Off Grid

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Off Grid

#1  Postby theropod » Aug 28, 2011 12:56 pm

All,

I've been asked to start a thread about living off the electrical grid, and so here we go. This will have to be rather long and drawn out as this has been a learning experience like no other and is quite the tale.

My wife and I moved to our very remote property in the north central part of the Arkansas Ozark mountains in June of 2000. Things had gone south at my former job in South Dakota and we had little other choice than to start over here. The road into our land was little better than a trail and the first thing we had to do was hire a bulldozer to push out a road so that we could get in and out without needing 4 wheel drive every day of the year. We only had a old 23' travel trailer for shelter and a small storage building for out entire household of goodies. The only source of electrical power we had was one large "trolling motor" type 12V battery. This powered a few small lights and a water pump for the shower and sink, but not well. I recharged this battery with a gas powered 5HP engine and a standard 60 amp GM alternator, which didn't work well at all.

The standard automotive alternator has an internal regulator designed to quickly replace the power drained from the battery when starting a vehicle's engine. In that function it works quite well as the starting battery isn't deeply discharged and the power removed from the starting battery is quickly replaced by the alternator. In our situation the battery was drained much deeper than a starting battery experiences. The automotive alternator, in our case, attempted to throw its full output back into the depleted battery as fast as it could and this was too much load for the engine and it would require the engine to run at its maximum RPM. This used a great deal of fuel and was very hard on the engine to run at its full output. Also when the battery nears its charged state the alternator drops off in output so as not to overcharge the battery. While this is a good thing for a car it is a very bad thing for a deep cycled battery. It's bad because a deep cycle battery "likes" to be charged hard up to the float voltage level at a constant voltage. This tapering charge takes far too long and uses far too much fuel. That whole system was a huge waste, but we had little choice, experience or knowledge at this initial stage.

The grid power supplier for our area wanted $18,500 to bring grid power to us, and that was not in the budget or bank, so we had little other option than to figure out a way to make our own power. We bought a small Kubota diesel engine (EL-300) to replace the gas engine both because the engine was less of a fuel hog and it had more torque. I fitted a larger 80 amp Ford externally regulated alternator to the Kubota and this allowed me to vary the voltage supplied to the alternator's field coil and thus it's output. I used a simple wire wound rheostat (variable resistor) to control this field current, and this worked much better. I could start the engine, allow it to warm up and gradually begin to recharge the battery, keep a close eye on the amperage and voltage and adjust the alternator output based on the state of charge of the battery.

About this time we bought our first power inverter. This electronic device pulls power from the 12V battery and converts it to 110V alternating current that most common US appliances use. This inverter was a 1.5K watt unit that can sustain that load as long as the battery is capable of supplying the source DC. As one can imagine a single battery will not supply a great deal of power for very long and we found ourselves running the diesel engine in unison with the inverter for longer and longer periods of time. This placed a heavy demand on our single battery and it soon failed, which was not unexpected. We then bought 2 new batteries of the same type and hooked them together to make an even larger 12V "bank" of batteries. This help considerably but we were still faced with long recharge run times on the engine.

This inverter would only power our TV and a few other loads for a few hours without having to run the engine again and we only marginally better off than with the single battery. We were going through a lot of diesel and the noise was very abrasive after a while. We could not run our small air conditioner as the starting surge exceeded the ability of the inverter and it would turn itself off in a self protection mode. Needless to say this was unacceptable.

Our solution, as bad as it was, was to buy more larger batteries. We bought 4-6V golf cart batteries and I configured them in pairs for 2 large 12V sets. This extended our run time a great deal but it also required longer run times on the engine to recharge them. The inverter would still not start large loads like the AC.

We eventually figured out that we needed a means by which the batteries could receive a charge without having to run the engine on a regular basis. We bought 2 75 watt BP solar panels which was an immediate improvement. Still 150 watts of 12V DC is only 12.5 amps of current at best. If it's really hot, slightly cloudy or the panels are even partially shaded this current is reduced greatly. Those panels were very expensive as the manufacturing costs at that time were very high. I think we paid about $440 for each of them. We still had to run the engine a great deal so this was only a slight improvement.

