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A Solar Powered Life, Part VI – The Ideological Debate

The series, A Solar Powered Life, is intended for those that have an interest in the generation and storage of electricity using solar panels. I’ve tried to write the series in such a way that it is accessible for everybody and not just for those that are technically minded. By the end of the series, if people have followed all of the parts, then they should walk away with a fair understanding of how a small scale independent solar power system works (in the real world), what components are required, and, even more importantly, why those components are required. This is pretty handy information.

I’m certainly not pushing products on anyone and solar power is certainly not for everybody. I also have no affiliations with any company or group etc. I am also discussing the limitations of solar electricity generation.

However, in discussing solar power, it is impossible to not touch upon current issues relating to energy in general. These issues impact all of us to a greater or lesser extent. There are many people that for a variety of reasons are highly sensitive to these issues and are highly critical of solar power. In fact it would be fair to say that some of the comments that I have received on the above-mentioned series are ideologically driven.

This series of articles is not really the forum with which to discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of solar power systems. I would prefer that the comments should really be directed at the contents of the article or they should relate to the general direction of the series.

The reason I write this point is because, obviously, I support solar power and the decentralisation of the electricity grid to increase our societies’ future resilience. In addition to this, I walk the talk in my own life, in more ways too, than the simple production and storage of solar powered electricity.

It’s not my intention to muffle debate about these issues, because, as I previously stated, the issues are important and should be discussed. However, as I am wanting to educate interested people on solar electricity, I do not want my articles to be the forum for raising ideological issues.

To this end, I would suggest that people who are inclined to debate the relative merits or pitfalls of solar power (including their ideological concerns), put their comments in this article only – The Ideological Debate (Part VI of A Solar Powered Life). I will respond to all comments and am more than happy to debate all comers on these issues as I can see that there are many misconceptions or myths surrounding solar power. Each response will be given a heading, so there shouldn’t be any repeats.

The only guidelines I would request from commenters is to state what country you are from as solar power generation is obviously not suitable for all countries. It will help me to put my response to you in context.

I will redirect all comments in future articles which are outside the scope of the particular article or series to this particular article.

So, if you have concerns about solar power, this is the place to raise them in the comments section here. Now let the debate begin….


  1. I thought I’d pipe up here. I didn’t have time to respond to the commenters on your previous posts Chris.

    Most readers will know I’m pretty hard on technology as being any kind of saviour. I think most of us, at least the permies who read this site who have any understanding of life cycles, waste streams, etc., know that the dream of a ‘bright green economy’ is really quite naive – more, it can be outright dangerous. We know that the trucks carrying biofuels to gas stations are themselves fueled by fossil fuels, as it’s not economic to do otherwise, and the production of fossil fuels further cements a wholly destructive form of agriculture and the resulting coastal dead zones, and the biofuel load on their back is only profitable due to subsidies. We know that wind turbines consume a lot of energy, and produce a lot of pollution in their creation, and they are carried up onto the ridge, and subsequently maintained by, fossil fuel powered vehicles, etc. And we know that solar panels and their associated batteries consume a lot of energy and create a lot of pollution in their creation and when they expire.

    In addition to photovoltaics, people have spent years arguing over the viability of things like hydrogen, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, air cars, cellulosic ethanol, Jatropha, algae-to-fuel, not to mention tar sands, coal-to-liquids, etc., etc., etc.

    In my view they’re all missing the point. They’re all based on the premise that we actually want things to continue the way they are, and that we not only believe it must somehow be possible, but that it’s actually desireable. They delay the need to deeply consider our trajectory, and the need for systemic change. And, they are delaying it to the point where the inevitable, necessary systemic change becomes so increasingly difficult that we delay it even further.

    For myself, I see where I think we actually need to go — based on the reality that we don’t live on an inflatable earth, and based on the physics involved in energy use and consumption, and the major problems of water, pollution, biodiversity and a completely disrupted carbon cycle — and I consider how to get there. I repeat; I consider how to get there.

    The key word is transition.

    If I were a complete idealistic purist, I’d shut this computer down right now, and commit to living a life with absolutely no negative impacts on the world around me. I’d turn my back on society, walk out the door, and head into the woods armed only with a survival guide, my clothing, and my determination.

    But, while walking in the few remaining woodlands I can find (probably owned by a private forestry industry turning trees into disposable chopsticks or toilet paper), I’d then get to thinking about my survival guide…. I’m feeling superior for having ditched my computer, but the book in my hands is a result of several. What about the printing process – quite a polluting industry on its own. I look at the ground in dispair, and can’t help but notice my shoes – made of dead animals and petrochemicals, probably by some people who wish they’d never been born and who have a higher than usual chance of dying from cancer. Even before I got to that point, as I reached the edge of the forest, I’d realise I’m wholly unprepared for survival on my own. Being several generations removed from a life on the land, I’m now almost a foreigner in it. I don’t understand the language any more…. The list goes on… and on….

    If I compare photovoltaics with the present inefficient, centralised industrial energy-wasting complex, I see ‘transition’. It’s far from perfect. It produces waste, and it also negatively impacts the life and health of people and creatures in far away countries (let us not ignore this fact, please). But what’s the alternative today? Our entire system, from food production, to employment, to education, sanitation, etc., has been ‘designed’* around cheap energy, consumerism, and complete dependency on perpetual, and escalating, economic growth. Switch off all your power, and stop supporting the machine, and most of us in the North will die relatively quickly.

    *(I hesitate to use the word ‘designed’ in this context, as our present disaster state of affairs is, rather than being born of an intentional design, largely a horribly natural ‘outflow’ resulting from market mechanisms we’ve all contributed to and which have been strengthened and perpetuated/sustained by all of us as individuals an increasingly atomised new world order).

    Here’s a new slant for you: I could also compare photovoltaics to broadscale ‘organic’, biodynamic and even broadscale permaculture design. Yes, feel free to read that last sentence again.

    Let me explain. From my studies in soil science, I know that the larger in scale you go with agriculture, the more compromises you must make in your efforts to work with, rather than against, nature. Go beyond an acre or so, and family managability gives way to the need for fossil fuel powered machinery. Dependency on fossil fuel powered machinery causes numerous implications – soil compaction and its resulting problems with ‘weeds’ (that try to fix the problem we’ve created), as well as reduced edge, and reduced macro-level diversity as automated planting, cultivating and harvesting becomes a necessity, etc. Yet, whilst I encourage everyone to start to do what they can to upskill and learn to provide for at least some of their own needs, you won’t hear me disparage transitional broadscale efforts at all. Indeed, you’ll only hear me encourage them, as I believe they’re a critical stepping stone – an integral part of our overdue transitionary process. Unless you’re one of the few on this planet having a net neutral or positive impact on this planet, then if you disparage photovoltaics at this point in history you might as well disparage broad scale permaculture as well. Why? Because neither is perfect – neither is the ultimate destination.

    For example, I have great respect for the work of Darren Doherty and the RegenAg team, and do what I can to support them. This is why: At present we have more than half of the world’s population living in cities. A decent chunk of these live in high-rises (no land), many millions live in tin-shack tenements huddled around sprawling cities in the ‘developing’ world. And some of the rest live in ‘McMansions’, which are designed to have the largest footprint possible, so that, for busy lifestyles, virtually no land is left for a garden (and often whatever is left is paved over). Up until the recession, it was even becoming popular to build houses without kitchens, as people were too busy to cook, and preferred to eat out every day…. It’s the ultimate in vulnerability. Combine all that with cities being dependent on fossil fuel produced and transported food imports from the countryside, and that that production process itself is making us even more vulnerable (think soil erosion, biodiversity loss, desertification, and a lot of other details I could mention if this weren’t already getting toooo long), and what do you get? What you get is the world on the brink of a new era of mass famines, major social unrest, and a complete collapse of civilisation as we know it.

    Yes, we need small scale. It is the ultimate aim and I believe the only really viable model unless there’s some sudden magical shift in observable life processes. We need almost everyone to transition back to a (much simpler) life on the land. Biologically, there is no alternative. Techno-dreamers that think otherwise are unfortunately wholly reductionist in their view of the world. But we’re not even close to starting, let alone arriving at, such a transition. Think land redistrubution, and all that entails, and then think about how effective would our present dumbed down society be if they had some land to work anyway. And, atomised as they are today, would they survive the shift to a mindset of cooperative community interdependence?

    Just as broadscale agriculture helps transition farmers to think more deeply about the life systems they’re privileged to work with, and gives people an appreciation of the benefits of a more holistic approach to meeting our needs, so photovoltaics cause people to realise a little more how obscene it is when we flagrently flick the switch at the user end of a coal-fired energy wire. It causes people to recognise how hard it really could be to live in a world of real time sunlight if we don’t cooperatively work our way to transition into it. Simply put, it causes people to get in touch with reality and to think. And, boy, do we ever need to see a lot more people thinking at the moment.

    But, I’m sorry, I can’t quite end yet….

    Whilst I see solar, wind, etc., as potential stepping stones, I see that these can become their own permanent problem. A problem in pollution and resources, and a problem in our dependency on them. And, our dependency on them is, due to the above-mentioned market mechanisms, actively encouraged by the industry we’ve built due to our ‘mutual consent’ (to use the libertarian terminology) to make use of these systems – i.e. like the oil industry does not want to assist us in its own demise, and will do virtually anything to continue with business as usual, so the solar industry will take the same position, hiding the true costs of its existence and doing what it can to ensure its own survival, no matter the cost to greater society and the world it inhabits. Advertisements of dazzling solar panels and happy flowers and butterflies will persist even as flowers and butterflies are going extinct at an escalating rate.

    So, when I say the word transition, I really mean it. Solar, and any other kind of energy technology that is regarded as ‘renewable’ (let’s not kid ourselves that solar panels and windmills are self-replicating and biodegradable like plants and animals…) is only of value if society is able to see things as they really are – if all people in this ‘machine’ we call present society recognise where we need to go and contribute to getting us there. It means solar panel manufacturers who are actively working towards the day when they are no longer required for that task, and are, like everyone else, spending available time to upskill and cooperate to build a world that can function, as it did for thousands of years before, on real time energy (but now, on this side of the industrial revolution, it must happen with a vastly larger population base, so far more careful design must go into it).

    This is where I find the invisible hand, atomised, every man for himself, libertarian approach so abhorent and naive, as it fails to create any cohesion in purpose, so we can leverage each others efforts (like plant guilds) and cooperate to accomplish far more together (like all the elements in our biosphere, with the exception of greedy man) than we can working on our own in our own self interest, as the libertarian magic-of-the-market thinking would have us do.

