Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it

23 04 2017

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Time to get off the economic growth train?
Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

What does genuine economic progress look like? The orthodox answer is that a bigger economy is always better, but this idea is increasingly strained by the knowledge that, on a finite planet, the economy can’t grow for ever. The Conversation

This week’s Addicted to Growth conference in Sydney is exploring how to move beyond growth economics and towards a “steady-state” economy.

But what is a steady-state economy? Why it is it desirable or necessary? And what would it be like to live in?

The global predicament

We used to live on a planet that was relatively empty of humans; today it is full to overflowing, with more people consuming more resources. We would need one and a half Earths to sustain the existing economy into the future. Every year this ecological overshoot continues, the foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined.

At the same time, there are great multitudes around the world who are, by any humane standard, under-consuming, and the humanitarian challenge of eliminating global poverty is likely to increase the burden on ecosystems still further.

Meanwhile the population is set to hit 11 billion this century. Despite this, the richest nations still seek to grow their economies without apparent limit.

Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilisation suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.

Degrowth to a steady-state economy

The idea of the steady-state economy presents us with an alternative. This term is somewhat misleading, however, because it suggests that we simply need to maintain the size of the existing economy and stop seeking further growth.

But given the extent of ecological overshoot – and bearing in mind that the poorest nations still need some room to develop their economies and allow the poorest billions to attain a dignified level of existence – the transition will require the richest nations to downscale radically their resource and energy demands.

This realisation has given rise to calls for economic “degrowth”. To be distinguished from recession, degrowth means a phase of planned and equitable economic contraction in the richest nations, eventually reaching a steady state that operates within Earth’s biophysical limits.

In a world of 7.2 billion and counting, we need to think hard about our fair share.
Karpov Oleg/Shutterstock

At this point, mainstream economists will accuse degrowth advocates of misunderstanding the potential of technology, markets, and efficiency gains to “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact. But there is no misunderstanding here. Everyone knows that we could produce and consume more efficiently than we do today. The problem is that efficiency without sufficiency is lost.

Despite decades of extraordinary technological advancement and huge efficiency improvements, the energy and resource demands of the global economy are still increasing. This is because within a growth-orientated economy, efficiency gains tend to be reinvested in more consumption and more growth, rather than in reducing impact.

This is the defining, critical flaw in growth economics: the false assumption that all economies across the globe can continue growing while radically reducing environmental impact to a sustainable level. The extent of decoupling required is simply too great. As we try unsuccessfully to “green” capitalism, we see the face of Gaia vanishing.

The very lifestyles that were once considered the definition of success are now proving to be our greatest failure. Attempting to universalise affluence would be catastrophic. There is absolutely no way that today’s 7.2 billion people could live the Western way of life, let alone the 11 billion expected in the future. Genuine progress now lies beyond growth. Tinkering around the edges of capitalism will not cut it.

We need an alternative.

Enough for everyone, forever

When one first hears calls for degrowth, it is easy to think that this new economic vision must be about hardship and deprivation; that it means going back to the stone age, resigning ourselves to a stagnant culture, or being anti-progress. Not so.

Degrowth would liberate us from the burden of pursuing material excess. We simply don’t need so much stuff – certainly not if it comes at the cost of planetary health, social justice, and personal well-being. Consumerism is a gross failure of imagination, a debilitating addiction that degrades nature and doesn’t even satisfy the universal human craving for meaning.

Do we really need to buy all this stuff anyway?
Radu Bercan/Shutterstock

Degrowth, by contrast, would involve embracing what has been termed the “simpler way” – producing and consuming less.

This would be a way of life based on modest material and energy needs but nevertheless rich in other dimensions – a life of frugal abundance. It is about creating an economy based on sufficiency, knowing how much is enough to live well, and discovering that enough is plenty.

The lifestyle implications of degrowth and sufficiency are far more radical than the “light green” forms of sustainable consumption that are widely discussed today. Turning off the lights, taking shorter showers, and recycling are all necessary parts of what sustainability will require of us, but these measures are far from enough.

