Alternative energy then and now

I was poking around upstairs in my grandparents’ barn some time ago and found a tattered paperback called “Handbook of Homemade Power”, put out by the Mother Earth News in 1974 (two years before I was born). I suspect it may have come from Vin Strout, an old time Mainer and incurable tinkerer who was our neighbor and good friend growing up. The book appears to be basically reprints of magazine articles from the time, and it’s separated into chapters as follows: heating with wood, water power, wind energy, solar energy, methane biogas. But what struck me about the book was how far things have come in the nearly 40 years since that first energy crisis.

When my parents and countless others of that generation went ‘back to the land’ in the 70s, renewable energy technology was just starting to be pieced together by tinkerers, and a lot of pre-modern stuff was basically pulled out of barns and put back into service from relatively recent obsolescence at the dawn of the petroleum age. The chapter on wood heat talks about antique wood ranges, and describes the various stoves that can be built with 55 gallon drums and the like. In the house I grew up in we cooked (in the winter) on an old Glenwood C, a wood-fired range from the 1920s, and heated with a Riteway, an airtight stove of plate steel construction with boxy 1970s styling – e.g. it was just a rectangular sheetmetal box. The Glenwood heated up fast, looked great, and my mom could bake with it pretty well, but it leaked like a sieve and so couldn’t hold a fire worth beans. The Riteway had huge capacity and held a fire really well, but it make creosote like crazy, and I gather from the internets that the company has gone out of business. Nowadays my folks use an airtight Heartland wood range for both primary heat and cooking, and it seems to do both pretty well. More generally, a huge variety of woodstoves are available these days, ranging from spartan-but-functional welded steel to classy cast iron, with and without catalytic converters.

The chapter on water power gets off to a reasonable start, describing how to figure out how much energy is in a stream, and the various types of small dams that can be built. But it spends a fair amount of time on inefficient old-fashioned wheel designs, and stops well short of describing designs that could actually produce useful electricity – though there is an article about a guy who used water power to build a giant rock tumbler. But generally, small-scale hydropower is such a rare and special site that its primary function is to generate envy in readers with more normal sites.

The wind chapter has a bunch of articles on homebuilt designs that look like early, crude versions of the Hugh Piggott homebrew design, plus an article on scrounging 1930s commercial windplants from the countryside (this was a big part of the wind revival in the 1970s; I have an old book by a guy named Michael Hackleman describing in detail how to find and rebuild these units), and a neat in-depth interview of Marcellus Jacobs, a pioneer of wind-electric equipment in the 1930s. But the homebuilt designs are hampered by the use of wound-field auto alternators, with their low efficiency and requirement for 12V power to energize the field windings. The advent of economical Nedodymium Iron Boron magnets has made homebrew (and commercial) small turbine design much easier, though it remains the case that fabricating an efficient, reliable small wind turbine is beyond the realistic scope for all but the most talented of homebrew tinkerers.

Solar is probably the area where the most profound progress has been made. The solar chapter in the Mother Earth book talks about passive solar house design, thermal storage, homebrew thermosyphon water heaters, and parabolic solar cookers made out of cardboard, but there’s not even a mention of solar PV, which back then was too expensive for anything but satellites. But today it’s possible to buy PV modules retail for about $2 per watt, which makes solar a pretty reasonable option. Without any special conservation measures, our apartment uses about 150 kWh of electricity per month, and NREL shows this area as receiving a bit over 4 hours per day of average sunlight on a latitude-tilt fixed array. So we could cover our electricity needs with a little over 1kW of PV. This is a significant advance over the clunky thermal demos of the 1970s. While I’m not super familiar with the options, I get the sense that solar thermal has come a long way since the 1970s as well, with refined flat plate designs and evacuated tube options available.

Biogas is the area I’m least familiar with; the articles from the 1970s describe crude contraptions with floating caps on open tanks for gas storage and the like. I’m not sure how much work has been done in this area in the ensuing years, but given the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, I would think that small scale tinkering with methane production would best be left alone. Far better for the critters to leave their dung in the pasture, where it can decompose aerobically and feed the grass.

Anyway, my take-home message from comparing Mother Earth News’ Homemade Power Handbook to the 2011 state of the art is that things have come a long way, especially in solar but also in wind energy and wood heat. The quality and variety of commercial renewable energy products is much improved since the 1970s, and where the 1970s back-to-the-lander was left to his/her own devices to tinker up half-assed contraptions (vanishingly few of which are still in service), the modern homesteader who has a few thousand dollars to spend can readily make use of commercial technology to make a significant dent in their consumption of fossil energy.


2 Responses to “Alternative energy then and now”

  1. Brian Says:

    A dog poo powered park light:

  2. fiveislandsorchard Says:

    Brian – this thing was about half a mile from our house in Cambridge. It showed up at some point in the dog park where we sometimes went with our dogs, but it didn’t appear to be commissioned yet. Then, a few weeks later it was gone – must have turned out to be a health hazard, or hard to manage, or something…

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