Posts tagged alternative energy

My Letter to Obama about Energy and the Environment

Well, okay, it was to his energy and environment transition staff, but hey, you never know!  One of the things about this upcoming administration to which I’m most looking forward is their commitment to getting public feedback as a regular part of the legislative process.  So of course, when they asked for my (and your!) opinion on what we as a nation can do to invest in alternative energy and the environment, I had to do my part.  You can too by visiting and sending them a message of your own.  Below, in somewhat edited form, is the environmental and energy wish list I hope to see in this country in the upcoming years in hopes that it will foster debate here on the site and elsewhere about the most important conservation and resource generation issues we face and how they may be solved.  What do you want to see happen?  Comment below and then head over to to participate today!

***** My Energy and Environment Wish List *****

I think the most important thing that people need to realize is how the current energy supply affects prices and the need for more infrastructure.  For example, the concept of peak load on power plants: though conservation initiatives often highlight using off-peak power, rarely is it explained that central utilities must offer enough wattage to supply the highest moment of demand in a year.  Therefore, redesign of total power loads is highly beneficial, such as the advantages offered by off-peak charging of electric/hybrid cars (and tractors/industrial vehicles?), use of alternative energy storage programs such as that by LADWP (which uses off-peak hours to pump water uphill so that peak hour demand can be offset using hydro power and the excess supply built into the system is not wasted), programs which reward consumers for reducing their PEAK POWER LOAD (and therefore also their total power bills!), and more localized power production which loses substantially less than the 50% average wattage which travels over wires and is better tuned to the needs of a particular location.  This form of savings would allow existing power plants to use their energy much more efficiently and reduce need for new utility construction all while increasing our national security from foreign attack.  (Oh yeah, and phase out incadescent lights and unnecessary “standby” mode appliances!)

Mandatory minimum Leed certification levels (or some similarly arranged standard) for new construction starts and promoting eco-remodeling over creating new buildings where possible (with corresponding tax incentives for each) will go a long way toward reducing environmental toxins and energy use loads while stimulating the building and sustainable material markets.  Of course, tax credits for passive solar design and thermal resources (geo and solar) should be in the mix to highlight these low-impact technologies, which have relatively fast break-even points.  Tax credits for using non-toxic building materials and for installing “greenswitches” (which allow you to deactivate wall outlets and lights from a single light switch by the door when you leave the house for the day or go to sleep at night) would be great too!  Also, promoting organic food and material production greatly reduces our overall need for petroleum supplies (for pesticides and herbicides), while helping to restore America’s soil health and ecosystems.  Community garden programs could also use a boost, maybe by offering a green roof gardening program on existing public roofs, producing food for community programs while reducing the buildings’ energy needs.  And incentives for greening cities (like the Million Trees LA program), with special emphasis on using plants which produce edible fruits, nuts, and other foodstuffs to increase urban agricultural density and further buouy city budgets (an interesting example of a group trying to promote this is  Perhaps also offer incentives for people who spend locally and stimulate their towns’ and cities’ economies and efficiency?  (RecycleBank has an successful program along these lines)

More research should be done on using nature’s own arsenal of environmental restorers and protectors (for example, using mushrooms for reforestation and toxic chemical environmental remediation).  We can also use certain restorative biofuel feed crops to rebalance the natural soil cycle, preventing erosion and therefore water pollution.  Our water, in particular, is a resource we cannot continue to allow to be polluted by heavy metals and current waste streams.  Providing farms better incentives for (or harsher punishments for not) properly collecting animal wastes that end up in the water supply.  Also, active superfund sites, especially mining sites, need to be addressed as soon as possible to prevent further contamination downstream.

