Not by fire, nor by ice, nor by zombies

Walking Dead image source: AMC

I’ve been indulging my late-night craving for schlock by watching the entire series of “Walking Dead” episodes that aired over the last two years.

It’s fairly highbrow stuff for a soap opera about survivors of a zombie apocalypse, which means that it’s the perfect lens for looking at the state of American culture.

We have just emerged from a vitriolic fiscal cliff debate and are about to descend into a debt ceiling debate.

On the one hand, we have activists declaring the end times because of climate change and the mass extinction of wildlife species.

On the other hand, we have zealots preoccupied by the notion that Iran or North Korea could threaten world peace, or the notion that creeping socialism and national debt could trigger a massive societal meltdown.

Whether you listen to “Democracy Now” or read “Atlas Shrugged” or subscribe to the latest interpretation of the Mayan calendar, it’s hard to avoid the idea that we’re living in the end times.

And yes, being Americans, a lot of us are cashing in.

Gun manufacturers are getting filthy stinking rich by selling sleek assault rifles to suburbanites, worried that Barack Obama may just be a tyrant-in-waiting, or the Anti-Christ.

And Hollywood is getting filthy stinking rich by pumping out a constant stream of doom-fare.  The last couple of years, there have even been a spate of end-of-world comedies.

Mass human extinction.  What a chuckle.

This is the culture that politicians in Washington are pandering to — particularly, politicians on the right, who have boxed themselves into corner after corner by pretending that this vote, this decision, this stand will make or break America.

Tune in to conservative talk radio and you’ll find the Glenn Becks of the world selling survival kits, gold, and fear.  (Did I mention gold?  Lots and lots of gold.)

Lurking just behind the alarmist headlines and loudspeaker klaxons are some home truths that are often lost because they are, well, sort of boring.

The truth is that we live in the most peaceful, safe, fair, prosperous, and upward trending world ever witnessed in the long, sordid history of Mankind.  Our golden age makes the Pax Romana look trivial by contrast.

And just at present, there is no evidence that any of the problems we face are large or thorny enough that we can’t sort through them.

The national debt?  I’ll take that over Nazis or Spanish flu pandemics or the imminent threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union any day.

Climate change?  Dangerous and real, but also incremental and hardly likely to be civilization busting.

North Korea?  Please.

Set against these very real challenges are the many, many points of astonishing progress.  Humans are living far longer, with far more quality of life.  War has faded sharply, and beautifully, as a significant force in our lives.

Democracies are spreading with remarkable speed throughout the world and many of them are proving to be highly nimble, tough and enduring.

Yes, much of the Islamic world is still trapped in something of an ugly feedback loop.  But the remarkable thing isn’t that those countries are still backward in their political and social structures.

No, the remarkable thing is that so many countries have moved forward so rapidly, leaving nations like Saudi Arabia and Syria behind.  From South America to eastern Europe to Asia, a vast human renaissance is underway.

So why do we do it?  Why do we inflate a picayune political dispute in Washington DC — or the 2012 elections, for that matter — to the level of DefCon 3?

And why do we look for our entertainment to programs like the “Walking Dead” or Glenn Beck’s histrionics?

It’s not very original, but I suspect it has something to do with how we’re wired.  Humans evolved as a species that lived right on the border between predator and prey.

We feel good — or at least, we think we’ll feel good — when problems are immediate, simple and subject to “fight or flight” solutions.  We also enjoy narratives where more traditional roles and social structures are re-enforced.

In times of conflict, the complex choices, freedoms and uncertainties of modern life are replaced by a narrowing band of rules and options.  For many people, that’s comforting.  That feels “normal.”

The worry, of course, is that this kind of yearning for cataclysm can be self-fulfilling.

In the years before World War I, a largely peaceful and stable European civilization scrambled eagerly toward devastating conflict with a kind of suicidal zeal, which in hindsight smacks of sheer boredom and ennui.

The intellectuals of the day were intrigued by the idea that their “soft” and “effeminate” culture would be tested by fire and iron.

What they got, of course, was mud and death and disease.  It wasn’t romantic or heroic at all.

The point, really, is that the morning after the fiscal cliff deal — or after the late-night zombie-pocalypse marathon — we all have to brush ourselves off and get back to the mundane work of making things a little bitter day by day.

