Archive for the ‘Carbon Footprint’ Category

Deepwater Horizon

Okay, you have to see an awesome movie that’s available to rent now.

It’s called “Deepwater Horizon” and it’s about the blowout of the Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 2010 that caused a lot of oil to pour into the Gulf. It was such a depressing time to watch the news that year.

It’s an awesome movie just from a build up of tension and stuff blowin’ up perspective. But holy cow, what a reminder of where we’re at in terms of energy!

First off, you could call this the “The Peak Oil” movie. What? But Cam, there’s tons of oil out there, and it’s purdy darn cheap right now, so I was pretty sure that whole ‘peak oil’ thing has been debunked.

I believe that would be an incorrect assumption. The International Energy Agency (IEA), which all the OECD developed economies use for energy data, says we hit Peak Oil for ‘conventional’ oil in 2005. Conventional oil is one of those wells you drill that gushes oil. We don’t get those anymore. The Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI) on those original wells were 100 to 150 to one, in other words, for every unit of energy you put into getting the stuff out, you got 100 units as a reward.

Fracking uses massive amounts of energy to get at shale oil, so it has a very low EROEI. The tar sands are pretty low too. Let’s face it, at a certain point it’s just not going to be worth it. And when I watched “Deepwater Horizon” that’s all I could think of. This really expensive rig costs $1.5 million/day to drill down 3 miles to the ocean floor and then a mile after that to get at the stuff. It’s really hard, uses tons of energy to run the rig and fly the staff out and make the equipment, etc.

So, one can only assume from an examination of what we have to go through to exploit the last hours of ancient sunlight trapped and liquidified at high heat and pressure, that it would kind of indicate we’ve found all the easy stuff. If we’re workin’ this hard to get at the stuff, there can’t be much/any easy stuff left. You could write your doctoral thesis on how this movie supports Joseph Taintners’ theory that as societies start having energy issues, they add layers of complexity. The technology on this drilling platform is mind blowing!

My next observation is just a ‘was it just me who noticed’ this?” But it seemed kind of pertinent to this disconnect that some of us have between the big picture and little picture. And, let me preface it with the fact that I own a pickup truck.

I’m thinking that the director put it in for a reason, or maybe it’s just me. The crew all arrives at a helicopter airport to get transported out to the rig, so the camera flies over the parking lot. And it’s all pickup trucks. I couldn’t spot a single car. Now, maybe there was a car dealer next door and this was a storage spot for pickups, but I’m pretty sure it was the crew’s parking lot.

They are oil workers and it’s America. I get it, so they can drive any vehicle they want. But what I learned in publishing a book about electric cars is that ultimately, fuel efficiency comes down to weight. Doesn’t matter how efficient the engine is, if you’re hauling around a big load, you will burn more fuel. The point here is not ‘can they afford to drive a pickup?’ Of course they can. The question is ‘do you need a pickup truck to drive “X” hours, probably by yourself, to your job, where your vehicle will sit for 3 weeks while you’re on the drilling rig. My assumption is that they don’t have home building contracting jobs on the side that they need a pickup for because their work and shifts wouldn’t allow it. So logically, since they know how hard it is to get at this oil, they should be using it sparingly. All you need to commute to your job is a Chevy Aveo, or Ford Fiesta (35 mpg combined) versus a Toyota Tundra pickup truck (15 mpg combined). http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/best-worst.shtml

But Cam, don’t you own a pickup truck? Yes I do? And do you just drive it around? Absolutely not! I can’t afford to. I drive it to haul horse manure or firewood. Otherwise it sits in my driveway and I take the Civic. In fact, I now have to drive 30 minutes to get my chicken feed, and so I have to negotiate my way into the loading bay between pickup trucks where the other drivers can’t often see me since the vehicles they are driving are so big. But sorry, it doesn’t make any sense to take the truck for three 26 kg (57 lb.) bags of feed. Although the Civic rides awfully low, it’s still about the weight of one adult.

I’m not preaching here. I’m just sayin’, we’re in the twilight days of the oil age. If we all use what’s left more wisely, it’ll make the transition away from it less traumatic. I can dream, can’t I? I think the coolest thing for one of these workers would be to arrive at work with an electric car! The movie makes it out like there’s a lot of good-natured jawing and ribbing that goes on with the crew on an oil rig. So, they’re gonna get ribbed about something. Might as well be that Chevy “Bolt” station wagon you own that gets the equivalent of 119 mpg… 8 TIMES better than their pickup!

I remember seeing a documentary (PBS) at the time that interviewed a wife of the one of the crew members who dies in this disaster. He came home from a shift quite agitated and proceeded to make a will which he never had before. He sensed something was up about this well. The cost in human lives to our relentless search for energy is really put out there in this movie.

It’s a pretty awesome movie, even if you don’t spend the whole time analyzing it from a ‘peak oil’ perspective. I probably would have enjoyed it just as much as if I hadn’t, but those days have past. My mind doesn’t work that way anymore. But I supposed if I had to offer a one-line review for “Deepwater Horizon,” it would be “Stuff blows up real good!”

My next movie review will be for a romantic movie where I will share my feelings and analyze the most emotional parts of the plot. NOT! When’s the car chase? And when does Jason Bourne arrive?

The Fabulous, Actual and “For Real” Off The Grid Weekend at Sunflower Farm

So, I’ve noticed a term that’s becoming really, really over used in our world today, and that’s “off the grid.” I hear it in movies and on TV and read it everywhere. Come on, enough!

I suppose it’s a good thing because it makes what we’ve been doing for 20 years seem hip and cool, but at a certain point, as an ‘off-grid’ purist, well, it’s getting overused and misused, a lot.

So often in movies and TV right now it seems to be kind of a generic term for anyone who’s trying to be a little less ‘out there.’ It more often refers to people who are trying not to have an online presence, as opposed to someone who lives without power lines to their home. Of course, I can’t remember any specifics right this minute, but I can see “The Dude” character played by Jeff Bridges in 1998’s “The Big Lebowski” saying he lives off the grid, mostly to avoid his past. I finally watched this movie, which people have been raving about for years, when it came out on Netflix and it’s pretty good. But really, Jeff’s apartment in L.A. has electricity … that’s not “off the grid!”