As for alternative energy sources, there are so many different exciting technologies out there in the prototype and early market stages, the next phase (besides, of course, funding more R&D and business development!) will be ensuring that we have qualified technicians who can utilize these developments and technologies within the current marketplace competitively.  Offering more GANN-style grants for alternative energy and resource management studies at both undergrad and grad levels and creating and/or expanding a GreenCorps (modeled after the PeaceCorps) program which could first be challenged to green all federal and governmental facilities are both interesting options.  They can also promote public awareness of the consequences of their waste disposal actions and maintain a national resource database, which would help to source materials from within the country and with minimal transport for manufacture and also further educate people about the natural resources of the areas in which they dwell.  America could easily create lease or loan programs modeled after Japan’s successful solar leasing program or the SELF (Solar Electric Light Fund) loan initiatives in developing nations.  Both have been extremely successful in increasing solar adoption in times of economic despair (Japan) and area with fewer monetary resources (SELF), and could easily be applied to other alternative technologies.  Cuba’s solar school mandate is another great application of initial investment leading to long-term savings.

Two side notes on R&D for alternative energy technologies.  First, we need further development of integrated technologies, such as solar roof shingles, which serve multiple purposes and fit within current design models.  Currently, most alt technologies are add-ons – you mount them onto something else that’s already there.  With integrated technologies, the need to do this would be reduced, such as cars that have wind driven motor rotation when traveling above certain speeds (when wind can be effectively funneled through existing structures).  The other side note is that the digital divide, while not expressly an environmental problem, is something that we and all other nations will have to address in the coming years.  If we could fund people seeking ways to power computers without grid power or create highly efficient digital components, this will obviously help reduce future energy burdens on the US and globally.

(well, it continues beyond here, but congratulations if you’re still reading, ’cause I know I can really get talking when it comes to saving the earth! ) What are your ideas? Do you have stories of people (other than the listed examples) already doing these things?

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BOOK REVIEW: the Self Sufficiency Handbook

The Self-Sufficiency Handbook: A Complete Guide to Greener Living by Alan and Gill Bridgewater

the Self-Sufficiency Handbook

The title of this book is perfect. There are no crazy survival tips here, although I wouldn’t mind having this book along in a pinch. It’s a guide for getting your existing house off the grid, and also for evaluating properties in terms of their sustainability potential. The writers live in the UK, after years stateside, so the companies and tips are both oriented toward those countries. But there is a nice discussion of navigating local laws no matter where you decide to drop your hoe and start gardening.

After a nice discussion of housing, which includes talks about insulation, orientation, ambient heating/cooling, alternative energy sources, and materials, they move on to daily living practicalities. First, getting light. That done, next you need food. This is where the book really shines. There is an in-depth lesson on growing an organic garden, including successful composting and which crops should be planted where and when, what needs rotation (and a sample rotation schedule that will leave you with fresh foods year-round) and what can stay put, and the care profiles for a large variety of different garden plants. They are careful to share wisdom on how much land you need to make your off-grid dreams happen, and also on how to choose property that will lead you to success.

Animal husbandry is covered in detail species by species, along with construction considerations, possible worries and probable successes of owning each type. The sections are not overly in-depth – I thought they were perfect for the off-grid enthusiast with lots of commitment but no experience with husbandry. Of course, one can never emphasize enough the time it will take to properly care for animal on your own property. They cover it nicely, if briefly, by saying this: if you own animals, you will have to feed them EVERY DAY, holiday or not. Yes, that’s EVERY day. Having kept horses growing up, I can relate to the urgency with which they repeat this statement throughout the book. Take heart.

The last section of the book can best be described as a tutorial section of recipes for survival. Not pemmican or Gorp-style recipes, but rather old-fashioned recipes for things like candles, making soap, making chutneys and jams, and brewing beer and making wine. Their recipes are pretty short and look easy to handle. In fact, the whole book was particularly well planned to fit each concept on two facing pages, so you’re never left looking for information in a thick chapter of words. I’m sure this limits the amount of information that can be presented a little, but I didn’t notice.

If you’re even considering moving off-grid, or even just converting a section of your yard to an edible garden, you should pick up this book. It’s fairly new, but with its special emphasis on looking at your actions in terms of an overall lifestyle, I think it will one day be considered a standard text in self-sufficiency. Which, as gas rises toward the $5 mark, is something we could all afford to learn more about.

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Wind Extravaganza: Another Easy DIY Turbine

DIY Turbine Plans with no laser cut parts from's DIY windmill

When I check out the stats on this blog, DIY wind plans consistently top the most-viewed posts list. Obviously, there are a lot of people out there wanting to get in on wind power without shelling out thousands for a commercial kit. It certainly fits with the “I built it in my basement” ethos so popular here in America, and, I’m sure, abroad as well.