Most of us will contribute in small, incremental ways to the remarkable progress that Mankind is making.  The chances are very strong that none of us will ever get to be the heroes in a last stand against anything.  (Sorry, Glenn Beck.)

The good news is that there’s also very little chance that any of us will be turned into zombies.

132 Comments on “Not by fire, nor by ice, nor by zombies”

  1. Walker says:

    “An ironic aside to the issue is that the government is slapping tarrifs on solar panels from China which raises the price of solar technology in the US making it less competitive with oil and gas; but protects particular solar businesses in the US.”

    Mervel, come on, the subsidies are to counter the effect of Chinese subsidies of their solar industry. You think we should just turn a blind eye to the fact that the Chinese government subsidizes their solar industry?

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  2. Paul says:

    China is like the US in the past. They do everything they can to boost the economy. We can’t compete. We are no longer prepared to do the messy stuff that drives the economy forward. If you have been to China you know what I am talking about.

    Also, China holds the access to most of the materials needed to produce equipment for the alternative energy markets. Once we make the switch and China wins we will be dependent on one (or just a few countries) for all of our energy needs. It doesn’t really matter what we do as far as manufacturing things like solar panels we have already lost that battle.

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  3. Peter Hahn says:

    China has their own problems

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  4. Anita says:

    I was asked for specifics on the new solar PV system my husband and I installed. Here they are:
    It’s a 7 kW system, which is about 110% of our annual usage. 7 Kw also happens to be the largest residential system that is eligible for a full NYSERDA incentive. This incentive is paid by NYSERDA from systems benefit payments paid by utility customers who purchase electricity from participating electric utilities. National Grid participates, Massena Electric does not. To receive the subsidy, you must install a net-metered system that feeds the power into the electric grid.

    Cost was $29K. NYSERDA incentive paid directly to the installer was $10.5K. So our cost was $18.5K. This cost is eligible for a 30% federal income tax credit and a 25% state income tax credit. After these income tax credits, our cost becomes the equivalent of 8-9 years worth of electric usage. With no subsidies, the payback period would be about 24 years at our current electric rates; still within the life of the equipment, but a much lower rate of return, especially if you have to borrow the money for the system.

    Expensive? Yes Heavily subsidized? Again, yes. These are subsidies available to us as individual consumers and taxpayers, however, not the subsidies pad to companies that seem to offend several people commenting here. The subsidies are helping to build a market and to increase the amount of power in the grid that is generated from renewable sources, helping the state meet its target.

    As to “doom and gloom” in my comment above, I don’t think we are looking at the extinction of homo sapiens. I do think it reasonable to wonder what survival into the future will be like – how will people live 200, 500, 1,000 years from now? What aspects of our current civilization can be sustained, and what cannot? How many people will be on our planet? I do have children and grandchildren, so I wonder what their prospects for comfort and health are.

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  5. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Thanks Anita! About what I thought, hope it works out for you.

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  6. Rancid Crabtree says:

    There are other alternatives to solar and wind. Biomass is a real world alternative that doesn’t require massive subsidizing, is capable of utilizing already developed equipment and processes and works well with other alternate forms of power. Plus, i can be used at the home or community level. However, there is very, very little interest in biomass at present.

    Walker, I didn’t get the impression anyone was defending Chinas subsidizing, just noting the problems that all subsidies bring.

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  7. Walker says:

    Anita, I would be curious to know what you’re billed for by National Grid when you’re up and running. I assume there are some fixed monthly components, and then there are those “delivery charges” that make up more than half of my electric bill each month– I’m guessing you pay them when you deliver current into their grid as well as when you’re drawing current from the grid when you need it, yes? So what is your overall savings, on average?

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  8. Walker says:

    “I didn’t get the impression anyone was defending China’s subsidizing…”

    No, Mervel was criticizing our tariffs on Chinese solar panels; I was pointing out that if we want to have any hope of competing with China in solar, we can’t ignore their government subsidies.

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  9. Anita says:

    Walker, NYS law makes net-metering a very attractive deal for the consumer. National Grid has to pay us the same delivery charge for any power we deliver to the grid that we have to pay them for any power they deliver to us – it is in effect an even swap. There is a basic account service charge in the mix, but I don’t remember what that is.

