Future Technologies I

As long as humankind is around there will always be some awesome new technology right around the corner. Limited resources of traditional materials cause us to look at new innovative ways to utilize more plentiful materials or more efficient ways of using the traditional materials.

Michael Reynolds’ Earthship concept is one manifestation of this forward thinking. Essentially, he found a cheap and readily available resource and used it in manner that wasn’t previously thought of. Lumber and steel are expensive to produce. Tires are already made and filling up land fills and dirt is available at any build site for free. This is the type of ingenuity that steers humankind in the direction of a sustainable future.

I can’t help but wonder what’s next!

Although no one can predict the future with 100% certainty, there are a few conclusions or assumptions we can reasonably make.

1. Copper and aluminum are getting more expensive and will probably continue to do so. China is hoarding these materials with good reason, they are vital for future manufacturing and infrastructure. 

Earthship’s impact: Although wiring for solar panels, household breaker box, outlets etc is necessary, wiring to the grid is not. A single earthship could save many miles worth of grid infrastructure.

Future technology impact: Room temperature superconductors would be awesome. They might not exist. Current “High temperature superconductors” that do exist still need to be chilled and insulated. Making the current use for limited industrial and scientific purposes. Carbon nanotube wires do exist and are better conductors than copper and lighter than aluminum. Making longer lengths of carbon nanotube wiring has been a challenge for many scientists and engineers, but a recent breakthrough could make the availability a reality in the near future.

2. Land is getting more expensive and will continue to do so. Efficiently utilizing available land will always become more important the further into the future we go.

Earthship’s impact: Food can be densely grown in the greenhouse all year long. Previously impractical places to live might be more practical. Solar enhanced septic tanks can maintain temperatures that allow natural decomposition in a place that would otherwise remain frozen. Lower energy needs mean less (or no) fuel to transport.

Future technology impact: Permafrost has been melting over the last decade. Northern Siberia, Northern Canada, Northern Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica can become much more practical to live in (or have a research facility.) Wind power is going to almost assuredly be the primary renewable source of power for at least small locations.
Subterranean cities in extreme hot deserts or cold tundra environments are likewise possible, solar energy being the most practical source of energy in deserts.

3. Access to clean water can be expensive. Lots of cities are already implementing long term water rationing.

Earthship’s impact: Utilizing rooftop rain once is great, but earthships can use the same water multiple times! This can make a life saving difference in some parts of the world.

Future technology impact: Humans need freshwater to drink, to give to our livestock and crops. Access to clean freshwater is a huge problem for developing nations. Most of the water on our planet has salt dissolved in it. The vast majority of fresh water is locked away in ice sheets or otherwise unattainable leaving only a tiny fraction available for use. Desalination isn’t new, but new possibly cheaper techniques could make this vital resource much more affordable in the future. From graphite electrodes to a new graphene membrane it is only a mater of time before the major breakthrough in desalination is made commercially viable. This will allow a subterranean desert city or seasteading city to thrive. (It makes sense to colonize the sea before colonizing space.)
Weather modification has lots of potential to reverse desertification and drought and could end up being very cost effective. The National Academy of Sciences is running a 21 month weather modification study that is partially funded by the CIA. Understanding and having accurate models is a good step towards being able to tell if whether modification is being used in a malicious manner. Consider the devastating effects of a hurricane. </TinFoilHat>

4. Oil is getting more expensive and will eventually run out. CO2 output is unfavorable. We need to capitalize on alternative fuel sources.

Earthship’s impact: Proper utilization of thermal mass means they sip energy, this makes earthships more practical to use alternative energy sources such as solar and wind as less capacity would be required compared to a traditional home.

Future technology impact: For any future cold environment subterranean cities, a thorium molten salt reactor would be a lot more practical than wind generators. (Think about the lighting requirements for growing enough food for a city.) Thor Energy in Norway is currently utilizing thorium mixed-oxide fuel pellets in a reactor designed for traditional uranium fuel pellets. This is just part of a plan to learn more about the thorium fuel cycle. Thorium will definitely have a place in Earth’s future energy portfolio. Thorium reactor’s could also have a use in some cities at night when solar isn’t an option.
Change is naturally slow. Consider Picken’s Plan, T. Boone Picken’s plan for energy independence in the US. Thanks to fracking we have an abundance of natural gas. Picken’s plan is pretty straight forward, use compressed natural gas (CNG) in automobiles instead of gasoline or diesel derived from foreign oil. Use wind power or other alternative energy for grid power instead of natural gas. This will allow a bridge of cheap energy to keep the power going until future battery and electric vehicle technologies are more developed and affordable.