So, for all you backyard alternative energy warriors, here’s another plan for you to tackle, designed to be easy to construct with found and easy-to-obtain parts. Of course, you’ll have to find the motor listed (or know how to mod the design for your particular supplies) and it will still take a bit of metal cutting, but at least you won’t be struggling to find a laser cutter to build your own parts. Nice pictures of each stage should make construction easier, too.  Happy building!

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DIY Wind: kid in a candy store wind experiments

This site, brought to you from the folks at, is a great source of inspiration (and humorous things to try!) when deciding to build your own wind power system. Been looking at your hamster wondering if (s)he could be working for the cause? Well, they’ve got your answer. And there are a lot of projects her for you to try, with complete ingredient lists and a discussion of how each model performed after being built. Add in discussions on choosing proper equipment for the job, and you’ve got a DIY wind power mecca, right at your fingertips.

building a windmill

The biggest gift of this site is getting to see everything in the process of being made. I always have trouble figuring out where to start when people simply show ingredients and the finished product. But here, you see the steps as you complete them, and not only that, they discuss the evolution and performance of their machines over time, so you can choose one that suits your needs without all the trail and error.

When grid crash arrives, most of us won’t have the luxury of buying a pre-fab system to generate power. So the emphasis on using materials you can find in your local environment is important. Of course, you probably don’t want to wait until you NEED wind power to try building a system. So why not visit the site today and pick a design to try? They even have a web store to help you find all those parts for your project. With several “built in a day” options to try, you could be harnessing wind power tomorrow!

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America’s First Wind Powered City

It’s official: at least one city in the United States has finally ponied up for a wind powered station that will meet the entire city’s needs.  Meet Rock Port, Missouri, poised to take that trophy home for America.  Fortunately situated near a bluff and with a windy enough climate to sustain a projected 16 gigawatt hours of electricity per year, Missourans are about to get a healthy does of green in their power mix.  Annual consumption has historically only been around 13 gigwatt hours, so that power company will also be able to sell power across the grid to other places, as well as to supply electrical power when winds are down.  With this year’s tornado season as evidence, I don’t think that will be happening too often! 

For more information, look up Loess Hill Wind Farm, the company pairing with the government to provide this service.

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Forget the $10 Solar Cooker!

How about $3.50 instead? As often as I tweaked my previously profiled windshield solar cooker, there remained a real wind problem (as it was constantly falling over in the unpredictable gusts that are SoCal’s weather), and it never seemed to get QUITE hot enough for me to trust cooking something like meat or eggs within. So rather than tinker into oblivion, when I fortuitously found a nice sized box on the side of the road, I decided to make myself a little box cooker. After locating another box to house the inner cooker, and reading the many variations on recommended construction in a few books, I promptly threw out the plans and just went at it myself.

First up, finding tin foil. I had a roll at home, but it would have costs me $1 otherwise, so that’s the running total so far. I also had a few rolls of aluminum foil tape from when they had some at the 99 cents only store, of which I used one roll (10 yards) in construction, bringing the total to $2. The cement factory down the street threw out a buch of AirPaks (the plastic air filled bubbles you use as packing material for large items), which became the insulation for my oven. Price? A trip to their dumpster. Holding it all together was a roll of duct tape, also bought for a dollar, and a nice oven “window” made of cardboard and a Reynold’s Oven Bag ($0.50). Grand total – $3.50 and about an hour’s work. Not exactly a bank-breaker.

First, I lined the smaller box with foil on the inside, taping edges down with the aluminum foil tape. When I was happy with that, I closed up the other box completely with duct tape, making sure to cover ALL cracks well with the tape to minimize heat loss. I placed the smaller box on top of the large and traced around it to create a cut line for inserting the one box in the other. There were about 3 inches on each long end of the box around the smaller one and about an inch on the two shorter sides. So I dropped in two pieces of folded up cardboard on the bottom and secured them (to support the weight of the inner box and pots, etc), and then surrounded them with the AirPaks. After dropping the inner box down into the larger one, I secured the flaps to the large box with duct or aluminum tape, depending on where, and then stood back to see what I’d created.