    It doesn’t matter how ‘clean’ the energy, if it’s not a positive — wholly regenerative and cyclable — it only delays the inevitable. I’ve tried to explain Jevon’s Paradox before, which tells us the more efficient in energy we get, the more energy we will use. We need to think about what we really want, learn to want the right things, and we need to work together to accomplish it.

    I think Chris has done a great job at trying to give a good look at what it means to live more independently and more sustainably. It’s not the destination, but we’ve gotta get moving in the right direction. Thanks for helping us finds ways to do this Chris.

  2. Don’t you dare stop writing or allowed negativity to deviate you from the path. These articles there all I have, and the reason why I refresh the PRI website at least 5 to 10 times a day.

    The balance between tech and wisdom is what your dishing out, and it’s needed like daily bread. I’m sorry the tyranny of opinionation that is the world of blogotry has begun to pollute what I’ve found to be the most practical information I’ve ever come across in converting a layhuman’s hope to be self sufficient into an actuality.

    I think my only problem is, you’ve displayed all the attributes of a true teacher and as such I’ve placed appropriate faith in your good works. But you’ve opened up a can of worms as my technical capacity to understand grows “option overwhelm” set’s in and what at least I could use from a really good teacher is a really good endorsement of what’s worked for you and where you’d endorse if your resources where to expand.

    Most of us arn’t in the permaculture capitol of the world, and don’t want to take all the right step’s and end up in the wrong hands. Just knowing there are a myriad of efficiencies protect’s me from the “green trojan horse”, and at the same time leave’s me paranoid as for most people this is a one time major investment for people who are in transit between to systems.

    I can tell you once I hand in my resignation and ship my life to my 11 acres in the tropics, the “warbucks” I currently make won’t be there ever again to invest in such technologies as batteries arrays.

    Anyhoo, I just had to say something on your behalf, because theres usualy 0 comment’s when i read your articles. But after reading this it looks like your being subject to allot of people who just want to see their name up in light’s.

    Arguing with Einstein doesn’t shot your smart, it just show’s how unintelligent you truly are.

    Take care

  3. I always read all the articles in this site with great interest. I never commented on anything but now I want to say two things:
    First about “Efficiency”. We should all understand that efficiency means less energy to do the same work or more work for the same energy. That means of the energy supplied to do some work more is utilized do that work and less becomes wasted as heat etc. Jevons’ paradox occurs only in the present system because the state encourages people to consume as much energy as possible.

    But if the state sets strict limits on the energy consumed by each person then it does not happen. I am not talking about monetary incentives to consume less energy because if that is done then it surely leads to Jevons’ paradox. More efficiency means more products (goods and services) are available for the same money and more energy is consumed or the people become richer i.e. they have more energy available then they will ignore the incentives and consume more. But if the state sets strict limits on the amount of energy consumed then it does not happen.

    For example a village or small town takes the decision that each person should not consume more than 8-9 kWh of energy(3 kWh is food, 1 for transport, 2 for personal use and remaining for the factory etc) after calculating the minimum required amount of energy or by setting limits on the amount of distance that can be travelled, the amount of energy to be consumed for each household chore etc. Now no matter how much energy efficient we get the village will not consume more energy. Here more efficiency is essential. How can we achieve more efficiency? By using tools and applying knowledge so that less energy is consumed for doing more work. This can happen on a large scale if currency represents energy units rather than being an abstract entity. Also this should be used by all countries.

    Clearly we cannot make everything less energy efficient. Stop using a backhoe to dig and use spades. But even spades are efficient so start using hands! Destroying tools will not help. It will lead to anarchy and chaos. Our aim here is not that every single human should live sustainably. That means stone age humans were very sustainable but we cannot go back to stone age. But even they used “tools” and “technology (which means tools+knowledge). We cannot become apes!

    What is our goal? Our goal is that the whole society should live sustainably. Society is different from individuals. A hundred thousand bees in a hive are different from a hundred thousand flying insects around the hive. The other insects only forage for what they eat but each bee forages more than that so that they can feed the hive. Here I am talking in terms of energy. For humans to harvest more energy than required personally so that that extra energy can support society we have to use “technology” and aim for greater efficiency. The principles of permaculture are a technology (knowledge). Permaculture leads to greater efficiency. A knife, a rope, a basket are tools. We have to use them. A driller, a blender, a thresher are also tools. We have to use them too. But we have to design them so that they consume very less energy–even less than the energy consumed if do those works by using energy of our body. Similar ships, trains and even cars is some circumstances are very useful tools. Not to mention computers and internet.

    What we need is the organization of society in such a way that it leads to sustainability of the society as a whole. This means the political, economic, marriage systems and the structure of the government in such a way that it encourages less consumption of energy. The present system encourages consumption of more energy.

    Clearly we need to organize society in a very much more democratic manner than the present highly undemocratic way. Because in an undemocratic system all the humans fight with each other to gain supremacy and supremacy is gained in the present system not by killing but by controlling energy i.e. wealth which automatically provides political power. In this system everyone HAS to live for themselves so everyone HAS to try to gain access more energy(The present society is neither completely undemocratic or completely democratic, it is in a transition stage). Now permaculture design automatically makes society democratic and sustainable. We cannot have an undemocratic but sustainable society or a democratic but unsustainable society. Any community designed according to pemaculture principles to make it sustainable automatically becomes more democratic as we are seeing around the world. We can say that the main difference between a society designed according to permaculture methods and a feudal/capitalistic society is that permaculture based society is democratic and the other is undemocratic.

  4. The second thing is very simple: 1. Solar and wind energy etc., at present may consume more energy than they harvest in their lifetime or only slightly less than that harvested in their lifetime. But once established they are not dependent on external sources of energy and we can use the energy given by them to build more sustainable society–permaculture designed land, houses, transportation(or the lack/removal of it) etc. So that when their lifetime is over we have created resilient systems that consume very less energy than before to do the same work, some harvest more energy than they consume. This energy can be used for our survival.

    They are transition tools to be used to create energy generating and self replicating systems. We should remember that if we do not install solar and wind energy systems around our houses, farms etc., the energy from fossil fuels will be used up anyway but for some even more dangerous and wasteful purposes. Also gas digesters, pico hydro, and ethanol or alcohol distillation from sugar beet and sugarcane(grown in food forests or chinampa systems etc) by each farmer or each village are truly sustainable.

    The same cannot be said about biofuel, hydrogen etc. They consume more energy than they provide but there is also no scope of them becoming sustainable ever because they forever consume more energy then they provide.

    2. But solar and wind energy have another great use in future. We cannot forever ignore solar and wind power. We have to use them. We have to find cheaper(which means consuming less energy) ways of manufacturing them by using locally or easily available materials and in somewhat small-scale units so that the energy required to build these is very much less than the energy harvested in their lifetime. For example wind power is in use for more than two thousand years. The main point is that solar and wind energy are truly renewable if we only use simple materials to manufacture them in a low energy manner. In fact we should concentrate on this aspect from right now. Also the energy of the sun is the only true energy for everything on earth.

  5. Craig,

    That’s quite a nightmarish self-loathing frenzy you’ve worked yourself into. I think you would calm down though if you would realize that it is no one man’s responsibility to understand, plan, and operate the entire world. It is utterly impossible. No one man can even come close to understanding how to make, let alone actually making, even the simplest of things, e.g., some icecream.

    You’ve done a ton of reading and you might know a lot of things, but you don’t know what energy sources we’ll be using in 50 years, you don’t know how billions of people will each react to higher fossil fuel costs, you don’t know exactly how many acres can be farmed sustainably by one man, you don’t know that all shoes are made by dying little kids in a sweatshop, you don’t know how to make ice cream.

    Civilization can’t be designed by one man, or the top 100 smartest permaculturalists, or whatever assembly to central planners you could dream up.

    This is where I find the invisible-hand, voluntary interdependence, individualized, decentralized libertarian approach so powerful and inspiring, as it works to create amazing spontaneous cooperation among men so we can leverage each others’ efforts (like plant guilds) and cooperate to accomplish far more together (like all the elements in our biosphere) than we can being forced to work under the dictates of one “smart man” who knows best, as the “follow MY plan to fix the entire world!” crowd would have us do.

  6. Consider that much electricity is used for purely thermal needs in a home, and, modern architecture is missing the use of thermal-mass in design, like some adobe homes that stay cool all summer without air-conditioning, thermal-mass in enough volume resists change to a room’s temperature.

    This can be engineered but isn’t, thermal fluids can be used to move heat or cold around a house, called “ductless” and uses insulated pipes & tubing instead of air, this is about 13-times more efficient.

    A properly design home using thermal-mass uses only 10% of the thermal inputs the same building needs without it, most existing homes can get down to 1/3 of current usage without much expense.

    With that in mind if you collect & store 550F all day in enough volume of fluid to handle a daily cycle you can burn the back, do laundry, hot-water and heat the home needing electricity for small pumps, cooling is done by a dish collector to get the high heat to drive an ammonia refrigeration system storing cold all day, both backed up by a fuel source.

    The removes the heavy lifting from electrical needs thus making PV & battery arrays far more practical.

    My recommendation is put up a solar-gain wall on the south side of any home to get the most bang per buck on saving energy, after that we’ll talk as that simple collection is needed by every home or you must use collectors with far more complexity to get the job done but then can run a system as described is the payoff.

  7. There is more than the Jevons Paradox arguing against efficiency as a panacea!

    Holmgren talks about the “maximum power point” curve. There is a point at which increasing efficiency requires too much support, in the way of increased embedded energy, or of increased technological complexity (which HT Odum teaches us is equivalent to energy).

    Case in point: the LED or CFB versus the nasty incandescent bulb.

    We all know how terrible incandescent bulbs are, but they can be created by a skilled craftsman in a large village or small town, using simple materials. Tungsten and argon for making relatively sophisticated halogen bulbs can be supported by a large town or small city on a regional basis.

    CFBs are much more efficient, but require more exotic materials and more sophisticated mining and refining, and that’ assuming a relatively simple magnetic ballast, versus the high-frequency power supply found in all modern CFBs, which requires the “long tail” of the entire semiconductor industry. (And let’s not even talk about the 5 milligrams of mercury in each one!)

    LEDs are the wave of the future, some would say. They are more efficient (at least for task lighting) than CFBs. But, they have the “long tail” of the semiconductor industry and all that entails. Before you make your first LED, you need a billion-dollar semiconductor wafer fabrication plant, with hundreds of employees and all the support systems they require, plus a globe-spanning network of suppliers of exotic materials.

    So if all three light sources simply dropped out of a cargo plane — no contest, go with the LEDs! But human civilization is operating as one huge “cargo cult” these days, demanding super-efficient lighting and transportation without really understanding all the implications of the huge embedded energy involved — including the “hidden” embedded energy of technological complexity.