But this does not mean we must live a life of painful sacrifice. Most of our basic needs can be met in quite simple and low-impact ways, while maintaining a high quality of life.

What would life be like in a degrowth society?

In a degrowth society we would aspire to localise our economies as far and as appropriately as possible. This would assist with reducing carbon-intensive global trade, while also building resilience in the face of an uncertain and turbulent future.

Through forms of direct or participatory democracy we would organise our economies to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and then redirect our energies away from economic expansion. This would be a relatively low-energy mode of living that ran primarily on renewable energy systems.

Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. A degrowth society embraces the necessity of “energy descent”, turning our energy crises into an opportunity for civilisational renewal.

We would tend to reduce our working hours in the formal economy in exchange for more home-production and leisure. We would have less income, but more freedom. Thus, in our simplicity, we would be rich.

Wherever possible, we would grow our own organic food, water our gardens with water tanks, and turn our neighbourhoods into edible landscapes as the Cubans have done in Havana. As my friend Adam Grubb so delightfully declares, we should “eat the suburbs”, while supplementing urban agriculture with food from local farmers’ markets.

Community gardens, like this one in San Francisco, can help achieve sufficiency.
Kevin Krejci/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

We do not need to purchase so many new clothes. Let us mend or exchange the clothes we have, buy second-hand, or make our own. In a degrowth society, the fashion and marketing industries would quickly wither away. A new aesthetic of sufficiency would develop, where we creatively re-use and refashion the vast existing stock of clothing and materials, and explore less impactful ways of producing new clothes.

We would become radical recyclers and do-it-yourself experts. This would partly be driven by the fact that we would simply be living in an era of relative scarcity, with reduced discretionary income.

But human beings find creative projects fulfilling, and the challenge of building the new world within the shell of the old promises to be immensely meaningful, even if it will also entail times of trial. The apparent scarcity of goods can also be greatly reduced by scaling up the sharing economy, which would also enrich our communities.

One day, we might even live in cob houses that we build ourselves, but over the next few critical decades the fact is that most of us will be living within the poorly designed urban infrastructure that already exists. We are hardly going to knock it all down and start again. Instead, we must ‘retrofit the suburbs’, as leading permaculturalist David Holmgren argues. This would involve doing everything we can to make our homes more energy-efficient, more productive, and probably more densely inhabited.

This is not the eco-future that we are shown in glossy design magazines featuring million-dollar “green homes” that are prohibitively expensive.

Degrowth offers a more humble – and I would say more realistic – vision of a sustainable future.

Making the change

A degrowth transition to a steady-state economy could happen in a variety of ways. But the nature of this alternative vision suggests that the changes will need to be driven from the “bottom up”, rather than imposed from the “top down”.

What I have written above highlights a few of the personal and household aspects of a degrowth society based on sufficiency (for much more detail, see here and here). Meanwhile, the ‘transition towns’ movement shows how whole communities can engage with the idea.

But it is critical to acknowledge the social and structural constraints that currently make it much more difficult than it needs to be to adopt a lifestyle of sustainable consumption. For example, it is hard to drive less in the absence of safe bike lanes and good public transport; it is hard find a work-life balance if access to basic housing burdens us with excessive debt; and it is hard to re-imagine the good life if we are constantly bombarded with advertisements insisting that “nice stuff” is the key to happiness.

Actions at the personal and household levels will never be enough, on their own, to achieve a steady-state economy. We need to create new, post-capitalist structures and systems that promote, rather than inhibit, the simpler way of life. These wider changes will never emerge, however, until we have a culture that demands them. So first and foremost, the revolution that is needed is a revolution in consciousness.

I do not present these ideas under the illusion that they will be readily accepted. The ideology of growth clearly has a firm grip on our society and beyond. Rather, I hold up degrowth up as the most coherent framework for understanding the global predicament and signifying the only desirable way out of it.

The alternative is to consume ourselves to death under the false banner of “green growth”, which would not be smart economics.

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.