Not bad. It looked relatively like the ones I’d seen in the books, even though I’d been reading warnings about how these cardboard versions would “never hold up like one of wood”, it looked pretty sturdy. Now on to the lid. Given that my top surface wasn’t exactly level the whole way across (it dipped in the corners where I taped things into place), I was wondering how to trap in the heat while still providing easy access. In a moment of inspiration (or was it desperation? I can’t remember now!) I thought to build a square frame of cardboard, and then place it inside a plastic oven bag, creating my own version of double glazing which was VERY easy to construct. Then I taped this down to the cooker along one edge and found two fist sized rocks to hold down the open corners, creating, with the excess plastic I’d left a little loose around the edges from the bag, a pretty decent seal.

Next up? You guessed it, time to test her out! I went to store and got some hot dogs. Now, I never liked hot dogs much even as a kid, but hey, this is an experiment, right? (and they’re already cooked, so I don’t have to worry much about food poisoning) So I cut four of them in half, and then added a few slits along the body of each so that I could tell if it actually cooked (did you ever make “hot dog men” in your microwave before? Same idea.) and placed them in the two back pans I’ve used previously. Put in the sun at about 2:30, the hot dogs were visibly cooked by 3:05 on a pretty hot sunny day. And the plate was HOT, requiring a leather work glove to remove from the oven, which was also quite warm (didn’t use a thermometer this time). They smelled great, sort of like a sweet sausage rather than your standard picnic fare, and there was a bunch of liquid in the bottom of the pan that had cooked out. As far as I could tell, it was mostly fat, but perhaps water as well.

In the name of science, I ate a bit, and found that the sweet smell translated to taste, making them pretty good. The biggest test was when I left the room a moment and came back to find my two best taste testers (my cats) happily smacking their lips around an almost empty plate. Two cats made it through three hot dogs in a minute? It must be good! Happy, I put the cooker away and called it a day.

Today, I pulled out the oven for another test. Having fulfilled my meat-eaters’ test, I returned to something I’d actually cook for myself. I bought two zucchini and cut them up in 1/4 rounds about 1/2 inch thick. It filled the bottom of the pan completely, about two layers deep. Next, I added about three tablespoons of cheddar cheese and roasted red pepper spreadable cheese and mixed well. On the top, I added a dash of “Chef’s Essence” spice, which seems to be a mix of garlic, salt and a little chili powder. The mix went out in the sun at 12:20 on another hot sunny day as I sat down to watch Fast Food Nation (see my previous post).

At first check, they were good, but still a little firm. So I gave the mixture another twenty minutes (40 total) and brought the oven inside. Again, the plate was too hot to handle (but the oven wasn’t, which I’d worried about). This little cooker doesn’t mess around! Properly gloved, I removed the meal and opened up the pot. Wow! Perfectly cooked to a nice steamed tender with the cheese melted into everything, giving it a little kick and a lot of creaminess. It was seriously good, and very filling. My hurried picture doesn’t do it much justice. RESULT? Total success. I like this cooker already, and though I won’t scrap the windshield shade cooker, I trust this one more with foods that require a hot temperature to cook through. They are about the same size, and as you’ve read, neither costs much to make. So, since the long days of summer are approaching, what are you waiting for? You can be a gourmet slow foods cook by tomorrow!

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All About Biodiesel

22 Myths About Biodiesel Dispelled


From the great resource Gas 2.0 comes a roundup of everything you think you’ve heard about biodiesel but were afraid to ask.  It’s the second version of the text, following up on a hugely popular series of a year ago, and has a LOT of facts to get you rolling in the biodiesel caravan.  Topics covered include, but are not limited to: the differences between biodiesel and ethanol, how biodiesel can replace regular gas, whether using biodiesel will hurt your car, whether you will void your warranty, what biodiesel is composed of… best get to the link above now to check it out!

As a parting shot, here’s a visual diagram of the biodiesel production process:

 Making Biodiesel

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