Energy is a fundamental element in a prepper’s portfolio of resources and assets, along with food, water, medical, home, land, financial, and skills. However, some urban and suburban preppers who anticipate moving to a rural area when things get dicey often under-think their energy requirements. Organizing your retreat around dependence on hydrocarbon fuels means that you must store huge quantities of combustible fuels that will eventually run out during an extended societal collapse. But if you focus your energy use on renewable fuels, you will develop a system that will last indefinitely into the future, covering a wider variety of disasters, for a fraction of the cost.
Renewable energy sources can be replenished within your life time; as opposed to non-renewable sources–such as oil derivatives–that can be used up and not replenished. Common renewable energy sources include timber, solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro sources. This article helps the newly-ruralized prepper look at practical considerations for two very accessible renewable energy sources–wood and solar. Using these two renewable resources will give you a high degree of confidence that you will be ready for any situation, for any length of time.
Solar and timber sources of energy are complementary in many ways. Solar can produce warm air, warm water, and electricity to run appliances. It requires capital investment, but it doesn’t require physical effort once it is installed. Wood is a terrific heating source, requires little initial investment, is plentiful in rural forested areas; but it doesn’t produce electricity and requires a lot of physical effort along the way. If you have more money, more sun, and aren’t very physical, then you might consider more solar sources. If you don’t have a lot of money, are physically vigorous, and have access to forests, then you might depend more on wood. Given all these variables, let’s take a closer look at some details about using each of these renewable sources.
There are many ways to use solar power to provide energy for your retreat. Photovoltaic panels and an inverter can produce electricity to run appliances, pumps, and fans. Solar water heaters are one of the most efficient ways to heat water. Passive solar design–which doesn’t use moving parts or electricity– can help a house be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. We chose to install a bank of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels and inverter to our grid-tied system, without batteries.
While we don’t have the luxury of using stored energy at night from the batteries, we also didn’t incur the cost and maintenance requirements of the batteries. Instead we purchased an inverter that provides a 3,000 Watt, 20 amp emergency circuit so that when the sun shines, we can use the electricity produced directly for electrical appliances. We purchased a Sunny Boy Inverter (4 kW) from Wholesale Solar  (800-472-1142). Wholesale Solar also provides a variety of American-made solar panels at the best cost I can find.
Some will want the convenience of having batteries. We would have doubled the cost of our system by getting batteries, and didn’t mind only having electricity when the sun shines. For us, I preferred to put money into the solar panels and inverter, rather than batteries. We’ve been very happy with the simplicity of this system, and its ability to function well in a power out situation.
We have ten panels (2.4 kW) that are wired in series to the Inverter, which converts the electricity to 120 VAC that can be used by household circuits. The inverter is then wired to its own circuit breaker in your household electrical panel. If you can add a circuit for a new appliance, you can install your own solar–which is a good idea, since hiring an installer doubles the cost of your system. If you have any doubts, you should hire an electrician to check your work. And be sure to get a permit for the electrical installation from your state, and arrange for the intertie agreement with your electrical utility. Call them, they will step you through those processes.
Our 2.4 kW system provided for our needs entirely during the summer, at least until we built a new garage/shop on a couple years back. As with most preps, as soon as you need them, you wish you bought more. A 6-8 kW system would have operated our garage and shop as well, with some left over for our utility to write us a check now and then.
If you install your panels in a fixed position, common wisdom suggests that the panels should be tilted toward the south (if you live in the northern hemisphere) at an angle that equals your latitude. For example, if you live at 45 degrees north, the panels would be tilted at an angle of 45 degrees. This means that your maximum production will be at noon on summer solstice. However, after working as a solar contractor for a time, I realized that one need not be dogmatic about this ‘common wisdom’. That is to say, if you have a roof that slopes to the southeast at 15 degrees, it is still reasonable to install your panels on your roof. All it means is that your maximum production will occur at some other time of day, at some other time of year.
Some folks will install panels on trackers that follow the sun across the sky during the day. While trackers add to the cost, they will provide about 20% more energy than having your panels fixed to one spot. So you can ask yourself whether or not the cost of the tracker is worth the 20% increase in production. It may be less expensive to not buy the tracker and simply purchase 20% more panels.
Solar requires more of an investment than wood, but it will provide a return on your investment (ROI) comparable to the best financial investments you can find. For example, we spent 2400. on our Inverter from Wholesale Solar and 2000. on ten solar panels. Then we received a tax refund on our federal taxes of 25% of the invested value of 4400., or 1100. That means our total investment was 3300. The 2.4 kW system provides about 100. worth of electricity each month, or about 1200. over the course of 12 months. That means our return on investment is 33% each year! (And I feel lucky to get 2% at a bank.) In short, investing in solar panels has been a remarkable financial investment, and it has fueled my home and given me peace of mind. While solar requires more investment than wood, it is definitely worth the investment.
However much wood you use, always prepare more wood than you think you will need. It might be a cold winter, or you might not be able to collect as much the next year. This way you can use the wood that you need to keep your home comfortable without worrying that you need to ration it. Plan 4-6 cords for a 1200 square foot space, if your house has good sun exposure and if you occasionally rely on other forms of heat. Prepare more if your house is in the shade most of the winter. (A cord is a stack of wood that contains 128 cubic feet. That is, multiply width x length x height to get your volume in cubic feet. A stack that is 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long has a volume of one full cord.) The amount that you use will depend on your own conditions, the type of wood that you use, the type of fireplace you have, the type of house that you have, and your own personal preferences.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)