Is it time to go Solar?

English: Solar panel installation at an inform...

Solar panel installation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re all about self-sufficiency and sustainability.  But, for those who don’t have money to burn, sustainability must first be applied at the individual, economic  level, avoiding debt, paying as you go, using resources wisely and demanding a good return on invested funds.   With PV panel prices over $1/watt, the ROI simply isn’t there.   And . . . when outgo exceeds income, it’s simply not sustainable.

Here is a good industry article indicating that solar panel manufacturers will go through a major consolidation this year. Shorthand:  It may finally be a good time to invest in renewable, solar energy if other fundamentals are in place.

Longhand analysis:

Consolidation is a weeding out of the smaller, less efficient manufacturers in favor of low-cost, high-volume, efficient manufacturers.  The remaining suppliers will benefit from lower supply and less intense pricing pressures.  It remains to be seen whether prices will increase in the aftermath of lower supply.  Prices may continue to decline, despite decreased market pressure, as new, more efficient technologies and manufacturing techniques are developed.  Or, consolidation may signal the bottoming out of PV panel prices. 

There seems to be some improvement in the economy, at least in some sectors.  This could release pent-up demand from homeowners who have been waiting to invest in solar out of fear over a potential job loss or from businesses waiting for better times.  If we have industry consolidation (lower supply) that coincides with higher demand, the remaining suppliers will benefit from even higher economies of scale, resulting in higher profitability and perhaps lower prices as low-cost suppliers further consolidate market-share.

By observing general trends in the silicone based high-tech sector, one could conclude that prices will continue to decline.  That is, unless there is some other major disruption in the supply chain (like war, political upheaval, etc.)  If prices begin to increase post-consolidation, this may trigger more government intervention and subsidization, which could also be an offsetting factor.  But once consolidation has occurred, companies may use subsidies to simply pad their bottom lines, further strengthening their balance sheets and staying power in the market rather than reduce prices.

Achieving self-sufficiency and sustainability is expensive.  Achieving it without bankrupting yourself requires a long-term, plodding approach.  Like Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, (remember that from college psychology or sociology classes?) one does not achieve self-actualization until the more basic needs are covered.  PV solar, is at the top of the pyramid.  Nice to be there, but not doable without a solid foundation.  First, you cover basics like food, water and shelter.  Next is energy in the form of least costly and highest efficiency.  Energy for heat and cooling falls in this category.  Passive solar or bio-mass solutions are a much better alternative.    Never try to provide these using Photo Voltaics.  That would be like trying to survive in a famine on an all-corn-fed-beef diet where it takes 15 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.  Inefficient and unsustainable.

Industry consolidation is just one factor to consider in determining when is the right moment to invest in Solar technology.  My sense is that now is a much better time for solar PV than a few years ago.  I’m glad I waited, opting for low-tech, high ROI alternatives in the meantime.  But the question remains, should I wait longer?  The economy looks to be improving in the short term, but the world still looks extremely fragile.  This may be the perfect moment to invest in self-sufficiency, whether it is a modest amount of solar PV or a more secure location on which to place it.

If you would like to become more self-sufficient, off-grid and better prepared, consider the benefits of doing that in a community of like-minded people who will help you get there on a solid foundation.  Inquire here.

Making BioChar for our small farm

BioChar Ovens

BioChar Ovens

We have a weekly tradition of trading projects in the Village, where one family chooses a project and others chip in.  This week, we built biochar ovens (sometimes called kilns or retorts) out of 55-gallon steel barrels.  Using a plasma cutter, it was a breeze cutting and assembling these ovens.   Weather cooperating, we plan our first biochar making session this Saturday.  We invite Villagers and visitors from the local community to join us.

Biochar, also known as Tera Preta, was discovered in the Amazon Jungle a few years back.  Apparently biochar production and use as a soil amendment was practiced by a lost pre-Colombian civilization.  The discoverers noticed that in a patch of cleared jungle land, the rich, black soil was incredibly productive where the surrounding soil was dead.  Upon excavating, they discovered that this black soil was also amazingly deep, having been artificially manufactured over generations.

“The burning and natural decomposition of biomass and in particular agricultural waste adds large amounts of CO2 and CH4 to the atmosphere. Biochar can store large amounts of greenhouse gases in the ground; at the same time its presence in the earth can improve water quality, increase soil fertility, raise agricultural productivity and reduce pressure on old-growth forests.” – Wikipedia

Our soil tends to be acidic, so the addition of a ph raising amendment, like biochar is a big plus.  In addition to sequestration of carbon and other minerals beneficial to food crops, biochar is also noted for its tiny nooks and crannies that provide habitat for beneficial bacteria that enhance soil quality and structure.

