Letter Re: James Kunstler at Midwest Renewable Energy Fair

Dear Jim:
I was also at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s (MREA) Energy Fair, just about in the exact center of Wisconsin near Steven’s Point, a week ago. For me, the home tour was the most interesting part. For about $20 they load you on a school bus and take you to 4 local homes that had alternative energy incorporated into them. This included things like solar panels for electricity with a battery bank, heat pumps with in floor hydronic heating systems, soap stone fireplaces (like the Russian design) that burn 2 hours and radiate heat all day (some with a built in usable oven too, pretty cool http://www.vermontwoodstove.com, they said 3 cords a year heated their 1,700 sq. foot home), passive solar design, rain water collection drums, and very high insulation values, as high as R30 walls and R72 ceilings. I also noticed that every home we went to had a metal roof. The real benefit of doing this tour was to speak with the owners as to what worked for them, what did not, and what they would do differently to do it over. The main thing said was to work with an experienced contractor. There were also useful product tips, for instance the owner of a solar system had had bad luck with his initial batteries which only lasted a few years. He now recommends the Deka brand. In another home, the owner discussed how heat pump could be used with a forced air or hydronic for heating (in floor system circulating water/gel) – BUT for cooling, it could only be forced air since it would lead to condensation all over the place otherwise. They had chosen hydronic, thus foregoing air conditioning. The initial cost layout and excavation for a heat pump, which had several 500 foot runs, was substantial. In fact one of the homes built a few years ago came in at $180 per square foot construction cost, pretty high. Another thing I noticed was that each of these folks had very impressive backyard fenced-in gardens, and all but one was a on a 10 acre plus lot backup up to forest.
The energy fair is well done, informative, and friendly. The volunteers are fantastic, and they and the vendors are there to promote alternate energy, and are a wealth of information. You can get a lot of questions answered. One thing that I wasn’t aware of for instance was the methane generating power plants running off cow manure. There are 3 in Wisconsin in the megawatt plus range. The joke is you need about 5 cows per person for power. It takes about 800-1000 cows per megawatt if I heard the stats correctly. Note these are million dollar plus operations, but if TSHTF, it would be valuable to know where such mini-power plants operating on self-sustaining energy are near you. This goes for windmills and solar arrays too. Your local power utility, for Public Relations reasons, will probably be all but too happy to tell you and take credit for their efforts. Note there are programs designed to help you go off grid, but they literally very by each utility company. Most are up to 25% payback on your initial costs, and many set limits on that also, usually around $2,000. Still, if you are going to go off-grid, or at least putting in enough power generating capacity to “run your meter backwards”, it is worth your while to check into these programs. As many utilities charge power line fees beyond 150 feet, if you are on a very rural lot, you may have to pay several thousand to go on grid. A friend of mine was quoted $19,000 for his rather remote lot. This is where the economics of going off grid instantly make sense, as $19,000 would buy a nice system. For those who think they can “profit” from running their meter backwards, you will probably be disappointed to learn that while you save yourself money at retail cost, if you go beyond that, they will only pay you wholesale, which is far less, and not profitable, thus your on-grid strategy should be to zero your bill.

Some of the speeches about energy use got a little political and preachy for me and weren’t worth sitting in a crowded hot tent. Big oil and GW Bush were certainly topics and targets of chastisement. However, there was some equal opportunity political bashing going on as some ardent liberals had to acknowledge their disdain for Ted Kennedy who has right now put a Federal stop on the building of windmills for, as many surmise, the purpose of merely stopping windmills going into ruining (for those rich folks there) the lovely Cape Cod area of Massachusetts. I would assure them that the Ocean probably makes far more noise, since there are 200+ foot wind miles 30 miles from me now, and they aren’t loud when I pass them. However to some, windmills are apparently an eye sore and ruin the lovely view of other people’s undeveloped land that they the viewer are apparently entitled to. I’m also not into the self loathing types who decry American’s unfair use of World resources (that the U.S. pays for in money and blood), and lament on how this isn’t fair or right. If Mr. Kunstler were a purist he would go to China, India, and parts of Central and South America and stop them from falling into the trap of becoming an “easy motoring utopia” like the USA, rather than flying around burning up fossil fuels on book tours like this, or promoting his PG-13 web site. Problem is, every other country pretty much aspires to do as the U.S. does. The automobile, or actually more so the SUV, is the ultimate instrument of freedom and luxury. The alternatives may be quaint to someone who thinks they want to live “on Walden’s pond” but don’t every actually take the bus themselves. The dangerous thing is the persuasive affect a guy like this can have, and not the part where some people are coaxed into alternative energy use, that’s good, it’s the part America self-imposes restrictions leading to loss of competitive advantage and thus eventual economic downfall. God willing we make it that far anyway. The best answer is to strive for economical self-sufficiency to the point possible, for each of us, and for each nation. As a survivalist, depending upon where you are, solar, wind, and wood are probably your first and best choices as they are easily scalable, but many other possibilities exist and should be considered, such as small scale hydro-electric, geothermal, wood burning, coal burning, mature, or whatever natural resources you have around you. Thus find out and know what is near you as for as to alternate energy power generation and resources, there is probably more than you think, as I just learned.- Rourke