“I think the machines are going to fail, the political systems are going to fail, and a few men are going to take to the hills and start over.”
I looked at him. He lived in the suburbs, like the rest of us … I could not really believe that he came in from placating his tenants every evening and gave himself solemnly to the business of survival … What kind of fantasy led to this?
~ James Dickey -- Deliverance
Living in Northern Minnesota is different. Practices that might get you labeled as a Prepper in other parts of the country are just getting ready for Winter up here. To live a happy life in the North Woods you have to expect a) that things you count on every day might not work when the subzero blizzards come, and b) maybe you can’t count on things, but you can count on people. We get by — even more than that, we thrive.
We thrive. Even in a world that seems to be proceeding backwards in time.
- The hope and triumph of the Apollo program is long over, and truly no one goes there now.
- The Green Revolution has enabled us to feed a planet with more than 7 billion people, but fertilizer and pesticide usage is only increasing. We need brains and balance or this won’t end well.
- That we are leaving the antibiotic age only confirms what Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”
With the worries in Gretchen Bakke’s The Grid and the recent election circus, we might be seeing the machines and political systems fail. But it is better to believe Jeff Goldblum — here “life” — people — find a way, and we can weave new technologies together to design the “art of the north woods” and solutions for an uncertain age.
Let’s put the pieces together and see where they lead:
- Climate change is here, and think globally, act locally compels us all to lessen our “footprint.”
- Environmental action through politics will probably come only after it’s obviously too late. Let’s follow Jim Collins’ words instead and fire bullets before cannon balls - let's start small and build relentlessly
- As Wilhelm Steinitz said of chess - let’s focus on the accumulation of small advantages
- As a chemical engineer, it seems clear that only thermodynamic solutions can help to solve the problem. We have to make use of only the energy that already comes to us. In my world that means solar-powered solutions. The sunlight is already here — let’s use it!
So here’s what we can mix for a better life:
- Pare back — less really is more, and we can choose to live with less wasteful practices.
- We’ll add solar incrementally, keeping that good life while shrinking our footprint as we go.
- On the consumption side, lower power is better, so (for example) as our lightbulbs burn out we’ll replace them with LED bulbs at 1/10th the power draw. Poco a poco se va lejos!
- We can also use technology to manage the power we use. Homes in the 2000s have less central control than the industrial plants I built in 30 years ago. We must choose to power only what we need.
Here’s where the path has taken my wife Kate and I so far:
Our solar-paneled south deck keeps my computers powered during the day, and is a lifesaver when the blizzards come and grid power fails. The panels here power portable batteries, and those batteries keep our world up even when “the grid” is down.
Lifepower is a Belgian company that has invented much of the world that I’m seeking. In the picture above, we’ve suspended from our south-facing deck a couple of SUN40s and a SUN20 solar collector, all daisy-chained together to recharge our Lifepower A2 and A2L batteries. Even this far north, a nice sunny afternoon will get me recharged, and I have two more SUN40s on the way. Once the setup is complete, a couple of good hours of sun will get us hours of runtime on our computers, (and our refrigerator, our freezer, and our water pump…!).
We’re evolving so that all of our electronic devices are low-power and rechargeable by USB -- Lifepower to the rescue! Our refrigerator and freezers are max-energy-efficient, so Lifepower works in power failures and might (with evolving battery technology) work more generally. As our light bulbs burn out we are replacing them with LED-bulbs. We have TP-LINK smart plugs on some of our outlets, so (for example) instead of heating the garage all night when it's 40-below (I like 40-below because C = F degrees at -40!), we turn on the block engine heaters on our cars when we wake up, and the engines will be warm in an hour when it's time to leave. Add in a great new Sedore wood burning stove , and while we’re not trying to be "off the grid", at least we can impact the grid minimally while we are still on it.
Again — this is just getting ready for Winter. Even now, our lives stay mostly up even if the grid goes down. Lifepower is at the core of our solutions, and with Lifepower we have power when we travel and power when we need it at home. The first European settlers of Minnesota thrived (enough to send word back to the Old Country), and we thrive similarly today — we can thrive better! We are just getting started — Much more to follow…