Do I sound petty and bitter? Well of course. Living off the grid can be a royal pain, so people usurping the term devalues it. I paid my dues. I want the kind of respect and admiration I’m due. (What a blowhard like me deserves!)

Now that Michelle and I are offering people the opportunity to stay at Sunflower Farm, you too can experience what it’s like, to live … and I emphasize ‘authentically’… off the grid.

What does that mean? Well, first you can dispel the image that we live in a yurt with dirt floors … not that there’s anything wrong with yurts or dirt floors. Will you have to use an outhouse? Do I have an outhouse? Yes. Do you have to use it? No. In fact, you can stand in the bathroom and flush the toilet repeatedly. I’d rather you not and I’ll explain why, but hey, if that convinces you this ‘off-grid’ thing is for real, then bring it on. I would rather you do that in July than December though and I’ll elaborate when you’re here.

Can you bring your curling iron? Yes, of course. Can you use it? Yes. Can you bring a window air conditioner? Yes. Can you use it? Well, if we can find a window it will fit in, sure. But I’ll think you’ll find the guesthouse cools off very nicely at night during the summer. There’s lots of windows to get a great airflow and nights cool off much better in the woods than in the city, because cities are big concrete heat sinks. So yes, if you have a regular appliance that plugs into on a 110V wall outlet, you can bring it. How long you run it, or how much ‘energy’ it uses … we can discuss that. Mostly we think we’ve got everything you’ll need.

Sunflower Farm was featured on the cover of Mother Earth News October/November 2014 issue and we had lots of enquiries after that with people interested in learning more. Read the article here;

 

Some people just have a general interest in being off-grid, others are interested because they’d like to do it themselves and want details of the reality of the process.

Now you have the opportunity to come and check it out for yourself. Stay overnight or for a few nights and get a feel for our reality. It’s pretty normal but you will come to understand its limitations, or how we approach our reality versus someone living on the grid.

We have a spring workshop planned and lots of people have attended those, but technically I could kind of cheat on those i.e.. I could run the generator for days before and since that workshop is during the day and we usually have some sun and wind and don’t need too many lights on, our place might just ‘go dark’ as soon as everyone leaves at night. Those big honking batteries I showed might have been empty and Michelle and I just sit around at night and read books by candlelight! Ha ha, that isn’t going to happen. There’s too much great stuff on Netflix and YouTube to watch! And we love lights.

Regardless, if you want explore this concept of living off the grid, book a stay at Sunflower Farm and come and live the dream … at least for a day or two.

Visit sunflowerfarm.ca for all the details and while you are there check out our other awesome theme retreat experience packages!

 

 

The Net-Zero-Carbon House … almost

Years ago, Michelle and I did a ‘green’ show in a big city and a person perusing our books informed us she had gone “completely solar” in a somewhat, dismissive, ‘that was soooo easy’ sort of way. I was intrigued. We’d been off-grid for a decade and were still a long way from being completely free of fossil fuels. After several probing questions, I was able to qualify that what she meant was that all of the calculators in her home were now solar powered … and I’m pretty sure that even back then it was hard to buy a calculator that wasn’t.

I just made the mistake of reading a great book by Andrew Nikiforuk called “Slick Water, Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry.” It’s about the challenges of living in a place like Alberta that has a huge industry fracking to get at natural gas. (http://andrewnikiforuk.com/)

It reminded me that we must have hit ‘peak fossil fuel energy’ for companies to be putting so much effort (and energy) into forcing out things like shale oil and natural gas. It also reminded me that the choices we make, in our purchasing decisions and how we choose to live, impacts other people. The book follows one woman’s challenges with the results of fracking around her rural home, and the lawsuit she eventually launched to try and draw attention to the impact of resource extraction.

As I read a bit more each day and went further and further down the rabbit hole of modern day energy production I was getting more and more critical of what I was up to in my own home. In July we just breeze by being completely “solar,” and I mean more than just using solar-powered calculators. I mean everything from cooking to hot water, and this is a big deal. We are very proud of it. It feels great.

In November and December, it’s much more of a challenge. As I remind people in my workshops, in the northern U.S. and Canada (according to Natural Resources Canada) 60% of your home’s energy requirements are for heat, then 20% is for heating water, and the remaining 20% is for all your other electrical needs … washing machines, toasters, TVs, computers, electronic toast butters … all the essentials.

We’ve got the heat covered by heating with wood which is carbon neutral and which I’ve blogged about … on and on … ad nauesum. The real challenge right now is hot water. We have a Solar Domestic Hot Water (SDHW) heating system which we invested $5,000 in. But it is pretty ineffective when the sun is only up for about 2 ½ hours a day and barely clears the tree line because it’s so low and basically gives us zero hot water. So, we improvise and use our marvelous woodstoves for hot water. I say woodstove (s) plural because we one in the house and one in the guesthouse.

Every second day or so I heat up 4 or 5 stock pots of well water on the woodstove for our bath. Michelle has the first bath because she can stand it scalding, and then a while later when the water is humanly tolerable I use the same water. Then we leave that bath water in to heat the bathroom in the cast iron tub, because the bathroom is on the north side of the house and a long way from the woodstove. In the morning I use the bath water to flush the toilet. Sure, it’s “Little House on the Prairie-ish” but I love it. It just feels right. We are in complete control of all the inputs, including the massive amount of energy required to heat a bath full of water. When you live in a typical house and just pay energy bills and turn on taps and get hot water out of them, you never really have a handle on the enormous energy required to make that possible. And you never think if you heat with a fossil fuel, what the impact is on someone who lives near the well where that propane or natural gas came from. I strongly recommend you read “Slick Water” to give you some perspective.

The challenge is that we use hot water for other stuff. Like dishes. I only do them with a kettle of hot water heated on the woodstove. And shaving. I only shave with a kettle heated on the woodstove … first sink full to shave, second sink full to rinse the soap off. Hand washing … well, our bathroom is so far from the hot water tank that we’re used to washing with cold water by the time it gets to the bathroom taps, so I just wash them really well occasionally with hot water … from the woodstove.