The Cob Oven saga revisited……

4 04 2017

Sometimes, life’s twists and turns really surprise me…  A few days after his arrival, I was showing my Sicilian wwoofer pictures of Mon Abri, and specifically the cob oven another Italian wwoofer and I built there, almost three years ago now…… To my amazement, Vincent enthusiastically exclaimed he wanted to build one here too! Now, I had planned to build one, but where the house will be built, and not until it was built…… Discussing it further with Glenda, however, encouraged me to take the bull by the horns and try again…

I did say at the time that I was looking forward to putting the gained experience into building another slightly larger one in Tasmania when we finally get there…. just not this soon. My last effort was built on a one metre square block base, and this was the limiting factor for its size. It was adequate, but a slightly larger size would have been better. So what to build the base with for this one?

Digging up the house site revealed dozens of large to very large Dolerite floaters, the rock that gives the local clay its characteristic ochre colour. Of course they are all at the house site, a good 350 metres from where the new oven would go near the shed. And I needed sand, and bricks, and……… loads of hard work.  Good thing Vincent is young and fit and energetic… it was after all his idea…!

20170326_143117It was decided to build a 1.2m diameter base with rocks from the house site. Vincent and I managed to lift most of them onto the ute, but two of them were totally out of the question, with one I now realise that must have weighed close on 300kg…! They were chained up, and dragged with the trusty 4WD, very slowly in low range first gear. The biggest of the two was actually shaking the car as it was dragged along, and as it turned out to be the second big rock, it had to be lifted on top of the first one….

We tried levering it with crowbars and ramps, to no avail. It was one big heavy sucker..! Then I came up with the idea that if we could get it at least upright, we might be able to push it atop the first one with the ute’s towbar by reversing against it. trouble was, the 2WD was just wheel spinning, while the 4WD’s towbar was too high and just slipped above the rock, even lifting the two rear wheels clean off the ground…. until I came up with the idea of removing the tongue off the car, and putting it back in upside down!

To Vincent’s amazement, it worked…. he had given up all hope, I could tell. One good 20170328_101515thing about getting older is that you’ve solved lots of problems over your life, and this was just another problem solving issue…… I told Vincent that if the Egyptians could build pyramids, we could build a pizza oven base!

As you can see from the pics, these stones are very round, and not exactly ideal for building something that should resemble a dry wall. That we managed to get as good a result as we did was actually pretty amazing. The top wasn’t level of course, so it was capped with a concrete wedge platform, that also held all the rocks on top together. I don’t think they’re going anywhere soon…..

Related image

Steve Harrison’s Bourry Box

While all this was going on, I’d been searching for bricks, and even found ‘free’ ones in Geeveston on Gumtree. But the woman getting rid of her bricks gave me the run around re picking them up for days, and while searching for more, I actually hit the jackpot, finding 600 refractory bricks for $1.50 each. I wasn’t keen on spending that much money, but I had seen brand new fire bricks in Hobart for $6.95 each, and as we are planning to build Glenda a Bourry Box wood fired kiln in the future that will require way more than 600 bricks, we decided to not look a gift horse in the mouth, and bought them.

When you load things like bricks, one or two or three at a time on a ute, you don’t really think about the weight of it all…. I assumed they weighed in at maybe 2kg each, so 600 would be under the vehicle’s load limit of 1.3 tonnes. As it was, there weren’t 600 there, only 530. As we drove off, the car was making horrible scraping sounds that made me think “oops….. maybe we overdid it?” I hadn’t checked the tyre pressures before loading, which is something I normally always do… the mudflaps were scraping on the road, and the tyres we bulging ominously. I drove the 10km to Huonville very slowly, and at the first garage put a pressure gauge on the tyres, only to discover they were not that far 20170330_183738down; even at the maximum recommended 65psi, they were still bulging. Feeling really bad about this didn’t help either it turns out…. so we just kept going, covering the next 25km home, very slowly, without blowing a tyre, which was my greatest concern.

When we got home, I weighed one brick, and it turned out to be 3.5kg……. Ute one had just carried 1.8 tonnes of bricks 35km! Tough old thing is all I can say. And I think we were lucky too…..