We lived like that for another year and we bought a belt driven generator so that we could at least have enough alternating current to run the AC and other larger loads the inverter would not start. This became a pain in the ass and we were back to burning far too much diesel.

That belt driven generator did allow us to start building our little house as we now had the ability to run power tools. However before we started on the house we built a power building to shelter the battery bank, engine and all the other electronics. While working on that small building I fell just a few feet when a brace let go and I shattered my left wrist. This event, since my employer didn't offer health insurance, cost s over $15,000. The money we had set aside for buying more solar panels went to the doctors and hospital.

When we eventually regained out monetary footing we bought 2 more solar panels but this time we got 125 watt Sharp units. This brought our solar array up to 400 watts, or 33.3 amps. About this time our 4 battery bank died and we doubled those to 8 6V golf cart batteries and added a Xantrex C-40 charge controller. This device functions to protect he battery bank from overcharging and regulates the current by sampling the state of charge and temperature. These advancements helped us a great deal, but we were still limited to the AC loads we could run without having to resort to running the engine, and the days when the solar array didn't supply the needed charging current. The charge controller also automatically supplies he batteries with a monthly equalization charge wherein the batteries are allowed to rise in voltage and the amperage is lowered so that the electrolyte can mix from the top to bottom of each cell.

Not long after this we bought 2 more panels but this time we got 145 watt Kyocera units. This brought our array up to 690 watts and 57.5 amps of charging current. About the same time as we bought the last panels our belt driven AC generator died and we found a larger inverter that can sustain 2,500 watts and will withstand a surge of 5,000 watts for 30 seconds to start larger AC loads. Most AC motors draw a great deal more power for a the first few seconds and then the load will drop off after that. This now allowed us to run the air conditioner or any other appliance we needed without having to start the engine and supplement the PV (photovoltaic) array.

I also found a large frame 120 amp alternator that originally was fitted to an ambulance and replaced the Ford 80 amp unit.

The 8 battery bank started to get weak so we expanded that to 12 6V golf cart batteries which gave us a total capacity of 1,320 amp hours at 12V of storage. What that means, in a battery Utopia, is one could draw 1 amp of power for 1,320 hours. Naturally no load is that small and as the drain increases the capacity decreases, but we were getting there.

I was given one small PV with a 45 watt output and added that to the PV array to bring our total possible harvest to 735 watts or 61.25 amps.

All of the panels that we bought have a 25 year warranty to produce 80% of their rated output. So far I have not noticed any degradation. These are mounted to the roof of the power room.

As for batteries, as they are THE weak link in our system, a great deal of care and feeding is required to keep them happy and live a long productive life. After an equalization charge every month I pull the caps, check the electrolyte levels on each cell (adding distilled water as needed), clean them, neutralize any vented acid and use a hydrometer to check their specific gravity. I record this info for each cell so that if a sudden change takes place I can isolate a bad battery from the bank. This info also allows me to gauge how the batteries are aging. The charge/discharge cycles take their toll the overall capacity of the bank since the lead plates eventually are either eroded away or are covered in sulphate crystals. These form when the batteries are allowed to remain in a low state of charge over an extended time. Our current bank is over 6 years old, which means they have lasted longer than all the others combined. I attribute this to the larger capacity, charge controller and the expanded solar array. Our current batteries have rarely been fully drained since the capacity is so large, the charge controller is "smart" about how it deals with the drain/recharge condition of the batteries and the large frame alternator can really pump up the power to them.

We have added 2 small wind turbines to our system that contribute to the charging scheme. Both are repurposed electrical motors. One is a General Electric "ECM" (Electronically Commutated Motor) that has magnets on the rotor that i gutted to create an alternator. The output from this must be rectified into direct current so the batteries can absorb it. The second turbine is a purchased unit that is a converted 1/2 HP sears garbage disposal. The rotor has been replaced with a purpose built unit holding rare earth magnets. This also produces wild AC which must be rectified. We only have reliable wind about 7 months of the year, and usually from late fall to late spring, but they have helped a great deal. During one strong sustained wind event I saw 41 amps being delivered to the battery bank, or 492 watts. This accounts for rectifier and supply wiring line losses. Both turbines are fitted with high density plastic blades I purchased from a seller in Salem, Oregon and are very very nice.