So … heat … check … net-zero-carbon. Hot water … check … net-zero-carbon.

Cooking … ZZZZZT (loud gameshow buzzer sound when you get the answer wrong). We have a propane cookstove. A woodburning cookstove is in the plans, but right now in the kitchen there is a beautiful, monstrous piece-of-art propane stove reeking havoc on some poor fellow human who moved to their piece of paradise not realizing they were near a coal-bed-methane deposit.

So breakfast preparation starts an hour prior to eating. Kettle for coffee goes on the woodstove. Hashbrowns and eggs are cooked in cast iron pans heated on the woodstove. Bread is toasted in a cast iron pan on the hottest part of the woodstove. This is my favorite way to eat toast because it’s less dried out than using the electric toaster. I do so love toast. Michelle makes the most awesome bread to toast!

After breakfast, dishes are washed in woodstove-heated hot water. Water for the chickens is warmed up using water heated on the woodstove. Ugly sweet potatoes and potatoes that I’ve had in the root cellar go into a stockpot on the woodstove, boiled until mashable, then served warm and mashed to the chickens. They love these and devour them, especially on a cold day.

There are some days when it feels like I spend the whole day trying to live a typical North American lifestyle in terms of what we accomplish, while doing it pumping no carbon into the atmosphere, so feeling like I am living on the prairie a hundred years ago … but with internet and Netflix.

So if your response to reading this is “Well, see, you can’t realistically live without fossil fuels so why even think about the impact of their extraction” I would suggest that’s simply not the case. Most of our readers live plugged into the electricity grid and could be heating their home, which uses 60% of energy needs, with a ground-source geothermal heat pump. This provides some hot water as well. If you live in a state or province where electricity is generated with coal, you could purchase zero-carbon energy through an intermediary in Canada like “Bullfrog Power.”

Yes, you will pay a premium for these options, but it’s not usually a large premium. If you like and respect your neighbors like I do, you could never imagine doing anything that might impact them, such as digging up your yard if it was going to affect their water supply. If you start thinking on a bigger picture basis about your purchasing decisions, making these changes is much easier. And with a geothermal system your spouse won’t roll their eyes at you as you come up with new and more complex ways to use less or zero fossil fuels. It can be a fun game, until it’s not. Then you’ll need to clean the bathroom or something to get back in their good books, and no one wants to go down that road, least of all me.

(p.s. We do fall down as we do use a bit of propane and I still own and drive a car … but I’m working on it)

An Iconic Photograph

 

So, here’s my dream photo. I took it on January 14th.

This is the time of year when companies start trying to appeal to those vivid images we keep in our heads, the ones that make us do things, like book trips south, and buy mutual funds so we can end up on the golf course. It’s not bad enough that we are bombarded, beginning at Halloween (well now it starts just after Labor Day) with images of the stuff we need to buy for Christmas. And now, car companies hit us with lots of ads for treating ourselves with a new vehicle under the tree.

These images are tough to fight against.

So, I have been using this little theme (or “meme” I think I could call it.) It’s a quote from our neighbor who was having a bad day when I helped him to get his trucks unstuck (read about it here.) In the middle of it all he looked at me and said, “I just want to build a cabin on that hill and sit by the woodstove.” And he will do it, because he has the hill, and the property and he’s built his own houses before. You know, just like you and I. Last winter he was skidding pine logs out of the bush using those big draft horses of his. I’m pretty there’s no cheaper way to be mortgage-free than to have the skills to build your own home, from materials on your property. What a concept.

So right now, during our cold winter, or when I come in from shoveling snow, or hauling a load of wood in, my line is “I just want to build a cabin and sit by the woodstove.” It is a wonderful idea, but hard to achieve. Modern woodstoves are extremely efficient, but at some point, you still must drag a load of wood into the cabin. And you have to cut that wood, and split it and dry and get it to the cabin. But we can always dream.

So, on January 14th I took this shot.

Where should we start? With my shoes? These are running shoes that I used to run in. That was a long time ago, but they are like slippers now, and I really need to wear shoes since our floors are pretty cold. I’m holding my latest favorite “rooster” coffee mug and on top of the woodstove the Melitta (thrift shop) coffee pot has my next ½ cup of coffee keeping warm in it. I drink one and a half cups of coffee in the morning and it is a delightful decadence.

Then there’s “Jasper the Wonder Dog” who would be perfectly happy to be outside herding sheep, all day. But since we don’t have sheep, and the chickens are in a secure enclosure, well, he’s kind of in winter mode and laying around more than he would prefer. But he stays healthy and slim, so I’m not going to nag him to get more exercise. That’s not MY job.

Check out that woodstove! Oh, the heat and warmth and light from a woodstove. Could there be anything more beautiful at this time of year? Well, according to those tourism ads, yes, it would be sitting on the beach … until the tsunami wave arrives, or someone mugs you for your phone, or the airport calls (the place where you spent most of your first day of your holiday) to tell you they never found your luggage, or wait, is that a bit of a gas pain or is it Montezuma’s revenge about to hit me again like the last time I had one of those drinks? Yup, I’ll take my woodstove anytime. Tell me every one of your southern holidays from flights to accommodations has been perfect and I’ll tell you I think you’re ‘exaggerating’. Maybe you should have got that new shot before you went, the needle for the new thing you don’t want to get. Or you could stay home.

On top of the woodstove is this morning’s bathwater in the stock pots. In January when I took this there still wasn’t much sunlight to make much of difference with our solar domestic hot water production, so we supplement it with zero-carbon woodstove heat. Could we use propane? Absolutely? Might it negatively impact someone near where it was taken from the ground? Potentially. So, I take the slow, zero-carbon, Little House on the Prairie technique and make my hot water the old-fashioned way… I’ll earn it.

I should probably have been more careful and made sure the LED Xmas lights weren’t in the photo, but it was January 14 and yes, we still had Xmas lights in the living room. Is that pathetic? Absolutely. When we come down at 6 a.m. it is still dark for almost an hour and a half and these things use so little power and are just so darn pretty and festive-looking that they’re the last Xmas thing to come down. Every other Xmas decoration was tucked away.

