October 16, 2012

Shelter: Generating Power

The ability to generate electricity is so integral to modern living that it’s strange to think that for most of human history, people lived without it. But in a crisis situation in which electric generating plants went offline for an extended period, preppers would need to generate their own juice to keep the lights on and their refrigerators and computers running. Fortunately, there are multiple technologies available to tap into natural, renewable energy sources and generate electricity, ranging from wind, solar and hydroelectric power to generators powered by biomass fuel.

Practical Preppers consultant Scott Hunt says it’s smart to have multiple systems for generating electricity from different sources. That way, you’ll remain up and running even if the wind dies down or the Sun goes behind a cloud—or the nation suffers an electromagnetic pulse attack, which not only could wipe out computers and communications, but also solar power-generating technology.

How much electricity do you need to generate? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. residential utility customer consumed 11,496 kilowatt hours (kWh) or electricity annually. Tennessee had the highest annual consumption, at 16,716 kWh, while Maine had the lowest at 6,252 kWh. But odds are, you’ll be using considerably less electricity, since there won’t be any cable channels to watch on your old energy-hogging home entertainment system. Prepper expert Matthew Stein, author of the book When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency, advises that you can avoid overtaxing your resources by planning your energy use on a daily basis. You can observe the weather and see whether your solar battery is fully charged, and then plan which appliances you can run that day. Additionally, you can pick appliances and devices—a laptop computer instead of a desktop, for example, because they use less energy and have their own battery capability. Here are some sources and technologies that preppers can use to generate electricity.

  • Solar: Hunt says that houses should be built facing south with pitched roofs, so that they can be outfitted with solar panels. A $30,000 solar panel array optimally could provide you with about 11,000 kWh per year. Remember that you’ll need to equip your system with an inverter to convert the DC current generated by the solar panels to the AC that your appliances will need.
  • Wind: To keep up the average consumption, you’d need the equivalent of, say, nine WT6500 Honeywell wind turbines  (1,500 kWh apiece per year), which could set you back about $6,000 apiece. On the downside, wind power may require climbing a tower occasionally to keep your equipment maintained.
  • Hydroelectric: Setting up your own micro-hydro power plant, using a stream on your property, is an idea that’s been around for a long time. That’s evidenced by this 1978 U.S. Department of Agriculture primer, which is dated technologically, but still contains some useful guidance on how to calculate the energy potential of your water source. But for up-to-date information, you’ll probably want to consult a recent work such as 2010’s Serious Microhydro: Water Power Solutions from the Experts, edited by Scott Davis. According to Homepower.com, one advantage of hydroelectric power is that it tends to be more continuous and dependable than other alternative energy sources. Hydroelectric also is the cheapest in terms of startup investment, with systems available for as little as $4,000 to $6,500, according to equipment supplier backwoodssolar.com.
  • Biomass: A generator that runs on biomass fuel—chunked cord wood, corn cobs, wood chips, tree branches, and the like—is another option. These are pretty pricy, with a system by Victory Gasworks running about $35,000.

If You Only Do Three Things:

  • Get rechargeable batteries and a solar-powered battery charger. Prepper author James Wesley Rawles points out that a lot of sophisticated survival gadgetry will be useless if the batteries run down.
  • Become more energy efficient. If you don’t need as much, you won’t have to generate as much to sustain your lifestyle.
  • Install a backup diesel generator. Be sure to put it outside your home so that you don’t fall victim to carbon monoxide.

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