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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Off-Grid Homeowners Contemplate Our All-Electric Future

Electric vehicles and ductless minisplits only work for grid-connected households

The dirty little secret of off-grid living. During the winter, when days are short and skies are cloudy, most off-grid homeowners use a gas-powered generator to charge their home batteries. [Photo credit: Fine Homebuilding]

General Motors Corporation has announced the planned phase-out of its internal combustion vehicles. By 2035, GM intends to manufacture only electric vehicles and other so-called “zero-emission” vehicles.

This announcement is only the latest sign that we’re headed toward an all-electric future. Scientists, government officials, and corporate leaders all realize that the climate crisis will require an end to the burning of fossil fuels. To make this dream a reality, we’ll need to decarbonize the electricity grid by phasing out generating plants that burn coal or natural gas—a transition that will require big investments in wind energy and photovoltaics.

Climate scientists and political activists will, of course, continue to debate the urgency and timeline of this transition. But regardless of the details, the transition appears inevitable.

This transition will change the way Americans heat their homes and commute to their jobs. But it will cause even more wrenching changes to a small subset of Americans: those who live off the electricity grid.

Solar panels don’t work year ’round

I’ve lived off the grid for 47 years. Like most off-grid homeowners, my wife and I depend on a photovoltaic (PV) system for our electricity during the sunny months of the year. But a PV system won’t get us through the dark, cloudy months of winter. From late October to late February, we make most of our electricity with a gasoline-powered generator.

Other off-grid homeowners use a diesel generator or a propane-fueled generator. But almost all of us have some type of generator—because sunshine isn’t a dependable resource for many months of the year.

For similar reasons, most off-grid homeowners don’t have an electric car. I might be able to charge an electric car in May or June, but once autumn arrives, an electric car won’t do…

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43 Comments

  1. Charlie Sullivan | | #1

    Thanks for bravely confronting this. I think that it's worth noting that what pioneers like you did was an important contribution to getting us to the point of having practical low cost photovoltaics, even if the way they are used now is quite different from what you started with.

    As for electric vehicles, with the DC fast charging network growing, it is becoming more plausible to own an electric vehicle even if your home charging capability is limited. You can even use that vehicle battery, charged in town, to supplement your household electricity supply in the winter.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #2

      Charlie,
      You make a good point about the possibility that electric vehicle owners may not need to charge their vehicles at home.

      That said, I'm imagining that it's a Monday morning in winter, with the thermometer at -20°F. My electric car has been getting colder and colder ever since it was last driven on Friday. It's time to drive to work--and I sure hope that the cold batteries have enough charge left in them to get my vehicle to a charging station. (Remember--it's not a good idea to operate the vehicle's electric resistance heater to warm up the driver. Not much juice in the batteries! I'll just wear mittens and a hat until I can top up the batteries.)

      Meanwhile, as I have a cup of coffee at the nearest charging station (topping up my batteries on the way to work), my boss wonders why I'm late...

  2. James Howison | | #3

    Seems like it's a version of the "store renewable energy" issue. But here we are talking across seasons, rather than from day to night. Or at least week to week if it's wind generated.

    I'm sure Martin knows this site (which is only online when there is solar energy to run the website or something similar to that, I think):

    https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2018/05/ditch-the-batteries-off-the-grid-compressed-air-energy-storage.html

    But perhaps the more general point here is that the energy requirements to run useful range EVs are never likely to be generated/stored at an off-grid property. So they'll have to be imported, as they were with fossil fuels. I'm guessing hydrogen fuel cells come down in price https://www.fuelcellstore.com/fuel-cell-stacks/high-power-fuel-cell-stacks/greenhub-2-5000 so you'll have deliveries of hydrogen (or some precursor like ammonia: https://www.gencellenergy.com/markets-applications/off-grid-power/). Or maybe you throw a few tanks in the back of the buggy :)

    A story on off-grid non-carbon emitting generators would be a fun one to read.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #4

      James,
      Mike Strizki of East Amwell, New Jersey, got a lot of publicity a few years ago when he installed $500,000 of equipment to store hydrogen at his home. The hydrogen was produced by electrolysis, powered by a big PV array. This approach to storing energy isn't cost-effective, to say the least, so the press attention paid to Strizki was, in my opinion, unwarranted.