Our plans are to to at least double the PV array and battery bank as the funds will allow. I also plan on raising the wind turbines up on taller towers, but I worry about lightening strikes should I get them above the tree tops. Considering the long and tortuous road that we have taken to get to this point we are quite happy to be at this stage. Still, we have far less than the $18,500 the power company wanted to bring us power we would then have to pay a monthly bill to use. Solar panels have come down in price a great deal in the past couple years and the US government is providing small incentives via tax breaks we plan on using.

I haul our utility/co-op water from our meter at the end of our private road (.6 miles away) in a 150 gallon tank that fits in my old pickup truck and drain that into our larger (475 gallon) storage tank. This tank sits on a level compacted limestone gravel base with a layer high density foam insulation and is surrounded by a masonry enclosure. This tank is about 20 feet up the hillside from our house and the gravity pressurizes the water for our needs. I drain, flush and clean the entire system twice a year using copious amounts of chlorinated bleach. We filter all of the water we drink through a Pur pitcher.

Our septic system is rather simple but works very well and releases no surface contaminants. I used 3 55 gallon plastic barrels with the ends removed from two and both ends form another. I joined the two end barrels to the middle barrel with stainless steel screws with scraps from another and several layers of roof sealant. The liquid is forced to remain in the barrels by a baffle (more barrel scrap) in the middle and once digested then exits into a drain field of standard perforated piping in a washed gravel bed. When we had the bulldozer push in the road we had them dig the required area for this system. When completed I covered the whole affair in about 2 feet of surface soil. I added clean out access points in 2 places before the tank and one at the tank itself.

Our gray water drains into a separate holding tank which is also a plastic barrel buried to the top in washed gravel with 1" holes about 2" on center about 6" down from the top. This acts as a sort of septic in that any biological material drained from the sinks or showers is allowed to be digested by bacteria before entering the soil. A nearby red oak seems to absolutely love it and is far more green and lush than its companions.

Had we to do this all over again there would be several things we would do differently, but as they say experience is a great teacher. Feel free to ask any questions you may have and I'll do my best to answer them.

Thanks fro reading my epic saga.

RS
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Re: Off Grid

#2  Postby campermon » Aug 28, 2011 1:10 pm

Much respect!

Have you had to build a house too?
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Re: Off Grid

#3  Postby rEvolutionist » Aug 28, 2011 1:25 pm

:popcorn:

Will add some thoughts after i've had time to read the OP.
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Re: Off Grid

#4  Postby james1v » Aug 28, 2011 1:31 pm

Well done. :cheers:
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Re: Off Grid

#5  Postby Galactor » Aug 28, 2011 1:31 pm

theropod wrote:All,

I've been asked to start a thread about living off the electrical grid, and so here we go. This will have to be rather long and drawn out as this has been a learning experience like no other and is quite the tale.



Always wondered what you meant by "X years off grid and lovin' it".

I would like to know how much of your energy, at present, is from renewable sources such as wind, sun, wave and how much is produced through fossil fuel or the odd bit of nuclear fission.

You seem to spend a lot of time, effort and expense with maintenance and expansion - is this the case?

I think personally I would have issues with the noise - does this not outweigh the benefits?
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Re: Off Grid

#6  Postby Galactor » Aug 28, 2011 1:32 pm

How do you connect to the interrynets by the way?
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Re: Off Grid

#7  Postby theropod » Aug 28, 2011 2:11 pm

campermon wrote:Much respect!

Have you had to build a house too?


Yes,

I think I went into a good level of detail about it over on the what are you doing thread. The was nothing bit rough forest land when we moved here.

