Here’s Odd Questioner’s next installment in the series of Electricity in a Post-Tech World. I hope you’re getting as much out of this series as I am. One more after this and this series is done.
by Odd Questioner
Part 3 :)
In the previous article, we’ve covered two of the most popular ‘off-grid’ post-TEOTWAWKI power sources, solar and wind. However, there are a lot of other options out there that you may not know about, or haven’t considered. While these next options can get a bit more complicated, they are well worth exploring. In this article, let’s cover some DIY hydroelectric power, and that darling of the environmental movement, biofuel.
That’s right folks – if you have sufficient water-flow nearby, you won’t need Hoover Dam to keep juice coming to your home. Water has some pretty big advantages – a good year-round stream is always flowing, and gravity does all the work. If you have a substantial year-round source of running water, you’re good to go. A turbine, a few wires, and an inverter (this inverter thing is sounding pretty repetitive, isn’t it?) are all you need. If you can get up a dam when you install the turbine, you can insure not only a ready power supply, but a fresh (remember-untreated!) water supply, and possibly a source of fish (depending on how big the pond is). The biggest advantage? If the water flow is good, and the turbine big enough, you can get by with just one power source (though to be completely prepared, you really should have two).
The drawbacks involve water – how much do you have, and do you have enough? If you have a water supply, you have to be sure that it flows year-round, and be sure there’s enough of it. You also need to be sure that you stand a reasonable chance that no one upstream will dam it up and stop the flow. While a lot more reliable than wind power (and more constant than solar), you should definitely have a survey to insure that the water flows year-round and that you have enough of it flowing to keep a turbine spinning. Also note that some global catastrophes may disrupt that water flow (shifting rain patterns, an earthquake that shifts the feeder stream away from your property, etc).
Maintenance will be a bit higher than most other means. Because you’re using water to get the job done, you will have to be on the lookout for corrosion, and insure that the electrical portions remain nice and dry. Moving parts mean that you’re going to need spares and grease. Because we’re talking about water flowing in, we’re also talking about leaves, dirt, and other bits of trash flowing in. This means cleaning it out once in awhile. Design it right though, and with the right gear the amount of maintenance/cleaning will be at a minimum.
Turbines are readily available, though you do have to look for them. There are a wide variety, but two general types – small high-speed turbines made for small jets of rapidly flowing water, and larger, slower-moving wheels for large-volume, slower-moving water – the turbine can either be integrated, or attached by a belt or gearing. The smaller ones usually require a means of piping water at higher pressures, while the larger ones require less pressure, but a larger volume to move them.
All that said, one means of hydro power to consider is the classic water-wheel. If you have a sufficiently large source of moving water, you can build a good-sized (6′-12′) water-wheel, and run a belt from the center shaft to a generator sitting on dry land. These types require a lot less maintenance than the others (no piping, the water can be chock-full of trash and still work, etc). They also provide a whole lot more mechanical torque that you can put to other uses (milling grain into flour stands out as a historical biggie). The only real disadvantage is that they’re big, and will be very hard to hide.
If you have a generator with a forgiving carburetor (one that can burn biodiesel, methane, or alcohol), you can turn lots of stuff into fuel. Methane is as easy to get as having a big gas-tight bell that pulls methane from animal and human manure. High-proof alcohol production is older than the United States (and a constant stereotype of hillbillies everywhere) – that alcohol also has the added benefit of providing a good solvent as well as fuel for your generator. Biodiesel is a bit more complex, but is certainly doable with enough know-how and spare grease or fats. There are plenty of generator styles out there which either can burn these fuels, or can be converted to burn them. You also have one ultimate advantage that puts all others to shame: You can cook up the stuff pretty much anywhere.
The drawbacks are going to look dire at first, but let’s run through them: First off, you’re going to need a lot of biomass: grain/wood/plants, or manure from which to make the fuel. Producing this fuel will also very likely require a lot of work on your part, and more than a little planning ahead(this is because you make the stuff in batches, and not every batch will turn out perfect). You will have to find a place to safely store the fuel, and some forms (methane from manure) can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Fuel quality will likely be inconsistent from batch to batch depending on the source. Unlike most other power methods we’ve described, this one will require active participation from you.
Maintenance will take work. You’ll be cooking, or piling on manure, or distilling. You’ll need recipes, and a way of checking that the results are consistent (and useful!). You’ll have to keep the generator in top shape, and you will certainly need to keep an eye out for premature engine wear. You really should also modify and test out any generator changes long before you start to even think of relying on it for safety and/or comfort.
Out of the three types of biofuel mentioned, I would, if I had a choice, personally go for alcohol. Yes it will take grain of some sort to produce(or potatoes, or any other edible foodstuff that contains sugars). But, you can use alcohol as an excellent solvent, as an antiseptic solution for medical tools, and a very good cleaning solution. Notice one thing – do not drink the stuff. Unless you have the right tools, and a lot of experience in distilling ethyl alcohol, you are very liable to kill or permanently blind someone (or yourself) if you drink a bad batch. Methane would be a strong #2, but only if I had a lot of barnyard animals around to keep the composting/digestion generator fed.
No matter what variety you consider, also consider keeping it well away from the house. Aside from the dangers of explosion and/or fire, most of the commonly-used methods will stink to high heaven.
Next up… we go all steampunk, and express a few final notes.