      Here's a typical story -- there are plenty more on the web: "Inside the Solar-Hydrogen House."

  3. Robert Opaluch | | #5

    If you can have fossil fuels delivered to your off-grid home...there could be ways to deliver electricity in batteries to your home?

    In the future...Maybe you could charge your electric vehicle, bring it back to your off-grid home, then transfer some of the charge to your home batteries? Or just use some of the power, leaving enough to drive back to the charging station.

    As electric car batteries are replaced, could those used batteries be used as a source of power as well as a source of electric storage for off-grid homes? People note that the used batteries from vehicles still have useful life in them, just not enough to continue to use in the vehicle. Could you put the used (lower functioning but still working) batteries in a van or pickup to charge them as well as the vehicle itself? Then bring your charged vehicle and those charged spare batteries back to your off-grid site? Something more elegant could be designed... Especially when batteries get lighter. Or if someone designs batteries to be charged at charging stations then hauled to remote sites to provide electric power to a home, business or temporary work site (e.g., a towable small trailer containing a battery for off-grid buildings).

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #6

      Robert,
      The answer to most of your questions is, "Yes, it's certainly possible." But all of these options would make my electricity more expensive, not less expensive.

      Bigger battery banks are not the solution to the issues I'm raising. To lower my electricity cost and my home's carbon footprint, I need less equipment, not more equipment.

      If middle-class or wealthy Americans want to live in the middle of the woods and enjoy a modern lifestyle, they can certainly do so. The question is whether such a lifestyle is good for the planet.

  4. Mark Bartosik | | #7

    As there are more EVs there will be more old EV batteries. I could imagine a small company being setup to make trailers with a few old EV batteries can could be used to 'haul' electrons from the fast charger to the off-grid home. Sort of like delivering heating oil. In the smaller scale you might own your own trailer with 3 or 4 old EV batteries. In the larger scale (if there is such a thing as scale for off-grid customer base) there maybe a local delivery truck that brings a 'truck load of electrons' around to charge up your stationary and well insulated old 4 EV batteries.

    Yes cold and cost will be a problem, but so is paying to run copper wires an extra N miles.

    1. OffgridDt2 | | #10

      This may be where hydrogen actually works really well. I don't think it can take over the general car market, but giving us a really dense way to move electricity would be nice...

  5. OffgridDt2 | | #8

    As technology improves (eg hvac efficiency, hpwh, battery storage density, pv density) I think offgrid will start looking a lot different. On battery and PV forums I am starting to see more people weighing the cost of running new power vs offgrid and making a calculated choice to go offgrid. I think price per capacity is way lower than it was even 5 years ago. Also if we can get responsive equipment (water heaters, possibly refrigerators) along with cheap enough power storage/pv to oversize the problem will get smaller.

    I think offgrid neighborhoods, or houses will start to become an option when you build. If you want it offgrid you pay 30-40k more in a standalone, or 20-30k in a neighborhood. Microinverters make it much easier to scale, and a lot of the grid regulations actually make it easier to turn on/off systems for offgrid to easily match demand or store when you have extra power.

    It's actually an exciting time to be considering all-electric offgrid.

    1. OffgridDt2 | | #9

      Here are some examples.
      300 per kwh lithium battery 100% DOD (cheaper to diy about 150 per kwh)
      https://shop.signaturesolar.us/products/24v-200ah-lifepower4-battery-by-eg4

      Panels at 0.50 per watt
      https://shop.signaturesolar.us/products/440w-black-mono-60-cell-panel-by-solarever

      Inverters/charge controller combos
      https://shop.signaturesolar.us/collections/off-grid-inverters?page=1

      So probably about 40k or more for a full offgrid average house. I think the technology gets better in the future. Also you could charge at an EV charger and bring the power to your offgrid house. Would be best to have 1 ev and 1 gas car.

      I think 5 years ago a system at 40k today would have been over 80k, so I think technology is moving pretty quickly on this front. Cutting consumption is still the most important part of the equation though.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #11

    OffGridDT2,
    Observers who think that the solution is larger or cheaper batteries misunderstand the scale of the problem I'm talking about.