I then basically went about rebuilding the last oven, only with a base 700mm in diameter20170402_134034 instead of 600. It doesn’t sound like much difference, but never forget volumes are in dimensions cubed, and even 10% bigger equals 33% larger volume, which pretty well means 33% more of everything, like clay and sand! Miraculously, just enough of the bricks I bought had already been shaped as wedges; they weren’t perfectly sized, but they would do, and I could skip the ugly brick cutting exercise except for the three keystones.

One thing I did differently this time was cementing the bricks together rather than use cob. Using cob made the last arch way too wobbly, cement made it stiff as a Roman arch.

20170403_081107Vincent, being the typical young, enthusiastic, and impatient young man he was assured me when we started we could finish the whole thing before he left……. I couldn’t stop laughing! The last one took me nine years I reminded him, and we’ve already lost two days waiting for free bricks. Just picking up the fire bricks took half a day, and a couple of hours to unload them… Nothing ever goes according to plan, there’s no need to get impatient over this….

But you have to give it to him, on his last day, when he was catching the 10 o’clock bus to Hobart, he got up at 6AM to help me make the sand mould. We even used up what cob was left to reach one third the way up said mould. At 9AM, he quit, and got himself ready for the rest of his life, but he left having learned quite a bit more than he had anticipated I think. I just love teaching young people these skills…..

So far so good, the first layer of cob is on, and cracking as it should in readiness for keying in the second layer. We’re supposed to have a dry week now, and if all things go well, I may even have it finished before my appointment with the digger that will excavate the house footings on Easter Saturday….

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So far so good……..





Second Cider Season

4 04 2017

It’s hard to believe I’m on my second apple harvest…. nor can I believe how different this year’s is from last. I guess having a record dry winter followed by a record wet one should be a clue, but I was never expecting a total loss from the Pink Lady crop…

fareast2Seeing Matt next door harvesting apples, and having this keen as mustard Sicilian wwoofer chomping at the bit to get things done here, I decided to drive the 4WD over to the ‘Far East’, where last year I had my very best apples, all borne out of total neglect. I only seem to go there once a year to pick apples!

Having the 4WD this year meant I was able to reverse down the steepest bit of land on fareastthe block all the way to the bottom, knowing I’d be able to drive back out again. I didn’t do this last year because I had zero confidence I would be able to get back up the hill with a 2WD ute, and as a result, those apples were never harvested…. it’s a long uphill slog when you’re carrying maybe 30 or 40kg of apples.

With all the winter rain we’ve had, the Blackberries have been doing overtime, and picking apples down there literally means drawing blood..! But the Fannies were just amazing, by far the best ones on the whole property.

Vincent (the wwoofer) who surprised me with his knowledge of horticultural issues was pondering why this is so, but we’ll never know I guess. It’s just amazing how these apples were almost not affected with black spot – a normal by product of wet conditions which absolutely everyone down here is complaining about – nor the dreaded coddling moths. Maybe it’s the soil, maybe it’s the better drainage from the steepness (though Matt reckons he has the same problems up the back of his block, and it’s even steeper) maybe it’s even the presence of so much Blackberry? Black spot is after all the result of monoculture….

Most Pink Lady trees didn’t even have apples on them, and those that did….. well look for yourself and see the total disaster…..

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…. and the Pink Ladies was staggering…

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The difference between the Geeveston Fannies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because Matt’s crop is also badly affected – he said to me that one single black spot equals 100% infection – he’s decided to go into juice production for selling at markets. So we 20170401_120022struck a deal. We would juice our apples for cider, in exchange for roughly half a bin of apples. Which is all I had to give him anyway! Black spot may affect the appearance of the apples for shops, but they are just as nice to eat, skin and all, especially when you know they’ve never been sprayed with poisons! It’s simply amazing how people will buy poisoned apples that look perfect, but not organic poison free imperfect apples that are just delicious…… and of course black spot is invisible in apple juice!20170401_120414

So the following weekend, we drove the 450kg of apples we’d collected next door, and started juicing

Fanny juice has this amazing golden glow to it, and it’s the nicest apple juice you’re ever likely to taste…… because you won’t find any anywhere in the shops for starters! It’s such a pity that in the fermenting process, all that colour disappears from the resulting cider.