RS

ETA:

HERE"S what I wrote about my house:
I built my house with 6" walls full of insulation (R-19), 1" foam insulation board (R-7) on the outside under the 5/8" blandex sheathing (R-1), Tyvek home wrap over that, Hardi-Plank concrete fiber board lap siding over that with serious caulking to seal any cracks no matter how tiny. There is a 24" overhang on all the eves and soffets with a vent every 3 feet, and vents in each gable. I built the roof trusses with a 12" "foot" on the ends to allow for extra air/insulation space between the ceiling and decking. The attic has nearly 24" of fiberglass insulation, both batting and loose. I plan on adding at least 3 solar powered attic ventilators before next summer, and maybe some more blown-in fiberglass. The flooring has the same R-19 and R-7 foam board with a layer of Tyvek over all. The windows and doors are the highest R value I could find and have low-E coating. The entire house has less than a dozen nails in its construction and all fasteners are screws, and anti-corrosion where needed. Very little direct air transfer takes place. If every house was built this well energy needs would be greatly reduced, and would last much longer.
Last edited by theropod on Aug 28, 2011 2:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Off Grid

#8  Postby campermon » Aug 28, 2011 2:14 pm

theropod wrote:
campermon wrote:Much respect!

Have you had to build a house too?


Yes,

I think I went into a good level of detail about it over on the what are you doing thread. The was nothing bit rough forest land when we moved here.

RS


:thumbup:

It's something that I've always fancied doing! Perhaps when the minicampermons are grown up!
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Re: Off Grid

#9  Postby theropod » Aug 28, 2011 2:37 pm

Galactor wrote:
theropod wrote:All,

I've been asked to start a thread about living off the electrical grid, and so here we go. This will have to be rather long and drawn out as this has been a learning experience like no other and is quite the tale.



Always wondered what you meant by "X years off grid and lovin' it".

I would like to know how much of your energy, at present, is from renewable sources such as wind, sun, wave and how much is produced through fossil fuel or the odd bit of nuclear fission.


The only non renewable source we have is the small Kubota diesel engine and it sips fuel at about 1 pint per hour at full load. I say we use around 30-40 gallons a year. When we expand our solar array and battery bank that should drop a great deal.

We have almost 750 watts of solar and potentially the same in wind power. No waves as we are more than 400 miles from the ocean and live on the south facing side of a steep mountain. I have thought about adding a collection system to direct our heavy rains to turn a water wheel/turbine, but haven't done so yet. Digging the directional ditches will require a backhoe and some concrete work, but the plans are afoot!

Galactor wrote:You seem to spend a lot of time, effort and expense with maintenance and expansion - is this the case?


Not really. I have to change the engine oil every 100 hours of operation, which during the summer is every two weeks. That's a 15 minute chore. I save that used oil and mix it back into the diesel fuel at 1 quart oil per 2 gallons of fuel after I filter it through a new spin-on filter to catch any metal particles. I do the battery check once a month and takes maybe an hour. I have the engine set up to throttle, start, engage/disengage charging and stop from within the house via a set of relays. I clean the PV array maybe a couple times a year and check all the lead cables. I fetch water maybe 2 to 3 times a week. I hook a hose to the supply and sit in my pickup listening to the radio. It takes about 20 minutes to fill the transfer tank. We hope to get a pipe laid to bring that water directly to the house. When I dump that into the main storage tank I just extend that same hose to a fitting and forget it until it drains out. I have plugs that seal both ends when exposed to the elements so nasties don't get inside. My semi-annual flush of the water system only takes a couple hours as I have a set of valves and outlets in the supply line positioned just so. In the beginning of this affair I did spend a great deal of time messing with things, but I've worked pretty hard to figure out little helpers.

Galactor wrote:I think personally I would have issues with the noise - does this not outweigh the benefits?


The engine, enclosed in a separate building from the house, has its own muffler and I added an exhaust stack with a much larger muffler in line with that taken from a Lincoln town car. The exhaust points away from the house, and I plan on making a heat exchanger so that I can capture some of the exhaust heat and use it in the winter to help warm the house. That should also help with the noise. When we have the air conditioning running it's hard to tell the engine is running. If we have the TV or stereo on I can't hear it at all.