    In Vermont, we often have have three weeks in November with no sun. The average U.S. home (one without an electric car or electric heat) uses 31 kWh per day. So 21 days of storage means 651 kWh of storage. My 19 kWh lead-acid battery cost me $4,600 in 2011. I would need a battery bank 34 times larger -- a lead-acid battery costing $156,400, or a lithium ion battery costing far more -- to get through 3 weeks of cloudy weather in November, if my electrical usage equaled that of an average American, and if I didn't have an electric vehicle or minisplit.

    And even if I spent the $156,000, I'd need a very large room to put the batteries in -- about as large as the footprint of my house. And after three weeks of cloudy weather, the next sunny day wouldn't come close to filling up my discharged battery -- all I'd get would be 2.5 hours of winter sun, if it was a nice day, and my battery would still be close to empty.

    And after all that expense and hassle, I still wouldn't have any way to use electricity to heat my home.

    We can't solve this problem with a bigger battery. For a full discussion of these issues, see "Batteries for Off-Grid Homes."

    1. Robert Opaluch | | #14

      "The average US home..." wouldn't be the best way to envision off-grid all-electric homes. Consider something like Passivhaus or PHIUS level. Or at least Pretty Good House, far better than average insulation, air-sealing and solar orientation than our typical wasteful US housing stock. The energy load needs to be reduced significantly before off-grid or grid-alternatives become financially viable. As someone who's lived off-grid since forever, you know the tradeoffs.

      You also live in one of the most difficult US climates, with very cold and somewhat overcast winters. Places like dark and bitter cold Alaska, very cold North Dakota and your area of northern Vermont require a lot more heating and can't rely on solar gain for much heating or daylighting mid-winter. So off-grid living is especially tough. Not much of the US population lives in these areas. Other locations have more moderate mid-winter temps, or cold but sunny winters, where it would be easier and less expensive to design a lower heating load building.

      1. GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #17

        Robert,
        Yes, off-grid homeowners have learned how to live with lower levels of electricity use than the average American family -- out of economic necessity. And yes, Vermont has a difficult climate for PV production. (Of course, owners of off-grid homes tend to live in rural areas where no one else wants to live -- because that's where the cheap land is. So it's no coincidence that there are a fair number of off-grid homeowners in Vermont.)

        These two facts don't negate the fundamental point of my article: namely, that the electricity used by off-grid homeowners isn't particularly climate-friendly compared to the electricity used by grid-tied homeowners. Remember, too, that our grid will get cleaner, not dirtier, in the future -- tilting the balance between these two types of electricity more and more in favor of grid power.

        At an off-grid home, lots of PV production is wasted -- because during the summer, my batteries are full at 10:00 a.m., so all of the PV production from 10:00 a.m. to sundown is basically wasted -- it can't be stored. (If my house were grid-connected, I could sell the PV power to a neighbor.) Moreover, once my batteries are empty on an autumn day, I'm out of luck, even if my neighbor is making more PV power than he needs -- because there is no way for me to buy electricity from my neighbor. Grid-connected PV works better than off-grid PV, by a long shot.

        Finally, if Americans decide to switch our space heating fuel to electricity, and if we switch our vehicle fuel to electricity, these switches just aren't feasible for off-grid homeowners, especially from mid-October to mid-February. None of the comments posted so far alter these basic facts.

    2. OffgridDt2 | | #24

      Interesting, 2-3 weeks of absolutely "0" production is odd. Sound like you guys are really fighting an uphill battle in Vermont for offgrid. Keeping an eye in TN it's a lot more promising, plus we have less heating load. Maybe it is a lot more of a regional thing. https://www.sunnyportal.com/Templates/PublicPageOverview.aspx?page=1158b268-7df6-43b4-beb3-81a1f1a312d7&plant=ddbf43dd-b291-4aea-b3f4-b066e9855bb9&splang=en-US

      Either way I think it has gotten exponentially easier to do today than it was 5 years ago. I think you are right though it isn't something that is going to happen at scale in the near future. Currently solar is the cheapest energy generation option in a lot of markets, so that is great. I am sure that we are going to need a lot of peaker plants, batteries, etc. for off weeks in the heating season, but I think solar will become a big part of our energy generation. If we can figure out dense transportation (maybe hydrogen?) we could ship energy across the equator ;-)

      1. GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #25

        OffGridDT2,
        PV is going to play an enormous role in our energy future. You're right, of course, that the price of PV modules keeps dropping -- and that's very good news for the planet.

