Electricity is a mainstay in our modern lives. It powers so many different facets, drawing from the stored sunlight of fossil fuels mainly. This illuminates our paths towards over consumption, abundant information, rapid transportation, and industrialization of all sorts. It is like the sun is always out when you have electricity, throw a switch on, plug-in, and voila, power is there. It helps blend our soups and preserve the vegetables that compose it. It powers our telecommunications and lets us diverge from rhythms of nature because
of the stored sunlight in fossil fuels. Normally they are burnt to produce steam which turn turbines thus creating electricity. It is an amazing gift, really, but a costly one with emissions and subsequent pollution (i.e. mercury, lead, and arsenic emissions along with CO2 from coal power plants). It has increased our life expectancy and in some ways created a better and safer way of life. However there is the flip side of the coin and the comforts it provides have also catapulted the over consumptive and disconnected society. It is the very definition of a catch 22. It also helps to power the homestead, a critical point of a permaculture landscape. Electricity is everywhere and just as it is stated in the intro article of this chapter, we not only aim to produce electricity with renewables, we also aim to reduce our needs of electricity through a myriad of appropriate technologies. Electricty demand will only increase as well since technology that was once liquid fossil fuel driven switches to electric, i.e. cars, chainsaws, weed eaters, etc.
Thus there are three main elements that Permaculturits utilize for the production of electricity to support us in lessening our grid demand. They are the following:
- Solar PV Panels
- Wind Turbines
Again before producing electricity one needs to examine what it takes to reduce consumption. You maybe cooking, heating water, storing food, augmenting building temperature, etc with electric which are very demanding energy wise. They may need to be converted to a different energetic source generation (i.e. earth tube fridge) allowing you to reach an overall production state of electricity instead of consumption.
I include a short description of each and then go into the necessary hardware to complete them. I also include my biography of interacting with these technologies. There are others that are coming on and the potato will indeed light up a light bulb according to youtube. But for now we explore these main three.
Solar PV Panels
This system captures the energy of the sun and converts it into electricity, providing a daytime energy source for a permaculture system. If the electricity produced during the day is converted by an inverter and stored in batteries, it can be used in
the nighttime or on overcast days. Alternatively, the electricity generated can be used directly, without being stored, to power some machines such as pumps or aerators. The solar PV panels should be sited appropriately to maximize solar gain, considering seasonal differences of the sun angle. Trackers, which are panel stands that follow the sun’s daily movements, aid in achieving maximum sun exposure and make these systems more efficient, but may drive up their cost significantly. To maximize production, the panels have to be kept clean, especially in dry and dusty places. The Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio, USA, cleverly located their panels in the parking lot, to provide shade for the cars parked beneath, creating yet another function. This electricity production system can be scaled variably, powering anywhere from a single household to a bigger community. Although it is usually an off-grid power source, some locales allow for grid tie-ins.
The main solar system I have lived with during my permaculture tenure was Terra Alta, Sintra, Portugal. We had a very cobbled together original solar system that was aging both in batteries and the panels themselves. We faced north there and the winter light was low because of days of rain and fog and cloud. We often lost power for days on end because of too much demand and not enough supply or storage. Thus I did fair share with profits from PDC’s and contributed my part to the projects electric system. We bought new panels, new batteries, and a new inverter. It allowed us to have a better quality of life honestly. It was an investment and we had no grid choice so we did it. These four panels powered the whole of our PDC’s as well with nearly 50 people on the land for extended periods of time in the summer, usually when the sun shines a lot, but not always in Sintra, Portugal. We lived without many luxuries, on purpose, like refrigerators or washing machines, so this minimal solar system was feasible for that context.
This electricity production system harnesses wind power as a driving force for the turning of one or more turbines. If sited appropriately, this appropriate technology produces abundant energy. It is ideal for traditionally windy sites, such as hillside ridges and wind-swept plains, positively leveraging their wind sectors. The systems themselves consist of turbines that are fixed to towers to capture wind efficiently, an inverter for energy conversion, and possibly batteries for energy storage, although they can also be tied directly into the grid. New technology for each of the elements is continually being developed, and it is also possible to incorporate some DIY elements. There are two main types of turbines, vertical or horizontal, both of which have specific advantages and disadvantages. This energy generating system can be scaled according to each context, from an individual household to a small community, and combined with systems of solar energy production. Is it important to bear in mind that the turning of turbines can create a significant amount of noise or even vibration if a tower is attached directly to a building.