I’ve got my cabin in the woods and I CAN sit by the fireplace all day if I want. I rarely do spend too much time there, but when I do, it’s absolutely magical. When I jump out that sky diving plane after getting ‘the diagnosis’ and decide I’m not going to pull the cord to the parachute, and start looking through those photos in my brain … playing LEGO when I was 5, learning to water ski at 9, learning to windsurf, kissing Michelle for the first time, watching my daughters grow up, seeing my grandkids become part of the family, dropping big heavy scary trees for firewood that always remind you of how precious life is, I think this might be the last memory my brain will fixate on. Then the orange glow of the fire can turn into a white one. Perfect!

Post-Climatic Stress Disorder

(I wrote this in the fall, hemmed and hawed about posting it, then watched the news last night and decided it might be relevant).

I was watching images of the people dealing with the latest weather catastrophe to hit the south. And yes, I know that you can’t chalk up one weather event to climate change, but I figure now that ABC News has a whole section of videos on their website that I access through Apple TV called “Extreme Weather,” you have to start wondering sometimes.

I have a friend who knows someone who was in the middle of the crazy evacuation of Fort McMurray, Alberta last May, when wildfires forced the entire city to bail out. The videos taken by people fleeing the fires are pretty horrific. My friend says that this person is suffering from PTSD. I think that’s quite possible. If you’re not used to fleeing a raging wildfire that is threatening your life, then it’s probably a pretty jarring shock to the system.

Several months after the wildfires and billions of dollars in damages later, Fort McMurray was hit with flooding. They got months’ worth of rain in just a few days, after the drought that had caused the wildfires. Again, it just kind of makes you wonder. In 2016 the Canadian insurance industry had the highest payouts ever.

We experienced a drought here last summer. It was brutal. It was depressing. It was excruciating. But it didn’t play out over a longer time frame. It wasn’t two hours to “Get Out of Dodge.” It was all day, every day, for 4 months. It started in May, carried on into June, July and August, and we still got next to no rain in September. We can call it 5 months.

And the heat. Toronto set a record for more than 90 days with the temperature over 26° (79°F), which meant that I worked out in the sun longer than I ever have in temperatures that were usually 30°+ in the shade and 45° in the sun. I hate summer. I really do.

I think we did an amazing job of producing a basket of produce for our members last summer, every week, for 16 weeks, during the worst drought to hit these parts, well…ever.

So I started asking myself, can you get PTSD from a slowly occurring event? And if it’s related to a changing climate, is it “Post Climatic Stress Disorder?” Nothing blew up near me, there was no firestorm, no flood, and yet, somehow I felt quite dazed and drained by the experience last fall. At least with a flood, the waters my recede in a week or two. But I had to spend all day, every day, for 5 months, watching my vegetables struggle. They were all stressed, all summer long. There was no respite. There was never a drenching rain where I felt I could stop watering and irrigating for a day. Not a day. It sucked the life out of me.

I won’t do it again.

At least not in a CSA format. I’ll grow food, but I won’t ever put myself through that again. Michelle and I grow great food. We (she) organizes the CSA exceptionally well. But we can’t do it well without some help from Mother Nature, and she appears to be increasingly uncooperative when it comes to creating optimal conditions for many human endeavors, like growing food. I don’t blame her. We’ve kind of been using her for a dumping ground of fossil fuel burning waste and she’s getting a bit of a fever and she’s pissed. I’d be too. I’d start making the weather erratic too if I were her.

I read a book a while back before I started running for the Green Party called “Don’t Even Think About It.” It’s about how people react to climate change. One of the situations it discussed was what happens when you talk to someone who has just experienced a natural disaster that may be connected to climate change. If you point out that this disaster was probably caused by climate change and ask them if they will change their lives in any way to deal with climate change, more often than not their response will be, “I just want to rebuild my home, rebuild my life and get things back to the way they were.” It’s totally illogical, but I get it. Let’s just rebuild and hope it doesn’t happen again. Until it does.

So I have been putting myself in that situation since our drought last summer. Am I guilty of saying “I just want to get everything back to normal, and I don’t want to focus on climate change right now?” And of course all summer that’s what I wanted, to get back to normal, which meant some rain. I accepted the dead lawn. I accepted the death of hundreds of dollars and years worth of work on blueberry and raspberry bushes, because I couldn’t spare the time or water to save them, but just a bit of rain may have helped a few other things.

But the more I thought about it, I had already taken action, my post traumatic climatic shock response, prior to the whole thing becoming so darn personal in my life, and creating havoc with my life this summer. I got out in front of it as it were. “Pre Climatic Stress Disorder.”

Michelle and I learned running for office is incredibly time consuming. And we did it provincially and federally for the Green Party. It sucks your time, and your energy and your spirit. And by the end of the federal election I was really questioning it. What the hell I was thinking? Why put so much effort into something with an outcome that does not have a Hollywood underdog sort of ending. The best you can do is hope to just move the dial a little further towards something actually being done for a threat that holds so much potential for so much grief for so many people.

The Canadian government signed the Paris Accord and has made commitments to start reducing CO2 levels. They are way too conservative. They are totally inadequate to meet the Paris targets. But at least they are talking about it. At least they are seen to be doing something. And Canadians are going to have to come to grips with the fact that we will have a price on carbon and it will make fossil fuels more expensive.

The CSA eventually ended. We got rain several days after it ended in October. Obviously.  We’ve had precipitation this winter. I’m hoping the ponds will fill up again. It’s actually freezing rain right now. I think I’ll go out in it and get soaked and shiver and raise my fists in the air in rage and scream “Where were you this summer you useless rain gods?” Might as well try for a Hollywood cliché ending whenever possible. Look for video footage of my rant coming soon to my YouTube channel.

The Feng Shui of My Wind Turbine

Remember that scene in the first Star Wars where the Death Star blows up that planet and Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “There’s been a disturbance in the force”?

That’s been the theme of my life for the last couple of months since our wind turbine got knocked out by lightning. For the last nine years, I’ve been able to look up and see the wind turbine, from pretty much anywhere I stand near our house. It’s a wonderful, glorious, beautiful thing. It reminds me of the cost of living in an advanced society … that requires electricity … when electricity poles don’t run to your house.