        Grid-tied PV works because everyone can share it. If one house is making more electricity than it needs, the power is seamlessly directed to a nearby house that is using more electricity than the house is producing.

        The problems I'm describing have nothing to do with the price of PV, really. The problems have to do with the disadvantages of one household's attempts to be energy-independent, without any extension cords to share electricity with neighbors.

        While you may not experience three weeks of cloudy weather in Tennessee, you'll have long spells of cloudy weather. Batteries are expensive, and off-grid homes can't use electricity for space heating -- because the season when you need the most power is the season with the lowest levels of PV production.

    3. T. Barker | | #43

      "In Vermont (AND MANY PLACES IN NORTH AMERICA), we often have have three weeks in November with no sun. The average U.S. home (one without an electric car or electric heat) uses 31 kWh per day. So 21 days of storage means 651 kWh of storage. My 19 kWh lead-acid battery cost me $4,600 in 2011. I would need a battery bank 34 times larger -- a lead-acid battery costing $156,400, or a lithium ion battery costing far more -- to get through 3 weeks of cloudy weather in November, if my electrical usage equaled that of an average American, and if I didn't have an electric vehicle or minisplit."

      BINGO! I agree completely with your numbers. I try to explain this to people all the time, but they convince themselves they're good with 1 day (i.e. 30 kwh) of backup power - which is ridiculous.

      I've looked at load patterns of actual systems in the northeast and snow country, and there is usually at least one period of 1 or 2 days during that 3 week stretch where you can generate some portion of the regeneration power you need, but there is a good chance you will encounter the worst case (as per your numbers), and this should be the design condition.

      It all comes down to battery storage technology.

      It's improving, but will it happen fast enough to keep up with the Kumbaya fools who want to eliminate all traces of oil and gas production in the next 10 years? I think not.

  7. Mark Bartosik | | #12

    Some EV batteries are not far from 100KWh in capacity, so if a weekly delivery of electrons was sufficient for off-grid (obviously monthly would be more convenient), then you'd need about 300KWh (assuming you want a little buffer). That's maybe 4 or 5 used EV batteries assuming they have lost some capacity. So back of envelope - weekly delivery of electrons does seem within reason. 4 or 5 used EV batteries would be towable on a small trailer behind most cars.

    I'm not suggesting just bigger batteries, because that also requires bigger solar/wind inputs. I'm suggesting older batteries as a portable refill tank.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #16

      Mark,
      OK, I'll bite. I'm ready to start a company providing weekly deliveries of electricity to off-grid homes.

      Let's see: I'll need a powerful electric truck to make deliveries. (It can't be powered by fossil fuels, because I'm trying to lower the customers' carbon footprint.) I'll need lots of heavy-duty trailers, each capable of hauling thousands of pounds of cargo. At each customer's home, I'll need a generous area to turn around the trailer and park the trailer -- and this area needs to be cleared of snow for weekly deliveries.

      I'll need a flexible delivery schedule, taking into account the fact that some winter weeks are sunny, and some are cloudy. And the cost of this service -- what I charge my customers -- needs to be high enough for my company to make a profit.

      Once I've paid back my investment for the truck and all my trailers full of batteries -- allowing for one trailerload of batteries per customer, of course, because I will leave a trailer full of batteries parked at each customer's house, ready to be exchanged when I next visit -- I'll only have an income for my business from mid-October to mid-February. The rest of the year, there will be no market for my electricity delivery services.

      Of course, I'll have to choose a rural location where there are enough customers. If I'm lucky, I'll find 20 customers within driving distance of my headquarters.

      Great! I'm all set! So does this service lower the carbon footprint of my customers? Or does it just raise their electricity cost?

      1. Charlie Sullivan | | #23

        Ah, but in the summer, you'd just reverse the business model: you'd deliver empty batteries to your customers, let them charge them with excess solar, and then take them back to your multi-megawatt charging warehouse where you discharge them into the grid on hot summer afternoons when the grid is stressed.

        Better yet, you could run wires to your customers' houses ...

