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.

dcsector

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….

vents

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.

 





Retaking control of the geese…….

1 09 2016

If you have been following this blog for a while, you will know I acquired some geese earlier this year, the idea being to let them loose in the orchard to keep the grass down and fertilise the apple trees – permaculture 101. Then one night, we had some wind…… and I mean nearly 100km/h gusts. The next morning, the geese were gone…. well, they were on the dam actually. and there were no sign whatsoever as to how they had escaped. It wasn’t until later on when an even stronger wind event actually rolled the goose tractor clear over the row of apple trees that I finally understood how they had escaped. The horror stories of how geese in large numbers can pollute a dam to destruction meant I had to take control back.

geeseondam

The orchard is now fenced, and with appropriate wing clipping, it should be reasonably easy to keep them from flying off to the dam. I’ve decapitated the goose tractor so that it should now stay firmly on the ground, and all I need are geese to put in said tractor….. once I have put it back together properly in its new configuration.

Today is the first day of Spring, but the animals around here haven’t waited…. Sid’s cows have calved, Matt’s sheep have dropped numerous lambs, and at least one of his sows has farrowed with two to go. Here, my geese have been laying. And I don’t want their goslings on the dam! So, I have made another egg incubator, exactly like the one we had in Cooran…..  No need to reinvent the wheel as they say.

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Not happy, Jan……

I’ve been keeping a very close eye on my geese’s habits, and discovered one nest recently, not realising another one was very close by.  They are very good at camouflaging their clutches, after all, we don’t want them taken by crows and other predators. Two of the birds started sitting on the eggs, and it was time for action.

With some trepidation, I started planning to steal the eggs; geese can be fierce when defending their young I’m told, and I assumed the same would apply to eggs. Not knowing what to expect, I even had a chainsaw at the ready to make lots of noise, but in the end, all I had to do was approach forcefully, wave my arms about, and they both took off to the dam hissing very unhappily. Not so traumatic after all, at least for yours truly…

20160901_125714I put the 24 warm eggs in one of those insulated shopping bags to keep them at temperature, quickly got them back to the shed, and loaded all 24 of them in the incubator. They are big and heavy, and there is definitely no room left for more, especially as I have since found a third nest, and saw the fourth hen mate with the gander….. how many geese do I need..?? Even if only half the eggs hatch, I will have more than enough goslings to keep me occupied.

The photo at left shows how I prepared it all. There are four jars of warm water in the double walled polystyrene box, which introduce the moisture the eggs require, and thermal mass to stabilise the internal temperature, set at 37.5°C  +/-  0.2°C. The eggs need to be regularly sprayed with water, so I decided to also keep the spray bottle in there so that the eggs won’t be shocked by being sprayed with cold water. It also further adds to the thermal mass.

I’ve worked out that the goslings should hatch right at the end of September, up to maybe20160901_131908 three days afterwards.

I may have to destroy the eggs laid from here on, I might even try poaching a couple to see if they’re as nice as Muscovy eggs.

Earlier this week, I also bought four Wiltshire sheep to assist with the orchard maintenance – two ewes and two wethers. It’s all part of the experiment to avoid using fossil fuels to mow, and fertilisers to improve the apple crop. Time will tell if it works….

wiltshires





Is our future our past?

7 07 2016

Chock
At ten months, Chock the ox is already earning his keep around the farm. Photo: Steven French Family.

If there’s one thing most post peak oil commentators have given too little consideration to it’s how goods will be moved and how farms will function in our scary and fast approaching future.

Sure there’s the fraternity that talk about bicycles and walking and they’re on the right track, particularly if you’re lucky or wise enough to reside in a city or village.

However a means of energy or transport that doesn’t involve some form of technical reliance such as electric cars, high speed rail, nuclear power, wind turbines, solar panels or waver power, seems to be strangely missing from the dialogue. Certainly low-tech conveyances such as barges and sailing ships occasionally get a mention, and rightly so. But when the blindingly obvious is mentioned eyes often glaze over.

Horsepower

The one thing that’s almost always overlooked is using animals for transport and farm work.

Pretty much until the early 1900s it was animal power that kept civilization going. Yet today, a little over a half century since many rural people still used animal power, using animals to produce actual horsepower seems unimaginable.

Yet, a snapshot of 1900 could be a view of our future.

Back to the future

I’m lucky enough to live on the island of Tasmania, one of the seven states of Australia.

Much of Tasmania is highly fertile and we have a great climate. Although Tasmania may seem remote, our farmers have always been as keen to modernize in ways akin to our farming cousins in the US. The widespread adoption of tractors for farming happened here around the time of World War II.

But the time that I really want to focus on is the 1930s, when my parents were growing up and most farmers still relied on horses. The maternal side of my family farmed only a couple of miles away. Both families’ lifestyles and farming methods were similar and would have been typical of almost everyone who worked the land in those days. They had:

  • No electricity
  • No telephone
  • No internal combustion engine on the property

My dad’s parents did have a car but my mother’s family never drove. Nan and Grandpa never had a driver’s license even though they farmed another property a fifteen minute bike ride away.

A good living

The point is that they enjoyed a good standard of living, certainly by the standards of the 1930s but also, I suspect, by today’s standards. There was a vibrant social life centered around the little township of Whitemore, with several sporting teams and social functions usually held two or three nights a week. These people were not country yokels by any means. They were articulate and well traveled. Their farms were highly productive. And they used virtually no petroleum.

