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How About 16 Horsepower?

By Craig Vetter

Tags: self sufficiency, Living on daily incoming solar energy, converting sun to steam to electricity, Vetter Fuel Economy Challenge, Craig Vetter,

12 title 

Living Better on Less Energy  

Western civilization is totally dependent upon cheap and abundant energy. Three quarters of the petroleum we burn in our engines is imported. Could it be cut off suddenly? Without cheap and abundant energy, our way of life would collapse. 

If we value our freedom and independence, we should not be relying on foreign petroleum. We should be making our own energy. 

First… how much power do we need?  

There seems to be something special about 16 horsepower. 


12 16 hp everything 

We measure power in horsepower. In the 1960s, I crossed the U.S. on my 16 hp motorcycle. As a pilot, I have flown on 16 hp. As a rancher, I have cleared and cultivated my ranch with a 16 hp tractor. As a designer, I have learned that if I am streamlined, I can travel at any legal speed in the US with 16 horsepower. 

I can live well with 16 horsepower. 

Second:  Horsepower consumes fuel 

1 horsepower 

 A real horse consumes about 10 pounds of horse food per day.  

12 16 horese 

Sixteen horses would consume 160 pounds of horse food per day. Plus water. 

Sixteen gasoline-generated horsepower would consume 10 gallons of gas (about 65 pounds)

 12 16 hp in gasoline 

Third: The more horsepower we want, the more fuel we will consume. 

Consider the horsepower of various devices advertised in MEN: A 3½ hp Husquavarna chain saw is enough to cut our trees. Hooked into a Granberg Mill, it will reduce those logs to lumber for building. 8 horsepower drives Echo Bear Cat’s wood chipper. DR’s Brush Mower likes 17 hp; their wood chippers like 18 hp. Slowly creeping up in horsepower, we see that Cub Cadets have 24 horsepower. The smallest Polaris Ranger - at 450cc - is reported to have around 29 horsepower. The Kubota L series has 30 horsepower.

If we can live well on 16 horsepower, why would we want to pay for more? 

Maybe because we are told we need more. Prius cars have 78 hp. Harley–Davidson Big Twin motorcycles produce over 100 horsepower. Suzuki wants to sell us 200 horsepower motorcycles.   Cadillac wants us to buy cars with 550 horsepower.  Mercedes Benz offers 660 horsepower.  Bugatti 1006 hp.   

As a result, we have hundreds – sometimes thousands of horsepower at our disposal.  Horsepower we don’t need. Horsepower that is wasting energy. 

Ben Franklin advised early Americans – the ones with real horses - to live within their means.  

Today, we are living way beyond our energy means.   

12 two horses 

Living Within our Budget of Energy 

Unless you have an oil well on your property or own your own coal mine, or a river, you are probably dependant upon energy that comes from some kind of centralized provider.  As I write, hundreds of thousands of people in the American northeast have been without power for a week. They are at the mercy of centralized power. 

To be independent, we need to generate power ourselves.  We need to be de-centralized.

Turning Sunlight Into the Energy We Can Use  

It looks to me like the only viable alternative is to be harvesting the energy ourselves directly from the sun.  Growing plants is good.  Some we can eat… some we can burn. 

Take trees for example.  The trees we planted on our California ranch 25 years ago (and continue to plant today) totally heat our home and shop.

 12 euclyptus trees 

 Eucalyptus trees are incredible. Cut them down and they sprout again, bigger.

12 carol cooking 

However, much is not resolved. We don’t cut down trees with sun power. We cut them with gas-powered chainsaws. We don’t split and move the wood with the sun either. We burn Diesel. The problem is that we don’t have enough petroleum. To be sustainable, we need to figure out how to use the sun’s energy for all our important chores. This means converting sunlight into some kind of portable energy that is as useful as petroleum.  

It is going to be hard to replace petroleum.

Electricity Is a Pretty Good Medium 

12 one acre 

16 hp as 12Kw Photovoltaic Solar Collectors on MEN’s One Acre Homestead 

Contemporary wisdom backs photovoltaic solar panels. 16 horsepower can generate 12 Kw. (or the other way around).  To generate 12 Kw directly from photovoltaic solar panels we would need (12) 9’ x 12’ foot solar panels. (That is either 108’ long x 12’ high or 144’ long x 9’ high… shown above.) That is a lot of panels taking up a lot of space. 

Photovoltaic panels, however, have some serious weaknesses. They are guaranteed for only about 20 years. Then what? More important, the microcircuits in photovoltaic panels are easily destroyed by Electro-Magnetic Pulse. “EMP” is routinely produced in solar flares.  

12 EMP blast 

In 1859, a huge solar EMP blast hit the earth. Such a pulse would destroy all microcircuits today. No cars would work. No satellites. No GPS. No Internet. No cell phones. No computers. No digital cameras. The grid would be melted. All things with microcircuits would have failed, including our solar panels. 

Such a powerful EMP is expected to happen again.  It is just a matter of time.  Worse, a deliberate nuclear blast set off high above the US would do the same thing. Everything with microcircuits would be fried.   

The Steve Jobs Generation would be helpless.   

All is not lost. Electrical devices and vehicles – generally from before 1960 - would continue to work just fine because they did not have microcircuits. 

Without Solar Panels, How Could We Make Electricity Using the Sun?   

