Earlier I posted a link to Low-tech Magazine:
Low-tech Magazine refuses to assume that every problem has a high-tech solution. A simple, sensible, but nevertheless controversial message; high-tech has become the idol of our society.
A few of the key insights I took from the site are:
- Direct generation of kinetic energy and thermal energy is more efficient than using either to generate electricity.
- Industrial/productive use of energy tends to be in the form of either thermal or kinetic energy, not electricity.
- Storing energy in any form is expensive; storing energy in the form of heat might be the best application for home use.
- Sometimes a man powered machine is the simplest, cheapest solution.
What does this mean for Indian Country? For one, the focus on electricity generation via wind and solar on our largely rural and isolated lands is likely not a good solution for Indians in our communities. Electricity is expensive no matter how you cut it, and the US economy is still entirely dependent on fossil fuels for both electricity generation and heat generation for industrial processes (including the production of solar cells, wind turbines, and biomass.) Instead, my proposed solution is to not aspire to typical US household levels of electricity consumption, but focus on decentralized production of kinetic and thermal energy. Here’s how we do it:
Thermal energy is heat energy. In our households we use it to cook, bathe, do laundry (we also use kinetic energy for this, but I’ll get into that later) and heat our homes. It’s also used in industrial application to melt steel and shape steel, make solar cells, and mass produce packaged foods among many other applications. Electricity is a convenient way to meet our household thermal energy needs on demand, but we mostly burn fossil fuels or use a mixture of both. Electric ovens heat up with the turn of a dial. Natural gas heats our water and our homes. Unfortunately, this can be stumbling block for many of our communities. Virtually every winter, a distress call goes out to help heat the homes of many of our people, who are freezing and unable to afford propane or natural gas. How does that saying go? “You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, or teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” We need to teach ourselves to produce thermal energy on site…… using this:
The Helios solar array is a village scale or small commercial scale solar concentrator. It can be built from common steel beams, mirrors, glue, nuts and bolts and the cost depends on where it is built and how the materials are gathered.
- 3000 watts
- can heat an oven 60x60x60 cm to 300°C in 15 min
- cook bread, meat, coffee, ceramic…
- Construction Guide pdf, current version
- Construction guide pdf, previous version
- Image gallery
If there’s one thing we don’t lack in much of Indian Country, it’s sunshine. Those of you lucky Indians in the arid west get the lions share of sun. We salt water Indians in the Pacific Northwest mostly just get rained on. So what can this open source machine do? To give you an idea, it can create temperatures of up to 900 degrees Celsius. Ladies and gentlemen, aluminum melts at 660 degrees. So not only could you use this to cook food and heat multiple houses (by heating water and pumping it through your floor or ceiling or storing it for later use) but you can also set up your own metal foundry to melt down recycled aluminum and recast it. In fact, you’re well on your way to melting iron (at 1510 degrees) and maybe even steel (at 2500 degrees.) Now obviously very few people would immediately have the skills to jump right into working with aluminum, let alone iron or steel. But the point is that it’s possible using the sun that is probably hitting your house right now. And once you’re able to do that, you can then forge and cast the parts needed to build a second machine. Watch out world, here we come!
The Solar Fire is a pretty ambitious project. Fortunately there are many simple steps we can start taking now. The cheapest of which is a simple solar cooker made from cardboard, aluminum foil and a turkey bag. This is an entry level project that a teenager could do. From here you can get more and more complex with solar thermal collectors. In fact, given the inexhaustible supply of solar energy that bombards most of Indian Country, designing and building simple solar thermal collectors should be standard curriculum in our schools. Let’s stop educating our children to either flip burgers or become tribal bureaucrats. Lets start educating them to harness the power of the sun.
Kinetic energy is mechanical energy. Your car converts fossil fuels into mechanical energy via combustion, allowing you to fly across the reservation in your rez beater at speeds that would make a mounted warrior blush. Most of us use this form of energy to get to work, where our respective bosses oversee our use of even more kinetic and thermal energy as well as electricity to produce goods and services. But since we’re going to producing both kinetic and thermal energy outside our respective front doors, you may be able forgo your daily commute and instead work from a home workshop. One of the oldest human powered technologies utilizing kinetic energy is the bow and arrow. A more complex, human powered technology (but still very approachable) would be a pedal powered fly wheel. Seems crude today, but it could actually be quite powerful. Some of our isolated villages in the north could benefit greatly from a few of these. These villages pay up to $1 per kilowatt hour of electricity (national average is around $.10/kwh); usually generated in diesel generators that require fuel to be shipped or flown onto site.
Grinders, small saw mills, winch plows, water pumps, food mills, drill presses, milling machines, furnace blowers, oven fans, lathes and even household appliance can easily be powered using such machines. Another option would be to use a solar concentrator to power a Stirling engine to produce kinetic energy.
Where does this leave us? If we can produce both thermal and kinetic energy in our communities then we have the capability of of heating our homes, cooking & doing our wash. We also would have the capability of running workshops of all kinds. Work that is already being done in many of our communities include: heating water for wool dying, hand carding wool, baking bread & roasting corn in horno ovens, drying corn with fans, knocking dried corn off the cob, plowing fields, and smoking meats among many other economic activities. All of these could be done more efficiently using solar concentrators and simple human powered machines. We can also expand into small scale wood and metal working, larger scale food processing, metal recycling, metal casting and all of the design work that goes into producing a finished product from scratch. Combine this with our new/old Native economy and we may see the dawn of a new era in Indian Country. We could see the revival of Indigenous manufacturing. We certainly were manufacturers in pre-contact times producing knives, arrowheads, spear points, scrapers, awls, & drills from obsidian, bone and antlers. We manufactured cloth from cotton and wool and various finished products like clothing, satchels, quivers and bags from leather. We manufactured earthen pottery, baskets and wooden boxes. We processed and prepared foods into dried meal, smoked salmon, & jerky. We carved and worked in wood, stone and native copper. We produced jewelry from gold, semi-precious stones and shells. Let us not forget that in addition to hunters & gathers we were also manufacturers. We had an economy based on the development of new production processes and the manufacturing of goods. Let us continue that legacy.
To get there we need some dedicated people to start deploying these resources in our communities. We need young people to apprentice under craftsmen. We need to revisit our education system and ask, “what exactly are we preparing our children to do for a living?” Is the answer to that question more tribal bureaucrats? Flipping burgers? Running a cash register? Let us move beyond that. That is the economic vision our Imperial overlords have made for us. Let’s make our own vision.