So while it was down, first so that I could diagnose the problem and then to order and wait for the replacement parts, there was a disturbance in the force here. I felt like the “Feng Shui” of the place had been thrown off. Not that I know anything about Feng Shui. I thought it referred to where you put your couch in the living room, but according to Wikipedia it is the Chinese philosophy of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment. With that description it makes sense to me that the Feng Shui of this place has been off kilter.

In so many parts of my province people are vocal in their opposition to large wind turbines, claiming they are a blight on the landscape. They never mention the utility poles that line every roadway and the power lines which crisscross the province, and the enormous electricity towers that dot the landscape. Nope, it’s the wind turbines that are the problem.

And yet I somehow find them so beautiful. And I absolutely love mine. Especially at this time of year! With less and less sunshine, and more and more wind, the wind turbine is a marvel. I’m surrounded by trees and forests and somehow it just feels like it fits in.

This may be because of the literal translation (according to Wikipedia) of Feng Shui which is “wind-water.” You see, after our drought this summer, the pond that the turbine towers above is dry. It’s never been dry before, but this summer’s historic drought did it in and we have yet to see enough fall rain to put any water back in to it. In my silly, rose-colored glasses, idyllic world, wind power represents the potential to reduce how much CO2 we belch into the air to make electricity, and therefore reduce these weather anomalies like droughts. And therefore the wind/water connection is very close.

Do you think about electricity all the time? I do. It’s amazing stuff. And when you make all your own you get a marvelous appreciation for how difficult a process this is. And expensive. Without the wind turbine I had to run our gasoline powered generator several times, which I haven’t had to do at this time of year for, well, 9 years. It was horrible.

It’s not the expense of doing it, it’s the carbon I put into the atmosphere. It feels like defeat. I grew up watching ABC Wide World of Sports, so I have been experiencing “the agony of defeat” every time I turned that generator on, like the ski jumper who goes off the ramp to bad results.

But now the turbine is up and I am living “the thrill of victory” once more. Michelle keeps finding me just standing there gazing at the thing. “You gonna get any work done today?” Nope. Just gonna stand here looking at this marvelous machine. And if I do any work, I will probably use some electricity to help my efforts, and some of that power is coming from that amazing machine up at the top of that tower.

cam-admiring-wind-turbine

Once we got the tower down and my friend/neighbor Sandy, the engineer, spun the blades he noticed there was too much movement in it. He said the bearings should probably be replaced. I was skeptical. But since I was ordering a new rectifier I added bearings too which were not expensive.

When they arrived Sandy helped me remove the old bearings and put in new ones. So much grease! Again, the old bearings looked fine to me, but whatever, if it made Sandy happy, I was fine with that.

Then my other wonderful neighbor Ken and Sandy and I put the tower back up, and I turned off the brake, and it started to spin, and generate electricity, and I said to Sandy “Listen… there’s no noise!” There was noticeably less sound coming from it than previously. The noise was never excessive and because it meant I was making electricity, I loved it, but clearly, Sandy was correct. The bearings weren’t sitting correctly or there was too much play and the new bearings corrected this.

Ken has a saying that he often repeats to me when we work on projects and I say stuff like, “Are you sure that little weld is going to keep this tracker from flying apart in a wind storm?” He says “Oh ye of little faith.” The solar trackers have never flown apart. And once again my skepticism was proved false when Sandy’s diagnosis of wonky bearings proved bang on.

I believe I am becoming, slowly, less skeptical … ‘of greater faith’ in people more knowledgeable than me. I would rather not have taken the turbine down. Lowering and raising the gin pole tower is a stressful job, for me anyway. The forces and stresses seem enormous. And yet somehow down and up it goes.

And if it hadn’t been struck by lightning we wouldn’t have taken the time to replace the bearings. Now it’s not only quieter, but there’s less vibration and new lubrication and things are all working better, I’m potentially getting more electrical potential out of this marvelous machine.

More electricity for cutting wood, and watching Netflix and making toast! I do love toast!

Feng Shui has been restored to Sunflower Farm. It is once again the “Sun- and Wind-Powered Farm” and it features ‘all-you-can-eat toast.’ Well, within reason.

*******

Thanks once again to our wonderful friend and blog reader N.B. for his generous donation to the “Help Fix the Wind Turbine Fund.” Your donation could not have come at a better time and was most appreciated!

 

 

 

If I’m Livin’ The Dream, Why Does It Feel Like a Nightmare?

The other day Michelle told me over breakfast about a Facebook post she’d seen. It was one of those canned generic things that people like to repost. It was a photo of a cabin in the woods. I paraphrase but it said something along the lines of  …”Livin’ off the grid … no electricity bills … growing your own food … sounds pretty good to me.”

And we started laughing. Not in a nasty way (I could have used ‘pejorative’ but frankly I overuse that darn word), just a kind of ‘ah yes, the dream vs reality’ view of the world.

This started a number of years ago when we had a friend over and we had just toured the garden during a drought (yes, another one) and he looked around at the garden that did indeed look petty awesome from all of our hard work and said, “You guys are livin’ the dream.”

So anytime anything goes wrong this has become our mantra, said in a very sarcastic tone, of course …” We’re just livin’ the dream!”  On the day that Michelle was describing this Facebook post about how great livin’ off-grid and growing your own food is, we had just had a storm with tornado warnings roll through. We’d experienced an unbelievable lightning storm which had trashed our wind turbine … yes, again! It was at breakfast too…prior to us heading out to the garden for our 237th consecutive day of 100°F heat and no rain dustbowl drought conditions (okay I exaggerated just a bit here, but not that much.)

Which brings me to the point of the blog …yes I do have a point. Michelle and I are ‘focus grouping’ the title of our next book, and by default, by reading this blog, you’re in the focus group. Thanks!

So this is the title for our new book … “If I’m Livin’ the Dream, How Comes It Feels Like a Nightmare?” subtitled something like “Dispatches and observations on two decades spent living off-the-grid, growing our own food, living far from the maddening crowd” … or something along these lines.

