Written by Doug Crouch
The focus of this chapter is the utilization of technology that is appropriate to minimize our reliance on grid provided energy systems that are often owned and operated by powerful and polluting multinational corporations. It is easy to say “I am getting off the grid”, but the reality is we are massively entangled in the grid. Furthermore, every product we consume has embedded energy, which relies mostly on grid power and global reticulation of materials for its production. The premise of appropriate technologies is that the technologies we rely on will produce more energy than what it took to build them. For example, a shovel, although we will not cover the shovel in the subsequent articles in this chapter, is a form of appropriate
technology when properly cared for. You can break it on day two of digging but most likely, especially if you spend a bit extra for a quality hand tool, a shovel will last for years and will be used on varying projects from tree planting to construction. It takes energy to produce that shovel; to mine, to cut wood, to transform the raw products into finished products, to ship those materials, to assemble, to ship the end product, to warehouse it, to ship it to retailers, to market it, to package it, and on and on until you get it home and begin using it. It is actually a lot of energy again because of the global reticulation of materials and industrialization of material production. In the old days you would have gone to the market and bought it from your local blacksmith in the village. The wood in the handle would have been harvested locally and the local artisan supported through your purchase. Now when you buy a shovel normally, you have no idea where the steel (or bronze) or wood comes from nor who put it together. Anyhow, that shovel can produce energy in a system through its long term usage and regain the energy needed to balance it out and make it an appropriate technology. Basically if the energy produced outweighs the energy input, it is an appropriate technology.
If we look at our interaction with energy/product providers here is a list of the way we are tied into the grid; the global, military, industrial, academic, government complex:
- food processing/ preservation
- water heating
- heating and cooling
- and more
Many of these are hard to gain any sense of getting off the grid, especially when living in urban areas, but we can make steps. For example, people in cities find it much easier to get around without a car relying on public transport or bicycle. If you live in the
countryside and are a market gardener, I doubt you are taking your wares to the market via a bicycle or horse and cart. However there are various technologies out there to lessen our reliance on the grid. This goes along with the permaculture principle, for the important function of energy production have in your system multiple elements. The problem with society, especially in developed nations, is that we rely only on the grid, burdening it, and causing pollution. Furthermore when that grid goes down, say in a natural disaster, catastrophe is beset because resilience isn’t there. Resilience is created by having multiple elements to support this important function. If we then zoom into the electricity category we are able to see that there are varying options that maybe appropriate depending on your context like the following:
- Solar PV Panels
- Wind Turbine
- Micro-hydro system
- Energy Efficiency- unplugging certain appliances and relying on other technologies
The last one refers to the notion that before we can get off the grid we have to reduce consumption. If you are consuming too much energy through wasteful usage it is hard to buy enough solar panels, unless quite wealthy, for all of your needs. So appropriate technology not only becomes about the things we buy or build to reduce our reliance on the grid, yet also about our lifestyle and consumption patterns. This indeed is probably the greatest challenge of our developed nation ways, yet the local food and product movement is burgeoning to counteract this. Its possible, its just different. I have lived within a very low energy system relying off of renewable energies like solar, even part of this book was fueled partly by solar. It does create a different lifestyle but one that is more in tune with natural rhythms.
A lot of these technologies rely on the principle energy cycling. Permaculturists love to complete cycles. For example, biogas is worthwhile endeavor especially as new home sized technologies come about. Wastes such as water, food, manures, are combined to produce biogas for cooking! The waste sludge can also be composted (I suggest) and then utilized in the fields. Cooking gas helps to power the people working the site through cooked food, which then go out and grow more food. It is just about adding the right pieces of technology at the right time. You can’t go from grid entangled to off the grid over night. Furthermore, we can examine cooking with wood. We need cycles of climate and photosynthesis to occur to have enough excess wood to cook with in appropriate technology systems such as a rocket stove or a cob oven. We then cook and eat, again giving us energy. Once the ash cools we can spread this ash back into forests or in garden beds to give minerals back to the system. Our wastes are then cycled into the system through compost toilets for example. The system can be mapped through a flow analysis to formulate how energy is moving through the system; source to sink.
Furthermore, as of right now it does seem impossible to rockup to town at the farmers market with a donkey or horse and cart. But that is what it was not too long ago and still is for some. Animals in the system cycle energy if we give them ample foods, sound shelter, and plenty of clean drinking water. Their wastes can recycled into growing systems through composting and as we build a working relationship with these animals through training we can indeed use them in our transportation and ploughing needs. We can reduce tractor, truck, or ATV usage with animal power, either on or off site. Most of what we have been sold in terms of technology is that we save time. But we give up time to earn money to be able to buy the technologies that create time. Yet how many of us have lots of time on our hands? That is also why within the appropriate technology category there is also an element of DIY, up cycling, and resource allocation. We devote our time often to do things for low-cost but in fact sometimes it does help to buy an appropriate technology from experts. We can’t do it all, and often we need to work on the community scale to really get the buying power to move away from the entanglement of the grid.
In this chapter I will include many different technologies but there is of course more and some are covered other parts of this book as well in different articles. A lot of appropriate technology, like biogas, is how we combine technology with microbes. We chose the chemical route, fossil fuels, but as we evolve our civilizations, biology is becoming an important factor in technology again. Thus I challenge you to map your energy usage, see where you can complete cycles, and begin to incorporate biology and localism to emerge from reliance to independence energetically.
Written by Doug Crouch
Header Art by Nathan Maggard