5. Energy storage, batteries and lithium (used in modern batteries for electric vehicles, phones, laptops, etc.) are expensive! We need cheaper ways to store energy.

Earthship’s impact: An earthship’s passive solar design literally makes the home itself a giant battery storing thermal energy rather than electrical energy. This allows the electrical storage needs to be less than a traditional off-grid home. (Most earthships still use 80-90% efficient lead-acid batteries.) 

Future technology impact: On smaller scale graphene super capacitor technology could store energy at about the same density as current lead-acid batteries, but can charge in seconds (instead of hours) and have an indefinite lifespan. Charging in seconds is an important factor if driving an electric vehicle, It could also mean having service stations that could recharge at in a reasonable amount of time.
Hydrogen storage could be a practical way to store energy for use overnight or even in a moderately large scale (village/town) a recent breakthrough in efficiently splitting hydrogen from water molecules could make this a good choice in the future.
There are solar power towers that store energy on a more industrial scale. but are less practical in areas without a lot of sun. Almost all storage technologies will have an application of which they are most practically adapted.

1 Acre Homestead?

Still looking for huge tract of land to build an earthship? MotherEarthNews has a great article about getting by with a self sufficient 1 acre homestead. I can’t help but think how much better it would be with an earthship, instead of a traditional home. No electric bill, no (or very small) grocery bill. 1 acre plots are dirt cheap too!

As far as livestock goes, my family raised chickens, ducks, guineas, geese, rabbits and goats. 1 acre would be awfully cramped! Especially if a pond took up some of that room. Oh My Goodness, livestock stinks! I’d certainly prefer for the barn/coop/stables to be a considerable distance from the living space. That alone is enough reason to look for at least a 5 acre plot!

The greenhouse section of an earthship could be the perfect environment to get seeds started early and ready for planting after the last freeze of the season.  Likewise, it is also a great place to grow tropical plants that otherwise won’t grow in Oklahoma. Banana tree? Avacado tree? Year-round tomatoes and herb garden never hurt!

Having a few acres of natural wooded area doesn’t hurt either. Hunting, logs for fuel(even collected from naturally felled trees,) foraging for edible mushrooms, foraging for berries, hickory for smoking, could all be free for future use.
Having fruit and nut trees is also a fantastic way to keep livestock and family fed without having to go to the grocery or feed store. If they are too close to your home, they could attract pests, close to your livestock they can become an important part of your homestead! Peach cobbler? Apple Pie? Pear Pie? Pecan Pie? Hmm Apple, pear, and pecan wood are great in a smoker too!

So 1 acre is definitely too small for what I have planned, but reading this MotherEarthNews’ article makes me feel much better about getting 5-10 acres instead of 20+acres!

Spin Dryer

Gas and electric clothes dryers use a lot of energy. Clotheslines don’t use up your batteries, but can take a long time to dry. Also won’t work if it is raining! </CaptainObvious>

The spin dryer is a nice gadget that won’t give you a warm and fluffy towel, but it will get up to 90% of the moisture out of your laundry within 2-3min. At 300-400watt for a relatively short duration, this is something that most off-grid energy systems can easily handle. Clothes lines can take care of any remaining moisture.

If you really want to save on power usage, and happen to have a lot of free time, there is always the 19th century solution. The clothes wringer! Personally, I’d opt for the more technologically advanced spin dryer.

Remember that it is a lot more economical to reduce the energy needed than to get the energy production and storage that you may be accustomed to. Not using a traditional electric dryer could be the single most negative aspect of going off-grid if you ask my wife!

Even if you don’t have a dedicated spin dryer, you can still run your clothes through the “Spin Cycle” on your washing machine an extra time (or two) before throwing them in the dryer. On my Roper/Whirlpool washer, I can only turn the dial clockwise, but I can move it past all of the wash options right to the spin cycle again. Likewise, it helps to redistribute the clothing to the edge of the basin. (Usually all of the clothes are compacted at the bottom.) Most washing machines don’t get up to 3200RPMs but they do get the clothes a bit more dry and every bit helps to save some $ on your current bill.

The single best thing you can do to save $$ on laundry is use a clothes line. Your clothes will last longer when not subjected to the intense dry heat from a dryer. Ever notice all that lint in your dryer? Your towels, jeans and other clothing are basically being blown outside little by little. We use a fantastic retractable model so it’s not in the way when not being used.