    So yea, be as efficient as you can, given a reasonable commitment of resources. But with almost any technology that’s been around for more than a decade or two, all the “low hanging fruit” has been harvested, and further improvements in efficiency come at a considerable hidden cost in complexity, a luxury neither we nor the planet can probably afford in the long run.

    Now, back to the subject. I’m all for “solar power.” But consider the maximum power point and the long tail effect. It seems to me that we should focus our efforts on solar thermal, which is technologically simple, saving PV for extremely critical need applications.

  8. Hi all,

    Thanks for the comments. I have read them all and will respond to the points raised over the next day or so.



  9. Concerning Odum, I get the impression it’s mostly due to David Holmgren’s writings that his ideas are somewhat known in permaculture.

    But actually, given that Holmgren himself writes that he never learned how to do a quantitative emergy assessment properly, is there anyone out there who both knows how to do it and could teach it?

    I wonder if this “emergy” business may actually be much more some sort of strange superstitious belief than something that would actually be rooted in sound methodology.

    So, again, is there someone who would be able and willing to show how it’s done to someone who’s not afraid of any maths? (I can handle theoretical physics at the forefront of current research.)

  10. Thomas Fischbacher: I confess I haven’t actually done a “quantitative emergy assessment.” And I actually don’t think doing so is terribly important!

    I think what’s more important is to keep in mind the qualitative emergy assessment — the notion that complexity is a function of energy, and that no amount of technology can possibly make up for a lack of energy.

    Then there’s the work of CS Holling on panarchy theory. He describes a loop through three dimensions of time, energy, and connectivity. High energy combined with high connectivity — the situation we’re arguably in right now — inevitably results in a crash to a lower state of connectivity, followed by a return to a lower state of energy, in the “omega phase” of the panarchy loop.

    Take these two together and it seems clear that we need to pursue things that are not only lower in energy, but also lower in complexity. That calls for an intuitive approach, since the very “emergy” analysis that is used to calculate small differences in efficiencies is itself a complexity that has a hidden energy cost!

    Perhaps I’m making a mistake in conflating Odum’s notion of “complexity” with Holling’s notion of “connectivity.” But it’s my theory, and I’m stickin’ to it. :-)

  11. Hi all,

    Craig – Thanks for your comments, I agree with you in all respects. You are are spot on about solar power being a transition technology which comes at the end of a long manufacturing and distribution process, with a waste stream at the end and that can’t be ignored. Then our entire electricity distribution network also has the same problems too. The best outcome from a solar power system is as you described, you have to learn to live with the available sunlight. Self sufficiency is a difficult goal and I’m aware of people who have been at it for over 30 years. One of the defining things in their lives is that they are aware of the seasons, their land and the need to live with the available sunlight. But as I stated in part 5 of the article series, if I had to exist by consuming the produce from the food forest, vegetables and preserved goods here, eventually I’d starve, because my knowledge is not yet good enough. Things continue to grow through winter here unlike other parts of the world too. People are disconnected from their food and energy sources and need to understand the risks involved with this and start taking appropriate action because if I’ve got a long way to go, their way is even longer again.

    Saybian – Thank you. Option overload is a marketing tool. Seriously. The more products and choices available, the more discontented people are with their choices and the harder they try to upgrade their purchasing choices until such time as they reach the “halo model”. I’m not in the permaculture capital of the world even though my farm is about 40 minutes from David Holmgren’s farm which is a most impressive farm. Most people around here, if they do farm it is on a conventional basis which is very fossil fuel dependant. As a recommendation to you, if the area that you are considering moving to has a short growing season, spend some quality time learning, practising and understanding preserving techniques. A food forest or vegetables patch is no different from a solar power system. You harvest the sunlight and choose when to spend the harvested sunlight, this may be in the depths of winter, who knows? Hope that helps.

    Mihir – I have thoughts about your post which I’ll comment on below under the heading “Budgets”. I hope this response interests you and please feel free to respond. As to looking for a political solution, I’m not sure it will happen because at the end of the day politicians say what they have to to get re-elected. The population at large re-elects politicians in a democracy and when you look at what people actually want it seems to be large houses, SUV’s plus plenty of cheap high energy requiring consumer goods and this makes no sense from an ecological perspective. Go figure. The basic economic problem is that demands exceed supply and this is a very true situation with people.

    I agree with you about solar, wind etc. when you point out that once they have been manufactured they produce energy with few ongoing inputs (more inputs are required for wind than solar though). It’s a myth that they don’t produce as much energy as they have consumed in their manufacture, but it does depend on where they are installed. I’ll talk about this under the “Appropriateness” heading below. The problem is that they probably won’t ever produce enough energy, reliably and in a portable form to ever replace fossil fuels.

    Jbob – Ah, Jbob where would we be without you? Character assassination is a tool of the weak. You didn’t address any of the issues that Craig raised, but repeated the same nonsense I’ve seen elsewhere. If I was a cynical person, I’d say that you appear to be a paid flunky of the fossil fuel or some other such industry group. Your issues will be discussed under the heading “Cornucopian” below.

    Tom – Nice work and you’re spot on. The problem I have with thermal mass though, is that (and I can only speak for Australian building conditions and I’m an owner builder) is that it’s so poorly applied. In fact in Australia, it’s so badly applied the houses require more energy than a well insulated house without all that thermal mass. However, when it is well designed and applied well it is outstanding. I’ll comment further on this issue below under the heading “Thermal Mass”

    Jan – I couldn’t agree with you more, trying to solve a complex problem by adding on further layers of complexity is just silly. But it’s what happens. I’ll comment further on this issue below under the heading “Complexity”. By the way, aren’t you connected to the grid? Have you considered asking yourself how resilient your property is if access to the electricity grid was cut off? It’s pretty cold up your way over winter and heating would obviously be a huge concern.

    Thomas and Jan – Theoretical physics is beyond me, it’s just not my area. I get the arguments relating to complexity though and as mentioned before will comment on them further below under that heading. Jan, I keep thinking about your example of manufacturing an incandescent light bulb and I think it may need to be put into context. Complex manufacturing requires some people to be, well an overhead to society. That is everyone else has to carry those people in the day to day workings of life. It can’t be ignored that these types of inventions occurred at a time when a surplus of energy was being mined and extracted (coal). I think you may have simplified the example though, because it’s not just a light bulb that needs to be manufactured, but the holder for it, the cables, the fuses, the generator, the transformers and regulators. It’s a really complex system and beyond the scope of an artisan. What do you think about this?

    I’ll start putting further comments in over the next few days under various headings. Please feel free to drop in more comments and arguments.



  12. Yes, Yes and more yes. Living Green has been in my family for centuries. I have read stories from my family journals about the demise and hazards to society from technologies such as bridges, the rail road lines. (my great grandmother was told the high speed rail was bad for the brain). Living in Urban San Francisco, using solar power is producing more than we use over the course of an entire year. Energy should be considered as a residential revenue source..and not just an expense.

    The overall generation of both PV and solar combined with small wind turbines can cover the cost of nearly every home. Too long people have fallen to believe wind and solar does not work, well I have generations of family proof. I just love the fact the utility company fought for 10 years to not pay us for the production we put back into the grid.

    Too long, the misinformation, including by some that responded is just saddening. The best way to is identify the actual production your own home or dwelling is capable of and think about the savings of the next 3 generations that may live in those homes. My grandfather’s investment became my source of income.

  13. Chris wrote:

    “… aren’t you connected to the grid? Have you considered asking yourself how resilient your property is if access to the electricity grid was cut off? It’s pretty cold up your way over winter and heating would obviously be a huge concern.”

    Yes, we are cursed with the third lowest cost of electricity in the world, which makes it difficult to work on off-grid solutions.

    That said, the grid here is 99% hydropower, and not so subject to direct costs nor impacts of fossil sunlight or uranium. But I do acknowledge that big hydro has its own problems — mostly sunken, rather than current.

    We’re working on a three-pronged approach of microhydro, wind, and PV solar, and we already have a couple PV panels in use for our off-grid community biodiesel fueling station and our soon-to-be off-grid greenhouse.

    It doesn’t actually get terribly cold here, and we heat about 90% with wood. (We could go 100% with a stove upgrade, but that 10% electric heat costs us soooo little at 6.4 cents a kWh!) Four cords (~15 cubic metres) gets us through the winter.

    Our land came with two “legacy” houses (as we call them), but we plan to build additional zero-mile, local-energy housing. Plans are for in-floor hydronic heat that could be driven from multiple fuel sources — direct solar on those rare days that we have it, wood, or plant oil.

    Our biggest electricity concern here is water, since the system we inherited is totally dependent, with a deep water pump feeding a cistern, then a pressure pump followed by a green sand filter (with electric-timer backflow) and an electric UV filter.

    We have a 5,000 liter per day license for stream water that we want to exploit. The plan is a 20,000 litre ferrocement tank (3.5 metre diameter by two metres high, which is also the largest you can do without a permit) at the point where the stream enters the property, fed by a ram pump. That will then flow down to the houses with enough pressure for normal domestic water.

    Societal Overhead
    Chris continues:

    “Complex manufacturing requires some people to be, well an overhead to society… I think you may have simplified the example though, because it’s not just a light bulb that needs to be manufactured, but the holder for it, the cables, the fuses, the generator, the transformers and regulators. It’s a really complex system and beyond the scope of an artisan. What do you think about this?”

    I think you’re right! But it’s all a matter of degree, no?

    The support structure for incandescent bulbs is still perhaps one or two orders of magnitude less than that required for an LED. A lot of it can be done with salvage. I’ve made reasonable generators out of junk parts.

    But again, it’s a matter of degree. If you’re a “doomer” who sees a “crash” and a “die off,” then there should be plenty of materials available, and the people left will hopefully be the most resourceful.

    On the other hand, perhaps the worst case is the “muddle through” scenario, where there is no discernible crash, but simply a continual worsening. This may well look like the former Soviet Union as described by Dmitry Orlov, in which case, materials and services become dear and sporadic, but they don’t suddenly “go away.”

    We’re working toward the latter scenario. I believe humanity will go out with a whimper, not with a crash.

    Before the widespread use of fossil sunlight, it took fifteen families on the land to support one in the city. I think that’s a reasonable goal to shoot for, in terms of “societal overhead.” With that ratio, people managed to have metal implements and oil lamps, and Rudolph Diesel managed to create a machine that turned plant oil into rotary motion.

    (But of course, there were 1/8th as many people then…)

  14. Some comments.

    (1) I find it quite bizarre to see in a discussion of the actual viability of solar PV in a society undergoing forced simulification a link (“as solar power generation is obviously not suitable for all countries”) to the Monbiot article “The German Disease” on the claimed nonsense of installing PV at 50 degrees latitude. The point is that Monbiot’s perspective on solar may be shaped by his ideas about nuclear power (quite well known I think). If there are valid concerns about a complexity reduction forced onto society due to a skrinking energy base, I seriously wonder whether nuclear would be an option at all.