The process of producing biochar from wood also releases clean syngas, that can be used as fuel in internal combustion engines.  We make electricity using a generator fueled by wood gas.  So many benefits from one process!

There is still much to be learned about how and why biochar works as a soil amendment.  But, as a community, we decided it’s well worth testing, contributing to the body of knowledge, reaping the benefits in our small farms and creating another source of green revenue by producing it in reasonably large quantities.

Here is a video that explains the system we built.  Have fun with this.  We are.

BTW, if you’re someone who enjoys being self-sufficient, building things, and the company of other creative, industrious folks, you might want to join us permanently.  We’re a community of interesting, accomplished people who care about each other.  Contact us here.

 

Extreme Consolidation in the Solar PV market expected this year

This is a good industry article indicating that solar panel manufacturers will go through a major consolidation this year.

Consolidation is a weeding out of the smaller, less efficient manufacturers in favor of low-cost, high-volume, efficient manufacturers.  The remaining suppliers will benefit from lower supply and less intense pricing pressures.  It remains to be seen whether, in the aftermath of lower supply, prices will increase.  They may continue to decline, despite decreased pressure on prices, as new, more efficient technologies and manufacturing techniques are developed.  Or, it may signal the bottoming out of PV panel prices.  Also, there does seem to be some improvement in the economy, at least in some sectors.  This could release pent-up demand from people who have been waiting to invest in solar out of fear over a potential job loss.  If we have industry consolidation (lower supply) that coincides with higher demand, the remaining suppliers will benefit from even higher economies of scale, resulting in higher profitability and perhaps lower prices as low-cost suppliers further consolidate market-share.

By observing general trends in the high tech sector based on silicone chips, one could conclude that prices will continue to decline.  That is, unless there is some other major disruption in the supply chain (like war, political upheaval, etc.)  If prices begin to increase post-consolidation, this may trigger more government intervention and subsidization, which could also be an offsetting factor, although generally, once consolidation has occurred, fewer companies may use subsidies to simply pad their bottom lines, further strengthening their balance sheets and staying power in the market rather than reduce prices.

Industry consolidation is just one factor to consider in determining when is the right moment to invest in Solar technology that moves us further in the direction of off-grid self-sufficiency while staying fiscally conservative.  My sense is that now is at least a much better time to invest in solar than a few years ago.  I’m glad I waited.  Cost per KWh is still higher than grid-supplied electricity.  But the question remains, should I wait longer?  The economy looks to be improving in the short term.

I consider small-scale home based Solar PV not for its economic efficiencies, but more for its insurance value. Long-term, the world still looks extremely fragile.  With the short-term improvement in the economy, this may be the perfect moment to invest in self-sufficiency, whether it is a modest amount of solar PV or a more secure location on which to place it.

Achieving self-sufficiency and sustainability without bankrupting yourself requires a long-term, plodding approach.  Like Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, (remember that from college psychology or sociology classes?) one does not achieve self-actualization until the more basic needs are covered.  PV solar, is at the top of the pyramid.  First, you cover basics like food, water, shelter, Next is energy in the form of least costly and highest efficiency.  Energy for heat and cooling falls in this category.  Passive solar or bio-mass solutions are a much better alternative.    Never try to provide these using Photo Voltaics.  That would be like trying to survive in a famine on an all-corn-fed-beef diet where it takes 15 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.  Inefficient, unsustainable.

At the intersection of Christianity, Libertarianism and Sustainable Energy

The Solar Industry, even with unprecedented subsidies in the US and abroad,  is struggling.  In a second term Obama administration, what is the outlook for Sustainable Energy?  Read this for an industry insider’s perspective.  In closing, the writer makes this plea.

“It is absolutely critical – whether or not you have a new legislator – that you and your team introduce yourself to them,” Resch agreed. “Make sure they know they have a solar company in their district.”

It’s hard to be a libertarian purist.  As a matter of principle, a libertarian refuses to be part of the corruption, pork-barrel politics and influence-buying that is our government.  I acknowledge that is how the game is and always has been played.  Refusing to play it that way puts me at a distinct disadvantage.

There are more paradoxes.  I want to be self-sufficient.  Solar can be a source of “free”, liberating energy.  With enough innovation and scale, solar can be an economically viable solution, freeing me from the tyranny of the military- industrial-governmental complex.  I want the solar industry to succeed.  But I want it to do so in a free market without the distortions created by government meddling.

We are losing that battle.  But, as they say, “all politics is local”.

What can I do?  That which is important; Maintain my personal sense of integrity and support that which is good in the world.  How to be “in the world, but not of the world”?  John 17    Isn’t that the Christian struggle between good and evil?

Who is John Galt?  Where is Galt’s Gulch    Hint.

 

.