So what do you think? Am I correct that it has “BEST-SELLER” written all over it? And film rights with a big pay-day. With Ryan Reynolds playing me … or Ryan Gosling … doesn’t matter, they’re both Canadian eh.

I know what you’re thinking, that it sounds like a pretty negative title. I agree. It’s more to attract attention and bring a huge payday for us … so we can buy some hummers, bling, a private jet … you get my drift. Most of the time our life here has been awesome. But I can’t tell you the number of times I feel like just flopping on the couch in November and vegging in front of the TV and I realize we’ve had some cloudy days, so I have to go out and check the batteries to see how low they are and decide if I should run the generator or not. And then if I do have to run it how I have to get up and check it constantly. I don’t HAVE to check it constantly, but I do, because that’s just how I am.

Turns out there’s more to living this ‘low carbon’ lifestyle than meets the eye.

If anything I think it may be a bit refreshing for people to get some of that perspective. Yes, I have NO Electricity Bills! But I have spent way, WAY more on my solar and wind system in the last 20 years than anyone reading this blog has spent on their electricity bills. FACT: Generating and transmitting electricity is really complicated and expensive. It is in fact not a right, but a privilege, and when you spread all those generation and infrastructure costs across a whole society, your electricity bills are outrageously inexpensive for the value of the electricity you receive and how it improves the quality of your life. If you doubt this, take a second and think about the last extended power outage you had. No lights. No fridge or freezer. Or stove. Or washing machine. Or internet. Or NETFLIX! Yup, it’s pretty amazing stuff.

We published “Little House Off the Grid” more than 5 years ago, so by the time this new book is ready there will have been a reasonable hiatus for us to revisit what it’s like to live the way we do. Things change. Circumstances change. Life happens. Time to revisit the whole little adventure we’re on here in the woods.

So what do you think? Sound like something you’d want to read?

Better yet, what do you think of the title? Too negative? Too misleading if we end up writing that it’s awesome more than not? Such an awesome title that it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (thank you Dave Eggers for the best book title ever to slip in).

Please let us know. Feel free to post below or send me an email at cam mather…with no space… at gmail.com. (Hopefully the evil internet robots won’t figure that out.)

Thanks in advance!

Installed a New Clothes Dryer!

(Cam is busy 24/7 these days getting everything planted for our CSA but luckily he wrote this post a few weeks ago.)

Yup, we installed a new clothes dryer! Nothing to it. Pick up the phone. Have the appliance company deliver it. Set it up. Presto! Keep working until you’re 97 to pay for the energy to power it. Well, you knew that wasn’t going to be the case for us!

We used a clothesline in the city so it wasn’t a leap for us to use one in the country… with the added bonus of a lot less diesel particulate from city buses. You can have a dryer in an off grid house, but it would be powered by propane and I am too cheap to buy that stuff. And the concept of burning fossil fuels and blasting the heat out into the atmosphere, to accomplish a task that the sun and wind will do just as well … albeit somewhat slower… seems ludicrous to me. Anyway, if you’re not a clothesline user now, I’m not going to convince you, so I won’t try.

Our existing clothesline was giving up the ghost and was easily 25 years old. Last year when it was clear it needed to be replaced I just built a support to try and hold up the 3 sagging lines, which kind of worked, but kind of didn’t and was kind of a huge stupid waste of time, which I’m noted for in these situations. Why bite the bullet and just fix it right when you can dick around and do a half ass job a number of times and use 3 times as much mental energy?

I knew it was going to be a big project. We picked a new spot which meant digging a couple of new 4 foot holes by hand. In our sand this is no big deal. Then I had to get the new cedar posts. My goal was to have the job done by mid-April so it wouldn’t interfere with the CSA at all … but the guy that I buy my posts from had eye surgery which held us up, and I got distracted with this job and that … and so I was two months late finishing it.

Gary has tons of cedar on his property and he cuts it in the winter and sleds them out on the snow. Debarking the posts is the responsibility of the purchaser and it was a slow process.

removingbark2

 

removingbark

Then to get them into the holes I lifted each post off the ground about 6 inches at a time while Michelle slid the sawhorse under the log and closer to the hole with each lift. When Michelle described the operation to our daughter she said it sounded like something “Ma” and “Pa” in “Little House On the Prairie” would do. I took that as high praise.

Then I cemented them in place with two bags of ready-mix for each post and topped up what space was left in the hole with our stone.

Then I had to cut the notches in for the cross pieces. Then I had to put in the eye rings and string the clothesline. I found this awesome attachment that allows you to tighten the clothesline by turning this reel around, then clipping a hook over the line to hold it in place. It’s quite brilliant because now I can tighten it any time I want, without having to use tools.

And voila, it’s done! And I have to say, I’m pretty impressed. The posts are so strong they feel like if I drove the truck into them at highway speed, the truck would fall to pieces … which with the age of my truck may not be far from the truth. But they do feel as though they were built to last.

newclothesline2

newclothesline

When I was talking to my neighbor Ken about it and he offered his tractor and post-hole digger (which I declined because by the time I got that attachment on, and drove it here and back, it was just easier to dig the hole with a shovel) he said “If you build it right it should outlast you.”

That kind of freaked me out on many levels. The mortality thing obviously. But then there is the pressure to build it right. But the last cedar posts lasted 25 years and these new ones are even thicker. So I’m 56, add 25 and boom, I’m 80+ and dead. Yup, that makes sense. I would think with my life of smokin’, drinkin’, and late night carousin’ and red meat eatin’, I’ll be lucky to make 60. But my clothesline shall live on. (I actually don’t engage in any of those activities.)

Someday my grandson, as a young man will be at the farm grounding himself in the real world to escape his job of programming apps for the space teleporter he works on, and he’ll hang his towel after a swim in the lake on that clothesline and say “My grandfather built that!”

Of course he won’t, he won’t have any idea who built the darn thing. Since there was barely enough room to get the concrete down the hole, let alone have a level surface area at the top to sign my name I’m thinking I’d better weld up a plate identifying that it was me and “I did that.”