      2. OffgridDt2 | | #36

        Interesting. Once we have self driving car taxi's maybe when people are asleep (less usage) they could go around at night filling people's Powerwalls. The ultimate in electricity arbitrage.... :-) Although for that I think hydrogen is a lot more energy dense. If it's dense enough we could store it during the summer to offset the winter. I think Toyota developed a "bus electricity distributor" for natural disasters that can act as a hydrogen battery to move power.

        Really though I think offgrid is the 1% of the 1%. If you made all offgridders more sustainable you would have a minimal effect on overall pollution. I think you would need to focus on grid scale energy first and then that would slowly trickle down to offgrid people.

        Fortunately 3rd world countries are able to skip a lot of the wired infrastructure that we have evolved through. Telephones have gone straight to cell phone towers. I think it will probably be the same with distributed energy. We'll probably see neighborhood distribution (like Edison imagined) in third world countries and not very many powerlines running to small towns etc.

    2. Expert Member
      Malcolm Taylor | | #18

      Mark,

      That's not really being off-grid, it's just using another less efficient delivery system for grid power.

  8. Expert Member
    Malcolm Taylor | | #13

    The increased dependance of modern homes on electricity to power the devices and equipment required by current building codes (smoke detectors, full-time mechanical ventilation, etc) are now reflected here in BC in the stipulation that if grid power is available to a site, the house must be connected to it. This blog is probably best described as a elegy for a way of life that is for various reasons coming to an end.

    1. Robert Opaluch | | #15

      Quick web search...
      There's about 200,000 families living off-grid in the USA. There's about 123 million households in the US. So about one in 600 are off-grid here, pretty rare already.

      There's about the same number of off-grid families in 280+ off-grid communities in Canada, with about 10.3 million families total. So one in 50 but maybe more organized into communities. Perhaps more likely to be geographically remote areas, far outside the areas of the established electrical grid?

  9. Andy Kosick | | #19

    Thank you so much for this Martin.

    I've really appreciated your commentary on off -grid living over the years and have learned so much from it. It has informed my progression in home performance over the years from one of an over complicated obsession with extreme efficiency to one of practical and simple solutions that are feasible for the average homeowner. Off-grid seeming to kind of be the antithesis of this.

    Also, a fact that bears repeating. Single family detached housing is the LEAST resource and energy efficient form of housing there is. That just seems relevant to this discussion for some reason.

  10. FrontRange | | #20

    I think off-grid will become even less prevalent as not connecting to the grid will become more economically challenging. However, electric vehicles with larger battery capacities (75+ kWh) could be used to get electricity from other locations. Requires driving to a fast charger every few days to "fill up" during extended periods of insufficient solar power, but it's possible although inconvenient .

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #21

      Front,
      It's especially inconvenient considering the roads where off-grid people live -- generally very long gravel roads, a long ways from civilization.

      1. FrontRange | | #22

        Yep. Might be places like Vermont will only be off-grid for the wealthy. Those with less means might need to choose less difficult climates like Colorado or New Mexico for off-grid living.

  11. Scottie_Miller | | #26

    @Martin Holladay: From where I'm sitting your basic thesis that denser, connected development is inherently less destructive to the environment seems accurate. That said, I do believe a combination of technological advances will mitigate the penalty of off grid living. Commenters have already touched on driving down the cost of PV and battery storage. Two additional advances are likely to reduce the size of your winter spanning Vermont battery bank:

    1. Advanced double combustion wood burning stoves that release essentially no particulate matter and achieve complete combustion. These cost $6k+ in Europe and aren't yet available in the US. Over time these designs are likely to proliferate and come down in price. The best version of this technology I'm aware of is the RAIS bionic fire.

    2. Solar thermal collectors that trap photons in lieu of requiring direct radiation from the sun. The first commercial manufacturer, (HONE) was bought by a large conglomerate a couple years ago, (Photonami) and is making a major push in the UK, Ireland, Europe and China. The product resembles evacuated tubes, but instead fills the tubes with a photon trapping liquid that maintains a delta between the hotter outer core and cooler inner core as the inner core heats up. I'd chalk this up to snake oil if the SRCC, (and ISO, and EU EPC, etc.) hadn't completed testing. I crunched the numbers and the panels are roughly 82% more efficient than Apricus, SunMaxx, etc. at 2,000 Btu/ft2.day and 98% more efficient at 1,000 Btu/ft2.day. If these panels actually produce usable heat at 300 Btu/ft2.day they will continue to produce usable heat during your Vermont winter.

