Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Your Renewable Energy Path Now

Radio Stations: music clip this week: "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult.

Two 29 minute segments, leaving time for station ID/announcements available here:
Part 1
Part 2

Welcome to Earthbeat and Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith. In this show, you will learn how to slash your carbon emissions, while gaining energy independence - hearing from people who do it now. As climate, peak oil, and economy crash into a perfect storm, get ready to keep going, get off fossil fuels, and get off the grid.

This week we are talking with off-grid specialists, about your future with renewable energy. Our first guest, Cam Mather was already a publisher when his family set off for an off-grid home in the wilderness.

It was a treat to talk with Cam - not just because it reminded me of my own 10 years without electricity in the back-country. Cam loaded up the interview with his own experience, and a ton of tips from his how-to book published by

Just one example. Think of starting your renewable energy journal with a solar panel, hooked up to some batteries? But wait. If you are serious about getting off fossil fuels, one of your biggest energy requirements comes from heating water.

Cam suggests starting with a solar hot water heater - the type that will run year-round, even in freezing weather. His cost $6,000, but Cam claims it paid for itself in 5 years, and now provides a 20 percent return on his investment. Compare that to the one or two percent interest you get from the bank for savings lately. Solar is pays better than the stock market, and it's a sure thing.

If you are planning a new home, or a retrofit of an existing place, you may want to install a ground source heat pump, even before solar. That will heat your home in the cold months, and cool it off in the developing global heat storms. Again, the first cost is expensive, but the returns keep paying you back. If you run the heat pump with solar panels, the whole rig is carbon-free - except for the original energy used in manufacture, and the carbon burned to deliver it.

You won't have to worry about oil prices, or unstable nations abroad.

Living in Canada with plenty of trees, and no neighbours nearby, Cam uses wood heat in the winter. His friend engineer Bill Kemp has designed a simple device to heat water with a woodstove, and that should be in the upcoming revised edition of "The Renewable Energy Handbook", Mather says.

The whole interview is packed with the Mather family story. Choosing land for independence. How the women of the family handled the big change from the city. Making money over the Net, and selling produce. What worked and what didn't, over 14 years of living off-grid, aiming for the carbon free household.


Most of us won't be leaving the city any time soon. Let's see what energy solutions we can use right now. We go to the UK, for our second interview with Nick Rosen, the author of "How To Live Off Grid" now updated with a new American version, titled "Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America".

Nick Rosen is a documentary film maker, with serious productions for British television. He's been published in the Guardian newspaper, The Times, and many magazines.

Again, Nick is at the centre of a whole movement of people. He's traveled extensively to visit and document off-grid homes in Europe and the United States. Rosen promises he is working on a new film documentary on off-grid life. I'd really like to see that.

We get two examples: the nurse going broke in the Northern U.S., getting part-time shifts, cuts loose to a mobile home on land in Texas, off-grid. Doing well.

There are also a slew of homes in the U.S. Southwest using a combination of adobe-like mud around discarded tires. It lasts a long time, stays warmer in the winter, and cooler in the summer.

I've seen a strange example myself. Near the Salton Sea in southern California is an abandoned military base that has been "free camping" to all comers for at least 20 years. It's called "Slab City". The place fills up every winter, with everything from VW bus campers all the way to gigantic half million dollar motor homes.

But there is a contingent of full-timers at the site - enough that the nearby County has to run a school bus to the camp sites every school day. A few dozen families are squatting free on undeeded land.

At the entrance is one of the strangest sites you will ever see made by human hand. Over many years, an older gent with a religious bent has built a kind of catheral of car and truck tires, plus straw, with adobe poured all around. Find a photo of "Salvation Mountain" down a little on this page.

There are many rooms, running helter-skelter, all painted different colors, as the builder uses donated paint cans from town. The left overs and bad tint jobs end up on this structure build into a clay cliff, over-looking the Salton Sea.

He has post-cards.

But this is a serious building technique, which lasts a long, long time in the dry climate of the South West. Anyone can build with it. Check out these "Earthships" using tires and rammed earth. Nick Rosen has found some beautiful homes built from this low-carbon, waste-recycling material.

Nick has a growing list of reasons why people go off-grid.

* Some do it for the money. They can't afford the power bills, or screwed up their payments with the local power monopoly. Others just want to save money, now that electricity and heating oil is going through the roof, and only aimed higher.

* Many don't trust central authority of centralized energy. There was a burst of off-grid, or at least alternative energy back-up, after the three day power outage in the U.S. Northeast several years ago.