Friday’s Community Project

Just getting around to recapping and thanking all those who helped out in Friday’s community project. We successfully framed the carport on our CONEX guest house. Two hours of good fellowship and work followed by delightful conversation over lunch. Everything went smoothly. The timber frame is up, plumb and square. Experience is a great teacher. Still a lot to do before the carport is finished, but we’re well on our way now. The 800 square foot steel roof will provide a platform for solar panel installation and shelter for four vehicles. The combined roof space of carport and guest house is about 1,460 square feet. That more than doubles my effective rainwater catchment area, increasing the margin of water self-sufficiency with our 7,500 gallon Storage tanks.

For newbies here, the Village has a rotating voluntary shared project tradition. Every week a different household chooses and organizes a project. The community pitches in to help. One incentive to give time and effort is the expectation of the same when your turn comes around. But, there are others. The opportunity to learn from others with different skills and the comeraderie that goes with good people working productively together toward a common goal are others.

Together, we have built a storage shed, raised bed gardens for Several families, temporary shelter for goats, planting, caring for and harvesting produce in the greenhouse, installing drip irrigation systems and many other gardening projects, electric fences and chicken coops worked on our guest house, framed the carport, cooked a pig in the ground Hawaiian style and much more.

I want to thank all who have participated so far and invite everyone else to join us. Tradition is Thursday 10 AM start time followed by lunch, but we’re flexible on days and times. Some need to leave to get back to their work after lunch, but there are often several who keep working long after that. All voluntary.

Kind of like the famous Amish barn raising tradition without having to be Amish.

“The End of Suburbia” Still groundbreaking and urgent?


In this morning’s email is an article titled, STILL GROUNDBREAKING AND URGENT from nextworldTV.  Here is the text that accompanies an edited version of the original film.

“We’re literally stuck up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV without a fill-up” – James Howard Kunstler
This is the film that years ago, inspired the spark for the creation of Nextworldtv. Released in 2004, it is still groundbreaking and urgent in it’s message and the questions it raises.
“Since World War II North Americans have invested much of their newfound wealth in suburbia. It has promised a sense of space, affordability, family life and upward mobility. As the population of suburban sprawl has exploded in the past 50 years, so too has the suburban way of life become embedded in the American consciousness.
Suburbia, and all it promises, has become the American Dream.
But as we enter the 21st century, serious questions are beginning to emerge about the sustainability of this way of life. With brutal honesty and a touch of irony, The End of Suburbia explores the American Way of Life and its prospects as the planet approaches a critical era, as global demand for fossil fuels begins to outstrip supply. World Oil Peak and the inevitable decline of fossil fuels are upon us now, some scientists and policy makers argue in this documentary.
The consequences of inaction in the face of this global crisis are enormous. What does Oil Peak mean for North America? As energy prices skyrocket in the coming years, how will the populations of suburbia react to the collapse of their dream? Are today’s suburbs destined to become the slums of tomorrow? And what can be done NOW, individually and collectively, to avoid The End of Suburbia?”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Back in January of 2008, (remember 2008? Ugh!) I posted an article about the peak oil phenomenon.  In that post, I referred to this movie, “The End of Suburbia”.  On July 3, 2009, we screened it at the Village amphitheater.  Well, since its release in 2004, a fair amount of oil has gone under the bridge.  Something like seven or eight year’s worth.  Time tends to sort out the truth of predictions.  So, where are we now?  There are many who claim that we have passed the peak and global oil production is clearly in decline.  Predictions that oil companies would be forced to move to ever more exotic technologies and expensive extraction methods like fracking and oil shale or sand extraction, or ever deeper ocean drilling.  These predictions have proven true and with disastrous ecological consequences in the Gulf of Mexico, Canada and the Bakken oil fields.  Yet, the oil industry maintains that the newer technologies have made these methods of extraction cheaper, so there is still plenty of cheap oil.  OK, if so, why does gas at the pump continue to rise at such a steep pace, accented by short periods of relief?  And why is our military still in the Middle East with sabres continually rattling, now at Iran?

On the other hand, one of the claims of the movie is that we are also running out of natural gas that fuels most of our power plants.  That makes continued growth impossible and suburbia doomed.
But T. Boone Pickens, in a TED talk claims we are at the dawn of a new boom in cheap energy on the back of natural gas while reaffirming that “the days of cheap oil are over”.  Fact is, natural gas is incredibly cheap right now.  A financial newsletter that I track says that cheap natural gas, with the build-out of the required infrastructure to replace gasoline for trucks, buses and finally cars, heralds an investment opportunity not seen since the oil and suburban construction boom of the 50’s.  If cheap natural gas is here for the long term, are all our problems solved, with peak oil just a speed bump on the on-ramp to a global concrete superhighway?