Yes, they had a little kerosene for their lanterns, and maybe grease and oil were used to lubricate moving parts on the horse-drawn equipment. But their use of petroleum was pretty much nonexistent compared with today.

There was a train-line not too far away and the children rode their bikes to the station to catch a steam-train to high school, a 45 minute trip. Nowadays the local children catch a bus for a one hour trip to their nearest high school. Much of the farm produce was delivered to the railway station by wagon where it was transported to markets.

Their water supply was pumped from the well thanks to a windmill and a hand pump.

Man and beast alone

Paddocks were plowed, worked and sown with horses. At harvest time horses pulled binders which tied the crops into sheaves. The sheaves were later forked onto horse drawn wagons and made into huge stacks not too far from the farmyard. During early winter a wood-fired traction engine (steam-engine) pulled a drum from farm to farm. A drum is a huge threshing machine which took 15 men to operate. It was belt-driven from the traction engine’s flywheel and it threshed the grain from the straw. These drums were still working around Tasmanian into the 1950s. They can still be seen in operation at some of our historic farming field days.

The point that I’m belaboring and repeating is that these farms used almost no petroleum, were highly productive, and farming families and laborers enjoyed a good standard of living.

Could we return to this style of living and farming? The answer is yes, but with some not-insurmountable difficulties.

Ramping up to face the effects of peak oil

First the number of heavy horses required would take decades to breed up. Also there are very few people around with the ability to work heavy horses. It’s a skill that I suspect not everyone has the ability to acquire. An ill trained or poorly driven horse is dangerous and it can take years to learn the skill necessary to work a horse properly.

The answer is oxen (we call them bullocks here in Australia). There’s no shortage of cattle and they are much more placid and easier to train than horses. Also their harness requirements are minimal and they are easy to feed and maintain. The only downside is that oxen are slower than the horse but hey, that’s not so bad, is it?

Up until the mid 1800s all animal power on farms was supplied pretty much by oxen, although the farmer may have had a light horse for riding or to pull a cart. In most American Western movies and TV shows horses are pulling the covered wagons that made up the wagon trains. In actuality, these covered wagons were mainly drawn by oxen. Possibly a slower but certainly a more sensible option, ox could pretty much live off the land they were passing through and didn’t suffer from many off the health issues of the horse.

Could oxen save the day? Quite possibly. Cuban President Raul Castro recently called for ox to be used as beasts of burden as a way for the economically strapped communist country to ramp up food production while conserving energy.

Ramping up food production – conserving energy – a cash strapped economy – falling oil supply? Sounds familiar? How long before a leader of the western world pleads for a solution to the same problems? Or have they already but are looking in the wrong direction?

–Steven French for Transition Voice





When it rains it pours…..

18 05 2016

And I mean literally, as well as metaphorically.  We’re just half way through May, and Tasmania has already tallied more than its average May rainfall, following months and months of well below average rain.

On the metaphorical side, while the sawmilling is still happening (when the rain pauses), the excavator turned up.  In total darkness, and drizzling rain, with a huge truck that almost didn’t make it through our driveway which is flanked by two deep ditches at the

digger

Dawn of a new era…?

roadside.  Because the guy who normally floats Trevor’s excavator let him down, he had to use this oversized low loader, which then got immediately bogged almost to the axle behind my shed after unloading the digger….. which had to be used to pull the truck out.  Trust me, it was more excitement than I could wish for at dinner time.

That very evening, I get an email saying my batteries were at a depot 20km North of Hobart, so I spent a fine day driving to the big smoke to pick them up, over 500kg….  After so much rain, the farm is getting very slippery for my two wheel drive ute, and reaching some of the places I’ve been taking for granted is getting much harder, but I managed to get to the container in one go without getting bogged!

20160517_145235The batteries came in crates meant to be used just once, there was no way of dismantling them carefully for reuse; they were solid enough for the job, but totally fell to pieces when prized apart.  And so many nails and screws, it was unbelievable.  The crate labeled ‘accessories’ had the electrolyte powders (caustic), heavy duty rubber aprons and gloves, eye protection, battery hydrometer, thermometer, insulated spanners for bolting the things together with the links supplied, terminal protectors, and even a special tool for removing the filler caps.  You’d think there would be instructions for mixing the electrolyte (as promised), but that was not the case, a minor issue I’m sure as I will 20160517_160653certainly get them as necessary from Ironcore.

The first thing you notice when lifting them up is how light they are.  Each 1.2V battery is the size of a heavy duty car battery, but easily half the weight.  Less actually, because I eventually started moving them into the container two at a time, one under each arm! Even filling them up with electrolyte would only increase their weight by one kg, so it wasn’t why they were this light, they simply don’t have lead in them.

These Nickel iron batteries were originally designed over 100 years ago to be used in electric vehicles, and now it’s got me thinking about using them for doing this too if I ever get around to converting one of my utes to EV status.  Ironcore sell 1.2V 10Ah batteries that weigh just 1.2kg each, which would be a good size as an EV would need at least 400 of them to reach a working voltage of 480V DC; such a battery bank would cost ‘only’ $6000, and with a capacity of 4kWh should give the ute a range of maybe 50 km….. enough to get from here to Huonville……..

Now the batteries are on the floor, I’ve decided that they are not staying there, and I will have to build or buy some shelving to raise them up.  There’s no way I’m going to be bending over to maintain this many cells on a regular basis at floor level… Shelving’s always handy for storing tools etc anyway, so now I have something else to keep me occupied!  No time to get bored around here……