If you really need a fluffy warm towel, try this wall mountable towel warmer when combined with an electric outlet timer, it shouldn’t use too much electricity.

Off Grid vs Grid Tied vs Grid Tied with Backup(Hybrid)

Even though 2014 will be the earliest that I’ll be in an economic situation to even consider getting land and start breaking ground for an earthship, I still like to look at solar and wind prices. In the past I’ve contemplated simply using the grid at first and then waiting to purchase solar wares later. Basically getting in the house was top priority. That was when solar prices were about 3-4 times the current costs. Now it would be more feasible to go off grid completely or at least purchase the solar components early. Simply put, a payback period of a 5 years now vs 10+years previously can make all the difference. Prices haven’t significantly dropped for wind generators. So I’d probably hold off on getting something unless there was a really nice incentive program. There are some factors like helping the environment that are obvious. I’m trying to illustrate the economical value of each option.
Pros of going Off Grid

  • No hookup fee from utility company to setup electric service. (Varies with how rural the location is.)
  • No monthly electric utility service fees.
  • No ongoing costs for energy usage.
  • More incentive for DC appliances and lighting.
  • Have electricity no matter what happens to grid power.

Cons of going Off Grid

  • Initial cost of Solar Panels. (Really have to get all of your capacity needed at first.)
  • Initial cost of Inverter.
  • Initial cost of Batteries.
  • Extra energy produced is wasted. (Minimized by properly sizing the system.)
  • Possibility of not producing enough energy to meet demand. (Especially in Winter. Offset with back-up systems such as wood burning stove, possibly propane.)

Pros of going grid tie

  • Could wait on initial costs of Solar panels (until after building the structure.)
    • Could also get partial capacity.
  • Could wait on initial costs of Inverter (until after building the structure.)
  • $$ Extra energy produced could be sold back with net metering. (If more than the service fees, taxes etc, then could get a check each month or yearly.)
  • Still have grid power if the snow and ice keeps your cells from producing. (Assuming the same snow and ice doesn’t knock out grid power!)

Cons of going grid tie

  • Eventual cost of Solar Panels.
  • Eventual cost of Inverter.
  • Initial hookup fee from utility company to setup electric service.
  • Monthly service fee (pays franchise fees and taxes and all sorts.)

Pros of going grid tie with battery backup (AKA Hybrid System)

  • Could wait on initial costs of Solar panel.
    • Could also get partial capacity.
  • Could wait on initial costs of Inverter
  • Could wait on initial costs of a battery bank.
  • $$ Extra energy produced could be sold back with net metering. (If more than the service fees, taxes etc, then could get a check each month or yearly.)
  • Still have grid power if the snow and ice keeps your cells from producing. (Assuming the same snow and ice doesn’t knock out grid power!)
  • Have electricity no matter what happens to grid power. (Once everything is purchased.)

Cons of going grid tie with battery backup (AKA Hybrid System)

  • Eventual cost of Solar Panels.
  • Eventual cost of Inverter.
  • Eventual cost of battery bank.
  • Eventual cost of (Automatic) power transfer switch.
  • Initial hookup fee from utility company to setup electric service.
  • Monthly service fee (pays franchise fees and taxes and all sorts.)

Other thoughts
Tough decision, glad I don’t have to make them just yet.
sunelec.com or solarblvd.com are the likely places that I would order solar panels from. hydrogenappliances.com is the likely place I would order wind generators from.

Why DC Appliances are Favored for “Off Grid” Setups

This is a quick explanation of why DC(direct current) appliances are favored on an off grid system. Opposed to standard AC(alternating current) appliances.

First Some Basic Info

Solar PV (photo voltaic) panels(or wind generators) produce DC power which is stored in a DC battery. It should also be mentioned that lead acid batteries don’t store energy at the 100% rate. They lose some efficiency while energy is just sitting there. Although there are many variables (like temperature, age, water level, etc.) that affect the efficiency of a battery, 85% overall efficiency could be used for sizing your system for a relatively new battery. Efficiency goes down throughout the life of the battery.

An inverter is used to convert DC to AC power and is never 100% efficient. Instead, it might be closer to 90-96%. Excluding the future technologies.(There is always some neat “shiny!” technology that will be just around the corner that is super awesome: http://phys.org/news/2011-05-solar-inverters-losses.html)

This means that if you are sizing your home for a set Kwh usage per month it may need to have 20-30% more solar panels to go off grid.