Meanwhile, the great recession (depression) rolls on.  America is clearly overextended financially.  Talk of QE3 at the Fed is back in the news.  Is our current financial predicament an outcome of peak oil or, as some claim, evil banker boogeymen intentionally wrecking global economies to bring about a New World Order that will enslave us all?  The specter of hyper-inflation and social chaos still looms as the can gets kicked further down the road.

Hmmmm… Information, disinformation.  Booms, busts, fear, reassurance.  What’s real?  Still cloudy? Tired of guessing what’s coming down or when?  It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting.  But, embedded in this doomsday flick is a bright spot.  Notice that the precursor to the Suburban boom of the 50’s was a more genuine promise of grand country living in a few planned, rural communities where people actually had livestock and raised their own food, but still had access to cultural refinements.  These early communities were for the wealthy, while suburbia became a caricature of that dream.  Fast forward to today, the dream of self-sufficient, country living is not reserved for the wealthy.  It’s a more authentic, peaceful way of life available to the rest of us.

Ready to stop the hand-wringing?  I think there are better reasons to check out of suburbia than peak oil.  They go back to a time when people knew and trusted their neighbors, a time when life was less complicated and people lived closer to the beauty that is nature.  It was also a time of creative invention, when Americans were confident in their own practical skills and full of the joy of exploring and learning new things because they could.  Let’s rebuild that life together at the Village on Sewanee Creek.

Low Cost Ownership @ the Village on Sewanee Creek

The jewel of the Village has always been what we called phase II.  Pristine, forested, rolling land, with the most dramatic views, cascading creeks and water falls.  It’s all there, untouched and waiting for this moment and the right people to build a community of caring, sharing and prepared people.

In 2006, when we got started, I expected to quickly sell out on Phase I, then move to the best part.  Then the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit in 2007, followed by a total economic melt-down, led by Real Estate in 2008.  It’s been slow going, but our unique approach to community building creates value that goes far beyond the land.  So, we survived in slow growth mode.  Slow is good when you are striving to build a community with solid roots.  Sort of like nurturing a Japanese bonsai tree.

Fast forward to 2012.  The forests are 6 years older and the wildlife has cycled through several generations, but phase 2 is otherwise unchanged.  Meanwhile, the cost of building paved roads and other infrastructure required by the government, has sky-rocketed to the point that traditional development of Phase II is not feasible.  And, on Phase I, we have grown a community of self-sufficient folks.  Our gardens are maturing, along with our gardening skills and our bees.  We have weathered seasons of drought and plenty with our rainwater catchment systems; we have experimented with various types of low-cost alternative energy, from wood gasification to Lister Diesel generators, to simple wood stoves, solar ovens and micro-hydro-electric generators.  We have built six lovely homes, some traditional construction, log, SIP, cast concrete and experimented with ultra low cost CONEX shipping container construction at the amphitheater, for storage, for workshops and finally, for guest houses.  The learning from all of this and expertise from highly skilled people who have joined us over the years continues to raise the level of self-sufficiency and preparedness of the Village community.

Cost of ownership in difficult economic times has been the primary obstacle for most people who wanted to join us in living a simple, frugal life.  So, here’s the low-cost alternative:

Land on Phase II is to be owned by an LLC with shareholders. Through a shareholder’s agreement, co-owners allocate personal plots within the community.

This method of ownership has several advantages:

  1. Lower cost per acre (In the $4,000 range)
  2. Lower taxes: Blocks of land over 16 acres can remain in “green belt” status, with close to zero tax rates.
  3. As there is one owner, it is not a “development”, hence no need for Government Planning to interfere.
  4. Lower development costs for roads, and other infrastructure.
  5. Full membership in the established Village on Phase 1 with access to commons, hiking trails, community gardens, and other infrastructure.
  6. Shared cost of self-sufficiency infrastructure (well(s), rainwater catchment, alternative energy systems, etc.)
  7. Enhanced sense of community, but still not a commune.

Purchase size would be from 50 to 100 acres.
So, hypothetically, 50 acres, shared equally in 5 acre lots = 10 owners (could be more owners and lower total cost with smaller lots).  Out of that, each contributes an acre for a highly functional 10-acre commons. This is all usable plateau top land. Cost per household would be in the neighborhood of $20,000 plus the shared legal cost of setting up the LLC.  Add a low cost home, like the guest house from Shipping Containers I built for under $10,000 to, say, a 2-acre piece of Phase II and you could have a great life in a gorgeous, sustainable community for about $18,000.

I know there are a lot of you out there who desperately want to own land in the Village, but simply can’t afford it in this economy. And I can’t afford to sell Phase I land for much less and even cover my sunk development costs.  But I have no development costs in Phase II other than the interest I have been paying on it for six years.

If this sounds interesting, please let me know. We can start doing some serious planning and marketing if there is enough interest.