    Maybe solar power is a forlorn hope. (Personally, I doubt that – to me it looks quite viable.) Maybe nuclear is something to better not have around if serious simplification is forced onto society. My perspective is that if we have to make a choice on what to focus on, we should better make sure it is a well informed choice.

    (2) Even if there is a collapse of societal complexity, it is not at all clear to what extent society will still manage to maintain those areas needing a high level of complexity that are considered essential. Note that even famine-stricken North Korea managed to develop nuclear weapons. I could well imagine society to axe many activities one way or another (space exploration, particle physics, plane travel, even individual transport via automobiles), but retaining a focus on e.g. solar energy production. Even if the Mafia took over from the state, I would expect them to realize fairly soon that energy is quite important to their operations.

    Don’t get me wrong – I do not expect “business as usual, but solar powered”. There probably is no way to get there, given the situation. But I could well imagine a future society much more focused on things that really matter a lot than the present quite wasteful society, which might manage to power its greatly reduced needs to a considerable extent from solar energy. It might not happen, but I still have to come across a compelling reason why it would not be possible.

    (3) I think there is a serious problem with Howard Odum’s “Emergy Mythology”. As far as I can tell, there is no one except Odum who ever learned how to do a quantitative “emergy” assessment, or could teach it. I actually have read a few published research articles on “emergy” which I consider as utter nonsense – from the purely mathematical perspective. The “emergy” concept is fairly popular especially in Permaculture circles, not least due to David Holmgren, who is a strong believer in the validity of the concept and spreads this belief as if it were a new form of evangelium. But who ever inquired whether it is meaninfgul?

    But what if “Emergy” as proposed by Odum is not actually a sound concept at all? Would it not be dangerous to rely too strongly on intuitive belief and ideological conviction here. Just because we would like the world to fit a particular mental model we feel comfortable with is not at all a reason for reality to behave like this. Einstein’s ideas were not taken too seriously before Eddington confirmed them in a spectacular measurement in 1919 – and that was perhaps a good thing. With “Emergy”, I get the impression there neither is a reasonably sound mathematically rooted theory, nor a corresponding body of verifiable experimental data. The idea of tracing products back to the solar power input they required certainly is an attractive one – but if one looks closer, the little word “required” is impossibly tricky to capture in some sort of formalism.

    I would expect this idea to be met with quite some resistance by some people interested in permaculture, but still, I think it’s an important one: should we ditch Odum’s “Emergy” concept as it seems to have no substance? To some, that may be a painful question – quite likely to David Holmgren. Still: if we found that there is nothing useful behind it, would it not be dangerous to stick to a pseudoscientific belief which only seems to stand in the way of obtaining a more adequate perspective on the world around us – and our options?

  15. “It’s a myth that they don’t produce as much energy as they have consumed in their manufacture”

    I think it’s a pretty fine line, but it depends on the numbers we’re using to quantify each element.

    PV panels might return as much energy as used in their manufacture and transport, if installed in the most efficient situations near the tropics, but what do they return for a given latitude?

    Batteries, copper wire, plastic and other insulation, control circuits etc. well they don’t return any of the energy used to manufacture and transport them, but must be counted in the quantification.

    So, which/who’s EROEI numbers are we using for the definitive statement made about “myths”?

  16. Hi,As requested, my country of origin is England. Just want you to know that I really appreciate the time and effort that you have put into sharing his valuable knowledge with the community.Without personaly knowing some one who has done this type of thing themselves were else would I get this simply put very useful information. Thankyou mate.

  17. Some think that society will just go back to a previous stage after fossil fuels, uranium etc., are over. But that will not happen. We will be able to do many of the ‘necessary’ things but in a way that requires lower energy. Here necessary things are those that are truly required by society i.e., those which help us all survive, the energy spent on these things helps us. They are like the eyes, limbs, liver etc. The unnecessary things are like too much fat, the appendix etc., which do not help us or worse like cancer. Alcohol drinking, excessive automobile use, excessive travel(why should one travel 20 kms everyday?). We can clearly see that an overwhelming majority of the energy being used is for waste purposes in society today.

    How will it happen? One example is that the atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is converted into reactive nitrogen in two ways. Only reactive nitrogen can be utilized by life forms. The first way is by natural processes like lightning etc., whose high energy converts the nitrogen into reactive forms through chemical reactions. This process requires high energy because N2 does not react easily. But the second way is through BNF i.e, biological nitrogen fixation which all of us are familiar with. The bacteria can do this process which normally requires enormous energy without expending much energy. How? Through design! See that is permaculture. This is the whole goal of permaculture. Not only landscapes and buildings but machines, factories (which are large machines), whole nations are to be designed by applying these principles.

    In designing this we use “low tech” tools like mulching, mud(adobe) walls, swales, small dams, food drying etc., but also high tech tools like solar power, internet , satellites, weather studies etc. The important thing is that to accomplish tasks that are ‘necessary’ we should consume less energy, very less energy. So we can see that the emergy content can be reduced by using pathways that do the same work for less energy.

    So it is important to realize that many things like solar power, computers, satellites, medicines, cameras etc will stay. Due to energy crunch all the waste things in society will be eliminated. Due to energy crunch not everything will be lost and humans start to live in some kind medieval fiefdoms.

  18. Another important thing is who will do the large scale designing for whole nations. No one will do it completely. Under a vague master plan with some basic rules (like humans should not eat humans, freedom of expression) everyone one will do most of their design locally, all by themselves. But under the support of a strong state. The control of resources will be decentralized thereby political power will be decentralized. Everyone will produce their own food, soaps, ropes, many medicines etc. But everything will not breakdown. The world will not breakup into a million human communities.

    When society breaks down and communities start living by themselves ‘completely’, as envisaged by some, in some kind of medieval setup then all the evils associated with it will spring up. War, disease, slavery all arise. Because in such disconnected setup some of us will capture power by controlling all resources and everyone will be subjugated to them. Families will have to live very closely for protection and women will be subjugated in the name of protecting their children. There will be no restriction to human behavior and terrible wars will occur while within communities the powerful control even the thoughts of others. Rather than harvesting energy it will seem attractive to plunder others. If this seems like hell one should realize that till a hundred years ago that was the picture of the whole world. And also to a large extent in the erstwhile USSR. The present world also has many of these things but in hidden form.

    But also the modern state provides much protection to its citizens. Even an unmarried or divorced woman can raise children in many developed nations. People can move freely anywhere without carrying weapons. What was the picture a hundred years ago? One can observe that more developed nations are better in these aspects then less developed nations. Of course they are consuming too much energy for this. We can reduce this energy consumption by eliminating wastage and using pathways that consume less energy.

    So the whole world will become a single community working with cohesion, with the protection and strength provided by the state, rather than degenerating into anarchy. As I said before 1 lakh termites(or honeybees) in a hive are different than 1 lakh different mosquitoes or aphids etc. The termites can do many great things by ‘collective power’. Every termite is contributing to the hive and the hive is supporting the termite. Humans are similar to them. Humans will not live in a million communities (which will then start fighting with each other until they become a few large ‘nations’, like we are presently). This should answer(I wish) the questions like it takes a 1 billion dollar factory, lot of knowledge, resources etc., to do something so these things cannot be done, they will not be present. Those things will be present even after the energy crunch.

    As I said before wealth is another form of energy which holds (or helps to hold) together humans as a society. Wealth is like gluons which hold together the quarks. Technology (tools+knowledge) is the true wealth and is used to harvest more energy for less energy spent. This surplus energy is used to support the society or state which protects and supports its citizens. So after the energy crunch or during it we will eliminate all the energy wastage, use technology (‘low tech’ and ‘high tech’ both consuming very less energy). To do this society and all humans will come closer than ever before. Humans will achieve even greater feats than ever before but only those which are ‘necessary’.

    Society will be organized more democratically. Not in the present semi feudal way. But everything will not dissipate away because if it even does then wealth brings us back together. There is no going back to a more chaotic stage.

    One should remember that this process has been going on even before fossil fuels were discovered or used.

    I hope that this answers those opposing solar power and things like that. We have to distinguish between those that are ‘necessary’ and those that are not. Not between those things that are ‘easy’ i.e., use less energy and those that are ‘hard’. Because the hard processes can be made easy by using design. That is why permaculture is so important and we are all using it. This is what we have to learn from nature(living beings).

  19. Also Thomas– Mathematics does not support a theory. Maths is only logic and it helps us create hypothesis. Only quantitative observation and experimentation reveal the truth of a hypothesis.

    I think that there is not enough experimental evidence supporting Odum is that the present scientific establishment is largely ignoring him. They do not understand this. To understand something we have to be philosophically enlightened.

    It is because of ignoring the truth told by Odum that the present world is unable to understand permaculture and nature.

  20. Elliot – Thanks! It’s great to hear about your experience. I’ve read in many places that (excluding some sort of unexpected event) solar panels have a lifepsan in excess of 50+ years, but 3 generations, that’s pretty impressive.

    Jan – A very thoughtful response. Over here we use above ground water tanks, usually polyethlene or steel (with a bladder), I’ve got about 90,000 litres myself. I’ve found concrete water tanks eventually leak and in a (probably unlikely for you) bushfire, the water that penetrates the concrete (it always does) expands and the tanks crack and fail (sometimes explode). Steel is not bad in this circumstance although the bladder does melt and it’s held in place at the top of the tank, and poly simply melts to the water level, but strangely doesn’t generally fail.

    Hydro, wind and solar all have a fossil fuel subsidy which I’ll comment on under the heading “fossil fuel subsidy” below.

    Bernie – Surely you jest?

    Thomas – Nuclear seems like a strange option, because if you don’t factor in the resources to deal with the waste and eventually decommission the plant, why build it in the first place as you can’t afford it? Actually you hit on a subject which I’ll comment on under the heading “Appropriateness” below. It’s not really the problem that solar doesn’t produce much energy at higher latitudes, but that people expect too much and now have access to too much now. I can’t comment about emergy, because if smarter brains than mine can’t work it out…

    Pete – No one argues about EROEI when they’re buying a house or a car (which is eventually scrapped), nor a nuclear or coal fired power station. The original point was about people commenting about EROEI and not taking into account latitude (which is all important). I’d be interested if you could scrape up some info about this from a reliable source. I had a look and the only real numbers seemed to be from the manufacturer Siemens who quoted an energy payback period of 1 1/2 years. Most of the rest of the sources were dubious to say the least. I’m not going to comment further on this issue as it is rubbish topic.