    One person near us who put in a similar system told my husband that he paid a grand total of $3.50 for his entire electric supply in one year’s time.

    Because we switched on the system in late December, when solar gain is low (especially low when Mother Nature dumps 14″ of snow on the system the day after it goes live – we’re still working on clearing the snow from the highest panels), it will take a full year before we know what our total cost of electricity to National Grid will be.

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  10. Anita says:

    Rancid, we are trying to use a biomass boiler at my workplace, but the equipment still is not up and running reliably.

    Electricity and heat are usually two separate energy needs (not very many of us have electric heat in NNY), so it is not unreasonable to use one renewable technology for one need and a different technology for another need. Apples and oranges. I would agree that biomass has real potential to supply a significant amount of the need for building heat – that it already does here in NNY, where many of my coworkers use wood heat as their primary heating source.

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  11. Ken Hall says:

    Brian Mann, As I read your blog article I was herded into the direction that I presume you intended; that being that we homo sapiens, the smartest primates to have evolved on Earth, have “mucked” spaceship Earth up a bit, consuming the Earth’s rapidly dwindling resources in the pursuit of our high technology lifestyle;but, with our intellectually superior acumen “not to worry” as we will/can easily fix it with additional high technology chicanery. A few of your contentions I found too egregious to allow my umbrage with them to go unaddressed.

    I find the MSM and now NPR use of “climate change” as synonymous with “global warming” incredibly disingenuous, self serving and pandering to the hydrocarbon energy conglomerates. Many who intend to diminish the importance of the effects that the “average global increase” of the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere are having upon the Earth’s weather patterns project that “Climate change”, which describes how weather is affected on Earth as a function of the temperatures of the surface and lower atmosphere, is the driving mechanism rather than the driven.

    I assume by “activists” declaring the end times because of climate change and the mass extinction of wildlife species” you include the 10’s of thousands of scientists and engineers whom have been shouting into the maelstrom created by the “global warming” dissenters for the past 30-40 years becoming increasingly vocal in the recent 20 years such as James Hansen, Peter Schlosser or Bill McKibben in their latest – -.

    I have to admit when I read this sentence “”And just at present, there is no evidence that any of the problems we face are large or thorny enough that we can’t sort through them.” I laughed uproariously. The despoiling of the, once great spaceship, Earth with the effluent of our high technology lifestyles increases exponentially and we blithely ignore the wanton destruction as if it were a gentle Summer rain. Simple concepts in mathematics elude 99% of Americans and likely the world population. I know I have posted the following link to Dr. Bartletts’, from my alma mater, blog – – previously, it concerns the affects of exponential rates of change. I know he is only a Professor Emeritus of Physics but, take a look at what he has to say it might open some eyes.

    Another laugh out loud sentence when I read it “Climate change? Dangerous and real, but also incremental and hardly likely to be civilization busting.” I agree if the “climate” starts to reverse the direction it has been progressing of late not a problem; however, as I pointed out climate is the “driven” not the driver function and unless the average temperature of the Earth starts to exhibit “global cooling” the Earth’s fauna is SOL. If homo sapiens stopped burning oil, coal and natural gas en mass and completely today, forever, the 0.7 C (1.4 F) rise that has taken place in roughly the last 100 years might stop at the 2 C degrees that some scientists think would be survivable. The affects we are now witnessing are the effect of .7 C rise in global temperature average; I wonder what 3 times that will be like? But the real question is what odds will anyone give me that the homo sapiens are going to forgo their love affair with oil, coal and natural gas? Five years ago “Climate” scientists were estimating that the Arctic would not be ice free, in the Summer” for at least 60-70 years; current estimates are 5-10 by the same folks, but of course they are only scientists, what do they know about anything?

    Another sentence which had me shaking my head and chuckling derisively: “We feel good — or at least, we think we’ll feel good — when problems are immediate, simple and subject to “fight or flight” solutions.”