In the Canadian province of Quebec, some lost power for several weeks. And we all know what just happened in Japan to the nuclear plants, and the rolling blackouts there. Lefties, libertarians, deep Bible end-of-days believers - plus a whole bunch of families who doubt the future is going to be stable, are going off-grid. That includes some town folks, in addition to those going for a rural retreat.

* Some places have no electricity. That makes them affordable to buy, as long as your can provide your own.

* People concerned with Peak Oil think fossil energy will become prohibitivley expensive, rationed, or not available at all for periods of time. No worries if you can make your own.

* Climate change, natural disasters (like a solar flare), terrorism or civil unrest could knock out centralized power sytems.

* Oh yeah, if we keep on using fossil fuels we wreck the world for future generations and may join the other species in extinction. I realize that's low on everybody's list of motivations, but it seems important, doesn't it? Shouldn't we at least try, set an example, be part of the wave of renewable energy?

Find Nick's latest book by clicking on the upper right hand corner of this web site:


I lived without electricity for about 10 years. Our cabin on an abandoned farm was just too far away from the power poles. I didn't trust nuclear power anyway, and wanted nothing to do with it.

When the nuke plant blows, I thought, I won't take the blame. Still true. Everyone is held hostage to the worst site, the worst design, the worst construction and operation of all the nuclear plants in the Northern Hemisphere. When Japan blows, we got the radioactive dust in North America and Europe.

I digress.

We did use fossil fuel to get around in an old pickup truck. And after a few years, we installed a propane tank with fridge, stove, and two lights. That was an amazing change. Still no electricity or phone. For the first years, the only bill I ever got was around $200 a year for taxes. That's it. No monthly bills at all. Hardly anyone can understand the freedom that brings.

Cam Mather talks about the false sense of "off-grid" when using propane, which is still a fossil fuel emitting greenhouse gases. It's a struggle to look for alternatives, but of course there are plenty of other ways to cook, cool, and heat.

In our farm retreat, we watched TV about two hours a week, with a little black and white set running off a car battery. Energy limited how much we could watch, but TV was just a lot of propaganda anyway. Still is.

The trips to town replenished the battery. Solar and wind were too expensive back then. Now it would be much easier.

All our heat and hot water came from the big wood heater, or the old-fashioned wood cook stove.

One last point about energy effiency in building. When we were retrofitting the cabin, into a house, I studied how the New Englanders got through the seasons, before the age of oil, or even coal in America. One obvious point about the long-standing, long used homes: the fire place and chimney were in the CENTRE of the house, not on an outside wall, or end wall.

Rock has very little thermal resistance. If the chimney rock or brick or blocks are exposed to the outside, you bring as much cold inside as your fireplace can create, unless you burn for many hours straight. And when your fire goes low or out, the exposed chimney becomes a cooler in winter.

If you have the chance to plan your home for wood heat, by all means put whatever pipe inside as long as possible, with little exposure to the outside. If you already have an exposed block or rock chimney, consider adding a layer of insulation to the outside. It may not look as pretty or romantic, but you will save a lot of energy, and have a more comfortable home.

Look into pre-fossil technologies to get hints of what to do for the coming days, as the oil, gas and coal run out. Then create a hybrid of past knowledge with present technology, like solar or ground source heat pumps.

Find all our interviews as free mp3 downloads at the web site, Just look in our program archives, or in the audio-on-demand menu. Point your friends to this show blog at - with a program player right on the page. Or download the audio (by clicking the title above) to pass around, to help your friends and neighbors.

Next week, we leave solutions behind, to catch up on the latest reports and climate science. No matter what your economy felt like, the world set a new record for carbon emissions in 2010. We went over 30 gigatons. At that pace, we are headed toward an unimaginable climate disaster. A huge shift, not seen for more than a hundred million years, is headed our way. Many species will not survive. Humans may go extinct. But hey, anything for another billion dollars in dirty profits, another
mansion in soon-to-be-flooded Florida or the French Riviera.

Will the recent storms and strange weather around the world wake us up? Next week we'll examine reports from Australia, from the International Energy Agency. We'll try to capture the wave of recent climate science. And we'll join Greenpeace in the Arctic, for the next big-oil move to pump more carbon into the sky. The Arctic, it turns out, contains a giant carbon warehouse. What happens there will determine history for all living things.

Please support the return of Earthbeat, by going to The host Daphne Wysham is a really good green journalist, with a blend of activism that is hard to replace. We need her back on the air, and you can help.

I'm Alex Smith. Start your Summer listening with our past Radio Ecoshock programs, as free mp3 downloads, at Fill up a CD or IPOD. Take it in, and pass it on. Take what you know, and act.

Thank you for listening, and thank you for caring about our world.


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