How About 16 Horsepower?

Reader Contribution by Staff
article image

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.

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

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

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)

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.   

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.

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

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

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.  

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: 

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?

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.