    Patrick – You get todays gold star because you actually identified your country of origin and I can put you into context. Thanks! Thanks for the comment too, there’s more to come. The UK has a place for solar, it’s simply a matter of reducing your expectations and living with the limitations.

    Mihir – Yeah a lot of the energy that is generated and used now is wasted or used for dubious purposes. As you point out, energy conservation is the simplest option we have, it’s not often discussed though. Energy simply doesn’t cost enough now that people worry about what’s necessary and what’s a luxury. The future and where we are all headed is probably a bit off topic. Who knows, anything can happen and it’s usually the things that you don’t worry about that you get in trouble!



  21. Many very good points on EROEI calculations to be found here:

    “Price-Estimated EROEI, attempts to use the market’s ability to fix price as a representation of a huge mass of amorphous data. As with a complete EROEI calculation, price tends to account for more individual data than we can possibly consciously account for, identify causal relationships, and resolve by some formula.”

  22. Hi Chris,

    Came over from the Archdruid Report. As a non-technological person and solar-power novice, I find your explanations very clear, so that I feel I have a better understanding of what is involved in off-grid power generation. I live at 42 degrees north, so insulation had better come first!

  23. “Bernie – Surely you jest?” to my “Does anyone have a good recipe for making candles?”

    ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

    a) Yes. My comment was intended as a counterpoint to much of the Techno-crap that gets broadcast on this forum which has more to do with ego self-massage than any intent to inform or enlighten. I am not knocking your series (which I see as quite informative but should probably soon start to get a little more into practicalities, for DIYers), or PV, of which I plan to have an off-grid capability also, as a temporary and portable measure for as long as it lasts.

    b) No. What is the first thing people do when the power goes off? They look for candles. This is fine when you can go down to your local store and buy candles and would also be fine I guess if you believe the great god Science and Technology will always be there to answer your prayers. But in a minimalist world which I think is what we will end up with and was my main reason for learning about permaculture, how are you going to get your candles unless you know how to make them yourself? I fully realise these two concepts are extremes and that there is a whole spectrum of future possibilities in between them but I personally only assign a few percentage points to most of those possibilities. Hope for the best but plan for the worst.

    I don’t personally know how to make candles at this point but I plan to find out. This is much more important than lessons in architecture, theoretical physics or other philosophical ideas. So I restate my query: Does anyone have a good recipe for making candles?

  24. Fossil Fuel Subsidies – You often read people banging on about fossil fuel subsidies, but what are they actually talking about? If you think about buying an item of stuff off the shelf, then it goes like this:
    Raw materials are mined (Usually using Oil)
    Those materials are transported to a processor (Usually using Oil)
    The materials are processed into something useful like ingots (Usually using Electricity)
    Those materials are then transported to a manufacturer (Usually using Oil)
    The manufacturer then processes the materials into a useful good or part of a bigger useful good (Usually using Electricity)
    The final good is then packaged and transported to a warehouse or distribution centre (Usually using Oil)
    The good then is transported to a retailer (Usually using Oil)
    The good is then transported from the retailer to the consumer (Usually using Oil)
    The product is then connected to the electricity grid (maybe) by the consumer (and it is usually powered by electricity – there are quite a lot of goods produced that run on Oil though)

    If you look at the above, you’ll see that Oil is used where ever heavy lifting / extraction is required in the system (extraction or transport). Electricity is used at points where the materials, processing or goods are at a stationery point in the process.

    In part 4 of A solar powered life – the dirty little secret I pointed out that it is very hard to store electricity for later use. This means that it lacks the portability of Oil and that you can’t power a huge dump truck or excavator or prime mover using electricity. The technology just isn’t there. As I said before, there’s a fortune waiting to be made…

    Every renewable energy system from small to large scale requires fossil fuels in order to produce the components, supply them, and maintain them. It can’t be ignored. On a larger scale the production of electricity from either coal, hydro or nuclear also suffer from the same subsidies. These large scale centralised power generators also have the further complication of complex and huge distribution networks. They are all possible because of fossil fuels and nothing else. It wasn’t for no reason that rural areas where only connected to the electricity grid after world war 2.

    You cannot have one without the other, so when the price of a barrel of oil goes up in cost, so to does the cost of energy whether it be from renewable or non renewable resources.

    I’m not going to argue about Peak Oil, so don’t bother as there are plenty of forums with smarter people than me thinking about it.

    However, it can be argued that when demand for a product goes up and the supply doesn’t follow, prices rise. In Australia, the number of private vehicles has doubled in the last decade, which is a bit of an environmental and social disaster. China has the largest new car market in the world and I read over the weekend that last year they sold 18 million vehicles. That’s almost one for every person in Australia and within 15 months at that rate, it would be.

    One of my main concerns is that the fossil fuel subsidies are a massive part of our industrialised agricultural systems and there really is no easy way to transition to organic agriculture. I support Craig’s comments 100% above for this very reason and anyone who has had a bash at growing their own produce will understand intuitively how hard this transition may be.



  25. JBob – Fair enough, price is the only indicator really. However, no body anywhere undertakes full cost accounting. They still didn’t answer the question either because no one will ever know the correct answer. The answer is also relative to where the panels are installed on the planet. That’s why it’s a rubbish argument.

    Adrian – Good to see you. Yeah, insulation is probably a better bet. 42 degrees North makes for some cold winters! If you were in Australia at 42 degrees South, you’d be about the bottom of Tasmania (lovely place) and I know they’d make some useful power over winter though. Who knows?

  26. Cornucopians – The economist Herbert Stein was a pretty smart guy and he coined a law (named after himself of course) that states “If something cannot go on forever it will stop”. He was actually talking about economic bubbles, but you can also apply this law to fossil fuels as well.

    As I said before I don’t want to get into arguments about peak oil. However, Oil is a finite resource on the planet (along with most other resources), so eventually whether we like it or not, we will either run out of oil, or it becomes so energy intensive to extract from the ground that it’s not worth it. People forget that it takes the energy from oil to extract it from it’s source, refine it and then transport it.

    What a fine joke on us, if we get to the point that oil is available, but the energy required to extract it exceeds what we would get from the energy of the oil reserve itself!

    Anyway, what has this got to do with the cornucopians? Well, they tend to state the argument that technology will save us and provide all of the energy that we may ever need. They usually tend to also be a bit hazy on the details. They disregard the fact that there are no other substitutes for oil available in the same volumes and continue to say that someone, somewhere, somehow will come up with a solution, the market demands it no less!

    I also don’t buy the cornucopian argument because of three reasons:

    1. Oil as previously described in the Fossil Fuel subsidy argument is the enabler for all other fuels and sources of energy. Even the burning of coal to generate electricity requires oil for the mining and transport of the coal (at today’s technology level), not to mention all the other uses previously discussed;

    2. Oil is extracted from the ground and with a bit of refining is pretty much ready to go and it is easily stored and transported. Electricity on the other hand is the result of a generation process and is difficult to store and transport. Being the result of a process, it will never achieve the same level of efficiency in energy output as oil; and

    3. Technology that hasn’t been invented yet, is a waste of time discussing.



  27. Hey Bernie. Apologies mate, I thought you were taking the piss. It would have been pretty funny…

    Glad to hear you’re enjoying the series. The next article will be about inverters why, how etc. I’m a DIYer too so I know how hard it is to come by practical information on solar that’s not really heavy on the tech talk. By the end of the series, you should know far more about solar energy and there’s probably no reason why you wouldn’t be able to wire up your own.

    The theoretical stuff here, well, it doesn’t go away so can’t be ignored.

    As to candles. Contact people at the Earthgarden path forum. Someone there will be able to help you:



  28. Chris,

    re-reading the posts above, I don’t think Elliott claimed to have solar panels in operation for three generations. The photovoltaic effect was discovered by Edmond Becquerel (the father of Henri Becquerel, who discovered radioactivity) back in 1839. But back then, selenium was the only known material that showed a photovoltaic effect, at efficiencies below 1%. It was only in 1954 that Fuller and Chapin at Bell Labs discovered that silicon allowed more efficient solar energy conversion. They managed to produce a 6% efficient silicon PV cell in 1954, and somewhat later could achieve 15%. Bell did indeed install some experimental PV systems back then to power rural telephone systems. But the price was not competitive. I don’t think one could buy PV panels for power production before 1960 or so. Mass production has not started until the late 70’s.

    Does solar power make sense for countries such as Germany or the UK? On the one hand, module output is lower than in California, due to lower insolation. But on the other hand, one could reasonably expect modules to last longer, as the degrading effect of UV light also spreads out over a longer time span. Now, UV light is not the only source of degradation. Being exposed to wind and weather causes a small amount of moisture to enter, which in turn causes corrosion. But here, we have to keep in mind that all this affects mostly those components of the panel that were not overly energetically expensive. Those components that were most energy demanding to manufacture – the silicon p-n junctions – can reasonably be expected to last much longer. So, it may well be that we see a PV panel recycling industry emerging in the future. All in all, I don’t think lower insolation is as much a problem as e.g. Monbiot seems to believe.

    The most relevant problems with present-day PV probably is materials shortages. While there won’t be a shortage of silicon or doping elements, silver is an issue. PV production used about 28 tons of silver last year, which amounts to roughly 10% of the total industrial silver demand. With CIGS panels as Geoff Lawton uses, Indium probably is even more of a limiting factor.

    Alternatives to silver for PV are presently being researched, but it may hence well be that, in the longer run, solar-thermal stirling engines turn out to be a better solution. The engineering complexity of a 3 kWp dish stirling system is perhaps only 1/5 or so of that of a typical modern car.

  29. JBob,

    I think I can give good reasons why one should not at all take this “price-estimated EROEI” idea as serious.

    Let us have a look at the price of electrical energy vs. GNP for a number of countries (sources: and the CIA world factbook)

    Country Electricity price (US-Cents/kWh) GDP/(US-$/capita)
    Spain 5.55 29500
    USA 9.28 47400
    UK 18.59 35100
    Germany 30.66 35900
    Denmark 42.89 36700

    So, a one-person-GDP unit pays for 530 MWh of electricity in Spain, but only for 86000 MWh of electricity in Denmark. All the other countries are in between.

    Now, what is the correct money-to-electrical-energy ratio? As you see, there demonstrably is at least a factor-6 uncertainty with this method.

    I think it’s nonsense.

  30. Thomas – Yeah, re-reading, I got that one wrong.

    Resource depletion is a problem across the board. I was researching fuel cells this morning for a comment here about them and see that they use platinum as the catalyst. Expensive and rare.

    I’d love to see a solar thermal stirling engine. Australia, given the stronger available sunlight would be able to pull that one off, although the efficiencies would be low. I’m aware that they use solar thermal in the outback to desalinate water drawn from the Great Artesian Basin for small communities.