When I taught PDC’s at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, 2009-11, we would take a class field trip to Abundance Ecovillage just a few minutes away from campus. It was an eco subdivision designed in part by my co-teacher Lonnie Gamble, an appropriate technology expert and resident in that ecovillage. The houses were built to maximum energy efficiency in a green building fashion to apply to local building codes and be marketable to a bigger audience then say a natural building. The main power supplier in this great plains site was two wind turbine on two quite large towers. It was really great to see it always turning with its rudder swirling it around to capture this energy. They were almost always spinning which is also why in that area you see the big industrial ones. According to their website it provided 40% of the summer energy (the other from solar) and 90% during the winter. One wind turbine was 3kW and the other 5kW with a 7kW solar array which powers the community of 14 houses.
Micro Hydro Electric System
This system produces electricity through falling water turning a turbine. It is necessary to pipe the water down from a small dam or water collecting basin. It then sprays against the turbine, which is housed in a small building with the inverter and batteries. The electricity is then distributed from there to the infrastructure requiring electricity. Depending on the steepness of the fall and the water volume it can produce more or less energy, powering anywhere from a single household to a small community. These systems can be extremely productive especially with modern technology’s ability to make their elements lighter and more efficient. 24 hours of production is possible, making this a tremendous asset for those with steep or constant high-flow running streams and large valley dams with appropriate piping. Alternatively units can be built to power machines mechanically rather than electrically; i.e. a watermill.
My first experience with micro-hydro was at a site in the mountainous stretches above Golden Bay in the northern reaches of the South Island (2006). It was steep around there and a spring was the original source but feeder streams fed into the waterway we utilized as well. A small concrete collecting basin small was piped to a tube and then that stretched down the valley as it was a low flow, high head project. It wasn’t a huge amount of water but the steepness really helped in this case. This system was combined with solar for abundant energy. Also in Argentina, in the mountains of Neuquen, where I worked for six months in 2011-2012, the rural community was powered by a canal that was traditionally used for irrigation but had been retrofitted also for microhydro. It was both high flow and high head making it a very abundant energy system on its own. Also pictured below was a system I saw in Northern Spain in late 2018 where a good sized stream had a canal diversion drain eventually leading to a microhydro turbine and then returning to the stream. I don’t know much about its details but the picture below does show the mountain village setting, the stream, and its diversion channel, and where the water goes into the micro hydro station.
Furthermore, as a part of my design at Treasure Lake, KY, USA it does include microhydro element to take advantage of seasonal excess in this large body of water (12 acres or 5 HA). The spillway runs for nearly nine months of the year on average and has a huge variation in flow rates. Part of this water is projected to be run through a pipe over the dam but slightly buried in the dam wall to a turbine at the bottom. In this case it will be a low head high volume system which has gained quite some advancement. We only need 10 feet or 3 m worth of drop but quite a water amount to make it worthwhile.
Inverters and cabling get the power to where you want it and in the form you want it. Inverters take the DC (direct current) energy and convert it into AC (Alternating Current) for storage in batteries or tie-ins to the grid. It’s a necessary component in your system unless you are going to simply use the electrical power when the energy is being produced. For example you can use a solar pump only when the sun is out to lift water, or for that mater a wind mill. A wind turbine however produces electricity and it is necessary to convert that with an inverter. They are not cheap and need to be taken care of to ensure their longevity.
As mentioned one way to store electrical energy is said by using a solar pump to raise water into an elevated water tank. That is a great way to avoid the battery packs or grid tie in for some cases. If you want nothing of the grid and want to be able to use electricity at a later use for say a household, then batteries are necessary. Battery technology continues to improve but they are expensive and made of toxic materials and have a relatively short lifespan, especially if not taken care of. They are very heavy as well. The other option is grid tie in. This means that your excess energy is sold back to the grid and is monitored. There are no batteries though so if the grid does go down then you will be out of electricity. Also when you sell back to the grid, it is called net metering. Certain states allow more or less net metering so do be careful to know your state laws or other local regulations concerning this. Certain countries are even starting to tax those who are off the grid or doing grid tie in.
Electrical systems now come with monitoring equipment so that you can make choices around your consumption. This is both important for those who are on batteries but also grid tie-in. Monitoring also helps to make sure you are not running too low on power and so consumption patterns can be adjusted. Most of it is sent to your phone these days so the display panels can be checked easily.
In the end, what does it take for more of us to lean into renewable energy? Many governments have given grants to help the general public gain access to their own solar panels while some utilities are pushing the renewable power production so consumers can have a choice. Even our electric provider at Treasure Lake has a solar cooperative where we can essentially lease panels from them at their solar farm to ensure you get renewable power. Also there are certain USDA grants for Rural Businesses and farmers that allow the Permaculture crowd to explore this at a discounted price. While these technologies aren’t perfect they are a step in the right direction for sure. Curb consumption and be a producer!