    Bottom line, a combination of "pretty good house" principals with space heating delivered by renewable, particulate free and NOx, SOx, CO free exhaust wood heating and/or solar thermal heat/DHW will result in battery storage needs an order of magnitude less than the 651kWh noted above. Is this cheaper and more efficient than living on grid? Almost certainly not. That said, I bought 20 acres, 2 hours outside of Seattle in 2020 for $125k. A 5,000 ft2 parcel in Seattle is easily $500k+ today, so there are cost advantages inherent in off grid living! Thanks for all you do!

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #27

      Scottie,
      It seems to me that wood combustion without the production of CO2 violates basic chemical principles. Any chemists out there want to weigh in on whether such combustion -- combustion without CO2 releases -- is possible?

      1. Jonny_H | | #28

        I've seen a few of the types of woodstoves Scottie mentions -- I don't believe any are claiming to burn wood without releasing CO2. They appear to be a more polished version of the "rocket stove" concept, where the benefits are reduced emissions of "other stuff" -- particulate matter, CO, unburned hydrocarbons -- and improved transfer of heat to your house rather than up the smokestack. So, there's no getting around the fact that you're still burning hydrocarbon-based fuel (and generating CO2 and H2O as combustion products), but you're doing so more efficiently and cleaner than an old open fireplace or even a modern US-style catalytic woodstove (though I don't think any of these types of stoves are available in the US yet, so I don't know if the latter claim is backed up by any apples-to-apples EPA testing). Proponents of biomass fuels would of course say that this is "carbon neutral" if you plant enough new biomass to replace that which you harvest and burn.

      2. Charlie Sullivan | | #29

        The RAIS bionic fire is a nice stove that advertises 86% efficiency. That means that its CO2 emissions are maybe 20% lower than a typical high-performance American wood stove, per unit heat output. That's an improvement, but to call it "no greenhouse gases" is incorrect.

      3. Scottie_Miller | | #30

        @Jonny/Charlie/Martin, apologies for the misstatement above and thank you for the clarifications! I should have been much clearer re: differentiation of particulate matter, CO2 and other gases.

        I contend that wood heating can be carbon neutral because the CO2 released is continuously recaptured by regrowth of the fuel. I understand not everyone agrees with this assessment.

        The major step forward taken by European stove manufacturers relates to particulate matter and other gases created by wood combustion. Burning wood *can* release soot, CO, NOx, SOx, etc., (NOx/SOx are major contributors to ozone depletion in the troposphere, CO combines with OH to create CO2, particulates/soot are awful for human lungs, etc.). To keep these gases and particulates from being released you have to achieve complete combustion. The RAIS product referenced here claims 86% efficiency, (percentage of heat energy transferred to interior of home). More importantly when tested the particulate matter and off gassing was so low that the testing equipment couldn't capture the results, (I.e. the combustion was so complete that no gases nor particulates were present in the exhaust air). The test results were then set by the European regulator at the minimum number the equipment would have been able to capture, 0.6 g/kg. Hopefully this helps to clarify things and thanks again for the feedback!

      4. Expert Member
        Peter Engle | | #31

        Martin, You seem to be discounting the fact that your wood combustion is essentially carbon neutral - you're burning wood that was grown and harvested as locally as possible - on your own property. And I am guessing that your woodlot is sustainably harvested, or even increasing in biomass over the years. So I wouldn't feel so guilty about the "cleaner" grid-tied electrons coming from wind, water and solar. They've all got a hefty initial embodied energy penalty to pay, with transmission losses out the ying-yang. Over both short and long-term, I suspect that your lifestyle is pretty close to carbon-neutral. You do need to get a handle on that dinosaur powered generator though. All you've got to do with that is to set up a steam engine to run the generator and you'll be all set.

        1. GBA Editor
          Martin Holladay | | #32

          Scottie and Peter,
          I'm quite aware of the argument promoted by wood-burning enthusiasts that "burning wood is carbon-neutral." And yes, my own woodlot is gaining in biomass, and therefore the firewood I cut near my house is sustainably harvested.