    I keep saying that there is a place for solar PV in Germany and the UK, just lower your expectations about it’s output. A panel should get around 50 years life expectancy, although they do degrade over time but not as much as you’d think. It helps that unlike hydro and wind there are no moving parts.

  31. Thomas,

    Isn’t that exactly what you would want the “price-estimated EROEI” do? In countries where electricity is more expensive, there is presumably more energy used in its production. This ignores for now any government distortion of the market, which is always a factor (e.g., $0.12/gallon gas in Venezuela).

    I’m not sure this method is the answer, I just thought it was interesting so far.


    Cornucopian: a meaningless label one can apply to anyone who is, in any degree, less pessimistic about future standards of living than they are.

  32. JBob,

    your argument just got circular. You use “price-estimated EROEI” to work out the energy needed to produce a kWh of electricity from the price, and then use the EROEI to reason out price differences.

    Actually, both Spain and the U.S. pretty much “just burn coal”. But of course the process must be 2x as energy efficient in spain as in the U.S. – despite the fact that the U.S. has more easily accessible coal.

    So, clearly, it’s all about sinister government distortions of the market, right? ;-)

  33. Chris McLeod wrote: “Resource depletion is a problem across the board.”

    We are in a situation that ecologists and biologists call “least limit.” That is, we grow until we hit a limit, then if that limit is somehow taken away, we immediately hit a different limit. The resource in “least” supply is our “limit.”

    Today, the least limit is arguably petroleum. If we “solve” that problem by converting to natgas, or coal-to-liquids, or even PV-powered electricity, the next “least limit” will kick in in a matter of years rather than decades, possibly copper, or phosphorous, or in the case of a PV-electric future, lithium.

    If we solve that problem, the next “least limit” will slam us up against the “glass ceiling.”

    So in general, trying to “solve” resource “problems” at this point is a waste of our time and creativity. We should instead be seeking to humanely reduce our numbers and our impact.

  34. The Hydrogen economy – At almost every post in this series, you’ll find someone stating that the answer to our fossil fuel problems is that we should be using Hydrogen as a fuel. It has many advantages including the fact that when you burn it, it releases energy, but more importantly, the Hydrogen binds with Oxygen to form water molecules. It doesn’t get much better than that, as no one will complain about water as a pollutant!

    Oil does have an advantage over Hydrogen because it is a liquid, and as such it is very easy to store and transport. Hydrogen on the other hand does not share this advantage. It has to be manufactured, so it is more expensive than Oil and it is very hard to handle and store. As Jan pointed out in a comment above it escapes from nearly any container, on account of it’s tiny size (being the first atom on the periodic table of elements). It also readily bonds with other atoms to form very stable molecules like water. Hydrogen is also less energy dense than Oil, because although a kilogram of Hydrogen has three times the energy of Oil, it takes up considerably more volume than Oil so it must be compressed, which you guessed it, takes up more energy reducing the overall efficiency.

    On the plus side however, it is possible to produce Hydrogen from water using either solar or wind technology, although it is enormously expensive when compared to Oil. Most Hydrogen is however, these days manufactured from natural gas, which in itself is a useful and finite fuel, because there are more Hydrogen atoms in that molecule than in the water molecule so the process becomes more efficient for the manufacturer.

    As previously discussed, battery technology in vehicles is difficult because they are heavy and inefficient, with long recharging times and the vehicles themselves have to be very small and lightweight to be competitive with the range of an internal combustion engine powered vehicle. Fuel cells are often touted as a replacement for Oil in vehicles as they combine Hydrogen and Oxygen to produce electricity. However, the catalyst involved in the proton exchange membrane is made from Platinum, which makes the fuel cell enormously expensive. It’s not happening anytime soon.

    The source for these points was from Paul Roberts book “The end of Oil”.

  35. JBob, when I see your comments, all I can hear is “magic, magic, magic”. Your self-regulating utopia is not based in reality, or history.

    Unfortunately you also continue to make assumptions that are wholly incorrect about my views on what the world could or should look like.

    I think you would calm down though if you would realize that it is no one man’s responsibility to understand, plan, and operate the entire world. It is utterly impossible….

    Civilization can’t be designed by one man, or the top 100 smartest permaculturalists, or whatever assembly to central planners you could dream up. — JBob

    I consistently call for, rather than central planning by a few mere mortals, broadscale involvement by a holistically educated majority in shaping society. This broadscale involvement would help ensure collective decisions are made which are appropriate for localised climates, cultures and needs.

    It’s obvious that the whole left/right US political debate has been so deeply ingrained in the minds of some individuals, that when people suggest better alternatives they’re unable to extricate their minds from a life of US-media programming to see these suggestions clearly.

    I’ve been over this ground so many times, it’s exhausting.

    If I say ‘regulations’ you flinch, and (with your US-politics tired mind) assume it’s the same kind of regulatory process you’re seeing today – the kind that effectively makes sustainability illegal. But, instead, what I’m talking about are the kind of regulations that make sense – those that the majority at grass roots level see as necessary to ensure and incentivise a shift to a saner more sustainable world.

    You call for a world devoid of regulations instead – throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A world with absolutely no regulations will be an ugly place indeed. You can take almost any example from modern society and see the dangers.

    Take, for example, a humble truck driver trying to make ends meet. As he’s effectively driving a 30-ton battering ram, capable of wiping out not only an entire bus queue, but also the bus and building it’s parked in front of, regulations are put in place to ensure the driver does not drive more than a set amount of hours per day, as it’s a danger to society for him to get tired at the wheel.

    This regulation is in place to protect you and me. Would you remove it?

    Well, as it happens, the invisible hand removes this protection through everyone working in their own self interest.

    How so? Another driver, a competitor in the market place, decides to keep another, additional log book for his driving hours, so he can produce one or the other to any policeman who happens to check him. It’s an illegal practice, but one adopted by many drivers who feel the need to drive longer in a day, so as to make ends meet. His fraudulant log book entries means he can earn a little more, and he can offer his services a little cheaper than the next guy – undercutting him.

    What this means is our original driver is now effectively forced to break the law too – so he can be back on an even footing in his bid to compete and stay afloat.

    This is an example of what’s called the ‘race to the bottom’. The more drivers who stretch their day to compete against the others, the more who have to do likewise, and the more dangerous our roads get. To stay awake, they take drugs, which further impairs their health and compromises our safety.

    While your solution to this situation would be for the persons harmed by his ‘negligence’ (or should I say, this free market mechanism) to sue the driver, this doesn’t help when the people who should be doing the suing are already dead.

    As I’ve said to you dozens of times. The ‘invisible hand’ doesn’t have a brain, and certainly doesn’t have any ethical boundaries. The ethical boundaries must come either from inside the mind of the individual making the decisions, or it must be decided on by a majority and enforced by them. I wish it could be the former, but given that every man, women and child on the planet has some measure of free choice, AND with it (and almost without exception) a desire to work in his/her own self-interest (and often short-term self interest), then regulations become a necessity.

    Most environmental catastrophes, from Exxon Valdez to Horizon, etc. etc. are a result of this race to the bottom. Cost cutting, cost extermalising, are all the inevitable result of a free market economy where competition and consolidation is king. You can sue to your hearts content, and the free market legal system will make a pretty penny as they drag it all out for decades (the Exxon Valdez cases are only now finally getting wound up – to the satisfaction of almost nobody except the lawyers – even though the incident happened over 20 years ago…). Again, your belief in magic is wholly separate from any reality.

    Instead of saying “magic, magic, magic”, why don’t you think “design, design, design”? Why would you think society will ‘work itself out’ all by itself? It won’t. Just as your garden would not become productive, aesthetic and sustainable in food production just from dumping a few implements and labourers on it and watching and waiting to see what happens.

    Again, please quit lumping me in with whatever left wing, centralised megalomaniac you’ve put up as a target for your wrath. Yes, the politics we see today is all wrong – very, very wrong. I’m in no way calling for a continuation of the same, or for a resurgence in past mistakes like communism, fascism, etc. Rather, I see some beacons of light in the few successful cultures of times past who found a balance between community cohesion and respect and free exchange. Your constant call that encourages individualism and atomisation only distracts people from finding this balance.

  36. Budgets – Mihir above commented that we could have an allocated energy budget imposed by some sort of authority. I don’t have too many problems with this concept, however I think that the authority in question will eventually be nature itself.

    On the other hand I don’t think it would work very well if the authority was human driven. In our society there is a strong element of self interest in decision making and this would eventually lead to strife within the allocation process. You see this in business with budgeting.

    There are two ways a business prepares a budget. The top down process or the bottom up process. The bottom up process is always the more successful approach.

    The top down process works like this. Upper management decide that they would like to make x profit. x Profit is usually a purely arbitrary number, however they have their own remuneration to consider so they push for it anyway.

    Upper management then tells each division what share of the x profit they will be responsible for and so on down the line it goes. It may be realistic and achievable for each division, but usually it isn’t as the overall driver is the remuneration of upper management and not the actual business itself.

    The result, disillusionment and anger with the process as people have had no say in it, particularly as goals and benchmarks are not reached.

    The alternative is bottom up budgeting. This is a far harder process because it involves a lot more people in the lower echelons of business having a say in what they set out to achieve. It’s worth pointing out that the more people are involved with the process, the more they will own that process. It’s still not perfect, but you usually get a better outcome.

    Now think about energy. If someone from some authority said to you that all you are allowed to use is x amount of energy. Well you start to get suspicious straight away. How much are they using? What basis was it allocated on? How much has my neighbour been allocated? You get the idea.

    Then you think back to when you watched the film “An inconvenient truth” which had a very serious message to get across. But you also see Al Gore, flying around the world to meetings, wooshing around the arctic in a helicopter and you ask yourself “Are all animals equal”? His own actions diluted what is otherwise a very important message.

    That’s why a central authority allocating energy budgets don’t work.



  37. To answer to those asking how to make candles i have the simplest solution i can think of.
    In my own farm i do have Olive Trees therefore i do have Olive Oil which leads to the conclusion that do have Liquidified Solar energy to lit up my house without any smell or disconfort.
    Just pour some water in a jar and then an amount of olive oil. It will become the top layer liquid that eventually will burn slowly if you have a perforated piece of cork with a wick in it.
    I do have cork oaks as well so the entire solution is absolute local. It can be done with other kinds of oils so investigate and experiment.
    P.S. The water in that jar prevents the jar of becoming to warm while the wick is burning the oil. I always use a mug as it has a handle that enables simple transportation evrywhere inside the house. I will post a sample of these on my updates in Permaculture Global website. user/83

  38. Appropriateness – A common theme in comments over the series is that at higher (or lower) latitudes solar is a waste of time. The reason for this comment is that due to the lack of strong sunlight over winter in these areas, you just won’t generate much power.