We should consider steam engines. We could oncentrate the sun’s energy to create steam to drive an electrical generator. We would probably need an old generator and old electrical appliances, but there are lots of them around. Electric appliances seem to last a long time. Such a system would be low-tech, low in cost, last a long time, be easily rebuild-able and be EMP proof. Remember, steam engines, like horses, require a fair amount of water, too. 

Boiler safety has been an issue in the past. Has there been any progress in that area? 

Below is a home-made, solar concentrating steam engine: 

12 solar concentrator 

Joe has assembled a bunch of mirrors on a grid about 12 feet wide and 15 feet high and aimed them at a boiler. This is a lot smaller than the photovoltaic array we saw earlier on the MEN one-acre plot. Joe is on to something really useful, here. 


Hurray for American inventors. 

Storing Energy 

While the sun shines, we will need to store our harvested energy for use later.  Pumping water is one of the best ways.  Heating water is equally good.  But, how do we take the power of this electricity out into the field to cut down trees?  To split logs?  With batteries?  Lead acid batteries also have a short life and need to be recycled or rebuilt.  My Interstate Battery dealer says the batteries turned in by customers are trucked to LA, turned into new batteries, shipped back and are on his shelves in a week!  But, what if no trucks are running?  We need batteries that can be easily rebuilt at home.  

Are there any batteries we can rebuild? 

Are there any sun-powered 16 hp steam engine-gen sets? 

Are modern steam boilers safe? 

Who makes these things?   

I think we can live well on 16 horsepower. What do you think?

12 barstow road 

P.S.: Just reminder that some of the new Vetter Fuel Economy Challengers will be doing a test ride from Las Vegas to Barstow Sunday morning, November 20, 2011. I am going to see how my 17 hp Streamliner does on those long windy hills at 70 mph. You are invited to ride with us.

frank lee
12/30/2011 11:04:18 AM

T Brandt is completely right re: unrelenting demand. I fear that any efficiency breakthroughs will be taken as a sign by egomaniacal breeders that the newly "freed up" resources are a green light to go go gonads. Jack: everything I've seen indicates more heavily loaded engines are more efficient- loads on the order of 75-80% of rated continuous output is where peak brake specific fuel consumption occurs (as in, best fuel efficiency, not worst). Look at examples where engines really are run in a steady state (not automotive- too much transient loadings): ships, aircraft, tractors, etc. I think you will find none of them being operated at the low loads and rpms you describe.

craig vetter
12/25/2011 2:38:36 PM

I am sorry that my browser Firefox - does not see comments. Gotta use Safari. It has been a month since you posted this. You and I have met and discussed things person to person. All I hope to do in life is: "Get the Big pieces right" Whether it is actual horsepower, peak horsepower, KWh, torque or who knows what, we are homing in what we really need to live better. It is a lot less that most people have been told, isn't it?Merry Christmas

jack mccornack
11/29/2011 2:18:40 AM

Interesting observations, Craig. I'm with you re the adequacy of a 16 hp vehicle (I think you and I both cruise on about 8 horsepower) but when discussing an engine's horsepower we need to differentiate between peak horsepower available and horsepower actually used. ICEs typically run most efficiently at 1/4 to 1/3 of peak horsepower (at 1/3 to 1/2 of peak horsepower RPM) and if you want a full day's work out of a horse you need to run it at around 1/10 of peak horsepower...but fortunately a horse peaks out at 5 to 10 horsepower so Watt's calculations work pretty well. Point is, replacing a given hp engine with actual horses (or vice versa) depends on how much steady state hp you need and how long you need to use it. Horses burn fuel very efficiently (and burn biofuel at that) but you have to let horses idle 24 hours a day, even on days you don't need horsepower. If you stop an engine it stops consuming fuel. If you stop a horse, well, it stops consuming fuel too, but you can't get it started again.

t brandt
11/27/2011 4:29:45 PM

It really all boils down to too many people and the unsustainable demands that places on the available resources. Our economy depends on consummerism and the delivery of goods depends on cheap, portable energy. Electric batteries just won't fullfill that need-- we've been looking for an adequately efficient battery for 100 yrs and haven't found it yet. Maybe we won't. Natural gas can easily be substituted for liquid petroleum for automotive applications. That would give us an additional three centuries to either discover cold fusion or to change our paradigm of population growth requiring economic growth requiring popualtion growth etc etc.

jase alex
11/27/2011 2:08:11 AM

Tim - I checked the link about the stirling but it did not work. If there is any other way to get to the info you were attempting to link please provide as this is of intrest to me and possibly a few others. Craig - Nice to see that you are giving some of the previouse alternatives that have been suggested a fair look. I still think a Hydrogen Cell is a good battery that can be replenished. Jase a.k.a. CM

frank lee
11/26/2011 3:10:34 AM

That's nice Bill but really gasoline weighs just over 6 lbs/gallon.

tim sefton
11/17/2011 3:31:41 PM

Love the article - we're working on a 1KW engine for a target cost of $100 - runs on any type of heat - its a stirling engine, our goal is to use it for generating electricity off the grid - check out our project on kickstarter -

bill griffin
11/16/2011 3:28:27 AM

Since a gallon of gas weighs 4 pounds (5 gallons weighs 20 lbs), the info on gallons of gas consumed is a bit off.

jared conner
11/12/2011 4:25:28 PM

No generator in the world can produce 12kw from 16hp. The best generators I have seen are around 600w per 1hp. With the average generator being around 500w per 1hp. So for 12kw you need something closer to 20-24hp.