          The problem with this argument (especially on a continent-wide basis) is that trees grow slowly and any wood I burn this winter releases CO2 to the atmosphere this winter. We're in a climate crisis, and the critical years are the next ten years. The atmosphere doesn't care that my CO2 releases come from my wood stove rather than a coal plant. The atmosphere just knows that more CO2 is being released -- whether it's from wood burning or coal burning is somewhat irrelevant if the CO2 is released during the next ten years.

          Yes, the forests of the world capture CO2. But the forests of the world are under threat, and in many countries these forests are shrinking. This question of the health of the world's forests will get more and more critical every year, because in many areas, individual trees are dying due to insect pests that are moving north due to climate change, and in many areas we now see unprecedented wildfires driven by climate change. In other words, as climate change accelerates, dying forests die quicker than ever, and dry forests burn faster than ever.

        2. Charlie Sullivan | | #33

          An alternative is an internal combustion engine run on wood gas. The gasifier can be set up to produce charcoal that you can use as a carbon sequestering soil amendment. You can buy the whole system, with a 30 kW generator, for about $65k. https://www.allpowerlabs.com/products/product-overview Probably a little expensive and oversized for Martin's needs though.

          1. GBA Editor
            Martin Holladay | | #34

            Charlie,
            You're well-meaning, I'm sure. But as far as I know, a gasifier still involves combustion and the release of CO2. (If I'm wrong, correct me.)

            And $65,000 is only the tip of the iceberg. This gasifier requires wood chips. I obviously don't want to use a gasoline-powered wood chipper (which of course would cost thousands of dollars in any case) -- so I guess I would have to jury-rig an electric motor (a big one) to power a wood chipper. That means another new PV array, and another task on sunny days in June and July. I'd have to hang out in my yard, running chunks of wood into my electric wood chipper. And of course I'd have to buy a big galvanized silo to put the wood chips in.

          2. Charlie Sullivan | | #35

            Oh, definitely, it still emits CO2, I was just riffing on Peter's suggestion of a wood-fired steam engine, not claiming that it solves that issue. Sorry that wasn't clear. The biochar that comes out does contain some of the carbon that was in the wood, and so the CO2 per joule output is reduced somewhat, but it does not avoid the problem.

            I was imagining you creating the wood chips with an axe, but that might take several years of swinging an axe to make enough chips to run that system for a day.

          3. GBA Editor
            Martin Holladay | | #37

            Charlie,
            That's it! I'll use an axe! I have no idea why I didn't think of that. Or I could drill 2-inch holes in the firewood with a brace and bit, and save the shavings.

  12. Brian Bailey | | #38

    Thanks, Martin, for the ever-insightful gut check.

    If I may posit a common subtext to your article and comments: The modern western lifestyle almost necessarily involves massive inputs, even for those who are aware of (and alarmed about) our precarious ecological situation. Whatever the merits of our efforts at decarbonization and energy efficiency, the fact remains that unsustainable energy use is "baked in the cake" of how we westerners run our lives and relate to one another.

    I have come to believe that a large individual carbon footprint is the price of admission to American society. A truly sustainable carbon footprint is out of reach unless one wishes to be a recluse.

    The basic question, then, is where do we go from here? I think Martin makes it clear enough that the proposed fixes for our predicament are not sufficient for all Americans. I'll go further. The fixes are not sufficient for any Americans, because a life on the go with an electric car and a dwelling serviced by heat pumps keeping a comfy 72-degrees year-round is not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination, even if it is more efficient.

    I'd like to throw some ideas out there and see what Martin and the Musings community thinks of them.
    - Let us work to expand our thermal comfort zones. Finding ways to stay comfortable indoors at 60 degrees (or lower) in winter and 80 degrees (or higher) in summer should be seen as a sign of personal strength and fortitude, not as unfortunate or strange.
    - Let us get comfortable with energy intermittency. We can start with an occasional hour of zero electricity usage (breakers off!), then work up to a day, and eventually perhaps arrive at a week for those individuals who think they're up to it. Imagine what would be newly possible if grid operators were freed from the "energy for all, at all times" constraint!
    - Let us reduce our mobility. Airplane flights may be reserved for very special occasions, perhaps once a year (or once a decade!) on average. Vehicles might be optional for a large majority of Americans because their lives mostly occur within a 5-mile radius of their home (horses anyone?). Those who do have personal vehicles use them sparingly, logging perhaps 1,000 miles per year accomplishing tasks which are otherwise impossible or impractical.

