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.