Vincent and I went home with 120 litres of juice in fermenters, which should last me until next year’s harvest, as I’m still drinking last season’s cider. And very nice it has turned out too.

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It’s official……………

8 03 2017

I am now an old fart.

Yesterday, I turned 65 (will she still love me…?) and am now officially a pensioner. To celebrate, I did the unthinkable, flying over 2,500 km to join my family and friends in Queensland who all wanted to see me. Love miles George Monbiot calls them……. not only that, we also drove more than 300km in Glenda’s little car, though it would have only burned 15 litres of petrol doing so. I’m over feeling guilty over my travels now ; whatever I do (or don’t do) will not make one iota of difference to the outcomes of western civilisation…..

If ever I needed reminding of why I will never return to the big island, the weather while I was burning all those fossil fuels was downright awful. Maybe it’s because I am getting old, or maybe it’s due to climate change, but I could not remember the heat being as oppressive as it was……. as I type, in Geeveston, it’s 21 degrees (C of course…) and I have my shirt off……. after harvesting in the market garden, more later.

Everyone I spoke too was mumbling through the thick air about the oppressive heat, and the lack of rain…… worst summer in living memory, etc etc etc………… in the end, I spent most of the time eating, drinking, sweating (when not in airconditioning) or traveling by oil powered transport. Now I’m back, I have to wear off the pounds I put on in just three days!

Glenda and I made the time to see Bruce at Mt Glorious. Where too it was hot….. Mt Glorious? For Pete’s sake, it’s 600m above sea level..?

There’s never enough time to talk to Bruce. Like me, he is short of people he can have an actual conversation that makes sense with, and after just three hours, we had to go back down the mountain to the pea soup.

Bruce related a story to me that relates highly to an article I recently published about PV’s negative ERoEI. It goes something like this……:

His in-laws, who live off the grid near Stanthorpe in Queensland, had a pretty good 20 year old 24V battery bank charged with an array of 12V solar panels. It worked just fine, until the lady of the house decided to replace the fridge, and voila, the system could not cope. So she contacted the company who installed the original system to upgrade it. “But everything’s changed now” she was told…… you will have to replace the whole lot…. nonsense said Bruce (as I said when he was telling me what happened). 12V modules are a thing of the past now, unless you’re willing to pay for ‘camping’ versions of these things that cost ten times as much per Watt as the ‘conventional’ gear being screwed to everyone’s roofs these days…… talk about an expensive fridge.

The company involved could not be bothered to tinker with the system, they reckoned the batteries and associated inverter and charging gear were too old and not worth the effort. So off it all came, now replaced with the latest stuff, including the ridiculous use of a grid tied inverter needing to be hooked up to an ‘island’ bit of gear to make it work as a standalone inverter. And at 20 years old, all that stuff was right on the verge of paying itself off in energy return, but now it’s a pile of waste with a negative ERoEI. Bruce has the panels, but I suspect he doesn’t need them, though they could be good backup for his old system should anything go wrong with it……….

The other interesting thing that happened to me was on the flight up…… I just happened to sit next to this Canadian, who, after some banter, it was discovered knew all about peak oil and ‘the end of capitalism’. Maybe there are more and more people ‘getting it’ these days.

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Steak from the neighbours, mashed potatoes with parsley and garlic from the garden, plus home grown beans – all washed down with home brewed cider made with apples from trees I can see from here…

Back to reality. I was a tad concerned about leaving my garden unattended, particularly not being watered in this warm weather, but I need not have worried, it seems to have thrived on neglect! This morning I harvested 7.3kg of tomatoes, 9.6kg of snow peas (!) and a 3kg zucchini that was as long as my arm…… a zuccini that big is not salable, so I chopped it up for the chooks. Waste nothing (unlike solar power companies).