I’ll leave the final word to Michelle who will be the person making the most use out of it, since she says that I am “clothes hanging challenged” which apparently is a real thing and not just a typical male ploy to avoid the drudgery of hanging clothes on a line. Okay, that’s a lie too. I’m not good at it because I hate it.

Michelle’s Review: “The new clothesline is awesome! Thanks Cam! You are not only handsome; you are handy too!” (I always tell Cam when he’s attempting to hang the laundry out, “Hang the bottoms from the top and the tops from the bottom” but for some reason he keeps getting it wrong!)

 

 

 

 

Off-Grid: So Awesome! And So Much Work!

I was reading The Toronto Star recently and was excited to see a documentary by Jonathan Taggart called  “Life Off Grid” and then I became even more excited when I realized that we are in it! … well sort of …

Here’s the link to the article;

https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2016/03/24/documentary-shows-canadians-living-off-the-grid.html

Professor Phillip Vannini from Royal Rhodes University in Victoria visited us a few years ago when he was doing a study on why people live off grid. He was accompanied by Jonathan Taggart who was making a film about living off grid.

We saw some “proofs” of it early on a while back and as I told Michelle, I didn’t like it “because I wasn’t in it enough!” So there you have it, life with a narcissist. And now that I’ve been brutally honest, I also was a bit disappointed because there seems to be too much focus and emphasis on people who really fit the ‘off grid’ kind of profile. Long grey pony tail, pop-bottle house, goats in the living room, no communication with the outside world, Bob Marley t-shirts … you know the image. And this is all fine and good, I get it.

Our experience though is that people like Michelle and I are, well, just kind of bland. Our house looks like the little white house with the dark green trim in the Anne of Green Gables books. Inside our regular toilet flushes, the regular fridge keeps food cold, the regular TV watches regular Netflix, I prefer my hair short, don’t find Birkenstocks conducive to our winters and mosquitoes, so we’re, just kind of… too “normal.”

We had a journalist here a few weeks ago and he asked if I could recommend other people living sustainably that he could also interview for the article. And I couldn’t. This is partially my choice to be a bit of a hermit (except for political campaigns) and also because I feel at times like the whole sustainability ship has sailed. There was that blip in the 80’s where people wanted to recycle, and that blip in the mid 2000’s where people wanted to put up solar panels, but there doesn’t seem to have been a huge follow through. It kind of feels sometimes like the big box stores won the war.

And I get it.

At many times of the year, I find myself questioning the whole living sustainably thing. And there is a clear distinction between someone who lives off grid to be sustainable, and someone who just does it because they don’t like paying utility bills. A lot of people move off-grid and on to propane for their thermal or heat loads (home heating and hot water) which make up 80% of your home’s energy requirements in the north. So really, you’re just switching which utility you send the cheque to each month.

Michelle and I continue to try and be as close to ‘zero-carbon’ as we can. Since I haven’t got off my ass and added pumps and a loop through our woodstove, our baths come from water heated in stock pots on the woodstoves. Decidedly low tech but also nothing to break.

The wood we heat with we harvest from the property and cut and buck and split with increasing amounts of solar and wind generated electricity. It’s way easier to use gas, but we take the time and put in the additional effort to keep our ‘carbon neutral’ wood fuel source as close to carbon neutral as we can, with very little gas burned in the process. So this takes extra long.

As the weather has been warming up of late I don’t crank the woodstove in the morning so it takes longer to get it hot enough heat to boil our water and cook our breakfast. Living the way we do just sometimes seems to take an inordinate amount of time. So I understand why people take the easy route and use fossil fuel derived energy. It’s so easy! It’s like powering your house with heroin… so easy and it just feels great to have so  much time to do other stuff.

But something keeps us at it. I’m not ready to throw in the towel and move back to suburbia and a natural gas/nuclear powered existence just yet.

I checked the weather network one morning to see how much of next winter’s wood I could cut and split with the solar powered chainsaw and wood splitter that day. The Weather Network had a little information note beside the forecast along the lines of “Brutally warm winter has arctic sea ice at lowest level on record .. read more here …” Ya, like that sounds like a great way to start your day before you jump in your car and start your hour long commute to your job selling stuff.

The reality is that the arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet. We’re to blame. I’m to blame. I used to commute back to the GTA for years after moving here to visit customers. I took the kids to Disney World when they were little, twice! I used to run my generator … a lot … before I cashed out retirement money and put up more solar panels and a proper wind turbine. So I’ve done my part.

But I have the information now and know there is an alternative. If governments would just show a little resolve and put a price on carbon most people would also seek out these alternatives.

The other day I was starting the fire so we could have a bath and I was thinking to myself, what an inordinate amount of work. Why am I doing this? I have a hot water tank. If I wanted to, I could just run the hot water out of the tank and let propane do the work. Most days right now we have enough sun that our solar domestic hot water system will actually have heated up the in-line hot water tank so that by the time it gets to the propane it doesn’t have to come on. But on dark days, so the choice is zero-carbon firewood or propane.

As I get down on my knees for the 11, 560’th time this winter to start the woodstove (there may be some exaggeration there) I think to myself ‘why AM I doing this again?’

Then I think about the people in the Maldives islands in the Pacific who are rapidly losing their homes with the rising seas. And then I say “Hey Cam, shut up and stop your whining and do the right thing.”

And then I do indeed stop whining and become extremely grateful that I have the opportunity and ability to do it the old fashioned way and try and impact other people as little as I possibly can. If I had a therapist she would say “… and how did that make you feel?” and I would say…

You can find Jonathan Taggart’s website; http://jonathantaggart.com/projects/life-off-grid/

And here is the trailer for the movie.

‘Life Off Grid’ trailer from Jonathan Taggart on Vimeo.

Channeling my Inner Thoreau

I’m in the throes of writing my last few posts before I go dark on this blog. It seems to have run its natural course.

It’s partially that I find myself on a journey to completely unplug myself from all things 21st Century/capitalist/technological. I think we may all get there eventually, I’m just trying to get out ahead of the curve. It’s the way Michelle and I seem to have been over the last 40 years, always a step ahead of the pack.