    Permaculture is about design. Installing a renewable energy system that doesn’t function because of it’s location or aspect whilst still expecting it to work, is bad design.

    I’m at 37.5 degrees latitude south and as such, I’m guaranteed at worst 3 hours of strong sunlight every day of the year. It can occasionally snow here and I also get enough chilling hours (less than 7 degrees celsius) to grow all the usual deciduous fruit trees. It’s a cool temperate environment, but the solar still functions because of the sunlight.

    But, if you were further south, you’d get less hours of strong sunlight over winter. As such you’d generate less power during a year.

    Getting back to design though, in these circumstances, you may have to consider other sources of energy when solar is not producing. There are plenty of other renewable sources from wind or hydro, some people even use steam engines. That is good design and it acknowledges the realities of where you choose to live and the energy that you choose to use.

    Does this mean that solar energy systems are a waste of time in these locations? The answer is no.

    It really depends on how much energy you require from a system and people often expect too much from solar power.

    This reveals one of the underlying and unspoken issues in the comments, and it is that people are currently enjoying large quantities of relatively cheap energy. Solar energy cannot compete under these circumstances.

    The other common theme relating to appropriateness is that people dismiss solar power systems after experiencing it in their locations and discovering firsthand it’s limitations. They then claim that because it didn’t work there, it won’t work anywhere else. This is simply not the case and I tried to explain this using a citrus tree analogy which is worth repeating.

    I’ve heard it said around this way that you can’t grow citrus trees in this particular mountain range. Well, I have 20 different citrus trees and they’re doing fine and fruiting and even surviving the occassional snowfall. But I don’t lecture other people that just because I can grow them here on this specific site, that anyone should be able to grow them anywhere. The argument doesn’t take context into account.

    However there are always other concerns in any system and few have asked this probing question, however I’ll supply the answer anyway.

    I chose to go down the path of off grid solar power because it provides resilience to my property and my immediate neighbours. There are some special concerns living where I do relating to bushfires. The resilience of an off grid solar power system is not provided by the centralised electricity generation and distribution system. This I reckon is good design.



  39. Craig,

    You call for collective decision making, but in any but the smallest groups of people, it does not exist. There is no way to decide how to use any resource when a million people “collectively own” 1/1,000,000 of share in it. In reality, such public ownership evolves into oligarchical control of the many by the few. When this done voluntarily as in business, one can opt out or sell shares if one decides to. Fine. But when governments or “broadscale involvements (whatever that is)” claim to represent the public good, you can be sure you are dealing with an oligarchy.

    I see very clearly past the Left-Right dichotomy. Both sides rely on coercion of individuals by the powers that be. I don’t believe in coercion (initiation of force). Much of what you proscribe involves this sort of force, and that’s what I object to.

    But when I say no coercion, you hear “no regulation” and take that to mean no ethics, no law, no social norms, no customs, no civility. Of course I don’t object to any of those things.

    Your truck driver is a perfect example of needless governmental interference. Who has more incentive to not drive into a crowd of people, the truck driver himself, the company he works for, the insurance company that covers him, or the anonymous bureaucrat responsible for enforcing sleep time rules? Who loses the most if a crash does happen? Everybody loses massively, except the bureaucrat who loses absolutely nothing and gets paid either way. Such wild-eyed doomsday interpretations of the free market such as yours are not based on a realistic assessment of the incentives involved.

    So should there be “regulation” to limit hours of driving? Probably, but it’s not my call (Unless I were deciding which private road company to patronize, in which case competitors might offer differing “hour limits” on certain types of vehicles). It’s up to the people actually taking the risks – driver and insurer.

    If a driver has to lie about his logs to “make ends meet,” then it only provides another example of poor people taking larger risks than they otherwise would because they have little choice. The world is full of this. Everything would be better if more people could reliably meet their basic needs. The best way I can think of to achieve that is to remove the parasitic class of people known as “government” who live by stealing wealth and security from everyone else at gunpoint.

    I don’t call for atomization of men at all. I call for “live and let live,” no man owns another, do what you will as long as you don’t hurt others. This is how peaceful interactions are possible.

    You can dress up collectivism with whatever “green” language you care to, but it’s still going to be a few men ruling a bunch of other men.

  40. Thomas – Thanks for the comments re EROEI. It’s a tough argument because there are so many unknowns. Even price is a relative comparative indicator and it depends on location, country, subsidies etc. No one will ever get to the bottom of that argument.

    Jan – Spot on! The perspective of an ecologist is always welcome.

    Craig – Thanks again. I don’t understand their mindset either as it’s full of contradictions. How JBob can’t understand that co-operation is a far more successful and long term approach for society than individualism is beyond me. If he’d bother reading Dr Tim Flannery’s ecological history “The Future Eaters”, JBob would see that there is no historical basis for his beliefs – it’s a dead end, literally.

    Jorge – Thanks for the comment. Olive trees are amazingly hardy too!

    JBob – I don’t get you at all. Without government regulation and intervention there would be (in the short to medium term) massive exploitation of the population by the very few because of the general mindset that people now have. The transition from a population surviving on an exploitive basis to one that lives within it’s resource base has only been achieved by a few cultures over history.

    Historically, this has been exploitation though has been the case. Would you prefer to live as some sort of feudal serf? What would be your response if the powers that be (having no regulatory or legal oversight) decided to take you as a slave? Would you still proclaim the idealistic notion of a small government? What if it was your child or partner? What if they decided that you were to work 14 hour days in fields for little to no return until you dropped dead? With little or no government oversight and regulation, things will fall apart.

    As to your truck driver example who has just killed several pedestrians. With no government, there’s no legal system. What sort of settlement to the families of the deceased would you consider? How would they enforce the payment? Who would receive the payment? Several hundred years ago, people were able to pay fines to get out of trouble like this (much like companies do today). How happy would you be if this was your family? Would you think that this was a just outcome?

    It’s easy to have the thoughts that you share with all of us here. You live in a well supplied, regulated and ordered society, where you can express your opinions in a public forum. Without the government of whom you show much scorn, it would be virtually impossible to achieve this.

    I challenge you to try for a change to go out and produce something useful. Hopefully the experience will show you how hard it can be to produce things and maybe you’ll end up having more respect for the things and structures around you.



  41. Thermal Mass – I can’t speak for other parts of the world, but Australia has an obsession with it’s housing which impacts poorly on energy usage and it’s called Thermal Mass.

    I may not have mentioned it before, but with the all of the houses that I’ve lived in over the past 17 years or so, I’ve either modified or built them from the ground up. I undertake most of the work myself, by hand. My current house which appears in these articles, I have built from the ground up using most of the knowledge gained over the past 17 years to make it as low energy requiring as possible.

    As an explanation, thermal mass is the incorporation of any dense materials into a house such as bricks, clay, concrete, tiles so they can store heat which will be released at a later time. That’s the theory anyway.

    In Australia, there is a preference for the use of bricks and concrete in housing construction (something to do with the cultural programming of the three pigs story!). Fair enough. If well designed, they can make a huge difference to the temperatures inside a dwelling, keeping it warm over winter and cool over summer.

    However, in Australia, we also have a preference for the brick veneer dwelling on a concrete slab. In this building type, bricks are used as an external cladding over a timber frame. They don’t perform any of the structural function as this is done by the timber frame. The bicks are purely for aesthetic and cladding reasons.

    Rarely are the houses orientated to make the most of the winter sun as they tend to face the street at whatever angle.

    The result of this, is that the concrete slab, which can act like a massive thermal battery doesn’t receive enough winter sunlight to store any of the day time heat received for later release at night.

    Even worse, this far south the ground can get pretty cold over winter (and hot over summer) so the house radiates that ground temperature into the house even when the concrete slabs are insulated (they’re still in contact with the ground).

    Over summer it’s the exact opposite, with the house heating up due to the bricks being exposed to the summer sun.

    The reason this is the case is primarily because people demand it, but also, because a concrete slab and bricks cladding walls are very quick (only a few days) to construct compared to the alternatives.

    Any use of thermal mass should be properly designed for it to be effective. If not the house will have to be mechanically heated and cooled to have the internal temperatures at a liveable point. A well insulated house will always outperform a house with poorly applied thermal mass in the same location.


  42. Chris,

    You are totally submersed in the “government protects us from big business” paradigm. It’s a total myth. Try to consider this: governments and big business are largely the same small group of elites, exploiting the other 95% of us by convincing us that government is necessary and good. See if the world makes more sense once you flip the paradigm around.

    I find this comical: “What would be your response if the powers that be (having no regulatory or legal oversight) decided to take you as a slave?”

    We ARE slaves right now! Who enslaved us? The powers that be, aka government.

    And anarchy doesn’t mean no legal system, it means “no rulers.” There is a rich literature out there to explain the difference.

  43. JBob – I can count on you to avoid any of the cogent points that myself and others have raised and latch on to one small aspect. You lack an eye for the big picture which is probably the only reason you continue with such outrageous statements.

    I can’t speak for you, but I certainly don’t feel like I am a slave to any powers that be. If you feel that you are a slave all you need to do is change your circumstances and make do with less. It’s not as hard as you think.

    Sometimes when I read comments like yours, I am reminded that there are a lot of people that are unhappy with their domestic situations and these are usually the result of their own poor choices, whether it be with their partners, finances, jobs, you name it. This, I think is a core reason why a lot of people like yourself hunger for change imposed from without as it saves you the effort of making any difficult decisions and if it doesn’t work out to your liking, you can blame someone (or something) else.

    Our government is really a least worst system. Nothing is perfect and I always am suspicious of people like yourself who claim that their system is the answer to our current woes, especially when it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

    Your comments are pretty much off topic given this is a forum relating to solar power and general matters relating to energy. You don’t seem to be able to address all of the issues raised by other people. I am not going to comment further to you on this thread as it is a pointless discussion.



  44. Chris,

    Let’s turn the “price of energy” issue around. What are the things where we are most sure that present prices do not reflect reality properly?

    I would say that energy makes the top of the list. Just imagine: there are about 10 million Joules of usable work in a liter of diesel. At a power output of 75 watts, that amounts to 40 hours of hard manual physical labour. If I had to pay someone to do that work, that would cost me more than 400 dollars. So it’s pretty clear that the price of liquid fuels is not the right one, by a long shot.

    I could well imagine moving into a world where fossil energy is ten times as expensive as it is today, and where it consequently is only used for applications that either save energy, or generate more energy than originally needed. Actually, I don’t think this would be a bad thing at all. (Essentially, that’s called “permaculture”, isn’t it?) The point is just: setting up such systems while fossil energy is still dirt cheap will be much much easier than it will be later on, in an economy where prices really represent the energetic reality.