I’m actually starting to feel like I’m living in abundance, at least for the time being. I ate a watermelon from the poly tunnel before leaving for Qld, and this morning I got stuck into a delicious rockmelon. I’ve been making blackberry jam, and there’s such a glut of berries now, I will be making more for the next couple of weeks…. and just before leaving, I bought half a pig from my neighbour, and is it soooo delicious……. Eat your heart out Queenslanders……





Feeding 9 billion

16 01 2017

I have just been tipped off to this fantastic Joel Salatin video…… I think it’s ironic that Eclipe, a fan of Polyface Farm, is in complete disagreement with Joel who is totally anti hi-tech farming. In fact, like me, Joel believes in walking away from the Matrix (exemplified in this video by McDonald’s), and he lets both barrels go at the establishment…..

Enjoy.





Fanny Farm update….

13 01 2017

It’s raining again, and too wet for fencing… so I’ll keep my faithful readers up on what’s been happening for the past few days.

Firstly, my amazing neighbour who had the most unfortunate accident that caused his expensive ute to be written off (nobody got hurt, which I have to tell you was pretty amazing…), flew to Melbourne the other day to pick up a replacement. japanesebathHe offered to pick stuff up there for me, and lo and behold, I discovered that someone in Melbourne manufactured round Japanese plunge baths that would finish the circular theme of our new bathroom. Sometimes, things are just meant to happen…. I’ve been looking for something like this for ages, but they were either unavailable, or just plain too expensive.

It turns out, this one was made by the bloke who sold it to me, and, wait for it, his factory was just two streets away from where Matt picked up his new car…!

Now I just need a house to put it in…. like the toilets, the bidets, the handbasins, the kitchen sink, the taps, I have accumulated a lot of stuff for this house already.

The same day the bath arrived, all the reinforcing steel was also delivered. On a very large truck, that the driver had to reverse the entire 400m back out to the main road…

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Then yesterday, as part of the rezoning of this block of land, Julia and Matt, my current wwoofers from America and I moved the entire composting system from where I first sited it a year ago to where it will be needed, next to the market garden.

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20170112_153212No mean feat it turns out, I had way more compost than I realised, almost enough to fill the ute…. It was also a good opportunity to teach young people how to make compost, because it turns out they had no idea…… In fact, it may be an American thing, or maybe they’ve led sheltered lives, but they know very little about what’s going on in the world, particularly when compared to the young French people I’ve had here who have actually impressed me with what they already knew……

On the downside, my new pump is driving me insane…… it pumps when it feels like it, and when it won’t, I cannot get my head around why not. I’ve spent so much time flushing out the suction line, even wading out into the muddy bottom of the dam several times… I’ve modified the footvalve assembly to ensure it can’t suck air – and now it CAN’T because it’s anchored underwater permanently – but it still refuses to pressurise my sprinkler for more than three to five minutes….. my understanding of pumps is that they should work, or not work at all, but not this…..





White man’s magic……

8 10 2016

20160418_163158Now that our power station has been commissioned, is actually powering stuff, and because it’s been an evolutionary thing over many months, I’ve decided to chronicle how our rather unique stand alone power system is built in one post, for the benefit of all mankind…. as it were!

The solar power is generated by eight 260W monocrystaline photovoltaic panels, for a 20161008_131339total of 2080 Watts. They are mounted on a custom made steel frame, installed by the first wwoofer I had working for me here… They are connected in two strings of four with each string producing 1000W at 150V DC maximum. The two pairs of wires are fed underground and through the container’s floor in that orange conduit, to the DC circuit box where two 20 Amp circuit breakers protect the system against short circuits or serious malfunctions. Each circuit breaker is dipole, and simultaneously breaks both the positive and negative circuits.

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DC Circuits

From this box, the solar power is fed to the MidNite Classic Maximum Power Point Tracker. This magic black box manipulates the incoming electricity so that it is fed into the batteries at the optimum voltage/amperage combination needed to maximise the amount of energy fed into the batteries to keep them charged. I had never used one of these before, but they are well worth the $900 , because it does all sorts of other tricks, like boost charging, battery equalising, floating, and even monitors the amount of energy fed into the batteries, logging all that information where it can be accessed later…… If I decide to later add a wind turbine, I will get a second one to control its output.

