, and doorbells are a few examples. If you haven’t done so already, replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFL’s). Replace old and inefficient appliances, especially your refrigerator. Consider energy-saving home improvements, such as adding insulation and replacing inefficient windows and doors. These things not only help to cut your energy costs, they are a logical prerequisite to implementing alternative energy systems in your home. Having done those things you can get by with a smaller photovoltaic (PV) system, but you’re still not fully prepared to deal with a serious energy crisis. Let’s go beyond the basics.

Do you heat and cool your entire house 24/7? You could cut your heating and cooling costs dramatically if you were to heat and cool only the area’s that you’re using. Is a 14’ by 14’ bedroom really necessary? Couldn’t you sleep just as well in a climate-controlled 6’ by 9’ space? Providing climate control to a much smaller space requires less energy, making it possible to get by with a smaller photovoltaic (PV) system. If you have an unused room in your home, perhaps an unfinished basement with a window, you can easily create a living environment that requires little energy. You can be just as comfortable in a small well insulated space, perhaps with the aid of a window air conditioner or an electric blanket, as you are now in your big bedroom. If you’ll make the necessary adjustments you’ll be able to meet your energy needs with a small PV array, instead of covering your entire south-facing roof and spending $25,000.00. I’ve determined that I can meet my own basic needs with as little as 800 watts of PV panels, and a total investment of less than $6000.00. With 4 hours of sunshine, a system that size can generate 3200 watt/hours each day (not taking into account system losses and inefficiencies). A big portion of the energy I produce will be used to keep a small chest freezer running. I’ll also use cfl’s, radio and tv, cell phone charger, microwave oven, and fans. I’ll have limited use of my corn-burning stove or a window air conditioner. I can summarize my minimum needs as shown below:

Mild Weather Energy Requirements: 1220 watt/hours per day

Hot Weather Energy Requirements: 2530 watt/hours per day

Cold Weather Energy Requirements: 2990 watt/hours per day

If I build a system that barely meets my cold weather requirements, I’ll have shortages on cloudy days. I’ll need to cut back at times. But a system designed to meet my cold weather requirements will give me a surplus of electricity during mild and warm weather, allowing me to use other appliances to a greater extent. I’ve learned techniques that help me get the most from a small system. For example; if I place my chest freezer in the coolest portion of the house, it uses less energy for its operation while providing some heat to that area. I don’t run my refrigerator when the power fails; I use an ice-chest instead. My freezer, which is powered by my PV system, provides the ice.

As you make your plans, don’t neglect your basic needs. You’ll need fresh water on an ongoing basis of course. You might want to visit one of the many survivalist websites for information and ideas along those lines.

Since your need for food is an ongoing one, knowing how to grow and preserve vegetables and fruits is a skill that will serve you well. If you’re already a gardener, enlarge your garden. Tomatoes and other veggies are easy to grow, and easy to preserve. By canning your vegetables, you’ll have a supply of food that doesn’t require refrigeration. It’s a good feeling to know that an extended power failure (or a failure of your PV system), won’t ruin a big portion of your emergency food supply.

“Perhaps the day will come when the United States is no longer addicted to imported oil; but that day is still many years off. For now, the reason for America's rapt attention to the security of the Persian Gulf is what it has always been. It's about the oil.” Ted Koppel

Fighting for control of every last drop of oil is the foundation of this administration’s energy policy, and it will not end well. To the extent that we can, let’s not support this policy. Mass acceptance of renewable energy systems by the general public will show our elected officials, and the rest of the world, that we want to do the right thing. We can do it. We should do it. Future generations will appreciate our efforts.


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