    We feel good when problems are immediate and simple because that means we can handle them in the time honored conservative method wherein those that have get to keep what they have and those that don’t are SOL, just as the invisible sky deity proclaimed it should be. What do you think the frivolities in the US Congress are all about? Anyone? OK, OK I’ll give my, and a few million others, rendition; a herd of privileged white MEN, primarily, with economic power and clout are attempting to retain such whilst simultaneously watching their white majority status slipping away. On the offhand chance that you have not observed such, they are angry (MAD) as hell about it.

    The “fight or flight” solution is a function of evolution whereas the aforementioned is culturally driven. Our ancient ancestors whom were unlucky and did not receive the DNA modifications that encouraged one to avoid confrontations with critters capable of making us dinner likely became dinner and did not get to pass on their deficient genes; those that did became “us”.

    I suppose one might assign the following “truth” to perhaps 1/3 or thereabouts of the Earth’s homo sapiens “The truth is that we live in the most peaceful, safe, fair, prosperous, and upward trending world ever witnessed in the long, sordid history of Mankind.”

    I believe a bit of scratching about would lead one to discover that those of us on spaceship Earth who “live in the most peaceful, safe, fair, prosperous” manner do so because of the “un-peaceful, un-safe, un-fair, un-prosperous” lives that 2/3 of the Earth’s homo sapiens suffer while providing the good life for us.

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  12. Mervel says:

    Walker if the Chinese want to make solar energy less expensive for us GREAT! The reason that none of these industries are taking off is that NONE of them pay; none of them make economic sense. We have two choices; make traditional fuels more expensive or reduce the price of producing solar, wind and other sources.

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  13. Ken Hall says:


    You say that 7 KW is about 110% of your annual usage; I am confused by your description. Electricity is sold/delivered by the KWH (kilowatt hour wherein a kilowatt is 1000 watts).

    I imagine the purveyors of photovoltaic systems present some type of documentation about such which includes power output curves applicable to the location on the Earth that the systems are installed which incorporate latitude, estimated yearly cloud cover, season and passive or active solar tracking. After mulling all of the data, including the loan costs, over I conclude that your 7KW equates to an average of 7KWH/day or an average of 213 KWH/month of which you say you use about 194 KWH/month. I am impressed as that is less than half what I use and I live alone, on a non operational farm, and am relatively frugal. As we live relatively far north for the US I imagine you will be procuring electricity during the Winter months and selling during the Summer months. What size battery backup and inverter system do you have?

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  14. Walker says:

    “Walker if the Chinese want to make solar energy less expensive for us GREAT!”

    That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that their subsidies mean that our solar industries can’t compete because they lack the subsidies the Chinese provide. Then, when all U.S. manufacturers have given up, the Chinese can raise prices because they’ll have a monopoly. Sound GREAT to you?

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  15. Anita says:

    Ken, you are right about the discrepancy in terminology between description of electricity use (kWH) and electrical generating systems (kW). We used just under 6,900 kWH in the past year. Our system is rated at 7.14 kW and consists of 28 panels. The installer has modeling software to spec a recommended system size, and NYSERDA went over the plans in detail to make sure they met their specs as well. The installer has a lot of experience and satisfied customers, so we are pretty confident that the system will meet our needs.

    There is no battery backup – this is a net-metered system. In the winter we’ll draw more electricity from National Grid than we generate, and in the summer we’ll generate more than we use, with the excess going into the grid for use elsewhere. The plan is for our use and our generating capacity to balance out over a year’s time.

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  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Re: the whole Chinese solar panels thing. A couple (at least) of things have been happening.

    One is that China was dumping g panels on the world market at or below cost for reasons of their own. Some people/businesses have taken advantage of that by buying huge lots of those panels and they have been actively working to get panels installed in residential, commercial and municipal systems in order to see a return on their investment as quickly as possible. That is the reason there are some companies that will install systems basically for nothing and will recoup their costs over time.

    So on the one hand it is great that China is dumping valuable stuff on us. But on the other hand our solar panel manufacturers have been working on better, more advanced technology which would make greater sense to buy if the Chinese product wasn’t priced artificially low. We need to make sure our businesses are able to keep their doors open long enough to allow the market to understand the advantages of their technologies. Do we want the Chinese to buy technology patents at bankruptcy sales?

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  17. Walker says:

    “One is that China was dumping g panels on the world market at or below cost for reasons of their own.”