The power going into the batteries (and out of them for powering things with the inverter) go through a fuse box with two 160A slow burn fuses. Batteries are capable of producing spectacular amounts of current (think big sparks and fire!) and in the unlikely event of something seriously bad happening to the batteries, these fuses will burn and save the rest of the system. The fuse box is also designed such that it can be used to disconnect the batteries from everything else in an emergency, or for maintenance. There’s one fuse for the positive cable, and one victronfor the negative……

Once charged, the energy contained within the batteries can be extracted back out (through the aforementioned fusebox) by the Victron inverter, which converts the 48V (nominal) DC from the batteries into 230V AC for powering all the things we take for granted in houses, like lights, fridges, TVs and washing machines etc……

This inverter has now had its settings altered to operate at between 64V and 37.5V. It’s because Victrons can be reprogrammed to do this that I opted for this technology, as the Nickel Iron batteries are able to work safely at an even greater voltage range. The blue digital voltmeter is something I added to the inverter to get an instant readout of the battery bank’s voltage.

Just as there is a series of safety devices on the DC side of the system, the AC sector is also wired up to protect the wiring and the people using the electricity! You will also notice the green/yellow striped earth wires to/from the MidNite Classic and the inverter, all connected to the earth in the AC switchboard, all grounded to the container itself.

acsectorBefore going into the AC circuit box, I wired in an old energy meter I have had for years to monitor how much energy we will be consuming in the house (as well as outside to pump water for the gardens etc…). I used to use it for doing energy audits, and they sure don’t make them like this anymore…!

The 230V output is split into three, with another dipole circuit breaker (one for the active and one for the neutral) taking power to where the house will be built, currently permanently switched off. Another 10A circuit breaker takes current to a power point inside the container for running the freezer and charging cordless tool batteries (so far), while a 15A breaker takes power to an external 15A all weather power point outside the container where I currently plug the new pump in (more about this in a later post).

The two power points are protected with safety switches which are now built into the circuit breakers. It’s amazing how fast technology changes/improves these days….

The battery bank consists of forty 1.2V Nickel Iron cells (to make the nominal 48V). You can read about why I selected this battery chemistry here……

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Earth/Ground wire to stake

 

The container is earthed with a copper stake, and everything involved in this system is also earthed through the steel container, one advantage of having a steel building! The safety switches test just fine, the whole system is very safe. To vent the potentially explosive hydrogen gas that bubbles from the batteries, two whirlybird extractors were put into the container’s roof, and six vents at floor level on the western end of the container were also added. It’s where the wind usually comes from, and it will no doubt assist in keeping everything cool, even in summer….

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Floor level air vents

 

batterybankI’m really stoked at how well it’s all working. Even on really rainy days, the solar array was able to feed 4.7kWh of energy into the battery bank, and even on the very worst day when the sky was inky black and it just poured all day long, 1.7kWh was absorbed by the batteries, almost enough to power our old house for a whole day…. The design electricity consumption for the new house is 2kWh/day, though at this stage it’s still unknown how much energy I will need to pump water for the market garden.

I’m finding adjusting to the NiFe batteries a little tricky. Unlike conventional Lead Acid batteries, these prefer to be worked hard. I’m told by people who run them that the harder you cycle them, the more capacity they build up, and the longer they last between electrolyte replacement. Because I’m (so far) only pulling 0.9kWh/day out of them with the freezer, the batteries haven’t been worked enough. So I recently turned the solar power completely off for eight or nine days, just to ‘flatten’ them. They were fully charged again within two days…. Nickel Iron batteries, unlike the other technologies sold everywhere, can be ‘flattened’ as often as you like….. you just need to always make sure there’s enough left to start the freezer again, or else lose the contents!

Now the container sports a 1000 litre IBC for gravity fed water storage….. but you’ll have to wait for the next installment.