    The first two are personal choices that many - but certainly not all - Americans could implement today. The last one is huge by comparison, requiring a reorganization of the economy both macro and micro.

    And to some readers, these ideas might sound like poverty.

    But I don't think a technological fix is on the horizon that comes remotely close to addressing the scale of the climate crisis. Without a radical rethinking of our relationship to energy, I submit that humanity will keep its foot on the climate change accelerator until we careen right over the cliff. So far, all our valiant efforts to address the ecological crisis has yielded ever-increasing annual contributions of CO2 to our atmosphere and oceans, and ever-increasing piles of junk and toxic detritus which grow more intrusive with each passing year.

    And yet: I just moved with my wife and kids to central Vermont (hi Martin!). I'm now happily closer to my immediate and extended family, and much farther from a big city. As I look ahead to my first Vermont winter, I'm told I should expect power outages with more frequency and duration than I've ever experienced before. And with a mighty sigh of resignation, I'm shopping for a generator.

    1. Charlie Sullivan | | #41

      I agree with your broader points, but I think it's worth noting that the savings that can be achieved by expanding our thermal comfort zones are not as large as you might hope. If it's 10 F outside, heating to 60 F vs. 70 F is only a 15% difference, small compared to what you can do with a little attention to air sealing and insulation. And if it's 50 F outside, a heat pump has such high COP that the energy consumed is a drop in the bucket of annual energy consumption. Although that concept is appealing from the point of view of taking the ethical problem of our lifestyles seriously, it's better to ask people to make changes in other areas where the impact of that change will be more significant. The risk is that we end up encouraging people to zealously pursue narrow goals in order to feel good about themselves while ignoring the bigger picture. For example, we have zero-waste true believers driving 25 extra miles to shop where they can buy laundry detergent in bulk, putting it in their own container that they thoroughly washed with fossil-fuel-heated water.

  13. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #39

    Brian,
    The voluntary reductions in energy use that you suggest are certainly possible, and some Americans feel morally obligated to move in the directions you suggest. Previous generations, including the hippie generation that I'm part of (as well as devotees of many religions who live in monastic communities), made similar decisions.

    That said, we must all beware of climate theater -- making ourselves feel better by using canvas shopping bags or turning off the faucet when brushing our teeth while ignoring the big issues.

    In my opinion, the best solutions to the climate crisis are national and international solutions, pushed by insistent citizens and enlightened political leaders. Such leaders exist; we need to listen to them and empower them. We need carbon taxes, and we need massive investments in PV, wind, new electrical transmission lines, distributed energy installations, and grid-based batteries -- and those investments are not impossible. (Of course, we also need to shut down the coal-burning power plants.)

    Achieving these goals in our limited remaining time frame will be tough -- but as long as these solutions exist, we need to get to work.

    1. Brian Bailey | | #40

      Martin,
      Hear, hear. Climate change and biodiversity loss are the mother and father of all tragedies of the commons. They require collective action and public investment. Sign me up, please!

      I wonder how I can help more people decide to sign their name next to mine. I've concluded that an honest and unsparing assessment of our situation will help people level with this crisis and, then, mobilize. That includes discussion of solutions, yes, but also the likelihood of suffering and sacrifice to come while we try to get from here to there.

      The "there" we are aiming for cannot be a continuation of our profligacy. I choose to believe that it can be a beautiful austerity, in which we treasure and protect our natural inheritance while also benefiting from knowledge, science and technology. Let's do the best we can to find the new way, while readying ourselves for the coming fire. The hippies, monastics and off-grid westerners surely have plenty to contribute to both parts of the endeavor. Thanks for keeping up the discussion.

  14. David Jones | | #42

    Great article. Off grid implications isn't on the radar of most of us.

    I think the near term solution is likely a patchwork of answers. Maybe more storage, and PV capacity helps a bit. Maybe off grid folks are the last to let go of their ICE cars. Maybe demand can be reduced via further efficiency measures. Maybe hydrogen (not produced on site) is the answer for transportation after your last ICE car dies.

    The lesson for me was just how useful being on grid actually is. On grid we may not need much battery storage. We can send surplus PV power back to grid rather than wasting it when batteries are full. We can us hydro and wind at night.

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