    And the usual reason for doing that is to drive competitors out of business.

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  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Rancid, we have sooo much in common. I had a Duster too. That slant 6 was bullet-proof but the rest of the car was a piece of crap. The frame on mine actually rusted through and broke in half while I was driving it. The my boss, who once owned a Kaiser dealership, sold me not one but two Gremlins! One blue and one tan. The blue one had a sun-roof so I drove that one and used the other for parts. That was a ridiculously over-powered death trap. I think it had a 4.2 liter straight six (something like that- I think you could get it with a 3.5, 4.2 or a 5 liter V-8. Look out Mad Max!!) and a 3 speed stick. I could pin the speedometer at 120mph, which was incredibly stupid considering the lousy tires and questionable front end.

    Somehow I survived my misspent youth. Kids, don’t try this!!!! Stupid and dangerous!

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  19. mervel says:

    But to that is the whole problem, worrying about our particular businesses. Solar energy needs to be competitive with oil and gas, not china, the only way that is going to happen is substantially lower costs. You hurt alternative energy in general by driving up the prices, with our trade policies to protect some government favorites.

    If Chinese solar panels go up in price no one will buy them, it won’t matter there is no monopoly on something no one wants, which right now is overpriced solar panels.

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  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Often people mistake cost and value. We have a recent history in this country of buying junk twice or three times at half the cost instead waiting and saving to buy the better, longer lasting product. Part of the reason we have lost manufacturing. Of course there was the whole planned obsolescence side of the equation too where our business leaders thought they could foist junk on us forever and we wouldn’t ever figure it out.

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  21. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Ken, although you come at the issues from a different point of view, I can appreciate your concerns and irritations with the “Don’t worry, be happy!” mindset. Whether you have concerns based on climate change and population growth or fiat currency and massive debt, working to address your concerns is the right thing to do IMO.

    Knuckle- If is has a nickle for every stupid thing I ever did………

    The Chinese and their solar panels argument is rather like the arguments about healthcare systems in the US vs, say, Sweden. Different nations with completely different economic systems with populations with different expectations and levels of comfort with Big Brother. How do you compete with the Chinese on solar panels when they own the rare earth mines, have no issues with pollution or labor standards, underwrite or own the industries involved, etc? Yes, we can probably build better quality units in a more environmentally friendly manner while paying our workers a heck of a lot more, but can we compete? Tariffs can be applied but to make US products competitive the tariffs would be so high China would bring suit against us. Of course, we rarely bring suit against the Chinese, but why bother since the Chinese don’t give a rats about such things.

    Kind of a no win situation at the moment.

    Anita, I have to revamp my previous statement. If you don’t have a battery storage system then costs have gone up considerably. Still, good luck, hope it works for you.

    When we say biomass it’s just a fancy term for burnin’ wood. Interestingly there is a quite a lot of grass roots work being done on wood-gas generation for home based power supplies. It’s not terribly efficient on the fuel end, but for those who have a good supply of wood it can work, and it doesn’t have to be “good” wood as you tend to use small chunks and you aren’t actually burning the wood so much as heating it and burning the “smoke”. For a homestead or farm based backup power supply it seems a whole lot more reliable and far, far less costly than solar/wind/geo thermal/etc., although it’s more labor intensive. It’s worth looking into for some people. Oh yeah, and it’s a nice, sustainable system too.

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  22. Walker says:

    Mervel, read Anita’s posts.

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  23. Ken Hall says:

    Rancid, I stumbled onto wood-gas generation back in 07-08 when the price of fuel started to approach reality and I recalled that during WWII folks in Europe used such to power their automobiles. Turns out back in early 70’s the DOT published plans for the construction of such for the farmers to use with their gasoline powered tractors. You are correct not particularly efficient and somewhat dangerous for the careless as about half of the “producer” gas generated in the smoldering of the wood is CO, not the best for the deep breathing of.

    Probably would not be very sustainable if large numbers of folks turned to producer/wood gas power. I have read estimates that even up here in the North Country less than 5% of folks heat exclusively with wood and another perhaps 15-20% have fireplaces to help extract the heat from their homes whilst adding ambiance.

