It may be a little grandiose for husband and wife farmers to have a philosophy about anything, but that hasn’t stopped us. Come to think of it, it hasn’t even slowed us down. So here’s how we’re approaching the use and production of energy on our farm.
We see energy much like we see money. When it comes to money, the culture is determined to convince everyone, but particularly young people, that happiness will come only when they make (and spend) more money than they do now. The very word “success” has morphed from its original meaning (the accomplishment of a worthy goal) to its Goldman Sachs friendly meaning, making lots of money. We speak of our friend Harry as being a “successful” broker, or we marvel at how unremarkable cousin Tony has become such a “success” at selling insurance. But we wouldn’t dare call our neighbor Rhonda a “success.” I mean, my God, she lives on Social Security and making quilts and all she does is visit with her friends all day! In today’s new reality, more and more of us are figuring out that “success” has less to do with how much money we make than with how we can be happy without making much money.
So what does this have to do with energy? For us, energy success, like money success, is going to mean less about producing more than about learning to be happy with less. Nearly everyone who finds out about our adventure wants to know whether we’re installing solar panels. The answer is, almost certainly, yes, eventually, but right now that’s not our focus. Although no one asks about it, I also have a faint, distant hope that one day we’ll be able to produce farm scale biodiesel, but again, right now that’s not our focus. Our present focus is on devising systems and ways of doing things that will allow us to sip energy by the teaspoonful rather than guzzle it by the bucketful.
Our hope is that we will use almost no energy to heat and cool our residence. We designed our little apartment to have full southern sun in the winter and to be shielded by the shop and storage room from the cold north wind. So far we have had no trouble staying warm with the help of our wood stove and windows left open; we now expect no problem staying warm on the coldest of central Alabama nights; all we’ll have to do differently is close those windows! Cooling will be more of a challenge. We have built the apartment with copious insulation, no direct sun in the summer, full separation of living space from the roof, and a strategically placed window in the ceiling to vent the warmest air in the apartment. We can already say from this summer that when we let the apartment breathe overnight and closed it up in the morning, that afternoon the apartment felt like it was air conditioned. Of course, no amount of conjecture or estimating can replace the experience of an Alabama summer, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed. We have a small room air conditioner installed if we need it, but we hope we won’t.
The other big energy hog is transport. As farmers, we don’t expect to need to do a lot of traveling, but each mile adds up. I’ve done some quick calculations, building in a reasonable allowance for trips to Tallassee, trips to Montgomery to visit Amanda’s Mom, and trips to the beach and the lake. I also need to assume at least for the time being that we’ll travel to Atlanta about twice each year to fly to LA to see our children. No, I’m not attempting to calculate the energy consumption from the plane trip itself; I know it’s gargantuan, regard it as a silly extravagance we will be giving up soon, and choose to ignore it. When I tote it up, we’re looking at about 10 gallons of gasoline per week and about 2 gallons of diesel fuel per week (for Tractor).
Next comes propane. We will use propane in two ways, for standby power generation and for the tankless water heater. I can tell already that having the heater in the shop (where we work regularly) is an advantage, because the water heater makes a soft noise when running and makes us aware on a minute by minute basis of when we’re using propane. Standby power generation, of course, is a wild card. In good years, perhaps just a few hours here and there. On the other hand, if there’s a killer ice storm and we’re cut off for a couple of weeks . . . We will use electricity for lighting, cooking, entertainment, and keeping up with the news as I am doing now, as well as the well pump, a 2 hp monster that runs rarely but guzzles power when it does. We also have three heat lamps, one over the bed, one in the bathroom to make Earl Butz proud, and one where we will station the washing machine. They use lots of energy when on, but we expect they will be on rarely.
We will also move our dryer to the farm. Amanda is insisting on the dryer, even though we both hope and I expect that we will almost never use it. Nothing sucks down energy like an electric dryer, and there just really doesn’t seem to be any sense in paying for power to do what the sun is only too happy to do. But as in all other things, we need to avoid making allness statements, and I shall.