New Opportunity for Sustainable Energy?

One of the things that I think distinguishes Sewanee Creek from people in intentional eco-village communities is that we look at things through the practical eyes of real-world street experience. As a seasoned businessman, I recognize the importance of understanding basic economics. That’s why I have waited to invest in solar PV even though I’m driven to be energy self-sufficient. The way I see it, if the investment cost is too high to justify a reasonable return on investment, it’s not a “sustainable technology” I monitor the Solar PV industry fairly closely by subscribing to industry periodicals on the web. Just this morning, I read an article complaining about reductions in government subsidies in Germany that will potentially devastate the world’s richest Solar PV market. What does that say? To me, it says “without subsidies (rob from other more efficient businesses to pay for something less economical but politically attractive), the technology is not currently sustainable”. That’s not to say Solar PV won’t ever be sustainable. It’s actually getting there through lots of incremental innovations and scaling to reach critical mass. Just not yet.

Until then, I look for other technologies or energy sources that are truly SUSTAINABLE not only from an environmental standpoint but also from an economic standpoint. That kind of thinking is especially important right now for people who care, as I do, about the environment. Why? Because without economic sustainability, environmental sustainability amounts to a bunch of hippies around a campfire singing Kumbayah as the environment implodes.

I try to monitor a lot of information, looking for clues and inspiration for sustainable ideas. Continuously testing sustainable solutions, I invested in a Lister (diesel) generator, a wood gasifier and a micro hydro-electric generator for the creek and waterfall near my house. That experience has taught me a lot that I can share with community members with similar goals. That’s one of the many reasons people are attracted to the Village. As I often say, we’re not selling just land. We’re offering the distilled expertise of a community of like-minded, hard-headed people with similar goals. It’s been hard work bringing all of that together, but for people who are serious about learning to live more independently, the value of this kind of community is beyond priceless.

But I digress. Let’s get back to energy solutions. As I said, I invested in a Lister Diesel generator and several of my vehicles run on diesel.
Diesel has some wonderful properties for self-sufficient, off-grid living.

  1. It can be stored for up to 8 years without deteriorating, while regular gasoline is only good for a few months.
  2. You can make bio-diesel from waste oil products or vegetable oil.
  3. Diesel engines produce more torque than gasoline engines and deliver better gas mileage in vehicles
  4. Until a few years ago diesel was a lot cheaper than gasoline.

But number four has changed big-time for a lot of market-driven reasons that I won’t go into here. The price of diesel is now a lot higher than gas and rapidly heading north. So, as markets change, so must strategies, including those for sustainable off-grid living. Lately I’ve been re-thinking my plans to use the Lister generator to make my own electricity. Diesel is no longer an economically attractive solution, at least for now.

This morning, right after I read the Solar industry newsletter, I read another newsletter from an investment consulting firm that recommends buying stock in a natural gas company.  FYI, I’m no longer in the stock market. I simply believe it’s a playground for insider trading, rigged against the small guy. That’s me. So, while I won’t be using the investment advice, there is valuable information to be found in diverse sources if you are creative enough to connect the dots. Here are some excerpts that caught my eye.

A New Energy “Megatrend” Is Starting … Get in Now
Friday, February 24, 2012

“We will see natural gas as a transportation fuel inside of five years.” The latest bust has brought natural gas prices down from about $4.80 per trillion cubic feet (tcf) to $2.65 per tcf in the past nine months… And …it isn’t over yet. … wouldn’t be surprised if natural gas prices hit $2 in the short term. That’s about a 25% decline from current prices.

If this forecast proves correct, that’s an even stronger argument behind the buildout of a new transportation network based on natural gas. At $2 per tcf, natural gas would be more than 65% cheaper as a transportation fuel than gasoline. Trucking companies are adapting right now. Waste Management, UPS, Coca-Cola, and Wal-Mart are buying trucks with engines that run on natural gas. Clean Energy Fuels is building natural gas fueling stations across every major highway in America. Soon, Ford and GM will be selling cars that run on the clean fuel.

The U.S. is now “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” That’s remaking the country’s energy industry. The glut of gas supplies has led to a historic collapse in prices. Over the past six months, natural gas is down 40%. And it’s not likely to soar soon…
Looking at the numbers, the U.S. consumed roughly 24 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas in 2010. Based on estimates provided by the Potential Gas Committee, a nonprofit organization, the U.S. has roughly 2,170 tcf of natural gas reserves. Dividing 2,170 by 24 means the U.S. is sitting on a 90-year supply.
At current prices, natural gas as a transportation fuel is now 50% cheaper than regular gasoline. This fundamental shift in prices is causing some of the largest trucking fleets in the U.S. to switch from using diesel engines to ones that run on natural gas. These companies include Wal-Mart, Ryder, Coca-Cola, and Waste Management.

Hmmm.  Maybe T. Boone Pickens was right.