I'd say we only have to use the engine a couple hours a week from mid fall to late spring, and only then when it's cloudy and still for more than a couple days. When we expand our battery bank and solar array we hope to extend the time between running the engine to almost a week. It rarely is that dark and still for that long here. If we can get to that point the engine will be very much for last resort use only.

RS
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Re: Off Grid

#10  Postby theropod » Aug 28, 2011 2:52 pm

Galactor wrote:How do you connect to the interrynets by the way?


Oh you would have to bring up that sore spot! :lol:

We use Wildblue satellite as our net connection. It's slow and drops out when there is serious rain either on my end or at the downlink hub. The distance up to a geosynchronous satellite and back down to the hub, then the hub collecting the data, then back up and back down to me is a limiting factor that cannot be avoided. We don't get very good cell service so using that is out. There are no wireless ISP's anywhere on a line of sight with us either, so we're sortta stuck. We didn't have a net connection for the first 5 years we lived here and I was a net user way back in the early days of 9,600 baud modems, and before that with local area nets using the phone cradle 300 baud modems. Yes I'm an old fart!

The FCC promised that when the TV signals were converted to digital a nationwide wireless system would replace the analog bandwidth of the old TV system. I haven't seen or heard a word about that since.

RS
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Re: Off Grid

#11  Postby Galactor » Aug 28, 2011 5:16 pm

theropod wrote:I have thought about adding a collection system to direct our heavy rains to turn a water wheel/turbine, but haven't done so yet. Digging the directional ditches will require a backhoe and some concrete work, but the plans are afoot!


There was a show on the BBC a while back: It's Not Easy Being Green. A group of people was filmed moving into a setting up a cottage in the English country to be as green as possible. One of the occupants was Dick Strawbridge, a retired army engineer who, along with another chum, built a water wheel to power a generator; they channeled water to the wheel with a small gradient. See here if interested.


One other question: what does Mrs. Theropod think of it all and does she get involved with the mechanics?
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Re: Off Grid

#12  Postby theropod » Aug 28, 2011 5:36 pm

Galactor wrote:
There was a show on the BBC a while back: It's Not Easy Being Green. A group of people was filmed moving into a setting up a cottage in the English country to be as green as possible. One of the occupants was Dick Strawbridge, a retired army engineer who, along with another chum, built a water wheel to power a generator; they channeled water to the wheel with a small gradient. See here if interested.


Thanks for the link. I'll surely check it out, but the problem we have is no consistent water flow. I'd have to rely on rainfall which I would have to direct from across several acres into channels and then into a main flume to either a wheel or turbine. I have plenty of gradient as we have more the 300 feet of elevation change on our land. I've given that whole idea a great deal of thought!

Galactor wrote:One other question: what does Mrs. Theropod think of it all and does she get involved with the mechanics?


Heh, she loves helping. Actually she's quite handy and knows exactly what tool I need when I yell down for a 13mm boxed end wrench. She has no issues with winding up extension cords and such, but she is terrified of anything more than a few feet off the ground. Mrs. Theropod has a very smart dad that taught her how to change oil in a car and a bunch of tasks requiring getting dirty. Hell, she's a very strong woman and would help me more if I asked. Most things I can do by myself, even at my advanced age, so she gets to stand by with 911 entered into the phone and a finger hovering over "send".

:lol:

Mrs. Theropod absolutely loves our isolated location and tight little house, except for the net thing and getting to and from work when it comes a snow or ice storm, and then she just doesn't drive. I've never had a problem with that as I was raised in eastern Washington state where snow is common so I take over all driving in such weather.

RS
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Re: Off Grid

#13  Postby Galactor » Aug 28, 2011 6:50 pm

How far away is (are) your nearest neighbour(s)?

What is the approximate population density where you live?

Can you get together with folk around the area for a beer and a shindig?
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Re: Off Grid

#14  Postby Galactor » Aug 28, 2011 6:52 pm

Oh, and are there any dinosaur skeleton deposits in the area?
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Re: Off Grid

#15  Postby theropod » Aug 28, 2011 7:20 pm

Galactor wrote:How far away is (are) your nearest neighbour(s)?


2 miles.

Galactor wrote:What is the approximate population density where you live?


