"Man's capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge what we can do by any precedents, so little has been tried. What people say you cannot do, you try and find you can."
—Henry David Thoreau
"Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul."
Why Fossil Fuel Free?
Energy is the topic of conversation. Since the industrial revolution began, we have discovered what seemed to be a limitless supply of fossil energy hidden just beneath our feet. First coal, then oil, then natural gas were discovered and exploited, the earth scoured for their deposits, their control the subject of political maneuverings and even war.
The accumulated harm from two centuries of burning fossil fuels has become overwhelming. Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has accumulated to levels not seen for over 650,000 years, and our globalized economy is dependent upon continuous access to dwindling supplies of these fossil fuels, leading to partnerships with rogue states and an impossible and unhealthy interest in the control of the volatile Middle East.
The impetus for our destructive behavior is unarguably the aggregate demand of each of our own energy habits. What at first seemed like a blessing has turned into a curse. We take for granted the fabulous things that fossil energy makes available to us, such as heated and cooled homes, refrigeration, constant electricity, washing machines, dryers, and long daily commutes. But the earth, the source of this luxurious lifestyle and the repository of its pollutants, is showing undeniable signs of stress on every level. The specific incident which might make history as marking the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era is not terribly important, whether it’s the peaking of the mighty oil fields in Saudi Arabia or the ice sheets of Greenland slipping into the sea. What is important is that we need to act now, in our own homes and lives, and get ready for the renewable energy revolution.
The good news is that a small group of folks back in the day saw the end of the fossil energy era approaching. Why their message did not inspire more converts before now is the subject for someone else’s book; nevertheless, research into living a sustainable life has been gaining momentum for over four decades, and we can harvest the fruit of that hard work. It is now possible to live a very good life, not much different from the one many of us are living right now, using only renewable energy and free of all fossil fuels.
This book is a map for those interested in the path to getting all of their own energy from renewable sources and living a fossil fuel free life. It shows you how to reduce personal energy consumption as much as possible and how to retrofit an existing home so as to obtain all heating and cooling, all cooking and refrigeration, all hot water and electricity from renewable sources, detailing or discussing in detail as many options as possible for each category. It also covers sustainable transportation options as well as garden and landscaping ideas, as poor choices about these issues can negate hard won gains in other parts of the home.
The impetus for this book was our own determination to wean ourselves completely from fossil fuels. On a personal level, we felt compelled to do this because of our growing understanding of fossil energy depletion and the reality that these fuels are going to be less available and more expensive as time goes on. But equally important, we felt we had a moral obligation to act to mitigate our contribution to the ravages of pollution, most significantly global climate disruption, that are the inevitable and accumulating result of our use of fossil fuels. For so many reasons, and especially for the energy independence it provides, we hope you will join us in the journey to fossil fuel free lives.
How to Use This Book
This book is designed for the owner of an existing home who is motivated to reduce and eventually eliminate his or her fossil energy consumption. It is arranged into chapters by a specific household need that is commonly provided by fossil energy, such as refrigeration, hot water, etc. For each chapter, we first describe ways in which a typical home’s existing infrastructure can be made more efficient. We then list alternative options and how to achieve them. At the beginning of each section, you’ll find information on approximately how long each project will take and how much it will cost. In addition, you’ll find a general description of the project, the energy it saves, its ease of daily use, its long term level of maintenance, and the skills, tools, and materials you’ll need to move forward.
We also discuss which methods we chose in order to move away from a fossil-dependent aspect of our daily lives, why we chose that method, and how our lives function "on the other side."
Some chapters provide more hand-ons projects than others. In particular, the chapter on renewable electric systems limits itself to site evaluation and system overviews due to the complexity and danger of homeowner installations of these systems. It's certainly possible for the dedicated and skilled homeowner to install them, but detailed books on renewable electric systems already exist. Instead, this book presents DIY alternatives for basic household energy needs. For those of you embarking on building your own home, we hope there is also much here in theory and practice that will help you design and build a fossil fuel free home, although that is not our focus. For renters, there are quite a few projects, including many conservation measures, that can help you greatly reduce your energy use.
The book can be perused at random, but if you decide to kick the fossil habit altogether, it's best to spend some time drawing up a plan and budget and to proceed in a somewhat orderly manner. This is because doing some things first could make doing other things harder later on.
If you’re just starting out on your journey away from fossil fuels, we encourage you to flip through and accomplish some of the easier tasks (like switching out incandescent lights for compact fluorescent ones, or turning down the thermostat on your water heater), many of which will dramatically and easily reduce your energy use. For those of you who are already aware of what’s possible and want to get down to brass tacks, read the section in the following chapter on how to plan for a whole house conversion.
Energy issues have always been a mild obsession for both of us. At first we just wanted to go about our business and live good lives without doing too much harm. But the deeper we dug, the more serious the issues seemed to become. It seemed like everything we did only made things worse. Pollution damaged the things of beauty we saw around us, the weather got hotter and weirder, we had to give money to oil companies like Exxon-Mobil that refused to pay for their oil spills and denied global climate disruption, and our government initiated a preemptive war in our name, with all the murder and torture that the word war implies, to try and control the last reserves of dwindling crude oil.
Our initial reaction was to buy a chunk of land in the country and try to become "independent". We built our own passive solar house out of cob, went off-grid, and tried to grow our own food and raise poultry. Meanwhile, we still had jobs back in town and often wanted to socialize there, which meant frequent forty-minute drives. After the elation of successfully installing our photovoltaic panels and getting our cob home past its final inspection, we learned that an automobile uses as much energy while it’s running as 350 100 watt bulbs! Driving an hour to town and back used the equivalent amount of energy as running our home's electrical needs for over a month.
How ironic! We had been criticizing our friends who refused to replace their incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, yet here we were, driving all the time, the worst offenders of all! On top of that, the idea that we could live self-sufficiently out in the woods turned out to be a cruel joke. Although neither of us had much of a green thumb, we had assumed it would be easy to grow most of our own food organically and with minimal petroleum inputs. Instead we spent a great deal of time doing a halfway job and getting meager returns. The garden became our enemy, and we were shackled to it, every evening, picking bugs and pulling weeds in the blistering heat.
It became obvious we had made a mistake. We’d tried to start from scratch and throw everything out, including the established communities and the infrastructure of towns and cities, and do it all ourselves. Running to live in the woods isn’t an option for most people, and if everyone tried to do it, it would become even more futile. We were and are convinced that as day turns to dusk for fossil fuels, we must take a good look at our surroundings and learn to live with what we have already built, what we’ve spent our free fossil currency on: the infrastructure, especially the housing, that already exists in our towns and cities. For us, it was time to learn from our mistakes and move back to the city, a city that had oodles of existing and abandoned houses just waiting for a good retrofit, a good farmer’s market filled with local organic produce, and friends, jobs, and entertainment. It was time to do things in a way that others could see and emulate. It was time to do it right.
For each chapter in this book, we’ll discuss what choices we made and why. We hope that by doing so you will better understand how differences in climate, free time, money, and skill shaped the decisions we made about what systems we chose, and that you will find our example both illuminating and inspiring. Most important of all is not to become overwhelmed. Remember that any little bit helps, and, most likely, achieving fossil energy independence will be a long hike up a steep road. But that doesn't mean you won't get there or that you won't find the journey very satisfying. Good luck!