Off-grid preppers know that living the independent, sustainable lifestyle requires you to build in resilience. Interpreted into every day life, that means

  1. Redundant systems. If something fails, you need backups.
  2. It also means a little personal know-how about a lot of things and enough confidence and energy to build or fix stuff.
  3. Finally, because things change, you need to be aware, flexible creative and resourceful.

Looks like it may be time to take a hard look at natural gas as another energy system. I’ll be working with others at the Village and sharing what we find out.

BTW:  This was posted on our internal board called “Friends of Sewanee Creek”.  There was some spirited discussion that followed.  I’ll post that as a comment to this post.  If you are interested in joining our private site, contact me here.

2 thoughts on “New Opportunity for Sustainable Energy?

  1. From Jerry:
    Grant, how do the numbers below make any sense if we are determining long term supply based on current consumption? If natural gas replaces oil as a transportation fuel…it would make sense that our consumption levels would increase from 2010 levels thereby making that 90 year supply figure completely inaccurate…not to mention what that would do to the current price advantage that Nat Gas has over oil.

    “Looking at the numbers, the U.S. consumed roughly 24 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas in 2010. Based on estimates provided by the Potential Gas Committee, a nonprofit organization, the U.S. has roughly 2,170 tcf of natural gas reserves. Dividing 2,170 by 24 means the U.S. is sitting on a 90-year supply.
    At current prices, natural gas as a transportation fuel is now 50% cheaper than regular gasoline.”

    I think that humans need to get past short term band-aid solutions to what is a systemic long term problem that centers around the issue of exponential growth. No nonrenewable resource plugged into our zany notion of 3-5% annual growth is going to work for very long at all. In fact, even if you back out economic growth entirely, no nonrenewable resource (by definition) can be a long term solution. In a world of rising energy scarcity, we cannot afford to waste enormous effort retooling our economy around another source of energy that will simply leave our grandchildren in the same position we find ourselves in today.

    I really think that our current predicament requires more than just a minor tweaking. We need a more systemic evaluation of how our present model of life fits with nature’s reality.

    I think this video does a pretty good job of explaining that:

    From Grant:
    Jerry, I agree that “if you are determining long term supply” natural gas is not a long-term solution.
    Unfortunately, if we are to arrive at a long-term solution, we must have short-term solutions that will help us get through to the long term. In my business career, I was often accused of getting so wrapped up in long-term solutions that I neglected the short term. It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but the University of the real world does not grade on a curve. Get it wrong in the short term and you do not survive long enough to make a long term difference.

    That lesson has been drilled into me with savage clarity over the past six years at the Village. Fail to earn enough income or cashflow in the short term and all your dreams can go up in smoke. Fail to raise enough crops to feed your family in the short term and all the idealistic ideas about saving the future of farming through organic gardening and saving legacy seeds don’t matter.

    Once again, I believe that one of the things that distinguish the Village from starry eyed eco villages is that we try to live with balance. We love the beautiful world God created for us. We want to protect it as good stewards. We also understand that to be successful at doing that requires hard choices about survival and discipline in the short term.

    From Mark:
    Don’t forget about the perfect fuel… Alcohol… 🙂

    From Jerry:
    I’m working on learning to temper my propensity to discount the present…..the opposite of how the majority of humans operate. After all, in the long term we’re all dead anyway. There is something important about enjoying the now as it is the only certainty we really have. A Cuban friend of mine (who grew up in a state of constant survival) is fantastic at staying in the moment. In Castro Cuba planning for the future is virtually impossible anyway…so why even bother? On the other hand, his ability to succeed here in the US is hampered by such a short term perspective. As always, moderation seems to be best.

    From David:
    Grant, what is the status of CNG to replace propane in mountain homes? The cost of propane goes the way of the other oil related fuels which now, and in the future, is up. We are planning wood for heating and good ventilation for cooling as primary since we would be on the top of a bluff. You and others are certainly helpful in the thinking and rethinking of energy systems. When our time comes to build and live, the realistic approaches you all are finding will influence our thinking … the marriage of short term and long term thinking.

    From Grant:
    David, my personal sense is that wood based heating is the best alternative for life here on the mountain. That’s because we have an abundance of wood for the taking. There’s an old saying that wood warms you twice. Once when you chop it and once when you burn it. Home heating is the single largest energy hog for life here. After that comes air conditioning, but it sounds like you have a good plan for that. The next is water heating, which can be handled efficiently with a relatively low-tech and inexpensive solar water heater that you can build yourself.

    After that, a minimal amount of electricity is needed for refrigerator/freezers, pumps and fans (like those in my rainwater catchment, wood furnace and non-gravity-fed septic systems), lights and computers. To cover these, and with the drop in solar PV panel costs of 2011, you could put in an off-grid solar system for somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000, maybe less.

    Still, it’s a good idea to have a backup to solar in case of extended cloudy weather, an EMP, solar flare or simple malfunction.


  2. Pingback: Low Cost Ownership @ the Village on Sewanee Creek « Self-Sufficient Living

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