Very low. Population density is 18 people per square mile for the entire county, and far far lower for the rural areas where we live.

Galactor wrote:Can you get together with folk around the area for a beer and a shindig?


Heh, the beer is an issue since it's a dry county. The sale of alcohol is prohibited. As far as a shindig goes I'd rather go golfing or about anything else. The local festival is a "folk festival" where bluegrass bullshit is all one hears. I'm up to my ass in real card carrying hillbillies.

Oh, and are there any dinosaur skeleton deposits in the area?


Nope, but every rock seems to have a fossil of some Carboniferous thing or another.

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Re: Off Grid

#16  Postby chaggle » Aug 28, 2011 8:05 pm

theropod wrote:
Heh, the beer is an issue since it's a dry county. The sale of alcohol is prohibited.


:shock: I was loving it until I read that! Are we talking about the USA here? Prohibition? I'm shocked!! :shock:
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Re: Off Grid

#17  Postby theropod » Aug 28, 2011 9:34 pm

chaggle wrote:
theropod wrote:
Heh, the beer is an issue since it's a dry county. The sale of alcohol is prohibited.


:shock: I was loving it until I read that! Are we talking about the USA here? Prohibition? I'm shocked!! :shock:


Ha, you have no idea. Yes, this is the south. Most of the things you've heard are true. This is the intellectual armpit of the universe. Vogans are poetically gifted giants in comparison.

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Re: Off Grid

#18  Postby JoeB » Aug 29, 2011 9:02 am

WOW! Well done! It's somewhat of a personal fantasy to live off the grid myself, although it's not necessary in the Netherlands..

I like the fact that you combined solar and wind power, as during the winters there's generally more wind and less light, so they compensate for each other that way. :)

Given that you live in the Southern USA, and have a well insulated house (although the USA R-values etc are a bit confusing for us metric types, it seems to be roughly similar to the values in our new-build houses) I don't expect you have a lot of heating problems, but how do you manage heating when you need it?
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Re: Off Grid

#19  Postby campermon » Aug 29, 2011 9:20 am

chaggle wrote:
theropod wrote:
Heh, the beer is an issue since it's a dry county. The sale of alcohol is prohibited.


:shock: I was loving it until I read that! Are we talking about the USA here? Prohibition? I'm shocked!! :shock:


Me too!!

Do you homebrew or go over the county line to stock up on essential beer supplies?

:lol:
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Re: Off Grid

#20  Postby The_Metatron » Aug 29, 2011 10:33 am

Theropod,

No doubt you are successful with your station. I'd like to visit sometime.

However, I intend to show that, while your station allows you to live where you do, it is not greener than living on the grid.

I cannot, however, assail your very effective methods of reducing energy usage. The way you've built your house with reducing consumption in mind at every step is definitely the way to go.

I think I can show that, per usable watt of energy, you expend more energy to produce that watt than the energy taken to produce the watts I use on the commercial grid. This is going to take some considerable searching, though. Here is my proposed path:

I intend to find out, as best I can, the energy required to manufacture, install, and maintain the hardware in your station. The sum will be simple arithmetic. Arriving at the actual energy costs, not so simple. Then, we can compare that against the amount of usable energy your station produces for you. Ammortizing this over the usable lifetime of your station's compenents will give us the cost (in energy) per kilowatt-hour for your site.

I'm then going to need to do something similar on a model of a commercial plant. Much harder. Estimating the transmission infrastructure will be very difficult indeed.

I'm wondering how closely connected energy cost is to economic cost. Quite closely, I'd guess. It may be simpler to establish that premise. For example, if I say that the energy cost of delivering energy to a house is equivalent to the economic (monetary) cost of doing so, we should see a few billion backyard power plants instead of the centralized power production/transmission network systems we have in use throughout the industrialized world. The consumer would seek out the least costly (monetarily) solution to get their power. If it were cheaper for everyone to have their own backyard power plant, that is how it would be today.

But, it isn't.

I wonder why not.

I'm working on it.
I AM Skepdickus!

Check out Hack's blog, too. He writes good.
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