Renewable energy will not save us!
Neither will more efficient energy production. See, for example, the Jevon’s Paradox, which I will mention again soon.
What we do with what we have, on the other hand, is worth talking about.
Thomas Princen, in his excellent book Treading Softly, describes what positive sacrifice is all about. I talk about this briefly in my podcast conversation with Anton Botha (LINK).
Let me be the asshole to state, for the record, that replacing your fossil-fuel powered energy source with a renewable energy supply of the same kilowattage is not going to help stop human-caused ecological decline. If you currently use, for example, above a kilowatt of energy at night, and wish to keep doing so with ‘renewables’, you will need a large array of batteries that take minerals and energy to produce, and the batteries will need to be replaced every 2 to 7 years, depending on how you use them.
Yes, batteries may become more efficient, and other technologies may become available to store energy more efficiently. But as the Jevon’s Paradox shows, the historical trend has been that when a technology becomes more efficient, as legislation supports the spread of the said tech, and as the tech becomes cheaper, the more quickly that tech spreads and production of goods and services accordingly increases as well because energy costs are lowered and funds are channeled into production. After all, the world is run by die-hard capitalists. Good for the economy, but not good for ecology. And what is not good for ecology, is not good for the economy in the long run. But we will have to learn that lesson the hard way.
My contention is that the only thing that human beings can do in order to proactively respond to the challenges posed by the ecological crisis, is to make positive sacrifices. Thomas Princen says the following about positive sacrifice:
Positive sacrifice is exemplified by the parent who sacrifices time and resources to raise a child. The typical parent will hardly express her efforts as sacrifice; it is just what parents do, part of having children. It is, in short, inherent in the role. To put it more caustically, if one does not want to sacrifice for children, one should not be a parent. Similarly, an artist sacrifices income and job security to do the art. It is not a negative sacrifice, because “doing the art” is what it means to assume the role of artist. It is sacrifice, though, because one is giving up economic and social benefit for the higher value of doing the art. One willingly “makes a sacrifice.”
Do I think that human beings will willingly make positive sacrifices of this kind in the context of the ecological problems we have created and that will increasingly effect us? No!
Do I think that we will, eventually, have to make these kinds of positive sacrifices because the current ‘order’ becomes unfit for purpose, and unable to continue due to the human-caused collapse of natural ecosystems? Yes!
I am not one to sit back and wait for the fan to hit the shit, so I took matters into my own hands – which is the only thing I believe we can do, rather than wait for some political party to fix things, or for some new technology to ‘save us’.
One of the things I have done is set an ‘energy goal’ that embraces the concept of positive sacrifice. I did my homework and saw that the large battery banks generally used in big solar energy systems are disastrous for the environment, which means disastrous for us, because human beings are part of the proverbial environment.
So, I decided to calculate the smallest size of battery storage that would get Emma and I through the night in relative comfort. We would use LED lights and our laptops at night, and be able to power a car stereo in our cabin. That’s it. We would positively sacrifice all the other devices and appliances that people tend to power at night, which requires either grid electricity or a big battery bank.
So the battery bank we use consists of only 2 deep cycle batteries, each of which has roughly 225 amp hours storage capacity. These are connected into a 24 volt battery arrangement – I will spare you the details of why a 24V arrangement has benefits over a 12V arrangement (mind you, there are also benefits to having a 12V arrangement…).
During the day, my 24V batteries are charged by the 650 watts of solar panels on my cabin’s roof. In full sun, it takes less than an hour and a half to fully charge the batteries after their usage from the night before; in cloudy weather, it can take up to 3 hours. When the charge controller moves from the ‘bulk’ setting to the ‘absorb’ setting, I switch on the 24V camping fridge. When the controller changes to ‘float’ mode, I can turn on the 300 watt inverter and charge our laptops and 2 cordless power tools, and a few other small devices like cell phone and torch.
In this manner, the batteries never discharge by more than 90%. They should last over 7 years. The more they are discharged (e.g. if they power the fridge at night), the shorter their lifespan. The power produced by the panels during the day after the batteries have been charged is excess power, and the issue of more efficient storage capacity is irrelevant. That said, when the batteries need to be replaced sometime after the 7 year mark, I will purchase the best replacement batteries available. But then, as now, the question of how to structure one’s energy usage is more important than the efficiency of the batteries, in my opinion.
During a cold front, it can take a little longer to charge the batteries. Sometimes I don’t switch on the camping fridge at all during stormy days, but then the temperature is cool enough during such weather conditions for the fridge to not warm up much anyway.
If everybody took a similar approach to their power usage, then the world would be a very different place. Of course I do not think that everybody is able to do this, for various reasons that I won’t mention here. But everybody is able to make some positive sacrifices in their own lives, in ways that are specific to their own contexts. And, may I add that a society in which people are willing to make positive sacrifices because they understand that everything is interconnected in a living system is a society that I think is worth sustaining.
This positive sacrifice of instant energy-usage gratification resonates with my commitment to a frugal lifestyle, a commitment that I made based on many years of thinking about what to do in response to the challenges posed by the human-caused ecological crisis. See, for example, my PhD and some of my academic articles (LINK). I have made other positive changes in my life, with the support of my partner, Emma. I am happy to come and talk at any event about any aspect(s) of our journey to a rustic off-grid lifestyle. Contact me if you are interested.
You can also contact me if you would like me to install a small-ish solar power system – of course, this would need to be in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa.
If you would like to consult with me on how to make positive sacrifices in your own life, or about how to approach the topic of renewable energy in a manner that is in tune with nature’s cycle, contact me and we can arrange an online meeting. Or we could meet in person if you reside near Port Elizabeth, South Africa.