Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From Occupied Territory

Happy Birthday humans! At the end of October 2011, the 7th billion person will be born on Earth. With over a billion humans already going to bed hungry every night, this may not be a blessed event.

Just twelve years after we hit the 6 billion mark in 1999, it's going to a be a lot harder to look after the new arrivals.

The extra billion people will find an unstable climate, declining energy and resources, and a host of other challenges.

To help us sort out what it means, and what can be done, we are joined by Robert Walker, Executive Vice President of the Population Institute in Washington. He's the author of a new report "From 6 Billion to 7 Billion: How Population Growth is Changing and Challenging Our World."

Read more (and find a link to download/listen to this interview as a separate 21 minute piece).


The dream and the need for renewable energy just keeps getting stronger.

You want to help avoid drastic climate change. You want to be independent, even if the system goes down.

Perhaps you want to live outside the gird, in a home or camper. Maybe you just want to save money, as electricity and fuel prices keep rising.

Everybody talks about it. But how can we really do it?

In this program, We get a fast work-shop of ideas and techniques. My guest has the best how-to guide on the market. It's called "The Renewable Energy Handbook", written by William H. Kemp, and published by Aztext Press.

Here are three other resources you might find handy related to this subject:

Lo-Tech magazine (useful online blog)

No-Tech magazine (check it out)

And this edition of a bright new podcast called "The Extra Environmentalist". Here is their web site, but right now I'm recommending Podcast Episode 21 "When Technology Fails". It's a useful interview with engineer and author Mat Stein about his first book "When Technology Fails" - a huge Bible of alternative ways of doing things without high tech. Anybody expecting collapse may want to get that book.

I found it poignant that Stein is under financial stress himself, after getting ripped off by the publisher, and then finding himself in foreclosure (along with a million or more other Americans).

Stein is bringing out a new one "When Disaster Strikes". Really. Listen to this podcast.

In Spring 2011 we talked with Aztext publisher Cam Mather, about his adventures living off-grid in Ontario, Canada. We shared a lot, since I also lived on a homestead without electricity for 10 years. And I've lived for months on solar power.

(Download or listen to that June program "Your Renewable Energy Path Now" here.)

In the new radio interview, we learn about the home built by Bill Kemp and his wife with the aim of energy self-sufficiency. As a person with technical training and experience, Kemp has spent the past 20 years experimenting with living with renewables.

First, the Kemps are not living without electricity! They have most of the usual kitchen and home appliances. But they chose those appliances carefully, checking labels to find ones using the least electric load. Bill Kemp stresses this point: if you hope to use renewable energy, step one is to greatly reduce your energy demands. The extra power wasted costs a lot of money.

Kemp has both a wind generator, and 2700 watts of installed solar power. The solar panels are mounted on "trackers" that aim the solar most directly at the available sun, moving throughout the day and seasons.

The hundred foot wind tower also doubles as an antenna location for local cell service (which provides a small extra income).


I was surprised to find out our whole telephone interview was happening with no wires. Kemp describes a system where he has wireless amplifiers that make remote telephone service work with no connection to any telephone lines.

The other big challenge for people going off-grid, especially in rural locations, is to avoid propane. After all, propane is another fossil fuel, and it keeps costing more money all the time.


Both Cam Mather and Bill Kemp say a solar hot water heater may be the place to start, rather than solar panels, as a first step. Water heaters can account for up to 30% of your energy bill. Most new homes in Mexico have solar hot water tanks visible on their roof tops.

There are various types of solar hot water heat, one which even works in the winter (without freezing). But in places like Canada, there will not be enough Sun from November to February to provide all the heat needed.

One answer is to get hot water heat from a copper pipe wrapped around a wood-stove chimney pipe. Or those people with wind power (which is often strong in the winter) can use an electric hot water heater.

Kemp advises saving energy by installing a timer switch on your hot water heater (wherever you live). Run it during the night time, especially in places which offer a lower off-peak rate, get the hot water showers in the morning, and then turn off the heat. A well-insulated hot water tank will hold it's heat through the day. You can add common insulation wrapped around any hot water tank, to save money on your bill.


Kemp devotes a whole segment of his Renewable Energy Handbook to getting rid of the "phantom load". This is the constant use of electricity by all sorts of appliances and accessories, even when you aren't using them at all.

The television/DVD player complex is a famous case. They are never really off, and draw significant power even in "sleep mode". That is easy to solve: put all such devices on a power bar, and turn off the power bar. Electric use stops. Europe has already legislated that all TV's etc sold there must have a true OFF function, without drawing phantom power. North America has hardly heard about this energy waste.

Even the common door-bell is a prime example of wasted energy. It uses power 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just waiting for the few seconds someone might push it. Use a door-knocker.

Then we have all the "wall warts" as Kemp calls them. The black charger boxes for the IPOD, Cell phone, maybe even a small handi-Vac. These are still using electricity if plugged into the wall. Unplug them, or use a power bar to turn them off.

Kemp estimates that phantom power accounts for the production of about 3 or 4 extra coal-burning power plants in North America alone.


We talk about batteries, and using solar power at your cottage or in a Recreational vehicle. I slightly disagree with Bill's claim that cheap ($150) deep cycle batteries (sometimes called "marine batteries") will only last 5 years. Mine last ten years. That may result from the fact my solar panel is always keeping their charge up. Other people let their RV batteries go flat over the winter, and the helps kill them.

Kemp says the new commercial-grade batteries for off-grid homes (which cost hundreds of dollars) will last 20 to 25 years. This is great news. Good-quality solar panels are also guaranteed for 25 years (and really do last that long). That means you can guarantee your own source of power, no matter what happens with peak oil, or
skyrocketting utility bills, for 25 years. That's peace of mind.

For RV use, I recommend batteries that DO NOT have lids that open to access the cells. I like closed top batteries, because they don't slop during travel. Look closely, and you will find metal parts near batteries are the first part to rust out in older campers. Remember, batteries need to be vented. You cannot ever keep a battery inside your home or vehicle (unless the battery is enclosed in an air-tight container, and vented to the outside).

One other quibble with Bill: he tells us to use a counter-top kettle to boil water. They use half the energy of a standard electric stove. Agreed, BUT don't use a plastic kettle! I've talked to two toxicologists who both say the plastic kettle is a major source of plasticizers (like gender-benders and carcinogenic materials) into the tea or coffee you drink. Find a (more expensive) kettle with a stainless steel interior, to protect your health.

That is why in the interview I recommended my method to cut electric power in half for making tea or coffee: use a thermos. You can make two or more cups of your favorite brew, with just one kettle boiling session. A decent thermos keeps the drink hot up to 8 hours. The thermos also makes a better cup of tea, since it works better than a tea cozy to keep the water hot enough when "steeping".


The Renewable Energy Handbook is simply the best book on the subject I have ever seen. It's almost like the "Whole Earth Catalog" style, in the sense that it's loaded with useful charts, comparisons, bullet-point info, real hands-on tech, illustrations. So many books these days don't take the time to be a real manual. This one does, on a whole lot of subjects. There is even a bit on generators, and a whole chapter on home-made biofuels.

There is lots more in this extended Radio Ecoshock interview. I hope it will inspire you to get going in renewable energy - not waiting for a big utility - but doing it yourself.

Alex Smith
Radio Ecoshock

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