Or just 4-10% more panels(to accommodate an inverter) if you plan on going with a grid tie system. A grid tie system would not have an inefficient battery to factor.

Grid tie with battery backup would not have to factor the battery (except for possibly peak usage times or when the grid has a failure.)

Energy storage in the off grid system is one of the more problematic aspects of going off-grid. This will likely be a problem until an existing technology is more refined or perhaps a barely conceived one is developed.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanadium_redox_battery

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_cell

http://phys.org/news/2011-05-rustbelt-iron-based-battery.html

So back to DC vs AC Appliances

In an off grid system the power for an AC appliance will have to go through the inverter and the battery. Power for a DC appliance would just go through the battery.

There is also the scenario of (smaller) appliances that use transformers to convert AC to DC power. Transformers are closer to around 85% efficiency. Essentially energy is lost when converting DC to AC, then again when converting AC back to DC. (65%-70% efficiency, basically a double-whammy of energy loss.)

In a Grid tie system (without battery backup,) AC appliances aren’t as big of a problem. Energy is lost when converting DC to AC no matter how much energy is actually used. (90%-96% There is no battery to lose efficiency to.)

In a grid tie w/battery backup system. One could conceivably still use battery power for DC appliances all the time and just have a lower electric bill. Having an efficient DC Fridge/Freezer for instance could give the best of both worlds. It would also be more of a Grid Tie with BatteryHybrid system.

Hippies from Ancient Greece

I couldn’t help but think of the earthship community when reading this article. A shortcut to happiness sounds pretty awesome!

It also reminds me of a story about an investment banker(or someone similarly high strung) that quit their high paid New York City job to move to a Caribbean Island and make a meager living as a fisherman. Why wait til retirement to do what makes you happy?

I view homesteading in a similar light.

Growing your own produce and raising your own livestock (Chickens, ducks, goats etc.) can greatly offset the living expenses you would have in with city living. Producing your own electricity can eliminate a bill or even generate ;D income with net metering.

There is a bit of start up cash that is needed for land, building materials, and labor. Much less start-up funds are needed for a DIY earthship vs. a traditional home.

There is a balance to everything. If you still need to “work” then an Internet connection, a laptop, and a little bit of electricity is all that is needed to “Work from home” with a flexible boss. If you are your own boss then the same ingredients are needed to connect with your customers.

myogepower.com

OG&E recently released a new site that allows users of the new General Electric smart meters to see hourly data about their electricity usage. Click Here to see the email

So far the site seems to be very useful. Although, the data will only go back as far as to when the Smart Meter was installed(3/14/2011 for me), as time goes on you will be able to compare the same day of a previous year. The site gives your current $/kWh and an estimate of what your next bill will be, which is fantastic for the budget conscious folks!

Looking through the last two months I can tell an obvious place for improvement in my own energy usage. Seems that when I programmed my thermostat I left the setting for Fridays the same as weekends. I’ll be fixing that soon! Looking back to the dates where we have been on vacation and had almost everything off it is interesting to see the ground state. Basically I left the fridge, security system, an alarm clock, water heater(forgot to turn this off!) and microwave clock on. I could see that our home basically used about $.05 per hour in this state. I can subtract that amount out to determine how much running other appliances costs. It is really easy to spot the times the dryer is running! (I’m much more inclined to use the clothesline outside!)

The best is yet to come! Although not set in stone, the best part of OG&Es smart grid initiative would have to be the pricing plans. During a recent pricing plan study there were two new pricing plans available: Time Of Use (TOU) and the Variable Peak Price(VPP).

The TOU plan has three levels, the cheapest is “Off-Peak”, followed by “Peak”, and then by the most expensive “Critical Price Events.” The prices for TOU are set the Sunday of each week. Critical Price Events are announced the day before it occurs. Critical Price Events are basically when a higher than usual demand for electricity is forecasted. The weekly pricing allows TOU customers to have somewhat more predictable bills.

The VPP plan has 6 levels, like the TOU plan, the cheapest is “Off-Peak” and the most expensive is “Critical Price Events.” Instead of having a single “Peak” level, there are 4 gradients of Peak: Low, standard, medium and high. Each day the prices for the VPP plan and any Critical Price Events are announced for the next consecutive day. The daily pricing allows the prices to be much closer to what OG&E actually pays for production of electricity(for better or worse.)

