Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I always like being around people who “get it.” From time to time you meet someone who really does something well and understands something completely. I’ve learned that when you spend time with people like that their expertise and knowledge can almost “rub off” on you and help you to understand things too.
One of the greatest influences in my life over the last 8 or 9 years has been my friend Bill Kemp. He really “gets” the whole electricity/energy/off-grid thing. He engineers hydroelectric dams and biogas systems and he lives off-grid, and when I met him he was actually making his own inverters for his house. What a concept! I met him when I went to his house to pick up some used batteries from him. I asked him a question about why my batteries weren’t holding their charge very well. I’d asked this same question to many “experts” over the years and had never received a satisfactory answer. When I asked Bill, he drew a graph and explained to me that I hadn’t been running my generator long enough in order to push the battery charge far enough up the curve so that they’d hold their charge properly. His description was so simple and made so much sense that it was like a light bulb clicked on over my head. A compact fluorescent light bulb, of course.
As I spent more and more time with Bill he continued to hammer away at me about the difference between power, measured in watts, and energy, measured in kilowatt-hours. I’d say things like, “My toaster uses too much energy” and Bill would correct me and explain that it uses a lot of “power” (1200 Watts) while it is on, but since it’s only on for a few minutes, it doesn’t draw a lot of energy out of my batteries. Years later I’m finally starting to catch on.
One night as we drove back from doing a renewable energy talk in Toronto, I mentioned that I had received a shock from my generator. It had been a humid day and I had stood on the concrete garage floor in my bare feet while I started up the generator. In hindsight it was probably not something most rocket scientists would have done. But I didn’t think it should have shocked me none-the-less.
So at 10 pm we rolled into my driveway, and I opened my garage door and turned on the lights, which don’t light up the generator very well. My ONAN generator is a big scary beast with a lot of pipes and wires, which completely baffle me. Bill pulled off a plate hiding some electronics and, I kid you not, before I had time to shine a flashlight in there he said “There’s the problem right there…” and proceeded to fix it within seconds. Who does this kind of stuff? That anyone could know what the problem was to begin with is beyond me, but to find it within seconds is just bizarre to me.
Then he started up the generator, spit on the floor and put something, which I can’t recall (a multimeter? A piece of wire? A magic ostrich feather?) between the floor and the generator to test that it was grounded properly. Then suddenly he was gone in the night, like some kind of electricity super hero, turning down any compensation, just continuing on his mission to make electricity safe and teach the masses about power and energy. Or something like that.
For a few years after we published “The Renewable Energy Handbook” we attended The International Home & Garden Show in Toronto. Bill was always one of the featured speakers and in fact he was the “Green Street Ambassador” and provided lots of media interviews explaining some of the various businesses and displays that were featured in the “Green” section of the show. I always learned a lot by standing next to Bill at our booth and listening to him answer questions. One of the other vendors at the show was selling a “Solar Home Heating System.” It sounded wonderful to me. It used vacuum tubes to heat your home. It seemed too good to be true. So I dragged Bill over to take a look at it. He asked the vendor a few questions and then we left. I asked Bill what he’d thought of it. Bill’s reply was that it was great as long as you wanted to heat your home with electricity. I said, “But Bill, it was solar powered!
In fact the system relied on radiant floor heating, which would circulate the solar-warmed liquid through the concrete slab in the home. But as Bill pointed out to me, the months when you need to heat your home - November, December, January and February - have the least amount of sunlight. Living off-grid I know this firsthand. November and December are a bust for solar energy. By January we’re getting enough sun to run the electrical loads in our home, but heating your home is a whole different story.
Bill pointed out that even if you had your whole roof covered in vacuum tubes, which this system did not include, there would be minimal solar thermal energy available to you during the winter months. Turns out that the system included an electric, on-demand hot water heater that would heat the water for your in-floor radiant system whenever there wasn’t enough solar energy to do so. Which would be most of the winter. I hadn’t even noticed the electric water heater, I’d been so dazzled by the “Solar Home Heating System.” But Bill had noticed.
This is the sort of stuff guys like Bill “get,” and why I’m glad that I was able to convince him to write “The Renewable Energy Handbook” so he could share his knowledge with a much broader audience. In the years since we published this book, we’ve received lots of positive feedback from readers who really appreciate Bill’s easy-to-understand explanations of energy efficiency and renewable energy. It’s very gratifying.
Shortly after we published the book my uncle Ian Micklethwaite organized the “Wind World/Solar World Teaching Seminar” and about 1,000 people paid $90 to come to the Mississauga Living Arts Center to spend the day learning about renewable energy. There were also dozens of dealers who set up displays so that their products were available for conference attendees to check out. After living off-grid for a few years and feeling like I’d been bellowing at the top of my lungs encouraging other people to install solar panels, this conference was fantastic. Bill Kemp did the bulk of the presentations and his presentation loosely follows the Renewable Energy Handbook. It’s kind of like a video presentation of the book. You don’t get all of the detail, but for anyone who doesn’t have the time or desire to read the book, the video is very helpful.
Originally Ian produced the video in VHS format and we quickly sold out of those. There’s still so much interest in this seminar that we decided to have the entire thing dubbed on to DVD. It’s a few years old now, but all the basic elements of these systems haven’t changed. You still need to follow the basic steps and Bill covers all of the basics in these DVDs. He gives you the low down on how to approach renewable energy starting with energy efficiency, then moves on to a discussion of solar, wind, batteries, inverters, and how to tie it all together. If you’re anything like me, hopefully after watching it a few times you’ll finally understand the difference between power and energy!