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  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    What was old is new again. Wood gasification has been around since the late 19th century and was used on autos in the early 20th century, back at the same time that electric cars made up a significant part of the overall auto fleet. Bio-fuels were also being used way back when too. Bio-diesel.

    Ken is absolutely correct on the disadvantages of wood gas, and of fireplaces.

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  25. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    By the way, a similar technology, coal-gasification is responsible for an enormous number of brown-field sites around the country. A solar PV array has been placed on one of those brownfields in Rutland VT. The site would have been prohibitively expensive to clean up for residential use so it was a good location for a solar farm.

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  26. Walker says:

    A few distinctions to keep in mind…

    Coal gasification is a fossil fuel, and thus contributes to atmospheric carbon and global warming.

    Wood gasification is (if I understand this correctly) essentially carbon neutral if trees are planted to replace those cut, since the trees sequester carbon as they grow. Anyone know if wood gasification plants has a tendency to produce brownfield sites?

    Solar is ideal as far as the atmosphere is concerned.

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  27. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    True Walker. I wasn’t suggesting there was a direct relationship between the two. More pointing out the benefit of the solar array vs the old technology.

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  28. mervel says:

    When will I be able to go to Lowes and pick up a panel for $500 and have it installed by them?

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  29. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    You can go on line and buy solar panels to your heart’s content. I met a guy in Glens Falls during a monthly Art Walk maybe a year or two ago who had designed a compact panel and battery system that was easily set up by anyone with basic skills. It consisted of a solar panel, a new high tech battery from GE that he said will resist freezing, an inverter, and a small amount of wiring. The idea was that you could have this hooked up to one outlet in your house and use it as back-up power in case of a power outage. It would provide enough power to run a couple of lights and your computer/radio for 12-18 hours. Maybe you would just use it to power a thermostat so your furnace would work. It would provide power for that use for a long time.

    I dont remember the cost but nearly everyone could afford such a set-up. Pretty good idea. He just wanted to get enough people to go in on a pallet load of panels and batteries to get price breaks and split the cost of shipping which is significant.

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  30. Rancid Crabtree says:

    If you go to sites like you’ll find lots of “do it yourself” systems. Some actually work! You can even build your own PV panels. It alldepends on what you want to do and how much moola you have available.

    I suppose I should point out that one of the by products from burning anything is CO, carbon monoxide. A wood-gas system produces CO just as natural gas, oil, propane, gasoline, coal, methane, etc, do.

    Ken, I imagine the estimates of sole source wood heat are accurate. I’d guess the partial wood heat use at more like 30-40% and almost none of it is with fireplaces, but rather with stoves. I’d lump wood pellet stoves in with wood burners too. It’s just a different form of the same thing. We use wood exclusively. Our oil tank is bone dry and my oldest daughter uses pellets. I can’t think of a single person around me not using wood in one form or another.

    Wood-gas is a simple, effective, low cast option for consideration. It’s far, far more dependable than solar in our area. It’s just a genset running on an alternative fuel, 24/7 if need be. Plus the heat generated by the engine can also be used. I’m not advocating it for general use. Biomass on the industrial scale is another thing altogether. I think there are possibilities there, but it gets little attention.

    Anyone contemplating solar needs to do a bit of research into their expected house hold electric load. We may not think we use a lot of power but I’m certain most of us would be surprised just how much we do use. Although we keep getting more efficient devices, we tend to get more of them. It’s all part of the load. How many of us shut down the computer after our morning read? How many stand at the refrigerator door waiting for something appetizing to suddenly jump out at us? How many run yard lights, fans, blowers, hot water heaters, blow driers, clothes driers, water softeners, well pumps, 64″ TVs? We’re far more power hungry than we think.

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  31. Mervel says:


    Now I would do something like that, I think that is a great idea.

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  32. Mervel says:

    Also, I don’t have basic skills, the only D I have ever received in my life college or high school, was in shop. I want to be able to buy one of these like I would by an air conditioner or baring that like a furnace where the company comes and totally installs it.

    It just seems like with these alternative energy concepts it is great for people who are really into this sort of thing as a hobby or a lifestyle choice, but just for the average person it seems like a complex mess. Which is why I think that idea above was on the right track.

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