During the study, Peak hours were 2PM – 7PM M-F excluding National holidays (I’m a little disappointed that they did not exclude International Talk Like a Pirate Day!)

OG&E of course makes money by selling electricity so you may be wondering why they or any electric utility company would want to encourage using less electricity. Essentially it costs a lot of capital to build additional power plants. If they can help reduce Peak power usage then they can forestall building additional power plants.

Click Here to see the FAQ about the pricing study.

As mentioned in my last post, Earthships are very much grid friendly and very much capable of sipping very little power during peak hours. Best of all, with Net Metering and solar panels and/or wind generators, you could actually make your meter spin backwards during the Peak hours. Think of it as a way to give back to the community when they need it most, (and get a quicker Return on Investment.)

 

Planning for an Earthship: Starting a List

It doesn’t cost anything (except for time) to start planning for an Earthship. Every so often play hooky from TV/WOW/Surfing or whatever other time-sink you have in your life to think about your future home! It can be oodles of fun!

Start by making a list of the features you want in your dream home. Maybe you’ve seen something on HGTV that you just can’t live without? Synthetic quartz countertop? Australian closet? Home theater room? Induction cooktop? Toto Washlet? Aerogel insulation?

Prioritize your list with 3 different rankings(High, Medium and Low) based on how important it is for you to have that feature to move in.

High priority items should be the things that are going to have to be in place to make you fill out the USPS change of address form. Land, Roof, Floor, Walls, Electricity, plumbing(Water and Septic.) At least one backup heat source (cast iron or soapstone wood stove?) Radiant floor heating? Internet? Hopefully there will at least be a good cell signal!

Think about the location, there are lots of rural areas with quick(via freeway or turnpike) city access.

My personal list has the barest bones of an Earthship as high priority. Being a huge fan of DIY, I can finish the project after moving in. Think of the pioneers that helped to define the Southwest. I doubt that they waited for the interior walls to be finished before moving in out of their tents.

Use medium priority for items that would make the house “finished” (or the things that need to be done before the home is finished.) Kitchen cabinets, Interior Doors, Interior Walls, Central Air or “hydronic cooling” if you need it. Interior paint or stucco. Running CAT6 Ethernet cable, speaker wires, HDMI cables, alarm system wiring before finishing the walls. Dishwasher(this is really important in any Marriage!) Whole house vacuum pipes(the unit itself can wait.)

Low priority is really for all of the items that you want but don’t necessarily need.

Garage? Garage door opener with battery backup? Tractor? Whole house vacuum (Unit)? A workshop? Another 100Amp circuit panel for your workshop’s arc welder? (Also need the 200 Amp service meter panel!)

The low priority list will include anything you can think of that makes you want to move in the first place. Want a larger kitchen? Better organized closets? More useful backyard? A place for a garden?

Most of the items on my own list are on the low priority list. Workshop/garage, whole house surge suppressor, chicken coop(hopefully downwind!), Fruit and nut trees. Coniferous trees to the north(Winter wind break.) Deciduous to the west(Summer evening shade.) Herb garden by the house, Outdoor kitchen (don’t heat up your house in the summer!) Beer tap. Growing Barley, hops and grapes?

Flesh it out with even the small details that you think of (building permit, GFCI outlets, copper wiring, bulldozer work, architect approval of plans, foundation rebar, steel beams, windows, etc.)

To maximize savings and decrease the amount needed for start-up go with barebones options that can be improved later, Use acid staining on the foundation as a floor instead of tile, hardwood or carpet. Run Pipes to the roof for eventual solar water heater installation. Start with just one (Main)bathroom and finish the Master bath after you’ve become established. Use an electric skillet until you can afford a new range. (or get a used one.) Get a washer and use a cloths-line to dry. Use Drywall but wait to stucco.

Hold off on the wind generators, photovoltaic solar panels and a battery house. Remember that Earthships are grid friendly too. You can delay the huge startup investment of solar and wind by taking advantage of our modern electrical grid. Energy in Oklahoma is so cheap that it makes return on investment (ROI) for some of the current solar cells and wind energy almost break even with the lifespan of the product. The good news is that these technologies are continuing to get better and cheaper. (Bad news is that energy costs will likely continue to go up.) Right now IMHO the best value for dollars spent is with building and designing your structure.

Don’t lose your list. Use “the cloud” to save your list and share it with your friends and family.

Google Docs spreadsheet works great and you can easily access it whenever you come across a new idea. As always keep an eye out for emerging technologies.