    Remember how the price of oil dropped after hitting its high some years ago? How can anyone reasonably claim that price reflects energetic reality if there can be a change by a factor of 3 within a few months?

    For that reason, I say that it would be very stupid to believe any “price based EROEI calculation”.

  45. Thomas – I couldn’t agree with you more. Price is such a relative concept that it is meaningless. Nowhere do we pay the full cost for anything. A lot of costs are often externalised too, so we’ll never really know, that’s why I’ve been dodging this particular line of thought.



  46. Complexity – A common approach in our society is to increase complexity. A small part of my job requires me to read standards and legislation. One of the things that I have noticed over the years is that complexity is on the increase. The reason for this increase is that a piece of legislation is introduced for social or political reasons. However, there are wealthy people in our society who can afford to employ professionals to search for loopholes to exploit. They’re driven by self interest because it is in their financial interests to do so.

    Once the legislators have become aware of the loopholes, they try to close them with further legislation. This is an example of adding layers of complexity to an already complex system. It’s a typical response of society and you can see it all over the place in trades and professions etc. A cynic would note that often trades and professions encourage this situation too as it creates a situation called “Professional capture”. This means that they have excluded all others not in the trade or profession from practicing their arts.

    What has this got to do with solar power? Well it is an interesting argument, but even more importantly people in domestic dwellings may not realise it, but their electricity supply and distribution system in their houses are a highly complex beast. Like any army that relies on a long and inefficient supply line, it subject to the same weakness. However, it doesn’t have to be this way, which is also a nice lead in to Part 7 of a Solar Powered Life – To invert or not to invert? We’ll be getting back into the guts of a solar power system again.

    I feel that we have done the ideological debate to it’s logical conclusion. If there are further comments (or trolls etc.)in future articles I’ll direct them to this article (part 6) where they can get their say and expect a response.



  47. Complexity – I thought of another good example today of our society applying layers of complexity onto an already complex system.

    I was reading in the weekend newspaper a review of small cars. I noticed something about them because I thought that it was interesting. They all weighed from around 1,300kg to a bit over 1,400kg. Their fuel economy was OK and it ranged between about 6.5l/100km (15.3km per litre) to about 7.6l/100km (13.2km per litre).

    Engine technology is quite advanced these days for the internal combustion engine. Back in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s I used to undertake all of the repairs and servicing on my vehicle. These days the vehicles level of complexity is quite high, so I leave it up to people who are better equipped to deal with these issues than a hack like myself.

    Getting back to the fuel consumption of the small cars in the newspaper though, compared to the average vehicle of 20 years ago it’s pretty amazing. You can see that the manufacturers have applied quite a bit of refinement and technology to reduce the fuel consumption. Nice work.

    However, the vehicles themselves weigh quite a lot and this is a problem because fuel consumption is directly related to the weight of a vehicle. So manufacturers have given consumers larger vehicles (which those people are demanding and buying) with more complex and more efficient engines, when they could have applied the same technology to a much smaller and simpler vehicle again for even greater gains.

    As a comparison, I used to commute using a motorbike for a bit over a decade. At one stage about 15 years ago, I owned a Kawasaki GPX250 which is a great bike, cheap to own, easy to work on and very easy to live with. The fuel economy for this bike was about 2.8l/100km (35km per litre) which honestly could have been better (it was a little bit highly strung).

    Now I also read a comment in the same newspaper that suggested that people can’t afford very fuel efficient vehicles because they are too expensive (think – Toyota Prius, Honda Insight). Well the expense comes from the requirement to add complexity to the existing car platform and technology to achieve better fuel consumption figures. The requirement to add extra complexity to the vehicle is an indicator that the manufacturers have hit the pareto principle. Jan above would describe this as the low hanging fruit.

    The pareto principle states that 20% of the effort achieves 80% of the result. The implication is that further effort doesn’t achieve the same pay back as the first 20% did.

    So the unspoken question is, should the so called small vehicles be that large and heavy in the first place? The simple answer is no. Yet because people demand vehicles of a certain size, which comes with a weight penalty, increases in efficiency are redirected into either performance or a reasonably good fuel consumption figure, but it could be better.

    The same issue is displayed across the board too. If people require large quantities of energy to exist then the fundamentals of their lifestyle could use a bit of the pareto principle applied to them to reduce the complexity.

  48. Chris,

    cars are quite amazing in a number of ways. What I find most curious about them is that they are about a dozen of things, but not about getting efficiently from A to B.

    Basically, the car is an evolved “horseless carriage”. If I wanted to get from A to B, I’d usually want to use something like an “evolved bicycle” instead – what’s the point of carrying more than a ton of steel with you?

    After WW2, German Industry was not allowed to build aircraft. So, they essentially got rid of the wings, added a few other bits, and sold cabin scooters, like the Messerschmitt KR200:

    That gave you about 30 km/litre (85+ mpg). This was back in 1960.

    The question we seriously have to ask is: suppose you opt for a commuter lifestyle and travel 20 km to work every day and 20 km back again in your car. A KR200 easily gives you a road speed of 80 km/h – so, if uninterrupted, you make your journey in 30 minutes. A larger car might give you a very optimistic average road speed of 100 km/h, which means that you can do the round trip in 24 minutes. What’s the price of six minutes per day – even in purely financial terms? What would your hourly wage have to be to justify this investment?

  49. “the vehicles themselves weigh quite a lot and this is a problem because fuel consumption is directly related to the weight of a vehicle. So manufacturers have given consumers larger vehicles (which those people are demanding and buying) with more complex and more efficient engines, when they could have applied the same technology to a much smaller and simpler vehicle again for even greater gains.”

    Yea, William Stanley Jevons has been working overtime, hasn’t he? :-)

    “should the so called small vehicles be that large and heavy in the first place?”

    Well, thinking again about the “optimum power point” — of which the Pareto Principle is but one example — I don’t have a problem with small vehicles that are “large and heavy” because they are simple, but if they’re large and heavy because they are overly complex, that’s another thing!

    I’m currently shopping for a VW Vanagon as a donor body for an electric vehicle. Why not a Jetta, or a Rabbit? Because the Vanagon has a higher gross weight rating, and more working room for arranging batteries. This relatively large and heavy vehicle allows me to simplify my conversion, which will most likely result in fewer materials, perhaps cheaper batteries, and easier maintenance.

  50. Thomas and Jan – You won’t find me arguing with both of your points of view on this issue. Vehicles are an endlessly fascinating barometer of our society. I read just yesterday that in the US in the past month (April) 8 out of the top 10 vehicles sold were 4 cylinder vehicles. I’m assuming that people have understood (either consciously or not) that US$4/gallon fuel costs are a permanent structural shift. It kind of makes a mockery of stupid statements such as, “our lifestlyes are non negotiable”, when clearly the evidence instructs us that they are.

    Jan, I would love to see an article on the conversion of that vehicle. You are very lucky to be in North America where parts and bellhousing adaptors are readily available for these types of conversions. There is little to no market for them here. The maintenance on electric vehicles is far easier than with internal combustion engines due to their simplicity. The heater and keeping the batteries warm over winter will be the biggest challenge really.



  51. Chris, when it happens, I’ll be sure to write about it.

    But it’s going to require some financing, first. We’re still struggling to get a half-dozen projects off the ground — large commercial greenhouse, humanure system, re-habilitating our once-operating biodiesel processor and solar-powered public filling station, water tower so we can have water without electricity… and baby goats are coming in the next week or so!

    So I don’t know when the electric Vanagon will happen. I’m in the “looking for bargain components” phase right now. We have a big hill between here and town, so it really must be a regen system, which complicates things.

  52. Jan – That’s a lot of work! I have worm farm here for the humanure and I cannot speak highly enough about the system. It’s just awesome.

    I was thinking about your water tower though. I don’t know about your situation, but over here you often see water towers where the water is pumped up slowly during the day to be released later on demand (at a higher pressure too because of the fall).

    Over here solar is often used to pump the water as it can pump slowly (at lower pressures) when the sun is shining. A good solar controller (regulator) will often have a feature where if the batteries are not taking in the full potential of the solar panels output, they can redirect the solar panel output to a pump or some other device. Very clever!

    I know of a guy who uses this method to store water in a higher level tank. Being on a hill, he can then let the water flow to a lower level tank and in between the two tanks has a hydro generator. Not very efficient, but it is a huge water battery. It’s probably not cost efficient for you either if you use concrete tanks which are very expensive.

    You can also obtain solar controllers (regulators) that are specifically designed to run a pump (no batteries required). I haven’t used one myself, but I think they alter the volatge and amps so that it gets the best electrical output for the purpose of running a low voltage DC pump. Low voltage DC pumps are often many times more efficient than their larger AC mains voltage pumps. With some energy efficient refrigerators now, they use low voltage DC pumps to run the compressor as they use a lot less power for the same result.



  53. In Australia, even with the currently better Australian Dollar conversion to American Dollars, I am still paying the equivalent of $5.75 USD per gallon already to fuel up my very efficient car at ~45mpg-48mpg.

    By the end of this year it is expected to be as high as $7.57 USD per gallon for fuel.

    I do find it ironic that $4/gallon is considered so un-American to be charged for fuel :)

    On the candle front, beeswax makes the highest quality, cleanest burning and usually most expensive to buy candles. But if you are using bee hives as in this article: then you are producing and harvesting the most virgin beeswax of any hive and will have plenty for making quality candles. The side benefit is by culling all the old wax you do not get fat-soluble poison and toxin build up in the wax from year to year as you currently get in the commercial (Langstroth) hives you see in use everywhere in the world.

    Food for thought.


  54. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    I’m not sure where you are in the world (somewhere in Europe at a guess, given the prices?), but as at last tank of petrol I was paying AU$1.47 / litre. In USD that works out to be about US$5.34 / gallon (US$0.949 = AU$1.00 and 1 gallon = 3.8 litres).

    I’m not sure what all of the complaining about the US$4/gallon is about either? The simple truth is that if you are an importing nation, then it’s not your fuel – you don’t own it and you have to pay for it like everyone else. I accept that this is not an entirely pallatable point of view for some people though.

    Peak Oil shows that – supply is limited (or declining) and demand grows so competition goes up in line with prices. End of year projections have not been good for here either. The strong Aussie dollar has been the only consolation for users of fuel.

    On a more positive. What sort of vehicle do you have to achieve 45 – 48mpg? I have a Suzuki Swift which achieves about 36mpg. I used to ride a Kawasaki GPX250 for many years which got about 70+mpg (it was OK, except for the other cars on the road).

    My neighbour runs bee hives which is good for the fruit trees here, plus we buy some honey off them too (mmm fresh honey). I’d like to see more about the candles as I don’t really know much about them. Could be very useful.



  55. Hello great blog! Does running a blog like this
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