I read “Walden” many decades ago. I think it was even before we got ready to move out of the city.  I think it was when we first started flirting with environmentalism. It’s just one of those books you should read. I know there are lots of criticisms with what Thoreau did … “well, he still walked to town once a week for food … he was still earning a living writing …” yea, whatever, we’re all blowhards, me especially.

As I get more and more committed to not buying stuff, I am forced to deal with the stuff I have which is all getting older, and therefore needs maintenance.

I have often looked longingly at those car ads that brag about the 14 air bags … front impact, side impact, bottom impact in a case a large reptile tries to burst into your car from below … and thought, boy, it would be awesome to own one of those cars.

Until recently when I had to have my airbag inflator replaced in a recall. Coincidentally this happened at the same time my SRS (supplemental restraint system…i.e. airbag and seatbelt) warning light came on which isn’t covered by the recall, of course. The dealer wanted $100 to read the error code (which takes them about 5 minutes to do) and then quoted that it would be another $200 to $500 to fix the problem. Thanks to the internet and my fantastic neighbor Sandy, I did it myself (with A LOT of his help). So I had this epiphany that everything comes at a cost, and all these wonderful safety thingees are indeed wonderful, until they break, then they are insanely expensive to fix and you have to have a high income to maintain them, or forgo them, or try and figure out how to fix them yourself. With however many lines of code in a new vehicle (1 million? 2 million?) most of us are rapidly losing our ability to fix things ourselves, even if we want to.

Then we had a plumbing issue. Which reminded me that there is PEX and copper and ABS and PVC and Poly B and CPVC and about 1 million adapters for each, and then another million to adapt one standard to the other, which makes about 14 million parts in the hardware store … and never the one you want. And if the house wasn’t plumbed properly with shutoff valves, you have no water while you’re scrambling around trying to fix it.

I am becoming an expert at finding ‘work-arounds.’ “It’s not optimal, but it’ll do” is my new mantra. Well it’s always been my philosophy, I just used to kid myself that I worked to a higher standard. Admitting it is half the battle, right?

So now, like Henry David Thoreau, I basically never, ever want to ever buy anything new, ever again. Because there is a price you pay when you do, and it’s not just that upfront cost, which includes the immense impact that ‘thing’ has had on the planet to get into that box, wrapped in that plastic bag, with all of those Styrofoam inserts and endless other things that just end up in a landfill.

So I have begun the descent to ultimate, hardcore, EXTREME simplification. I kidded myself two decades ago when I moved off grid that this was what I was doing. In actual fact with the necessity of purchasing inverters and charge controllers and phone systems and satellite internet systems and, and, and, …. I was not getting off any bandwagons.

But I’ve finally seen the light and it is me, living in the dark, foraging in the woods, drinking from a pond wearing clothing fashioned from feed bags and sandals made from old tires. Well, with the cost of used clothing at thrift shops I’m not sure I’ll ever have to go that far. And I do enjoy renting a video once in a while, and man, having the solar panels charge the batteries and pump water into our pressure tanks, then turning the tap and having cold, clean, wonderful water pour out … well, that’s pretty awesome. But that’s it though, nothing else new.

Ever meet one of those guys who says “cassettes are awesome!” or ‘do you realize you can get VHS tapes at thrift shops for like 5¢ each now?!” (but you just have trouble seeing what’s happening one the screen because the resolution is so low). Well, that’s going to be me soon. My daughters keep giving me their old iPods as iPhones now are basically iPods, but I just haven’t been able to motivate myself to put my music on them. And I think I’m finally comfortable saying it’s not going to happen for me. When the CD player breaks, I’m just going to sing way more. Poor Michelle.

When I back the manure trailer up at my neighbors’ barn I have to channel my inner trailer ball sense, because I, alas, don’t have a backup camera. My tailgate is beat all to rat crap where I regularly plunge the trailer tongue into it, when I miss the target. And at this stage in my life, I’m pretty okay having a banged in tailgate on my truck. In fact, I would not want to own a truck that didn’t have such a thing.

I know what you’re saying … “Cam is just saying that because he’ll never own one.” Exactly. I accept my lot. I cannot bring myself to participate in an economic system that is destroying the planet, making a lot of people miserable, and forcing everyone to keep buying stuff just to stay in the game.

Living off-grid and growing a pretty large volume of food, this is not a tough transition for me. When you do a little research on the likelihood of a CME in the next decade, or the Cascadia fault letting loose on the west coast, or some fiat currency scenarios in the next economic collapse, I think it’s possible that many people who would rather not be forced to go through a radical simplification, will be joining me.

It’s a tough path to follow, because the other one, the one that bombard us with a billion images a day showing us how awesome all this ‘stuff’ is, well, it is a pretty sexy one. I get it. It’s cool. It’s awesome. Until it’s not. And for me, now, it’s not.

So I’m off to the toolshed … (well, it’s actually a woodshed where I also store tools) to build a proper way to organize all my tools, because every spring it starts out amazingly clean and organized and by December when I have to crawl to the shelf at the back to get the Christmas tree, it’s turned into a death-defying obstacle course of sharp metal points and sticks repeatedly impaling me. I just love hand tools. So low tech. No upgrades. No error codes. No warning lights. Heck, they don’t even come wrapped in any packaging. Make yourself happy. Go use a shovel or a hoe.

Subscribe to this Blog!
To receive a notification whenever a new post is added, please provide your email address!
Email *
~ TIP JAR ~
Do you enjoy this blog? Why not show your appreciation with a donation? Big or small, we are grateful for them all!
Find Us on YouTube!
Do You Shop at Amazon?
If you use this link to access the amazon website, we will earn a very small commission on anything that you purchase. (For amazon.ca, use this link first and then link through to the Canadian site from here.)
OUR NEXT WORKSHOPS
For information about upcoming workshops at Sunflower Farm please use the pull-down Workshop tab above. Hope to see you soon!
Recent Comments…
About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
Posts from the Past
Topics
Mother Earth News
Many of you found this blog through our writing on Mother Earth News. Use this link to subscribe to the magazine and I will receive a small commission, which helps me to pay for this site! Thanks! Here's the link to use; https://www.motherearthnews.com/store/Offer/EMEBGGAF